The Fishing Fleet …

The story of the ‘bibi’ line and the retuned empties

The world we live in is certainly interesting and many of the tales that enliven it come from books that people do not even know to exist. . I spend a long time with those inanimate objects created to outline periods from the past, marveling at the varied life that man led thus far. This story detailed a period like that and though I did know of this vignette from a couple of books, they were by no means complete. This weekend, armed with some research material, I got into the depths of the story and what you read is a result of that effort.

To get to this story, I have to take you to the Britain of the post Industrial revolution period. The Midlands and London were certainly busy places and a good amount of manufacturing took place. The factories were buzzing, the raw material came in freighters from the newly established colonies in India and the Far East and the British ports were busy places indeed. The educated (but from socially lower rungs (mostly though not all) of society) moved to India and found positions in the military, civilian or academic areas or even with the ICS in India and for them then, it was like today’s Middle East for Indians. They travelled far from home, to the heat and dust of India, to make a living and to make a name, earn some money and like in the case of Wellesley and a few others, fame.

But then there were many other sub plots in the story of the British Raj and this is not one you will find detailed, but mentioned only in passing, in most books. Today, you can find a few novels detailing the story of one or two of the many thousands who travelled in what were loosely known as the fishing fleet. And the large canvass of that story has in one corner the tragedy of the returned empties of the story. It was certainly difficult to research, for unlike the meticulously recorded British times in India, this has been given a short sift. Sometimes you wonder why, but anyway let us get to know the members the fleet and its purpose.

In the beginning, the ships leaving Britain travelled around the Cape of Good Hope, much like the earlier Portuguese and Dutch ships and made their beeline to an Indian port, like Bombay, Madras or Calcutta. There they disgorged their load of weary but bright eyed and pale skinned men, eager to make their presence felt among the brown people of India. How they made that presence felt is the story of the Raj. Some of the richer or senior people who paid their fare, brought along their spouses, or probably the EIC paid their fares as perks. The younger men came alone. The need for female companionship for those young and eager men sometimes created local relationships in India and a class called Eurasians or Anglo Indians was born. I had earlier covered this topic in this hyperlinked article, which I had enjoyed writing.

In the early days, the time of discovery as historians put it, there was no feel for class and society, but soon after, came the sad story of class hierarchy and color. That itself is a fascinating subject and the British actually borrowed examples from India’s own caste system to establish themselves at the top of the ladder, equal to or sometimes above Brahmins. They fortunately had the very man who created all the mess, a gentleman by name called Manu, who wrote his Manusmriti, and the class map he created, for the subjugation of the masses, at their disposal. They used varna or color to establish superiority and thus came the concept of the goras and kalas. The British Gora soon became the white master.

But that was to soon create havoc in their private lives. The young and unattached soldier certainly found paid company in the many brothels that sprouted around the forts and towns the British lived in. But the young needed partners and soon the marriage to a local or Desi woman was frowned upon, both the man and the woman became outcastes in the white’s clubs. As Geroge & Anne Forty state in their book – They also served- The [districts] in the larger cities - in Bombay it was known as "the Cages," in Poona it was called "the Nadge" -- were strictly out of bounds. If any white soldier was seen in the area, whistles were blown by the police, all traffic came to a standstill and the soldier would, of course, be caught .. .Any man who availed himself of the "tree rats" or "grass bidis" was properly dealt with. He was given a severe ticking off, had his pay stopped and was sent to Number 13 Block, which was the dreaded treatment center. Many turned, as a last resort, to the "five-fingered widow..."

The British upper crust found this all very disquieting. They had to find a way to keep the young at bay. And the solution was the establishment of what they called (but did not consign to written text and recorded history) the Fishing fleet.

And so, some girls escaped boring country life and made their way east.. Chaperoned sometimes by older married women who would explain to them the ways of India (with graceless and uneducated tact, like - do not shake hands with an Indian, you never know here their hand shave been!!) arriving in India in the cooling Autumn months, before the chill set in, in the northern mountains and the plains where the wars were fought and were governing took place. The ratio of British men to White women was three, five or as some books mention 10:1. So the marriage market in British India was bright indeed and to fill the gap came in the droves of women from Britain…

In the beginning the rules forbade British women in outposts, so the protestant English married locals as I mentioned earlier, or worse (according to the British books) they matched up with Catholics of Portuguese Indian origin. The answer to the problem was to ship marriageable girls to India. That was the fishing fleet. The first fishing fleets were shipped out in the latter part of the 17th century. The EIC provided them ‘one’ set of clothes and supported them for one year, the time allocated to find husbands. If they did not, the EIC warned them formally not to stoop to low morals and they were quickly shipped back to Britian. But this formal practice was however abandoned in the 18th century for presumably cost reasons. Many months ago, I wrote about the Orfaaas Del Rei of Lisbon, the girls who were sent out to India by the Portuguese Lendas Da India for the same purpose, to become partners for needy males serving in India. . Britian’s answer as you can see, was the fishing fleet.

Anyway by the early 19th century, the ships stopped taking the laborious route around Africa, and started using the faster route through the newly opened Suez Canal. It was in 1871, that the canal was opened and soon came to the called ‘The highway to India’. It is certainly strange isn’t it? How Egypt and the Red Sea route were always linked with India from the earliest records of mankind!! That Red Sea route was used by everybody to get to mystical India for all it produced and all it did not. Ah! I am drifting off.. let me get back on to track.

Once the sea highway was created, the route to India was straightforward and one of the steamship companies that steamed through was the P&O Company. Do you remember my article about POSH? (For those who need to start of right, I would recommend you take a quick peek at that article of mine). The Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company was a major steamship carrier of passengers and mail between England and India, between 1842 and up until 1970. The P. & O. route from Tilbury or Southampton went through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea to ports in India. I must also add here that there were others in operation, the BI shipping line for example. The bright and the best of Britain sailed into India and as the ships returned, the weary lot took the R & R trip back to tell their stories to the gloomy lot in Britain. It was certainly a gloomy place (Blighty in those days) for the air was smoky, fogs were a plenty, the mood was dark and gloomy, and some war was always looming in the European horizons..

The returning British on the other hand looked brown and tanned, with better toned muscles after the riding and work in India and the stories they doled out after a few mugs at the bar were astounding, to the untrained ear, of maharajas, coolies, ayas, house staff, bungalows and so on. The girls took notice. India was a place many of them wanted to go to.

Whether this enterprise was publically announced, whether it was started by an entrepreneur or whether it was sponsored by the EIC or the government is not clear, but it soon became known to interested girls that those who were looking for a husband could take a steamer to India, for there was many a young Englishman looking for a wife. Many a girl booked a place on an Eastward P&O. This P&O run from Liverpool to Bombay thus got the nickname (name in the nick of time – is that how the phrase came about??) Fishing fleet. The girls were in the ship and going on a fishing trip…fishing for a husband, and escaping the dreary gloomy, dark & dank, smelly and ‘orrible blighty, now destined for the sunny, bright, hot and dusty India…to start a new life. One lady who travelled in 1779 describes the two groups of girls who were in these ships as the old maids or the shriveled lot and the others as girls educated merely to cover their mental deformity. The British India shipping line was called the bibi or lady line (Indian army – Heathcote) owing to the ladies seeking marriage filling them!!.

How did the girls get into the fleet? Girls in Britain or their parents started the husband hunt in right earnest after a certain age. If there was failure after a season or two, they were promptly shipped off on a fishing fleet to India, before they became a member of the spinsterly lot. Where did the girls head to after landing? They moved on to the many cantonments around India, Calcutta, Bombay, Madras where they lodged with friends and relatives or they went to the various Hill stations.

Just imagine the plight of that girl who stepped out of that steamer to start her new life…Margaret McMillan in her ‘Women of the Raj’ provides a striking picture…Sometimes they were magnificent, Sometimes on the other hand, they were awful as only people who are as frightened as can be. When a conviction of superiority goes with fear then the arrogance is heightened and sharpened. The memsahibs …..they stride through that history in their voluminous clothes which denied the Indian climate, their only concession to the heat, the graceless solar helmet, the topi which protected their rose petal cheeks from the alien sun….

After they reached India these girls were led to the balls or taken to ‘ala juggas’ or secluded spots where they sat, danced or came to know intimately, the new men courting them. Some fishing fleet girls met their match on the ship and got married as soon as they got off the ship, and as you can imagine, the long voyage was quite conducive for these matters. But this was not the best catch, so girls were told not to venture out on deck and court the men travelling on these ships unless they were of the appropriate level. Quoting from the Colonel’s lady, Those traveling alone were advised to stay in their cabins, Bible in hand, to avoid the temptations of the East and the shipboard romances. Not for nothing was the British India Shipping Line known as the "bibi" line, the Hindustani word for "woman" or "mistress" coinciding with the Company's "B.B.' monogram. The best catch was of course the heaven born or the ICS cadre men, who were equated to the Brahmins of India by the British.

And thus the annual fishing fleet arrived every autumn, and as the sprightly female passengers were disgorged, the men at the hills stations waited in eager anticipation. As the trains rumbled and steamed on from Calcutta or Bombay to the hills stations with these heady girls, the men stocked up on goods in anticipation of a quick marriage, things like furniture and clothes, to impress on the new and fair arrival.

Once landed they would move off to places like Simla or other hill stations where eager men were in anxious wait and only the ugly or unfetching ones were left unattached after a month or two. Some girls saw the opportunity and flirted a lot and worked their way through a number of eligible bachelors staring from lieutenants to the civilians (more easy to settle down in a town than an outpost, you see!) and hopefully ending with the well paid ICS man with loads of perks… before finally getting hitched. The end of the eligibility line was a district collector, usually. Ironically, the man who has been spurned sometimes ends up hawking off all the furniture and clothes he had collected in anticipation of a quick wedding to the man the girl has chosen over him…possibly his friend or senior.

As Julia Gregson the author of East of Sun mentions, For young girls, the immediate challenge—rarely stated or acknowledged—was to find a man. To do this, one had to meet the right people, to go to parties and polo matches, to fit in with a very small, enclosed, and sometimes frightened group of people. Lots of fun on the surface, but the rules of engagement were clear: you had to conform, to look good, to dress well, and not to say anything that might frighten the horses. Bluestockings and eccentrics were not well tolerated. India itself was another challenge. Some women fell in love at first sight, others hated it: the stinks, the poverty, the heat, the feeling of being cut off from Europe.

As Pran Nevile states in his book Sahib’s India - To keep them chaste for the marriage market, unmarried women traveled under the care of chaperones, usually married women…’Almost all of the fresh cargo got snapped up on the spot. The Sunday Church was a good spot for offering and receiving proposals. The few who did not succeed in securing marriage proposals, spread out into the mofussil towns.

The interest of the ladies was equally intense but for different reasons, as Lady Angela Falkland, wife of the Governor and a daughter of William IV and Mrs. Jordan noted in 1848:-

"The arrival of a cargo of young damsels from England is one of the most exciting events that mark the advent of the cold season (in mid October) with its 4 months of concentrated gaiety of dances, balls and picnics. It can be well imagined that their age, height, features, dress and manners become topics of conversation, as they bring the latest fashions from Europe, they are objects of interest to their own sex."

Statistically - At the Census (1861) 11,636 women above the age of 15, of English origin including 8,356 wives, were enumerated and 98,888 men.

Quoting from a poem in 1813

Pale faded stuffs, by time grown faint
Will brighten up through "art";
A "Britain" gives their faces paint,
For sale at India's mart.

The girls were led through the merry go round for a while and many settled with their prize catches in the fine fishing or hunting grounds up in the hill stations blessed with the salubrious cool weather. Many a special entertainment was organized for the new arrivals from the fishing fleet. Months went by and as summer came, there were some left, who were as they called it ‘short of bait’. Some were truly so, on the physically and attractiveness scale, some had as they said expended all the bait truly liberally ( now you know why it was called a fishing fleet) on the voyage itself and well, they ended up uncalled for, eventually. They hung around till the ships returned and this sad and desolate lot were called the ‘returned empties’, destined for a life of spinsterhood, working their feet off in governess’ing and nursing. Some of the returned empties were actually real returners who hated India, the colonial life style, the falseness under the pomp and lack of meaning in lonely colonial life in a land that hated them and a bunch of customs they themselves hated. They returned empty handed, and thus were the unkindly named the returned empties….

But this does not work out in mathematical sense with figures varying between 3-10 men to every British woman and 100:2 between suitors and fishing fleet girls, the chances of success were very high and that is why the trip was a regular seasonal event. Such being the case, the retuned empty was perhaps a rarity, and one who were sent back must have been terrible misfits…As the poem in an old weekly stated…

Now sail the chagrined fishing fleet
Yo ho, my girls, yo ho!
Back to Putney and Byfleet
Poor girls, you were too slow!

One question still remained in my mind. Who comprised the fishing fleet? Some references state that they are daughters of Indian officers, who went at a young age to England for studies, others mention they are daughters from wealthy families; some others believe they constituted ordinary middle class working girls. Victor Jacquemont, a French botanist visiting India at the time was not much impressed by the English ladies he met at Calcutta and other places. He wrote (1830): “Portionless girls who have not succeeded in getting married in England arrive here in cargoes for sale on honourable terms,” Another question remained; did the fleet spend just one autumn + winter season in India or a whole year? In the very beginning EIC sponsored them for a whole year, but later on with higher frequency of shipping and higher sustenance costs, the returned empties were back in the blighty in 6-8 months after setting out on the fishing trip.

The fishing fleet became virtually institutionalized by 1880. Balls, gymkhanas, moonlight picnics etc were waiting for the arrivals, and as Eric Richards mentions in his book Brittania’s children, the increase of influx of British women was also to decrease the intimacy level between the two races in India. It also appears that the returned empties complained bitterly (somewhat unfair I think) of the local competition from the Gentoo Indian women.

So readers, that is the story of the fishing fleet or the bibi line and the case of the returned empties. A period of time when mans need for a mate meant bridging oceans..One of these days I will cover the Indian marriage bazaar in the NRI circles and the Chinese marriage bazaar in Beijing…

Sometimes girls tell me how humiliating it is to undergo ‘pennukanal’ or the ritual ‘seeing a girl session’ in an arranged marriage. Just imagine how it was for these poor girls from Britain!! Then they will understand the travails of an unmarried girl going off to faraway lands , sometimes uncivilized from their perspective, and hunting or fishing for a husband, after lounging around in balls and galas and getting liberally sampled…well, that was life then…..

Recommended reading
Women of the Raj – Margaret McMillan
The Sandalwood tree- Elle Newmark
Judy O'Grady and the Colonels Lady - Noel T St John Williams.
East of Sun – Julia Gregson
Sahibs India – Pran Nevile
Plain tales from the Raj – Paul Allen
Raj – Lawrence James
The Linnet Bird – Linda Holeman

Many thanks to for pointers provided in their conversations…and ancestersonboard for the fishing fleet passenger list published on their website that I have included in this article for completeness.

Pics – from google images – Thanks to the owners and uploaders.

The Story of the Pachyderm and Iyer

I have mentioned the favorite animal in Kerala many a time in what I call 'my attempts at writing'. We love the elephant in Kerala and always look at it kindly and with a great amount of affection. But today it reminded me of a story that my friend told me many years ago and at that time, I penned it into my musings and filed it away. Today, as I was wondering what to post, for I was not in a real mood to post anything heavy, I came across this and decided to air it finally.....At that time, some 8 years ago, I had written it as a converstation between me and my second son Arun.For quite some time I did not believe this story after I heard it from my friend Ram. But Ram has always been a truthful chap, and now I am telling it to Arun… I cannot recite the tale like Ram did, it had its own special tones and flavor when told in Tamil and many of the Mannargudi nuances are now missing…nevertheless, it is an interesting tale.

Arun wonders what a pachyderm is and I explain to him that it is none other than our dear elephant. An elephant is very visible in South India, especially Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It is part of most pomp and ceremonies, always a part of temple festivities and religious festivals, both Christian and Hindu. We see them now and then, on the road, being walked by their mahouts from temple to temple, doing work like pulling tree logs and of course at virtually every big temple, serenely eating coconut leaves.. In our own village, we have a temple and there used to be a famous elephant called Pallavur Parameswaran.. Arun is astounded. You give names to elephants? I explain that they have an important position in our society and that the most famous of the lot was the Guruvayur Kesavan…an elephant so famous that a movie was made about its life and times. He thinks I am fibbing. Now what more can I do to convince a kid who prefers to believe what Eminem raps? I guess that if I show him Kesavan’s web page, he would believe me, but there is no such website. Google does come to my help though, I find documented references to the great Kesavan and show them to Arun. He is a bit perturbed though. This angle is new to him….Elephants with names, movies about them?

With the help of Google, I show him that there are books on Guruvayur elephants, Kerala elephants and so on…I show him pictures..he finally seems convinced and so we continue with the tale.

Oh, I love the Indian elephant…..Arun asks why I like the India pachyderm more than the African one, I ask him to look at both pictures and decide. The Indian elephant looks more proportionate and rounded, also less ancient, but he does not quite see it that way, so we agree to disagree.

Ram my friend, I met him at Istanbul, is from Mannargudi, a town in the Tanjavur district – Tamil Nadu. Mannrgudi has a great Krishna temple, visited by many devotees. Remember that many stories and life in South Indian villages are related to temple life and this happens to be around the temple elephant.

Krishna Iyer was a miserly chap, not everybody liked him though he was omnipresent and sometimes overbearing. If something important took place, Krishna Iyer would be there to offer his two cents worth of worthless advice. He was generally considered a nuisance though relatively harmless. He presented an interesting picture, bare bodied except for the loin cloth or dhoti, the weather beaten punul (sacred thread) across his chest…and bare footed, adorned with the discolored thorthu mundu (towel) across his shoulder.

Arun has to interrupt, he wants to know what the Punul is, and why he was not wearing any shirt or shoes. I ask him to recall the sights and sounds from our last visit to Kerala and the temples. I remind him that it was the custom around temples, especially for those who were working in the temple and who had to go in and out of the sanctum sanctorium often…It is easier not to have to wear & remove shirts..that he understands, though it was strictly speaking not the right explanation.

Krishna Iyer did not have any living family, he never married, which was good of course since ‘they’ would have had a miserable life. He lived his simple life, eating free temple food or ‘Nivedyam’ wandering here and there and being himself…mostly a general but harmless nuisance.

The temple had its elephant and this was a very calm and nice elephant. He never harmed anybody, the mahout would even take him around the ‘Agraharams’ and the village to bless children with its trunk…in return for some money (meant for the mahout) or some food (plantains usually).

Arun gets the picture..The elephant is a great big animal who is kid friendly like a giant teddy bear and who would put out its trunk when a coin is inserted in the right place…Aha…OK..good ...good ...go on…cut to the chase..

But elephants do become wild at times, especially when in Musth…I have difficulties explaining this to Arun, as it is a not so well understood phenomenon, a time when elephants become crazy and unpredictable. I tell him that elephants have such bad periods in their life, which he eventually accepts. When a captive elephant such as our temple elephant goes into Musth, it is pretty dangerous, there are stories of these ‘rouge’ elephants trampling masses, killing mahouts and so on..

This was a normal day in the Krishna temple in Mannargudi and Krishna Iyer was wandering around. He could not find anybody who would listen to him, but after wandering around a bit, he saw our elephant and his mahout…(No Arun, Ram uncle did not tell me the elephants name. I am not sure if Tamilians names their elephants like us Malayalis).

Krishna Iyer had with him some Nivedyam plantains and he decided to offer what he had to the elephant..he lifted his hand and the Pazham (plantain) to the animal. What followed was a disaster. Nobody is sure if the elephant was in Musth, the mahout is also confused why all that happened, but the elephant simply curled its trunk around our man Krishna Iyer, lifted him high in the air, spun him a couple of times and dropped him on the floor. A very simple maneuver like you see in WWF these days…only thing was that during the high speed spin, Krishna Iyer was spun on his vertical as well as horizontal axis …

Arun wants to know why the elephant did this. I have no idea, He tells me to call Ram uncle in Istanbul and find out. I tell him that probably Krishan Iyer pelted the elephant with a stone when he was a kid..elephants never forget…(remember Agatha Christe's novel??)

Nothing much would have happened to a younger fella, but K Iyer was by then over 45 years old and he had a lot of difficulty getting up from where the elephant had dropped him. He got up once and then promptly collapsed. The mahout hollered his head off and a lot of good and not so friendly people gathered around our fallen man. They decided to take him to the hospital.

The doctor who checked Iyer, was sure that K Iyer had internal injuries. So he was sent of to the district hospital. They checked him again, and admitted the poor chap, did test after test and said that he probably had his intestines twisted. After a while, they discharged him saying that his condition was stable, but Krishna Iyer was in big trouble, he simply could not eat. Whatever he ate, he threw out. So he had to continue on a liquid diet…There was no reason for a major surgery, so nobody did it.

This continued on for many years. The old Krishna Iyer changed, he became a real constipated, cranky nut as months went by. He viewed life through his pain and suffering and spread gloom wherever he went. He consulted many doctors, he even went to Vellore CMCH, but nobody could help. He was a lost soul. He became more religious and started spending more and more time at the temple, but he fastidiously avoided both the elephant and the mahout, and of course we know by now why it was so.

The only man who could tolerate him was the temple priest. They would talk of all the village politics and the worldly issues during the balmy evenings after the last prayers & ‘Poojas’. On one such occasion, the priest jokingly said that the only person who could set Krishna Iyer right was our friend the Elephant. And by then Krishna Iyer was desperate, he did not want any possibilities unexplored (ask any other constipated guy and he will agree). He went in search of the mahout and asked him if there was any hope for him. The mahout asked Krishna Iyer to come back with some plantains for the elephant (the mahout never actually had any plan, he thought this was a good way of getting some grub for the pachyderm). Krishna Iyer did exactly that..He went to fetch some plantains from the temple kitchen.

He came back with the plantains and stretched them out toward the elephant. Mr Elephant, which was dozing a bit, lifted its head and took a long look at the thin specimen of manhood in front of him. They say ( as i mentioned before) that elephants have a long memory, and this time too, its memory did not fail him. He remembered Krishna Iyer.

Arun is wide eyed…no, dad, don’t tell me ‘that’ happened.. I can’t believe this. I said, ‘let me complete Arun, and ask Ram uncle the next time you see him, he is the one who told me this tale’.

The elephant again picked up Krishna Iyer with its trunk, just like the last time, and spun him. twice, thrice and then put him on the ground..Nothing more, nothing less. Only this time he spun him around the other way, anticlockwise ..on both axes.

When Krishan Iyer came to, he felt like a new man. No more pains or discomfort, so he asked for a pitcher of water and drank the whole of it, without any more pain, just like he used to do in his younger days. He was finally cured…BY THE ELEPHANT!!!

Ram insists that this tale is true, he tells me that I can go anytime to his village and ask around or even meet Krishna Iyer. He swears by it..Arun laughed his head off then and giggled for days later thinking about this, in mirth. But when we went to the Pallavur temple later, he would not go near the elephant. Today I am sure Arun a college going student must be thinking it was one of my 'tall' taes.

Maybe we will visit Mannargudi some day, some time, maybe we will meet Krishna Iyer & the elephant, to expore the truth & get further details..until then, this sure is one hell of a tale!!!

The King and the Dancer

Swati Tirunal, Irvivarman Thampi, Sugandhavalli ,Vadivelu, Bharatnatyam, and Mohinitattam – The fascinating connections

You may have seen a sensuous Mohiniattam by the dancer in the traditional Kerala whites and you would have seen may others in Malayalam movies and sometimes bits in a Hindi movie like dil se..but how did mohiniyattam get formulated? What has Maharaja Swati Tirunal got to do with it? What role did Violin maestro Vadivelu play in the drama and who indeed was Sugandhavalli? Those who have seen the movie Swati Tirunal would have an inkling about the tempestuous days of the young king, in fact his last happy and sad years, but let us try and take another look, for it is a story of persons, and of their simple desires in life, a story of dance, music and love and as we all know, these have a habit of coexistence, and is the formula in many a heartwarming story.

Before we get to Travancore and delve into this story, I have to start in Tanjavur, going back to a time of the renowned Dikshitar, the illustrious trio, and the musically rapturous courts of the Maratha kings. Well without getting into too much details, let me dive straight into the court rooms of the last independent Bhonsle ruler of Tanjore - Maratha Maharaja Serfoji II. The period was the late 1820’s. It was a crowning period for Carnatic music and a time when the dance form Dasiattam had finally morphed into the earliest systematic versions of a more respectable Bharatanatyam. The people who worked hard at it were the four vellalar brothers who served in Serfoji’s court, named the Tanjavur quartet comprising Chinnayya, Ponnaiyya, Shivanandam and Vadivelu. All of them had received ample training from childhood and also from the illustrious Muthuswamy Diskshitar. Chinnayya the Abhinaya guru danced himself and the first mattu pongal dances of Tamilnadu are credited to him. Sivanandam brought in the western Clarinet to the realms of Carnatic music, Vadivelu was credited (also many others like Varahapayyar and Baluswami dikshitar) with popularizing Violin in carnatic music accompaniment and Ponnayya created many famous kritis. As luck or lack thereof would have it the brothers quarreled with the King around 1830 and were promptly banished from the court due to the relationship between Serfoji and a young boy who was trained in dancing and music by Vadivelu, and due to the preference shown by the king to the boy instead of the illustrious four. It appears that the boy was felicitated during a Chittira Thiruvazha, instead of the quartet. The foursome showed their irritation by refusing to sing standing up or something of that sort. The inebriated (?) king curtailed their temple honors and that worsened the issue further, eventually resulting in their banishment.

With that, the collective creativity was destroyed and the brothers separated. They first travelled to Travancore, but Chinayya moved soon to the Mysore court of Wodeyar, Shivanandam & Ponnaiyyah returned to Tanjore after accepting Serfoji’s apologetic re-invitation, whereas Vadivelu remained in the courts of Travancore to become a friend, advisor and court musician of Swati Tirunal. With the Tanjore masters arrived a retinue of Bharatnatyam dancers and accompanying musicians plus teachers like Meruswami to enrich the carnatic music arena of Anathapuram. As history was to record, Vadivelu would remain until 1845 in the Sankara Vilasa mansion created by the king for him. His life in Travancore was mainly one of creativity and contentment though he had his fights with this king as well, but all of which ended soon due to amicable mutual respect.

What did the quartet have to do with the Bharatnatyam revival? – MKK Nayar explains - When the disintegration of the Chola, Pandya and Chera empires began, Devadasis (practicing dasiattam) were forced to seek the protection of local warlords and chieftains. As distinct from an organized society under powerful empire building kings, warlords and chieftains held sway over small principalities. Standards of law and order or morality were also totally different in the new situation. Devadasis gradually fell prey to the newly emerging carnal society and the situation deteriorated in every manner. Ultimately Dasiattam was even banned by law. It was at that time that the immortal Thanjavur quartet came like an Avatar to rescue this beautiful damsel in distress. The Tanjore Quartet organized all the basic Bharatnatyam movements of pure dance into a progressive series called Adavus. They composed new music specifically for Bharatnatyam and introduced a different sequence of items that brought out the various aspects of dance and music. adds - Vadivelu and the quartet propagated the Pandanallur style of dance (in fact, the vidwan Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai of Pandanallur is a direct descendant of the quartet!) from the traditional Sadir Natyam or Dasiattam.

The work carried out by the quartet on Bharata Natyam encouraged the young king Swati Tirunal, who now wanted Vadivelu to work on the extant but unpopular form of Mohiniattam in Kerala. Together they crafted a revival and able support was provided by two more people, Uncle Iravivarman Thampi and a lovely dusky toned dancer. I will not get into the details of Swati Tirunal and his life, but suffices to say that here was a well educated and willing student, waiting for new teachers and new ideas. The dancers knew how to convert the ideas into movements. The king however was a man in a hurry, probably he knew he had only some more years left in his life and so he wanted to experience it all, the role of a ruler, the beauty of dance and the woman’s sensuous role in it as well as the woman herself, fighting the infighting in the large royal family and keeping the colonial rulers and administrators at bay. Was there time for love in his life?

As fleeting glimpses into his life shows us, there were. Lover’s anguish, happiness and even small things like a tiff are reflected in the music and dance forms that came out of these royal courts, if you forget the arguments about authorship and other rumors for a moment. One such verse that uncle Thampi created, has this interesting backdrop and I will get to it soon, for you need to get an introduction to one more person, the centerpiece in this large real life mural, the dancer herself.

From the arid Tamil regions, the musically talented brothers who had mastered dance moved through the rough terrains in slow moving bullock carts to the fertile and coastal Chera nadu, passing the Ghats and finally arriving at Travancore. The two brothers, Vadivelu and Sivanandam, along with Nirajakshi and Satyabhama (and Mankammal – was she Neerajakshi?), and another beauty were welcomed enthusiastically by the Maharaja Swati Tirunal. The unnamed beauty, who was to become the main court dancer, would also one day, dance into the king’s heart. She was none other than the mysterious Sugandhavalli who lived in plain sight, as a royal consort, but very little is known about her even today.

I toiled hard to dredge details on her, but books and articles provide only flashing glimpses of her and her relationship with the king. Who was she? Should I make the mistake of adding flesh to the bones myself like the movie script writer of the movie Swati Tirunal did? I decided not to, for hopefully my continuing search or that of another reader will provide me more details for more complete article about her in the future, but let us try & get to know her anyway from what we have.

When somebody prohibits something, man’s interest in it is automatically roused. It could be sex, it could be alcohol, and it could be books. Well, around that time the British had decided to ban Bharatnatyam and Dasiattam, confusing the former with raunchy nautch ( the anglicized name for natch-dance) dances. Perhaps that raised the ire of Swati Tirunal, and Vadivelu after all was one of the people behind the versions of Bharatnatyam. Anyway the courts of Travancore soon marveled at the steps of the Tamil dancers and the masterly music provided by the groups that had arrived from Tanjore. It was then that the king saw her, the sensuous dancer and he thought, how it would be if she provided steps for what uncle Thampi used to talk about – the old dances of the Mohini’s, the mohiniattam (interestingly the mohinis of the Chera nadu danced only in temples, never at a patron’s home or to ones wish). Malabar had by then provided the Zamorin’s Krishanttam, the Kottayam Raja’s had popularized Kathakali, but they were serious forms, and not created to relax and sooth a person. For that you needed a Mohini and Mohiniattam, which was a form of dance the king wanted, one that was flowing, soft and sensuous. Vadivelu suggested that his young dancer would easily be able to demonstrate the steps for this based on the Sadir principles and with that the first formal years of Mohiniattam as we know it today, were created. The dancer Sugandhavalli, knew instinctively how to move to music and how she moved, for she danced straight into the young king’s heart.

What do purists say? MKK Nayar states - The origin and development of Mohiniyattam is shrouded in mystery. Though there have been legends and folklore no definite ideas are as yet available from a historian’s point of view. Some hold that it was as ancient as Chilappathikaram and Manimekala, well-known Tamil classics; a few think that it was evolved by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal in the nineteenth century. Mohiniyattam literally means the dance of the Mohini. Mohini is name of the great enchantress. By the name itself Mohiniyattam sounds seductive or erotic. As a term Mohiniyattam is found only in Kerala. Swati Tirunal and his illustrious courtiers Irayimmen Thampi and Kilimanoor Koil Thampuran (Karindran) evidently put their aesthetic heads together and produced out of the Dasiattam of the time, the refinement that is known as Mohiniyattam today. They composed many pieces for it - Swarajathis, Varnas and scores of Padas. Swathi Thirunal had the rare assistance and advice of Vadivelu of Thanjavur too. Vadivelu had just come out to Trivandrum after witnessing, and participating in the renaissance of Dasiattam into Bharatanatyam. His accounts aroused enough interest in the Maharaja to get the famous danseuse Sugandhavalli from Tanjavur. It is possible that the influence of Vadivelu and Sugandhavalli may have contributed to some movements or other in Mohiniyattam too.

Sugandhavalli – ah! The mysterious woman who enchanted the king! Who was she? The official documents certify as follows

Thanjavoor Ammachi Panapilla Amma Srimathi Sundaralakshmi Kochamma (d. 1856), née Suganda Parvathi Bayi [Sugandhavalli], a Bharatanatyam dancer who came to his court with the famous Guru Vadivelu, adopted into the Vadasseri Ammaveedu in 1843 and raised to the status of a consort or Ammachi in 1845 when the new house of Thanjavoor Ammaveedu was created for her, daughter of a mudaliyar from Tanjore.

MKK Nayar continues in the ST website - Vadivelu had come along with his sister and two other girls, one called Sugandhavally and her elder sister. Sugandhavally and her sister had their origin in south Travancore. Their ancestors had moved over to Tanjavoor a few decades earlier. There they had got Sugandhavally and her sister trained in Bharatanatyam under Vadivelu. During the presence of Vadivelu and the three girls the Maharaja got the idea of re-choreographing Mohiniyattam. A few years after the death of Sarabhi Sivanandam, Chinnayya & Ponnayya went back and Vadivelu stayed over for some more time. Nayar continues - Sugandhavally was only years old when the Maharaja took her as his second wife. She died a few years later. Vadivelu had hopes that the Maharaja would, in the re-bound, take his sister in place of Suganthavally. That was why he stayed behind. But a year later he realized that the Maharaja was no longer interested in the pleasure of the flesh. So he went back with his sister to Thanjavoor.

Author’s note - This is obviously not right as Sugandhavally outlived Swati tirunal as events were to show, a full 10-11 years.

So what was the story of Sughandavally? We glean the following from Pattom G Ramachandran Nair who wrote Thiruvanathapurathinde Ithihasam, extracts of which are reflected in Wikipedia & other books.

Sometime around 1843 Swaiti Tirunal terminated the courtship and formalized his marriage with Sundara Lakshmi Ammal, a.k.a Sugandhavalli. The Maharajah first adopted her into Vadasseri Ammaveedu, making her an Ammachi and bestowing the title of Thampi on her family members. In 1845 he constructed the Thanjavur Ammaveedu and Sugandhavalli, along with her family members resided here. The Maharajah's second wife, Thiruvattar Ammachi, whose sister was married to Uthram Thirunal as it appears did not approve of this marriage. Soon after, the Maharajah died in 1846. Legend and folklore has it that Sugandhavalli was banished from Travancore following which the Maharajah died broken hearted. However facts and records prove otherwise.

Sugandhavalli continued to live in Trivandrum at Thanjavur Ammaveedu until her own death in 1856, a full decade after the death of Swathi Thirunal, enjoying all the provisions and privileges she was entitled to as a royal consort. However soon after her death, her late husband's brother and successor, Maharajah Uthram Thirunal issued an order to attach the estate and properties that belonged to Thanjavur Ammaveedu on the ground that Sugandhavalli for whom they were made, had died. Sugandhavalli's sister Sundara Parvathi Pillai Thankachi, who had been married to Singaravelu Mudaliyar the former Alleppey District Judge, then filed a petition in Madras. The High Court of Madras in 1858 permitted the Travancore Government to attach the properties after compensating the family. Accordingly Rs. 10,000, a princely sum, was given to Sugandhavalli's family and the Thanjavur Ammaveedu taken over by the Travancore Government. The Ganapathi idol worshiped by Sugandhavalli was moved and consecrated at the Palkulangara Temple in Trivandrum. Her sister later died in 1883.

The mudaliar website adds this strange note - After Swathi Thirunal's mysterious death at an early age of 33, the Kerala Muthali community faced various threats. Then British resident, General Cullen's timely involvement helped to avert a great backlash on the community

The Thanjavur ammaveedu from the ST website- The Maharaja accepted her as a consort and the Tanjavoor Amma Veedu was constructed to house his beloved. It is a beautiful wooden building with two courtyards and elaborate wood carvings. It is believed that this house was once a place that echoed with music and dance incessantly. Sugandha Valli lured the Maharaja more and more into the world of arts and Swathi who was tired of the British dominance might have been only too glad to concentrate in his music and the dance of his beloved. But this was not acceptable to the close family members and courtesans. The forlorn Tanjavoor Amma Veedu exists even today as a store house of mysteries and stories.

Nayar continues - Although Swathi Thirunal and his courtiers made much of Mohiniyattam, it did not catch on in Kerala. That was because Swathi’s successor Uttram Thirunal was fanatically devoted to Kathakali. In his time all courtiers turned to Kathakali for gaining royal favor. At the same time in Cochin State too Kathakali had become the dominant art form. Mohiniyattam therefore travelled down to petty principalities and the dancers were forced to earn a living by disreputable means. At the end of the last century it had reached the lowest depths an art form could descend to.

Vadivelu’s story is not complete, his unhappy relatives (not his children, as he had none), by then settled in Tamil Nadu took on the legacy of the king stating that the authorship of the various krithis was actually Vadivelu’s. Some others said that many were actually done by Iryamman Thampi. I will not get into that now, it is a long and complicated subject best tackled another day.

Swati Tirunal’s short 32 year life had a sad ending. Presumably due to the pressures, the problems with the British and his Dewan, his family and so on, he had a woeful period at the end, living the life of a loner. When he died, he was virtually alone and there was no Sugandhavally to comfort him, though she was but a few miles away.

But I have to conclude by introducing another great by Thampi. So here is the legend behind and the meaning of

Prananathan Enikku nalkiya– Iraviyamman Thampi

It is a work of love with ample doses of sensuous text. As the story goes, Swati Tirunal and Sugandhavalli had a lover’s tiff, following which they did not talk to each other for some time. Sugandhavalli finally decided to ask uncle Irayivarman thanmpi for ideas to break the ice, and of course the learned man who knew his nephew very well, provided her the words below to explain her ecstasy and joy from the union between the two on an earlier occasion (to explain it in clearer words would classify this as a blog of ‘another’ sexy kind). As the story goes, she sang and danced to it and well, that broke not only the ice, but brought them together again. And as the legend goes, many more of the songs were composed by the king with her in mind like Jalaja bandhu and as it appears, the tiff with his first wife followed an insistence by the young king to have his first wife Narayani play the violin for these tunes and Sughandhavalli’s dancing. A great defense for Narayani can be read in this nice article

But back to the song (lyrics from…

പ്രാണനാഥനെനിക്കു നല്‍കിയ
പരമാനന്ദരസത്തേ പറവതിനെളുതാമോ

അങ്കത്തിലിരുത്തിയെന്‍ കൊങ്കത്തടങ്ങള്‍ കര
പങ്കജം കൊണ്ടവന്‍ തലോടി
പുഞ്ചിരിപൂണ്ടു തങ്കക്കുടമെന്നെ കൊണ്ടാടി
ഗാഢം പുണര്‍ന്നും അങ്കുരിത പുളകം കലര്‍ന്നെഴു-
മെന്‍ കപോലമതിങ്കലന്‍പൊടു
തിങ്കള്‍മുഖത്തെയണച്ചധരത്തെ നുകര്‍ന്നും
പ്രാണനാഥനെനിക്കു നല്‍കിയ
പരമാനന്ദരസത്തേ പറവതിനെളുതാമോ

കാന്തനോരോരോ രതികാന്തതന്ത്രത്തിലെന്റെ
പൂന്തുകിലഴിച്ചൊരു നേരം
തുടങ്ങിഞാനും മാന്താര്‍ശരക്കടലില്‍ പാരം
തന്നെ മറന്നും നീന്തി മദനഭ്രാന്തിനാലതി താന്തയായി
നിന്താന്തമങ്ങിനെ കാന്ത കൃതം
സുരതാണ്ഡമഹോത്സവഘോഷം പുനരെത്ര വിശേഷം!
പ്രാണനാഥനെനിക്കു നല്‍കിയ
പരമാനന്ദരസത്തേ പറവതിനെളുതാമോ

praana naadhanenikku nalkiya
paramaananda rasathe
paravathineluthaamo (praana)
angathil iruthiyen konga thadangal
kara pankajam kondavan thalodee (angathil)
punjiri poondu thanka kudamennu kondaadee
gaadam punarnnum angulitha pulakam
kalarnnezhumen kapolamathingal anpodu
thinkal mukhatheyanachadharathe
nukarnnum pala leela thudarnnoo(praana)

kaanthanororo rathi kaantha thanthrathilente
poonthukil azhichoru neram (kaantha)
thudangi njaanum maanthaasharakkadalil paaram
thanne marannum neenthi madanabhraanthinaalathi
thaanthayaayi nithaanthamangine kaantha krutham
sura thaantha maholsava ghosham punarethra vishesham

A link to the version by Madhuri

The origins of Monhiniattam – Nirmala Panikkar
The first reference to Mohiniyattam is in Vyavaharamala composed by Mayamangalam Narayanan Namboodri in 1709 A.D. It mentions rules to be observed regarding fees of artistes to be shared during a performance. Maharaja Kartika Tirunal Balarama Varma, author of Balarama Bharatam (1758-1798) said that the book had been written after a careful study of Lasya Tantra ( the style of the lasya dance). Travancore palace records reveal that even as early as 1801, the palace was incurring expenditure on Mohiniyattam. We also get an idea of the popularity of Mohiniyattam from the works of Kunchan Nambiar, who in his Ghoshayatra mentions Mohiniyattam in passing.There is also a reference to Mohini natana in the great treatise on the regional art forms of Kerala, Balarama Bharatam.

The Ammachi’s of Travancore
Samuel Mateer elaborates in his book - The ammachi is not a member of the royal household, and is in nowise associated with the royal court. She has neither official nor social position at Court, and cannot even be seen in public with the ruler whose wife she is. Her issues occupy the same position as herself, and the law of Malabar excludes them from all claims to public recognition.

In the case of the royal family, a number of splendid cloths are sent, and she is brought to the palace of her consort. But, unlike other Sudra unions, the Ammachi, having once been married to a Rajah, is required to remain single all the remainder of her days; and is shut up and guarded in her own residence. Hence it is not all parents that are willing to give their daughters on these terms. The bereaved lady is comfortably provided for by endowment during the life of the husband, and pension after his decease. Precisely similar is the custom in China, where, on the death of an emperor, his women are removed to a portion of the palace, in which they are shut up for the remainder of their lives.

Manu Pillai at Inorite adds - The status of the Ammachis was not always happy. Maharajah Swathi Thirunal married a lady from Kollam and invested her with the titles of Ammachi, Panapillai Amma etc. after adopting her into the Thiruvattar Ammaveedu. A few years later he was enamored of a Thanjavur dancer, known popularly as Sugandhavalli, and decided to marry her. Since she was not a Nair and was far from aristocratic, her adoption into the Vadasseri Ammaveedu was opposed and hence the Maharajah, defiantly, constructed a house for her and named it Thanjavur Ammaveedu. The first wife, known as Thiruvattar Ammachi, was put aside with little freedom.

For further details refer hyperlinked article by Manu

Swatitirunal Website
Yalburi afrticle - MKK Nayar

Singing the classical, voicing the modern - Amanda Weidman
Puzha article
Hindu article
Malayalasangeetham site