K Sankaran Nair – The legendary spymaster of RAW

Shanks - The sleuth from Ottapalam

This is another name most of you may not have come across, Sankaran Nair was the man who headed RAW some time ago, the very man who left the unit in a huff after a tiff with Morarji Desai. Today you can switch on Hotstar and watch a debonair Kay Kay Menon play the role of the sleuth named Himmat Singh (Tele Series – Special Op’s), a RAW section head with a large overdraft account, totally at home with the latest technology and taking on the Pakistan ISI. Should you ask KayKay if he knew KS Nair, he might even be flummoxed. Anyway, I will try to fill you in on some background about Nair as we go through interesting high-profile cases involving him such as the Kahuta affair (which Morarji botched up during his loose and indiscrete chat with Zia) and the liberation of Bangladesh. It would be fitting, for this is the 50th year anniversary of Bangladesh’s liberation.

Nair, never mincing words or wanting to paint a picture of his larger-than-life, had this to say about himself (after Dryden) – I have been a cop, a spook, and ambassador, but mostly a buffoon, I guess!

Kinattinkara Sankaran Nair, the man who so desperately wanted to join the ICS, but could not clear the exams even after two attempts, later went on to excel working for the police and win a Medal for Meritorious Service. Why on earth would he use the operational cover name Col Menon? All of these present an interesting story, the story of a proud and self-righteous man who served many bureaucrats, but on his terms while sleuthing in the IB and later for the Indian Research and analysis wing - R&AW.

Born on 20th Dec 1920, (101 years ago to the day, as I post this) to Lakshmikutty Amma and Narayanan Nair, Sankaran Nair schooled in Convent schools at Trichy, Vizag, Cannanore, and Madras, but had to abandon plans of getting into the merchant navy through HMS Dufferin (negated by parents), before joining for higher studies at the Loyola college Madras, and later graduating from the Law college, around 1942. Many luminaries like Bobby Mugaseth, the Calicut Parsi, and Manek Cashu Dadabhoy, later Bobby’s brother-in-law (their story is beautifully narrated by Raghu Karnad in his fascinating book - Farthest field), Lambert Franklin, P Mukundan, and so on were his batch mates. Meanwhile, Sankaran Nair’s fleeting mind tried to take him to different vocations - a pilot (was negated by his mother), then an engineer which he himself gave up due to its math requirements. Not a bookish youngster, Nair was a keen cricket player, captaining Loyola.

Nair joined the Imperial police at Vellore, after failing to secure an ICS spot despite multiple attempts, moving on to become an Assistant superintendent in 1942. Pretty soon this tough cop was serving in Andhra, as the DSP for East Godavari and earning a ‘tough cop’ name after the capture of a number of criminals and Maoists using unique and sometimes very direct methods, instilling fear in a hitherto lawless territory.

By 1950, he was bound for Delhi, to serve under Bhola Nath Mullick in the IB – Intelligence Bureau (it was previously the Thugee office!), having been promised a post in Paris. That was not to happen and Mullick tried to move him to Burma which Nair refused demanding that he be sent back to the police cadre at Madras. After some years, he was deputed to create an intelligence agency in Ghana, when his predecessor and confidante Ramji N Kao had given him the required fillip. Returning to Delhi in 1963, he took over the Pakistani desk at the IB and was soon an authority on the ways and happenings across the borders, working through a network of informers.

During the 1965 war, Nair informed the army about the extra armored division Pakistan had secreted (without US knowledge) as well as other details of the impending assault, but the top brass refused to believe the IB report (commenting that Patton tanks can’t operate in sandy areas). According to Yadav’s book, it was only due to the bravery of other officers who defied the general, that a debacle like 1962 did not occur, when the tanks appeared. After the 1965 war, when an attempt was made to discredit him, but Nair was not cowed (or flattened like VK Krishna Menon had been), he sent copies of the 65 reports he had provided, to the PMO, disproving them.

In 1968, the R&AW was formed and he moved along with Kao as his deputy there. His work in RAW has been chronicled by his peers and successors, in many an article and a few books. Nair’s involvement in uncovering Pakistan’s nuclear research at Kahuta, obtaining the advance information of Pakistan’s bombing plans in Dec 71, the training and arming of the Mukti Bahni as a prequel to the 1971 war of liberation, are just some of the feathers in his cap. Nevertheless, due to personal differences with Sanjay Gandhi, he was not chosen as the successor of Kao and one Shive Mathur took his place.

But when Morarji Desai managed to finally plant himself in the PM’s chair, Nair faced a multitude of problems. First, he, Kao and the RAW was accused of being the hammers for Indira Gandhi during the emergency. Furthermore, Morarji was hell bent on finding dirt on Indira, digging deep to uncover apparent mismanagement of funds, if only for political purposes. The very same Morarji who had scuttled any chance of strengthening the Indian army by denying them the required financial budget before the 1962 China war, was back with a vengeance against the Congress.

Nair headed the RAW for just 3 months in 1977 after Kao’s retirement, before Morarji hounded him out and decimated the rank and lines of the RAW. Nair’s involvement in ‘Operation Casino’ identifying the kickbacks, so also his refusal to close down operations abroad including Pakistan as ordered by Morarji, resulted in the furious PM demoting Nair. That was the last straw and the illustrious spymaster left RAW for good, in 1978. However, Nair did play a smaller role in restructuring R&AW after the return of Indira Gandhi to power in 1980.

A number of lesser posts followed, but at each juncture, he refused to tread established lines and support sycophancy. He worked with the minorities commission, and finally with the organization of the Asian games 1981-82 skillfully and received a Padma Bhushan for it. His last posting was as the high commissioner of Singapore. By 1988 he had retired and moved first to London and thence to Bangalore, and after a lonely period and undergoing two bypass surgeries, Nair passed away in 2015, aged 96.  Seeing Kashmir getting manipulated to become a hotbed for insurgents, the Kargil conflict in 1999, followed by the 2002 parliament attack, and later the 2008 Mumbai attacks, were all events that would have got this aging snoop, furious.

Many of his action-filled days are fleetingly mentioned in his own memoirs, bereft of any details, so also in the book on Kao and in the few on the RAW itself by others. In almost all of them, Nair is a shadow, Col Menon, behind the curtain. So many interesting personnel passed by through those pages as I perused them, one being the senior police officer Eric Stracey whom I had mentioned in a previous article (the article about Cyril Stracey). Other interesting events dot his memoirs,  his attempts at learning how to glide, his fondness for Siamese cats, and how golfing became a passion.

Let’s now see how he and his team engineered some of the more famous intelligence coups of his life, though one must note these things are never individual exploits and that one’s actual role is in later accounts is always quite diffused. But as Raman introduces him, this suave, blunt in words and ‘hard-hitting in action’ RAW officer, was well respected and considered a master of HUMINT. As the years rolled by, as TECHINT and ELINT took over, technology exchanged places with brave humans out in the field, though wisely not replacing them entirely. It was no longer Nair’s domain, and his move out, perhaps a wise choice.

The arming of the Mukti Bahni and the Agartala Case

The role of Indian intelligence in the Agartala case which was a prelude to the 1971 war and the liberation of Bangladesh is briefly known, though not necessarily the R&AW machinations behind the scenes. The key person who worked behind the scenes in 1967, before the uncovering of the case, the elusive Colonel Menon, was none other than Sankaran Nair. A meeting was convened in Agartala sometime in 1962-63, between the IB foreign desk operatives and the Mujib faction. The Bangla group indicated to ‘Col Menon that the ‘group’ was eager to escalate their movement. Nair and his team thus became involved with organizing the arming and training of the Mukti Bahni.  Working under the cover of Col. Menon, he succeeded in creating a group comprising a few Bangladeshi Navy employees as well as other activists of the Awami League. Nair was planning the next step of arming them, but these agents in a moment of unnecessary haste tried to raid the Pakistan Army armory on their own. They were arrested and a sedition case named the Agartala Case was registered. Directly implicating Mujibur Rehman later in 1968 was a ploy engineered by Ayub Khan the Pakistani PM. This was later dubbed as the Agartala Conspiracy Case. The case was later withdrawn on 22 February 1969, after one of the accused, Sgt. Zahurul Haq of the air force was shot dead in prison. Nair admitted to handling various agents during the Bangladesh freedom struggle but reconfirmed that he never met Sheikh Mujib, famously known as Bangabandhu.

The case had huge repercussions. Some 1,500 Bengalis were arrested in this connection. The West Pakistani government’s keenness to prove that Sheikh Mujib was an Indian agent and a separatist backfired and a mass movement erupted demanding immediate withdrawal of the case and the release of all prisoners. The news of the killing of air force officer Sgt. Zahurul Haq led to riots and eventually, the government withdrew the case.

R Yadav in his book states - Sankaran Nair was working undercover as Col. Menon. Nair confirmed that P.N.Ojha, a Deputy Central Intelligence Officer of IB was his junior who was interacting with these East Pakistanis which included some Navy employees, Police officers and some political activists of Awami League party. Nair met these agents on border near Agartala few months prior to their arrest in East Pakistan. These agents were warned by Nair not to raid the armory to capture arms from the Pakistan Army, which they did after some time. Rather, Nair suggested to them that IB would send arms to them on a barge down the river from Agartala and they could collect these arms at suitable destinations for the insurgency against Pakistan Army. Nair also suggested them some separate ideas for their insurgent activities but they were aggressive and wanted some immediate action against the Pakistan Army. They ignored the warning of Nair and raided the armory which resulted in their subsequent arrest and this sedition case named as Agartala Conspiracy case was filed against them by the Pakistan Government.

Yahya Khan took over, became the dictator of Pakistan, and surprisingly held open elections only to find the rebel Mujibur Rehman winning most of the seats, 141 of them and talking about secession from West Pakistan.  Not something they or friends from the Western world wanted. Yahya ordered the terrible operations - Blitz and later Searchlight in East Pakistan, to suppress dissent using the army, which led to many atrocities, massacres, and a massive exodus of some 10 million refugees into India.

At that point in time, the R&AW team again provided intelligence to the insurgency’s policymakers, training the freedom fighters and creating training camps, also publicizing the Pakistani massacres and the plight of the refugees and supplying rebels the Mukti Bahni, with small and medium weapons. All-out war between India and Pakistan, to liberate Bangladesh, then took place in 1971.

Incidentally, the involvement of MKB Nair in Bangladesh is sometimes confused with SK Nair’s (both were RAW officers) role. Brigadier MBK Nair was the head of RAW’s technical division. According to Yadav - Brig. Nair opened many monitoring stations of R&AW at these check-posts and inside the Pakistani territory also to provide speedy information to the Calcutta office of R&AW and to its headquarters in New Delhi about the training of Mukti Bahini cadres and movement and action of the Pakistan Army. R&AW prepared a technical network and encircled East Pakistan on all vantage points which proved of strategic importance for the phase one action, to train the insurgents, of the Indian Government and ultimately in the decisive liberation war of December 1971.

Pakistani Mole handler – The Dec 1st SNAFU

Nair, as we read before, was in charge of the Pakistan desk while at the IB. He had built up a network of moles and informers within Pakistan and during the tense situation in 1971, he received word from a mole in the last week of November 1971, that the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) intended to launch a pre-emptive strike on Indian airbases during the evening of December 1st. Nair sent the words to the high command but nothing untoward happened on the 1st nor the 2nd. An irritated IAF, having kept the pilots on high alert for 48 hours wanted to call it off, but Nair asked them to hold on since he was quite sure that the attack was coming.

The Pakistani’s launched their attack on the evening of December 3rd, which was quickly thwarted by the IAF who had been waiting. It was later discovered that the coded message from the mole had stated the date as December 3rd, but the decoders in the R&AW headquarters had incorrectly decoded it as December 1st!

The Kahuta affair

Kahuta in Rawalpindi was where Project 706 i.e., the Khan laboratories were set up to develop Pakistan’s enrichment units between 1972-1983. When Pakistan started to stockpile Uranium, the US responded with sanctions, but with the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the US needed Pakistani support to reduce any communist insurgency. Even though Pakistan crossed the enrichment threshold with Chinese assistance in 1980, it was not until much later in the 90’s, i.e., after the Russian withdrawal, that the US reimposed wide-ranging sanctions.

As the story goes, RAW operatives in Pakistan obtained leads about the Kahuta facility and were surveilling scientists. They collected hair samples from local barbershops which were frequented by these scientists and got the samples across the border to India. Test results proved that these samples exhibited radiation making it clear that Pakistan was operating centrifuges.

Tragically this coincided with the fall of the Indira Gandhi government and the arrival of Morarji on the scene. Kao was gone, and soon Nair followed his steps, leaving the R&AW for good. The new government did not support further steps. Morarji did not want any interference in Pakistani internal affairs and denied support. Also, in an unguarded moment when talking to Zia ul Haq, Morarji Desai revealed that India was aware of the enrichment happening at the Kahuta facility. This had disastrous effects, Nair’s highly placed agents were captured, and created a huge setback for RAW operations.

Operation Casino

During the Indira government, the responsibility to hand courier a 6 million dollar check to be deposited in a numbered account in Geneva, was entrusted to KS Nair. Originally, he was asked to carry five suitcases of $100 currency notes, but he refused, fearing its and his safety. This was organized by the ministry of external affairs after clearance by the finance ministry and the PM.  Nair flew to Geneva and had the check deposited, but had no clue what it was for, until much later, at which point it had become a scandal. Morarji had become the PM and he was hunting for the skeletons in the many closets around Delhi. Assuming that Nair was Indira’s henchman, sent out to deposit Sanjay’s ill-gotten wealth, Morarji launched an investigation after Luther of the RBI hinted to him that it was Sanjay Gandhi’s money.

Nair (as stated in his memoirs) got to know the reason at this juncture, and found out from his finance ministry counterpart that the deposit was actually a kickback to an Iranian financier who had with the help of the sister of the Shah of Iran, brokered for India a 250M$ soft loan (India was facing sanctions after the Pokhran test), and had it tagged it together with the loan for the Kudremukh iron ore plant, to tide over India’s foreign exchange crisis.  Anyway, the case was closed in parliament, without further inquiries being made into the matter

I am sure there are many more stories that have not been told, but I think we can conclude with all this that Nair was an upright administrator, a keen intelligence agent, and a splendid complement to Ramji Kao during their years. As Hormis Tharakan who later headed the R&AW stated in an interview with ‘The Week’ - Kao and Nair were two personalities totally different from each other. However, they got along splendidly and complemented each other. Kao was suave, perfectly turned out, highly religious, soft-spoken, a teetotaler and an introvert. Nair was tough and rough, and did not mince words. Though he had a great sense of humor, he did put the fear of God into his subordinates. The planner and the implementer together built up a great organization in no time, overcoming apparently insurmountable difficulties.

On the day we completed our training, Nair came to address us. He asked us if we had assimilated all the dirty tricks we had been taught. We said yes. Then he told us, with the gravitas that he summoned whenever needed: “You shall never use these tricks in pursuance of your personal needs. These are meant solely to be employed in the service of the nation.” Operationally, there was no one to match Nair in the organization. He commanded much respect internationally, too, in the shadowy world of spooks.

Nair after his posting as the Indian High commissioner to Singapore spent his last days after 1988 in London and later at Bangalore. Nair who called himself with dry sense of humor and self-deprecating style - ‘the idiot I am, the rolling stone which gathered moss’, passed away aged 96, in 2015.

As for the people of Ottapalam, I doubt if any of its youngsters today have the slightest idea of who Shanks, the master spook was. Maybe this little article will tell them.

Inside IB and RAW – K Sankaran Nair
Mission R&AW – RK Yadav
R.N. Kao: Gentleman Spymaster – Nitin Anant Gokhale
Inside RAW: The Story of India's Secret Service – Asoka Raina
The Kaoboys of R&AW – B Raman


Pic – Courtesy @maverikmusafir - Twitter, Dec2020


Ganesha’s curse

The tragic tale of Harriet Quimby, America’s pioneer aviatrix

This is yet another incredible story, and the latter part will be better understood by an Indian. Now you may wonder how Ganesha the elephant-headed God, so revered by Indians, could have anything to do with a woman named Harriet Quimby in America, that too, early in the 20th century. Well, I am gliding into the flying arena again, if you recall my article on Mohan Singh. Harriet Quimby was the first woman to gain a pilot’s license in the United States in 1911, the first to fly a monoplane, the first to do a night flight, and was the first woman to fly across the English Channel in 1912. Starting out as a journalist, she evolved into writing for magazines, doing critiques for dramas, and screenplays, even acting in Hollywood. Quimby then took to flying in 1911 but lost her life a few months later. This is the story of those few months, and of her misadventure with the Hindu God, recounted in her own words.

Most Indian Hindus adore and worship the mischievous, elephant-headed, potbellied god Ganesha. Connected with good luck, chanting of the Ganesha Mantara (Vakratunda mahakaya, surya koti samasthutha – nirvighnam Kurume deva, sarava karyesu sarvada - O Lord with Curved Trunk, one with the huge body, one with the radiance of a million suns, please ensure my actions face no trouble) is a must before doing anything of importance. We seek his blessings before entering a new home, or before commencing any major event or performance. Now how would this aviator be connected to Lord Ganesha, that too as early as 1910, when Americans had little idea about India? That is the incredible story we will get to, but before all that let’s get to know fearless, independent, beautiful, and confident personality - Harriet Quimby.

At a time when the western world lived under Victorian morals, where women stayed at home, cooked and looked after children, Quimby drove a car, wielded a camera, and flew an airplane, much to the consternation of frowning men, who simply disapproved it and resented her actions as well as her entry into an all-male domain. Sadly, for 80 years after she left us, nobody bothered about her exploits and it was only in 1991 that a postage stamp was issued in her honor. While some loved her, many feared her liberated outlook, and a lot ignored this fascinating lady, during her heydays.

In the late 18th century, a few Frenchwomen had taken to ballooning and, in the 19th, we see a few instances of American women doing likewise. But the concept of flight became a reality when the Wright brothers proved its feasibility in 1903 and in March 1910, Raymonde de LaRoche of France became the first lady pilot to get a flying license. Those were the pioneering days of flight, which Quimby was exposed to.

Born to William Quimby and Ursula Cook at Michigan in 1875, Harriet found herself with her parents at Arroyo Grande in California, where they labored on a farm. The 1890s were bad years and William was in and out of jobs, the farm never prospered and her mother, took over the family reins, starting a little herbal potion business and molding Harriet into becoming a journalist. She did become a successful one at that, caricaturing San Francisco and its sights and sounds into very readable articles! Readers took note of the beautiful journalist and even had her portrait hung in the Bohemian club. As the 20th century beckoned, Harriet shunned marriage and drifted Eastwards, to New York, which was the go-to place with its bright lights and its cosmopolitism.

Arriving at the Penn Station in New York in Jan 1903, Harriet quickly got her bearings, and found accommodation in a boarding house, simultaneously figuring out that one had to be street smart to survive in that teeming city. She found gainful employment at the Leslie’s illustrated weekly as a part-time freelance writer and learned to use the typewriter, a device used only by men, in those days! Six months later, after writing theatre reviews and other stories, she had moved into better lodging and had her aging mother move in with her.

Footloose and fiercely independent, she wrote initially about the immigrant communities, the Chinese, the Italians, Germans and Irish, and soon started to travel and become the magazine’s travel correspondent. Visiting Cuba, Europe, the Caribbean, Egypt, South America and Africa, she started to add photographs taken with her camera, to her reports (one photo report of the Hindu coolies in the Caribbean is quite arresting!). It was her experience riding a racing car with a male driver that took her to the edge as one could term it from a risk perspective. In 1906, she then convinced somebody to give her driving lessons, and purchased a car (in those days called a runabout), and drove to work, all unimaginable things for a working girl. The reader should now note that it was a time in history when unladylike acts such as smoking in public, could lead to fines and arrests.

Always on the lookout for newsworthy and unique stories, Harriet Quimby befriended a small group of pioneering aviators at Belmont Park in Long Island NY, in 1910, with the help of her friend Matilde Moisant. At an air show event, she saw a frail wooden plane being flown about, so also dirigibles, monoplanes and biplanes piloted by 24 of the world’s greatest pilots, American, British and French included. Glen Curtiss, whom I had introduced in the Mohan Singh article, was there as well.

At a later airshow, she was introduced to Matilde’s brother John Bevins who happened to be a daredevil pilot. Seeing and writing about his incredible antics convinced her that she too could pilot a plane. John had in the meantime opened an aviation school and both Harriet and Matilde were allowed to join in Spring 1911. Tragically John died in a Dec 1910 air crash, but the two thirty-something ladies did not give up and started classes in May 1911. They had to be disguised as men and trained early in the morning.

But one nosy reporter did espy this intrepid trainee and wrote of a “willowy brunette Dresden China aviatrix with blue eyes” who was learning how to fly, an incredibly controversial topic of that time. A woman trying to fly? Unimaginable! Well, the girls put in the $500-$1,000 fees, a deposit of $1,000-1,500 towards any damages, and spent five weeks learning how to fly the rickety wooden framework plane. No helmets or protective gear were available those days and castor and engine oil spray drenched their faces and dress as they flew along in the cold air, wearing a man’s leather suit and goggles. Her first test in July 1911 went well, but her landing was 100’ off the takeoff location (planes then did not have brakes, to stop motion), and the Aero Club officials were relieved they did not have to pass her.

Determined to succeed, she went at dawn the next day for a retest, undeterred by the low fog on the ground. After a long wait, the fog lifted, but the winds had picked up. Eventually, she took off and completed the various elements of the test admirably. A license had to be issued to this woman, and well, they did, on August 11th, 1911, the first American woman to become a licensed pilot and the 37th pilot in the world. But it must also be mentioned here that there were some women who did fly planes, such as Blanche Scott (later a test pilot for Glen Curtiss) flying since Oct 1910, but who had never applied for licenses. 12 days later Matilde Moisant also got her license, going on to become an equally proficient and daredevil pilot.

I took up flying, " Quimby told reporters, “Because I thought I'd like the sensation. I haven't regretted it. I like motoring but after seeing monoplanes in the air, I could not resist the challenge. The airlanes have neither speed laws or traffic policemen and one need not go all the way around Central Park to get across to Times Square.  Then too, it’s good to be the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license!

Even though it proved difficult, she managed to acquire her own plane from the Moisant factory and in Sept 1911 started flying for a fee, at professional meets, also flying her first night flight, but mind you these were all pretty short flights lasting a few minutes since those early monoplanes were quite difficult to control. In October she became the first person to land a plane in Mexico! But they had to return to the US quickly as a revolution took root and Zapata was gunning for Madero.

It was in Mexico that Harriet decided to try the English Channel crossing, but in secret, as a Miss Craig, lest somebody beat her to the draw. She sailed for Britain with Leo Stevens, a friend and her new manager, in March 2012 and convinced the London Daily mirror sponsor and cover the event in return ($5,000 was offered by a private sponsor) for exclusive rights over the story. A 50HP Louis Breliot XI monoplane would be used for the crossing and she would order and take a 70HP machine back to the states. If the plane was lost, Stevens was to pay Bleriot the cost for the spindly, rickety contraption, considered a fast plane and with many innovations, such as an enclosed fuselage, engine in front of the pilot, assembly in 30 minutes, and so on, rivaling the only other design, the Curtiss monoplane.

As she waited for the weather to clear, Eleanor Trehawke Davis flew across the channel, but as a passenger, taking out some of the novelty. Davis became the first woman to cross the channel in a plane, literally. Quimby, disappointed, was certain that somebody in the Mirror had ratter her out.

Meanwhile, Matilde retired and fortunately for her, the last flight ended with her narrowly escaping death as the plane caught fire after a heavy landing. When WW1 started and her request to fly for the US air force was negated, she joined up with the Red Cross, as a nurse in France. For some reason, Harriet and Matilde till then very thick friends drifted apart.

On April 16th 1912, Harriet took off from Dover and climbed up. Down below in the sea, a tugboat with the Mirror’s reporters followed. In the plane which was by now enveloped in fog, Harriet struggled to read the compass held between her knees, which she was using for the very first time. As she rose to 6000’, the hot water bag around her waist, placed under two layers of silk and woolen suits, hardly helped, but the excitement made her disregard the icy cold. After a harrowing flight of an hour and nine minutes, the plane crossed the 22-mile stretch! Missing Calais, she landed at the village of Hardelot. Hot tea and food were served by the excited fishermen rushing to the spot and a telegram was sent to London. Soon the reporters from the Mirror arrived and a champagne bottle was popped. The English Channel had been conquered.

But it was all not to be. As the reports were being compiled, heralding Quimby and her feat, the press was still busy reporting the mega-disaster - the April 14th tragedy when the ‘unsinkable‘ ocean liner Titanic stuck an iceberg and sank, and 1573 lives were lost. There was no front-page space for Harriet Quimby’s feat! No welcome parade awaited her in London, and she quietly came back to the states. The American press was not too enthusiastic stating that her feat was second to men who had already done it before. Nevertheless Harriet got some press and later became the spokeswoman for Vin Fiz grape soda, and was depicted in articles wearing her trademark purple satin flying suit.

The next event she participated in, was the Boston air meet in July 1912. Blanche Scott had registered too, so also many others, but the top draw was Harriet, the queen of the Channel crossing, flying her new 70HP Bleriot. It was a tricky plane to fly, with a heavy engine up front, and equilibrium was key. Sandbags behind the pilot kept it on even keel. During practice flights, Quimby did have some dangerous movements, but she seemed to have managed to learn the machine’s quirkiness. She was confident and believed also that her many lucky talismans would ward off any ill luck. As you can imagine, flying in those days was a very risky business and the planes were very frail and cumbersome. Aviators, therefore, tended to be quite superstitious and Quimby too wore a number of bracelets and necklaces to protect her from mishaps.

As usual, that July, she fingered her good luck charms nervously when she came in, but there was one object which had not accompanied her this time. In fact, she had penned a lengthy article about that object, a little brass idol of Lord Ganesha, just a few weeks ago. She had picked it up at London, before the Channel crossing, it had previously been owned by a French pilot, who had bad luck with it, who then gave it to another man, who too had ill luck and finally, it was sent off to the Daily Mirror’s office, for disposal.

So, let’s see what she had to say about the idol. Quoting Harriet Quimby….

It is a curious thing but all women flyers are superstitious. And again, it isn’t so curious either. All people who follow a calling in which chance enters largely are superstitious. My superstition is Ganesha, a little ancient brass idol. He brought me such bad luck and was such a misbehaved person that I simply had to kill him. So, he had his little brass head sawed off and he's been wonderfully behaved ever since. You must not laugh when I tell you that I think there is something to the little beast. He looked so grumpy and so eerie that he used to give me the shivers, although the beast was quite likeable at first. The idol had an elephant head, on a man-like body, with two legs crossed and a third leg very conveniently stuck out of his elbow. He also had three arms, all busy, and a very fat stomach. Unlike Buddha, who sits and broods over the earth, Ganesha showed his potential for a lively disposition. One hand held an axe, another a hook, and the third a stone. The free foot looked as if it might kick out from the shoulder at any moment

When first I saw him, it was in the office of the London Daily Mirror. He was in with other talismans and idols who had brought their owner’s bad luck. The Daily Mirror decided to round up these misbegotten omens of ill-luck. Thousands poured in from all over the city. This Saturday afternoon when I retrieved the little brass idol, he was ready for the funeral pyre. At the time I did not know of his unsavory past.

I tied him to my Bleriot on my Channel crossing. As I said he was so likable at first, I wished him to be my good luck charm, but I also wore my jewelry. Perhaps he was the cause of the foul weather over the Channel and my difficulty with the engine. Thinking back my lucky jewelry probably neutralized his power during my flight.

Harriet then goes on to explain the reverses - The Ganesha idol had been tied to the 50 HP Bleriot. She thought that her problems handling the plane initially, as well as the foggy weather, were due to the idol. She also assumed that the matter of Davis beating her to the draw as well as the fact that the man who offered her $5,000 for the crossing had also gone back on his word, were all due to Ganesha. Later on, she had problems clearing the new 70HP Bleriot at US customs and that was when she really started to suspect Ganesha.

"I believe he meant to do things I accused him of, it seemed to me that way, So I spanked him and set him out as a paperweight, a humiliating position for one so ancient. It was no use. He simply would not behave, His tricks were just as mean and unfriendly, Then I took a hammer to him, but your true aristocrat is tenacious of life and I couldn't dent him anywhere." Quimby then took strong and irrevocable action, "I decided he should die after holding court over him and rehearsing his evil actions, in this Court of convenience, he did not even have the benefit of counsel or a Jury trial. He had to die. Afterward I was sorry for him, but law is law, and the sentence had to be carried out. But how?"

Obviously, he could not be electrocuted or hanged, nor poisoned nor shot for his misbehaved soul was solid brass. In the midst of my problem a reporter suggested that Ganesha should have his head cut off. That is a fitting end for any gentleman, and according to ancient custom quite the proper thing. In the engraving room of the newspaper are some glittering circular saws that go through brass like a knife through cheese.

So, I took Ganesha into the darkened engraving room that was to be his death chamber and had a worker hold him in front of the saw. Nervously I noted him lying on the steel table as the saw's sharp teeth tried to do their work. Suddenly the saw stopped cutting. Ganesha was not willing to die. The workman examined Ganesha, he demanded to know what kind of brass went into this stubborn little aristocrat. I could not tell except that it must be very tough, quite appropriate to Ganesha’s disposition. It took two saw blades before the shrieking stooped and his head flew off. He was too hot to touch for a while, but when I cooled him off in water, he seemed a sorry sight. Now I still have him on my desk as a paperweight. When he behaves he can have his head back, but the minute he starts any of his old tricks, I‘ll take his head away from him.

Since he lost his head a week ago, things have gone splendidly, now maybe it is, and maybe it isn't, his former influence, but just the same, things are going better. I am going to let him wear his head a full day, sometime soon, to see if I have cured him of his unsavory ways.

July 12th - 1912 – Boston – Harriet Quimby emerged from the hangar in her plum outfit, talked to reporters, grandly stating that she had no plans to crash the plane into the icy waters.  The mechanic and her manager gave the thumbs up on the plane, all seemed OK. William Willard, the manager of the Boston air meet decided to ride pillion behind her. Soon the plane was off, for a 27-mile ride. After the circuit around Boston light, she looped back, gliding sharply from 5000’ to 2000’. Suddenly the plane’s tail rose sharply and Willard was tossed out of the aircraft. The plane was quickly unbalanced, and Quimby, fighting for control, tried to get the nose back up. The nose did rise up and for the onlookers below, it seemed Quimby had regained control. A split second later, the tail again kicked up, the plane went into a nosedive, and Quimby was thrown out of her aircraft. The two bodies continued their death plunge into the shallow waters, while the Bleriot righted itself and quietly glided itself to a stop in the mud. Blanche Scott, the other woman pilot who was in the air, witnessed the tragedy from above.

Had there been seat belts, the accident could have been avoided. Onlookers, including Stevens, opined that the impulsive 190lbs Willard had leaned forward to speak to Quimby, unbalancing the plane. But that was just theory, like others who said it was due to too steep a glide, a gust of wind, broken rudder wires, lifting tailplanes and what not.  Anyway, Harriet Quimby, the pioneering pilot, the bird woman, the bluebird (her costume was actually purple and designed by herself) the typewriter lady, the one who could repair her car herself, was no more. A terrible newspaper headline, echoing the times and showing an incredible lack of respect, stated - Little Miss Dresden China Broken at Last!

Tragically, the pioneering pilot’s life was snuffed out in this accident, and most people forgot her, till the stamp was released in 1991. As Joshua Stoff of the Air and Space Museum stated - Harriet Quimby was clearly a risk taker in all aspects of her life and career, a gutsy, passionate, beautiful woman with fire in her eye and a backbone of steel-living in a man's world and loving every minute of it-but always keeping her striking femininity firmly intact.

Matilde Moisant never flew again and died in 1964. Blanche Scott retired from flying in 1916 and worked in the films as a scriptwriter and later did radio shows. On September 6, 1948, Scott became the first American woman to fly in a jet when she was the passenger in a TF-80C piloted by Chuck Yeager. She died in Jan 1970. Stevens went back to creating and patenting safety equipment for pilots including the parachute, became an army instructor. He passed away in 1944.


The article Harriet Quimby wrote about her Ganesha and excerpted verbatim was published in the World magazine two weeks after her death, with one of her later biographers opining that it was perhaps originally written so, for publicity. Some believe that the Ganesha Hoodoo story was concocted later.

Quimby had apparently placed Ganesha’s head back on the damaged idol before she left for that fated Boston flight, for the Ganesha was found sitting, head restored, on her desk at Leslie's Weekly, after Quimby had fallen to her death. It is not clear what happened to the idol after that, but most likely it found its way to a local trash heap.  

While those who do not believe in such things might say that her ill-luck returned after she replaced the head on Ganesha’s severed neck, detractors would say that she should never have disrespected the holy idol. However much admirable her story and character are, any Hindu would affirm without any doubt, that her callous attitude to the idol, resulted in misfortune.

Then again, this is what happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.

Hard to believe, isn’t it?

References and inputs from...Acknowledged with many thanks.

Her mentor was an Albatross – The autobiography of pioneer pilot Harriet Quimby – Henry M Holden
The Harriet Quimby Scrapbook – Giacinta Bradley Koontz

Mohan Singh – The enigma 


Veeraswamy’s of London

Palmer’s Indian restaurant – And the interesting story behind it

During a trip to Gangarams in Bangalore many a decade ago, I found the cookbook, Indian Cookery by E.P. Veerasawmy. Some of the recipes in it were quickly mastered (the concept, that is) and became a staple in our kitchen. I had always believed, that the author was a Tamilian, named EP Veeraswamy. Later on in life, I passed by the Veerasawmy restaurant on many occasions while living in the UK, and believed that the same Veeraswamy once owned that restaurant. Recently, while studying the stories of Indians in the UK, I learned that Veerasawmy was an Anglo-Indian named Edward Palmer. The EP in the name stood for Edward Palmer and Veerasawmy was apparently, his alter ego. Note the spelling of Veerasawmy, for we will get into that later.

Edward Palmer (EP) alludes to the following about his native Indian parentage in his preamble to the cookery book, also telling us about his lifelong interest in watching, trying out and mastering Indian dishes. Quoting him - But more than all, I can remember with love and gratitude my mother - the greatest exponent of Indian cookery - inculcating in me the science and art of the Indian cuisine and explaining the dietetic value of the many spices, seeds, etc., and the nutritive value of various foods.

After some research, I discovered that Edward Palmer was the son of James Edward Palmer, an Anglo Indian, and initially read that his mother was one Annie Vasooramal, an East Indian. Later on, Palmer’s granddaughter, who I got in touch with, informed me that EP’s mother's name was Annie Ponnuswamy, the daughter of a Mr. P Thomas. James and Annie got married in 1850 and Edward was born in 1861, at Hyderabad, where his parents lived.

EP incidentally, belonged to the eminent ‘House of Palmers’ at Hyderabad, which once owned a banking institution that had collapsed decades before his birth.  Now, one could argue at length, about the Palmer bank mishap, if it was a result of the vindictive actions of the English Resident Metcalfe or it was Palmer’s miscalculations and wrongdoings. I will provide brief highlights of that story, if only to provide some perspective and also to debunk a lot of false information, out in the internet about EP and his origins.

The house of the Palmers was started by William Palmer ‘the king’. William Palmer, was incidentally, the Eurasian son of General William Palmer by his second wife, Faizunnissa Begum from the ruling family of the Nawab of Oudh. If one were to disregard the varnished reporting of the EIC residents at Hyderabad, and concentrate on contemporary studies on the Palmer affair, they would get a better understanding of how Charles Metcalfe, an autocratic EIC resident, manipulated rules to his company’s benefit. As such, then current British rules did not permit money lending by Brits in EIC territory or charging an interest rate greater than 12%. However, William Palmer was a Eurasian or Anglo Indian and together with a Gujarati named Benkati Das (and other English partners) advanced very large sums to the Nizam, much to the alarm of the British EIC. Strictly speaking, the action was taking place in Hyderabad, then not part of EIC territory, and Palmer did charge >12% interest.

After a career fighting and winning battles for the Nizam, Palmer settled to trade and banking but found a tough adversary in Metcalfe, who did not like competition to his outfit, the EIC. Another white Mughal Kirkpatrick was a good friend of his, so also William Hastings. Anyway, as matters progressed, the loan balances to the Nizam became too high, and the bank was taken to task and liquidated, and as a consequence, the Nizam had to trade the rich province of Berar, to the British. Metcalfe had hated his secondary position to Palmer in the Nizam’s eyes and was forever envious of the political power Palmer possessed, undermining British EIC overlordship. Anyway, the bank failed from Metcalfe’s manipulations, though the house of Palmers continued on and was eventually cleared off all their debts, with Metcalfe’s departure.

Edward Palmer (Veeraswamy) was the son of William Palmer’s third son, James Edward Palmer, the blind major of Secunderabad, who had married Annie Ponnuswamy. William ‘the king’ Palmer died in 1867.

Palmer tells us how he got to England - I can remember being sent to England to study medicine and, in the intervals of my study, looking down areas and watching bakers at work, staring into shops where sausages and onions were being cooked, and often wishing that I could fry fish and chips in the fish shops. In order to join up for medicine, he should have completed his schooling in Hyderabad, and he must have been around 18 years old, so I would believe that he landed up in London circa 1870. But he never got to study any medicine and I have not been able to figure out that part. We can however see that he got married in 1884 and had six sons, from his first wife. In total, he was apparently survived by 17 children through three wives Lucy, Adelaide and Merry May.

The book goes on to say that EP launched out in the production of food, both Eastern and Western. Indian cookery fascinated him, and for the next forty years, he devoted himself to it; lecturing and teaching in schools of cookery for Councils of Education in public halls for charity, in classrooms, in hotel and restaurant kitchens, at Exhibitions (including Wembley), and even at Aldershot to the military cooks at the request of the late General Lord French. In 1915, the same year his young son Stanley died in battle, he published the cookbook (While other sources mention 1936, I have a copy of a 1915 edition, scanned from the Birchanda library) through Arco Publishers London.

EP proudly informs readers of his book, that should they fail to get any major ingredient, they only needed to contact him at 15, Clarendon Rd for his ‘Nizam’ branded pulses, spices and condiments. In the book, he states that it was being published during the evening of his days (we can see that in 1915, he was 55 years old).

From this point onwards, Palmer’s story of kept changing, sometimes the handiwork of an enthusiastic reporter, sometimes through inputs from future owners of the Veerasawmy’s restaurant. Some books mentioned that he was a retired ex-serviceman from the British Indian army, others mentioned that he was a doctor and some others even went on to highlight his royal connections, e.g., that he was a direct descendant of the Nizam, etc.

Nevertheless, we can observe that Edward Palmer did move around in the guise of EP Veerasawmy from Madras while instructing or educating the public on Indian cooking. The name Edward Palmer would not have suited the image of an Indian chef, and Palmer did have South Asian looks. When you peruse his book, one would find a clear Tamil tilt to the recipes and names in there, with support from Madras linguists and the book is stated to be the effort of Palmer's alter ego - EP Veerasawmy, and there is no mention of any Edward Palmer. In a later edition, EP Veerasawmy is qualified as ‘the world’s foremost Indian Chef, who owns the famous Indian restaurant in London’. By way of qualifications, the following can be seen below his name – Gold Medalist: Indian Catering advisor to the Indian government, British Empire Exhibition, Wembley 1924-25. Founder of Veerasawmy and Co, Indian food specialists 1896, and of Veerasawmy’s India restaurant, 1926-30. There is a mention in the Palmer’s history that Edward served at the Ministry of munitions, but it must have been quite brief, and details are hard to come by.

Let’s get back to EP’s forays into the cooking scene. We see that he was conducting cooking classes for ladies, at Debenhams and Freebody on Wigmore St, in 1898, i.e., after establishing a unit purveying spices and condiments under the Nizam name. He also offered to provide private classes advertising his services as a Ladies’ newspaper put it – Considering India is part of Her Majesty’s dominions, we ought to be keenly interested in, and as ready to adapt Indian as continental!

A report states - Ladies shopping in the West End, who have lunched at Messrs. Debenham & Freebody's in Wigmore Street (where there is a first-class restaurant for the convenience of ladies shopping there), have much commented among themselves on the excellence of the curry supplied. The truth is that these curries are cooked by a first-class Indian chef, Mr.Veerasawmy, of Madras. At the end of January Mr. Veerasawmy gave a demonstration of Indian cookery to which many ladies had sent their cooks, many attending in person. Mr. Veerasawmy cooked a complete menu of Indian dishes, and the audience had the opportunity of tasting the result. The recipes were printed, to assist the audience in following the chef, who, clad in a superb oriental coat of crimson brocade and snowy turban, proceeded deftly with his task. His directions were clear and concise, expressed in excellent English. A more delicious chicken curry I never tasted. Mr. Veerasawmy deprecated the practice of cooking up cold meat and calling it a 'curry'. He insisted that raw, good meat only could produce a genuine curry. Alack! Few English cooks know what a curry is. ('Spinnings in Town', Myra's Journal, 1 March 1898: 11)

In 1906, he is mentioned again (Edwardian England – E Holland, 2014) as conducting a demonstration at the 17th Universal food and cookery exhibition, patronized by Queen Alexandra – where EP Veerasawmy MCA did a demo lecture entitled ‘Fish, flesh, poultry & vegetables! Now the MCA threw me off initially, but I believe it was the ‘Marine cookery assessment certificate’. The Epicure V6 (1888-89) mentions his lectures and daily demonstrations, adding - Mr. Veerasawmy, who is nowadays the most popular exponent of Indian cookery in this country, will, as the program shows, take a prominent part in the Cookery Demonstrations from day to day, while his firm, Veerasawmy and Co., of Madras and London, will make a display of their Nizam Curries and other Indian Culinary Specialties, opportunities for tasting which at their stand will, we believe, be frequently afforded to visitors….

The 1901 Kind Edward’s cookery book provides testimony to his ready mixes - Boiled rice is always served with a curry, either handed separately on a folded napkin or forming a border round the dish on which the curry is served. It is essential to use good curry-powder. Veerasawmy's curry-powder, paste and chutney will be found excellent.

Wembley Indian exhibition, the turning point

This was evidently a turning point in EP’s life. We can establish it from the following extract, taken out of the commissioner’s report of 1924. In the agreement signed on behalf of India, the Government of India reserved the right of having Indian curries and other dishes cooked by Indian cooks and Indian tea served possibly by Indian khitmatgars. Under the agreement, India, like the dominions, was to bear the cost of erecting and equipping the restaurant and in return to get 10 per cent, of the gross takings…Under the power reserved in our agreement, Messrs. Lyons were called upon to employ a certain number of Indian cooks ; and to supervise the cooking and the quality of the dishes, and generally to maintain the Indian character of the restaurant, to which the Government of India attached much importance, we appointed Mr. E. Palmer of Messrs. Veeraswami & Co., 11, St. Mary’s Road, Canonbury, London as Indian Adviser at the restaurant. Mr. Palmer comes from Madras, and has established a business in London in Indian curry powder, condiments, chutneys and pickles. His selection was happy, and the success of the Indian cafe was largely due to him. The Indian Cafe was not only appreciated by Indian visitors to Wembley who were able to get their vegetarian food, but was very popular with the British public. Since the close of the Exhibition, Mr. Palmer has had numerous inquiries, and I have myself passed on many to him. The demand for Indian food properly cooked and served is so great that at any future exhibition I should recommend the cafe to be built, at least, twice as large, and to be run as India’s own concern. Mr. Palmer estimates that on the average 500 portions of curry were ordered daily. The total takings at the Cafe were £26,657-11-2 and our share under the agreement came to £1,900.

Readers will take note that the writer of the official report one Mr Vijayaraghava Acharya, who spells the company name as Veeraswami and not Veeraswamy!! I must add here that most Veeraswamy’s in England and France at that time spelled their name as Veerasawmy! That was the way Sawmy was written, just as it is phonetically uttered in Tamil - Sami, not as Swamy!! All the stuff later doled out in various sources as a printing error, a twist to his mother’s name Veera etc were, I believe publicity connotations. Veera was neither his grandmother nor was Sawmy misspelt. Perhaps his mother Annie Ponnusawmy, fondly called him Veerasawmy, or as I feel, his full name may have been Edward Palmer Veerasawmy!! I also felt that it is simply not possible to call oneself Veerasawmy in public and in the press, for 30-40 years without reason or basis. So, the name was perhaps not an alter ego, but what he grew up with.

We read previously that EP taught Indian cooking at hotel and restaurant kitchens, and to military cooks at the request of the late General Lord French. Regarding the lessons at the military messes, we have to resort to conjecture. Lizzy Collingham, in her “Curry – A tale of cooks and conquerors’ mentions - In 1936 Edward Palmer, caterer to the Wembley exhibition of 1924–1925 and founder of Veerasawmy’s Indian restaurant, was invited to lecture to the army cooks at Aldershot on curry making. During the Second World War trainee cooks in the army catering corps were taught how to make curries by adding curry powder to a roux of flour and army stock books show that cooks were allotted supplies of curry powder each month. Slightly sweet yellow curries, dotted with raisins and made with fantastical fruits, were still served in British army messes in the 1970s and 80s…

Veerasawmy’s was finally opened in 1926 and Edward Palmer managed it for 4 to 6 years. It was not the first Indian restaurant, but was indeed the first high-end restaurant, catering to the upper class of Britain. Palmer mentions his disassociation from it around 1930, and we can also see that an MP William Steward acquired it in 1932/34. In 1928, Veerasawmy had extended his restaurant, and in 1933, yet another expansion and facelift were carried out. The reviews were glowing. It was considered to be the place to dine for the higher echelons of London society, as well as ex ICS and army blokes who had once lived in India. Soon it became a place to visit and many Indian events were hosted there.

Steward owned and ran it until 1967. Glowing reports stated - Veerasawmy's, “India in London, "as it is known all over the world, is the Mecca of all Epicures, while the owners exhorted - Don't stop here, carry forward the good will of fellowship and unity by entertaining your friends at Veerasawmy's, perfectly cooked Indian and English foods and irreproachable service in luxurious surroundings. A newspaper announced grandly -Veeraswamy's in Regent Street (London) conjured up a fantasmatic vision of imperial opulence, where there were tiger skins on the wall, where punkahwallahs worked the fans and where Indian doormen held umbrellas as customers returned. Most people agreed that EP retained a colonial atmosphere, with fawning uniformed waiters serving food suiting the palate of the fussy Englishman (The menu also had a few British items, for those queasy about Oriental food).

It had an interesting décor, which got copied later in many other Indian restaurants in the UK, with bright wallpaper, plates of Indian scenery on the walls, real Indian punkahs (manual fans) and punkah wallahs. The Indian waiters were attractively clothed in white with turbans and red sashes, serving up an Oriental dream, to the diners who came in.

In 1930 - 34, after it was sold to William Steward, Edward got down to academic pursuits, researching about his ancestry, writing about the Sanad given to his great grandmother Faiz Baksh, studying the collapse of his grandfather’s banking empire and what not. The Palmer family after William Palmer’s death were still apparently owed £250,000 plus interest by the Nizam and Edward Palmer, his grandson, our protagonist, tried to recover all or some of it with his sister Emma, but it was to no avail.

So, that was the story of the dining haven which EP created, and we are not going to go on with the subsequent owners of the restaurant, suffice to state that it continues to this day as a pricey, high-end destination in Central London, replete with a Michelin star - for those desiring to munch on something Indian and relive some of India’s colonial past.

Now for some interesting trivia - I don’t think many of you will know that an ex-president of Pakistan, Iskandar Mirza apparently worked as an accountant at Veeraswamy, after fleeing Pakistan following a failed coup.  Crime beat readers on the other hand may recall the Veeraswamy knife case, where the murderer Backary Manneh who once worked at the hotel was caught by Scotland yard, after he used a distinctive knife stolen from Veeraswamy, to stab Joseph Aku in 1951. After the murder, Backary Manneh ran off and was not found until after he went to the hospital with a wound caused during the struggle. Clinching evidence was the ‘Veeraswamy knife’! Many a dignitary graced the dining room at Veeraswamy’s and owners reel off names such as Gandhi, Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Krishna Menon, The prince of Wales, Winston Churchill, Charlie Chaplin Marlon Brando, Laurence Olivier, Vivian Leigh, and the list can be replete with many of today’s stars.

These days, the restaurant scene in the UK is mediocre, and most eating houses serve quickly conjured up concoctions based on standard curry pastes supplied by third parties, boiled with a protein of your choice, dressed up, garnished, and paired with rice or bread. Dals, Vindaloos, Kormas and Balti curries rule the roost, while Chicken tikka masala reigns supreme. Thanks to a tale about a Danish prince, beer got matched to Indian curries and so instead of wines, you have choice Indian lagers to accompany curry!

That my friend was the story of an Anglo Indian with Tamil origins, who left Indian shores to make his name in England, of his efforts at establishing Indian cooking in London, of his pioneering cookery book and of the establishment of Veerasawmy’s, a hotel which is one London’s premium culinary establishments, to this day.

On a personal note, I must add that Veeraswamy’s egg curry (Undah ka Salun) featured on page 80 of that 1915 book, has graced our dining table for over three decades, though slightly modified by yours faithfully. My wife, children and many guests would testify to its fine quality!!  

Thank you, Edward Palmer, or Veerasawmy, as you called yourself, so also your grandma Annie Ponnuswamy, for that. Rest in peace…

Indian Cookery – EP Veerasawmy
The Palmers of Hyderabad – Edward Palmer
Palmer and Company: An Indian Banking Firm in Hyderabad State - Karen Leonard (ModernAsianStudies 47, 4 (2013) pp. 1157–1184.© CambridgeUniversity Press 2013, doi:10.1017/S0026749X12000236 First published online 16 January 2013)
London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis - Jonathan Schneer
Armorial Families: A Directory of Gentlemen of Coat-armour - Arthur Charles Fox-Davies
Globalising Housework: Domestic Labour in Middle-class London Homes,1850-1914 - Laura Humphreys
Curry – A tale of cooks and conquerors – Lizzy Collingham
Report by the Commissioner for India for the British empire Exhibition – 1924
Star of India: The Spicy Adventures of Curry - Jo Monroe
Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008 - James H. Mills
Eating for Britain - Simon Majumdar

My thanks to Max Knudsen and Cilla (EP’s granddaughter) for their valuable inputs, also to Dr Karen Isaksen Leonard, historian and anthropologist, at the University of California, Irvine - the author of the referenced paper on the Palmer bank, for putting me in touch with the Palmer family.

And I learned two new words – Alack and fantasmatic!! The former means ‘an expression of regret or dismay’ whereas the latter means ‘an illusory likeness of something’.


Mohan Singh, the Enigma

The first Indian airman – Licensed to fly in 1912

It is not often that a story grips you, and this was one. We had all been brought up on reports that JRD Tata was the first Indian pilot, that he possessed the #1 license, and so on. But in reality, there was another pioneer from India who was licensed some 17 years before JRD! As you will see, Mohan Singh, that pilot, was an incredible character, his life every bit adventurous. Now you may wonder why I used the word enigma, and soon you will see that not only did he arrive into the limelight unannounced, but just like his arrival, his departure was abrupt, he simply vanished one fine day. Along the way, he recreated himself so many times, he was a daredevil pilot, doing stints as a butler and chauffeur, dabbling in real estate, and ending up as a Yogi. In between, he spent years fighting the US administration who had granted him citizenship but stripped him off it, reasoning that he was not a white man. What follows, is his remarkable story.

I am reasonably sure that many a quizmaster would expect the answer JRD Tata to the question about India’s first pilot, but from now on, state vehemently that it was Mohan Singh, licensed in 1912, just 9 years after the Wright brothers flew their aircraft and that this Mohan Singh, was a pioneer and a famous barnstormer of that period. Barnstorming was a form of entertainment in which stunt pilots from flying circuses flew throughout the US selling airplane rides and performing stunts. Now how on earth did a Punjabi Sardar end up in that mix?

Mohan Singh, born March 13, 1885, hailed from Himmatpura in the Moga district of Punjab province, British India. Just as the 20th century dawned, the agricultural revolution in Punjab which had started before Mohan was born, had taken shape and the region had suddenly become a huge and profitable agricultural colony. However, it was not very good for the rural Punjabi farmer, who ended up heavily indebted, especially after a number of famines and bouts of plague. New taxes and tough British acts alienated the common man. Thus, a huge emigration took place, towards US and Canada, and between 1903-08 some 3,000 Punjabis had landed up in the US (plus about 6,000 in Canada).

Though there was general unrest around this time in Punjab, perhaps poverty (Nihal Singh mentions – After taking a discharge from the Indian army, having heard from an American settled there, a rosy account of the wealth awaiting any man who had the enterprise to go there) must have been the reason for this young 18-year-old teenager to boarding a ship bound for the West. As we can gather, Mohan arrived in Cuba in 1903 and then boarded a vessel named Oratava bound for the mainland, arriving in the US in Feb 1904. He settled first in Chicago, where he worked as a domestic servant. Life was not so good for these early Punjabi’s and they faced a good amount of racism and discrimination. As the vast majority of them worked in California, most of them drifted towards CA (Sacramento and Imperial Valley) where other Sikhs had congregated. Sometime in 1910, Mohan Singh finally arrived in California with his meager savings. The tall, grim-looking, gaunt Sikh, now 25 years old, it appears, saw an advertisement in the newspapers that changed his life.

Act 1 – Taming the skies

Powered flight in America was pioneered by the Wright Brothers in North Carolina, and by the end of the first decade, they had brought flying to the mainstream. Glen Curtiss, who had been toying around with bicycles and motorcycles (dubbed the fastest man on earth – driving a bike at 236kmph!), got into the act and started making engines for planes. On June 8, 1911, Curtiss received U.S. Pilot's License #1 and commenced airplane manufacture, though regularly involved in litigations with the Wright brothers. Curtiss arrived in San Diego on January 1911, searching for a site for a training school to teach Army and Navy flyers. It was here that he developed his biplane, later the hydroplane, to become the father of naval aviation. He supplemented his income with a flight training school on North Island, near San Diego.

The Curtiss School of Aviation at North Island remained open for three short but fruitful years. During that brief period, Curtiss conducted remarkable experiments and produced equally remarkable students. Graduates, flying his reliable biplanes, set world records and became some of the most illustrious flyers in the world. Capitalizing on this success, Curtiss embarked on an advertising campaign to ensure a larger enrollment at the San Diego winter facilities. Curtiss charged $600 for the hydro aeroplane course and $500 for the regular class, which could be adjusted towards a purchase of a plane. In addition to military aspirants, civilian applicants were welcomed. And it was to one of these classes that our man Mohan Singh applied and got selected. The tall, brooding pilot to be, never smiled, talked little, and hardly ate or drank, making him stand apart. 

The 1911-12 season attracted a few foreign students. Among them were Mohan Singh from India, Motohisa Kondo and Kono Takeishi from Japan, and George Capistini of the Greek army. The third lady pilot to be, “Bird Girl” Julia Clark also enrolled, so also two married couples. Attired in leather caps and goggles, these fifteen students went out to the flat fields of North Island to learn the science of flying. Unfortunately for the instructors, teaching foreigners was not as easy, they had to give lessons in sign language which, as you can imagine was a hairy situation, high up in the air!

After nearly eight months of instruction, catching seagulls, and practicing flying, the winter training camp came to a close. In May, the Class of 1912 received their pilots’ licenses and became professional aviators. Mohan Singh, the “Flying Hindu” with license # 123 dated May 8th, 1912, of British Indian nationality, was one among them. That incidentally, was 17 years before Tata got his license in Feb 1929, and by that time, Mohan Singh was already into his final act!

During his stay in San Diego, he spoke sparingly, avoided meat and alcohol, but the newspapers tracking the ‘Hindoo pilot’ spun tales of his being a Hindu prince, a lieutenant, major or Captain from the Indian army on furlough and hailing from Bombay or Delhi. The aura of mystique, as well as his arresting personality, resulted in a number of press reports about the ‘World’s first Hindoo Pilot’.  

One news article said -The list of new aviators who have within the past week taken their licenses at the Curtiss Aviation Camp, here, reads like an Oriental city directory. They are: M. Kondo, Tokyo; J. Kaminski, Poland; Mohan Singh, Bombay, India; K. Takeishi, Yokohama. These are the newest flock of fledglings who have preened their wings at the San Diego aviary and who will return home to show their respective peoples the latest thing in the "Beachey flipflap" and the "Madman's Whirl," as practiced in America. Kondo has the distinction of being the first licensed aviator of his nationality, while Mohan Singh can make a similar boast as the only qualified flying man in all India. The San Diego Camp is the most cosmopolitan gathering of flyers and pupils ever assembled in this or any other country. Kondo and Takeishi will take Curtiss aeroplanes home with them, and Singh expects to do likewise. Kaminski likes America and will remain to thrill the county fair crowds in exhibitions.

In those early years, many of Curtiss’s students suffered crashes and a few died, including Julia Clark, the Bird Girl. The San Diego School of Aviation continued for one more winter until Curtiss’ lease expired in 1913. The U.S. Government then took over the hangars and landing field and established the Rockwell Field. Curtiss moved on to Florida. In fact, Mohan Singh was also injured and during one of his interviews with the press clarified that he was not deputed by the British Indian government, but was on his own and that he planned to fly a Curtiss machine to Ceylon and train some of his countrymen.

But contrary to that report, Mohan Singh did not return to India with his biplane, he moved to New York in January 1914, where he worked for Curtiss’s unit. He took to flying biplanes, participating as a daredevil barnstorming stunt pilot, in flying circuses and even accompanying Curtiss to Europe in 1914 to conduct hydroplane demonstrations. We also see that he was employed in Chicago briefly, by ER Hibbard who had purchased a flying boat and had employed Mohan Singh, one of the few licensed to fly it, as his pilot, to race about the Lake Michigan! In 1916, he was listed as a flier available during the war, but of Chinese nationality!!

A news article in 1913 states - Glenn H. Curtiss is sailing again for Europe, and expects to be there for several months, His immediate destination is the Paris show, but most of the winter probably will be spent in Italy. With Mr. Curtiss will be Mohan Singh, a Hindu from the Punjaub. Singh has been in America for the past three years. He became interested in aviation in 1910, joined the Curtiss training camp at San Diego, and few a Curtiss land machine for a year or more. With the development of the hydro aeroplane he took up water-flying and in due course qualified as a flying boat pilot. He is one of the few licensed pilots operating three types of machines. Singh's present intention is to make his way to India by easy stages. There he hopes to take some part in the development of aviation in his country. En route he will make a short stop in London. Singh's real ambition is to find among the wealthy Indian visitors of the metropolis some multimillionaire rajah who would like to navigate the Indus at a speed of a mile a minute in a Curtiss flying boat. Well, nothing came out of it as far as I know and Mohan did not go to India.

Act 2 – Taking on the Constitution

The money was perhaps not very good or Mohan was bored, by 1916, he settled down in Los Angeles to work again, as a butler and chauffeur for a wealthy family.  He also decided to settle down for good in the US and applied for naturalization, but in those days when color was paramount, his application was turned down with the notation ‘not a white man’. He appealed together with his lawyer SG Pandit, citing the cases of the Parsi Balsara and a Sardar Bhagwat Singh, and the federal court judge reversed the decision two years later, on the conviction that high caste Hindus of Aryan stock, were Caucasians! The judgment from District Judge Bledsoe mentions - In the absence of an authoritative declaration or requirement to that effect, it would seem a travesty of justice that a refined and enlightened high caste Hindu should be denied admission on the ground that his skin is dark, and therefore he is not a 'white person’….

Mohan Singh decided to change his name in March 1922 to Harry Mohan (His full name was apparently Hari Mohan Singh) and dropped the Singh since it was often confused with the Chinese surname Sing. Seven years passed by, Harry Mohan was still in California but embroiled in some sleazy land dealings (buying plots of land in burial grounds) and as we note, was swindled out of his savings.

Making matters worse, the Thind case outcome in 1923, hounded him. One Bhagat Singh Thind was denied citizenship in a landmark case, also affecting others who had previously attained US citizenship. Harry Mohan was one of them, his citizenship was canceled in 1924. Ironically the judge who decided this was the very same judge who had granted him citizenship earlier!! The definition of Caucasian had been modified and Hindus would not any longer qualify as Caucasians.

In Feb 1924, Bledsoe ruled, based on the fact that Mohan Singh had testified as a Hindu - In each case the right to a cancellation of the naturalization of the defendant is based upon the allegation, admitted by the motion to dismiss, that defendant is and was a high-caste Hindoo of full Indian blood, and as such not admissible to citizenship in the United States of America under the provisions of section 2169 of the Revised Statutes (Comp. Stat. § 4358). That such an individual is not admissible to citizenship may not now be questioned in this court. United States v. Thind, 261 U. S. 204, 43 Sup. Ct. 338, 67 L. Ed. 616.Where, however, the case is that the person presenting himself as an applicant for citizenship admits that he belongs to a particular race, members of which are not eligible for naturalization, then no question of conflict of evidence arises, and upon the applicant's own petition or testimony, or both, naturalization must be denied.

"Free white persons” within the meaning of section 2169 of the Revised Statutes (Act of June 29, 1906, 34 Stat. at L. 596) was construed to mean Caucasians in the popular and not in the ethnological sense. The instant case overrules a previous decision. In re Mohan Singh (1919, S. D. Calif.) 257 Fed. 209.

To this day Mohan Singh’s case is studied and quoted by immigration lawyers and law schools, read together with Thind’s ruling. In those dark days where color and race were paramount, the Punjabis in America led a tough life, not able to bring in their families or cohabit with white people, many marrying Mexican immigrants to raise alter families. As far as I could gather, Harry Mohan remained single.

Act 3 – Yogi Hari Ram

What would you think our man Harry Mohan did? I don’t know very much about the mental state of the slighted Sardar, but it was a period in America when the mysterious East was becoming popular. And so, Harry Mohan simply reinvented and launched himself as Dr Hari Mohan - Yogi Hari Ram, the master of levitation, the disciple of the absolute, and a metaphysician, from India! Donning Ochre robes, and sporting a beatific smile, Yogi Hari Ram was prepared, he had been studying yoga books and attended training classes with Paramahamsa Yogananda.

Already well versed with the way things were done in the US, he had a clear business plan. It was to go big, advertise all over with buzz phrases (miracle man, secrets never revealed before, free, last chance, money-back guarantee, only chance, practical demo - not theory, once in a lifetime, he will never return) and launch lecture sessions across the country. Perhaps he had a chip on his shoulder after the citizenship fiasco, perhaps it was an act of revenge, I don’t know, but he decided to gup and grab some money from the gullible, and in return, he would give them ‘9 keys’ to life improvement. Dr A Lewis Allen his manager would have helped him fine-tune the package.

He had to differentiate his package and so it was called ‘Super Yoga Science’ coupled with levitation classes (that got a lot of people going!) yogic exercises and breathing demonstrations, and all kinds of other esoteric stuff mixed in. Classes were announced and from the beginning, it was clear that the Yogi’s presence would be short-lived, that he would be gone by 1928.

People, get ready to take the classes before the Yogi goes away!!

Thomas Masson, the famous Anthropologist noted - I suppose the best teacher from India who ever came to this country was Yogi Hari Rama. I am told that his birth was registered in his native place in 1828. He is therefore over one hundred and looks from his picture like a man of thirty-five, with wonderful penetrating eyes. Of course, that was incorrect and he heard wrong, Mohan Singh was born in 1885 and was 40 in 1925.

Dr Hari Mohan thus taught Hindu and yoga Philosophy traveling across California. In 1926, he was popularly known as Yogi Hari Rama and hit various US cities giving classes on ‘Super Yoga Sciences’. His book detailing all this was already published i.e., Yoga System of Study: Philosophy, Breathing, Foods and Exercises (H. Mohan, 1926). By 1927, reports stated that he had many thousand followers, with some even claiming that he was able to walk on water, but only in an emergency. The book which he published is available online, so you can take a look, fairly harmless and complete with yogic recipes!

Several hundred students gathered for his lectures and classes, and 12 (six men and six women) were initiated as apostolic disciples to further spread the ‘yoga science’ - which concentrated on the three mental states of sub-consciousness, consciousness and super-consciousness. This would he said, awaken latent powers through strict living and eating habits and various exercises. Anyway, it was all wildly popular during its time. He gave lectures on consciousness, vibrating from conscious to super consciousness, the seven seals, path of truth, spirituality, Christ and the Hindu, mystic and occult power, mantra chanting, reincarnation and what not!

He resorted to some hocus pocus and mumbo jumbo as well, like breathing noisily through his ears, with his nose and mouth closed, lifting three fat men on his tummy, talking in what people believed was Sanskrit (most people said it was unintelligible, must have been Punjabi) interspersed with American slang, showing color slides of Indian monuments etc. A 1926 news report quoted Hari Rama stating that sending prana to affected areas could cure most diseases, that he had received his teaching in ancient Sanskrit, and that he was more than 100 years old, expecting to live to a 200!

Though not emphasized by him, the Benares League of America which was an offshoot of this program, was quickly the most widespread organization (50 chapters) of its kind in the United States, by 1928. Some researchers even believe that there was a guild of some kind, working to maximize Yoga business in USA and that Mohan Singh had been drawn into such a caper.

Was he also somehow associated with the Ghadr movement? Circumstantial evidence points to such a link since Surendra Mohan Bose who was arrested in India in 1914 had a photo of Mohan Singh, the pilot as well as his Chicago address, in his pocketbook.

Act 4 Samadhi – Vanishing act

In August 1928, as advertised in advance and reemphasized, a supposedly rich Yogi Hari Ram, a.k.a. Harry Mohan, a.k.a. Hari Mohan Singh, vanished from the surface of this earth, never to be seen or heard of, again.

Some chapters of the Benares League survived for a few more decades, and by the 1960s hardly any trace of Yogi Hari Rama or his League remained. He and his yoga movement vanished without a ripple, without complaints from people getting bilked out of their life’s savings, or women getting groped or assaulted. Nor were there any mentions of psychedelic drug usage, or of the guru enriching himself or flitting about in Rolls Royce cars, leading a high life in mansions replete with orgies, or the such.

Was it so that he had an immigration deadline to depart US in 1928 and left as he should have? It is rumored that he went to India, but that would be interesting – he had no US citizenship or passport and his British Indian Citizenship may have been rescinded, so how did he travel back? Researchers opine that his appearance fees could have resulted in huge collections, perhaps totaling to millions, but I wonder how Mohan could have got all that money across to India, during those pre-war years!

If anybody can help me complete Acts 5 – Hari Mohan Singh’s days after leaving US, I’d be obliged…

As I mentioned at the outset, he was indeed India’s first pilot but well, very much the enigma.

The many lives of Mohan Singh, a pioneering aviator who conned America as a yoga guru - Philip Deslippe (Scroll.in). Many thanks for helping me lead my studies, with his succinct article.
Yoga system of study – Yogi Hari Rama (H Mohan)
The Benares League of America (1928-1930) – Franklin Merrell Wolff fellowship site
Franklin Merrell-Wolff: An American Philosopher and Mystic: A Personal Memoir - Doroethy B. Leonard
Benares League of Portland, Oregon records, Berkley online record (date of arrival etc)
Aerial Age, Volume 1, Issue 1 (advertisement picture)
Aero and Hydro, Volume 4
Aeronautics: The American Magazine of Aerial Locomotion, Volumes 12-13, Volumes 13-14
Hundreds of news clippings from US newspapers – Yogi Hari Rama

Note: Do not confuse Hari Mohan Singh with Manmohan Singh, another aviator who trained later in the UK, flew a Pussy Moth and was a contemporary of JRD Tata.


The Amazons of Hyderabad

The Guardnees of the Zenana, a.k.a. the Zafer Paltan, and the battle of Kharda

Sometimes, my search for information takes me to unrelated but strange and interesting stories, and this is one of them. It has nothing to do with the establishment of the Amazon office in Hyderabad and deals with something which pre-independence travelers to the princely states, found curious, amusing, interesting, and took note of. Its connections to the royal Harem and/or the Zenana of the immensely rich Nizams of Hyderabad made it even more interesting to the lay reader.

First a bit about the Amazons of Scythia, who were part and parcel of Greek mythology. They were considered to be fierce female warriors and while many believed they were just myths and never existed, things took a new turn in the 1990s, when archaeologists began identifying ancient female skeletons buried in warrior graves in the same region. Much later, the Amazon region (and river) in South America were discovered and named so, after explorer Francisco de Orellana encountered female warriors who were - very white and tall, with very long hair braided and wound about their heads. They were robust, went naked with their private parts covered, and with their bows and arrows in their hands, doing as much fighting as ten Indian men.

Anyway, over time, the name Amazon became the name of our very famous contemporary conglomerate which supplies us anything we can think of - goods, books, and audio-visual media, after Bezos decided that his company should be renamed after that large river, changing it from Cadebra to Amazon. Keeping all that aside, note that this article is all about the so-called Zaffer Paltan, or the Amazons of Hyderabad as some colonials called them, and as you will gather soon enough, they were not fierce warriors but were the Nizam’s guardians of chastity.

To get to the story, we have to first cover a little ground on the Nizams of Hyderabad and how they rose to prominence. Abid Khan of Turkmenistan, connected to the bloodline of Abu Bakr, the first Khalifa or Caliph of Islam happened to meet the then young prince Aurangzeb, resulting in a long-lasting relationship. After the death of Aurangzeb, Asaf Jha the descendant claimed the area thence known as Hyderabad and established his own dynasty and kingdom in the region. Asaf Jha II continued the reign and was involved in not only numerous conflicts with the Mahrattas, but also in bringing the East India Company to the area.

Chowmahalla Palace

As we can gather, this Nizam had a sizeable harem of some 500 vivacious beauties from the world over housed within a large Zenana or women’s quarters, in the palace grounds. The special Women’s regiments to guard the Zenana were created by this Nizam - Ali Khan Asaf Jha, and these regiments were later known as the Zaffar Paltan, the victorious platoon or the Nizam’s Urdubegis. (Mrs Poter visiting the Zenana later in 1891 describes the quarters, click on this link to read it. While there were mentions of male guards or eunuchs, the first guards were the 2,000 strong all-women Zaffer Paltan. They were, in those days, smartly attired, well trained and armed with weapons.

The first detailed description of this regiment comes from an official publication which stated - What can be said to the existence of a corps of female infantry at Hyderabad, regularly trained in the manual and platoon exercises, and in the performance of elementary movements? “The late Nizam had two battalions of female Sepoys of one thousand each, which mounted guard in the interior of the palace, and accompanied the ladies of his family, whenever they moved. They were with the Nizam during the war with the Mahrattas in 1795, and were present at the Battle of Kurdlah (Kharda), where, at least, they did not behave worse than the rest of the army. One of these battalions was commanded by Mama Burrun, and the other by Mama Chumbebee, two of the principal female attendants of the Nizam's family. The present Nizam still keeps up a reduced establishment of those women; and Moneer-ool-Moolk has also a party of them. They are dressed as our Sepoys formerly used to be, and carry muskets; and they do the French exercise with tolerable correctness. They are called Zuffer Pultuns, the victorious battalions, and the women composing them are called Gardunees, a corruption from our word guard. Their pay is five rupees a month."

Julian James Cotton writing in the Calcutta review adds - Female sentries, dressed something like Madras sepoys, were on guard before the doors, and about twenty or thirty women were drawn up before a guard-room in sight - The Nizam's harem of six hundred ladies was guarded by an Amazonian corps known as the Zuffer-pultan (regiment of victory). Like a similar body in the service of Runjeet Singh, they wore uniforms resembling those of the Company's sepoys, and could perform the manual and platoon exercises with great smartness, and deliver a volley with precision. They showed conspicuous steadiness in action on more than one occasion. Their representatives of today, discharge the comparatively unexciting duties of State musicians (as depicted in the second picture), although they still occasionally act as gentries at ceremonial functions.

Asaf Jha II
George Burton though was notably wry, in his remark - They (the British troops) fought in the presence of the Nizam's corps of Amazons, known as the Zafar Paltan, or victorious battalions, who did not behave any worse than the remainder of the army on that occasion. It does not appear whether the Amazons earned the distinguished appellation of Zafar Paltan by the glory of their deeds, or whether it was merely a tribute to what should have been the gentler sex. They have long since been disbanded, the place of muskets on their shoulders being taken by smiling infants.

So, we can now figure that the platoons did participate, at least once in the Nizam’s regular battles with the Mahrattas. The story of what happened in that battle (the reason why they went to war is equally curious!) at Kharda (near Ahmednagar) is quite interesting and somewhat unique.

Ijjat ka sawal - Battle of Kharda -1795

The Nizam’s large army, all the associated retinue, including his harem and his dancing girls, trundled on, in the direction of Poona, along the banks of the River Manjira, while the equally large Mahratta forces led by Kerkar lumbered slowly towards them. To protect the harem, the platoons of women soldiers clad in red coats marched alongside the covered howdahs perched on many elephants. Leading the harem was Bakshi Begum, the Nizam’s senior wife. Now don’t ask me why the Nizam went to all this trouble, perhaps the palace life was too unexciting, and the women wanted some adventure, I don’t know, this was the practice in those days and we know that from some Mughal war accounts as well. The Zaffer paltan was commanded by Mama Barun and Mama Champa, and the former, Mama Barun, was one of the two senior aseels or wetnurses of the royal family.

It was on the 14th March 1795, that the Nizam’s Army arrived at the top of a ridge known as the Moori ghat and looking down, saw the vast Mahratta Army encampment below them. The next day, fighting orders were given and the French troops in each camp started to fire upon each other. As you may have gathered, both parties employed French mercenaries, one lot being Bourbon French commanded by de Boigne and the other Republican French belonging to the Nizam, led by Francois Raymond. Raymond’s twelve newly raised infantry regiments as we read (in Dalrymple’s account) used their higher altitude to great effect, showering de Boigne’s flanks with sprays of grapeshot, but Raymond’s forces were assailed by arrows fired by the Bhonsle’s bowmen from the other flank.

As we can read from various accounts, the Women’s Regiments were ordered to descend and so, the Zuffur Plutun or Victorious Battalion advanced equally steadily downhill with their muskets, and succeeded in holding their own against the Maratha right wing. As the sun set, the Nizam, deciding that it was late, signaled a stop to the firing.  The tired and spent warriors settled down for the night in their tents. You would imagine that they slept through an uneventful night, dreaming of succulent food and other thoughts of Hyderabad, but what happened was just the opposite, it turned out to be very eventful when some intermittent cannon firing by the Sindhias took place.

The already queasy Bakshi Begum and some others woke up startled at around 11PM hearing cannonade and went on to have a nervous breakdown, terrified for her life, and screaming that she wanted to get out with the rest of the women. If the Nizam did not listen to her or get them out right away, she would go out of the tent, remove her dress and expose herself to the Mahrattas!! How about that!

The Nizam had his honor to preserve and had no plans to allow his senior wife to carry on with her threat. The retinue hastily moved on to a nearby indefensible and half-ruined Kharda fort, for it was the only somewhat hardened shelter available nearby, and which lay at the very bottom of Moori Ghat, just over three miles behind the front lines.

During the panic and confusion of the Nizam’s inexplicable retreat, a small party of Marathas looking for water stumbled on a Nizam’s picket, and the brief exchange of fire in the dark was enough to throw the remainder of the Nizam’s troops into a complete panic. They rushed back towards the Kharda Fort, leaving all their guns, baggage camels, ammunition wagons, stores, and food behind them. The Maratha Pindaris moved in to loot the deserted camps.

The Mahratta scouts looking for water got back and after the sun rose, much to the surprise of the Mahrattas the Nizam’s army had fled to the Kharda fort. The Nizam was pinned in the fort with a small force inside, while the major part of his army remained outside. The fort was blockaded by the advance troops of the Peshwa under Sindhia.

Kharda Fort
The fate of the people in the fort after the said event turned out to be quite miserable, they were trapped, the siege lasted 17-22 days and many died of starvation and disease as negotiations between the Mahrattas and the Nizam got extended. Finally, when they ran out of food or water, the Nizam and his entourage surrendered. The Nizam’s minister Azeem-ul-omrah was handed over to the Mahrattas.

I must add here that some accounts of the battle at Kharda, perhaps revisionist, do not mention the begum’s disrobing threat as the real reason for the Nizam’s withdrawal, and try to point out that the Nizam had fled due to the ferocity of the Mahratta attack. Interestingly the Peshwa saw through all this and reacted to the Nana later - "I grieve to observe such degeneracy as there must be on both the sides, when such a disgraceful submission has been made by the Moghuls and our soldiers celebrate a victory obtained without effort”. It must also to be added here that the British stayed away from the fight and did not support the Nizam, who incidentally was under their protection.

As reparations, the Nizam had to cede much of his territories to the Mahrattas and pay some 3 crores compensation. But as it transpired, the 21-year-old Peshwa Madhava Rao II fell off his balcony or threw himself off it, the same year, not able to carry on with Nana Fadnavis. A lot of in-fighting followed, which enabled the Nizam to evade most of the payments, as well as the promised transfer of territory to the Mahrattas. This battle of Kharda was incidentally one of the last among the Nizam-Mahratta wars.

Later on, in 1804 – the Amazons were to figure in more palace intrigue when they were deployed to extract the senior begum Sarwar Afza Begum from her palace and to search for jewelry that had been secreted in her palace, wrongly. These female guards had to resort to violence and dragged the screaming begum out, after which the floor was dug up to reveal the jewels. It appears that they found these jewels, an expensive pearl armband, 35,000 gold mohurs, 50,000 pagodas, 7 lacs and 92 thousand rupees, gold vessels as well as a bejeweled howdah with pearls. So, we can see that they were indeed powerful and used for maintaining law and order in the Zenana. We can see that they were employed to assist in the case of the abduction of Kilpatrick’s wife

British commentators who saw the Zuffur Plutun on parade tended to make snide remarks about their ‘ridiculous appearance’. Those who saw them in action, however, were quite surprised by the women’s ferocity, discipline and effectiveness: Henry Russell later quoted ‘an officer of high rank in the King’s Army [who] once said on seeing a party of them that they would put half the native corps in India to the Blush’.

Dalrymple tells us that Mama Champa, featured in a palace painting, was a tall, large-breasted and large-bottomed woman with powerful, masculine hands and an extremely fearsome expression on her face, began her career as the Nizam’s nurse, was very intelligent, due to which his Highness entrusted many of the works of state to her. Mama Barun on the other hand, was a little older, more stooped and emaciated, with her face speckled by smallpox; but she is made to appear wise and canny, with a hooked nose and the hint of a smile at the edges of her mouth. Her monthly salary was raised from twelve rupees to forty and she was given a palanquin as well as the land of Champ Paith and marriage with Faujdar Khan, the master of elephant fighting. She seems to have accumulated a massive fortune in presents and bribes from courtiers anxious to acquire her services!!

Zafar Paltan over time…

When Alexis Soltykoff visited India in 1841, he chanced upon the Zaffar paltan while visiting Hyderabad. A chapter in his book loosely translated from French provides a fascinating aside. (The sketch of the paltan women, based on his painting however shows the girls with bare feet and British uniforms, while the description indicates curved slippers of the Mughal style)

Yesterday, while going, to see one of the reserved gardens of Nyzam, in the company of Colonel Macdoraid, we greeted each other, at the entrance, by a row, young soldiers, dressed in red, who presented me with arms, to the sound of drums and bugles. The extreme youth, the delicate air of these soldiers attracted my attention; and what was my surprise when I learned that they were women, a regiment of amazons, specially assigned to guard the royal harem! I then examined, with keen curiosity, this squad of armed girls. They had shakos red and trimmed with green plume, under which were seen from behind their beautiful black braids, curled en masse round; their complexion was yellowish; and their delicate features but slightly flattened, attested to their Mongolian origin.

Their slender body stood out under their cloth uniform red, and on their breasts crossed the white buffalo; the pants were green, and on their bare feet were embroidered slippers with curved points, which they did not keep in the apartments. They held bayonet rifles over their shoulders. Their hair in a braid and the slightly developed chest were the only clues by which we could recognize their sex; had it not been for this, they would have been taken for very young people.

I asked the prime minister of Nyzam for permission to make a sketch of it, and he was kind enough to send a detachment of about twenty in one of the numerous courtyards of its vast palace, in the middle of which was a piece of water. There they first performed some maneuvers to the sound of their war music; and then I made a sketch of it very hastily so as not to tiring, but with the accuracy of which I am quite happy, even with regard to the resemblance of the heads..

Mrs Major Clemons writing in 1841 adds - The first thing we were shown excited our surprise and attracted our particular attention: it was the Nizam's regiment of women, a fine and really handsome corps, which is appointed as guard over the seraglio. They turned out to receive us, went through their exercises, and performed some maneuvers in a most soldier-like manner. Their dress consists of a kind of tunic, and loose trousers, military cap and other accouterments of a soldier, but bare-footed. The band was formed of all ages, and the bass drummer was a remarkably stout handsome woman.

Capt Wilson is uncharitable in his remarks - The sentries may at all times be observed very alert on their posts, excepting in the case of those who may have an infant to take care of, when, perhaps, one hand may be employed in holding a musket, whilst the other is engaged in nursing. Women in this condition must find it a very difficult matter to conduct their duties to the satisfaction of their superiors. The husbands of these Amazons have nothing whatever to say to the regiment, and follow their own occupations, either under government, or upon their own responsibility!!

Narendra Luther, the chronicler of Hyderabad concludes - In course of time the practice was ended, the supervision of the seraglio being best done by eunuchs according to the age-old practice. The eunuchs were specially selected for this job because they were incapable of any `mischief' with the ladies of the harem. They also ensured the effective observation of the code of morality by them.

As time went by and the Nizam’s power and revenues reduced, these Amazons faded out gradually. In 1861, Briggs, Assistant Resident at Hyderabad saw six of those girls in the Nizam’s Paigah and mentions that while doing a drill for him, they giggled in shyness like any other girl. At this time, they looked quite unmilitary - with chappals for footwear, unpressed trousers, and wielding bamboo staves. The picture of these onetime Amazon’s, as you can see above, is quite unflattering.


Memoir of the Operations of the British Army in India: During the Mahratta wars 1817-1819 - Valentine Blacker
Scotland and the Indian Empire: Politics, Scholarship and the Military in Making British India - Alan Tritton
White Mughals – William Dalrymple
Voyages dans l'inde - le prince Alexis Soltykoff
Ledendotes of Hyderabad – Narendra Luther
The battle of Kharda and its significance – K Sajjan Lal

Pictures - The picture of the paltan in British uniforms comes from the Harper’s weekly and is supposedly based on the Soltykoff sketch, but seems to have been manipulated by the Brit artist who did them in 1859 or thereabouts. The second picture is sourced from N Luther’s book Lendotes, page 206 is reproduced after obtaining kind permission (acknowledged with thanks) from the late historian’s son Rahul Luther. PLS DO NOT COPY..

The Chowmahalla palace was where Asaf Jha II lived - The Palace complex is made up of four palaces: the Afzal Mahal, Mahtab Mahal, Tahniyat Mahal and Aftab Mahal, all arranged around a central courtyard garden with a marble cistern in the center. The Chaumhalla Palace was commenced in 1750 with later additions by successive Nizams. The palace has four quadrangles and the Zenana is situated beyond the third.