Two Virtuosos and Palghat

A place where they grew up…

Palghat, a quiet and unassuming district, is the granary of Kerala. An uncomplicated and uncluttered place on the Western side of the Sahyadri range, this was where a gap in the mountains opened out for the artisans of the Tamilakam, allowing them to trade and communicate with the developing domains of the Malayalam culture, near the coast. As a border town of sorts, it became home to many diverse communities and resulted in an admixture of Tamil and Kerala lifestyles, art, and culture. The language, the food, and the outlook of Palghat are, therefore, somewhat unique. As an important railway junction in the British rail network, it later connected travelers coming in from the North and the Eastern cities to Kerala, a junction diverting them North towards Calicut or South, onwards to the metropolises of Cochin and Trivandrum.

Not only was it a locale peopled by all kinds of Hindu religions and castes, but it was also a place where many Rawuthers and Muslims settled down, especially near Puthunagaram and Palghat, these people having filtered in from Coimbatore and other palayams where Haider and Tipu used to camp once upon a time. After all, this was the principality where the Achan rulers once invited the Mysore Sultans, to help them ward off the invasions of the Zamorin. Primarily an agricultural district even today, you come across temple towns and paddy fields along the way. Not much happened in these places, other than temple festivities. When occasion permitted or when one got truly bored, the adventurous would in the old days, board a clackety bus to Palghat to either to see a film, buy some clothes or to eat some tiffin at the Ashoka Bhavan or chomp a biryani at Noorjehan.

Bullock carts hogged the road and the occasional bus would creak and growl along behind them till the road opened out and allowed them to pass, with a frustrated roar. Cherumar workers walking in a row carrying hay and paddy on their head to the granary of the landlord’s house was a perineal sight, and some could be seen crouched or hunched over the paddy fields, planting or harvesting, much like you saw in the old black & white movies, while the Nair landlord clad in a dhoti would walk by, head held up, taking in the scene and the situation of the crops, calculating the returns. Over yonder, behind the many coconut trees or the occasional iconic palmyra palm, jack fruit and mango trees, you could hear faintly, music being played through the temple speakers, typically a Carnatic kirtana – perhaps even an MS Subbalakshmi offering.

Walk towards that noise and you would cross an Agraharam with row houses on both sides facing a lovely temple pond ringed with coconut trees, all starkly spartan, where you would see ladies of the house wearing their sarees the Tamilian way and drawing kolams or a rare child at play. The bathhouse still has a few semi-clad women, washing clothes, with the sound of the pounding – of cloth hitting the granite stones, just to get the dirt out, sounding rat a tat, akin to gunshots, splitting the silence, sans a croaking frog or a bird's call from the distance. The ambi pattar uncle sitting on the easy chair on the Kolayi of the home, angling his Hindu newspaper to catch the morning light would be muttering about the state of the affairs, the government and what not, and how Madras was going to the dogs, cursing the political parties. Siva Siva. Today, there are no children or youngsters in those agraharams, they are all gone, with their parents to Chennai or Mumbai or Bangaluru. But come vacations or Navaratri, the homes will be buzzing with activity, children on the street and animated chatter all the way through the row houses.

Anyway, for some obtuse reason, I don’t really know why, the place, perhaps due to its serenity and quietness, resulted in the creation of so many great personalities who not only graced the administrative corridors of New Delhi and its politics, but also the armed forces and the railways, many a corporate office and of course much later, the IT industry. Add to that a vast number of incredibly talented artists - Carnatic or light music, there were vocalists, instrumentalists, and there were so many performers (actors) and writers. But I am not going to be general anymore, I will be specific and simply introduce two of the greatest exponents of their art forms, one a wonderfully talented Carnatic music singer, another a brilliant actress, both of great renown, favorites across generations. The actress was never of Palghat origin, but just stayed there for a while, but they remembered this little town years later and talked about it. That’s all the connection.

An uncle of mine called Kichetta, who used to work in the estates and a great buddy of my dad, had settled down for good in a place called Vandazhi, upon retirement, this place being just a few miles away from our village at Pallavur. The last time I visited him at Vandazhi was a couple of years ago, but this uncle passed away last year, sad to say. I still recall the last visit, and of Ammayi taking all the pains to make fresh unniappams and many other delicacies to welcome us on that occasion.

Like many other villages in Palghat, Vandazhi too is surrounded by fields and has a couple of temples, and in the 80’s boasted a school or two, perhaps a dispensary or a primary health care center, a few grocery shops and a tea kada or two. Like most other villages, a few buses which plied the bus route between Palghat in the North or Trichur in the West touched at Vandazhi, and well, it also had a post office where people would congregate and chit chat.

This was the village where our young lady spent her vacations, where she heard temple music wafting over loudspeakers and perfected her Carnatic music and her mastery over its ragas, talas and swaras with each visit. I was not aware of her connections to Palghat, as her name led most astray. When I listened to her speak on this specific subject, Vandazhi I was surprised to say the least - now remember, I have heard her voice so often as a music enthusiast and my skin tingled when I listened to her podcast of her younger days at Vandazhi, and how it got her interested in music, how the songs of Baburaj, Yesudas and other music directors enthralled her.

She was a Tambram (Tamil brahmin) too and a PI (Palghat Iyer) whose family had flown the coop long ago and one who realized many years later – that this was where she wished to settle down - By the water, with lush coconut groves around. The air filled with a few voices speaking Malayalam. And in the distance, the quiet sound of a temple bell. She added that she would always remember her vacations at Vandazhi and long to go back there, again and again.

That person is Jayshri Ramnath, who was born in Calcutta and grew up at Bombay to become a Maestra in the field of music, earning many awards, much recognition and numerous laurels along the way, a Padma Shri lately. For those still a bit confused, that is none other than the well-known singer Bombay Jaishri, granddaughter of Palghat Narayana Iyer.

I am sure most of you know who Bombay Jaishri is, but let me give you some highlights of her career and some background. Jaishri has this lovely thick, husky and mature tone, and has over the last two decades, given us so many lovely light music and classical renditions, a few of which are very popular, such as the film song Vaseegara. Jaishri was termed Bombay Jaishri by an interviewer many years ago, wanting to distinguish her from the many Jaishri’s in the field, and the name stuck.

Along the way she would pick up many awards and grace the Carnatic music field, also gracing the light music arena with an occasional film song. These days she is popular in the Carnatic performance circuit and is a philanthropist to boot. Not only is she well known in India, but is also much-traveled, giving performances all over the world. Some years ago, she won an Oscar nomination for her composition in ‘The life of Pi”. But we will come to some highlights of her career a little later, let us get back to her memories.

Those interested should listen to her 7-minute podcast about those school summer vacation trips to Vandazhi in Palghat and how the music she heard there, as well as the daily extempore group singing sessions by the entire family taking turns, during the evenings, instilled the essence of Carnatic music into her soul. Her grandfather was the headmaster of the CVM school at Vandazhi, and every vacation (just like many of us did) she, her mother Seetha and her two brothers took the train from Bombay to Olavakot station in Palghat, then the bus to Vandazhi, to spend all of two months, in that blissful world away from the hustle, bustle, smell, noise, grime and dust of Bombay. Jaishri mentions her thatha’s house had a thatched roof, but that sounded a little incongruous to me, for a headmaster in the early 80’s would have surely merited a tiled house, even if it were rented.

Nevertheless, her descriptions match the typical Palghat scene I mentioned earlier, a house surrounded by coconut, mango and jack fruit trees, a temple nearby, with the temple pond and of course temple music wafting from the loudspeakers early in the morning, from 4AM as Jaishri sates, and that daily infusion was according to her, what influenced her music deeply, even before she learned music and its structure and grammar. The music of Vandazhi remained with her, and came back often, bringing nostalgia, gratitude and many good memories. She recalls the magical voice of Yesudas from the temple speakers and she recalls the days when they partook more in music than conversation, at home. The scenery, the sounds of the rain and the music of the insects hovering around the dimly lit bulbs, always remained with her.

She starts the podcast singing an evergreen Malayalam song popularized by Yesudas – Sumangali nee orkumo. Though her Malayalam accent is typical of a Tamilian, she narrates the story magically. While the rest of the episodes are as good though short, the one about Vandazhi, is of course dear to me. Her narration is splendid and tinged with nostalgia, and she tells us about her uncle who always purchased two extra bulbs so that no evening would go dark due to a blub failing with the voltage constantly fluctuating, and her grandpa would tell them stories of his childhood, lounged supine on his easy chair. This maternal grandpa was the Headmaster at CVM Vandazhi, and she refers to him as Vicha Thata.

Her paternal grandfather Palghat Narayana Iyer, who used to offer music tuitions at Bombay, must have originated from another Palghat agraharam, Jaishri does not mention those details in this podcast. Anyway, she says it was that temple music she heard between 4-630AM which got deeply imprinted in her mind as she grew up, this helping her internalize and connect to serious Carnatic music, later on.

A few highlights from her life and career would help you understand her journey - Both her father Subramaniam and mother Seetha were quite proficient in Carnatic music, and her father used to perform in concerts. He died young when Jaishri was just 6 but her mother Seetha ensured that her music lessons continued. Initially, she learned Carnatic music under TR Balamani (Shankar Mahadevan, another PI was also part of the group) at Matunga. After usual rounds in the light music and Geet, bhajan, ghazal performance scenes, she became a jingle and track singer in Bombay. She was then chosen as a disciple of the violin maestro Lalgudi Jayaraman and was trained in the nuances of Carnatic vocals by that great performer. That was when she moved to Chennai. Also proficient on the veena, Jaishri was trained on the instrument by G N Dhandapani Iyer. Before she performed Carnatic concerts at the age of 28, she was as I read, the voice behind many a jingle, notably Ponds dream flower, Bournvita, Mealmaker and Rexona!

Somehow her connections to Kerala continued, and the one song which blew her into the limelight had yet another Malayali connection. She got a call to sing for a film, directed by one Jayraj. Thinking that it was the Malayalam film director Jairaj whom she had previously sung for, she went to the studio to see a young fella clad in shorts getting it all ready for her to sing a seductive song. Alarmed and assuming that she was in the wrong place, she was quickly convinced by this new music director that she was in the right place and chosen for that very song due to her low pitch, that was how the young Harris Jayraj, got her to sing that iconic song Vaseegara, the song which catapulted her into the common man’s heart!

A commerce graduate, with a diploma in Indian music and also trained in Hindustani classical music, Jaishri is very popular in the performance circuit. I don’t need to say more, for she has achieved so much and is at the pinnacle these days, so mellifluous to listen to. In fact, sometimes when we pick up a  kirtanam to learn in our music class, most suggestions are to learn them from the Jaishri versions.

Jaishri has high regard for the Malayali music fan and she once said “Kerala’s culture and tradition are quite different from elsewhere.  The people here love music and enjoy music festivals. I performed here on the occasion of Vishu. People appreciate music here”. But after she got nominated for the Oscars, things got a bit complicated when she was accused of plagiarism, as some Malayali’s believed she had borrowed heavily from Iryimman Thampi’s Omana Thingal Kidavo, to create her version, without attribution. I am sure that matter has all been laid to rest and forgotten, I feel there is nothing much to argue about, in this case.

There are so many other stars with Palghat origins who don’t mention their Palghat connections, probably they have no lasting memories of the town, or it could be that they prefer their karma Bhoomi to their Janma bhumi, as I mentioned in my article on PI’s or Palghat Iyers some years ago.

So that was Jaishri Ramnath and her association with Vandazhi, a place that inspires her to sing. How about the other person? Even though she makes only a brief mention, I would like to add her to this little article, because I thought it fits in here. She was a great actress of yesteryears who regaled us with brilliant performances in the movie Guide, and many Guru Dutt movies, such as Pyaasa and Kaagez Ki Phool. The actress is none other than Waheeda Rahman, who spent a few of her childhood years in Palghat.

In the early days, Palghat was a little different. After the Mysore Sultans arrived during the second half of the 18th century, they decimated Malabar and also disrupted the entire structure in Palghat. Life had taken a new turn, the Nairs were a hunted lot, so also the Brahmins (Nambuthiris and Tamil brahmin settlers), after attacks and looting of the temples by the Mysore soldiers. Camps were established for the soldiers near the border, at Palghat, near Koduvayur and closer to Trichur.  After a while the British came in, to defeat the Mysorean army and with it, the ownership of the entire region passed on to the East India Company. But the magnificent fort which was constructed by Haider remained, as it does to this day, and the Kotta Maidanam and the fort are basically rallying points at Palghat. Families go there during holidays, while concerts, games and processions, as well as meetings, are regularly held there.

As I had written before, I have always passed the fort, since the road that takes me from Palakkad town to Pallavur, snakes by the Kotta Maidanam (the ground by the fort) and is beside one of the ramparts of the majestic fort. Sometimes it is dry and black, sometimes it is covered with moss, but it has always stood there, hardly damaged by the years, the weather or the many thousands who folk by every year to see it. The complex is square in shape, situated on 15 acres of land, with walls of immense thickness and strong bastions at all four corners and in the middle. The sober majesty of those laterite walls of the fort quietly hides many tales of valor and courage.

After the British took over the fort, it was made into a Tahsildar’s Kutchery, and the fort housed several British government offices. It was turned into a jail in 1877. In the 20th century, the fort became a Taluk office once again. Now declared as a monument, the Fort is under the custody of the Archaeological Survey of India. The old draw bridge has since been replaced by a permanent one.

From my earlier article on the ICS officer Ratnavelu Chetty and his tragic days in Palghat, you would have noted that Ratnavelu was at Palghat during 1880, and well, by this time the British administrative setup was pretty well in place. During the 1930’s a district commissioner was posted to Palghat, named Mohammed Abdul Reham. Among his four daughters, was one, who remembered her days from Palghat many decades later.  She is none other than Waheeda Rehman, one of India’s leading and popular actresses. Let us see what she had to say about Palghat, her earliest memory. Quoting Waheeda from the nice biography penned by Nasreen Munni Kabeer…

My father was a district commissioner. His name was Mohammed Abdur Rehman and my mother was Mumtaz Begum. Father passed the IAS [Indian Administrative Service] exam and finally became a district commissioner sometime in the 1930s. It was through his friends that his marriage was arranged in the late 1920s. My father was posted all over south India, so we managed to pick up some of the local languages. I am not very fluent in Tamil and Telugu, but I can get by. You don’t easily forget what you learn in your childhood.

I must have been about four or five years old. My father was posted to Palghat, which is now called Palakkad. It’s in Kerala. During the Onam festival we went to the Palghat Fort to watch the procession of decorated elephants. We stood on the parapet and my father lifted me high in his arms so I could see the elephants through the opening in the fort wall. The image of those beautifully adorned elephants is still clear in my mind.

Like a fool I told my father that I wanted to own an elephant. He said: ‘Darling, it’s not possible. An elephant is a big animal; you can’t keep an elephant as a pet.’ ‘What about a baby elephant?’ He patiently explained that the baby elephant would grow up into a big elephant.

A brilliant dancer, a popular actress and the quintessential beauty of Bollywood, she hailed from the Madras presidency. From her teens, she went on to act in scores of movies in numerous languages, winning a plethora of awards including the Padma Bhushan and the Padma Shri.

Interestingly one of her favorite performances was for the only Malayalam movie she acted in, one that never got released – she names it as the 1972’s film Trisandhya. The storyline is based on a short story by Uroob, and the film was directed by Raj Marbros. Waheeda plays the character of Indu who is in love with Bhasker, but gets married to his elder brother instead. In an accident, the husband dies and a paralyzed Bhasker is bedridden, with Indu taking care of him, donning the role of a Nurse. This film explores the delicate relationship between a housewife and her young brother-in-law. Her friends and produces were quite upset that she did this arty role at that time. I read elsewhere that her experience with this film was also not so good, following which she refused to regional themes, interestingly Benegal’s Ankur. That was Waheeda Rehman and her little tryst with Palghat.

So many other luminaries had connections to Palghat, and I will bring this to an and by mentioning some of those names. On the musical side we can talk of Usha Uthup, Sreevalsan Menon, Shankar Mahadevan, Haricharan, MS Viswanathan, Stephen Devassy, P Unnikrishnan, P Leela, Unni Menon, Swarnalatha, Malaysia Vasudevan, the Ranjini - Gayatri sisters, the list can go on and on. Add to them the many virtuosos from the past such as Mani Iyer, Chembai, MD Ramanathan, and of course the pioneer of them all, Parameswara Bhagavathar who graced Swati Tirunal’s court.

On the film side, we have examples such as Trisha, Vidya Balan, Priyamani, Ajit (Thala), Gautam Menon. So many writers came from those quite environs, some are OV Vijayan, VK Madhavan Kutty, Malayatoor Ramakrishnan, Anita Nair and then again, we have administrators and politicians namely CS Nair, VP Menon, KPK Menon, SS Menon, TN Sheshan etc. and not to forget, our inimitable Shashi Tharoor.

But I will admit, few were as evocative as Jaishri when it came to remembering those roots.…


Conversations with Waheeda Rahman – Nasreen Munni Kabeer 

Vandazhi – A short video

An interview with Bombay Jaishri and a link to her podcasts 

The Iyers Of Palghat - Historic Alleys

pics – Bombay Jaishri – Wikimedia courtesy – Kayaniv, waheeda Bollywood Hungama (Wikimedia)


The Laccadives, Pakistan and Sardar Patel

Lakshadweep - Transfer of power deliberations, and a brief history

There are many discussions these days about those remote islands to the west of Malabar, namely Lakshadweep. I had written about the caste quarrels out there and also some of its histories as connected to the Cannanore Royalty and the Arakkal Beevi, many years ago. What really brought me back to the subject were a number of news articles and forwards which appeared recently about recent legislations which rightfully irritated its Moplah majority, so also press reports as well as speeches mentioning the involvement of Sardar Patel, the Mudaliars and Travancore in hoisting the tricolor at the Laccadives as well as an apparent visit of a Pakistan vessel to the islands in 1947.

The islands in the Laccadive archipelago have always been there, and many seafarers entering the Arabian Sea with a purpose to trade with, subjugate or colonize India have come across it sometime or the other. Many ships have capsized in those areas, some survivors have lived to tell their tales, and the first indications come from the Periplus of the Erythrean Sea which mentions a variety of tortoise-shell originating from the islands off the coast of Limyrica (Malabar?). Ptolemy is more specific - Over against Taprobane lie a multitude of islands, said to number 1,378.  Several of the islands are identified by name, including "Kanathra" (Kavrathi), "Monache (Maliku), "Ammine" (Amini) and "Agidion" (possibly Agathi). Later sources are vague about many islands to the West of Malabar.

As you may be aware, there are three island archipelagos in the region, the southernmost being the Chagos, then further North the Maldives and closer to Malabar in longitude, the Laccadives. The Laccadives is thus some 27 islands (the name suggests a lakh - 100,000 islands in the archipelago, but how the lakh was attached to the name has never been cleared up) just over 12 square miles in area. 10 of those are inhabited while the others are not. The inhabited ones are Chetlat, Bitra, Kiltan, Kadmat, Amini, Agathi, Androth, Kavrathi, Kalpeni and Maliku. There is a large gap between Kalpeni and Maliku (closer to the Trivandrum longitude), separated by the 9-degree channel.

Then there is the legend of a search party sent out by the Kolathiri Raja to search for the Cheraman Perumal who had gone to Mecca. As it appears their ship capsized near the islands and the survivors were the first settlers. In reality, all the Northern islands were settled by Moplahs of Malabar, the Maliku island people seem to have some Sri Lanka or Male ancestry. While a Malayalam dialect is the main spoken language in the Northern group, the Maliku people speak a version of Sinhalese. It is also believed that Buddhism and Hinduism predated the introduction of Islam, which was brought over by an iterant preacher from Arabia named Ubaidullah (Mumbe mulliyaka – First Musaliyar) circa 661AD who then married a local girl named Hamidat Bibi. Their families and lines survive to this day. The islanders belong to the Shafi’I Sunni sect compared to the majority in India who follow the Hanafi traditions. The Tangals have much in common with the Hadrami sayyids and it is likely that they were the representatives of these South Arabian clerical from the W├ódi Hadramawt fanned out in those times to increase their followers.

Sulayman al-Tajir, 851 A.D refers to both groups collectively, or to the Maldives alone, as DIbajat Al-Biruni (1030 A.D.) divides the islands according to their chief products, into the Diva Kanbar (Coir Islands, or Laccadives) and the Diva Kudha (Cowrie Islands, or the Maldives). From a sailors plan, we can see that  shipping bound for Southern Arabia and the Red Sea from Malabar, as well as shipping bound for the East Africa coast from Malabar, would pass close to the southern reefs of the Laccadives; while, westbound shipping from the region of Goa would pass close to the northernmost reef of the Laccadives.

Coconuts, coir and fishing were the main occupations and means of livelihood. Some of the locals also freelanced for Arab ship owners as shipping pilots in the region. Generally, historians of the past bunched the Maldives and Laccadive archipelagoes into one, considering that the distance between Maliku or Minicoy and the nearest Maldives (Ilhavandiffulu atoll at the 8-degree channel) is just 71 miles. In a previous article, I had detailed the caste structure and problems which arose later, and how the islands managed to survive these until the end of the British occupation. But we did not discuss the happenings and history of the islands until the British took over, so let’s take a look.

We know that the Chinese seafarers mentioned the islands often in their annals. Chinese records, particularly from the Ming period, do in fact contain descriptions of the Liu-shan, the Chinese term for both island groups as well as the sea routes in the area. Certainly, the Cheng Ho voyages, some if not all touched, but it is not clear which islands or which archipelago it was. Several islands are mentioned by name, including three which have been identified with the Laccadives, viz. Ma-li-ch'i (Maliku), Chia-p'ingnien (Kalpeni) and An-tu-li (Androth). The Chinese were very careful and tried to avoid these coral islands, if possible, due to the danger posed to the ship hulls. But the Chinese did stop over often at Male down south.

This is the period when The Portuguese arrived at Calicut and later constructed a fort at Cochin after battles at Calicut. But naturally, they turned their eyes westward to the islands which they referred to with the Baixo de Padua - Shallows (shoals) of Padua while navigational maps identified the Padua and the Sesostris mud banks The Portuguese epoch is one the islanders wish to forget for it was indeed a period of strife. It was also the locale where one of Magellan's ships capsized. Nevertheless, most Portuguese accounts term the Laccadives as the Mamale islands after Mamale marakkar (Ali Raja). 

We read that their rule, though short, was characterized by religious intolerance and acts of great brutality. So much so, a person nicknamed Kathil anjakkaran (meaning - with bored ears) was sent to the Amini island by the Kolathiri Raja. This person kept the Portuguese happy with booze and then fed them snake venom poisoned wine (wonder if there were any snakes in the island, and how they got there?) thus decimating the entire Portuguese garrison. This event was later commemorated at the Pambanpalli ("Snake Mosque") at the Pamban parambu where the poison is said to have been prepared. But it was to exact massive retribution from the Franks, who in 1549-50 retaliated by massacring over 400 Amini Islanders including the Qazi, Abu-Bakr, who is still revered among Mappilas as a martyr. There are mentions of at least two further massacres by the Portuguese, again on Chetlat Island, but apparently, no further attempts were made to establish permanent Portuguese military settlements. Zainuddin Makhdum also refers to these events, in his Tuhfat ul Mujahideen. Sometime in the medieval period, the Kolathunad Raja turned over control to the Arakkal Bevi or the Ali Raja of Cannanore.

The Malikku (Minicoy) island was however largely disregarded until the time the Marakkars started to prowl the seas. It appears that the Malikku island was targeted by the Marakkars and the islanders appealed to the Cannanore chieftains for help. Logan mentions that Minicoy was "surrendered by them to the Cannanore House on condition of protection being afforded to them against the Kottakkal Kunjali Marakkars, the famous Malayali pirates who used to harry the island periodically”.

Though the Portuguese had established themselves at Goa by the end of the sixteenth century and generally controlled the region, the Ali Rajas of Arakkal had by then arranged overlordship of the Laccadive Islands, paying a peshkash or tribute of 6000 panams to the Chirakkal Raja. As time, passed The Ali Raja rule became increasingly oppressive and independent after the Kolathiri dominance declined. Taxation was steadily increased and the islanders were subjected to a series of crippling monopolies imposed by Cannanore. The Ali Rajas offered no protection and the islanders consequently suffered raids by both Indian and European pirates. In fact, we can see that - During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries English, French and Irish corsairs (including the infamous William Kidd) descended on the Laccadives where they spent their time "ravishing women, murdering men, burning houses and behaving in a most villainous manner"

In 1786 the people of the northern islands of Amini, Chetlat and Kiltan rose in protest against the harshness of Arakkal rule in general, and against the coir monopoly in particular. Anyway, things were quite bad and somebody decided that Tipu Sultan could be a savior, an answer to their problem. Two boats belonging to the influential Kulap and Porakat families managed to sail to Mangalore in 1783, where, they disposed of their coir to Tipu. The Bibi sent her men to the islands to take revenge on these families and this finally resulted in a revolt at the islands. The Karyakkar Abdul Khadir was put in chains and the leaders sailed to Mangalore to offer their allegiance to Tipu. As Ellis explains – Tipu, however, was by this time once more on friendly terms with the Bibi, and tried to persuade them to return to their allegiance to her. All his endeavors proving unsuccessful, he, at length, in I787, accepted the offer of the islanders and granted in compensation to the Cannanore family a jaghir from the Chirakkal territories. Sheik Hassan was appointed as his Monegar and a period of calm prevailed.

After the Anglo Mysore wars, the East India Company and later the British Crown became masters of the islands, when Tipu ceded all his acquisitions to the English. Interestingly the southern islands passed to the EIC in 1791 after the loss of Malabar and the Northern islands in 1799 after the fall of Seringapatam. This division in administration continued in the British bureaucracy as well, with the Amindivis, administered under South Kanara and the southern islands under Malabar. The British initially allowed the Arakkal Beebi to retain the Laccadives and Minicoy on the condition that she paid an annual tribute, to the EIC.

Things went from bad to worse, and as the power of the Ali Rajas waned, the annual peshkash fell into arrears; and living standards at the islands declined rapidly. Finally, in 1861 the British stepped in and sequestrated the islands for a period of five years and in 1875 they were permanently sequestrated, though the Ali Rajas continued to enjoy a nominal sovereignty until 1908.

During the first world war, the German battleship Emden was around. Ellis tells us that the German Cruiser Emden operated off the Laccadives for a short time in September in October 1914 and sank several (Six - I believe) vessels on the trade routes which ran north and south of Minicoy. Several lifeboats and some wreckage had washed up on Kalpeni.

Life continued on at a leisurely pace till the end of the second world war, with hardly any major development at these islands. Laccadives was part of the Malabar administration under the Madras presidency (note here that Travancore, Cochin and later Travancore-Cochin were not part of the presidency, they were among the princely states) and Amini under S Kanara. The freedom movement had little effect in those outlying islands, nobody cared. And now we come to the deliberations during the transfer of power, in June 1947.

Stevens, Mills and Barry were tasked to prepare recommendations on the Laccadive islands. They opined thus “These islands which are sparsely inhabited coral strips assume strategic importance from the air point of view if we find we cannot retain all the facilities we require in India. In such circumstances, they would be essential for our air reinforcement and transport route to Australia, New Zealand and the Far East”. All that was needed was to provide adequate navigational aids and an emergency landing strip by making use of the Laccadive Islands. They concluded- Since we cannot assume that the successor States in India, even if they remain Dominions, will give us continued and full co-operation in the provision of the necessary facilities for the air transport route to the Far East, we must re-ensure by means of an alternative. The only alternative is the retention of the Laccadive Islands. We therefore conclude that legislative provision should be made for the transfer of the Laccadive Islands from the Government of Madras to the Administration of H.M.G. (Her majesty’s Government) in the United Kingdom.

During continuing negotiations, the committee was then notified that the islands were not up for discussion as they were part of Malabar (and Amini part of S Canara)- As regards the Laccadive Islands the Committee were informed that they formed part of the Madras Presidency: in these circumstances, they agreed that it would be necessary to seek by negotiation any facilities that we might require for their use for strategic and defense purposes. On 1st July 1947, the Air Ministry wrote to the India Office, noting the decision in regard to the Laccadive Islands, and requesting that the approval of the Govt of India be sought for a reconnaissance of the Islands with a view to the installation of navigational equipment and if possible, the construction of a landing strip there. In due course, Lord Mountbatten sounded Pandit Nehru informally on the subject, reporting on 19th July that he had spoken to Nehru who was ‘quite friendly and said there was no objection to an official approach being made though he could not commit himself until all implications had been considered’.

However, the situation with respect to the Andaman and Nicobar Islands were different. Jinnah representing Pakistan, while disinterested on the Laccadives in spite of it being a majority Muslim territory, was ambivalent on the Andamans. He insisted on ownership of the Andamans as it was strategically en route to East Pakistan. At the same time, Australia wanted it transferred to HMG due to its strategic importance but Nehru and the Indian negotiators flatly refused. As the situation became increasingly acrimonious, a final decision was taken to award it to India on the grounds that the INA had been in possession of the islands obtaining it from the Japanese and because India had a strong emotional connection to A&N due to the huge numbers of convicts incarcerated there (Kala pani), over the years. It was a bitter pill for Jinnah to swallow.

In spite of all this, the worst mistake committed by the team, busy with the main partition discussions, was I guess, the neglect of the Chagos islands (Diego Garcia) and the Coco (Keeling) Islands. The former was appropriated by the British and leased to the US as we know, while the latter sitting to the North of the Andamans became Burmese property, where the Chinese since then, established a SIGINT station. Both have become strategic military locations these days.

Back to the declaration of independence - As far as the islanders of Lacadives were concerned, they knew about it many months later. A lovely article by Suresh Thomas, provides some detail. As I read therein, one Chekkekeel Khalid who had gone to Calicut arrived back at the islands with the news after the monsoons, in Sept/Oct 1947, and only much later was the tricolor hoisted.

Now to the role of the Mudaliars and Travancore. As Laccadives were administered by Malabar and S Kanara, there is little justification for ships going out from Travancore. Also, in June 1947, Travancore represented by Sir CP, her Dewan was actually duking it out with the British and Indian administrators, even considering allying with Pakistan (See my article for further details). By August, Sir CP had returned to Madras to recuperate and prepare for his world tours. Considering this background, it is unlikely that the Maharaja of Travancore deputed a ship to the Laccadives to hoist a flag, purportedly, after being exhorted by Sardar Patel through the Mudaliar brothers. AR Mudaliar came to Travancore as the vice-chancellor of its university much later, but until 1949, he was the Dewan of Mysore and so his and his brother’s role in this matter, is circumspect.

Another report mentioned that the collector of revenue at Travancore had been contacted by Patel (VP Menon is not mentioned) who then sent a boat to Kavaratti to hoist a flag. All articles conclude by stating that a Pakistani ship which came by, saw the Indian flag hoisted and went back. Then again, one should note that the transfer of naval assets had not been fully completed in August 1947, so the possibility of Pakistan sending one of the three frigates they eventually obtained, in order to check out the situation at Laccadives in August, after sailing for approximately two days to cover the 900 miles distance, seems unfeasible. Certainly, Jinnah a shrewd politician would not have chanced armed conflict at that juncture, in my opinion.

Anyway, on August 15, 1947, India became independent. The Madras Presidency became the Madras State and a part of the Indian Union. As a consequence, the Malabar and South Canara became Indian districts. 

Dr Pookoya provides the actual sequence of events in his book - A few odams that reached in the end of September that year (1947) told the news that India was free from British Raj. But changes in Administration was much delayed and the Amin rule continued without any change. Trade with Calicut, Cannanore and Mangalore continued through Dallals. The Lakshadweep was then known as Laccadive Minicoy and Amindivi Islands, which was included along with Kerala under the Madras State. On 4th August 1950, the first unit of Indian National Congress was formed at Kalpeni Island by P.I.Pookoya, who was a freedom fighter, who celebrated first Independence Day of August 15th at Kalpeni Island in 1950. Sri S.V. Sayedkoya Thangal of Androth Island was nominated as Member of Madras Legislative Council (MLC) from Laccadive, Minicoy & Amindives in 1950. The Laccadive, Minicoy & Amindivi Islands came under Union Territory of Indian Union on 1st November 1956. Development was very slow & sluggish during that period. The British flag was flying on the Minicoy Light House till 1st April 1956.

At Minicoy lighthouse on 1st April 1956 British flag was replaced by the Indian flag. An Administrative Office was started in Calicut at a rented house at Puthiyara, on 1st November 1956. U R Panikkar took over charge but was replaced by S. Mony ICS, on the 8th of November1956.

Thus, on 1st November 1956, Travancore-Cochin joined with the Malabar District of Madras State to form the new state of Kerala. In accordance with the promulgation of the States Reorganization Act, the islets and atolls were all combined to collectively form a union territory. With all this background, I find it difficult to accept reports of the deputation of a ship that then arranged for the hoisting of the Indian tricolor, just after independence. It could still be a possibility, but I doubt it.

That said, the foregoing provides anybody interested in a better understanding of the history of those lovely islands. I can only hope that they are unaffected by divisive politics and religious animosity.


Sources Towards a History of the Laccadive Islands (JOSAS) – Andrew D W Forbes
Kalpeni Island History, People and Culture – Dr CG Pookoya
Lakshadweep – Theodore Gabriel
A short account of the Laccadive Islands and Minicoy – R H Ellis
Cornered in a world of their own (Fountain Ink) – Suresh P Thomas
Travancore’s Pakistan Intrigues, 1946-47
Mammali Marakkar
The Umbrella riots (LivehistoryIndia)