Menon and the Coorg War

And the tragedy which befell the Chikka Deva Rajendra

The house imprisonment of Karunakara Menon was a major cause that precipitated the invasion and acquisition of Coorg by the British, a sad tale in itself. An event which is said to have weighed upon the conscience of Menon, until the end of his life, this resulted in the British acquiring the rich Coorg highlands, the banishment of the Raja to Banaras, and the adoption of his daughter by Queen Victoria, among other things…All in all, an interesting story, if you are inclined to join me on a trip up to the NE of Calicut, where Menon had been living in retirement when this furor started. 

The role that an aging Menon played in the final days of the Coorg kingdom and the life of that infamous (or not) Kodagu King Chikka Devarajendra is fodder for a good film. But then, the real character of Chikka Devarajendra is not quite clear to most of us, and almost all accounts stick to the version provided by the missionary Moegling in 1855, which was repeated by English writers, and many others who followed, such as Masti Venkatesha Iyengar who published a fictional novel following the same storyline, and CP Beliappa who covered the dynasty in his book on Coorg. While the monetary greed of the EIC and its modus in taking over Coorg, after blackening the character of its ruler Veera Rajendra followed a pattern from other EIC acquisitions, one should take note that Chikka Veera Rajendra was not a paragon of virtues. Though I feel that he was involved in ordering some nefarious activities and exercised bad judgement, the salacious rumors of his promiscuous and violent life are based entirely on heresy, gleefully spread by his enemies. But let’s go to those lush green hills of Coorg, home to many coffee plantations, known as the Scotland of India, to see what this was all about.

The Lingayat Haleri dynasty was not that ancient and ruled over the small hilly terrain for just 200 years or thereabouts. The highland area of Coorg was of not much interest to the neighboring kingdoms, and it was only after the British arrived and locked horns with the Mysore Sultans that the Kodagu (Coorg) kingdom came into prominence as a strategic hilly region between Malabar and Mysore, East off the EIC offices at Tellicherry. 

Without much ado, let us quickly zoom into the time frame we are interested in, the final decades of the 18th century with Coorg’s Raja ruling from Madikeri (Mercara), it's capital. Hyder Ali of Mysore had usurped the throne, defeated the Ikkeri rajas, and was out to expand his realm. Malabar and its treasures were in his crosshairs, and seeing a possibility to take over the region from its feuding chieftains, decided to invade, but made the mistake of antagonizing the English, as well as the Dutch. The English came to the aid of the Malabar and Travancore Rajas. Up North East, the Kodagu chiefs resisted the initial forays, and Hyder wisely decided to leave the hilly region alone. Succession disputes resulted in a Haleri aspirant Lingaraja seeking the help of Mysore (just like it happened in Palghat), and with Hyder’s support, gained the throne, but after agreeing to pay Hyder an annual tribute of Rs 24,000. 

When Hyder meddled in the administration of his state, Lingaraja resisted. After his untimely passing, his children (Veerarajendra, Appajiraja, and Lingarajendra) were held in captivity. Around this time, the first of the Anglo-Mysore wars occurred, and eventually, after the death of Hyder, and the coronation of Tipu Sultan, the situation went south. Tipu threatened to convert the populace, and decimate all opposers unless they stopped their rebellion. The rebellion continued, and Tipu retaliated mercilessly, transporting large numbers to Seringapatam, renaming Madikeri to Jaffarabad, and installing Janulabin as his man in Kodagu. Two of Veera Rajendra’s sisters were attached to Tipu’s harem. 

As the story goes, the three sons eventually escaped from Tipu’s fort and got back to Kodagu. Dodda Veera Rajendra (dodda – senior) as he was known, after a series of skirmishes, threw out Tipu’s army and regained the Madikeri fort. In 1791, the new Raja signed a treaty with the EIC, represented by Robert Taylor. Nine years later Tipu had been killed, thanks to the passage provided through Coorg for the Bombay forces who joined hands with the Madras forces, ending in the taking of Seringapatam.  As threats to the Kodagu kingdom receded, the EIC now asked the Raja to pay them the amount of Rs 24,000 which they had been making annually to Tipu. An agreement to give an elephant annually seems to have resolved this issue, though it came to the fore again years later, in the court of law, as a technicality.

Over time, Dodda Veera Rajendra became paranoid and frustrated as he could not sire a son, only four daughters. Not only was he depressed, but was also prone to fits of violence and it is said that his African Sidi guards killed many of his purported enemies and schemers. During this period, he wrote the Rajendraname – a history of the Haleri dynasty, as well as his will, in which asked the British to make his daughter the queen, leaving behind a sizeable deposit of around Rs 7 lakhs for her care, etc. By 1807 he was gone, after another bout of insanity. His brother Appaji had in the meantime been assassinated, while Lingaraja settled down in Haleri. As matters would have it, Linga Rajendra was appointed as the regent. Accompanied by his lame childhood friend Kunta Basava, Lingaraja soon convinced the young queen Devammaji to hand over the throne to him, which she did by abdicating, in 1810. He then demanded the EIC return the Rs 6.4 lakh deposit (in her name), which they did not, but agreed to continue paying interest. He too seemingly, proved to be a despot until death and in 1820, was succeeded by his son Chikka (Junior) Deva Rajendra. Chikka’s mother it seems, committed suicide by swallowing diamond dust.

As the story goes, Chikka Veera Rajendra was no better than his father, and proved to be despotic, and indulged in kuthinasa, or the murder of others in his family to prevent dissent. He was rumored to have had over 28 members of his family killed with the help of Kunta Basava, the new Dewan. Chikka remained suspicious of his female cousins, especially his senior cousin Devammaji, the original heir of the Coorg throne. Alarmed when he decided to move against them, his sister Devamma and her husband Chenna Basappa decided to flee across the border seeking refuge with the British, in Mysore. The next decade pitted the Mysore resident Casamajor against Chikka Veera Rajendra, a period which proved to be very turbulent for the Kodagu populace, culminating in a war in 1834, the takeover of Coorg by the British, and much later, into what was known as the long-drawn Coorg Case, in the London courts.

The story has two sides, the popular British account as presented by Moegling, Lewis Rice, and others, which detailed the King’s salacious and violent misdeeds, while the other is a concise rebuttal of the events by Chikka’s estate executor, the eminent historian Robert Montgomery Martin. Perhaps, the truth rests between the two and very few have chosen to refer to the latter. That Chikka Veera Rajendra was not a virtuous king is clear, but at the same time, he was not quite the person, the British writers as well as Masti Venkatesha painted him to be. The complication in determining the facts about Chikka is the distrust Koduvas had about their rulers, of the Lingayat cast, who were not only considered unwelcome foreigners but also as iron-fisted tyrants who frequently subjugated them. Masti Venkatesha’s portrayal did have detractors and Sanganna Kuppast made a detailed rebuttal which I perused; he certainly raises pertinent arguments, and he points to the lack of accurate historical content in Masti’s novel..

B Surendra Rao studying the many accounts of Coorg concurs in his assessment - The knowledge which the European writings produced on Coorg shows a considerable preference for the description of its despotic, depraved royalty. The Rajas are generally portrayed as mean, cowardly, and cruel, and their licentious criminalities are described with voyeuristic relish. But it is interesting that Lt. Conner and William Jeaffreson were less harsh in their judgment of the rulers than Moegling and Richter who wrote after the annexation….

The Colonial construction of the native rule hugged the logic that the native ruler was everything the colonial ruler was not. The imperialist claim that only morons and monsters were pulled out of their disgraced thrones, produced such portraits as that of Siraj-ud Daula, Tipu Sultan, and Wajid Ali Shah, and the Coorg royalty was no different.

While Casamajor, the resident at Mysore was steadfast in his negative opinion about the king based on heresy reports (and his bad equations with the Raja) of the mass murders in Coorg, Veera Rajendra was miffed that the British, whom his ancestors had wholeheartedly supported in their fight against the Mysore Sultans, were now going against him. Accusations flew back and forth and soon the Kodagu King closed his borders to foreigners. Casamajor then made a formal visit to Coorg, but the meeting was a disaster, the Raja complained to the British and had him recalled to Mysore. Meanwhile, a demand was made by the Raja for the return of his deposit, which the British denied paying, but continued to pay a lower annual interest.

The proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back was the flight of Chikaveera’s sister (also named Devamma) and her husband Chenna Basappa in 1832. It appears that the henchmen of Veer Rajendra put the heir apparent, the Raja’s cousin Devammaji to death, misappropriated her jewels, as well as assassinated seven other women and the son of his sister Devamma. This is not documented or proven. The Gazetteer states that Chenna Basavappa, was a Koduva but had become a Lingayat before his marriage. This Chenna Basavappa, discontented (as he stated later in Mysore) with the tyrannical rule of the Raja, formed a league to dethrone him. Chikka Vira Rajendra getting the scent of evil designs against him, wanted to imprison Chenna Basavappa. But Chenna Basavappa escaped across the frontier with his wife and a few faithful followers and took refuge with the British Resident. During their flight, they killed a few Coorg guards. 

Casamajor decided to overlook the murders and provided asylum to the two fugitives of Coorg law and simply refused to send them back to Coorg. The battle of words between the Raja and the resident reached nowhere and the British stood firm, stating that Chikka was in the wrong. They had by now obtained a good reason to take over the Coorg principality, to rescue, as they publicized, the common man from a despotic ruler. Many wild stories were circulated but they were refuted when a Dr. Jefferson from Bombay was deputed to Mercara and found the supposedly dead people very much alive. Gen Welsh added in his report- Before leaving Bombay, several persons residing there, and who had received intelligence that some of their relatives in Coorg had been unjustly and most cruelly put to death by the Rajah, desired me to make inquiries as to the truth of such reports. This I did and it was with the greatest pleasure I obtained the surest proof of the falsehood of such allegations, by the appearance before me, in real flesh and blood, of the very parties who were said to have been so unceremoniously disposed of.

As Martin puts it - His (Veera Rajendra) mind became much disturbed and irritated by the calumnies propagated against him, consisting of the customary allegations of cruelty and misgovernment which usually preceded Indian “Annexations”. To add insult to injury, Messrs. Binny and Co., withheld payment of the yearly interest in 1833 on some of the promissory notes, contrary to usual practice. The Raja was incensed and blocked off Coorg from the outside world, while Casamajor sent away the fugitives to safety in Bangalore. 

It was at this point in time that the British deputed two persons to the troubled zone - a civil servant from Madras named Graeme and our man K Karunakara Menon. Graeme never entered Coorg and stayed on the outskirts, whereas Menon, the dependable troubleshooter for the EIC, now pulled out of retirement, initially reported the activities and developments from across the borders, but was promptly arrested by the Raja, as he entered the country. The British demanded that the Raja immediately release Menon or face consequences. Veer Rajendra was meanwhile pressed by his henchmen that he could indeed wage a winning war against the British. For five months, the battle of letters and words continued, and Menon remained under house arrest. While the Raja maintained that Menon was deputed to spy on the Coorg preparations, the British retorted that he was sent as an emissary to try and discuss the matters with the Raja. The Raja reinforced his defenses, and the British prepared to conquer Coorg and displace the Chikka Raja. Casamajor was sent off to manage Travancore.

It is quite clear that Menon was sent to spy and report on the battle preparedness of the Coorg Raja, so let us now see what Menon had to say. A detailed report from Menon had previously been posted by Nick Balmer writing about the incident and linked here.  

Nick Balmer explains the background - Appreciating the need for intelligence on what was going on in Coorg he (Collector Clementson) had brought Thomas Baber's old Sheristan (Karunakara Menon) out of retirement. He was sent up the road from Cannanore to the Stone River on the border with Coorg. It was not possible to send spies into Coorg as the local population could easily spot them and they would soon be killed or apprehended. However, the road from Cannanore through Coorg to the east was used by grain merchants and these were in the habit of attending the market in the capital of Coorg. Menon set up his post in the rest houses (Vayatoor) that these returning Moplah merchants were using, to gather up-to-date information on events in Coorg.

Briefly put, Menon reported - Making enquiries of what was going on in Coorg, as well as respecting the Rajah’s hostile intentions and submitted to you under dates the 18th, 20th, 21st and 24th October 1833, reports containing the result of my enquiries and a further memorandum after I joined the Cutcherry at Tellicherry on the 28th of that month….

After a while, he was allowed to enter Coorg - We arrived at Maddakery on the 5th November, from which date I was, without any reason whatever, placed in confinement, and was not released until after a period of five months, just on the 6th April 1834. In the course of the confinement, I had fourteen interviews with the Rajah…

At Madikkare, Menon was lodged in a bungalow with a guard. During his meeting with the Raja, the Raja wanted to know if Graeme was a good person or a deceitful one like Casamajor. Menon asked the Raja to trust Graeme and explained to him that the translations of English letters he had been provided were faulty and were reworded to sound disrespectful. After many meetings, the Raja stated to Menon that he had enough of the British deceit and was willing to wage war if so required. Menon expressed his alarm at that and gave examples of how Veluthampy at Travancore and the Pazhassi Raja at Kottayam had succumbed after threatening the British. He implored the Raja not to plan such extreme actions. The only mention of the Raja's frustration and violent fits is this - On one of these occasions, he halted opposite to the Parboothy Cutcherry about 100 yards distant from the Bungalow in which I was, caused large plantain trees to be cut, had three of them lashed together and with one blow of the crooked knife severed them in two.

During the time that I was confined in the Bungalow namely 4 ½ months, there was no want of anything. The only annoyance we experienced was we being laughed at by the people who daily passed by the Bungalow (which stood near the high road) on their way to and from the fairs and other passengers. The greatest restriction was laid to out walking and speaking to people passing by and to writing.

More details can be found on Nick Balmer’s blog and Prema’s book (in Malayalam), suffice to conclude that the British finally gave a six-day ultimatum to the Raja to release Menon, and with Menon still in confinement, the British invaded Coorg and the Raja surrendered, releasing Menon with many gifts, including an elephant. 

On the 4th of April 1834, a flag of truce was sent to the British camp at Harangi from the Raja and on the 6th April, 1834, at 4 PM., the British flag was hoisted in the fort at Mercara. After the English troops entered the Muddakery Fort and hoisted the Flag under a salute, I went to Muddakery ambalom (temple). The story is quite complex and analysis will show deft manipulations from both sides, along the way, with the Koduvas bearing the brunt of the aftermath.

So that was how a Menon from Kalpalli (later living at Ramanattukara), near Calicut, was connected with the precipitation of the Coorg war and its accession by the British. Menon, who was made a Pymash Sheristadar in Malabar after the Pazhassi incident in 1805, had been provided with a 29-pagoda palanquin allowance and this was later adjusted to a land assessment in 1822. He retired, but was recalled for this purpose, especially as he was quite adept at managing to penetrate enemy territory as he had proved in the past, during the Nasik affair. But Menon was mentally affected after this event, adding to the stress from the earlier Pazhassi incident which had been preying on his mind. 

The PTSD is evident – as narrated by Sir Chettur Sankaran Nair in his autobiography - When the British acquired the country, a Kottayam Raja refused to submit and waged Guerilla warfare for many years causing great loss to the East India Company in men and money. One Menon who was an agent of the East India Company is supposed to have been responsible for his capture and death. This Menon rose high in the British Service and was deputed afterwards to the Coorg Raja, whom he persuaded to surrender to the East India Company on the assurance that he would not be deprived of his Kingdom. The East India Company however deprived him of his Kingdom and I believe he died afterwards in England. The story goes that Menon’s tarwad is troubled by the Pretas of the Coorg Raja and the Kottayam Raja to the present day, and by his own Preta in their company, as the tarwad had not been able to gain admission for him into the world of fathers or Pithrulokam by appropriate ceremonies or offerings.

A troubled Menon wrote later to the EIC - I am strongly convinced that there are no black marks on my service record under you either. I was incarcerated for five months by the King of Coorg while on your mission there. I had supplied you with intelligence regarding the King's movements on October 18, 20, 24 and 28 in the year 1833. I was imprisoned as I put myself at an extremely vulnerable position defending Gramme during his Madikkara visit. I would like to remind your Highness that despite having several committed soldiers, you have just one who risks his life constantly in the service of the British Empire and that is me. Due to all these reasons, I cultivated plenty of enemies and their tribe just keeps growing with each passing day. This has forced me to carry arms on a regular basis for self-defense, offer free food to Brahmin pilgrims once every year. I also engage in feeding the poor five months in a year and have constructed a structure for the same. With all these in mind, I request the esteemed Empire to kindly declare the land I was gifted with during different instances of my 33 years of service to be tax-free. I also request you to kindly grant me a handsome pension that will take care of the well-being and security of my descendants and me.

After the Coorg incident and his request, his land assessments were adjusted and he was provided with a monthly pension of Rs 350/- per month. Menon’s home and boat were pictured by Gen Welsh who spent some time with him, while in Malabar. A book on Guruvayur cites that a stately lamp post (Deepastambha) at its North entrance had been gifted by Karunakara Menon, in gratitude, to the lord of the temple, after his release from detention by the Raja of Coorg in 1834. Prema Jayakumar, his great grandniece, in her book, explains that this had been replaced by another, larger one, gifted by some other devotee, later. Menon passed away in 1842.

I should now close the story of what happened to Chikka Veera Rajendra. Well, he was first exiled to Bangalore, then Vellore, and finally sent off to Benares where other Rajas were exiled - like the Awadh Raja, the Sattara Raja etc, they were ensconced in large haveli’s, provided pensions, and watched over by British officials appointed to do just that. The Coorg Raja tried to take along with him a lot of gold and jewels (hidden under their clothes) while being led away, but much of it was lost in transit or misappropriated by others. He spent a long period of 14 years with his family, a few wives and daughters at Benares. Eventually, it seems that he converted to Christianity, with his daughter Gauramma and they were allowed to go to Britain in 1852, the purpose being to fight for the Rs 7 lakhs deposit still held by the EIC. The British had viewed it as victors’ spoils and tried their level best to prove that Veera Rajendra had no claims over it. After trying hard for many years and walking in and out of courts in London, Veera Rajendara died in London in 1859. 

The study of the case and all the tribulations the Raja faced, can be read in Martin’s account. Unfortunately, the many documented facts presented by Martin in support of the Raja’s character have not been considered by the biographers of the Coorg raja, whose character continues to be as black as one could be, viewed in today’s moral light. The daughter of Veer Rajendra, i.e., Gouramma, was adopted by Queen Victoria, as godmother and christened Victoria Gauramma. Chenna Basappa and Devammaji came back to Coorg and life went on for the Koduvas under the new British masters. Planters arrived, estates were created, and Coorg became the coffee plantation estates. 

Along the way, Coorg produced many distinguished officers in the Indian Army, namely Cariappa and Thimayya. Chepudira Ponnappa was one of the four dewans in the court of Chikka Veera Rajendra. K S Thimayya, later India’s chief of Army staff, turns out to be Dewan Ponnappa’s great-great-granddaughter’s son. That he had problems with another Menon is well known, but since it is not so correctly known, I will retell it later.

A few words about Montgomery Martin, the man who stuck his neck out for Veera Rajendra – Robert Montgomery Martin was a historian of the British colonial empire; writing about the East India Company and other subjects. Ever ready to take a public stance on many of the controversial issues of the day, Robert Martin did not go far in his later life. He withdrew to Sutton in Surrey where he became a Justice of the Peace and a magistrate until he died in 1868. 

Moegling, the missionary who penned the black character of Veera Rajendra, was financed to collect and translate Kannada records by the same Casamajor, so one can imagine a certain amount of collusion. 

Queen Victoria’s involvement and feelings for Indians were enumerated in an earlier article. Her relationship with Duleep Singh and Gauramma is retold by CP Beliappa, in his second book. 

Then again, all this is water under the bridge, and as they say, history is usually written by the victor. Eventually, what the Koduvas feel, is how it would remain.

An exposition of British ingratitude, injustice, and breach of national faith to the sovereigns of Coorg - Martin, Robert Montgomery
Karunakara Menonum East India Companiyum – Prema Jayakumar
An account of Coorg and the Coorg mission – Rev H Moegling
Coorg & Its Rajas - anonymous
Sir C Sankaran Nair - Autobiography
Nuggets from Coorg History – CP Beliappa
British paramountcy and Indian renaissance – R.C. Majumdar
Chikkaveera Rajendra – Masti Venkatesha Iyengar (Translation- Padma & Ramachandra Sharma)
Dr Masti and his Chikkaveera Rajendra - Sanganna Kuppast
Conquest through knowledge: a case of the 19th century 'Colonial Coorg' -B. Surendra Rao

Pics – Wikimedia – Thanks and acknowledging the original owners.


The Taj and the Elephant

Strange, you will mutter, reading the title. Well, I had been wondering about elephants in Istanbul after I had finished the research on the embassy of Tipu Sultan to the Rum in 1787. In that large effort, four elephants were sent along as gifts to the Ottoman Sultan, accompanied by a wasteful 700-person retinue. Continuing on with that story, I chanced on the marvelous book (The Architect's Apprentice) written by Elif Shafak, a fictional tale about an albino Indian elephant named Chota in the Ottoman stables and the story of its young Indian mahout Jahan. That book takes you from India to Istanbul and back finally to the Taj Mahal and well, this touches on two of the aspects around whom Shafak, whom I admire greatly, wove her delightful caper. More as we go along, but if you have not, please do pick up the book and give it a read, you will not regret it. Following all that, I visited the elephant stables at Guruvayur with our little granddaughter a couple of months ago and regaled her with the sight of many elephants being tended to. That was indeed a marvelous sight, that too, seeing them up and close.

Shafak mentions that it was a palace painting showing an elephant behind the Ottoman Sultan, which set her mind to the tale. Commencing with Chota’s arrival in Istanbul sometime in the second half of the 16th century, the evocative novel takes you through medieval Istanbul, educating you on the palace intrigues, the scheming of the eunuchs, and Jahan’s collaboration with one of the world’s greatest architects – Mimar Sinan. For me, it struck many chords, simply because I had spent over 5 years in that magnificent city and could follow Shafak through the streets and buildings of erstwhile Constantinople, feel the smells and sounds she wrote about, just like I was right there. I still think often about Istanbul, and in our home, I have two large panoramas of the city, which I look at every time I pass them. Readers, please take note, that this is not a book review, but some aspects of connected history.

In the medieval period, when ships became the camels of the ocean, large objects could thence be moved from place to place. As traders and colonizers came across the elephant in India, an animal that had been a source of amazement since Alexander’s battles with Porus, the desire to take one back to the West became paramount. The indenter of the elephant, usually a king or a sovereign, could now boast of something unique and boast of not only his long reach across the universe but also the extent of his power and wealth with this new ‘larger than life’ acquisition. Many elephants were thus moved across the oceans, and the Indian elephant was perfectly suited for it, as it was the most docile of the lot. Tragically many of them died in transit or soon after they arrived, mainly due to the lack of good attention, bad weather, and wrong diet, as we saw in the case of Suleiman and Hanno. In the initial dispatches, mahouts were also sent with the elephants, but I guess many of them suffered from the same amount of homesickness and perished quickly in foreign lands.

As we read over many articles, the monsoon trade connected India’s south, especially Calicut and Cochin with many Red Sea ports. Egypt became an epicenter for imports, with the establishment of the Mamluk sultanate. Later, when the Ottomans conquered it in 1517, the reins of the Indian spice trade moved to Turkish masters. The Egyptian government was now headed by bureaucratic officials sent from Constantinople and supported by Ottoman troops, though the Mamluks continued to rule as the powerful emirs under them.

Trade with Malabar did not suffer and continued, with the marked regularity of the monsoons. Goods arrived at Egypt after being initially unloaded at Red Sea ports and branched either towards the spice bazaars of Istanbul or Westwards to Venetian ports for disbursement into Europe. To get to the finer details, one may peruse this study of mine covering the final years of the Mamluk era. (See link). There were powerful forces vying to wrest this trade away from the Arabs and so, Western interlopers from Spain and Portugal, as also from Easterly China, were viewing the scene with keen eyes. Spices, textiles, and gems traveled westwards, while horses moved East to buyers in the Sultanates of Deccan as well as the Mughals. Space in the small dhows which traversed these oceans was always at a premium and therefore only prized animals found occasional charter. Transporting elephants was particularly difficult as they needed huge amounts of food and water to be carried along during the voyage, and this took away cargo and crew space. They could as you can now understand, only be afforded by very rich buyers, typically sovereigns.

The first notices of Elephants in Turkey, date way back to the 6th century at Cappadocia and at Constantinople (Pre Ottoman-Istanbul) as well as the menageries at Fustat in Cairo during the 9th century. Byzantine Emperor Constantine IX paraded an elephant during the 11th. These reached their new destinations via Egyptian emirs, as gifts. There were several elephant stables in Byzantine Constantinople, from which the animals were brought to the Ottoman court, on special occasions. Several of these stables were converted into mosques after the Muslims finally captured the city in 1453.

After the 1517 sack of Egypt, the Ottoman capital of Constantinople got itself directly linked to the Indian Ocean trade. Tigers, monkeys, rhinos, birds, and of course elephants were in demand, especially for the menageries in Constantinople. These menageries were located near the great Topkapi palace and curiously, within an ancient church, the St Johns Church near the Hippodrome. Pierre Belon du Mans a visitor, mentions that larger animals were located within the palace grounds. It seems reasonable to assume that a mahout (elephant handler) accompanied elephants on their journey from the subcontinent and then remained in Istanbul for at least some time to care for the creatures. There is, moreover, some evidence suggesting that elephant handlers were in demand in Istanbul since Ottoman authorities occasionally sought them out and paid for their travel to and maintenance in the city. The gifting of elephants continued as a diplomatic practice in South Asia and as a sign of power and prestige. Mentions continue through the 16th century of elephants heralding battles and gracing palaces. 16th century Istanbul exhibited two skilled elephants, the sight of which was recorded by European envoys. By the 18th century, there was always at least one elephant in the royal stables and large budgets were allocated for its upkeep as well as its mahout. By all accounts, being a mahout accorded meant a comfortable life, and by 1742, there were as many as fourteen men tending to a single elephant.

But we now zoom to one of the two elephants possessed by Sultan Suleyman. He used them for his 1521 campaign, and we can also see mentions where these elephants accompanied his army in the 1526 campaigns. Kemalpasazade mentions them walking like graceful clouds before the Sultan as he marched out of the city on 23 April 1526, and so do Bragaddin and Luigi Bassano.

Melchior Lorck was one such artist who did many sketches of Istanbul. N Westbrook writing about Lorck’s panorama explains - The artist Lorcks, who departed the city in 1559, traveled widely, and spent his time in Istanbul making many drawings that recorded Ottoman costumes, customs, and monuments—an elephant and its driver, a funeral procession, women of a harem, and others depicting building structures. It is not known whether he was commissioned by the sultan to make his portrait, but there are several engravings of the Sultan based, presumably, on drawings he made in Istanbul, and which Melchior Lorck included in his book of views of the city. Lorck did in his portraits of Suleiman, while his panorama of the city of Constantinople, was more than 11 meters long. He is also recorded as having painted twelve portraits of the Sultan, though they were later destroyed in a fire.

Marina Warner reviewing a Lorch book (A view of a view) states - Lorck had a brief audience with the sultan, which he re-created afterward in two different prints, both extraordinarily impressive, revealing his underused capacity for psychological insight: a head and shoulders portrait, and a full-length figure positioned in front of the Suleimaniye mosque, completed in 1557 (Lorck was in Istanbul for its opening). In the full-length portrait, Suleiman is standing with his right hand extended in a gesture that admonishes all those who are present to remain alert; everything about him is grave, and imposing; he appears to be 12 feet tall, erect and majestic, with a curved sword reaching down to the floor, his frame flowing with gleaming silk, dwarfing an elephant which is entering the palace through the archway behind him. The painted version, which Lorck sent to the emperor Maximilian II, seems to have vanished.

The engraving of Suleyman II, (the Sultan shown standing, with an elephant with the Süleymaniye mosque in the background, a print of 1574, thought to be based upon a drawing of 1559), was again altered in 1688 to represent Ibrahim I. This above painting, which you can see above is the one that Shafak Elif observed. She explains - Inside the book - Gülru Necipoğlu’s - The Age of Sinan: Architectural Culture in the Ottoman Empire, one particular drawing caught my eye: it was a painting of Sultan Suleiman, tall and sleek in his kaftan. But it was the figures in the background that intrigued me. There was an elephant and a mahout in front of the Suleimaniye Mosque; they were hovering on the edge of the picture, as if ready to run away, unsure as to what they were doing in the same frame as the Sultan and the monument dedicated to him. I could not take my eyes off this image. The story had found me.

So much for the elephant, and though I could gather nothing about its antecedents, I would assume that like many who preceded them and many after, they too had been captured near Nelliyampathy or the Anamalai forests near Palghat, and shipped through a port in Malabar, usually Calicut or Ponnani.

Now we come to the second part which deals with the fictional involvement of Jehan and his dome-building skills being put to test in building the greatest edifice at Agra, the Taj Mahal. But let us see what that story is about. I won’t spill the beans on what Jehan did in the fictional account, but he arrived at Agra in 1632. The draftsman in charge of construction Mir Abdul Karim takes him in, after seeing the seal of Mimar Sinan the great, with Jahan (Mimar Sinan- The son of Greek or Armenian Christian parents, Sinan entered his father’s trade as a stone mason and carpenter and rose to become the most celebrated of all Ottoman architects, whose ideas, perfected in the construction of mosques and other buildings, served as the basic themes for virtually all later Turkish religious and civic architecture) takes him in. Jahan Khan Rumi is then appointed by Shajahan to contribute to the building of the Taj Mahal. Jahan invites his favorite student Isa and they set about designing the magnificent edifice and what the Turkish craftsmen were in those days famous for, building the dome. If only, the story is as pat as Shafak puts it, though the Taj part of the book is hurried through with an aging Jehan, becoming a family man.

In reality, the architecture of the Taj Mahal is still a hotly contested topic. For such a prominent monument, there are no clear records of its architect, and the general conjuncture is that it was the effort of a huge team (1,000 - 20,000) that worked for 10-22 years from 1632 AD, on land/structure purchased from Raja Jai Singh, with even the emperor Shahjahan contributing to its design.

Arguments fly, not without sparks, from some who say that it was a temple complex retrofitted into a mausoleum, with others contesting it stating that the Taj looks like no other temple, while some experts chime in saying it cannot be a retrofit (old structure re-laid with marble, with a single door and decorative minarets around) as there are no clear clues of an earlier construction in the design or in its structure. Then there are comments that the dome is based on the Lotus canopy (bulbous dome) - an old temple concept, and that this dome is unlike any Turkish mosque dome (true, it does look more like most Samarkand domes), especially Mimar Sinan’s Blue Mosque.

P. N. Oak in his book "The Taj Mahal is a Temple Palace” opines that it was originally a temple in the 12th century AD, which fell to Rajput kings during the period of Humayun and was later used as a palace by Raja Man Singh of Jaipur. This according to him, was then commandeered by Shahjahan from Raja Jai Singh of Jaipur and converted into a mausoleum. Proponents of this thinking add further that it does not accurately align (off by 15 degrees) to Mecca, as most Muslim monuments do. Then there is the Aurangzeb letter of 1652 which records that the master architects had no solution to dome leaks, suggesting they were washing their hands off something they had nothing to do with, in the first place. Yet others state that Samarkand domes were in the first place, actually built in the lotus style by Buddhist architects taken as prisoners by Timur, the lame. Nevertheless, neither side present clinching arguments or evidence.

After some pottering about, trying to get to the bottom of this, I realized that I would find no clear answer and that the surviving legends had taken deep root. Strange also is the fact that the Mughal court had so many European emissaries and none recorded details of this massive construction effort – barring a few sparse mentions by Peter Mundy the EIC man in town, Tavernier, the French gem trader, F Bernier, and also Thevenot, thereby raising questions as to whether it was a 1,000-person effort spanning 10 years or a 20,000-person effort spanning all of 20 years. The deeper one went, the more the questions he ended up with, suggesting that the real truth may be somewhere in the grey zone.

Two names however stand out to support the traditional argument that it was built from scratch on Hari Singh’s land – Ustad Isa (Discounting names such as the Italian Geronimo Veroneo, the Frenchman Bordeaux, and Persian Ali Mardan) and Ustad Ahmad Lahori. There are even mentions of Shahjahan having drawn up the design, but then again, in those days like in the case of some musical compositions, the credit for a building's design also went usually to its patron, rather than its architects.

There are draftsmen, masons, goldsmiths, and so on named in palace accounts, and Prof Nath in his books, provides details. For example, there are - Mukrimat Khan and Mir Abdul Karim from Shiraz, chief supervisors and administrators, Ismail Effendi (Ismail Khan Rumi) who had worked for the great Ottomans in Turkey as a designer and builder of the dome, Mohammed Hanif, Chief mason as well as other master masons from Iran, Central Asia and India. The list goes on, naming many artisans and craftsmen, but nobody as a chief designer. The world heritage monument register # 252, Oct 15, 1982 states - The monument, begun in 1632, was finished in 1648; unverified but nonetheless, tenacious, legends attribute its construction to an international team of several thousands of masons, marble-workers, mosaicists, and decorators working under the orders of the architect of the emperor, Ustad Ahmed Lahori.

There were mentions, from no lesser an authority than James Fergusson (supported by Dr Burgess) that Ali Mardan, the Persian refugee was the designer of the Taj Mahal, perhaps based on the similarity between the Shalimar Gardens and the Taj’s Garden. This never found any acceptance among Taj historians. Those in support of Ustad Isa’s name believed the British explanation, which is considered flawed. One Carlo Basil suggested that Ustad Isa was actually Geronimo Veroneo! This was echoed by Rev Heras and Vincent Smith, but contemporary writers also failed to support the theory of a European designer. As it turned out, Ustad Isa Khan was a draftsman in the team, not a mimar.

Sometime in 1930, a work in Farsi, named Diwan I Muhandis was discovered by a scholar in Bangalore, a work penned by Lutfullah Muhandis which went on to mention that one Ustad Ahmad Lahori from Lahore designed both the Taj Mahal and the Red Fort. The record which also praised Dara Shikoh (Shahjahan’s son and Aurangzeb’s enemy) was held in secret as Lutfullah was his follower. Fearing retribution from Aurangzeb the family went into hiding and died in penury, survived only by the book. It turns out that Lutfullah was Ustad Ahmad Lahori’s son and he states in the book that his father was the king’s chief architect who built the Mumtaz Mahal mausoleum and the Delhi fort. This was formally presented in a paper by Dr. Nadvi and has been accepted as fact by most historians.

Fergusson, the pioneer in the field of Indian archaeology and an authoritative historian makes this brief but startling remark about the Taj Mahal, "When used as a Baradhari, or pleasure palace, it must always have been the coolest and loveliest of garden retreats, and now that it is sacred to the dead it is the most graceful and the most impressive of the sepulchers of the world" making it clear that he too had doubts about its origins.

Prof R Nath is steadfast in his works that there may not have been any chief architect (other than perhaps Ustad Isa), and decries the naming of Lahori, stating that a verse of a son praising his father’s work, in a private diary cannot be considered factual, without additional corroborating evidence.

But it should be noted that construction work in the Mughal dynasty was usually executed under the supervision of a senior mimar. The term normally denoted a mason but was also used for the chief of works or its supervisor. Ustad Ahmad and Ustad Hamid, were both expert mimars, so one or both of them may have been in charge.  

A rather pessimistic Robert Chisholm had this to say in a 1910 paper - In regard to its architectural merits, buildings can be found in India surpassing it (The Taj Mahal) in every direction: thus, for size and boldness of construction, the Taj falls far below the Gol Gombez at Bijapur. In his paper he details at length the various architectural flaws and explains - It is as if the man with the idea (the so-called chief architect) had been allowed to experiment with white marble in Shahjahan's time on Humayun's tomb, and that while he worked, the idea of the Taj grew and became perfected; that he worked only on those features which he intended the Taj to possess - the great dome and the facade. That a successor, knowing Humayun's tomb to be his source of inspiration, but not understanding the principle on which his predecessor worked, constructed the four smaller domes and the lighthouse-looking minarets at the angles of their platform after the man with the idea left.

It will certainly be a never-ending effort to determine if it was once a temple, just a Baradhari, or built as a sepulcher, but we do know it turned out to be a lovely building, and certainly each argument has its merits and demerits allowing us to reach no firm conclusion. For now, we can conclude that it was a mammoth effort that took many years and many men to complete, and the result is as we all agree, a lovely edifice, and one which we are all proud of, irrespective of who designed it.


The Architect's Apprentice - Shafak, Elif
Islamic Culture, Vol 48, 1974 - Ustad Ahmad Lahori – H I S Kanwar
Eastern world, Jan 1958 - Designer of the Taj – H I S (Hari Inder Singh) Kanwar
The Taj Mahal and its incarnation – Dr R Nath
Taj Mahal – An illuminated Tomb – Begley & Desai plus review/ rejoinder by Dr Nath
The Taj Mahal, Agra, and its relations to Indian architecture - Robert F. Chisholm
The Myth of the Taj Mahal and a New Theory of Its Symbolic Meaning - Wayne E. Begley
The Question of the Taj Mahal - P. S. Bhat and A. L. Athawale
Constructing Melchior Lorichs's Panorama of Constantinople - Nigel Westbrook, Kenneth Rainsbury Dark and Rene van Meeuwen
The Animal in Ottoman Egypt by Alan Mikhail

Also read – Maddy’s Ramblings, Historic alleys

A Pope and an Elephant

Tipu’s delegation to Istanbul