Before 1877, not many Indian states had what Europeans called 'coat of arms'. There were, of course, royal insignia - some Rajput clans and other kingdoms had historically used the sun as their symbol. Tipu Sultan of Mysore used the tiger and the sun motifs. Such insignia were often displayed on flags during royal ceremonies, while waging war, or atop forts. However, it was not until 1877, specifically, for the Delhi Durbar of 1877, that standardization of armorial bearings for most Indian potentates took place, and that too, at the insistence of the British.
The Delhi Durbar of 1877, the first of its kind, was meant to highlight the might of the British Empire, an event marking Queen Victoria's ascension to the title of Empress of India. (The 1877 Durbar was highly controversial as it diverted funds meant to alleviate the extreme conditions prevailing in the famine-stricken regions of India for creating a spectacle of power and opulence.) It simultaneously marked the end of the old British regime in India as well as proclaimed the British as legitimate successors to the Mughals. The production and standardization of armorial bearings were important to the construction of the new imperial regime. The objective of the regime was to produce an order that would legitimize British as the rightful sovereign of the Indian subcontinent, whereby Indian kings (whom the British referred to as "princes") were subsumed into the pyramidal hierarchy of British imperialism overseas with Queen Victoria at the very apex.
The armorial bearings were like an aide-mémoire that allowed the British (and the Indian potentates) to visualize the new imperial regime on paper and in their courts. Indeed, the success of this strategy can be seen in the speed with which armorial bearings created as logos within royal banners were turned into official seals for many princely states.
On September 02, 1876 a rather urgent letter reached British Resident at Travancore and Cochin Courts, Atholl Mac Gregor. It came from Phillip Hankin at the office of the Governor General of Calcutta. Hankin wanted Mac Gregor to find out if the royal families had “quasi Armorial Bearings” or banners that are in use. And if they did, to send the details of these as soon as possible. What was a short letter turned into a series of back and forth between many parties, each exchange displaying an increasing need to get something done quickly to confirm details at length.
About two weeks later, Mac Gregor replied with a little note and two sketches that he had received from the state offices of Travancore and Cochin. Travancore’s state symbol contained the conch shell – the symbol of Lord Vishnu, whose sleeping form, Shri Padmanabhaswamy, was their tutelary deity. In early October, a very confused British official sent a letter to Mac Gregor. He drew a rough squiggle meant to represent the conch shell and asked what the meaning of it was. “What is the shape… candlestick or lampstand…”
Resident Mac Gregor at Travancore who was also clearly not impressed with the emblems responded with detailed sketches of “…the armorial bearings, if it can be called that.” He went on to explain that neither emblems had any distinct color but the Calcutta foreign office had designed something of an emblem for the Travancore Raja which was a golden-colored conch shell on a blue background. However, as far as the Resident was concerned, the matter was confusing – no one seemed to use a standardized design. The Dewan (Prime Minister) had a pea-green flag and in Aleppey, the Dewan’s Chief Supervisor had made him a banner with a white conch shell within a red oval. Mac Gregor was therefore setting out to the capital of Travancore to settle the matter, but expected a telegram with clarifications to find him before he got there.
True to word, a telegram reached Mac Gregor from Trivandrum. In it was the detail the British wanted confirmed – the emblem was the conch. The national color would be a light yellow, as preferred by the king. (The association is clear – yellow was also Lord Vishnu’s color. More on this some other time.)
On October 17, Mr. Sullivan, (my research suggests this is H.E. Sullivan who was a district court judge in Madras in the 1860s and may have been in Travancore in the 1870s; he was an acting Resident at Travancore in the 1880s) received a letter from the Calcutta office. He was tasked to get the emblems painted before sending to the Government of India, the sender asking, “Haven’t you got several artists in Travancore who will understand these things?” The writer added that if that was impossible, to send a vivid description of the colors so that they can get it done at the Calcutta School of Art.
Up until now, none of the letter writers have really been informed of what the emblems were for, or why had it become a matter of such importance requiring exchange of letters and telegrams practically every other week.
Finally, after a month of back and forth, Mac Gregor realizes why these emblems are important. They were being insisted by the Viceroy himself. They were being made for the first of the grand British imperial Durbars in India, what Mr. Taylor called the “Delhi tamasha.” Taylor was unhappy because the conch shell and the color yellow simply didn’t fulfil the British understanding of what a coat of arms should be. To him, it was “some pretty picture but not heraldic arms.”
Some sort of discussion must have been had about the lack of heraldry in Travancore’s preferred emblem for in a letter dated October 21st, a more developed sketch was sent to Mac Gregor. The sketch displayed the conch shell within a plaque (see below), shielded on both sides by elephants with raised trunks holding different objects. Below this composite sketch was a more complex symbol.
The Dewan’s office now having understood exactly what the Resident wanted sent detailed notes:
“The enclosed is a slightly modified copy of the device I furnished for Ballard with perhaps the following notes may interest you:-
1. The conch shell the chief emblem of their state and one of the four holdings of Vishnu, occupies the centre.
2. The conch shell stands in the middle of a native flag or banner.
3. The flag is held by two elephants. The elephants have been introduced for more than one reasons. They are the most characteristic of the <word> of the indigenous [animals]. Secondly, the ablution of coronation of Lakshmi, our Goddess of prosperity, is said to have been performed by celestial elephants posed as in the design.
4. The elephants hold in the uplifted trunk a cocoanut palm which gives the name of Keralam to the whole coast south of Gokarna and a sheaf of paddy, the chief product of the country. Probably in a second edition of the device, a coffee tree will have to be added!
5. Down below a lotus flower supports the state sword & the feet of Sri Padmanabha.
6. According to Keralolpatti & other traditions the king of Travancore received a crown having Sri Padmanabha's feet on the division of the Kerala Empire. Hence the designation of Trippappur Swarupam.
7. The inner circle of the device has the pepper vine - also a characteristic product of the country.
8. The outer circle has two titles of HH the Maharaja in Devanagari characters. The upper one is Sri Patumanabha Dasah (servant of Sri Patumanabha). The title is, of course, <word> as it forms the very beginning of the long list of titles <words>. Vanchi is one of the names of Travancore & it also occurs in the list of titles.
I think, upon the whole, the design is good. On a reduced scale it will answer for a state seal and, a little enlarged or even in this scale, it will do for a shield or banner. You need not return the design if you care <word> any uses of it.”
While all these discussions are taking place about the Travancore emblem, Cochin, apart from the first response provided, had been quiet. The Cochin government for all intents and purposes were ignoring the Government of India’s reques
A good month after Travancore started responding to the banner requests, Cochin Dewan Shungoony wrote a letter to Resident. MacGregor. The letter started with what Cochin thought most important to discuss – a request for the Resident to send his band from Kollam as there were only three bands in Cochin, and the incoming party with the Governor (presumably of the Madras Presidency) and his wife was large and could not possibly make do with only three bands. Dewan Shungoony subsequently provides the details of the Cochin banner, explaining that “His Highness’ seal” is a conch shell with an umbrella on one side, a traditional lit lamp on the other side and the whole surmounted by a palanquin. The Dewan adds that all these royal emblems have “been used by the Rajahs of Cochin from time immemorial” and that the exact date at which they were adopted as official insignia is unclear. These things, he added, were said to have been bequeathed to the Cochin Rajahs by the legendary ruler of Kerala, Cheraman Perumal. The colors of the flag preferred was red and white (possibly the colors of the Bhagavathi, one of the two tutelary dieties of Cochin) but no motto had yet been adopted and the Raja have no preference on the matter. (Shows how insignificant this particular western idea was to the Cochin raja.)
The letter also made it clear that the Raja himself being old would not be attending and since the Junior Prince (Eliah Raja) had not received an invitation it would be improper for him to attend. This may have been the reason for the Cochin reluctance in the first place for the Raja and his family may have considered it a snub.
In reply to Dewan Shungoony’s relatively long letter, a letter from Calcutta arrived on October 26th. It was almost the end of 1876 and things were heating up in Calcutta in preparation for the Delhi Durbar scheduled in less than three months. The letter displayed this sense of urgency, for the writer (who has one of the worst handwriting I have ever seen, historically or now) could not wait for three more weeks for a reply. There were many things to be sorted – the king of Cochin may not attend but 150 banners for each Indian prince nonetheless had to be prepared. As with Travancore, the letter writer was now confused because earlier in Bombay a banner for Cochin was made that was white with “a hand of rice” of which the colors used were red and orange while the durbar color was a “pale yellow.”
The details attest to the flurry of activity surrounding the first imperial spectacle of its kind in British India, one that was performed to make it clear for once and for all that Britain were the legitimate successors to the Mughals in South Asia. ‘Delhi Tamasha’ as it was called by one of the officials would go on to become the first among three such Durbars, later ones were also held in Delhi in 1903 and 1911. These coronation Durbars paved the way for the transfer of capital from Calcutta to New Delhi post-1911.
For Indian kings, the Durbar was a confusing affair. On the one hand, those kings who had already bought into the western idea of modernity and reform found it an opportunity to present themselves as ideal rulers fit to rule their lands as permitted by the British. On the other hand, they very well knew that by allowing the British to produce their insignia and new banners and other visual imperial imagery, and participating in the Durbar, they were being consecrated into the British imperial hierarchy that placed the British sovereign at the top of a carefully balanced geopolitical pyramid. However for many Indians both royal and nationalist, like the Maharaja of Indore in 1903, the Durbar also became a space to demonstrate their resistance to colonialism (see Manu Bhagavan’s Sovereign Spheres: Princes, Education, and Empire in Colonial India (Oxford University Press, 2003) for more details).
I am not sure what the eventual banner for Cochin looked like but the sketch provided by the Cochin Dewan is actualized in multiple palaces within their domain. Here is one example, seen at the back entrance gateway to the Shakthan Thampuran Palace at Thrissur.
Travancore continued to use their banner well into the twentieth century as seen in the first picture on this post. In the picture, it is proudly displayed behind the last Maharaja of Travancore, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma.
Parting note: The letters regarding the banners are fragments and in places where I have not been able to read the words clearly I have marked it with "<word>". The letters are also not a complete set so we can't know how the very meaningful design that Travancore sent to Madras Presidency (see sketch detail above with two elephants and related notes) became the banner seen on the first photograph with the elephants comically on their hind legs like at a Jumbo Circus!
File source: British Library Asia, Pacific, and Africa Collections (APAC): IOR/R/2/899/6.