The history of the Royal Banners of Travancore and Cochin, and the Imperial Durbar of 1877.Read More
The Travancore Lines or Nedumkotta as it is called in Malayalam was a legendary bulwark built across Thrissur and Cochin districts of Kerala to stop attacks from north Malabar. Designed initially to restrict access of the Calicut Zamorin in the 1760s, it soon became an all-important barrier against the onslaught of Mysorean armies under Haidar Ali Khan and Tipu Sultan in the 1780s and 90s. Little remains of this edifice that once stretched from Pallippuram fort on the western seaboard near Kodungallur to Anamalai in the Western ghats, stretching across a distance of over 30 miles through Periyar and Chalakudy river plains. The destruction of this great embankment happened over time, but Nedumkotta's sorry fate was sealed in post-independent India, its remains destroyed for the construction of highways and railways, and mined for bricks and stones by locals and pulverized by companies for raw materials and real estate. The capitalist urges of the Indian state and benign neglect that led to the ultimate demise of Nedumkotta merits a critical examination but I will leave that topic for another blog.
The spot breached by Tipu Sultan's army in 1789.
Instead, here I examine the first breach of Nedumkotta by Tipu Sultan's army in 1789. I came across details of the attack in the folds of a British Library record, replete with maps of the Lines and exact points of breach. I have since tried to trace the actual locations of the fortifications with limited success, but others have traced a skeletal schema of Nedumkotta--their journey can be found in this video. My visit to Konor gate, the spot that was breached by Mysorean army is forthcoming in South Asian Archaeology blog, found here.
But first, a little historical background on the Mysorean invasion:
The exceptional ambitions of Haidar Ali and Tipu placed them squarely against the other growing political force in the Indian subcontinent--the British East India Company. Following Haidar, Tipu was set upon a program of extensive military expansion with the intent of taking over not only the smaller kingdoms of South India but territories of the Marathas and the Nizam of Hyderabad. In the 1780s, Tipu's reign threatened all these powers simultaneously, resulting in the forging of a strange alliance headed by the British but in which all other South Indian powers participated. For Tipu, to whom the small kingdoms and chiefdoms of north Malabar and Kanara capitulated like dominoes in the early decades of his reign, these regions provided a crucial path into south Malabar and thereon to Cochin and Travancore. Travancore, a state of considerable wealth, was also a strategic region in Tipu's grand plan--the region's control would allow Tipu to launch attacks on the Carnatic, the English at Madras, and to areas controlled by Marathas and the Nizam with relative ease.
The fables surrounding the person of Tipu (largely concocted by the British and continued to be popular with some sections of Indian populace) as a religious zealot and despot begins in this time period. But these descriptions don't quite align with actuality (more about this will appear as a podcast soon!) What we do know from the hundreds of pages of communications surrounding Tipu in British records is that the British were extremely worried about Mysore's growing powers, and alarmed at the pace in which Tipu was extending his dominions.
In 1789, after capturing lands of Zamorin (Calicut and parts of Palakkad), and Thrissur from Cochin, Tipu marched with great confidence towards Travancore Lines, constructed by Travancore on land belonging to Cochin, to protect both kingdoms from northern incursions. It was a stunning edifice designed as a rampart by Travancore's Flemish general Eustachius de Lannoy to shelter soldiers and store artillery and gunpowder. It contained numerous wells for fresh drinking water, store houses, and underground caves. The north side of the Lines was lined with two protective layers--one, a thick hedge of thorny bramble, and the other, a trench of considerable depth and width.
Tipu's first attempted breach of the Lines ended in a great loss for his army owing in some part to bad luck. Below is part of the map drawn by British Company officials of the Lines including points of breach, army camps, and other details. The middle upper portion of the map clearly shows Tipu's encampment that stretches over a significant portion of the land (I would venture to say that the army camp was spread over at least ten square miles). In the middle of the image, you see the length of Travancore Lines stretching from the fort of Kodungallur on the left, moving eastward towards the Ghats.
The important points in the map include:
'a': Tipu's battery 1
'b': Tipu's battery 2
'c': Vettah fort which was surprised by Mysorean attack
'd': the breach made from battery b
'e': another breach made from battery b but not practicable
'f': leading British officer Captain Knox's position before the attack
'g': Captain Knox's position after the attack
Half-shaded rectangles north of the Lines: Tipu's troops
Half-shaded rectangles south of the Lines: Travancore troops including Nairs & Conjecoots (archers)
Here's what happened on the map, in words (information below is paraphrased from India Office Records at the British Library - MSS Eur E313/7):
The attack on the Lines started on the 18th of December, with Mysorean horsemen approaching the Lines and hurling colorful abuses at soldiers stationed there to elicit from them a violent response. Having failed at that they erected batteries at a and b, and started bombarding the Lines, breaching them at d and e. By early afternoon breach d was practicable and they vigorously cut through the protective thorn bramble hedge, using bamboo laid with cotton to create a bridge over the trench so that the cavalry force could cross over. This mission, having taken a long time, made troops impatient. Seeing this, Tipu led the left flank to Vettia Cottah (the fort marked 'c'). He found a way around the hills nearby and through the bed of a stream, his infantry crossed over to the other side. But a cannon that he tried to take through the hills had to be sent back to breach d for its transport. The troops, however, came around the lines and walking back to breach d, helped their compatriots on the other side in building a path. With sufficient bamboo and cotton, an amicable path was now laid.
The Travancorean soldiers between points c and d, having been completely surprised by this line of attack, fled, but soon from the western end, groups of Nair soldiers and Conjecoots (archers) approached the invading army. Mysorean guns from the bastion was turned on the Travancoreans but, in only its second fire, one of the guns burst causing great loss of life and confusion amongst Mysoreans. Taking advantage of the mayhem, Travancorean soldiers approached with full zeal, charging them with bayonets. While the Mysorean troops took flight in apparent confusion, another group of Travancorean soldiers appeared at c. Mysorean soldiers now started gathering at the breach, many of them standing on the bamboos laid out on the ditch. But the gun burst had created a fire, which spread quickly towards the ditch laid with cotton, killing many of the soldiers crowded there. The author of this record dramatically discusses the "shouts of victory" from the Nairs who then proceeded, he says, to fling the enemy into the ditch as if into a furnace or killed them with bayonets and daggers.
Thousands of Tipu's troops died in the first attack on Travancore Lines. Tipu, himself, appears to have been seriously injured. The author of the record at the time thought Tipu was probably dead as he was said to have received a musket ball to his thigh and an arrow to his back. But Tipu obviously did not succumb to these injuries, as we well know. Mysorean soldiers captured during the siege, however, did confirm that the white horse found dead on the battle site was indeed Tipu's. Many of Tipu's personal objects were also gathered and taken to Travancore including: two strands of colours (state banners), one drum, and Tipu Sultan's silver mounted ivory palanquin. From in and around the palanquin, other objects were seized: a silver box holding 14-15 diamond and other valuable rings, turban plume made of jewels and ornamented with pearl pendants, a small French inkstand along with Tipu Sultan's Persian office seal that contained all his titles, his personal betel box, pistols with his name engraved on them as well as his sword. Considering the importance of the items recovered, it is evident that Tipu must have been in great danger and seriously wounded if these had been left behind.
On a related note, a lot has been said about Tipu Sultan's cruelty towards people inhabiting the regions he invaded, particularly tinged with a notion of a violent Islamism, both in the Company records as well as in some of the modern re-discovery of this colonial-era ruler. The link between religion and political violence in pre-modern India is a topic that is extremely complex and determined by local contexts as much as it is by transnational changes. Richard Davis (and others) have discussed the act of political violence in pre-modern India as processes of state action undertaken by all political actors regardless of region and religion. In this record that I have examined, we see such an an instance of violence against Mysore by Travancorean army. The record reports that not only were those stuck on the Travancorean side of the Lines captured in large numbers and mutilated or thrown into fires, but the Mysorean commanders killed in battle were brought back as trophies to Travancore. The report discusses how the son of Meer Sahib (Tipu's general) was found dead on site, and his head was decapitated by Nair soldiers to present to the Travancore king.
Following the failed first attempt on the Travancore Lines, Tipu Sultan came back with more artillery and infantry in March-April 1790. By April 15, Travancore Lines had capitulated to the Mysorean army without much resistance from Travancore-Cochin soldiers. It is said that his first ignominious defeat at the Lines had enraged Tipu so much that during the second attack, he instructed his army to pulverize the bulwark, which they did in parts for well over a month until May 1790. The way to Travancore was all but paved for Tipu when he had to rapidly withdraw from Malabar to return to his capital under the looming threat of a direct attack by the British. (This would be the third Anglo-Mysore War, 1790-2, that saw Mysore utterly defeated. Tipu entered into a treaty that not only saw him pledge two of his younger sons to the custody of Lord Cornwallis but also ceded half his newly-conquered territory to the Company.) Tipu Sultan never returned to south Malabar. Constant battles over territorial claims kept him well north of Nedumkotta.
As for the Lines, a large portion of it was razed by the British in 1809-1810 citing structural reasons. But as late as 1830s, British soldiers were posted on the Lines. Today, there is little left to see of this grand edifice. Mined for its bricks and land, Nedumkotta suffered the fate of many other historical structures in South Asia--near-total destruction and almost a complete erasure from public memory except in the stories and minds of those who continue to live around the remnants of the structure that stopped the Tiger of Mysore.
The walls around Kanakakunnu Palace grounds in Thiruvananthapuram have recently been beautified with murals, part of a city-wide project called Arteria (2014-16). Credited as one of the largest public art projects in India, the project includes handpainted murals of the postmodern variety, painted across walls lining many public spaces and institutions in the city. Many of the murals are painted to thematically complement the enclosed space's function. The project initiated in 2014 have had many prominent regional artists involved in its first phase.
The Kanakakunnu walls stand apart from other mural projects as it is the only mural series showcasing the history of the state. Painted by Sreelal, the series depict various popular historical vignettes, from Travancore's inception as a modern state under Marthanda Varma in 1729 to its formative days as a state in postcolonial India during and after the reign of the last king Balarama Varma. What caught my attention was the particularized portrayal of Travancore through highly specific and easily identifiable historical events, that were rendered in an accessible pictorial style in one of the most frequented public spaces of the city.
(Click through the slideshow below for an abbreviated version of the history of Travancore as told by Arteria.)
The mural series brings the disassociated history of Travancore into the daily life of the city dweller in a catchy neo-cubist style. These are quite "legible" for any viewer with a nominal understanding of Travancore's history. Murals, however, are almost facsimiles of popular historical photographs or contemporary painted narratives of Travancore rulers. In other words photographs, paintings, and painted murals that are widely circulated on the internet. See two such comparisons below.
Other mural panels are imaginative renderings of famous historical events such as the attack on Travancore by Tipu Sultan and (unrelated) suicide of Velu Thampi Dalawa.
All but one of these panels display the dates or any other factual details in text form associated with the historical events rendered. Indeed, the chronology of events have only been loosely followed. If you click through the first slideshow, you will notice that the most popular and powerful rulers are placed side by side to trace a genealogy that affords the first king Marthanda Varma and the last king Balarama Varma pride of place in the mural series.
On the walls west of the main entrance to the palace grounds, historiography of Travancore kings gives way to political, cultural, and social accomplishments of colonial Travancore. These include images of architectural edifices, educational institutions, cultural symbols of royal power and more. (See some of them below.)
The western walls also show traditional colonial and early postcolonial lives of Keralan/Travancorean people. There is also one snapshot of Mahatma Gandhi and a handful of people in Nehru caps sitting beside a charka--a nod to the independence movement. But besides that vignette, it almost looks as if Kerala (or rather, Travancore) casually and easily slips from kingdom to postcolonial state under the effective guidance of the kings of Travancore. Indeed, no one else of any fame is portrayed in this series.
One could argue that the mural series having been painted outside Kanakakkunnu palace, one of the many palaces belonging to Travancore royal family in the early-twentieth century, mandates such a glorious and exclusive historiography. Yet, it is crucial to ask: What kind of history is the average Keralite in the capital city imbibing from these visual narratives? Why this narrative?
This reproduction of popular historiography--stories that are part of the popular culture of the state--is interesting since it appears to reiterate specific ideas of statehood and Keralan/Travancorean identity. The visuals here, filtered through an ethnic-nationalist lens, reifies the historic identity of the Travancore Malayali as one steeped in princely nostalgia, exhibiting pride over a distinctively Travancorean past.
Last year, I found a small cut-out from The Insurance Press, an insurance newspaper that described the ivory throne presented by Maharaja Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma of Travancore to Queen Victoria of England. The throne was seen by one of the newspaper reporters at the St. Louis Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri. My contact at the Royal Collection Trust (RCT), which manages the throne now, was as surprised as I was at this information for most of the records on the throne were lost in the fire at Windsor Castle.
The short paragraph in Insurance Press from December 1903 reads:
"Among the priceless treasures comprising the Jubilee presents of Queen Victoria, which have been sent to America by King Edward of England, for exhibition at the World's Fair, is a wonderful ivory chair and footstool. These were presented to the late queen by the Maharajah of Travancore. The carving on the chair and the footstool is a revelation of the possibilities of art. The feet are in the form of lions' paws, and the arms terminate in lions' heads. The back is in the form of a shell, supported by elephants, rampant. The seat is of alabaster, and the chair has a gold and silver tissue drapery around the underside of the frame, finished with tassels and richly chased ormolu ornaments. The cushions are of green velvet, embroidered in gold and silver thread. Every outside part of the chair is covered with delicately carved figures of men and animals."
There is no doubt from the description that the throne in question is the Travancore ivory throne, even though a few of the details are questionable and/or inaccurate. For example, the report claims the seat to be made of alabaster, but it is actually made of elephant teeth. (See a conservation video from RCT here for a closer look.) But other details such as the mention of tassels and tissues lining the underside of the throne is accurate, as seen in an 1851 salted paper print of the throne below (left).
While information about the throne's visit to the United States is scant, I found some more mentions of the throne in other publications. In the History of Louisiana Purchase Exposition (Bennitt et. al, 1905), the throne is listed among many other things in the collection that's referred to, again, as "Jubilee presents of Queen Victoria" sent by "the subject princes of her Indian Empire" (Bennitt et al., 1905: 268). The throne is described as the "elegantly carved ivory chair of state" (ibid.). The collection that authors mark as over 400 in number, is mentioned specially as one that stands out among all the displays from the British empire. The authors are keen to point out its popularity in general and particularly with the female viewers: "Four towering London "Bobbies," in the regulation police uniform, took turns in guarding these priceless relics of Queen Victoria's reign, and the throngs passing in and out of the room from the opening to the closing everyday showed that, in offering these exhibits, King Edward had not overestimated the interest American women would take in these testimonials to his venerated mother." (Bennitt et al., 1905: 269)
It is interesting to see what else was included in the large exhibition that in the official press release was titled "The King's Contribution."
From Travancore, there were some other objects in the descriptive list provided here. These include:
"Two great pairs of tusks sent to the late Queen by the Maharajah of Travancore will prove of great interest. These tusks are probably the largest, ever seen. They bear this inscription : —• "Pair of elephant's tusk*, mounted on a buffalo's head carved in ebony, which is supported on four griffins." The tusks are supported higher up by a crossbar of ebony, the whole resting on the heads of four figures representing the incarnations of Vishnu."
Unattributed to Travancore, but another mention of elephant tusk objet d'art follows:
"A pair of elephant's tusks, mounted as flower vases on a stand of rosewood, covered with ivory, is another interesting exhibit. The tusks are mounted with gold, and are entwined by a pepper vine in fruit worked in gold. The vases are supported on two elephants' heads carved in ebony, and rising from out of a base of rock and jungle worked in ivory and elephants' teeth. The trunks of the elephants support a lotus of ivory on which is seated a golden image of Lukshine [Lakshmi], the Goddess of Prosperity."
A little later in the description, the ivory throne is mentioned:
"The Maharajah who sent the pair of tusks sent also a beautiful chair—a sort of Sedan chair of state that is literally covered with gold and diamonds. It has some wonderful ivory carving on- its legs and back and seat. The seat is of alabaster and is hung with gold and silver."
The press release as well as eye-witness accounts of the throne had a large circulation as seen in the appearance of these descriptions in smaller local newspapers like the Kentucky weekly Mt. Sterling Advocate, that posted a small article seen in the image below (Digression: the newspaper's tagline reads, "EDITORIALLY Strictly Democratic; cannot be sidetracked, opposes all class and vicious legislation.") After a description of the throne as seen in the press release above, and with an added accolade cited from Scientific American: "a revelations in the possibilities of art," the articles goes on to describe other items made of elephant tusks. But here, for perhaps, an added dramatic measure, the author remarks: "The maharajah, not satisfied with these truly princely gift, presented also to her majesty two immense pairs of elephants' tusks..." (For more information, see: http://kdl.kyvl.org/catalog/xt7tx921dn3k_8/viewer)
Clearly, the throne and other objets d'art in this discussion is representative of the era of high imperialism, and a definite romanticization of the assorted east in North America, at the time. The association of the throne to the Queen as well as its position as a "gift" from a "subject prince" of India is duly mentioned in all the chronicles, suggesting that the throne remained in popular conception, a political conduit of imperial relationships. More on this can be read in my paper on the role of the ivory throne as political negotiator in British-Travancore relations; abstract can be read here.)
It is also interesting to note here that the throne, contrary to all the descriptions of it provided here, was not a Jubilee gift to the Queen, which happened in 1887 and, then in 1897. The throne was presented to the Queen about 35 years earlier in 1851 at the occasion of the Great Exhibition of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London. The throne was sent as an exhibit-object at the Great Exhibition, following which, Maharaja Uthram Thirunal of Travancore had insisted in the accompanying letter, the Queen accept it as a royal gift. (For more on the topic, you can read a rather long excerpt of my paper on the production of Queen Victoria's ivory throne here.)
In 1851, far from being a subject prince, Travancore considered itself a kingdom autonomous from British-controlled India, and the Maharaja makes that distinction clear in the letter he writes to the Queen, describing Travancore as the small state "neighboring" Her Majesty's empire. We also know from contemporaneous accounts that the throne was initially designed for the Maharaja, and later re-assigned as a gift for the Queen. An erasure of the throne's production history can be seen at play here.
In any case, these various mentions serves to demonstrate the immediate visibility of the ivory throne amongst hundreds of exhibits from the imperial collection, and the alluring quality of the ivory carvings, that find repeated mention in all accounts.
Parting note: It remains to be studied why the ivory throne from Travancore was chosen as Queen Victoria's chair of state in 1877 when she took the title of 'Empress of India.'
Note: All images used in this post, except for those taken by the author with the permission of Royal Collection Trust, belong to the Royal Collection Trust. Photographs by author have been taken after receiving permission from Royal Collection Trust, UK. All rights reserved.
Bennitt, Mark, and Frank Parker Stockbridge. 1905. History of the Louisiana Purchase Exposition: comprising the history of the Louisiana territory, the story of the Louisiana Purchase and a full account of the great exposition, embracing the participation of the states and nations of the world, and other events of the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904. Saint Louis: Universal Exposition Pub. Co.
The Insurance Press. 1905. New York: [F. Webster]. http://books.google.com/books?id=tIRQAAAAYAAJ.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the bed at Padmanabhapuram is the central motif on its head and footboards--a curious mix of European and Indian mythological elements. At the center, enclosed within a stylized ficus-leaf-shape, one finds a handsome serpent wound around a staff. The serpent around a staff is easily identified as the symbol of Asclepius, Greco-Roman god of medicine. (I have had discussions in the past with some scholars who thought differently, more on that here.) The serpent and staff are book-ended by a wide-winged eagle atop and a Kirttimukha (face of glory), both objects associated with protection and guardianship in Hindu visual culture.
(For a full set of photos of the palace in Padmanabhapuram, click here.)
If you look closely, however, the staff itself is, curiously, not a staff. Rather, it is a cross (and a particular kind of cross at that) held at the bottom of its shaft by a pair of human hands (right above the kirttimukha's crown). The subtlety with which Christian and Hindu imagery were brought together for the specific purpose of blessing the king is striking indeed, however, in the type of cross depicted perhaps lies a clue to the identity of the school of artists who produced this bed.
It took me a couple of visits to the bed to notice the pair of hands holding the staff-cross. What struck me is that the way in which these hands hold the staff is particular: when we usually hold something like a stick or a staff we hold it with both our hands clasped in the same direction (figure 1 below). But the pair of hands seen on the headboard is clasped differently, like in figure 2. This is a specific way of holding something in front of you to hoist it up high as well as to balance its weight centrally for a longer period, like a banner that the leader of a band might hold, for example.
The formality of this gestures made me wonder: could it be that the pair of hands is holding something of honor in a procession, perhaps a processional cross?
Christianity practiced along the Malabar Coast was mainly Catholic in ritual although there were older Syriac Christians in Kerala from around 52CE. (For a really great introductory survey of Christianity in India until the early modern period, see Gillman/Klimkeit's Christians in Asia Before 1500 UMich Press, 1999.) Many of the Christian rituals on the Malabar Coast followed Catholic liturgical rites that included spectacular festivals and processions, that continues today. Processional crosses, much like Hindu temple processional idols, were carried in front of these processions.
The processional staff-cross displayed on the headboard may help in identifying the center of production of the custom-made Padmanabhapuram bed. The bed was a gift to Maharaja Marthanda Varma, the ruler of Travancore, from either Portuguese or Dutch traders. (Thus far, no one has been able to concretely attribute the provenance of the bed to one or the other, and confusion reigns regarding its date of manufacture. More on dating woes here.)
My initial guess was that the bed was not produced in Travancore but brought from Fort Kochi (Cochin), the stronghold of Europeans on the Malabar Coast. (Fort Kochi was a safe haven for the Portuguese, and after they were ousted in 1663, it remained under the Dutch until 1795, when Holland ceded all its dominions in India to the British following William V's Kew Letters.) After all, why would the Europeans gift a powerful potentate of the region a bed, medicinal as it may be, from his own kingdom?? My hunch, I found, was supported in the essays of an early-twentieth-century Danish curator of Indian furniture, Wilhelm Slomann. His essays in Burlington Magazine from the 1920s mentioned, in passing, that an active trade center producing export-furniture existed in "Malabar". (I take this to mean Cochin because if it was the southern Malabar coast, Slomann would have addressed it as Travancore; Malabar in twentieth-century meant the British-controlled portions of Kerala to the north of Travancore.) Indeed, a bed that he claims as made in Southern India, looks, at least in basic organizational framework of its design, similar to the Padmanabhapuram bed.
My hunch has turned into a tentative argument with the analysis of the staff-cross. If you take a close look, you will see that the cross has two perpendicular prongs on top. The shorter prong above the longer one, connects the two upper ends of the stylized ficus-leaf frame that surrounds the serpent-wound cross. With no archival documents uncovered thus far (I hope to get hold of Dutch Malabar documents this Fall) it is hard to be absolutely sure, but I contend that the cross resembles the famous Coonan Cross of Mattancheri in Fort Kochi.
Coonan Cross holds special significance for the Malayalee Christians of central Kerala. It was in front of the cross of Our Lady of Life Church, in 1653, that the St. Thomas Christians of Kerala broke into two factions, one who accepted Latin rites brought in by Portuguese Jesuits, and the other, called Malankara Christians, returning to their older Syriac faith. For Malankara Christians, Coonan Cross where the oath was taken held special significance, and with time, it became a place of pilgrimage for local Christians from central Kerala.
The staff-cross on Padmanabhapuram bed's headboard, I suggest, was based on the Coonan Cross from the distinct formation of this cross that is not seen elsewhere on the Malabar Coast. It leads me to make the claim that artists local to Mattancheri in Fort Kochi made the bed since the cross was peculiar to Mattancheri, even today. This would also make sense considering there were direct sea route and ships available from Fort Kochi to various ports in Travancore, by which the bed could have reached Padmanabhapuram.
Further research will tell us more but if this holds true, two things unknown thus far about Kochi society comes into play. First, various Christian denominations continued to work with one another, and if these artists were Malankara Christians, it could be possible that this denomination occupied the lower rung of society, since their Hindu counterparts were considered lower caste at this time. Second, the traditional understanding of the Kerala artist have placed him as categorically Hindu, working for the king and the temples. While we have known about export furniture business and furniture-making geared for the European markets from the works of scholars like Amin Jaffer, we do not have information about these people--who they were, how they worked, organized, and lived, or what strata of society they occupied. So I am looking forward to learning more about this artisanal class.
(May be time to approach Malankara churches for their internal records?!)
*If you have any information on this bed or beds similar to this one, drop me a line!
From 2009, I have been trying to figure out when exactly the bed at Padmanabhapuram palace in Kanyakumari distict, Tamil Nadu was made. Known as Maharaja Marthanda Varma's bed, this remarkable object of majestic stature and intricate craftsmanship is a popularly associated with the legend of Marthanda Varma, called "the maker of modern Kerala."
(For a full set of photos of the palace in Padmanabhapuram, click here)
I know, I know, if it is Marthanda Varma's bed, then what's the big mystery! It's easy to think that this bed, must have been made around the time of Marthanda's rule between 1729 and 1750. But, as it turns out, in my many years of inquiry with the state archaeological department, senior archaeologists, historians, everyone at the palace from director to security guards and janitors, I have not only found no conclusive evidence, but instead, I have been told conflicting stories of the bed's origins. Talk about legendary!
Most people I have spoken with are of the opinion that the bed was a gift from the Dutch East India Company officials in Malabar, although a minority have mentioned Portuguese Jesuits as the bed's donors. At one point, a wooden painted board, advertised this fact to the touring public (see image below) but it has been taken down since. Part of the information provided on the plaque we know is factually incorrect: there is no "Captain Adrian Van Goens" working for the Dutch East India Company (VOC) in Malabar. There was, however, a Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede, a VOC commander stationed in Dutch Malabar in mid-seventeenth century, who worked under Admiral Rijcklof van Goens, who was central to the defeat of the Portuguese in Sri Lanka and southern India. (Note how the two names have been married to create a dashing new name on the plaque.) Commander Rheede was also a person with many interests, and like his peers entertained a scientific curiosity. Rheede with the help of some locals produced the encyclopedic Hortus Malabaricus, the first scientific compendium on India's flora and fauna published in Europe.
So, did van Goens and Rheede present this bed to Marthanda Varma, then?
If they did, they were 60 years too early, for Travancore, the kingdom that later became part of Kerala, did not exist in seventeenth century. In its place was, its predecessor, the Venad kingdom with their capital at Kollam (Quilon) who were tributaries of the Madurai Nayakas. While sources claim that the oldest part of Padmanabhapuram Palace dates from this time, we do not have much proof by way of visual or archival records. (The "Thaikottaram" considered the oldest structure in the palace complex is dated to fifteenth century by some, but the architecture of the building is, in many ways, quite similar to the other buildings in that complex made in the eighteenth century. I, therefore, doubt the dating of that building.)
If, as suggested by many, Admiral van Goens presented this bed to the ruler of the region, then it was definitely not the illustrious ruler Marthanda Varma mentioned here. It could be the little known potentate Aditya Varma, whose name I have not seen anywhere in the annals of Kerala history, except on a dubious website that charts a genealogy of "Hindu" kings of Travancore. In reality, we have little to no information at present about seventeenth-century South Kerala until 1677 when a queen, Umayamma, comes into power at Attingal and signs treaties galore with Europeans. So why then, would, the Dutch East India Company officials lug a really heavy bed all the way to the tip of South India, to produce it as a gift, to a hardly known political figure, whose capital was in Kollam, a good 75 miles north of Padmanabhapuram palace?
While I am still seeking answers to the art historical mystery that is this bed, I have discovered in the last couple of years, the existence of similar beds in Portugal were they have been categorized as "Indo-Portuguese" furniture from eighteenth century. Indeed, in its choice of motifs and stylization, one of these beds that I have seen in person in Sintra Palace Museum in Portugal, have a lot in common with the Padmanabhapuram bed.
Recently, I have taken another stab at analyzing the origins of the bed and you can read more about that here. For now, from my analysis of the bed, I suggest that this bed was probably given in the eighteenth century to Marthanda Varma by Dutch East India Company, since they were the most powerful European group in Malabar Coast at this time. Further, Marthanda Varma's reign saw multiple battles with VOC, culminating in the defeat of a VOC garrison in Colachel in 1741. (Many historians of Kerala proudly claim this event as the "first defeat" of a European army by an Asian king; I have my reservations about calling the event at Colachel a battle.) Indeed, it was after Colachel that the Dutch agreed to sign a treaty of peace with Travancore, a diplomatic maneuver that took many years between 1741 and when it was officially signed it 1753. Perhaps, the bed was a gift that accompanied one of the drafts of this treaty?
Parting note: in a separate post, I have argued that this bed was made in Fort Kochi in central Kerala. You can read about that here.
The central motif on the headboard of the Padmanabhapuram bed is a cornucopia of mixed motifs from European and Indian mythologies. You can take a closer look at the headboard in my photo essay; in this post, however, I am exploring the central icon of the serpent wound around the staff (or as I have argued elsewhere, the staff is actually a processional Christian cross).
If you visit Padmanabhapuram palace, the staff there will waste no time in telling you that the bed in question is a "medicinal cot" made of 64 different types of Ayurvedic woods, and that the serpent wound around the staff is a "Greek symbol of medicine" used by medical and health institutions to this day. (If you stick around long enough on a slow day, the lovely palace guides will even show you some of the playful, hidden lizards sculpted on palace doors.)
A few years back, a professor of early modern Northern European art history suggested that the serpent around the staff is Mercury, the Roman god of trade, a mythological figure that was especially popular with the Dutch traders who spent their lives on maritime routes. This appears to be not the case, since Mercury, a Roman successor to the Greek Hermes, took on all of the latter's characteristics including the association with Caduceus, a staff around which are found two serpents (image on the right).
Mercury's Caduceus and Asclepius's rod have been confusing people forever perhaps, but in 1906, the United States Army Medical Corps adopted Caduceus as their emblem mistaking it for the rod of Asclepius the Healer. Ever since, medical institutions in North America have mistakenly adopted Caduceus as their medicinal emblem. (See images below.)
The helpful professor, however, insisted that, like the US medical institutions, early modern ndian artists who produced the bed, made a similar mistake, in reverse, misinterpreting the rod of Asclepius to be the Caduceus. It would make more sense for European traders, she said, to present a gift that symbolically represented trade than a gift of health to a rival "native" king.
I had nothing concrete at that time to counter her argument. But recently, upon examination of the bed, I have found that the bed is made of many different kinds of woods, some easily identifiable as tropical woods said to possess various medicinal properties, such as Neem (Indian Lilac), Arayal (Ficus Religiosa), and Kanjiram (Poison Nut Tree).* These woods also appear to be placed by design to affect and heal the user. For example, Neem is used at the very top of the cot and towards the middle were the abdomen of an average-sized user would rest. This would seem an appropriate placement of this wood as Neem tree's bark is considered a traditional diuretic and lauded for its ability to detoxify blood.
Further, the Dutch, especially, were known to have had a strong interest in Kerala's horticulture. One of the earliest scientific enquiries of India was the Hortus Malabaricus (Garden of Malabar) produced by the Dutch East India Company under the leadership of Hendrik van Rheede, the Dutch Governor of Malabar from 1669 to 1676. I am inclined to argue that the reading of the bed as a "medicinal cot" is accurate given these associations.
(Although, this now poses a fresh problem: was the bed really made for Marthanda Varma, the ruler of Travancore in eighteenth century, who came into power around 50 years after Hortus became a best seller? More on my dating woes regarding the bed here.)
*The identification of woods that make up the bed is an on-going process. Some of them are more easily identifiable than others. I thank the palace manager and resident historian of Padmanabhapuram for his continued help in identifying wood-types.