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.