Travancore Lines (Nedumkotta): The Last Stand of Travancore against Tipu Sultan

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. 

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Konor Gate

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.

 Map: The Attack on Travancore Lines by Mysorean Army in December 1789 (Image Courtesy: British Library, India Office Records, MSS Eur E313/7)

Map: The Attack on Travancore Lines by Mysorean Army in December 1789 (Image Courtesy: British Library, India Office Records, MSS Eur E313/7)

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. 

 

Closer Look: Can the Central Emblem on Padmanabhapuram Bed Tell Us about its Origins?

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.)

 Central emblem on the Padmanabhapuram bed

Central emblem on the Padmanabhapuram bed

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. 

      Left: Figure 1; Right: Figure 2

     Left: Figure 1; Right: Figure 2

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.

 Christian festival processions in Kerala

Christian festival processions in Kerala

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. 

 Left: A contemporary depiction of the Oath of Coonan Cross; Right: Coonan Cross (identified as the original cross from 17th century) at the Chapel outside Our Lady of Life Church, Mattancheri, Kochi, Kerala

Left: A contemporary depiction of the Oath of Coonan Cross; Right: Coonan Cross (identified as the original cross from 17th century) at the Chapel outside Our Lady of Life Church, Mattancheri, Kochi, 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!

Medicinal Bed, Padmanabhapuram Bed, Kerala (India)

(For a full set of photos of the palace in Padmanabhapuram, click here)

Dating Woes: Where and When in the World was Marthanda Varma's Legendary Bed Made?!

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)

 Bed, Padmanabhapuram Palace, Tamil Nadu

Bed, Padmanabhapuram Palace, Tamil Nadu

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 Malabaricusthe 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. 

 Queen's Secretary's Bed, Sintra Palace, Portugal, 18th century

Queen's Secretary's Bed, Sintra Palace, Portugal, 18th century

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.

Closer Look: Is it Asclepius or Mercury on the Padmanabhapuram Bed?

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).

 Central Motif of Padmanabhapuram Bed

Central Motif of Padmanabhapuram Bed

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). 

 Left: Greek God of Medicine, Asclepius, with his Rod; Right: Mercury with his staff, the Caduceus.

Left: Greek God of Medicine, Asclepius, with his Rod; Right: Mercury with his staff, the Caduceus.

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. 

 Left: Emblem of United Nations World Health Organization (showing rod of Asclepius at the center); Right: Emblem of US Army Medical Corps from 1906 displaying Caduceus

Left: Emblem of United Nations World Health Organization (showing rod of Asclepius at the center); Right: Emblem of US Army Medical Corps from 1906 displaying Caduceus

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.