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. 

 

Notes from the Field: Imagining Travancore in the Twenty-First Century

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

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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. 

 

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.