In 1780, a Carmelite monk called Fra Bartolomeo visited the court of Rama Varma, ruler of Travancore, to deliver a papal message
He found the capital of the maharaja to be a reflection of the sophisticated marriage between multiple cultural strands
In 1780, a Carmelite monk called Fra Bartolomeo obtained an audience with the maharaja of Travancore to deliver a message from Pope Clement XIV. The pope, having heard much about the power of the ruler, had declared him protector of all Christians on the Malabar Coast. And while the document had arrived six years earlier, nobody had bothered to actually carry it to its official addressee.
But the delay itself did not cause any offence—on the contrary, when Bartolomeo finally handed over the apostolical letter, the maharaja received it with great solemnity, and, raising it up in his hands, “held it to his forehead as a token of respect for His Holiness". Simultaneously, a gun salute was fired to commemorate the moment, before the middle-aged king proceeded to quiz the monk for the latest updates in the ongoing naval contest between the English and the French.
Rama Varma, better known as Dharmarajah after he gave sanctuary to Brahmins and princes fleeing Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan’s invading armies, was the ruler of a self-consciously Brahminical state. But as the visiting Carmelite father found, the influences surrounding the maharaja’s daily existence were a mix of local as well as patently foreign elements. He received Bartolomeo, for instance, dressed in long robes of Persian style, and just as the prince was surprised by the Christian padre’s knowledge of Malayalam, the latter too was startled to find that the maharaja spoke English “exceedingly well". Indeed, during a subsequent visit in 1784, the father would carry for Dharmarajah a Malayalam-Portuguese-English dictionary, much to the latter’s delight, while in the previous year it was the maharaja who had flattered his Christian guest by sending him special dishes and allowing him to observe a Saraswati festival and the attendant Hindu rites and rituals.
The capital of the maharaja was itself a reflection of the sophisticated marriage the ruler made between multiple cultural strands. Padmanabhapuram—now in Tamil Nadu’s Kanyakumari district—houses a pile of palaces. One structure, known as the Uparika Malika (derived from the Hindustani “upar" for upstairs), is a three-storey tower. The ground floorheld the king’s treasure, while the middle section served as the maharaja’s personal chambers. Lord Padmanabhaswamy, the state deity, was believed to reside on the topmost floor—an ornate canopy bed is still maintained for him, flanked by two “eternal lamps".
Meanwhile, within eyesight of the sanctified space of the Upparika Malika, with its Brahmin servants and Sanskritic rites, stands Indra Vilasam. Built in European style, with airy rooms and high ceilings, this was the allocated space for the Western element in the maharaja’s court. It had its own access to the street, and all the conveniences that foreigners like Bartolomeo would expect.
Blending heterodox practices into daily routines even while staunchly preserving a Brahminical sense of self was not particularly new in Travancore. But it did cause angst to Bartolomeo, who saw the world in black and white. As the monk wondered with genuine surprise, how could an “affable, polite, contented, prudent and friendly" ruler who had no qualms protecting Christians still not “perceive the value of the Christian religion"? How, despite possessing so many charming qualities, could Dharmarajah stay “so zealously attached to idolatry"?
But even as these questions exercised the visitor’s mind, the prince’s imagination was more than capable of reconciling such supposed anomalies. The nawab of Arcot to whom Travancore paid tribute, for instance, sent him a band of Pathans who played shehnais, swarbats and other north Indian instruments. They were graciously accepted and settled. Thereafter, the Pathans became a fixture in royal processions, otherwise replete with Malayali Hindu elements. After British suzerainty was accepted, the Union Jack too made its way into state ceremonials.
Indeed, Travancore itself was a blend of older Sanskritic traditions with modern dynamics of admittedly foreign vintage. Dharmarajah’s uncle, Martanda Varma, forged the kingdom with great difficulty, conquering half of the Kerala coast. But this new Malayali principality was built with the aid of Tamil mercenaries trained by a Dutchman, and soldiers who held arms supplied by the English East India Company.
Indeed, on his deathbed, one of Martanda Varma’s last words of advice to Dharmarajah was to always stay in the good books of the colonial English state. And yet, this very king also simultaneously launched magnificent temple projects, opened feeding-houses to attract Brahmins to his capital, and launched new festivals that saw the twice-born from Kerala and Tamil Nadu descend on his capital every few years for mass recitation of the Vedas. It was with considerable foreign talent and technology that Travancore was created—but that did not spark any contradiction in the minds of its rulers in defining the state in the most Brahminical sense of a Hindu state.
Perhaps it was in the justness of things, then, that this willingness to accept the best of foreign ideas and to fit them into a local mould would come to serve Travancore well in crisis. After Dharmarajah died in 1798, following a long and glorious reign, his successor nearly squandered everything. Then came to the throne a princess, who, like her wiser forbears, recognized that the survival of her Hindu house depended on the favour of an English corporation.
While to her people she remained their orthodox sovereign, she appointed the British resident her minister and gave him actual control: He attached temple properties, promoted missionaries and otherwise “modernized" Travancore, but he also saved it from annexation by his own bosses. The Hindu state, too, left its mark on him. When the princess gave birth to a male heir in 1813, it was this British colonel who went to the abode of Lord Padmanabhaswamy. And there, the evangelical donated to the “pagan" deity a bejewelled umbrella to celebrate the arrival of a new prince in idolatrous Travancore.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).