On 17 June 1751, the maharaja of Travancore choreographed for himself a dramatic social upgrade. Originally one of numerous petty chieftains claiming dominion over slivers of the Kerala coast, Martanda Varma had swelled forbiddingly in power over the previous two decades.
He opened his career with the massacre of dozens of his court nobles—they had made the lives of previous rajas difficult, so he had them annihilated. Then he unseated cousins from rival branches of his house, smashing internal threats. Finally, he led his armies into alien territories up the coast: Where a Brahmin ruled, he despatched Muslim and Christian troops; where arms proved useless, he held up gold to provoke defections. Threatened by the Dutch, he even coolly declared plans to invade Europe, before defeating them.
Artful, determined, and possessed of uncommon valour, Martanda Varma was enthroned as the most powerful prince in the land of Malayalam by 1751. But, then as now, mere possession of power did not cement one’s position in the political and social order of the day.
To many of his new subjects, Martanda Varma was a ruthless invader—once, when his soldiers tried to loot a temple, for instance, its priests resisted them with brooms and sticks. To equally large numbers of people, he was the usurper of thrones over which he had no claim—he had caused his own kin to flee, and annexed old principalities with invented provocations. Indeed, as late as 1817, his heirs still expressed suspicion that the people in these conquered districts, “held in subjection by the most cruel and rigorous exercise of despotic power", entertained for their line only “feelings of resentment and hostility".
Martanda Varma, after all, had defanged the Nair lords and replaced them with a new bureaucracy. He had exiled princes and ruled with the aid of Tamil Brahmins. He was the bringer of change and even progress, but he had also soaked the earth with the blood of the ancien régime.
The maharaja understood the import of seizing the narrative. In 1749, he took his first step towards stability through a stunning ritual. Standing before his family deity in the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram that January, he surrendered all his conquests to the almighty. In an instant, Travancore went from being the fruit of violent, illegitimate annexations to becoming the sacred estate of his lord.
So far, defiance of Martanda Varma might have been justified as a matter of politics—now, rebellion against the state was an insurrection against its esteemed deity. For the maharaja, the dedication may have been a spiritual act as well, of course, but its strategic implications were manifest—he ruled now as Padmanabha dasa, servant of the divine, his every action shielded by the aura of God.
But there were even more innovations afoot to marshal legitimacy for Travancore and its ruler. Hitherto, for instance, royal blood had not been sacred: The rulers of his house were first among equals, only nominally superior in caste to their noblemen. Now, however, Martanda Varma sought to confirm for his dynasty a position that enshrined them above their people. As early as 1739, the Dutch had recorded his anxiety to acquire the sacred thread, and, as a local chronicle adds, the king knew he would have to perform certain rituals, for only “then may I wear the sacerdotal thread".
Indeed, for all his power, Martanda Varma still did not enjoy a caste status equal to the (politically impotent) raja of Cochin, through whose veins coursed the bluest blood in Kerala. In fact, when the over-mighty warrior king met his rather demure Cochin counterpart, he was barred by custom from even taking a seat in the latter’s presence.
It was another ceremony, then, that rectified this state of affairs in 1751. Hiranyagarbha was well known among princes seeking a caste promotion. The zamorin of Calicut once performed this in the previous century, and one of the Nayaka rulers of Tamil country was also “reborn" a Kshatriya through its means. Central to the ceremony was the figure of a cow made of gold—the aspirant made his way into his expensive new “mother", spent time within the “womb", while priests chanted birth mantras, and then, at an auspicious moment, emerged from under the cow’s tail, reborn into Kshatriya-hood. Interestingly, in the case of the Nayaka, the ceremony included landing in the arms of his priest’s wife. “She played," we are informed, “the role of midwife, rocking and caressing him while he cried like an infant." The priest, of course, got to keep the golden cow.
And so it was that Martanda Varma too acquired the sacred thread and his social upgrade. His nephew would perform the ritual on an even more magnificent scale, with the result, the Dutch noted, that “not only has he himself been made a noble but his posterity also have been ennobled once for all". By the late 19th century, in fact, these procedures had “the desired effect, for since that time the people of Travancore have had a…sacred regard for the royal house". The “position of the Travancore sovereign has become somewhat parallel to that of the Pope in Rome," a court historian wrote, “and therefore neither the people nor the servants of the State would dare to disobey the king", let alone plot mutiny or murder.
Well before Martanda Varma went to the grave in 1758, the advantages of having the destinies of the throne tied to such ceremonies and their deity became clear. Among the maharaja’s final instructions to his heir was that “not a hair’s breadth of alteration or deviation" was to be made in the customs and institutions he had established. For on this depended the narrative of the state he founded, and the stability and endurance of the royal house of which he was head.
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).
He tweets at @UnamPillai