Sunday, June 12, 2016

Marthanda Varma's Legacy

Padmanabhapuram Palace

A casual visitor driving on NH-47 from Kerala to Kanyakumari (aka Cape Comorin), Tamil Nadu is stuck by two things: firstly, the roads in Kerala are now much, much better, and that despite change in language, climate and topography, close linkages continue to be forged between the two southernmost districts of Tamil Nadu and Kerala.

My last visit to the Cape was more than three decades ago. It was a journey in an Ambassador taxi packed with cousins from Bombay and I have vivid memories of the large ponds and hills along the way, the visit to the Vivekananda Rock and the long line of vendors selling polished sea-shells and packets of multicolored sands.

Almost every accessible site of historical interest seems to have strong connections with one king of Travancore - Marthanda Varma (1705-1758) .

Marthanda Varma was perhaps the most proactive and agressive of Travancore rulers. He had inherited a weak state surrounded by enemies, at a time when the Europeans had just promoted themselves from supplicants and spice traders, to power brokers and conquistadors.

Varma survived numerous assasination attempts before striking back to decimate his enemies, and to make strategic alliances that would make Kerala what it is today.

It was also during Varma's reign that the Padmanabha Swami Temple in Trivandrum became a major repository for state treasure. Recent discoveries put the value of this treasure at more than USD 1 Trillion!

Yet, when you look at the map it is difficult to understand why Varma made his capital city at Padmanabhapuram, a city far from his hilly hinterland in Kerala and one that was vulnerable to attacks from the land and sea.

Perhaps due to this vulnerable location European traders thought it was logical to start their conquest of Travancore from Colachel port. In 1741, Dutch East India Company forces led by Admiral Eustachius De Lannoy landed at Colachel port and marched north-east towards Padmanabhapuram Palace, hoping that a quick, dirty battle would force a surrender leading to a full control over the spice trade.

Vattakottai Fort, Kanyakumari Distt, TN
Unfortunately for De Lannoy, superior weapons and battle tactics were not of much help when the Travancore kind, Marthanda Verma called in reinforcements from his coastal domains. The Dutch army was not only defeated but the captured European soldiers were offered terms which turned out to be a lot more attractive than the incentives being offered by their employer which was also the richest MNC of the time.

De Lannoy became the Chief Strategist of the Travancore army and, over the next 20 years,  went on to oversee the construction and reinforcement of a number of forts Kerala. He was also instrumental in building a defense line that stopped the Mysorean army led by Tipu Sultan from conquering Travancore.

The original question, however, still remains unanswered: Why did the rulers of Travancore place thier capital city so far away from the hinterland?


* USD 1 Trillion Treasure in Kerala Temple -

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