Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Ivory Throne

I was not too keen on picking another 500 page tome. Having just finished "The Gene", I was looking for something lighter, something which did not have its notes and index running into a hundred pages.

I had almost set the book aside when I decided to flip through the book one last time. I saw a map of South India in the 1920s and an old sepia print titled "The Matriarchs of Mavelikkara", and got hooked.

"The Ivory Throne" by Manu Pillai is more than just the "Chronicles of the House of Travancore". It is a refreshing new way of looking at the history of a kingdom that has, so far,  seen only the fawning eulogies of erstwhile aristocrats, or the dismissive narratives of Marxist historians.

Pillai's attention is focused on the life and times of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. While this is, no doubt, quite interesting, I find myself drawn back to an earlier phase when Kerala saw, within the span of one century (1400-1500), the influence of foreign ships coming from two different directions.

From the East came came Admiral Zheng who sailed from China to Calicut no less than seven times to during the period 1405 to 1430. His fleets had as many as 250 ships manned by 28,000 soldiers. Even after the Ming emperors decided to isolate themselves, there remained in Kerala a fairly large community of Chinese-Malayali's called Chinna Kribala, with one of its stat sailors a pirate named Chinali!

A few decades later, in July 1497, King Manuel of Portugal sent Vasco da Gama to find the fabled spice gardens of India, with a "distinctly expendable crew of convicts and criminals". Ten months later, he was trying to peddle baubles and trinkets at the court of the Zamorin, Manavikrama. Unable to break the Arab monopoly over the spice trade in the first instance, King Manuel sent an armada led by Pedro Alvarez Cabral in 1500.

The Zamorins of Calicut were obviously nor prepared for Cabral's persuasive methods. Stymied by the Arab traders, he decided to let his guns do the talking. A single day of bombardment from the sea, killed nearly 600 people, and then he went about playing one kingdom in Kerala against another.

Once the dust settled, the natives had their fill of internecine wars of attrition ("Kudipaka") while the Europeans had ended up with a trade monopoly, and then some more. It was not until Marthanda Varma took charge of Travancore in 1729 that things started to look up in this part of India.

"The Ivory Throne" leaves me wondering - when will we have more historians piece together this real history of Kerala? What are the secrets that continues to be locked in genetic markers and mitochondrial DNA of the Mallus who come in all colors, shapes and sizes?


* Interview - The Hindu -

* Book - The Ivory Throne -

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