Friday, March 21, 2008

Suttee, an eyewitness's account from AD 1824

An old painting on Suttee

Sati, (it means, a chaste woman. Suttee is an English corruption of this word)) was the ancient practice among some north Indian Hindu communities in which the widowed woman immolated herself in the husband’s funeral pyre.

The barbaric custom existed over two millennia till the early part of the 19th century. Though many attempts, over centuries, had been made to forbid the practice, it was Lord William Henry Cavendish-Bentinck, the Governor General of India between AD 1827 and 1835, who passed a regulation ,despite fierce opposition, and declared that all who abetted Suttee were “ guilty of culpable homicide.”

Widow sacrifice has not been peculiar to India alone. E. B. Tylor in his Primitive Culture has provided evidences of such rites among all primitive Aryan nations.

The purpose of this note is not to dwell on the history or the other ritualistic aspects of Suttee, but to bring to the notice of the readers of an eyewitness’s account of an actual rite which he saw in early 1824. Of course, Lord Bentinck also may have read this account, as this happened at Serampore, very near to his head quarters.

An old view of Serampore

The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Miscellany :(Volume XVIII July to December 1824)
- Page 316-

Extract of a letter dated from the river near Serampore, 4th February 1824

Noticing a crowd of natives proceeding in the same direction, I enquired the cause, and was informed that a certain Sircar having died, his two wives proposed to be burned with his body. I joined them, and on arriving at the place, where the sacrifice was to take place, I found a great number of people assembled, the piles prepared and the two women engaged in worshipping, for the last time, the sacred Ganges. They were surrounded by their relations, and seemed to entertain no apprehensions of their approaching fate, nor was any feelings testified by their friends, who were near them. When they left the river, myself and a friend by whom I was accompanied inquired of them whether they were about thus to immolate themselves of their own free will, to which they replied in the affirmative. The elder of the women was fifty, the younger of about forty years of age. The cry of ”Hurree Bol” commenced, they calmly ascended the pile, and taking an adieu of their friends, they laid themselves, the one on the one side, and the other on the other of their departed husband and were quickly enveloped in flames. No appearance of force or undue persuasion existed, intoxicating drugs were not employed, nor were the bamboo levers used to keep them down on the pile, and in a few moments they died, without a struggle. After this the cry of ”Hurree Bol”became louder , the immediate relations seemed to exult in the deed which they had just performed , and I, perfectly horrified, left the scene.

ps: Serampore (Srirampur) is a municipality in the Hoogly District of Kolkata, in West Bengal.
Dubai, Good Friday 2008.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Travancore and the Great Exhibition of London AD 1851

The Great Exhibition , London AD 1851

Curious about the documents pertaining to Travancore history, I chanced upon an original print of the Illustrated London News of 31st January 1852, which featured the engraving of the reception by HH Maharajah of Travancore to the Letter from HM Queen Victoria.

The above photo shows the sketch of the Durbar in which the then Maharajah of Travancore, HH Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma receives the letter of HM the Queen Victoria from the British Resident , Major General W. Cullen. The reception took place on 27th November 1851. A report on the function, as it appeared in the Illustrated London News also is shown .
The details on the same could be summarized as under:

Around AD 1850, Prince Albert, the Royal Consort of Queen Victoria, conceived the idea of a great Exhibition in London, primarily to showcase England as the leader of the industrial revolution. Also the exposition was intended to project the military, economic and technological prowess of England under Queen Victoria.

The Crystal Palace, constructed in Hyde Park for the exhibition was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and it was a huge structure of iron with over a million square feet of glass. The grandiose show had more than 13,000 exhibits from various parts of the empire including India, and the recent white settlements of Australia and New Zealand and the world. The exhibits included the Jacquard loom, tools, kitchen appliances, steel-making displays and a reaping machine from the United States. More than 6 million visitors saw the exhibition.

The profits from this were used to establish many landmark institutions of later years like the Albert Hall, the Science Museum, the National History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.

In AD 1849, the Madras government informed the Maharajah, HH Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma, of the conducting of a great exhibition in London and requested His Highness’s government to make suitable contributions. The Maharajah, ordered a committee to be formed for this for which,Maj.Gen Cullen, the Resident, Dr.Paterson, the Durbar Physician, Mr.Kohlhoff, a judge of appeal court, and Ramen Menon, the Dewan Peishcar, were the members. P.Shangoonny Menon was the secretary to the committee.

An ivory state chair in the shape of a throne, reflecting the craftsmanship of the Travancore artisans, was already under construction for the Maharajah’ use and at this juncture it was thought a fit present to be sent for the Great Exhibition. The Maharajah also desired that once the exhibition was over, the throne be accepted by the Queen Victoria as a token of HH’s regards and esteem. This was fully appreciated by the Resident, Major General Cullen and the Madras Government. Accordingly, the beautiful throne along with many carvings reflecting the Travancore workmanship was sent to England along with the following letter to Her Majesty.

Engraving of the ivory state chair


Her Most Excellent Majesty Alexandrina Victoria


HH Sree Padmanabha Dasa Vanchipala Marthanda Vurmah


“Major General Cullen, the British Resident at my court, and my valued friend and adviser, having conveyed to me a communication, from the Court of Directors of the East India Company, through the Government of Madras, intimating that Your Majesty had been pleased to appoint certain learned and eminent gentlemen as Commissioners for carrying out a project formed at the instance and under the distinguished patronage of Your Majesty’s Royal Consort His Royal Highness Prince Albert, for the collection and exposition in Your Majesty’s city of London, in the ensuing year 1851 of the specimens of produce , manufactures and arts of all countries and nations , and awarding prizes to the most approved productions, and requesting the cooperation and aid of my government in the promotion of this most laudable and important object by collecting and forwarding to the said exhibition, specimens of articles from my country, I have given the most particular instructions to my Dewan for the furnishing of the choicest and most useful and interesting of the productions , which instructions are now being executed with all care and expedition, under the immediate direction of my friend Major General W.Cullen

The transmission of articles from this country for the exhibition, has afforded me an opportunity of which I am anxious to avail myself of forwarding also to London a chair of State , made of ivory, carved and ornamented, the production wholly of the native artists of my country and which I request permission to offer for Your Majesty’s acceptance , as a curiosity, and at the same time as a slight token of my profound respect for Your Majesty’s exalted person and for the numerous and great virtues for which Your Majesty is eminently distinguished.

I beg Your Majesty will graciously condescend to receive this friendly, but humble, tribute, from the Native Prince of a country situated at the very southern extremity of Your Majesty’s vast Indian Empire, who is, as everyone of his predecessors has always been a faithful ally and dependent of the British Government, which on its part, has ever extended to us, its protection and favour, a relation which I humbly trust, will continue to the end of time. And wishing Your Majesty a long happy reign and Your Majesty’s Royal Consort, and all the members of Your Majesty’s illustrious family long life and happiness.

I beg to subscribe myself Your Majesty’s most devoted faithful friend and servant.”

Trevandrum Palace, 11th October 1850.

The state chair in ivory was prominently exhibited in the Crystal Palace, London and it won great acclaim for its beauty, elegance and workmanship. No doubt, Her Majesty was most pleased to accept the gift from the Maharajah after the exhibition.

Towards the end of AD 1851, a reply letter under the Sign Manual came from Her Majesty the Queen to General Cullen through the Madras Government. Since it was a unique experience to Travancore or for the court of any native State, HH considered it no ordinary honour and hence wanted to celebrate the occasion with all grandeur and pomp.

A temporary portico was added to the Durbar Hall and it was richly furnished and decorated. The time of the year was that of Murajapam, a religious ceremony conducted every six years for which Nampoothiri Brahmins from all Travancore and Malabar used to assemble and hence the city was very crowded.

After fixing the date for reception of HM’s letter, by a royal order, beats of tom-tom were done to advise all households in and around the town to decorate the gates and the houses with flowers.

On the day fixed for the function, all officers, save the Diwan, went to the Residency to accompany the procession of the Resident with the Queen’s letter.

The largest elephant of Travancore, richly caparisoned with a silver howdah on top was bringing the letter covered in golden cloth. It was carried by Major Drury, Assistant Resident in full uniform sitting in the howdah. The procession moved and entire distance of a mile between the Residency and the fort was full of carriages, the Nair Brigade, musicians and cheering people.

The Resident, Cullen was waiting at the gate and when Drury, his assistant dismounted from the howdah, with the royal letter, collected the same and entered the Durbar hall. The Maharajah, his nephew and all relatives and top ranking officials were already assembled along with many Nampoothiri Brahmins too.

The previous day, a few companies of the Madras Native Infantry, stationed at Quilon had arrived Trivandrum under the command of Col. Hutton. Along with the Nair Brigade and the mounted bodyguards of the Maharajah, the infantry provided a colourful spectacle to the grand and pompous function.

General Cullen handed over HM’s letter to the Maharajah, at the pre-fixed and auspicious time of 1 pm and HH received it with utmost reverence as the celebrations and gun salutes reverberated in the air. Later, he handed it over to Dewan Krishna Row to read it out to the assembly.
Queen victoria in AD 1876 sitting on the throne presented to her by the Maharajah of Travancore

Sign Manual (Victoria)

We have received safely, the splendid chair of state which your Highness has transmitted to England for our acceptance. It was source of much gratification to us that your highness’ attention enabled us to exhibit in the great exposition of the industry of all nations, so beautiful a specimen of the ability acquired by the natives of your Highness’s country in the carving of ivory.

Your Highness’s chair has occupied a prominent position amongst the wonderful works of art which have been collected in our metropolis and your highness’s liberality and the workmanship of the natives of Travancore have there received due admiration from the vast multitude of spectators.

We shall find a suitable opportunity of conveying to your Highness some token of our esteem, and we hope that it may please the Almighty to vouchsafe to your Highness the enjoyment of many years of health and prosperity.

Given at our court at Osborn this 21st day of August in the year of our Lord 1851and the 15th year of our reign.

Mr. Frederick Christian Lewis (1813-1875), the celebrated European artist was in India at that time and the Maharajah had invited him especially for this function, to sketch the Durbar and the assembly. By the time, the durbar was over he had completed the sketch which was later taken to England for engraving.

This sketch seems to be used in the print of the Illustrated London Times. A painting under the title ‘The Durbar on the Reception by His Highness the Maharaja of Travancore of the letter of Her Majesty Queen Victoria on the 27 November 1851' was done in Trivandrum in 1852. This is in Trivandrum museum.The original engraving, which is elegant and beautiful, is done by F.C. Lewis Snr (1779-1856) after F.C. Lewis Jnr and was published by Graves & Co, London, 1854.
Dubai, 19th March 2008.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Report from the Illustrated London News of AD 1854.Opening of a New Bridge at Travancore - The Maharajah's State Procession-

It is to be admitted that the availability of historical documents, pictures, photographs and other tools for better understanding of our past is rather limited when we consider the history of Travancore and Cochin. Notwithstanding the sincere attempts made by a few of our historians, and other enthusiasts, the desired level of documentations is still elusive.

In this context, I thought it appropriate to bring the following sheets of history for the information of those interested.

The enclosed photo shows the engraving from an original print of over 150 years old, taken from The Illustrated London News Vol XXV of 5th August 1854 titled “Opening of a New Bridge at Travancore - The Rajah's State Procession.”

Full text of the reporting could be seen from the second photograph taken from the print.

This shows the opening of the new bridge over the Karamana river in Trivandrum by the then Maharajah, Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma who reigned between AD 1846 and 1860. He had succeeded his illustrious brother Maharajah Swathi Thirunal.

HH the Maharajah, Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma

HH Marthanda Varma was a scholar in English, Sanskrit, Hindustani, Marathi, Malayalam and Tamil languages. He had absorbed the European styles and fashions and was quite at ease with the Europeans earning their respect. Slavery was abolished under his rule in AD 1854 by a royal proclamation.
Two Diwans viz. Krishna Row and later Madhava Row ably assisted the Maharajah in his progressive measures, which included, among others, an attempt on the first census of Travancore.
In AD 1855, the Maharajah issued a proclamation abolishing the monopoly of pepper, and made it a dutiable item like other staples of the country.
Under his rule, Diwan Madhava Row placed the whole administration of Travancore in four divisions viz. Padmanabhapurarn, Trivandrum, Quilon and Cherthalai.

The work of building the stone bridge, pictured alongside, across the Karamana River was completed, by the engineering department under the command of Lieutenant William Henry Horsley, who had been appointed by HH Swathi Thirunal. Reportedly, the bridge cost the exchequer Rupees One hundred thousand only at that time.

Lt General William Cullen

Lt General William Cullen was the British Resident of Travancore, (AD 1840-60) during the period and was present on the occasion of opening the bridge by the Maharajah on 17th December 1853.

It is very interesting, informative and even amusing to read the report of the Illustrated London News. See the following:

*“This country is favourably known in Europe by the liberal encouragement given by its Rajah to the cultivation of the arts and sciences. The skilfulness of the native carvers is also appreciated in this Country. A splendid example of their work will be remembered in the magnificent ivory throne presented to the Queen by the Rajah of Travancore, and which attracted so much notice at the Great Exhibition of 1851.”

*“Our View shows, near the centre of the bridge, the Rajah’s magnificent state car, before which the old regal carriages at Versailles, and the most brilliant of our Lord Mayor’s, would have to lower their diminished heads.”

*“The car was followed by the Princes, courtiers and native officials in carriages and palanquins, with their attendant host of peons and by a number of elephants in their court costumes”.

*“Only part of the Body Guard is seen in our view; the rest of the procession is lost in the grove of the cocoa-nut trees, and behind the pavilion, where Lt.General Cullen, the British Resident, and other Europeans, shared in the ceremony, and waited on His Highness the Rajah.”

*“The former (Maharajah) is well versed in European science, and is himself an excellent practical chemist. His zeal for the promotion of science has been emphatically exhibited by the liberal scale on which he has for many years maintained a complete Astronomical and Magnetical observatory; and we understand that a second station for the study of Magnetical and meteorological phenomena is now in course of erection on the highest peaks of the Ghats in Travancore. The latter (Lt General Cullen) during his long residence in India, has bestowed his spare time in scientific observation of all kinds , including useful barometrical leveling, of the greater part of India. His encouragement to all scientific works in Travancore, we believe, has been of the greatest moment.”
A good account of the day's proceedings could be read from the book "History of Travancore" by P Sangoonny Menon.

Dubai , 14th March 2008.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Mom’s Eightieth Birthday

My mom celebrated her eightieth birthday on 24th February 2008, at our ancestral house, Parimanathu Kovilakom in Cherthala in the Alleppey District of Kerala.

Eightieth birthday is also known as Aseethy, in Sanskrit.

Nalini Rama Varma

In earlier days, on popular occasions like marriages, Shashtiabdapoorthy (Sixtieth birthday) , Sathabhishekam (Eighty-fourth birthday having seen one thousand full moons) etc, lyrical best wishes, known popularly as “Mangala Pathram” in Malayalam, used to be read in praise of the subject by relatives or acquaintances with poetic skills.
This time, Dinesa Varma of Kattil Kovilakom, Thiruvizha who is a cousin, taken to spirituality and blessed with poetic skills,-presently known as Acharya Sree Visakham Thirunal- wrote and read the following “Mangala Pathram”which was greatly appreciated by all those assembled there.
My duty here is to reproduce the same below for those interested. Just as the many finer aspects of life go unnoticed, the art and habit of writing and dedicating Mangala Pathram also is dying. An amateur English translation by me will help those with lesser command over the Malayalam language to catch the nuances.

Mangala Pathram in Malayalam

Rama Varma

Parimanathu Kovilakom, a view from the south.

Sarpa Kavu -place of serpent worship in the woods-

English Translation of the Mangala Pathram.

Lyrical Best Wishes originally written and read in Malayalam on the eightieth birthday of Nalini Rama Varma of Parimanathu Kovilakom , by Dinesa Varma of Kattil Kovilakom( Acharya Sree Visakham) on 24th February 2008 .

1. My mind, like an ape on the branches of the woods, swings with happiness on sighting the eighty petals that blossom on aunt Nalini*,the lotus.

2.RamaVarma, the uncle and the immaculate man, is not only the husband of the aunt, but is one who has gone much beyond. He is a true general who has braved and broken a thousand moonless nights of this vast ocean of maya#, of desires and temptations.

3.Both of them, like the object and its shadow, used to be omnipresent at all functions of others, about which there is little doubt. Because of this, multitudes of all good people have assembled here to celebrate this auspicious day.

4.When we assemble at Parimanam+, the abode of fragrance, to celebrate this occasion, special fragrance spreads everywhere. Inside the house, fragrance is from the kitchen and outside; the fragrance is spread from the Kavu, the ancient woods in which the serpents are worshipped.

5. Without doubt, you are blessed; your health also is very good just as the serene mind. Oh, mother! Let your Sree Visakham wish you to live here this way for very long with all good fortune and happiness.


* Nalini, in Sanskrit/Malayalam, means lotus
# Maya in Sanskrit denotes the illusionary life.
+Parimanam is the name of the residence. In Malayalam it also means fragrance

Dubai, 6th March 2008.

Payyanur and its oldest Vegetarian Restaurant

Payyanur Pavithra Mothiram This week we visited Payyanur in Cannanore district that is famous as a cultural centre. An unfulfil...