Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Paolino Bartolomeo and Karthika Tirunal Rama Varma Rajah (Dharma Rajah) of Travancore.

Filip Vezdin or Bartholomeo a portrait from 1793
Most of the information we have presently of our past are derived through the writings of travelers from abroad who visited our country from various times. The Europeans at large had the uncanny ability to record history as it unfolded before their eyes. They were also very meticulous in the details so that we are able to understand about various customs of ours as our forefathers practiced it. Missionaries like Samuel Mateer, Visscher, Spencer and Bartolomeo who visited Travancore wrote not only about the missionary work but also about the customs of the natives, the flora and fauna, Indian music, local governance and about the industries. Though we could find many a mistake in their observations and most often may disagree vociferously about many, we must admit that these were written out of their perspective and conviction and as such need to be respected.

In this context, probably out of my limited scholarship in historical matters pertaining to our country, I have noticed that there are very few factual recordings of actual meetings between the Travancore Rajas and the foreign dignitaries mentioning the conversations in the first person; at least not much are made public by the royal courts. Some interesting notes could be had from the account of Father Paolino Da San Bartolomeo, a barefooted Carmelite, who resided in Malabar, Cochin and Travancore, between 1776 and 1789, during the reign of Karthika Tirunal Rama Varma Rajah popularly known as Dharma Raja.

Filip Vezdin (1748-1806), with the monastic name Paulin of St. Bartholomew, a pioneer of European Indology, was born in a Croatian village of Cimov in Austria. He is the author of Sidharubam seu gramatica samscrdamica, the first printed Sanskrit grammar in Europe, published in 1790 in Rome.



He wrote numerous works on Indian culture, and in addition to Sanskrit also learned Malayalam, in which he wrote some books. At the request of Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma Rajah of the Travancore, he wrote an English-Portuguese-Malayalam grammar. The Rajah, enthusiastic with Vezdin's fluency in Malayalam, asked him to be his teacher of English and Portuguese in his palace in Padmanabhapuram.
His remarkable book, A Voyage to the East Indies containing an Account of the Manners and Customs of the Natives with a geographical description of the Country collected from observations made during a Residence of thirteen years, between 1776 and 1789, in districts little frequented by the Europeans was originally published in Rome in 1796. Two years later, a German edition was released from which we get the English translation of this interesting journal.
It was during a crucial period of Travancore history that Bartolomeo visited the place. Marthanda Varma, the founder of modern Travancore had passed away and the country was ruled by his successor, Karthika Tirunal Rama Varma Rajah. Eustachius Benedictus de Lannoy, the Flemish naval commander of the Dutch East India Company who was defeated in the battle of Colachel in 1741 by Marthanda Varma had later become the Valia Kappithan of Travancore army. He modernized the army and helped Marthanda Varma and later Karthika Thirunal to annex many principalities to Travancore.In 1764, the Travancore army advanced to Arookkutty, a few miles south from Cochin and the commander in chief, Marthanda Pillai, laid siege to the place which were completed by de Lannoy. Bartolomeo formed an acquaintance with De Lannoy at Kartikapalli in the year 1777 as mentioned by him in the chronicles.

De Lannoy surrendering before Marthanda Varma
Bartolomeo writes thus:
He drove Samuri on the other fide of the river from Alangatta and Codungalur ; aligned a small spot to the king of Cochin for his support ; made himself mailer of all the fortrefles ; put the king's troops on the fame footing as the European ; divided among them the conquered lands ; caused them frequently to march through the country with full military parade, in order to keep the people in subjection to their rulers ;and after Vira Martanda’s death, gave the kingdom, in which perfect tranquility was now restored, to the present sovereign Rama Varma, who had just entered the twenty-fourth year of his age. Thus ended the dominion of the petty Malabar sovereigns and princes: thus was humanity avenged; and thus were the crimes punished, and the licentiousness suppressed, by which this country had been diffracted ever since the tenth century.

Dharmarajah of Travancore (r.1758-98)

The Travancore Army:
The Rajah’s military forces consist of 50,000 men, disciplined according to the European manner and 100000 Malabar Native Infantry armed with bows and arrows, spears, swords, and battle-axes. He keeps two Valia Sarvadhikariakkar, the Vadakkemugham and the Thekkemugham. Each of these has under him four other officers, called Sarvadhikariakkar having inspection over four subalterns or Kariakkar. Under kariakkars there are Pravarthikar, Chandrakkar and Thorakkar or collectors of the taxes, overseers and judges.
“The troops are always marching up and down through the country, to change their cantonments, to enforce the collection of the taxes, and to preserve peace and tranquility. Public security is again restored throughout the whole country; robbery and murder are no longer heard of; no one has occasion to be afraid on the highways; religious worship is never interrupted; and people may rest assured that on every occasion justice will be speedily administered.”
The dress of the Rajah and his procession :
He generally wears a turban of dark blue silk; a long white robe, fattened at the breadth with a firing of diamonds; long wide drawers, of red silk ; and shoes, the points of which are bent backwards like those of the Chiefs. A Fabre is suspended from his shoulders; and in the blue girdle bound round his loins is stuck a poniard or Persian dagger, which can be used either for attack or defence. When he shows himself to the people in full sight, he is attended by 5000 or 6000 men, together with a great number of palanquins and elephants. At the head of the procession is a band of musicians, and two court-poets, who celebrate in songs his great achievements. He is borne in a palanquin; and the principal gentlemen of his court must walk on each side of it. In my time he was very much attached to the Catholic missionaries. As often as he palled by the parsonage house at Angengo where I resided two years, he always sent two of the gentlemen of his bed-chamber to enquire after my health.

The enemies of the Rajah
Bartolomeo mentions Tippu Sultan, Prince of Mysore and Mohammed Ali Khan the prince of Arcot as two enemies of the sovereign. Khan could make an attack by Tovala, a fortress near Cape Comorin and Tippu could attempt it from Palakkattusseri. Because of these threats, Dharma Raja was obliged to conclude a treaty of alliance with the English by which the Rajah was to pay an annual tribute of 50000 rupees besides providing horses, cannons, soldiers and rice during war times.
Bartolomeo further writes as follows: “He is an affable, polite, contented, prudent, and friendly man. On account of the integrity of his character, and his many good moral qualities, it is more to be lamented that he is so zealously attached to idolatry, and is so much blinded as not to perceive the value of the Christian religion. It cannot, however, be denied, that nothing tends so much to rivet the affection of subjects, as when the sovereign adheres to the established religion, and worships the deity in the same manner as his people. Rama Varmar never omits being present at the ceremonies and devotional exercises of the Pagans”
We could conclude that some of his observations are formed obviously from his perspectives as a missionary.


Missionary Affairs and the Audience of the King of Travancore
Pope Clement XIV by an apostolical letter dated 2nd July 1774 had recommended the Christians of Malabar to the protection of the king of Travancore. By the time this letter arrived at Verapoly the Pravarthikar had taken possession of some land of the church and insisted on payments of tax as others used to pay. The missionaries including Bartolomeo insisted that Marthanda Pillai the commander in chief and prime minister of the former king Vira Marthanda Varma had declared them free from all public burdens whatever. Since the official did not pay heed to the arguments, they decided to meet the king in person.
Bartolommeo’s delegation proceeded to Trivandrum on the 20th of June 1780 carrying with them some offerings to the Rajah which included two European paintings, a large mirror, fifteen pounds of red sandal wood, and twelve bottles of Persian rose water. M. Adrian Moens governor of Cochin and M. John Torlefs governor of Angengo had referred the arrival of the guests to the Rajah and hence the Diwan received them with all courtesies.
Now, we may read it in Bartolommeo’s own words:
He received us standing, and surrounded by a great number of princes and officers. Near him flood his son, with a drawn fabre in his hand •, and, in a shady place were three chairs, one of which was destined for the king, and the other two for me and my colleague. When we had all three taken our feats, the attendants formed a circle around us. I then produced the pope's letter, which I had hitherto carried in a pocket-book richly embroidered according to the eastern manner; raised it aloft; applied it to my forehead in order to show my respect: for the personage in whose name I presented it ; and then delivered it to Sampradi Kesava Pillai, the secretary of state. The latter handed it to the king, who also raised it up, and held it to his forehead as a token of respect for his holiness. At the moment when the pope's letter was delivered there was a general discharge of the cannon of the castle. After the king had asked us some common questions respecting the naval war between the English and the French he enquired of me, in particular, how long I had been in Malabar, and how I had learned to speak the language of the country with so much fluency.
“I have often observed," added he,” that other Europeans are either unacquainted with it, or, for want of the proper pronunciation, express themselves so badly that they can scarcely be understood."
I immediately replied that I had carefully studied the Brahman book Amarasimha. The king, on this answer, seemed highly pleased.
” What “said he, “do you read our books?”
This is the real and principal cause why the king, during the whole time of my residence in Malabar, behaved to me with so much kindness. He entertained the utmost reverence for the writings and religion of his people; and as he saw that they were studied by the Europeans, this paved the way for my obtaining from him afterwards many favours, which were of the greatest benefit to the Christian religion.
When the king had conversed for some time on various topics, he ordered his minister and secretary to give such an answer to our petition, and such relief to our grievances, which we had specified on an Ola, that we might return home perfectly satisfied and easy. For my part, I could not help admiring the goodness of heart, affability, and humanity or this prince, as well as the simplicity of his household establishment and way of life. At that time he and all the persons of his court, according to the Malabar mode, had nothing on their bodies but a small piece of cloth fattened round the loins; and the only mark of distinction by which his royal dignity could be discovered, was a red velvet cap with gold fringes. At our departure he accompanied us as far the door. Next morning the Prime Minister, Kumaran Chembaka Raman Pillai, sent for us to his apartments, and enquired very minutely respecting the behaviour of the Pravatkarer at Verapoly. Being informed that this officer, with the assistance of the Mahometans, had prevented the Christians from frequenting our church, he was highly displeased; and immediately wrote to the Cariacarer at Parur to remove him from his office as an inconsiderate man, who was little acquainted with the king's interest. A new instrument was expedited in our presence, by which immunity from all imports whatever was secured to our convent in future. The king then sent to us by a Brahman, who acted the part of household steward, and who was accompanied by another officer, a service of dimes prepared after the Malabar manner, and which was paid for out of the royal treasury. These particular marks of favour are shown only to such persons as give the king distinguished proofs of their respect.
Bartolomeo writes that Dharma Raja spoke English exceedingly well. Since Bartolomeo spoke both Malayalam and English, the Rajah sent his chamberlain Payyampilli Kurup asking clarifications about the parts of speech of the English language. Even though he had an English master to teach him, his explanations were not in Malayalam and hence he wanted better understanding of the grammar. Bartolomeo’s explanations were much liked by the Rajah that reportedly called him Guru and wanted Bartolomeo to be retained in his court which of course was resented by others. Before he returned to Europe, Bartolomeo managed to get a reply to the Pope from the Rajah through Payyampilli Kurup addressed to Pope Pius VI. In this letter, the Rajah besides other things assured the Pope that he shall protect the missionaries and Christians in general especially recommended by his holiness. Pietro de Vegas, who instructed the king in English, and who had the care of the correspondence with foreign courts, translated it into Portuguese and the Rajah subscribed it with his own hand. Pope Pius VI replied the Rajah through an apostolic letter dated 24th February 1790 along with his portrait and this was submitted to the Rajah on 13th May 1793 by Bartolomeo’s agent Father Franciscus.
“The king, indeed, soon after, took such measures that all the grievances of the Malabar Christians were redressed in the kindest manner; and he presented Father Franciscus with a gold bracelet worth 100 rupees. There is reason, therefore, to hope that Christianity on the Malabar Coast will acquire new strength, and be again raised to its former state of respectability. “
Second visit
In 1783 some of the clergy on the coast of Travancore imposed some fines on the Christian fishermen of their congregations. Resisting this, the fishermen complained to the king, who was then at Padmanabhapuram, and requested the expulsion of these ecclesiastics from the kingdom. In this context the Rajah sent a letter to Carlos Conrad, the bishop. He was sick at that time and Bartolomeo was deputed to meet the king.
“When I approached the palace, the king's guard of honour, confiding of 500 men, came under arms to meet me ; and formed themselves into two lines, between which 1 was obliged to pass. The king, who was fitting in an European arm-chair, received me with great friendship, and addressed me as follows:
“I have sent for you, Father, that you may settle the disputes between my Christian subjects and your clergy. It is my will that the clergy have a sufficient maintenance and a proper income for their support; but I will not suffer them to oppress my subjects by the imposition of fines.”
“Look,” added he, here lands my minister (the Sarvadhikariakkar Nagam Pillai), and there my secretary (Sampradi Keshava Pillai, devise with them what is best to be done, and then let me know the result."
Bartolomeo was at Padmanabhapuram for 16 days as the king did not allow departure till the dispute was completely fettled. Apparently it was the time of Durgapuja festivals.
“During that period his majesty sent to me every day the Kopu, which is a certain dish prepared in the Malabar manner. As the festival of the goddess Saraswathi was then celebrating, (on which account, as I have already said, the gates of the city were shut,) I employed a part of my time in observing the religious practices of the Brahmans. “
Bartolomeo took leave of the Rajah after 16 days and after settling the disputes. He also collected a letter from the Prime Minister Kumaran Chembaka Raman Pillai to the officer at Ambalapuzha on this. He was also paid 100 kalian fanam towards travel expenses and the palanquin bearers were paid from the royal treasury.
His following comments are noticeable.
“This letter of a Pagan minister may serve as a proof, how much power the light of found reason has among a people whom the Europeans call barbarous. It affords a specimen also of the policy and attention to the executive part of government which prevail at the court of this Malabar monarch. He has only to command, and his orders are immediately executed with the utmost punctuality. His ministers neither can nor dare have recourse to such subterfuges as those of the European courts An oath from the king, a small twig suspended at the door in his name, or mere confinement at one's own house, is a check upon the conduct of the minister, as well as upon that of the other subjects, "When such mild measures, however, do not produce the intended effect, the offenders are subjected to a fine, or to corporal punishment ; to imprisonment, banishment from the country, or perpetual slavery in chains. “
Third visit
Bartolomeo again visited the Rajah on 21st April 1784 taking with him the Malayalam, English and Portuguese grammar which he had composed and which was sought by the Rajah.
“Scarcely had the king heard of my arrival when he sent two young noblemen, Padmanabha Pillai and Payyampilli Kurup to welcome me in his name, and to attend me to an audience. I found the king in the Veranda, that is, the portico of his palace, fitting on a Persian carpet, and leaning with one arm on a large velvet cushion ornamented with gold fringes. When 1 delivered to him the grammar, his joy seemed to be beyond all description. In my presence he sent for the two lords of his bed chamber, before mentioned ; eschewed them the grammar ; advised them to study it diligently ; and represented to them how necessary it was that princes as well as statesmen, on account of their continual intercourse with the Europeans, mould make themselves acquainted with these languages. On this occasion the king presented me with a gold bracelet, a gold style for writing on palm leaves, and a small knife for cutting these leaves to the proper size. I received from him also a letter to the civil officer at Parur, in consequence of which he was to announce publicly that the king had done me the honour to appoint me one of the gentlemen of his court.”
Other visits
Bartolomeo again called on the Rajah on 8th of September 1786 at Parur for some more favours which were granted.
There was another visit in 1788 to the Rajah near Cochin the country seat of M. Van Angelbec, the Dutch Governor. The Prime Minister Kumaran Chembaka Raman Pillai had died, and was succeeded by the king's secretary Sampradi Keshava Pillai. In 1787, this ambitious Dewan imposed a tribute of 500 crowns to the Verapoly missionary establishment and the bishop was under house arrest till this was paid.
Bartolomeo wanted to see the king who was at Perumanoor, near Cochin but the Diwanji refused permission. Thereupon, he sought the help of Van Angelbec who arranged the meeting with the king.
“The king, as soon as I appeared, saluted me with great civility, and we immediately entered into conversation. All the magistrates and members of the council at Cochin, who were there assembled to pay their respects to the king, and to settle some business respecting the Dutch East India Company, were struck with astonishment. When I told him that our bishop was in confinement, he seemed quite surprised; turned instantly round to the minister, and asked who had given such orders. The minister endeavoured to exculpate himself; but M. Van. Angelbec, interrupting him, said, that bishops ought not to be treated in that manner. The king then caused a letter to be written to the petty officer commanding the party by whom the bishop was guarded, which contained an order for him to withdraw his men ; and the minister, who heard all this, seemed greatly ashamed. “
Bartolomeo’s writings thus capture very interesting moments of Travancore history of the second half of eighteenth century. On the missionary work, he also tells of the conversions he initiated.
“In the two years of my missionary charge that is in 1777 and 1778 I had the good fortune to convert to the Catholic religion forty-fix persons; these were afterwards followed by more than 300. “
He also mentions about a certain Thoma Mapilla, who had been once a Nampoothiri Brahman. It would be interesting if someone researched the antecedents of people like Thoma Mapilla to know the Illam or Mana from which he hailed and the circumstances under which he took the decision of adopting another faith.
A postage stamp was issued by a Cultural Association, Hofam Leithaberge, Austria in 2006, commemorating the 200th death anniversary of Vezdin. It is high time, we in India start thinking of emulating such acts thus remembering the remarkable personalities like Bartolomeo so that our younger generations could learn a lot from their history lessons.
Dubai, 13th May 2009.