Monday, May 31, 2010

Princely Coorg and Chikka Veera Rajendra, it’s last Rajah

Scenic beauty of Coorg 1990

Often I have felt that we Indians in general and Keralites in particular know little, literally and figuratively, about our own neighbours.

Coorg, Kodagu (or Kodaimala nadu) often referred to as the Scotland of India was one of our neighbouring independent princely states during the British Raj. Madikeri is the capital of the present day district of Coorg in Karnataka.

The history of the Coorg Rajahs is delineated in the Rajendraname, a work compiled by order of Dodda Vira Rajendra Wodeyar, the hero of Coorg history, and the Coorg beau ideal of a warrior king. It comprises a period of 175 years, from 1633 to 1807.

The life and times of Chikka Veerarajendra, the last Raja of Coorg makes very interesting reading and many of the incidences could beat the hell out of the stories of some Hollywood thrillers. I recall my visit to Madikeri twenty years back when I and my wife stayed there for a week for rest and recuperation enjoying the climate, the food and watching the daily life of the beautiful people of Coorg.

Atop the tomb of Dodda Vira Raja and his Queen 1990

At home, I was browsing some books from my collections which I had not read over the years and found the book Chikka Veera Rajendra written originally in Kannada by Masti Venkatesha Iyengar, the Jnanapith winner. It is a brilliant literary work, a historical novel, depicting the people and incidences of an important period of South Indian history and in particular the times of Chikka Veera Rajendra, the last ruler of Coorg. Masti Venkatesha Iyengar has brought many historical personalities live to the novel and has displayed a rare brilliance in the analysis of human behaviour and character. He also sticks on to historical facts while taking the liberties of an author to make the literary work eminently enjoyable. The book made me read some other books on the last raja of Coorg and about the fascinating story of the Haleri dynasty-Lingayats- which ruled Coorg from AD 1580 till 1834.

Dodda Veera Rajendra (r.1780 - 1809)

Tippu Sultan defeated Coorg in 1784 and took the ruling family as prisoners. Vira Raja or Vira Rajendra Wodeyar, accompanied by his wife and his two brothers Linga Raja and Appaji, the principal survivors of the Coorg Family effected his escape from Periyapatna after a confinement of six years. He assumed the leadership of Coorg and kept the forces of Tippu engaged over the years.

Sir Robert Abercromby, then Governor of Bombay, met Vira Raja at Cannanore in March 1793, when proceeding from Bombay to Calcutta to take up his appointment as Commander-in-Chief of Bengal. Sir Robert honoured the Raja by drawing up a new agreement, to satisfy this gallant ally and to bind him still closer to the interests of the Company. From this time to the end of his life, Vira Raja remained the trusty friend of the Company, and his affairs prospered. On the place where he had first met with General Abercromby on his march to Seringapatam in 1791, the Raja had founded the town of Virarajendrapet in 1792. In April 1795 he took up his residence in the new palace built at Nalknad.

Dodda Veera Rajendra was a most remarkable ruler. But the death of his Rani Mahadevamma in May 1807 threw his mind out of gear and he began to show signs of insecurity and insanity. In fits of rage, he ordered assassinations of his own officers and relatives. Once a palace coup was spoiled and he personally killed over 25 people and hundreds were executed by his African bodyguards. He also arranged the assassination of his two brothers in a rage thinking that the eldest daughter then could ascend the throne with ease. After sending the executioners, he had changed the mind on prevalence of good sense. In the meantime, the executioners had beheaded Appanna, one of the brothers. Linga Raja, the second brother escaped the axe. He wanted Devammaji, the eldest of four daughters from the Rani to succeed him and sought the help of the Governor General to accede to his requests of succession to Devammaji and the protection of his daughters. He also invested over 180000 gold pagodas with the Company and over 3 lakhs of rupees in the name of Devammaji. The gallant Raja, who had fought the onslaught of the Sultans, died a miserable man in fits of madness in 1809.

Epilogue: Devammaji his idolized daughter was married and had four children, two sons and two daughters. She was deprived of the throne and of her father's legacy, and lived in obscurity. Before the end of 1833 her husband was murdered in the palace, she herself carried a prisoner to Mercara, her property seized by her cousin Chikka Vira Raja (a lakh of pagodas at one sweep), and shortly after she herself was murdered at Mercara, and her three surviving children (one boy appears to have died a natural death), massacred at Nalknad, by orders of her relative, and their corpses thrown into pits.

Lingaraja II (1811 - 1820) was the brother of Dodda Veera Rajendra and had been living in his farms away from his brother during his reign. . Lingaraja, a tyrant, barely 34, had usurped the throne with the help of Appanna a capable and sincere Dewan by overthrowing Devammaji who had been initially appointed the Rani by the Chiefs of Coorg.

Vira Rajendra was impelled to deeds of blood by a naturally savage temperament, hardened by habits of internecine warfare in which he was engaged almost throughout life, and inflamed towards the end of his career by paroxysms of the darkest suspicions, and a melancholy ever hovering on the brink of insanity. His brother, Linga Raja, had none of his redeeming qualities. His cruelty was without excuse. He had some ambition to shine as a poet. Some of his pieces, addressed to one of his wives, are still preserved. They have no merit, and were perhaps made for him. However, he may have been a Nero in a small way. Cruelty seems to have been his sport. He liked to kill his victims with his own hand, with gun, bow or knife. For small offences people had their ears cropped, their noses cut, or their tongues clipped. For an impertinent answer men or women had their mouths rinsed, that was the phrase, i. e. their lips were cut off all round their mouths, and they were left to perish without food or drink. Others were thrown down a precipice on the hill side, near the Raja's Seat in Mercara. Many seem to have been destroyed merely for the purpose of confiscating their property, for Linga Raja had as great a passion for gold as for blood.

During the first years of his reign he was restrained from giving full vent to his atrocious propensities by the influence of his Devan, Kshauryakere Appanna, who seems to have been a man of character and independence, bold enough to lecture the tyrant whom he had placed on the throne in preference to the rule of a stranger, the Raja of Sode. But by degrees Linga Raja became impatient of the control of a subject. Appanna, relying on the Raja's gratitude, continued to exhort, to warn and at times "to resist his master. He had mistaken his man. One day the Devan was seized and carried before the Raja. He was charged with treason. He knew that he was doomed. The Raja himself conducted the investigation. “Confess your guilt," he cried. " I am guilty indeed," replied the intrepid minister, "of one crime—of having made a wretch like you Raja of Coorg." Linga Raja was mad with rage. Appanna, with several other so called accomplices, was carried out into the jungle to a distance of some miles. There they were nailed to some large trees, the Raja feasting his eyes on the torments of his helpless victims, who died with curses on their lips.

Linga Raja died in 1820 paving way for his eldest son Chikka Veera to the throne.

Chikka Vira Rajendra and Princess Gowramma

Chikka Veera Rajendra, (r.1820-34: died in 1862) the last Raja of Coorg was a man of many contradictions. Having ascended the musnud at an early age of 20 he was bohemian in nature. He loved his drinks and the harem was always full of beautiful women.

As soon as the young Vira Raja, who was about 20 years old, had taken possession of his father's throne and treasure, he destroyed the people who had displeased or thwarted him during the life of his father. Many members of the family of the Coorg Rajas seem to have fallen at that time. One Channa Vira escaped with his family across the Mysore frontier. But to no purpose; his relative knew how to turn to account his connection with the British Government. Letters and messages were dispatched to Mr. Cole, the Resident in Mysore, requesting him to order the seizure of a refractory farmer who had made his escape from Coorg after having committed a crime, and the delivery of the criminal to the servants of the Raja. Mr. Cole had the man apprehended near Periyapatna, and sent him back to Coorg with a letter to the Raja, requesting information as to the guilt of and the punishment awarded to the refugee. No answer was given to the Resident. Channa Vira was carried to Kantamurnad, where he was massacred with his whole family; twenty two souls on one day.

After this inaugural bloodshed, the new Raja seems to have shown less cruelty than his father or uncle. An intelligent Brahman, intimately acquainted with Coorg affairs, estimated the victims of Dodda Vira Raja's reign at about five thousand ; Linga Raja, he thought, had not killed more than three thousand, or perhaps three thousand five hundred : and the late Raja had not destroyed more than fifteen hundred lives ,if so many. Still, the last man was a greater curse upon Coorg than his predecessors. Less cruel he appears to have been.

But, if less cruel, Vira Raja, young as he was at his accession to the government of Coorg, became a monster of sensuality. He kept the youngest of his father's wives for his use and increased his establishment of concubines to about one hundred.

He had reportedly been influenced greatly by his wily minister Kunta Basava who was lame. Basava was the boyhood friend of Viraraja and had been brought up in the palace as a boy who looked after the dogs and the stables. He was very loyal to his friend and encouraged the vices of his royal buddy. He rose to become a minister under Viraraja which was against the wishes of his court and the people. The fall of Viraraja can greatly be attributed to the undue influence of Basava and his actions.

Viraraja caused his sister Devammaji and her husband Channa Basava to flee the country for life leaving behind their young child who was later murdered by Vira Raja. He also got Muddayya, his munshi and the brother of Channa Basava killed by Kunta Basava.

Repeated advices by the Madras government for good governance went unheeded and this led to the fall of Vira raja.

When Casamajor the Resident requested the Raja to treat Devammaji and the other members of his family kindly, he answered that he required no such admonitions ; but as for Devammaji and her family, they were all dead long since. This was the most barefaced lie. Devammaji indeed, and her sister Mahadevammaji had been murdered, probably before the end of 1832, a month or two before Mr. Casamajor's visit, but her three children were still alive, and were murdered at Nalknad when the British troops crossed the frontiers of Coorg.(Mr. Casamajor, Resident of Mysore was later posted to Travancore-Cochin as Resident)

Devammaji and her sister Mahadeviammaji were hanged by Kunta Basava with the help of a eunuch at Mercara fort at the instance of the Raja. Assuming that their lives will be spared, a scared Devammaji disclosed the place where all her treasures and jewels given by her late father were stored. These were duly taken over by Viraraja.

Similarly, all the family members of Dodda Vira Raja who were put up at Nalknad Palace were disposed of by the executioners and were duly supervised by Kunta Basava, the cruel Dewan of the Rajah.

As the situations worsened, the British government was keen to restore order and to give peaceful times to the people of Coorg. The personal conference of Mr. Casamajor with the Raja in the beginning of 1833 having proved fruitless, the Resident returned to Mysore. Since the Raja had taken a personal dislike to Mr. Casamajor, Mr. Graeme, the Resident at Nagpore, then residing for the benefit of his health at Bangalore, was requested to make a last attempt at an amicable settlement.

Veera Raja was unwilling to meet an English representative, seized and kept in durance two native envoys of Mr. Graeme, named Dara Sait, a Parsee merchant of Tellicherry, and Kalpully Karunakara Menon, a Sheristadar of the Collector of Malabar, who had gone to Coorg. (It may be noted that Karunakara Menon is the same person who was the villain in the defeat and murder of Pazhassi Rajah)

The Raja allowed Data Sait to return to Tellicherry, but he refused Karunakara Menon to set at liberty until the Raja's sister and husband were given up to him by the Government. Having an extraordinary idea of his power and the strength of his country, he resolved on war. He addressed the most insolent letters to Sir F. Adam, Governor of Madras, and to Lord W, Bentinck, the Governor General. He also issued offensive proclamations against the British Government.

Infuriated by all these, the Governor General asked Col. JS Fraser (later the Resident of Travancore- Cochin and a General) Political Agent at Mysore to invade Coorg and to take the Raja a prisoner.

The invading force numbered six thousand men, and was placed under Brigadier Lindsay, in whom was vested the supreme command of the expedition, whilst Col. Fraser was to accompany him in the capacity of Political Agent of the Governor General for Coorg affairs. On the 4th of April 1834, the force in four columns moved forward and met with opposition of varying degrees. Many Coorg forces surrendered and the Raja released Karunakara Menon. However, the Raja himself had not placed himself to the British Government. On the 6th of April, the Union Jack flew at the Mercara fort.

Vira Raja, at the commencement of the war, had removed to his palace at Nalknad, a place almost inaccessible to an army. He had taken with him his women, his band, his treasures and what remained of the Coorg Raja's families, that he might destroy them all if necessary, in order to render it impossible for the English Government to transfer the Principality or the property of the murdered Devammaji to any other heir of Dodda Vira Rajendra, and thus secure his wealth and his country to himself.

The Raja surrendered on the 11th of April after much bloodshed. His close aid and Dewan Kunta Basava on whose head an amount of Rs 1000 had been declared was found hanging on a tree under mysterious circumstances.

By a proclamation of the Governor General, Coorg was brought directly under the Honourable East India Company on the 7th of May 1834, as endorsed by the Chiefs of Coorg.

“On the 12th of May 1834, the he ex-Raja rode away through the town of Mercara, ordering the band to strike up 'the British Grenadier,' as if he had no sense of his fall. A number of his wives accompanied him. In their palkis and his own he concealed vast sums of money in gold, so that the bearers could hardly carry their loads. At the first halting place beyond the frontier of Coorg, at Sirlecote, he buried a great quantity of treasure, for he found the concealment no longer safe, as he was allowed to carry away only ten thousand rupees. A certain Karyagara from Nalknad, who accompanied the Raja, afterwards helped himself to a large amount of this treasure, and when the secret oozed out, he found it necessary to inform Captain Le Hardy that he knew of treasure secreted by the Raja. An elephant was despatched to the eastward under the guidance of the honest Coorg, who faithfully delivered to the Company all he had left there, and received a reward of Rs. 1,000 for his loyalty and honesty. Gold coins were handed about rather freely at Nalknad and are not yet scarce in certain houses.”

Princess Victoria Gowramma c 1835

Vira Raja was sent from Bangalore to Vellore and finally to Benares with his family members on a monthly pension of 6000 pounds.

The British Government confiscated the money deposited in Government securities by his uncle Dodda Vira Raja ; still the Raja was in possession of the valuable jewelry of his murdered cousin Devammaji, which, together with the money carried away from Coorg, enabled him to play, though under Government surveillance, the role of a rich Indian Prince, and to keep up through paid agents a secret correspondence with Coorg, reviving from time to time rumours of his return to the Principality which caused no little anxiety to the English Superintendent of Coorg. When the ex-Raja was convinced of the hopelessness of ever regaining his Principality, he demanded the payment of the capital of Rs.680, 010, the inheritance of his cousin Devammaji, the interest of which he drew up to 1833 through Messrs. Binny & Co. in Madras. But in vain.

In 1852, Veera Raja got permission from Lord Dalhousie to proceed to England with his favourite daughter Gauramma who was 10 years old for her education. Veera Raja wanted her to adopt Christian faith. In 1852, Queen Victoria who had a liking for Gauramma got her baptized by the Arch Bishop of Canterbury and gave the name Victoria. She eventually married an English Captain and had a daughter. Her married life was an unhappy one and she died in 1864.Vira Raja died in 1859 under mysterious circumstances while on way to the bank to operate his safe deposit lockers.

Thus ended another interesting chapter of the history of Coorg and the times of a man who dazzled much in the blinding flashes of the enigma we call life.


Below is the letter as appeared in the Daily News, London of November 18, 1856 from Vira Raja explaining himself.

A Prince dethroned by The East India Company


The Editor of the Daily News

Sir, Permit me to occupy a little of your valuable space, by calling your readers' attention to the proceedings of the Honourable East India Company. I have been given to understand that the actions of that body in many instances are somewhat illiberal, but I would submit that in my own case they are particularly so; and certainly not in accordance with my own ideas of justice.

I am by birth and descent the rightful Rajah of Coorg, a mountainous principality in the south-west of India, and for thirteen years previously to the 24th April, 1834, I was an independent Hindoo prince and sovereign in alliance with the Honourable East India Company's Government, and as such was almost universally loved, respected, and even reverenced by my subjects. My ancestors were of vast service to the Company, in fact, my late uncle rendered them such assistance in the year 1799, that they were enabled to cope with and finally completely overthrow the famed Tippoo Sultan, with whom the Company were at war, almost without intermission, from the year 1782 to 1799. That prince was master of all the coast provinces lying between the western mountains and the sea, and possessed all the intervening country from thence to the Carnatic, one solitary spot only excepted. That spot was the principality of Coorg; and while the Rajah, my uncle, denied the British troops entrance and exit, Tippoo Sultan's dominions were impregnable; but when the Company entered into a treaty with the Rajah of Coorg, he allowed the Bombay army under the command of General Abercrombie to pass through Coorg, forming a junction with the army of Lord Cornwallis, who, thus timely and powerfully reinforced, completely defeated Tippoo Sultan, and dictated a peace under the walls of Seringapatam, by which he ceded half his dominions unconditionally to the Company.

In consequence of this the Company entered into a treaty with the Rajah and his heirs forever ; which said treaty was to the effect that the Coorg territory should receive from the East India Company whatever assistance was needed, and in fact expressing the warmest and most enduring friendship for my uncle the Rajah and his successors. I myself have rendered the Company services on numerous occasions, and have received testimonials from them of a most flattering nature; but during the last few years of my reign their behaviour towards me materially changed; and eventually led to my dethronement and banishment. In the year 1830, Chenna Basava (then one of my subjects) married my sister, Dewa Ammajee (although much against my wishes, and she was his second wife from our family, the first having died). In consequence of his being connected with royal blood, I provided for him from my own private purse in a manner becoming his station in life, and installed him in a suitable mansion a short distance from my capital.

Things went on very well for some short time, but eventually it would appear that he became dissatisfied with his (supposed), subordinate position, and impatient of control; in consequence of which he, one night, drugged two of the officers in attendance upon him, bound one, hand and foot, and suspended him from the rafters of the house, where he was found dead in the morning; after which, Chenna Basawa made off with his wife towards the Mysore country. By stratagem he managed to pass a great distance unmolested, until he reached the barrier between my country and Mysore; on arriving there, however, he met with opposition, as the officer in command, suspecting something wrong, attempted to detain him. He was immediately shot dead by Chenna Basawa, and another officer, who offered resistance, met with a similar untimely fate.

When these facts were communicated to me I immediately sent a formal demand to the Honourable East India Company (to whose territory he had fled) to surrender Chenna Basawa as a prisoner, to be tried for the murders he had committed ; to which they replied that they could not deliver up a party who had fled to them for protection. I afterwards, on several occasions, made similar requests, but with the same ill success. This preyed on my mind exceedingly, particularly as the outrages committed by Chenna Basawa were frequently commented on by my subjects; and therefore, instead of my anger being appeased by frequent allusions to this circumstance, it was constantly aroused, particularly as all my attempts were futile. Some months after this event, a party arrived at Coorg, alleging that he came from Malabar for the purpose of seeing Mr. Graeme (a member of the Madras Government); but, as he had no credentials, I thought it probable he was a spy, and ordered him to be detained as a hostage to compel the Company to do me justice by delivering up Chenna Basawa and I was assured by those around me that this step would be the means of effectually accomplishing the object. To my surprise, however, the Company merely sent a formal demand for their messenger (as he afterwards in reality turned out to be), which, not being complied with, was followed by another. This I likewise considered I was not bound to obey. In consequence I was declared to be no longer an ally of the Honourable East India Company, and informed that my territories were annexed to the British possessions. Without any further notice an army was despatched against me, and troops entered my country at five different points. Finding myself in actual hostile collision with the British Government (whom I had been taught to consider from a child as my friends and protectors), I ordered flags of truce to be despatched, and surrendered myself.

This was done for the purpose of saving bloodshed, as the onslaught would otherwise have been terrible. The Coorgs had congregated in an immense body, and were all armed to the teeth, prepared to do the most deadly execution. My palace was searched by the troops, and the valuables taken there from to the extent of £30,000, and the proceeds divided among the soldiery as prize-money.

Thus I became a state prisoner, and was hurried out of a country which had given me birth, amidst the lamentations of thousands of my subjects, who hovered around my cortege, weeping and bemoaning my hapless fate. Such expressions you will easily conceive, sir, however gratifying to the recollection now, then only served to render my position less endurable. In addition to this mark of respect from the poorer classes of my subjects, some hundreds of the nobility signed a memorial (which was thrust into my hand while I was being hurried away) expressing the most heartfelt sorrow at my departure, and concluding with a hope that my exile would be but temporary, and that I should return to my subjects again as their King, with renewed honour, and such expressions of kindness which made my heart, already filled with grief, ready to burst with feelings such as no words can express. For fourteen years I was a prisoner at Benares, separated from all that was most dear to me. Permission was ultimately given to me by the Company for leave of absence for twelve months ; and I came to England for the purpose of obtaining some permanent provision for myself and infant daughter, and to prosecute my claims against the Company, which consist in my being entitled to £180,000 sterling, the amount of bonds or promissory notes which I hold of theirs, and which said amount (in rupees) was absolutely paid and advanced by my ancestors and myself as a loan at a stipulated interest. The said interest, however, the Company has refused to pay since the year 1834. But this is not all. As my leave of absence expired in March last, and I did not think it advisable to return until some decisive step had been taken, I applied to the Directors for a prolongation of my leave, and in reply I received not only a positive refusal, but was informed, in conclusion, that my pension would not be continued, actually leaving me without any pecuniary resources whatever. To make the already overflowing cup of bitterness more galling, I am described in Thornton's History of British India as tyrannical, haughty, and everything that a prince or ruler ought not to be, and in fact that my whole life was one of vice and infamy ; but from the foregoing you will easily perceive that such is false, and the historian, in chronicling these words, must certainly have endeavoured to dish up details relative to myself in such a manner as to please the parties for whom his work was written—not knowing or thinking that the party on whom he had lavished so many disgraceful epithets would ever be in this country to confront him, and not only to deny the truth of the statement, but to be willing, ready, and able to prove, that there is no foundation for that which he has written. The same writer has stated that the inhabitants of Coorg wished to become subjects of the Honourable East India Company; but this is not true either. That they submitted I will admit; but wherefore? They had lost their own sovereign, and as the weaker party, and without a leader to direct them, were forced to give into the stronger, let their feelings be what they might. The above observations will doubtless convince your readers that everything has been done to trample upon my feelings during my exile, and to paint me as an object unworthy the consideration or sympathy of an Englishman ;but I am here, Mr. Editor, with a conscience guiltless of any crime or offence even, other than as above expressed and explained. I cannot conceive I have in any way infringed upon the Company's rights, or broken the treaty which my ancestors made with them. But I will pass this over: my kingdom has been taken from me, and I am an exile. I require only that which I am in every respect entitled to by the law of this land, by the law of nations and justice. I humbly but heartily appeal to the British public, through the medium of your valuable columns, to assist me in promoting my claims; and, from the hospitality I have already received, I feel sure that my entreaties will not be in vain. In conclusion, it may not be irrelevant to mention that I have received the utmost kindness and condescension from her most gracious Majesty Queen Victoria, to whose care I with the utmost reliance commend my daughter. That amiable Queen stood sponsor to my child at her baptism, which was solemnized ten months ago; and at my wish and request she is being brought up in the Christian faith, which will, I hope, arm her with fortitude and resignation, and render her fitted for that life which is to come. I doubt not she will realize a fond father's most sanguine hopes and expectations; and in following the example of so excellent a Queen, she will be fitted for a happier and a better world.

My gratitude to the English nation as a body can but cease with my life ; and even then I shall perchance leave one behind who will live to show her own sentiments when my ashes rest in peace. She will then vindicate my past actions, and no doubt will convince Englishmen that my faults were not of the heart, and that a too confiding nature only had been the cause of my ruin, dethronement, and exile.

I have the honour to remain, sir, your obedient humble servant.

Veer Rajinder Wudair,
Once Rajah of Coorg.
23, Onslow-Square, Brompton, Nov. 17, 1853.


1. Mysore and Coorg Volume III by Lewis Rice
2. Coorg and its Rajahs by an Officer 1857
3. Chikka Veera Rajendra, a novel by Masti Venkatesha Iyengar.
4. Nuggets of Coorg history and Victoria Gauramma, both by CP Belliappa
4. Other internet sources.

Palakkad,South India

31st May 2010

Notre Dame Cathedral and my visit of 2006

It was with much agony that I read about the devastating fire at the famed Notre Dame cathedral and the damages thereof. To me, the Notre...