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In Pragati: Another nail in the Aryan coffin

(This article appeared in March 2012 edition of Pragati)

The Aryan theory has gone through many revisions: Historians and archaeologists like A L Basham and Mortimer Wheeler advocated an invasion theory where invaders triumphed over the natives due their military prowess and superior weapons. These invaders originated in Central Asia: one branch migrated to Europe and the other to Iran, eventually reaching India. By the time of historian Romila Thapar, the invasion theory morphed into a migration theory. According to Ms Thapar there is no evidence of large scale invasion, but migrations by Indo-Aryan speakers who bought their language and culture to India.

Though the theory changed, two factors remained constant: the existence of two separate groups (Dravidians and Aryans) and their identification as natives and foreigners. The scholarly consensus is that the Indo-Aryan speakers arrived in North-East India following the decline of the Harappan civilisation. These horse riding migrants introduced Vedic religion and Sanskrit language and culturally transformed a region bigger than ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt combined, non-violently.

Now a new paper published in the American Journal of Human Genetics states that current Indian population is derived from two ancestral populations—the Ancestral North Indians (ANI) and Ancestral South Indians (ASI)—both of which are older than 3500 Years Before Present (YBP). Though this seems to confirm the Aryan-Dravidian divide and the migration which happened after 1900 BCE, the paper actually does the opposite; it refutes the large scale migration version of the Aryan theory.

Researchers led by Mait Metspalu of Evolutionary Biology Group of Estonia studied 600,000 Single Nucleotide Polymorphism (SNP) markers among 30 ethnic groups in India. The human genomes consists of chromosomes, represented by the double helix and specific locations on the chromosome can be identified using markers with the common ones being micro-satellite markers and SNP markers. Among the two, SNP markers are popular for gene fine mapping. The study takes data from existing genetic studies and combines it with new data from North Indian and South Indian population to trace the external influences from Europe.

One of the ancestral components—the ANI—is common not just in South Asia, but also in West Asia and Caucasus while the ASI is limited to South Asia. While this may seem to clearly demarcate the natives and the foreign migrants, it does not. Except for some Astroasiatic tribes and two small Dravidian tribes in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, all other South Indians have more than 40% of the ANI component. This means that everyone except these few groups are not purely native.

The important question then is this: When did the ANI mix with the ASI?. If that period is between 1900 BCE and 1500 BCE, then it would confirm the many versions of Aryan theory in existence right now. When these researchers modeled the data, they could not find any evidence of a dramatic Central Asian migration for this period. So they went back and till about 12500 Years Before Present (YBP) they could not find any evidence. Thus the mixing of the ANI and ASI did not happen 140 generations before as was believed, but probably more than 500 generations back (Each generation is 25 years). The paper explicitly mentions Max Muller’s theory and says that it is hard to find evidence for such a migration following the collapse of the Harappan civilization.

Few years back, researchers working on this project suggested that the ANI emerged 40,000 years back and mixed with the ASI at a later date. So as it stands now, the mixing between the two groups happened some time between 40,000 YBP and 12,500 YBP. So if there is a European component in Indian genes, that event happened much earlier than the decline of the Harappan civilisation and not because of the hypothetical Aryan migration around 1500 BCE.

Going back 12,500 years we have to wonder what event was responsible for this shared ancestry between the ANI and Europeans? Did it happen during the Out of Africa migration phase? Humans reached India first before moving to Europe in which case the European gene pool would be derived from the much diverse South Asian pool. Or was there any other incident much later which was responsible for this?

Coming back to the period following the decline of the Harappan civilisation there are more questions for scholarly head scratching. Even though the ANI-ASI mixture may happened quite earlier, there must have been constant migration of people in both directions which was not large enough to leave a genetic footprint. If you accept that premise, how did this minor trickle of people change the region culturally. If these are the people who bought horses to India, why don’t we see a proliferation of horse bones following this period?

The current models don’t have a convincing explanation for many such questions.

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In Pragati: Book Review – Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road

(This review appeared in Oct 2011 edition of Pragati)

In the 19th century, Britain went on a world wide bloodthirsty rampage: they were involved in the Crimean War (1853 – 1856), Anglo-Indian war of 1857, Second Opium War (1856 – 1860) and the Anglo-Sudan War (1870s) and a photographer named Felice Beato was present to capture all of them on film. Like Ibn Batuta who roamed around Dar al-Islam documenting the customs and traditions of various countries, Beato visited the countries occupied by the British and captured the war, landscapes and local life using the newly invented medium.

Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road by Anne Lacoste and Fred Ritchin features a selection of photographs he took in India, China, Burma, Korea and Japan covering significant events in the history of those countries. For people back in Britain, Beato’s photographs gave an early realistic depiction of the cultures they had conquered. His photographs about India during the Anglo-Indian war are important now not just because of their historical significance, but also because they reveal a lot about the colonial attitudes of that period.

Felice Beato was an Italian who had settled in Constantinople as an apprentice to Scottish photographer James Robertson. In 1858, he left Constantinople for Calcutta and spent the next two years photographing the final phases of the Anglo-Indian war of 1857. Beato did not introduce photography to India; British officials were already using for more than a decade and there were photographic societies in Bombay, Calcutta and Madras.

By the time Beato reached Calcutta, the war of 1857, which was planned by leaders like Nana Saheb, Tatya Tope, and Baija Bai Shinde, had shocked the English and they had retaliated using extreme brutality. Citing the murder of women and children at Cawnpore (Kanpur) by Indian soldiers, they discarded their usual pretence to civilized behavior and embarked on a death march to clear the villages which supported the army. At the start of 1858, Delhi and Kanpur were in English hands; Awadh was cut off from Central India and Lucknow’s fate was uncertain. Kalpi was the headquarters of the freedom fighters and Tatya Tope and Rani Laxmibai were still holding out.

Beato went to Cawnpore, Delhi and Lucknow and documented the damage caused by the war. Photographers of that period had severe technological limitations: the equipment was heavy and the photographer also had to carry glass plates and chemicals. Since lengthy exposures were required and the negatives had to be developed within minutes, the photographer could not be in the middle of the battle; he could capture the scene before the battle or after it was done.

(via Wikipedia)

He reached Lucknow a few weeks after the city was captured by British forces under Sir Colin Campbell and one of the gruesome photographs he took in Sikandar Bagh shows a partially destroyed building with skeletons scattered all around with a few locals passively watching them. The skeletons were of the 1,800 Sepoys bayoneted by the British troops and left to the dogs and vultures in November 1857. There is controversy regarding this photograph: Sir Colin Campbell probably not wanting to suggest that the corpses were left to rot in the open wrote that Beato dug up the bones and laid them out for dramatic effect, but a reporter from The Times who visited Sikandar Bagh around the same period remembered many skeletons still lying around. Even if it was staged, there was nothing unusual about it. His contemporaries who were covering other wars too did it for dramatic effect.

Another photograph from the same period shows the hanging of two sepoys: In the picture two people are hanging by their necks watched by a group of turbaned soldiers. The caption claims that the soldiers were from the 31st Native Infantry who were being hanged in Lucknow. Even that is not without controversy. First, the 31st Native Infantry did not participate in the war and second, they were based in Sagar. So it is possible that there is a mistake in documentation or that they simply were villagers hanged by the English as part of their campaign of brutality.

Beato, the lucid strategist, was on the side of the British and showed no compassion for the conquered or the dead. He was quite different from the British soldier named Clive Branson who served in India in 1942. Madhusree Mukherjee’s Churchil’s Secret War mentions Branson who roamed around the countryside visiting villages and socializing with the locals since his unit was not doing anything important. As he traveled, he felt ashamed of his country and the fact that he was one among them. Beato never felt that way. He earned his living by selling photographs like the hangings to soldiers and onlookers as souvenirs as well as by taking flattering portraits of Army officers. He ingratiated himself with British officials and his enthusiastic documentation of their triumphs got him a into prominent locations like Lucknow as soon as it was retaken. He also was an ‘embedded’ war photographer in the Second Opium War and captured the war in all its horror. Each catastrophe thus cemented his reputation.

Another area in which he specialized was architecture. Thus when he went around India, he took pictures of the Taj, Benares, the Golden Temple and various palaces. He also specialized in taking panoramic shots. Currently you can use the stitching feature of photoshop software to generate panoramas from a series of photographs, but during Beato’s time you had to take a series of overlapping photos carefully, develop the negatives quickly to maintain the uniform tone and join the pictures manually. His panoramas in India include those of Delhi, Lucknow, Qutub Minar and the entrance to the Juma Masjid which were around five to seven feet in length.

Beato was not caught up in political correctness and photographed British brutality for commercial benefits. He took photos of drawings of beheadings in Japan and photographs of dead bodies in China; in China one of the military surgeons noted Beato walking with excitement among the dead, photographing them before they were removed. Due to Beato’s photographs, the blurry words of historians become indelible images.

In their commentary on the photographs, the authors write that the hanging photograph brings up questions like “How did the British officers decide to hang the Indian soldiers? Did they hold any trial? What were the responses of the men to their impending execution?”. They don’t offer answers, but the answers can be found in Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus which presents a dramatically different version of the war of 1857 based on never before translated letters and eye witness accounts. He argues that the official policy of Britain to suppress the insurrection was to target thousands of civilians including women and children and this policy was one of the reasons why India lost the war. Sepoys of mutinous regiments who could not give a good account of themselves were hanged. From Beato’s images we know that even some from non-mutinous regiments may also have been hanged.

Two important photographs taken by Beato are not there in the book. One shows the Lal Bagh, the place in which General James Neill was shot and the other, the Residency where Sir Henry Lawrence was killed. These photographs don’t depict cadavers or skeletons, but form an important point in the narrative of the war of 1857 where two war criminals met justice. As you flip through the book, you see the conquered locals of India, China and Korea among demolished buildings and their conquerors in flamboyant settings. This contrast explains the story of the East better than many thousand words.

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In Pragati: Secrets of the cellars

(Flickr: jynxzero)

The 8th century CE was a period of Hindu resurgence in Kerala. Adi Sankara, who wrote about Advaita with literary force and philosophic depth lived during this period. The Tamil poets—Saiva nayanars and Vaishnava azhvars—created large volumes of influential devotional literature and triggered a popular mass movement. Economically these were prosperous times due to extensive external trade. Devotion coupled with wealth resulted in a spurt of temple construction; rulers and lay people considered the construction and protection of temples as an essential social responsibility and donated generously.

Though the original shrine may have been built in the 6th century, it is during this period that we hear about Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple for the first time in Thiruvaimozhi of Nammazhvar. In ten verses Nammazhwar describes Thiruvananthapuram, one of the 108 sacred sites for Vaishnavites, as one which has “lots of trees, lots of fragrant flowers, and most beautiful gardens” and called it Ananthapura implying it was enclosed by walls. He also describes the idol of Vishnu as reclining on the venomous Adisesha, exactly the same way see him today.

Over the next millennia, Sri Padmanabhaswamy would see prosperity, war, and invasions—both domestic and foreign. Initially he was part of a small kingdom, but that small kingdom, under the leadership of a visionary king would grow to become one of the three major kingdoms of Kerala, encompassing not just South Kerala, but parts of Tamil Nadu as well. Eventually the kingdom would belong to him. He would also accumulate staggering amounts of wealth over centuries; a humbled Dutch captain and a powerful British Resident would among the many who would go before him with their offerings. The story of how this wealth came to be and how it was safely guarded by the priests and the royal family for all these years is inseparable from the history of Kerala.

Source of wealth

In Cleopatra, a life, Stacy Schiff recounts how Egyptian temples stood at the center of religious and commercial life with the temple priest also moonlighting as a reed merchant. Such a system did not exist in Kerala. Its temples were never known for odious extravagance or opulence. Many other ancient kingdoms accumulated wealth by invading and plundering their neighbours, but according to historians, Sri Padmanabhaswamy’s cellars do not contain war booty. Then how did the temple accumulate so much wealth?

After the mention of the temple in the 8th-9th century by Nammazhwar, there is not much information for another three centuries. Around the 12th century, Venad, a small Kollam-based kingdom became an independent entity and Sri Kotha Keralavarma (1125 – 1155 CE) started the reconstruction of the temple which would go on for another six centuries. During this period, we hear about donations to the temple for the first time: silver by a nobleman in 1183 CE and ten golden lamps by Parantaka Pandya. Veera Keralavarma, ruler of Venad (1344 – 1350 CE), donated vast amounts of land and about 3000 pieces of gold to the temple in response to him being responsible for the death of a few Brahmins.

The current wealth has been retrieved from some of the six cellars around the sanctum sanctorum. These cellars existed around 550 years ago and there is mention of ornaments being retrieved from the cellars to decorate the painting of the king of Venad during that period. In 1686 CE, the temple was gutted by fire and there was no worship for three decades but the priceless valuables remained safe in the cellar. Just two years before the fire, Umayamma Rani, who would later flee due to an attack by a Mughal invader, donated various ornaments and silk to the temple. It is mentioned that such donations were moved to the cellar for safe keeping. When various kings ascended the throne, they too donated gold and other precious stones to Sri Padmanabhaswamy.

In the 17th century, the pettiness of the kings of small territories came quite handy to the Dutch who devoured Kochi, Kollam and various other kingdoms. Interfering in the internal affairs and exploiting the difference of opinion among the kings was the Dutch policy and by this they could eventually control the whole of Kerala and the lucrative spice trade. During this period, Travancore was whipsawed by a poor economy and constant conflict between temple administrators and noblemen.

This was a feud which had started at least a century earlier. Rules for managing the temples of Kerala were set as early as the 9th century when various noblemen met in Paravur. In 12th century, the committee which managed Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple used to frequently get together to make decisions, but the relationship between the king and the temple administrators was not always cordial. In the 17th century, during the time of Adityavarma (1672 – 1677 CE), a group of eight noblemen under the direct supervision of the king was responsible for the temple management. The temple administrators divided the temple property into eight and gave them to Nair chieftains for revenue collection. Soon a feud started with with the king’s men on one side and the rest of the administrators on the other side leading to a brief closure of the temple.

All this leads to the resolute and brilliant Marthandavarma, the founder of the kingdom of Travancore as well the person responsible for the the current state of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple. During this period of strife, Marthandavarma annexed the smaller kingdoms around Venad to create Travancore. He defeated the Dutch in the Battle of Kolachel in 1741, sixteen years before the Battle of Plassey. For India of that period, this was a distinction of some weight. The Dutch agreed to support the king in his fight against other European powers and the commander of the Dutch forces, Eustachius De Lannoy, became the commander-in-chief of the Travancore armed forces. De Lannoy too made donations to the temple and it is possible that the Dutch coins and the Belgium cut-glasses came from him.

Marthandavarma also embarked on a construction spree at the temple. The repairs and the construction of the buildings around it started in 1731 and was completed two years later. The current temple structure and the sanctum sanctorum were built during his period. Some of the underground cellars were strengthened with the aim of keeping the temple wealth safe from fire. In 1733, the idol of Sri Padmanabhaswamy was reconstructed using saligram silas (Ammonite fossils) bought from Gandaki River in Nepal. The construction of the temple tower which had started in 1566 CE, reached five stories high during this period and would be completed during the time of his successor. He also made arrangements for the main festival to be conducted twice a year.

This visionary king in a unique historical and spiritual move surrendered all his riches and the kingdom he built to the family deity on January 3, 1750 CE; he and his successors would rule the kingdom with the official designation of Padmanabhadasa or devotee of the deity. That arrangement continues till today.

Donations would continue to flow even during the British reign with the Resident offering generously to the temple. In 1932, when Chitra Thirunal ascended the throne, one of his first acts was to open these cellars and estimate the wealth; it was calculated to be around one crore rupees. If the temple had so much wealth, how did it survive looting by the insiders and the invaders? Appropriation of temple wealth was considered as one of the five great sins prescribed by the Dharmasastras and it may have prevented the looting of the temple by the administrators.

Though Mahmud of Ghazni, the Mughals and Tipu Sultan did not reach South Kerala, various Islamic invaders did attack Venad. In the 14th century, there is mention of Muslim invasion into the region and how it was spoiled by Iravi Ravivarma. Another successor, Adityavarma, who was responsible for constructing the Krishna temple and protective shelters for cows in 1374 CE too repelled such attacks. In 1690, a person referred to as “Mughal Sardar” attacked the southern border of Venad causing the regent Umayamma Rani to flee. Kottayam Kerala Varma who had come on pilgrimage from Malabar defeated this adventurer.

On record

Since it does not contain war booty, did all the wealth, found in the underground cellars come via offerings by various devotees, kings, queens, and traders? Besides the temple inscriptions and royal decrees, the most detailed records of the assets come from what is known as the ‘Mathilakam records’ which are about 100,000 palm leaves stored in thousands of bundles, in the Kerala Archives. Some of these records were published, but a vast majority of them remain unwrapped; an effort was launched in 2009 to publish the rest, but the plan was abandoned in 2011 as the government does not employ anyone who can read the ancient script.

This is disappointing, since the royals kept meticulous records and if we could read them we would know the source of the Roman and Napoleonic era gold coins, Venetian ducats and drachmas as well as the solid gold idols of Sri Krishna and Vishnu. It could also help solve another mystery: In 1766, the Zamorin’s entourage fled from Malabar to Travancore, presumably after emptying the Calicut treasury, to escape the pillage of Haider Ali. The Zamorin took his own life than surrender. It is possible that some of that wealth reached Travancore treasury. If the records don’t mention this, an inventory of the items would reveal if there is any truth to this.

The discovery of the the wealth has caused various experts to advance theories on its origins including some indulging in imagination. Usually absence of facts causes myth to be created, but in this case speculation and hoary propaganda is unwarranted since the source of the wealth is well documented. If the government cannot find a specialist to translate the royal records, it should have them carefully digitised and published online, so that the job can be crowdsourced.

(The author wishes to thank Manmadhan Ullatil (for pointing out the Calicut link), Lakshmi Srinivas, Nikhil Narayanan, R N Iyengar and @NR_Tatvamasi for sharing information. This article was published in Aug 2011 issue of Pragati)


  • A Sreedhara Menon, ;A survey of Kerala history(Sahitya Pravarthaka Co-operative Society [Sales Dept.]; National Book Stall, 1967).
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In Pragati: Book Review – Churchill’s Secret War by Madhusree Mukherjee

Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill (Image via ChrisM70)

Three days after Germany invaded France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, Winston Churchill inspired Britain with the words, “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” These words—Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat—is the title of a book by John Lukacs which analyses Churchill’s motivational speeches during World War II as American and Russian forces battled the Axis in Europe and the Pacific. The titles of other books—The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Visions of Glory, Churchill: A Study in Greatness—reveal the exalted position Britain’s war-time prime pinister occupies in world history, specifically Western history.

While reading Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat it was unclear what was more funny—Mr Lukacs’ repetition of the title words every few pages or his admiration of Churchill’s speeches extolling the virtues of freedom ignoring the enslaved people of the colonies. For such historians Churchill proved his mettle by leading the country through the war and coming out victorious. Like how many American historians do not see the irony in Thomas Jefferson asserting all men are equal while owning slaves, members of Churchill fan club do not see anything wrong in pronouncing him as the upholder of freedom and democracy despite his unapologetic imperialist stance and inhuman behavior towards the colonies.

In Madhusree Mukherjee’s book, Churchill is neither a lion nor a man of great moral rectitude. He was a man who could have prevented three million Indians from starving to death, but did not. Clouded by racist views of Indians, he even stopped other countries from helping the starving population, antagonised the US president with his stand on India and argued that the Atlantic Charter did not apply to British India. Despite all these, when the first words of Paul Johnson’s biography states that Churchill was most valuable man to the whole of humanity in the 20th century, one has to wonder about the lack of perspective behind that testimonial.

The famine

Between 1941 and 1942, three events occurred which turned out to be disastrous for the people of Bengal. First, fearing the Japanese invasion of India, the War Cabinet ordered a scorched earth policy in areas which would have to be surrendered. Rice was removed or destroyed. Money was advanced to businessmen to buy and hoard. Along with this, boats, much needed by farmers, fishermen and potters for their livelihood were destroyed.

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In Pragati: Book Review – Operation Red Lotus by Parag Tope

In late 1856, some strange practices began to surface in parts of north India. Red lotus flowers were circulated in garrisons which housed the Native Infantry. The subedar would line up the troops and then hand a flower to the first soldier, who would hold it and pass it down the line. The last one would leave the station with the flower. Elsewhere, a runner took a bundle of chapatis to a village and handed it to the chief or sentry, with instructions to send the chapatis on to the next village under English rule. In the midst of these lotus and chapati incidents, the soldiers’ slogan would change from “everything will become red” to “everything has become red.” Other unusual events included the announcement of an important yagya in Mathura (which never took place), and the habit begun by many women of offering their rolling pins to the river Ganga.

These signs were noticed by the British—Benjamin Disraeli even raised the question of the travelling chapatis in Parliament—but were dismissed as Indian superstitions.

These abnormal occurrences, ignored by almost every historical narrative on the 1857 uprising, assume significance when seen in the light of an important question: How did the Indian troops travel over a million miles, in the early months of the war, without a supply line? In a regular war, there were three camp followers for each soldier, but once the soldiers mutinied in 1857, who fed them? Case in point: How did the 17th Native Infantry march 140km from Azamgarh to Faizabad in just five days?

The answer may seem straightforward: The villagers fed the soldiers. However, there was an intricate strategy underlying the initiative. To feed thousands of soldiers, each village (comprising of a few hundred people) needed an approximate count. The count was provided by the lotus flowers, while the chapatis and the rolling pins were the means used to confirm the commitment of the villagers. The Mathura yagya was a ruse to facilitate the travel of priests who doubled as spies.

Thus, the Anglo-Indian War of 1857 was initiated by leaders who planned the war, conducted internal and external reconnaissance, and recruited soldiers—with the help of civilians.

Parag Tope’s Operation Red Lotus—through the analysis of instances such as the use of red lotuses and chapatis—fills the gaps and corrects the myths about the events of 1857. Relying on eyewitness accounts written in Marathi and letters in Urdu and Bundeli, Mr Tope, a fourth-generation descendent of Tatya Tope, sheds new light on the momentous event. Add to it his analysis of troop movements, supply lines, and logistics—and the tale of the 1857 Anglo-Indian War comes to life in hitherto untold, dramatic fashion.

The triad of freedoms

The leaders who spearheaded the 1857 operation included Nana Saheb, his Diwan, Tatya Tope, Begum Hazrat Mahal, and the Nawab of Banda. In 1858, Sitaram Baba, a priest in Nana Saheb’s court was arrested by the British. Baba confessed that the conspiracy had been initiated by Baija Bai Shinde two decades earlier, and that the real planning had started three years before. He also revealed information about the runners who had gone to each regiment, and the connection between the lotuses and chapatis. Letters, translated for the first time in this book, reveal that Tatya Tope was aware of military movements, logistics and provisions.

“It is important to note that the rising was neither planned nor stimulated by any patriotic move”, wrote Gregory Fremont-Barnes in Indian Mutiny 1857-58 (2007). What Fremont-Barnes and many other Indian historians often fail to mention is that the leaders of the 1857 revolt had a clear vision for the future. After the uprising’s initial success, Bahadur Shah Zafar made a proclamation, read by his grandson in Azamgarh. The proclamation promised a triad of invaluable freedoms: Political, personal and economic.

The crony-capitalist state run by the British East India Company had destroyed the free market system in India. Heavy taxation was the norm, while prices were enforced with the threat of punishment. Manufacturing capabilities were crippled, and the agricultural sector lost the ability to shield the country from the threat of famines. Due to India’s asymmetrical role in the global network, even as the country’s share in the world’s GDP fell from 25 percent to 12, Britain’s share doubled.

On the social front, William Bentinck’s educational policy, based on Macaulay’s Minute, destroyed the private education system that had previously created a society more literate than that of Britain. In a letter to his father, Macaulay claimed that if the new education policy was implemented, there would not be a single idolater left in Bengal.

Even the legal framework was skewed—Indians wanted freedom from missionaries who were working with the Government, and laws which favoured Christians.

By promising the triad of freedoms, the leaders were not advocating a novel or revolutionary idea. They were reverting to the foundations of the Indian polity, which not only guaranteed political, social and economic freedom, but kept them separate as well. In other words, the ruler did not act as a trader, but created an environment suitable for trade.

Fractional Freedom

Mr Tope argues that although the initial uprising was brilliantly planned and co-ordinated, the war was lost due to two reasons. Firstly, the British used their women and children as human shields, which resulted in gory incidents such as the Siege of Cawnpore. Secondly, they resorted to the use of extreme brutality—leaving aside their usual pretences to civilised behaviour—citing the case of Cawnpore (Kanpur).

Recognising the supply lines for the soldiers, British officials attacked those villages through which the chapatis were passed. A law was passed to allow the hanging of even those whose guilt was doubtful. British troops under Havelock and Neill did a death march, killing women, children, infants and the elderly. Sepoys were ritually stripped of their caste by having pork and beef stuffed down their throats before execution.

In books such as The Great Indian Mutiny (1964) by Richard Collier, or The Last Mughal (2008) by William Dalrymple, the British officials’ use of violence is regarded as a reaction to the carnage that took place in Kanpur. However, Mr Tope points out that the government’s brutality was unleashed even before that. British historians recorded that “guilty” villages were “cleared” so that India could be saved from anarchy.

In 1857, the strategy of violent repression was used by the British to secure time to redeploy troops from other countries to India. It was during this time that Tatya’s tenacity became evident. After establishing a command centre in Kalpi, he set up factories for producing ammunition, guns and cannons.

Despite the prospect of imminent defeat, Tatya worked to raise an army, and inspire civilians. When the British took over Delhi, the battle ground was moved to central India. When Rani Laxmibai, who grew up with Tatya, was held under siege, he created a diversion to help the Rani escape. Following the Jhansi massacre, the Indian chieftains who supported Tatya backed down, but he came up with a new strategy—to raise rebellions in regions where the spirit of freedom was strong.

The battles are explained with numerous maps, painstakingly plotted with English and Indian troop movements—a useful tool to interpret the events, and grasp the thinking behind the strategy. The maps, coupled with the detailed narrative and critical analysis, provide a valuable resource to better appreciate the holistic nature of the 1857 uprising.

Upon realising that the 1857 war had ignited the desire for total freedom, Queen Victoria dissolved the East India Company and transferred all powers to the Crown. In her proclamation, she did not give India political or economic freedom, but made an important concession: The English would no longer interfere with the native religions. Even Fremont-Barnes’ apologia acknowledges that successive viceroys took greater heed of India’s religious sensitivities. It was an important victory, writes Mr Tope, for it prevented large scale British settlement in India, and stemmed the destruction of Indian traditions.

The fight continues

Nevertheless, the signature elements of the 1857 uprising—secret messages, planning, and mass murders—were repeated again. In 1932, freedom fighters were warned of danger by Hindu women, who blew on conch shells when they spotted a policeman—the sound was relayed for miles by a network of women.

Madhusree Mukerjee records instances of a different nature in her Churchill’s Secret War (2010). During World War II, when the Japanese army reached Indian borders, Leopold Amery, secretary of state for India, wondered if it was necessary to revive ruthless punishments of 1857 to prevent a possible uprising. Winston Churchill’s policies, argues Ms Mukerjee, resulted in a famine in which three million Indians perished. Mr Tope describes the events of February 19, 1946, when 78 ships, going from Karachi to Chittagong, changed their name from HMIS (His Majesty’s Indian Ships) to INNS (Indian National Naval Ships) in a co-ordinated move.

Coming back to 1857: Why is it that Baija Bai Shinde’s 20-year conspiracy, Nana Saheb’s planning or Tatya’s Tope’s contribution do not feature prominently in our history books? This probably has to do with the historiography of the event. In the official version written a century later by Surendra Nath Sen, the 1857 War was seen as a spontaneous uprising by “conspirators”. Historian R C Majumdar questioned if it could even be called a “war” since India was not a nation, while Marxist historians connected the revolt to peasant uprisings in Bengal.

This reluctance to deviate from the colonial narrative 150 years after the war and 60 years after obtaining political freedom is a telling sign about the state of historical study in India.

India’s proclamation of independence six decades ago has to be contrasted with the triad of freedoms promised in the Azamgarh proclamation. To the leaders of the newly independent polity, Indian traditions of the past did not guide the future. Their socialist mindset led to state control over education and restricted economic freedom, with the state itself becoming a trader—all of which had disastrous consequences.

Looking back, we know what our leaders tried to build and failed, but as well, what they knocked down.

(This version appeared in the February 2011 edition of Pragati)

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