The Saga of the Padmanabhadasas: A Glimpse of the History of Travancore Kingdom, 1
A journey through the history of Travancore's royal family, beginning from the Chera eras. And a reminder of the gratitude we owe to the ancient nobles who embodied vīra rasa and sevā bhāva.

The Travancore monarchy is one of the most dhārmika kingdoms of Bhārata. Along with Mysore, Maheshwar, Baroda, Bikaner, Udaipur, and a few others, these royalties have embodied the ideals of Rāma Rājya both in their politics, as well as in their attitude towards their public. Above all, they have been role models for their piety, simplicity, and śraddhā in our devatās. During the Padmanabhaswamy Temple fracas, where the non-Hindu Kerala government wanted to take over this rich Hindu temple, their bhakti was more than evident to all observers. These kṣatriyas have also led the battle of the Indic Knowledge Systems (IKS) from the front, be it the erstwhile great Swathi Thirunal or a prolific Raja Ravi Varma, the contemporary Rama Varma or even HRH Princess Aswathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bai whose ‘Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple (1998)’ is a comprehensive go to book on the temple. Classical music, dance, arts, writing, they have not merely been patrons or connoisseurs but also practitioners, composers, and teachers of arts and literature.

When the West condemns monarchy everywhere else and makes sly remarks about kingdoms, such as that of Bhutan, calling it a dictatorship, all the while drooling over the British Royal Family, we know that we must revisit our dislike for monarchies that has been force fed into our thought process and look at each monarchy on a case by case basis. Here we see how the Bhutanese themselves look at monarchy. Is it not time that we speak up too? Just as not all democracies are really democratic, so too all monarchies are not mere dictatorships. Just as not all politicians are dishonest so too not all kings are drunkards or philanderers.

Kṣatra dharma which is so essential to protect a land, its people, its culture, and for its civilization to flourish, has been decimated in India with vile attempts to peg all monarchies as debaucheries. By banning martial arts such as Kalaripayattu early on and the carrying of arms by Hindus both by Muslim rulers and the British, they have denuded our vīra rasa.

Despite all these attempts India has birthed many great warriors, who were benign rulers too. Rulers who administered their land and its peoples with great sevā bhāva. Who took their job as rulers seriously, looking upon it as karma yoga, as a calling of their varṇāśrama dharma, and went on to give up their lives even for the welfare of those who looked upon them for sustenance. It is not very often that we acknowledge the contributions of these illustrious families to our land. It is time we did so and paid our debts to them, just as we do to our soldiers, social workers, spiritual leaders, and artists.

Let us look at one such kingdom and how it came into being. Incidentally most of these monarchies trace their lineage to the Solar dynasty of Shri Rāma. This part will take us through the journey of the Cheras, who are no exception, uptil the establishment of Marthanda Varma as the ruler. Akshay Shankar from Kochi, a passionate student of Kerala history for the past few years, will take us through this wondrous journey.


The recorded history of Kerala begins with the rise of the Chera Empire during the ancient Tamil Sangam period (about 500-400s BCE to 3rd century CE. Before this period, Kerala was in the stone age with Megalithic monuments known as Muniyara, Thoppikkal, Kudakkal etc. Trade, economy, coinage, cities and ports came into being during the period of Cheras. The Cheras are mentioned in the Hindu epics Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa.

Two centuries before the common era (3rd century BCE), the inscriptions of the Mauryan emperor Ashoka also mention the Chera Empire under the name Ketalaputo in Prakrit or Keralaputra in Sanskrit. This Keralaputra may have been a translation into Sanskrit from the name Cheramakan or Cheraman in Tamil. The ancient Greeks and Romans of that time called the Chera empire Kerobothra Kelebothra. This means that the Chera dynasty was known by its Tamil name as well as its Sanskrit name.

The then capital of the Chera Empire was at Karur in present day Tamil Nadu. The Chera dynasty was the most extensive dynasty in Sangam age Tamilakam. Apart from the Chera Empire during the Sangam period, there were small dynasties like the Ezhimala Dynasty and the Ay Dynasty in Kerala. But these were not as dominant as the Cheras. The Chera kings were great patrons of Vaidika culture. Sangam age work Pathitruppathu mentions that they performed Vaidika rituals and had Brāhmaṇas such as the poet Gautamanar as close associates in their court. The ancient Chera coins also contain various Dhārmika symbols, such as the Srivatsa symbol which is sacred to Lord Viṣṇu1.

Sangam age Chera coin with Srivatsa symbol above elephant. Source: Sangam age Tamil coins by R Krishnamurthy

The history of Cheras after the Sangam age (around 300s CE.) largely remains unknown. Perhaps empires such as the Kadambas, Chalukyas, Kalabhras from outside, would have conquered the Chera kingdom.

The Cheras reappear in Kerala by the medieval period, starting around 8th or 9th century CE. These Chera kings were known as Perumals and they ruled Kerala from their capital city of Mahodayapuram, which is modern Kodungallur region in Central Kerala. The Chera Perumal kingdom was divided into various vassal states known as Nadus. Valluvanad, Eranad, Venad etc., were some of the vassal states or Nadus under the Chera Perumals.The ruler of a Nadu was known as Naduvazhi. Most of the Naduvazhi rulers belonged to the Kshatriya or Nair class, and they served the Chera Perumals who ruled from the center. The military of the Chera Perumals also consisted of Padai Nairs or Nair warriors. They were pledged to sacrifice their own lives to protect their lords in battle and formed suicide squads known as Chavers2.

Map showing the empire of Chera Perumals in Kerala. Source: Wikimedia commons.

Legendary kings like Vaishnava Saint Kulashekhara Azhvar and Shaiva Saint Cheraman Perumal Nayanar are said to be from this period. There are temples in Kodungallur like Thrikulashekharapuram Sri Krishna temple and Thiruvanchikulam Mahadeva temple associated with these two legendary Chera Perumals. The Chera Perumals traced origins from Sri Rāma’s Sūryavaṃśa or Solar dynasty of Kṣatriya lineage and are said to have upheld the laws of Manu in Kerala as per an inscription discovered recently from Malappuram, Kerala3.

The decline of Chera Perumals started with the expansion of Chola power into Kerala. The central power of the Perumal diminished even though they were able to resist the Chola invasions to an extent.

After the decline of Chera power in Kerala during around 11-12th centuries, Kerala was divided into various small kingdoms. All of the vassal Nadu states under the Chera Perumals became independent without the central rule of Perumals. Among these the southern kingdom of Venad became prominent. The last Chera king Rama Varma Kulashekhara moved his capital from Kodungallur in central Kerala to Venad (later Travancore) in the south and appointed his own son Vira Kerala as the ruler of the kingdom4.

Meanwhile it should be noted that as per the tradition, the sister of last Chera Perumal married a Brāhmaṇas from Perumbadappu region and her descendants were the ancestors of the Kochi Maharajas who ruled central Kerala after the fall of Perumals. They were known as the highest ranking Kṣatriyas of Kerala.

Coming back to Venad, the Venad Cheras gradually merged with the southern Ay kingdom after the Chola expansion. Ays traced their origins to Lord Kṛṣṇa’s Yādava clan who were known as Velirs in Tamil. As per Sangam age work Purananuru, they migrated from Dvārakā to south5.

So the new kings with both Chera and Ay legacy ruled Venad from around the 12th century onwards.

One of the most illustrious rulers belonging to this Venad Chera-Ay dynasty was Ravi Varma Kulashekhara who was known by the name Samgramadhira.

Under his rule, Venad Chera forces expanded the kingdom to all of southern India for a short while. The Venad Cheras battled and repelled the remnant forces of the Delhi Sultanate ruler Alauddin Khalji who invaded southern India under his lieutenant Malik Kafur. As the testimony of Samgramadhira’s rule over all of the southern peninsula, there are epigraphic mentions of Samgramadhira found even in regions as far as Kanchi6. The inscriptions from the time of Samgramadhira describes him as being of Yādava line of the Candravaṃśa or Lunar Dynasty of Kṣatriyas. He is described as the Bhoja of south7.

During the 14th century, Venad also adopted princesses from Kolathu Nadu in north Malabar. Kolathu Nadu was earlier ruled by Mushika kings, who claimed Yādava origin just like the Ay kings of south who merged with the Cheras. Meanwhile the matrilineal system of succession or Marumakkathayam became prominent in Venad along with frequent adoptions made from north Malabar. With this tradition, the kings were succeeded by their nephews born of their sisters, and not their own sons.

The Venad ruling family was gradually divided into various maternal branches in the coming centuries. Thrippapur, Elayadathu Swaroopam, Desinganad etc., were among them. The local Nair landlords or Madampis named Pillais and Kurups also took advantage of this situation and grabbed all the political power in the Venad region. This also includes murders of the crown princes as per various reports. They also took control of Sri Padmanabha Swamy temple, the most important temple in Travancore, which played an important role in the life of people during the medieval era in Venad. Arts, economy, religious life etc., were centered in Sri Padmanabha Swamy temple. It is to be noted that though the Pillais and Kurups did all sorts of mischief to preserve their political power, many other Nairs did pledge their loyalty to the rulers of Venad.

While this chaotic political situation continued, a Mughal raider from northern India along with his pillagers who were known as Mukilanpada in Malayalam sources invaded regions of Venad during the 17th century. Venad then was ruled by a regent queen named Aswathi Thirunal Umayamma Rani. The Kurups and the Pillais deserted the scene and a prince named Kerala Varma from the kingdom of Kottayam in North Malabar (modern Wayanad) who had arrived in Venad for pilgrimage assisted in defending the kingdom against the Mughal raiders of Mukilanpada. The Nair forces of Venad under the leadership of Kottayam Kerala Varma successfully defeated the Mukilanpada and defended the kingdom8. After his victory, Kerala Varma governed Travancore under Umayamma Rani. However, the jealous ministers in the court conspired against Kerala Varma and murdered him with treachery soon after.

Later during the 18th century, a new prince Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma came to power in Travancore. He was born to queen Karthika Thirunal and succeeded his uncle king Rama Varma. He also suffered a lot of torture and treachery from the hands of the Pillais, who did their best to eliminate him. Along with the Pillais, there were also the maternal cousins of Marthanda Varma who conspired against him. As per the matrilineal law of succession or Marumakkathayam system of Kerala, Marthanda Varma was the rightful heir of the throne and his maternal cousins known as Thampimar had no claim to the throne. Usually the Rajas of Venad married women belonging to the families of Nair community and their children remained as part of Nair nobility without any role in the royal family. As per folklore, Rama Varma had married a lady who came down from Ayodhya in northern India and she was adopted as part of the Nair nobility. Her children, the Thampimar, tried to usurp the throne along with the aid of the Pillais.

The Pillais also tried to murder Marthanda Varma and it is believed that he was helped in his attempt to escape from the Pillais by Lord Kṛṣṇa himself who showed him a hole in a tree (Ammachi plaavu) inside which he hid himself during the night, away from the sight of the Pillais.

Besides this tree, in remembrance of the incident, Marthanda Varma built the Neyyattinkara Sri Krishna Swamy Temple.
Remains of Ammachi Plavu at Neyyattinkara Sree Krishna Swamy Temple. Source: Keralaculture.org

As a result of this, when he got into power, he quickly exterminated all the Pillais and their family without a trace, putting an end to centuries of murders and mischiefs. And after grabbing his rightful place on the throne by thwarting the threat posed by the Thampimar, he also unified the various maternal branches of Venad. Further he also conquered other regions like Kayamkulam (which was part of Chirava royalty, ultimately related to Venad), Thekkumkur, Vadakkumkur, Ambalapuzha, Meenachil etc., and came till the borders of Cochin in central Kerala. This resulted in the formation of Travancore from the medieval Venad kingdom.

For his help, he had an able Tamil Brāhmaṇa named Ramayya Dalawa as his general and his Nair army known as Kunjukkuttam under his command. After conquering these regions, he surrendered his entire kingdom to Sri Padmanabha through a ceremony named Thrippadidanam. As a result of this, Lord Padmanabha became the real ruler of the kingdom, while Marthanda Varma ruled on his behalf as his representative by naming himself as “Padmanabha Dasa” meaning the slave of Sri Padmanabha. The crown of Travancore Maharajas has imprinted the Holy Feet of Sri Padmanabha, a reminder to the fact that they are mere servants of the Lord.

The Holy Feet of Lord Padmanabha placed above the Cheramudi or Chera crown of Travancore. Source: Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple by Aswathi Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi

This historic deed of surrender, by which Thrippatidanam was carried out, was drawn up by hand by the Melezhuthu Kanakkan (head clerk), a brahmin named Shankara Kumara Pattan in ancient Malayalam.

“We, Thrippappoor Keezhperur Veera Bala Marthanda Varma, Mootha Thiruvati (senior member) of Thripapoor and Sri Pandaravaka Cheyvarkal, have this day, wednesday, the 5th day of the month Thai, the seventh day of bright lunar fortnight with Saturn residing in the eighth sign and Jupiter in twelfth, Kollam 925, transfer by absolute gift and dedication, to endure as long as the sun and moon shall last, all the lands and functions appreciating thereto together will all rights and dignities, positions of honour and all other possessions that we have been hitherto enjoying as of right within the territories between the Thovala Fort in the East and the Kavana River in the West in favour of Sree Padmanabha Perumal. In token whereof we have this day executed this deed of absolute gift and dedication.”

Where else do we find such surrender and dedication to the devas? We are privileged that our land has produced one after another great monarchs who insisted on leaving everything behind, not for the love of a woman (King Edward Eighth), but for dharma, for keeping their promises. From Bharata onwards Hindus have been exposed to such examples, a brother receives a prosperous flourishing kingdom on a platter yet refuses to take on the reigns, instead places his elder brother’s sandals on the throne as the rightful ruler; such a hero can definitely inspire and produce a Marthanda Varma. Such is the power of stories. A king who made it possible for 92 paras of rice (equivalent to about 736 kgs) to be cooked everyday in the Padmanabhaswamy temple, to feed thrice a day; devotees and poor Hindus visiting it. He made it possible for one hundred and fifty litres of milk to be used everyday to make Palppayasam, the entire quantity of which would be given away for free to the devotees coming to the temple from different parts of the country.

Such a man as Marthand Varma in turn inspires his descendents to continue the upkeep of their beloved Padmanabhaswamy temple against all odds, despite abolishment of Privy Purses in 1971. The Travancore royal family incurs financial losses yet spends its own money to maintain the temple to this day. Such is the power of a promise. What is Rāma Rājya but a leader adhering to one’s given word to his people at all costs?

In our 2nd part of this series we will trace the Travancore family lineage from Marthanda Varma to the current times and also look into monarchies and democracies as political systems. We must ponder what we have lost by rejecting popular, progressive and well respected rulers of our land when we look at current day politics.

Notes:

1. Sangam age Tamil coins by R Krishnamurthy
2. Perumals of Kerala by MGS Narayanan
3. Indian Archaeology 2010-2011 : A Review
4. Perumals of Kerala by MGS Narayanan
5. Purananuru 201
6. Sri Varadarajaswami Temple, Kanchi: A Study of Its History, Art and Architecture By K.V. Raman
7. Travancore Archeological Series. Vol. 2
8. Thekkanpattile Charithra Nayakanmarum Aradya Nayikamarum by Thikkurrissi Gangadharan
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