The year was 1898, On a sultry summer morning, the then Maharaja of Cochin State, Sir Sri Rama Varma, was closeted with his Diwan, Sir P Rajagopalachari. The issue that was agitating their mind was the non-completion of the railway line from Shornur in the north to the capital city of Ernakulam, down south, for want of funds. They had already scraped the proverbial ‘bottom of the pot’. Both were at their wits’ end.
A few minutes of silence and the Maharaja turned to his Diwan and ordered him to sell the gold jewellery of Sri Poornathrayeesa Temple , whose custodian he was, to fund the completion of the railway line. He said that the temporal needs of his people ought to get the better of his spiritual duties. A palpably radical decision of the kind taken five score and ten years ago by a seemingly conservative king of an equally conservative state, the like of whom would be hard to come by even in these days of demagogic democracy. Such was the concern of the Cochin royalty for the state and the subjects.
Nearly two score and eleven years later, a similar concern was on display once again when the then Maharaja, Rama Varma Pareekshit Thampuran, willingly signed the covenant that led to the merger of the Cochin State with the neighboring Travancore State to from the integrated Travancore-Cochin State in the aftermath of the country’s independence.
The scene is vividly described by V P Menon, the architect of the integration of the 600-odd princely states of India, in his memoirs, thus: “On 27th of May 1949, I went to the palace with the premier to obtain the Maharaja’s signature to the covenant. As l placed it before him, he opened the cap of his fountain pen, but just before signing he replaced the cap, put down the pen and continued to sit motionless. After a while when I reminded the Maharaja about the signature, I realized he was saying a prayer…. He then signed. The Maharaja then met the minister and told them that in future it would be for them to look after the ruling family and the people of Cochin. “A more magnificent gesture in self-effacement can hardly be expected of today’s political leadership.
Power or pelf mattered least to the Cochin royalty. Its one and only concern was the welfare and wellbeing of the people. Often that led to crises, particularly when what the Maharaja thought to be good for his people wasn’t acceptable to their overlords, the British. One such instance happened in the dying days of 1914. His Highness Rama Varma (1896- 1914), the ruling Maharaja, had suggested certain important administrative reforms in the state it involve the people in governance through decentralization of power (panchayati raj ). He had also suggested tenancy reforms to ensure that the actual tiller of the soil got his legitimate due.
The reforms were resented by the British who wanted the Maharaja to rescind his recommendation. Feeling frustrated, he decided to abdicate at the height of his fame and glory rather than cling to power in humiliation. In his abdication address to the people, he said: “ I may assure you’ my beloved subjects, that though I am, owing to circumstances beyond my control, obliged to retire from public life, my service will always be at your disposal and your happiness will be my prosperity.”
Some were made of sterner stuff and did not acquiesce in easily to situations and pressures, the most outstanding Maharaja being Sakthan Tampuran (1790-1805),who ruled the state with iron hand. Stories of his toughness that often bordered on ruthlessness are legion. At times he preferred to be discreet rather than valiant, an example being the understanding he reached with the British authority in power- sharing that remained in vogue till India got independence on August 15, 1947.
There was a visionary Maharaja, Kerala Varma (1946-48), who relentlessly lobbied for the creation of a united Kerala (Aikyakeralam)by merging the regions of Malabar, Cochin and Travancore, a dream that could be realized only on November1,1956.
A blend of myth, legend and folklore tells us that the Cochin royal family descended from Sun god. Recorded history, on the other hand, has the lineage from 12th century AD. There is also the theory, which is part legend and part history, according to which the royal family was a continuation of the Chera dynasty that ruled Kerala from Cranganore (present Kodungallur) there had been breaks in succession for want of legitimate inheritors. This necessitated adoption. One of the great Kings was Cheraman Perumal (820-844 AD) who. Towards the end of his rule, reportedly embraced Islam and proceeded to Mecca, Before he left he divided his kingdom into three divisions and assigned then to three related families.
According to historian Elamkulam Kunjan Pillai, the sons and daughters of one Perumbadappu Namboodiri who had married the sister of Cherman Perumal were assigned part of the land and the lineage of the nephews turned to be rulers of the Cochin State. The royal family moved to Canganore from Chitrakootam in the north, where it was headquartered, at the end of the 13th century and later (1505) to mattancherry. Sometime in the 17th century the royal family moved to thrissur, north of Cochin, and then to Tripunithura, near Cochin, in the early years of the 18th century.
Recorded history is available only from Portuguese period (1500). Since then it has been a chequered history with successive Maharajas batting their way with wit, wisdom and warfare through successive foreign powers, from Portuguese to the Dutch and, finally, to the British. But in all their engagements, the guiding principle had always been the welfare of the people.
Their Philanthropy has been proverbial. They were farsighted enough to focus attention on two vital sectors, education and primary healthcare. Cochin State was the first to promote English education as early as 1820s, much ahead of any other states. Primary health care was also given equal importance.
The Maharajas were also great patrons of arts, literature and sports. While some excelled in languages, other took to such modern disciplines as medicine and engineering with distinction. And long before Kerry Packer thought of one-dayers in cricket, the royal capital of Tripunithura was the venue of ODIs- since early fifties; a good enough proof of the many –splendored face of a benevolent royalty.