Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Pazhassi Raja and the Missing Palanquin, or How History Leaves Our Shores

KERALA RECENTLY observed the 200th anniversary of the martyrdom of Kerala Varma Pazhassi Raja, a native prince of North Kerala who fought the British East India Company's forces in the thick forests of Wayanad and fell dead on November 30, 1805. T H Babar, the British collector of Malabar who led the colonial forces against the local hero, had carried the body of the dead fighter in his own palanquin to Mananthavady and had cremated him there with full honours. His remains are kept in a mausoleum on a hillock there.

Babar had recorded in his note to the then Madras Governor that he was a great hero who fell at the British bullets, after a series of guerrilla battles that continued for many years. The Raja was one of the pioneers in South India, who, after Tipu Sultan of Mysore, fought and resisted British efforts to annexe the country in the late 18th century.

Ironically, even as the people of the region were celebrating the memories of their folk hero, the authorities at Calicut University, the premier centre for higher education in the region, were busy inquiring into the mysterious circumstances in which a historic artefact, intimately connected with the history of Pazhassi Raja, has been missing from its museum. A beautifully carved palanquin, donated by the East India Company to one of its officers who helped hunt the Pazhassi Raja, kept in the museum of the University's history department, was later recovered from a nearby bush.

"The palanquin is of great historical value as it dates back to the early days of colonial conquest in Malabar," says Dr MGS Narayanan, eminent historian who had collected it from an ancient family in Ramanattukara for the University's history museum back in the '80s. He said the palanquin was donated to Pulapre Karunakara Menon by the Company in recognition for his services. Menon had joined the company as a sepoy in the 1790's and according to the notes left by T H Babar, it was he who identified the body of Pazhassi Raja after the decisive battle in the forests near Mananthavady when the Company forces killed the Raja and a few of his loyal followers and tribal warriors. It was Babar who had arranged for the cremation of the Raja and the mausoleum of the late prince still remains in the hillock, attracting thousands of visitors every year.

Scholars at the University's history department said that it was not only the palanquin that was taken out of the museum where the University had collected and stored a large number of historical articles over the past many decades. Even as a controversy over the missing palanquin raged, the University found that three ancient copper plates, valued in thousands of dollars in the international art market, have also disappeared from its coffers. These copper plates, which are historical documents recorded on thin copper sheets, date back to the 12th and 13th centuries and are of immense value to the history of the region. They are also valuable as ancient artefacts, highly sought after in the western market.

University sources said that one of the copper plates, dating back to the 12th century has been traced to the London Museum recently. Dr Kesavan Veluthat, a scholar on ancient Kerala history, has said that the copper plate is now with the London Museum. The museum authorities have confirmed to him that they had acquired it from an antique dealer in London in 1979. The two other copper plates are still missing and have left no trace so far.

Dr MGS Narayanan who has done an extensive study on the ancient copper plates as part of his studies on Kerala history, said that the one that has surfaced in London is of great value to Kerala studies. The plate was of 12th century origin and it describes in detail the proceedings of the ancient Brahmin sabha at a village called Chellur, now Talipparamba in North Kerala. Chellur and Payyannur were among the 64 original villages set up by Brahmins in Kerala over 1,000 years ago and their history is the story of medieval Kerala and its relations with other parts of India. The copper plate which was part of the huge collection of books and documents in the North Kerala royal family of Kolathiris was donated to the Calicut University by the eminent scholar, Chirakkal T Balakrishnan Nair, who belonged to the royal family. The copper plates were kept in a secure box in the university museum for almost three decades after it acquired them in the early Seventies.

The plate was traced to London when the British Library sought the service of a famous South Indian scholar from Tanjore to decipher the writings which were in ancient Tamil/ Malayalam. It was Dr Subbarayaulu of Tanjore University who informed the scholars in Calicut University about the copper plate in London, triggering alarm bells in the Calicut University who found much of its treasures were gone.

Following a furore, the University instituted and inquiry with Dr MGS Narayanan and Dr S M Mohammed Koya, both historians who served the university as members. Dr MGS Narayanan, who headed the probe panel, said that they had submitted the report to the Vice Chancellor, but no action had been taken to recover the missing artefacts or find the culprits.

The scholars in the university are agitated and express the suspicion that a powerful clique is operating within the university, helping antique dealers get away with such booty. Senior scholars say that only a CBI inquiry with the help of Interpol could help locate the missing valuables now safely hidden away in the western museums and retrieve these historical artefacts back to their original owners, the people of the state.

1 comment:

Nick Balmer said...


This article makes me really sad. The palaquin was originally give by the EIC to my 4 x great uncle's bodyguard K Menon in 1813.

If you go to my blog I have posted photos of the palanquin taken in 2004 and after it was broken in 2006.

I have put in a bit about when it was awarded to K Menon.

I do hope it can be found.


Nick Balmer