Some kings are warriors, like lions riding into the battle, making the enemy tremble with fear just by their presence. They are dangerous, but even more dangerous are kings who fight with their minds. The tacticians. They stay behind the curtains and move their pawns one step at a time, always keeping an eye on the big picture. King Marthanda Varma was of the latter kind.
Fate had never been kind to Marthanda Varma, but kings like him controlled their own fate. He was born into the last surviving house of the legendary Chera dynasty. Once among the three great kingdoms of South India, his family now ruled over a tiny kingdom stretching from modern day Kanyakumari to Trivandrum. Even in their kingdom, the king’s title was nominal. He had no army under him. The real power belonged to the madampis, the court nobles and the ettara yogam, the managers of the Padmanabhaswamy temple.
When Marthanda Varma came into the picture, the political and social situation in the kingdom was at the verge of collapse. The heir of the throne according to the matriarchal Travancore system, he had to kill his cousins, who tried to usurp the throne from him. Problems, both internal and external, haunted the king as he sat on his wooden throne at Padmanabhapuram, the city of the god. Even though he wore the crown, the Ettuveetil Pillaimar, the Lords of the Eight Houses, were the true rulers of the land. The Eight Lords had supported the claims of his cousins over the crown and Marthanda Varma had an axe to grind with them for that.The other Kingdoms of Kerala were falling in quick succession to the European powers. The Portugese had taken over Calicut and Cochin was under the Dutch. The spice trade of Kerala was attracting other European powers like flies on a jaggery. The shrewd king wasn’t going to sit around and watch.
The king signed a peace treaty with the rulers of Madurai and the British. The Eight Lords were enraged by the move and hired assassins to kill the king. The king barely escaped with his life. The murder attempt gave the king a golden opportunity. He had the Eight Lords either killed or exiled for treason and took over their property and armies. This move prompted many of the nobles to call for the nonrecognition of Marthanda Varma‘s kingship. Every other person in the kingdom was putting forward their stakes for the crown. In the face of mutiny among his ranks and advancing Foreign powers, the king played a masterstroke. He walked into the Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram and crowned the god as the king of the state. He took upon the title of Padmanabhadasa, the slave of the god, a steward who would rule the kingdom in the god’s name. The temple and its management came directly under the Padmanabhadasa. With that one swift stone, the king killed many birds. The king’s relatives who were putting forward their stakes for the crown found themselves competing against a god for the crown and backed down. The temple management which was proving to be a thorn in the king’s flesh was abolished. The temple guards provided an added boost to his army. Kerala is even today known as “God’s own country” because of Marthanda Varma’s coronation of Padmanabhaswamy.
With the internal problems settled, the King turned his eye outwards. He annexed the nearby kingdoms of Kollam and Kottarakara. He then turned his eye towards the kingdom of Kayamkulam. Kayamkulam was under the protectorate of the Dutch. The Dutch ambassador warned Marthanda Varma to leave Kayamkulam alone or the Dutch would annex Travancore. The angry Varma threatened to take his army to Europe and annex Holland if the Dutch interfered in their affairs.
With diplomacy failing, the king prepared for war. The Dutch navy approached the Travancore shores at a fishing hamlet called Colachel. The king made the fishermen from the village to hold their oars and stand on the shore. The Dutch Navy thought they were soldiers and got confused. In a short and swift battle, the Travancore army overhauled the Dutch. The Dutch admiral laid his arms in front of the king and was taken prisoner. For the first time in the Indian history, an Indian king had kicked an European power in its coccyx. Kayamkulam fell to Travancore and all land south of Cochin came under Marthanda Varma. With the fall of the Dutch, the entire black pepper trade was came under the control of the Travancore kingdom.
Marthanda Varma was too clever to be lulled into a false sense of security after his victory over the Dutch. He knew there were other European powers, waiting for him to make a false move. He set the Dutch admiral – Eustachius de Lennoy free and appointed him as the General of his army. The Dutch admiral, in gratitude for the kindness, took up the post. The Dutch General modernized the Travancore army. The king moved his capital from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram. He signed a treaty with the British, which kept the kingdom safe from the British crown till it seceded to the Indian Union in 1947.
(The Surrender of the Dutch East India Company)
Colachel, the site of the famous battle between the Travancore army and the Dutch is now a small fishing hamlet. It is hard to imagine that the historically significant battle was fought there, among the fishing nets and boats. The only sign of the battle is a victory column, with the Travancore emblem of a conch with two wings on top, stating that Eustachius de Lennoy had laid his arms at Padmanabhadasa Marthanda Varma’s feet at that spot.
(The Victory Pillar at Colachel)
Padmanabhapuram, ‘The city of the god’ is now a small village on the Trivandrum-Kanyakumari highway. The king’s palace still stands tall in a forgotten majesty.The Padmanabhapuram palace is open to public and is located at Thuckalay. Though the town is now a part of Tamil Nadu, the palace and its complex is under Kerala. The palace is a perfect example of kerala architecture and wood work.
The Gowdiar palace at Trivandrum is closed to the public as the desendants of the Travancore royal family still live there.
(The Padmanabhapuram Palace)
The Udayagiri fort is situated 1 km away from the Padmanabhapuram palace and used to be the garrison for the Travancore army. It is now under the Forest department and has a small zoo inside it. The tomb of Eustachious de Lennoy is also inside the Udayagiri Fort.
(Eustachius de Lennoy’s tomb)
The Padmanabhaswamy temple is in the heart of Trivandrum. It was recently declared the wealthiest place of worship in the world after a treasure chamber was rediscovered under it. The royal family still bears the title ‘Padmanabhadasa‘ and runs the temple trust.