Holding Kings to Ransom – Royal Women in Matrilineal Kerala: Manu Pillai

[Below is an edited excerpt from Manu S.Pillai’s forthcoming book from Harper Collins, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore. The book throws interesting light on gender and political power in the matrilineal royal houses, and offers tantalizing hints about the pre-colonial roots of brahminical patriarchy in the region. The exclusion of women from full political power seems to have begun here in the 18th century, from the time of the much-revered modernizer Marthanda Varma, and colonial power seems to have built its patriarchal structures on it. Nevertheless, the memory of women ruling as full potentates — Queens – and not as Queen-Mothers, remained in popular memory and indeed surfaced in the early twentieth century in Travancore. These were of course times in which modern politics was taking shape and modern gender was becoming a taken-for-granted truth.

Manu’s book retells the story of the transition of the female ruler in Travancore from Queen to merely the Queen-Mother in fascinating detail.]

Under the matrilineal system, women always enjoyed great power. In the early sixteenth century, for instance, the queen of Quilon had considerable influence over the foreign policy of that port and enjoyed independent commercial relations with the Portuguese. In 1502 she invited the foreigners to come to Quilon and even let them build a factory in her territory. By 1519, however, relations between the Rani and the Portuguese soured, and in alliance with a neighbouring princess, she mounted a vehement military campaign against them. This confederate neighbour was none other than the Attingal Rani, and together the two women had a force of 20,000 soldiers at their disposal..None of these troops was enlisted by male members of their dynasty, and the soldiers vowed their loyalties to these queens independently. Their autonomy is clear also from a telling episode from some years before. In 1516, Lopo Soares de Albergaria, the third Portuguese Governor in India, signed a treaty with the queen in Quilon. Soon afterwards he approached her with a request for a religious endowment, and this is what she said to him:

We are going to invade our neighbouring kingdom of Travancore, for which we start tomorrow. As we are now greatly pressed for money, please do not ask us about the church endowments now [sic]. As the clerks and Nairs are all accompanying me, everything has to be settled in my presence only after our return from victory. Please do not ask me about them before I return.

In this campaign too, the Attingal Rani is believed to have joined forces with her cousin in Quilon.These princesses not only had independent armies under their control, but also proactively led their soldiers into battle.Moreover, the intention of this particular lady was not to subjugate just any random neighbour, but Travancore itself, which was probably ruled by her son, brother or cousin at the time. This was not the only such instance and a mediaeval ballad records a tragic fratricidal battle between the Attingal Rani and a prince of Travancore. The story goes that the prince was on a pilgrimage and needed to pass through Attingal (‘a land of Amazons’) to reach his holy destination. The Rani, to his exasperation, prohibited an armed escort from accompanying him, as it offended her sovereign prerogatives; only she, it was imperiously declared, could bear weapons in Attingal. And in the course of events that followed, royal egos were royally bruised, occasioning large-scale slaughter in a terrible battle, and both protagonists were killed.

The Attingal Rani also had her own government and John Wallis, an English trader, in his A Short Treatise by Way of Essay of Attinga [sic] (1727) records how the principality was run, what its political divisions were, which among its nobles were more powerful and so on. Earlier in 1677 the Dutch commander Henrik van Rheede wrote how ‘The princess of Attingah who is not alone the mother of [the prince of] Travancore but the eldest of [the entire royal family] has a territory of her own, independent of Travancore’, which was ‘in alliance with the Hon’ble Company’.The Attingal Ranis were matriarchs of the dynasty who enjoyed much authority and had an identity that was independent, if not superior, to that of their sons and brothers, the Travancore Rajahs. Only a woman could rule in Attingal and only male heirs born to her could be the Rajahs of Travancore, with each side sovereign and perfectly capable of going to war against the other despite supposedly sacred bonds of family and blood.

Attingal, in fact, had foreign alliances not only with the Portuguese and the Dutch but also with the English (‘and great was the surprise of [these] merchants,’ Louise Ouwerkerk writes, ‘when they found themselves negotiating trade treaties with bare-bosomed but dignified and capable Indian queens.’). In 1688, the Attingal Rani granted Vettoor (‘Rettorah’) and Vizhinjam (‘Brinjohn’) to the English to establish factories, which functioned for some time until she cancelled the lease.What is interesting is that these places were technically located in Travancore and the Rani made the grants while there was a king ruling there, whose consent was neither sought nor taken. Then in 1694 she would give the English the more important enclave of Anjengo, stating: ‘Because the English I called hither have allways bin obedient to Mee, I do hereby grant unto them the following priviledges; I give unto them the hill of the louges that is at Anjengo, to fortify with stone and to abide there for ever; And I will send thither my officers to set forth and appoint with land marks the limitts of the Land that belong unto Mee.’She also negotiated the customs due to her, as well as a somewhat forthright clause that allowed her to appropriate 50 percent of any booty recovered from shipwrecked vessels nearby. Signed by the queen herself, it was delivered to the English by her nobles (‘Barrebba Poola and Mandacca Poola’).

The English, for their part, received her commands with the greatest deference and agreed to carry on their trade ‘without any manner of Impudence’ and ‘to obey Her Highness’.They were compelled to toe her line, for they could not afford to have her cancel their lease on any grounds, imagined or real, again; the last time, as the queen noted, ‘they were troublesome to my people and therefore I ordered that they should goe from there and make no more Contracts in my Land’. It was only after they reassured here that they had ‘Intention to doe good to my Country and to bee in good ffriendship with mee’ that the Rani aligned again with them in 1694.It was a significant incident, and for many years Anjengo was second only to Bombay for the English East India Company, before it lost rank eventually to more lucrative centres elsewhere.

The Rani, it is interesting, gave these grants of land without reference to the Travancore Rajah or any other senior male member of her house. The only people she consulted and was bound by were her own nobles, showing she was answerable to her court and none other. Had she been, as was later asserted in an insecure flourish of patriarchy, a subject of the Travancore Rajah, it would have been very unlikely she could confer such significant allowances and privileges on foreigners.On the contrary, Dutch sources in the late seventeenth century recorded that it was the Travancore Rajah who was a vassal to the Attingal Rani. Her commercial relations with European companies were exactly like those of other principalities in Kerala such as Cochin and Calicut. These foreign traders also acknowledged the import of courting the Attingal Rani and recognised no authority superior to her. She, interestingly enough, with that impetuosity typical of kings and queens, wasn’t always as charitable and often did as she pleased; in 1695 she promised all her pepper to the English, only to coolly renege and give it away to the Danes.When the English strengthened Anjengo’s defences without seeking her consent, she attempted to unite a military alliance against them, even leaving her palace, declaring that she would ‘never return to Attingal until every stone of Anjengo Fort had been tumbled down’.Earlier in 1695 the Rani had already gone to war against the Dutch and destroyed their fort at Tengapattanam,while in 1696 she carried an offensive campaign into Travancore as well when she felt she had been slighted.

It is in fact most interesting that the Ranis treated Travancore, ruled over by their male relatives, with sneering disdain and often did as they deemed fit there. They enjoyed a position of pre-eminence among their clan and when in 1693 one branch of the family became extinct, the Rani did not let the Travancore Rajah annex those lands but took it herself.In another instance, in 1704 when a vessel called the Neptune was shipwrecked off the coast of Travancore, the queen’s men hauled off all the retrieved treasure to Attingal instead of to the Rajah. ‘This only confirms,’ writes Leena More, ‘that the Queen of Attingal’s writ ran still in Travancore territory in 1704.’It was an unconventional situation where the ladies of the royal house were anything but under the control of their men. Both the king and queen, whether they were brother and sister, or uncle and niece, had distinct domains, and the women appear to have been far more interesting than their brothers, arguably because of the social and political freedoms matrilineal society offered them.

What is unfortunate, though, is that down the centuries, few personal names have survived of the queens of Attingal. There is, for instance, an inscription dated 1576 in a temple, recording renovations sponsored by a queen called Makayiram Tirunal (who incidentally destroyed many Portuguese churches), but actual names are difficult to find today. The one woman who shines among all the Attingal Ranis, however, is Asvathi Tirunal, better known as Umayamma Rani or Queen Ashure. When van Rheede met her in 1677 he was struck by her ‘noble and manly conduct’, describing her as an Amazon who was ‘feared and respected by everyone’. There was also an old injunction prohibiting Attingal Ranis from crossing the Karamana river into the southern territories of Travancore. This was presumably intended by princes of the dynasty to restrict the expansion of the Attingal Rani’s influence at their expense. Umayamma, however, happily breached this to march into Travancore proper with her armies, and ‘made even the king fly before her’ when she was a mere junior princess in Attingal.And as she aged and took the principal title, her nerve only grew stronger.

Just as in business and war, the Attingal Ranis were remarkably unabashed in their personal lives also. John Henry Grose records that ‘whom and as many as she pleases to the honour of her bed’ could be taken by the Rani as lovers, adding, ‘The handsomest young men about the country generally compose her seraglio.’In addition to this, James Welsh would note that the Rani could ‘change them whenever she is tired of one by sending him away and selecting another.’It is quite amazing that while the rest of the world was one where sexual freedoms were permitted only to men, a phenomenon where women had it equal could be found on this sliver of India’s west coast. Umayamma is said to have been particularly liberal and if Hamilton is to be believed, ‘her black Majesty’ even took a fancy once for a ‘beautiful’ Englishman who ‘satisfied her so well that when he left her court, she made him some presents’. The grant of Anjengo, according to some accounts, was one of those presents. Regrettably, nineteenth-century Victorian puritanism and the attendant moral ‘cleansing’ of Indian culture would lead to a purging of these aspects of Umayamma’s vibrant life. And by the early twentieth century, the poet Ulloor S. Parameswara Iyer would transform her beyond recognition into a feminine damsel in distress, the very paragon of colonial piety, in his magnum opus, Umakeralam. From Amazon to damsel, Umayamma’s memory nevertheless remains a captivating one.

The decline of the Attingal Ranis from glory to relative obscurity commenced with the death of the multifaceted Umayamma in 1698 at Valiyathura. There were no female members in the royal family and some years before she had secured an adoption from the north to continue her line. But this princess who succeeded her was weak for the very reason that she was perceived at court as an outsider. For her installation as Rani, she was dependent on the nobles of Attingal, and a phenomenon that had hitherto plagued only Travancore came to afflict Attingal also: the kingmakers eclipsed the rulers. These nobles began to irritate the English and for the first time the East India Company ignored the Rani and sought to directly approach Travancore for the pepper there. ‘It is highly doubtful,’ Leena More writes, ‘if the English would have dared to open direct contacts with the Rajah if the present Queen was as strong as the old Queen.’The Rajah, for his part, went out of his way to seduce the Company, even granting them the privilege of minting currency, which the Attingal Rani had staunchly withheld for decades. The Rani (‘that cunning woman’), as it happened, was not pleased with this betrayal by the English. In 1721 she presided over a comprehensive slaughter of Company factors after getting them conveniently cornered at her palace during a banquet.One gentleman, for instance, had his tongue ripped out and was sent floating down a river nailed to a log.But they would kiss and make up and in 1722 and 1726 sign fresh treaties, again with no reference to Travancore, although the alliance was admittedly turning frosty by this time.

But the power of the Ranis was on the decline ever since their nobles began to pull the royal strings. As John Wallis writes, ‘since Queen Ashure’s decease 30 years since, the poolas [nobles] have thrown off their allegiance and Severally set up for themselves and divided the Country, there being since that time a titular Queen who is only allowed annual subsistence’.By 1729, her situation was even weaker and the grandees at court had a say in all her affairs, with one faction in 1721 even having, briefly, installed another lady as the Attingal Rani. In 1726, the Rani sought English assistance in reining in her refractory nobles, with no success, and in 1727 she had to actually flee Attingal and seek political sanctuary elsewhere, living off the charity of sympathetic aristocrats.The result of all these internal dissensions was an escalation of Travancore’s influence in the affairs of Attingal. By 1729, the redoubtable Rajah Martanda Varma had started bringing his own courtiers under ruthless control, using execution as an incentive to ensure loyalty, and was beginning to emerge as the sole power in Travancore. In that year he induced his aunt, the Attingal Rani, to sign a joint treaty with him and the English, drawing her decisively under his ambitious wings. Soon after this, he despatched armies to destroy the chief nobles of Attingal, winning victories and great power in that territory, albeit in the name of the Rani.

In 1731, then, the Attingal Rani sounded her death knell by signing a Silver Plate Treaty with Martanda Varma, relinquishing all her sovereign rights to the Rajah after four centuries of queenly independence. Whether this was due to her political decline or due to familial bonds is not clear, but it was most likely the former. The very fact that a formal treaty was required for the amalgamation of Attingal into an expansionist Travancore shows that both the king and the queen in the royal family were political equals.The treaty guaranteed that only sons of the Attingal Ranis would succeed to the throne of Travancore and that the Senior Rani would remain owner of her 15,000-acre freehold. Some years later, in 1747, Martanda Varma executed another document concerning succession in the royal family, where too these clauses were enshrined, and to which the Attingal Rani, now without any real political power, remained an equal signatory. And thus, Attingal was merged with Travancore and the Ranis reduced to a glorified impotency, living in the wistful shadows of their former greatness, even as male members of the dynasty became more and more dominating.

9 thoughts on “Holding Kings to Ransom – Royal Women in Matrilineal Kerala: Manu Pillai”

  1. Such expositions are rare. The stories of queens and their bravery should be popularised. For example, the queen of Kakatiya regime in Orugallu(Warangal district Telengana) Rani Rudramma Devi is not widely known. Also, the queen of Delhi Razia Sultana is not given proper place in history except love affairs. The administration of such women rulers and their struggle with patriarchy and hostile outside environment should be analysed and debated a lot more.


  2. I am writing a novel about India. The time period is roughly the years 1000 AD to 1500 AD. One of the important characters is a Rani. So, I would like to look at your historical sources to make my Rani more deeply-rooted in actual history. I would appreciate it if you could give me a list of your sources. In any case, I enjoyed your article. Thank you very much.


  3. What an excellent write up. If one were to look at books on history of India most of them dwelt only on northern India. Very little regarding the history of the East, South or even the East. It’s only of late that there are a few books the three regions. Needless to add this seems to be a good addition on the Douth.


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