MARTHANDA VARMA OF TRAVANCORE

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World history is always been monopolized by the European powers. At best, the Japanese are mentioned for their role in WW2, but they’re often portrayed in bad light. After all, when Europeans invade, they are referred to as the so-called torchbearers of human rights and democracy. Marthanda Varma is not just significant in Indian history but plays an important role in world history. He was the first Asian king in recent history to defeat a European power, after which, no Asian power would defeat a European power until the Russo-Japanese war of 1905! He led Travancore to an astounding victory against the Dutch in 1741, their worst defeat in history, and ultimately led to the Dutch’s decline in the Indian Subcontinent.

Marthanda Varma was born to the ruler of Travancore (Venadu) in 1705 in the middle of a crisis looming in the country. The king could not sustain his kingdom due to various external and internal forces that were working to destabilize his rule. The external forces being the European powers eyeing the Malabar coast, and internal being the extremely decentralised state Travancore was at the time. Local chieftains and leaders held too much control, curbing the power of the king. Then came Marthanda Varma, reigning from 1729, who laid the foundation to the powerful modern Travancore it will come to be. Varma resolved the political differences between locals and expanded his kingdom northwards. He consolidated power by reducing the control held by the feudal lords and chieftains and made Travancore a highly centralised state.

Understanding the need for a well trained and highly equipped army, he built one from scratch to up to 50,000 men. Another of his strengths was being able to forge strong alliances with nearby rulers to thwart any imminent attacks by the Europeans. In 1757, he allied with the ruler of Kochi. He cemented the treaty with the English East India Company too, which proved to be beneficial in the coming years.

Marthanda Varma did something which threatened and provoked the Dutch- a rather odd thing for an Indian kingdom to do at that time. He began to consolidate the Indian Ocean trade by doing a few things. Firstly he monopolized the trade of goods, mainly pepper, by requiring a license to trade. He extended his patronage to the Syrian Christians which reduced the European involvement in the ocean. Essentially, he realised the Dutch’s power stemmed from the flourishing Kochi port, so he was determined to conquer the spice-producing areas supplying goods to Kochi. In 1743, he declared a state monopoly (the Kuttagai) on pepper and subsequently annexed 5 nearby principalities to Travancore. Clearly, his empire was becoming highly centralised and rapidly expanding.

The Dutch were enraged when he began launching raids and capturing the Dutch forts in the area. What ensues next is the Battle of Colachel in 1741. It started in November 1740, when the Dutch announced a complete blockade of the coast. In February 1741, the Dutch occupied Colachel (present day Kanyakumari) and started attacking nearby villages. Varma, a slick war strategist, marched his large forces down south and imposed a blockade on the landside, cutting off Dutch supplies to the garrison. Without having any equipment, he starved the garrison out and outnumbered their army.

In 1753, the Treaty of Mavelikkara was signed, and the Dutch never recovered from this defeat, causing the gradual fall of the Dutch empire. Thiruvananthapuram eventually became a prominent city in Kerala under Marthanda Varma. In January, 1750, Marthanda Varma decided to “donate” his kingdom to Sri Padmanabhaswamy and rule as the “vice-regent”. Varma died two years later in 1758. He will be known for his sheer determination and the legacy of building the great Travancore kingdom that went on strong until the independence of India. Astonishingly, the average Indian is alien to a name like Marthanda Varma today.

Varma submitting his kingdom to Sri Padmanabhaswamy.

Whether or not fellow Keralites are familiar with him is also questionable. How can we as a society move to fix our present problems, if we refuse to acknowledge the glories of our past?

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