Kings of Travancore: Dharma Raja

The Hindu Kingdom of Travancore, also known by the names of Venad and Thiruvithamkoor, was one of the four principal kingdoms in the Malabar (others were the Rajas of Cochin, Kolathunadu (Kannur) and the Zamorins of Calicut). Padmanabhapuram Palace (1729-1795) was the capital of the Kingdom. The kingdom followed Marumakkathayam¹ or matrilineal system of succession. Marthanda Varma (1729-1758) was the most famous king of Travancore. On his death bed, he advised his heir apparent Rama Varma to keep up the friendship with the British². Karthika Thirunal³ Rama Varma (1758-1798) succeeded his uncle Marthanda Varma, to the throne of Travancore at the age of 34. From his boyhood, Rama Varma had received under his uncle's direction a thorough training both as a soldier and administrator. King Rama Varma is known for his Principles of Justice, and hence known as Dharma Raja (the King of Justice). During his reign the Mysore rules, Hyder Ali and his son Tipu Sultan invaded Kerala.

Raja of Travancore

Treaty with Cochin (1761): The Zamorins of Calicut (Kozhikkottu Sammoothiri) were the enemies of the Rajas of Cochin since ancient times. In 1755, the Zamorin invaded Cochin and a large part of Cochin including the districts of Paravur and Alangad was captured by him. He again threatened to invade Cochin in 1761 during the reign of Veera Kerala Varma (1760-1775). The helpless Raja sought assistance of Travancore; and agreed to pay the expenses for the army and offered to cede the districts of Paravur and Alangad. Rama Varma sent his Dalawa (Prime Minister) Ayyappan Marthanda Pilla with a large army under the command of General De Lennoy, the Valiya Kappithan (Great Captain), which drove out the Zamorin and his forces. De Lennoy wanted to march to Calicut, however, the Zamorin sued for peace. The Raja of Cochin was so pleased with the conduct and services of Marthanda Pilla that he bestowed upon him the village of Puthenchira, which the minister, out of patriotism, made over to his country. The Zamorin subsequently met the Rama Varma and entered into a treaty of friendship agreeing to pay a war indemnity.

Construction of Nedumkotta, otherwise known as the Travancore Lines (1761): The King desired to construct a barrier at the northern frontier to prevent further attacks of the Zamorin. He commissioned the Dalawa Marthanda Pilla and De Lennoy to superintend the construction of the fortifications. A long earthen wall of thirty miles in length was erected from Ayakotta along a greater portion of Cochin on a tract of land ceded to the King of Travancore by the Raja of Cochin.

Treaty with the Nawab of Arcot: In December 1766, the British mediated peace between Muhammad Ali Wallajah, the Nawab of Arcot (1749-1795) and Rama Varma, regarding the possession of the districts of Sengottai and Kalakkad in Tirunelveli. According to the treaty, Travancore had to renounce all claims on Kalakkad. By that time the influence of the British had considerably increased with their victories in the battles of Plassey (1757), Wandiwash (1760) and Buxar (1764). Only the Mysore Sultan Hyder Ali remained a powerful enemy of the British.

Invasion of Hyder Ali and Escape of the Malabar Chiefs to Travancore: Hyder Ali invaded Malabar first in 1766 and for the second time in 1773. He took many districts of Malabar including Calicut. At that time Cochin became a tributary of Mysore. Many of the chiefs including the Zamorin fled from Malabar and took shelter at Travancore. The generous King Rama Varma treated them with great hospitality and kindness. In the war against Hyder (2nd Anglo-Mysore war), the Travancore soldiers fought with the British at Calicut, Palakkad and many other places. Hyder died in 1782, and was succeeded by his son Tipu Sultan. The 2nd Anglo-Mysore war ended in 1784 and Tipu Sultan became the ruler of the northern districts of Malabar.

Raja Kesava Das (1789-1799): When Rama Varma was the Elaya Raja (crown prince), he had taken a warm interest in a young man and brought him up under his own patronage. This young man was Kesava Pilla, the future Raja Kesava Das. He was at first entrusted with the supervision of commercial affairs. For some time he was the Samprathi (State Secretary) and afterwards promoted as Valia Sarvadhikariakar (deputy Prime minister). He was made the Dalawa in 1789. It was Kesava Pilla who introduced the title of Diwan to Travancore; and he became the first Diwan of Travancore in 1789. Diwan Kesava Pillai made many reforms in the kingdom that were resulted in increase of commercial trade. In recognition of his meritorious services, the King granted him a jagir, which he declined with characteristic modesty saying that the generosity of His Highness had left him no want of any kind. Lord Mornington, conferred on him the title of Raja Kesava Das in recognition of his merits and fidelity. He is also respectfully referred as Valia Diwanji.

Religious Policy of Rama Varma: The King was tolerant toward all religions. Pope Clement XIV wrote him a letter, thanking him for his kindness towards the members of his church in Travancore. In June 1780, Father Bartolomeo, one of the three Romish missionaries who carried the letter to Rama Varma, thus describes his reception: "As soon as we made our appearance before the gate of the castle, the guard presented his arms, and the minister sent a guide to conduct the persons who bore our palanquin to the door of the palm-garden in which the king resided. Here our coolies, or palanquin-bearers, were obliged to remain behind us, lest being people of the lowest caste they might contaminate the royal palace. At this door we were received by the king's commander in chief, who conducted us through the palm garden to a second door, where the king was waiting for us. He received us standing, and surrounded by a great number of princes and officers. Near him stood his son with a drawn sabre in his hand and in a shady place were three chairs, one of which was destined for the king, and the other two for me and my colleague. When we had all three taken our seats, the attendants formed a circle around us. I then produced the pope's letter, which I had hitherto carried in a pocket-book richly embroidered according to the eastern manner; raised it aloft; applied it to my forehead; in order to show my respect for the personage in whose name I presented it; and then delivered it to Samprathi Kesava Pilla. The latter handed it to the king, who also raised it up and held it to his forehead as a token of respect for his holiness. At the moment when the Pope's letter was delivered, there was a general discharge of the cannon of the castle.

When the king had conversed for sometime on various topics, he ordered his minister and secretary to give such an answer to our petition, and such relief to our grievances which we had specified on an Ola, that we might return home perfectly satisfied and easy. For my part I could not help admiring the goodness of heart, affability, and humanity of this prince, as well as the simplicity of his household establishment and way of life. At that time, he and all the persons of his court, according to the Malabar mode, had nothing on their bodies, but a small piece of cloth fastened round the loins and the only mark of distinction by which his royal dignity could be discovered, was a red velvet cap with gold fringes." (A Voyage to the East Indies By Fra Paolino Da San Bartolomeo)

Pilgrimage to Rameswaram: In 1784, for performing religious ceremonies and also visiting some other parts of the country, the King started from Thiruvananthapuram on a pilgrimage to the holy island of Rameswaram. During the tour, he inspected various irrigation works, bridges and inns in the two districts of Tirunelveli and Madurai. An improved system of irrigation was set on foot in South Travancore and several public roads were opened in. About the year 1789, he took another tour to the northern districts of Travancore. In Alwaye, he performed a Hindu ceremony called Yagam (vedic sacrifice).

Tipu Sultan's Invasion of Travancore and the King's Preparations to Protect the Kingdom (1789):

Oil painting of Tipu Sultan by John Zoffany at  Daria Daulat Bagh, Srirangapatna

Requests British Help: In the early 1789, Tipu marched to Malabar, and the Hindus fled from Malabar to Travancore as before. The King without the least hesitation or fear of the consequences stretched his charitable hand of protection to the helpless refugees, and housed and fed them according to the deserts of each family. It is said that no less than 30,000 Brahmans and Nairs with their families were taking in Travancore. Tipu at first sent his vassal, the Raja of Cochin, to persuade the Travancore King to become a vassal of Mysore. He also sent envoys to Travancore with valuable presents to the King. The King received them in the presence of Major Bannerman, an adviser sent by the Madras government to Travancore. After the envoys were dismissed, the King sent Tipu a letter in polite language stating that he would not enter into any alliance without the consent of the British. The King then requested the Madras governor, Archibald Campbell four British officers to command his army. The governor denied the grant of officers but agreed to sent two battalions for the protection of Travancore. According to the agreement, two regiments under the command of Captain Knox were stationed near Ayacotta and George Powney, a civil officer under the Company, was also sent to Travancore.

Purchase of Cranganore and Ayacotta: The Dutch forts of Ayacotta (also known as Pallippuram fort) and Cranganore (also known as Kodungallur fort or Kottapuram fort) were situated at the very northern frontier of Travancore. The forts were built by the Portuguese in 1503 and 1523 respectively. The Dutch captured those the forts in 1661 during their conquest of Cochin (In 1663 the Dutch conquered Cochin). Tipu wished to purchase the forts from the Dutch so that he can easily enter Travancore by that route. Because the British had declared that any attack on the Travancore Lines would be considered equivalent to a declaration of war. On the other hand, the King was worried that if Tipu captures these forts and entered Travancore by that route, he could not expect assistance from the British, who were stationed at the northern frontier. So he ordered Diwan Kesava Pilla to open up negotiations with the Dutch. Holland, the new governor of Madras, however, blamed the King for purchasing the forts stating that they belonged to the Raja of Cochin, who is a tributary of Mysore, and advised to restore them. The King sent a letter to the governments of Madras, Bombay and Bengal, stating that the Dutch were in possession of the forts since 1663, and therefore they had every right to sell them to Travancore without reference to the Raja of Cochin or the Sultan of Mysore. Moreover, Major Bannerman had recommended him the purchase of the forts and the sale had been conducted in the presence of Powney. In Nov 1789, Lord Cornwallis issued instructions to support the King's claim on the forts. The King appointed Kesava Pilla as commander-in-chief and the forts of Cranganore and Ayacotta were strengthened and garrisoned.

Dutch forts in Cochin
Dutch forts in Cochin

Tipu's Retreat: Tipu now put forth his claims to the forts of Cranganore and Ayacotta. He sent a messenger to Travancore, with three demands: immediate surrender of the refugees; withdrawal of the Raja's troops from the fort of Cranganore; and demolition of the part of the Travancore Lines which stood in Cochin. The King replied that he had no objection to give asylum to the Rajas and chiefs, and the forts of Cranganore and Ayacotta belonged to the Dutch. The land on which the fortifications were erected was ceded to him by the Raja of Cochin long before it became a tributary of Mysore. Tipu now decided to destroy the "contemptible wall" (the Travancore Lines). Accordingly he attacked the Lines on 29th Dec 1789, however, sustained a severe defeat. Diwan Kesava Pilla returned in triumph bringing with him Tipu's sword, shield, palanquin and other personal artifacts of the Sultan, which were forwarded to the Nawab of Arcot as per his request. Tipu succeeded in demolishing the Lines during his second attack in Apr 1790. He proceeded further and demolished the fort of Cranganore and captured the fort of Kuriapilly. Tipu Sultan then marched southward and reached Alwaye but his further progress was obstructed by flood in the Periyar river. It was the season of monsoon in Kerala. Many diseases had broken out and his soldiers began to perish by disease and hunger. At that time Tipu received an alarming news that Lord Cornwallis at the head of a large army was rapidly advancing on Srirangapatna. So Tipu was compelled to retreat from Travancore.

Kesava Pilla by this time erected stockades at backwater passages and strengthened the garrison at all military stations. The King, who was nearing to old age became extremely melancholy. He said to Kesava Pilla, "We have now lost everything. Padmanabhaswamy (Lord Vishnu) alone should protect us in this dangerous situation. We have trusted the British and placed every confidence in them; but now, it's our misfortune that the Sultan should be thus allowed to encroach upon our territory". The Diwan consoled him that Tipu's progress from Alwaye was prevented by the rains. His army could not march forward by road and also no boats could be taken from Alwaye as the water had been stockaded at many places. He also informed the King that the British had been preparing for a war against Tipu.

Tipu Sultan was defeated in the 3rd Anglo-Mysore war and he lost Malabar forever. When Tipu signed the Treaty of Srirangapatna, he included the Travancore districts of Paravur, Alangad and Kunnathunadu among his dominions. The Raja wrote to the governor-general Lord Cornwallis that those districts were ceded to Travancore by the Raja of Cochin in 1755. The Commissioners gave their verdict in favour of Travancore and declared that Tipu had no right to include those districts in his dominions.

Restoration of the Malabar Chiefs: Many chiefs of Malabar were taking refugee at Travancore since a long time and the Travancore government expended a very large sum of money in providing them with necessities. The King now ordered the Diwan Kesava Pilla to restore all the princes and chiefs to their respective dominions.

The British Demands War Expenses: During Tipu's invasion, the British forces stationed at Travancore remained spectators without giving any aid to the Travancore army on the plea that they had not received orders from the governor Holland to march against Tipu. While Tipu was carrying on his destructive warfare, a large British force was sent from Bombay under the command of Colonel Hartley with orders to co-operate with the Travancore army, but it arrived too late. According to the agreement, the Company had declared that if an additional force were to be utilized in the Travancore frontier other than the two regiments, those should be maintained at the Company's expense. However, a large amount of money was demanded by the British. The King became in deep distress. Kesava Pilla managed to send seven lacs of rupees by several installments. Charles Oakley, the new governor of Madras, imposed upon the King ten lacs per annum. The King again sent seven lacs, however, governor further pressed him for the payment of ten lacs per annum. The King now applied to Lord Cornwallis who gave him a favorable decision relieving him from any further payments.

Perpetual Alliance: On 17th November 1795, a treaty of perpetual alliance was concluded between Jonathan Duncan, Esq., the British governor of Bombay and Rama Varma.

Death of King Dharma Raja:

Raja of Travancore

King Rama Varma died on 17th Feb 1798, at the age of 74. His full titles were Sri Padmanabha Dasa Vanji Pala Kulasekhara Kireetapati Munney Sultan Maharaja Raja Rama Raja Bahadur Shamsheer Jung. The King is known as Dharma Raja since he had given asylum to the people who had fled from Malabar during the invasions of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan. He ruled the Kingdom for forty years; no other ruler lived so long, that the King is fondly called 'Kizhavan Raja', (the old king) by the common people. Dharma Raja was succeeded by his nephew Avittam Thirunal Balarama Varma (1798-1810).


1. Marumakkathayam is a system of inheritance prevalent in Malabar in which descent is traced in the female line.

2. In April 1723, the treaty of friendship was concluded between the British East India Company and Unni Kerala Varma (1718-1724), the Raja of Travancore.

3. Thirunal means the sacred birth star. My star is also Karthika :)

The British East India Company established its first trade settlement in Kerala at Anjengo (Anchuthengu) in 1684. The Dutch East India Company's capital was at Cochin with their factories at Purakkad and Colachel.

In 1777, General De Lennoy passed away. He was the founder of European discipline in the Travancore army and it was by him that most of the forts in Travancore were built. He was buried in his own church at Udayagiri.


The Travancore State Manual by V. Nagam Aiya
A History of Travancore from the Earliest Times by P. Shungoonny Menon
Thiruvithamkoor Charithram by Krishnappisharody Attoor
The Land of the Permauls: Or Cochin, Its Past and Its Present by Francis Day