The Travancore lines - Tipus ‘Contemptible wall’
Today there is much talk about the Padmanabha treasure, the immense hoard of gold and coins at the temple in Trivandrum. Was its existence known in the past? Well, Tipu for one certainly believed in the wealth hidden by the kings and Naduvazhis of many parts of Malabar and many of his temple plunders were to unearth the hidden wealth in temple vaults. And as we all know he tried hard to get into Travancore subsequently and failed. Did he perhaps have an inkling of what existed in the Padmanabha vaults?
But how did this David and Goliath story pan out? What happened? Let us take a look and as we do, thank the efforts of a Flemish captain who strayed into these lands, a person named Eustachio de Lannoy, the person fondly known as ‘valia kapitan’, in stopping a possible plunder.
Most of you believe that Tipu met his might at the battle of Seringapatanam with the English, where he eventually died, but it was in an earlier battle where he saw defeat from a smaller army. Before I get to it, let me thank two people, Manjith & Bernard. One started me on this route by asking a question about Dillani kotta; the other provided me much information to complete Lannoy’s part of the story. I will not get too deep into the Lannoy story right now, but will instead hover above the battle of Nedumkota. I must also thank the person who first called it Tipu’s waterloo; it is somebody who goes by the pen name a_kumar writing in the Bharat-rakshak forum.
History books call this the Third Anglo Mysore war. Let us get the background and perspective set, to start with borrowing from Wikipedia entry. The kingdom of Travancore had been a target of Tipu for acquisition or conquest since the end of the previous war. Indirect attempts to take over the kingdom had failed in 1788, and Archibald Campbell, the Madras president at the time, had warned Tipu that an attack on Travancore would be treated as a declaration of war on the company. The rajah of Travancore also angered Tipu by extending fortifications along the border with Mysore into territory claimed by Mysore, and by purchasing from the Dutch East India Company two forts in the Kingdom of Cochin, a state paying tribute to Tipu. In 1789 Tipu sent forces onto the Malabar Coast to put down a rebellion. Many people fled to Travancore and Cochin, a state paying tribute to Tipu, in the wake of his advance. In order to follow them, Tipu began, in the fall of 1789 to build up troops at Coimbatore in preparation for an assault on the Nedumkotta, a fortified line of defense built by Dharma Raja of Travancore to protect his domain. Cornwallis, observing this buildup, reiterated to Campbell's successor, John Holland, that an attack on Travancore should be considered a declaration of war, and met with a strong British response. Tipu, aware that Holland was not the experienced military officer that Campbell was, and that he did not have the close relationship that Campbell and Cornwallis had (both had served in North America in the American War of Independence), probably decided that this was an opportune time to attack.
I must also admit that whenever I write about the Mysore Sultans, I disregard (right or wrong, I cannot say conclusively, but my studies show these two characters to be somewhat poor specimens of humanity) all the rubbish about them being freedom fighters fighting for a greater India and all that. They were simply greedy rulers in the larger context, misusing the power of religion (inciting the moplahs) and had no reason other than annexation of riches for themselves and plundering their neighbors for no good reason other than to collect finances to later pay foreign powers like the French for arms and ammunition. That their enemies were later enemies of a united India is another matter, but in the period we talk about there was no united India, so the point is moot.
But first a few more words about the scheme of things and the period setting. Malabar had been decimated by the attack and plunder by the troops of Hyder Ali and later by Tipu Sultan. It was ruled by by the governors placed in Ferokabad and the Zamorins had lost their power after many hundred years. Their families had fled and so had the wealthy land owning Nair’s and Namboothiri’s, to the southerly kingdoms of Venad or let us say for convenience Travancore. The Dharma rajas of Travancore had kindly given them asylum. The Cochin king had already aligned with the Dutch and so were supported by a western power with military facilities. The returns from Malabar were not sufficient for the wars Tipu was fighting with the Marathas as well as the English and other petty kingdoms. He had more than he could chew and more finances were needed. His sights were trained at Travancore, for he believed that he could easily trample over them as well, like he did at Malabar in order to get what he wanted.
But step back a little (in jest - people who have seen recent Malayalam films may understand the back & forth technique used in direction), for we have to go backwards in history to an earlier period when the Zamorins were powerful and were fighting regularly and wastefully over petty reasons with the Cochin king while the Portuguese and the Dutch were making merry with the spoils and watching the fun. The Travancore Kingdom which was somewhat calm and sedate until now was getting a bit alarmed with the Zamorin’s growing powers. Marthanda Varma first imported a number of mercenaries (even Mogul and Maratha) from various places and many were provided the titles and rights of Nairs. They did have their periods of diplomacy and tributaries with the Dutch, the Mysore Sultans and the English, but I will not get too much into those details or this will become longer prose that it is going to be.
So we are in the year 1741.The Dutch VOC is in a strained situation with Travancore’s Marthanada Varma, over pepper supply and prices. They decide to take a different route to trouble the Travancore king and precipitate armed conflict by supporting the Kottarakara king, but this as desired, starts an armed attack of the Travancore Nair’s by a Dutch fleet headed by Capt. Hackert. In an engagement at Colachel, the Dutch forces led by Hackert are defeated by Marthanada Varma and his forces.
Here traditional history books and usual accounts go wrong. The Dutch are by now a demoralized lot, they had not been paid for two years, the army and naval personnel had no respect for their immoral captains and had no stomach to fight. The person who first deserted the VOC and joined Marthanda Varma was actually a German named Carl August Duyvenschot who had deserted in April 1741. Carl August then gave Travancore chieftains instructions on retaking Colachel. De Lannoy was never the captain who headed the fleet at Colachel, nor did he surrender at that battle as is oft mentioned.
Captain de Lannoy and other Dutchman deserted later in August and were imprisoned in Iraniyal. Carl August convinced Marthanda Varma to let them and some 40-50 European prisoners join the Travancore Nair brigade. Now comes one of those strange twists of fate. Lannoy was just a soldier in the Travancore army. The ailing German captain was to be succeeded by a Sgt Hartman. But one fine day, Marthanda Varma sees the smart and affable Lannoy, takes a good look at his face (most you may not know this, the king was also a face reader, a physiognomist). He foresaw that Lannoy had a great future and chose him over Hartman to succeed Carl August… and as history tells us, Lannoy would prove him right many times over.
By 1744, Lannoy had trained and created an able army for the raja and had built many forts for him. He was also entrusted with making a cannon foundry and a gunpowder making factory. By 1747 Travancore had wrested control over the area upto the Cochin borders. The political and military stages of Malabar were by now no longer directed by the Dutch or the Portuguese or English, though they were looking from afar and waiting….like many a medieval tale, the kings were at play, the vultures were hovering above for the spoils of war. The Zamorin attacked Cochin and was about to annex it in 1757 when the Cochin raja in desperation signed a treaty with Marthanda Varma. But well, as luck or the lack of it would have it, by 1758 both the warring Zamorin and Marthanda Varma died. Rama Varma took over in Travancore and charged Lannoy to build fortifications to prevent any further incursions into Travancore. It was soon 1763.
Thus the Travancore lines or Nedumkotta took shape. 35 miles long, 12 miles tall, it was though not massive or grandiose as the Great Wall of China, built with the same purpose. A ditch 16-20 feet wide and 16 feet deep kept attackers at bay. Starting at the isles of Vypeen (Pallipuram Kotta), it continued upto the Anamalai hills. The wall was raised mainly with clay and mud, and reinforced with stones, laterite and granite at strategic places. There were underground cells to store gunpowder and other war materials, special chambers for soldiers to live, and look-outs and mounted field-guns all along the fortification. Besides, on the north side of the fortification, ditches were dug twenty feet wide and sixteen feet deep, and filled with thorny plants, poisonous snakes, and hidden weapons. On the south side as well as on the top of the fortification, wide roads were laid for the convenience of military movements.
Let’s back up a little bit now. By 1757, Hyder had marched into Malabar and the Zamorin had killed himself and the family had fled to Travancore as we know already. The new enemy for all of Malabar was the marauding Mysore Sultan, and their atrocities had by now been well explained to the Travancore nobility by the asylees, and it was amply clear that the Sultan had eyes for Travancore. It was now the period more popularly known as the ‘Padayottakalam’ or the period when militaries marched and ran amok. The common man had no respite; it was a period of turmoil, fear and anxiety. The calm Malabar was a boiling caldron with religious animosity, foreign soldiers, atrocities, plunder and mayhem. The only area that was calm was Travancore and the Dharma Raja’s wanted to keep it that way. Lannoy’s wall was created with that purpose, for there was no Zamorin to worry about, he had died already.
It was in 1774 or thereabout that Hyder expressed his intentions of overrunning Travancore in clear terms. But to get to Travancore, he had to pass Dutch territory; they would not give him permission. Hyder then asked the Rajas of Cochin and Travancore, to compensate him for his Malabar campaign. Cochin was asked to pay a total of Rs.400,000 and 10 elephants, while Travancore was asked to pay Rs.1,500,000 and 30 elephants. Hyder warned the Raja that if Travancore refused, "He will pay a visit". Typical bullying I would say or extortion and that of course, coming after Hyder’s destruction of the Zamorin’s suzerainty over a failed demand over 12 lakhs.
Although the Cochin Royals agreed to pay the amount and accepted the Mysore's superiority, King of Travancore replied, stating that it was "neither to please him nor in accordance with his advice that the invasion of Malabar was undertaken". But he stated that if Hyder Ali withdrew from Malabar with his forces and reinstated the local Rajas back in their kingdoms, he will provide some amount of money.
And so, the Mysore army began to move to Travancore from the North. But after a series of incursions and fort takeovers, Hyder had to return to Mysore after trouble in Malabar where his forces lost a few battles. By 1782, he was dead (as fate decrees and as we saw earlier, cruel people have painful deaths), suffering from cancer. Tipu, his son took over.
In the meantime, the strength of Travancore Army had reduced after many battles. The death of De Lannoy in 1777 further diminished the morale of the soldiers. The death of Makayiram Thirunal and Asvati Thirunal in 1786 forced the Travancore Royal Family to adopt two princesses from Kolathunad. Tipu Sultan had planned the invasion of Travancore for many years, and he was especially concerned with the Nedumkotta fortifications, which prevented Hyder Ali from annexing the kingdom. On December 29, 1789, Tipu Sultan marched his troops from Coimbatore and decided to attack and destroy the Nedumkotta and enter Travancore.
Travancore purchased the strategic forts of Cranganore and Ayacottah from the Dutch as a preparation for the war. The deal was finalized by Dewan Kesava Pillai and Dutch merchants David Rabbi and Ephraim Cohen under the observation of the Travancore Maharajah (Dharma Raja) and the Dutch governor (John Gerard van Anglebeck). Travancore also held a treaty with the British East India Company, under which two battalions of the Company army will be stationed at the Travancore-Cochin frontier.
Kesava Pillai was appointed as the Commander-in-Chief of the Travancore Nair Army. He was to prove himself a master at strategy.
Battles at Nedumkotta
It was December 1789. Here we first take a look at the words of Nagam Aiya and Shungoony Menon. The location is near today’s Chalakkudy, locally known as Kottamuri. The first battle took place at Vedimaraparambu in the Muringur village.
Nagam Aiya’s Travancore State Manual.
Tippu not satisfied with these replies sent, on the 24th December 1789 A. D., another embassy with two caparisoned elephants ostensibly meant for taking the two Rajahs of Cochin and Travancore, and on the night between the "28th and 29th of December encamped at a place six miles distant northward from the main entrance to the lines. Leaving most of his forces to maneuver at daybreak in front of the principal gate, Tippu marched with 14,000 infantry and 500 pioneers by a roundabout way at 10 o'clock in the night being guided by a native of the country. Before day-break he found himself in possession of a large extent of the rampart on the right flank of the lines. His aim was to gain the gate about nine miles from the point of entrance, to open it to the division of his army placed to maneuver in front of it and to place his whole force within the lines in one day. About 9 o'clock in the morning the Sultan had come three miles along the water in the inner side with his whole force without any opposition, and he at once commanded his pioneers to level down the rampart into the ditch which was there 10 feet wide and 20 deep and thus make a road for him to pass. This was found rather difficult and so he advanced along the rampart in one column, the Travancoreans retreating from successive towers until finally they made a stand in a small square enclosure within the works employed as a magazine, storehouse and barrack, and having drawn a small gun inside they poured grape upon the advancing Mysoreans. The Sultan at once issued orders to take the place at the point of the bayonet. But as they were advancing to execute this ill-advised order, a party of twenty Travancoreans at once poured in a heavy fire which killed the commanding officer and created a panic and inextricable chaos.
He then made the best of his way out with very great difficulty and was soon carried in a dhuli unperceived to his tent. In an intense fit of rage and humiliation he swore that he would remain in that camp until he took what he described as ' this contemptible wall'.
According to the English dispatches the ditch was said to have been filled with bales of cotton by the Mysoreans for the purpose of passing in and an accidental inflammation of the cotton made them seek another passage. Mr. Powney in his account written from Parur on the first of January 1790 states:Tippu has met with a repulse from the raja's troops. He breached a weak part of the lines and filled the ditch with bales of cotton and earth for his cavalry to enter. He made the attack with seven thousand men. They carried it and possessed the lines for three miles in extent, but reinforcements of the Raja's troops coming from the right and left, the enemy were hemmed in between two fires and were driven out with great slaughter. Near a thousand were left dead within the lines, some horses and prisoners were taken. Zemaul Beg, commander of a cussoom was killed, likewise another person of consequence; it is said to be a son of the late Meer Saib. The enemy as soon as he fell, cut off his head and carried it with them. About two hundred of the Raja's people were killed and wounded. By all accounts they behaved very gallantly. A Brahman of some consequence is among the prisoners; he says that Tippu was at the attack, and had a horse shot under him. We apprehend he is meditating some grand attack. Report says he has crossed the Chetwa River and is advancing along the sea-side with the intention of attacking Cranganore and Ayacotta. I think we shall be prepared for him at these places. He has certainly drawn oil his army from the lines."
The account of bales of cotton having been used for the purpose of passing over the ditch is not corroborated by other accounts, though it is affirmed by all that the mass of bodies in the ditch were consumed by fire after the retreat, fuel being supposed to have been added for the purpose by the Travancoreans. Tippu's palanquin, his seals, rings and personal ornaments, sword etc, fell into the Dalawa's hands as trophies, which were duly forwarded to the Nawab of Arcot at his request. Shortly after this, he had nearly lost his life in an attack on the lines of Travancore where he was forced to leave his palanquin behind him, together with his pistols and a small signet or sealed ring which he usually wore, and which the editor of these sheets has seen, and so very small that the finger on which it was worn must have been delicate in the extreme."
Shungoony Menon’s History of Travancore
On the 11th Dhanu (24th December), Tippoo encamped at a place four miles distant from the Travancore lines, where he began to erect batteries on the 12th (25th). On the night of the 15th Dhanu, 964 M.E., (28th December 1789 A.D.), Tippoo's powerful army, under his personal command, attacked the Northern frontier of Travancore and attempted a breach of the barrier; but the attack was ably and gallantly resisted by the troops on duty, generally known by the designation of "Paravoor Battalion”.
On the morning of the 15th Dhanu (28th December), the Sultan's force, consisting of 14,000 select infantry and a body of 500 pioneers, paraded in front of the line. The pioneers were ordered to clear a part of the ditch where the wall was not guarded, and they proceeded with the work which was not successfully completed during the night. However, the Sultan ordered the force to proceed and effect an entrance within the walls during the night. By day break on the 16th Dhanu (29th December) he gained an entrance and succeeded in possessing a considerable extent of the ramparts. The troops of the Maha Rajah, occupying those ramparts, retreated before Tippoo's army as the latter was marching by the side of the wall with the full view of reaching the gate. The Travancore garrison opposed their progress. Tippoo found it necessary to bring in a reinforcement to afford help to the leading corps. In the hurry of the moment, the order was misunderstood and ill-executed. In this confusion, a party of twenty men of the Travancore garrison, who were stationed at a corner of the rampart, threw in a regular platoon on the flank which killed the officer commanding, and threw the corps into inextricable disorder and flight. The advancing relief was met and checked by an impetuous mass of fugitives.
The panic now became general and the retreating men were borne on to the ditch, while others were forced into it by the mass which pressed on from behind. Those that fell into the ditch were, of course, killed. The rear now became the front. The bodies that filled the ditch enabled the remainder to pass over them. The Sultan himself was thrown down in the struggle and the bearers of his palanquin trampled to death. Though he was rescued from death by some of his faithful followers, yet he received such injuries that he never forgot in this episode in his invasion of Travancore.
Tippoo's State sword, signet ring, and other personal ornaments fell into the hands of the Travancore army; several officers and men were taken prisoners, and of the former, five were Europeans, and one a Mahratta.
Tippoo retreated with great shame and chagrin, and Dewan Kasava Pillay returned to Trivandrum in triumph, bringing with him Tippoo's sword, shield, as trophies. The Maha Rajah communicated the news of his success to his friends the English and the Nabob, and received their warm congratulations. The Nabob requested the Maha Rajah to send Tippoo's sword, shield, dagger, belt, palanquin, and they were accordingly forwarded.
Tippoo was now determined on retaliating on Travancore. He remained in the vicinity of the northern frontier and concentrated a large army there which consisted of infantry, cavalry and artillery. The rest of the story involves the British who were asked by the Maharaja for help. The bureaucracy, after some stonewalling by J Holland (some say bribed into inactivity by Tipu) finally decided to enter the fray. Tipu in the meantime was methodically destroying the Nedumkottah which was becoming a long and arduous task.
The British did not receive orders to attack though stationed in readiness. By the time they received it, Tipus forces had become very big and the officers decide to retreat. Keshava Pillay also decided to retreat.
The Sultan's first object was to destroy the "contemptible wall" and fill up the ditch, and so he took a pickaxe himself and set an example which was followed by everyone present and the demolition of the wall was completed by his army without much delay.
The wall was smashed down and Tipous forces pillaged and burnt their way forward, but then another fate befell them, for the master strategist and planner from the placid plains had never seen the fury of the South west monsoon, the very same winds that helps the country with trade.
The south-west monsoon broke out with unusual severity and the beautiful Alwaye river, a stream which usually rises after a few showers, filled and overflowed its banks causing Tippoo's army great inconvenience and rendering their march almost impossible.
Tippoo was certainly in a very awkward predicament and one for which he was not prepared. He had no idea of what a Malabar monsoon was. His army had no shelter; no dry place for parade; all their ammunition, accoutrements etc got wet. Even the very necessaries of life were washed away by the impetuous current of the flooded river.
Cholera, small-pox and other epidemics broke out. Provisions became scanty, and the scarcity was followed almost by famine. Numbers began to perish by disease and hunger.
And thus Tipu limped back to Mysore, defeated at his own waterloo. The limp was to remind him constantly of his misadventures into Malabar, through the rest of his miserable life.
The people at Trichur, Chalakkudy and other areas continue to live their lives in peace, mostly unaware of the stories of 1790, with no physical remains of the wall to remind them of the ghastly events of that war.
Shungoony Menon – History of Travancore
Nagam Aiya – The Travancore State manual
A Dutchman in the service of Travancore Eustache Lannoy – By Mark De Lannoy
Was it a decisive battle in anyway? I historians believe so, for the Travancore battle pitched the EIC into the third Anglo Mysore war providing them the reason and permissions, after forming a coalition with the Marathas & the Nizam. Tipu hastened back to placate the Marathas but it was too late. Soon he too met a violent death in battle at Srirangapatanam. But most people do not even know about the story at Nedumkotta.
Why is it Tipus waterloo? A_kumar gives a good explanation – In 1789, Tipus attack with 14000 soldiers was repulsed by a small Travancore army, enraging him. He then waited three months for reinforcements, giving his enemies valuable recouping time. Tipu then bribed Holland into inaction and the Calcualla high command of EIC when they found out, became furious about the traitor in their fold, forcing them to look closer into the matter. Tipu batters the wall, but loses other minor battles locally, and while stuck in the morass, hears about the treaties between the Nizam, the Mahratas and the EIC. In the meantime the rain decimates his troops and he finally trudges back, demoralized, and is defeated in future campaigns, even having to supply his sons to the EIC as ransom..
Some historians like Kareem, Ibrahim Kunju etc continue to question if Tipu really participated in these battles or lost his sword, if he even became limp from the above battle etc while maintaining that he was a benevolent and honorable King, who only believed in the well being of his subjects. I will get to this topic another day, but for now I think of him only as an example of an unworthy person desiring the crown of greatness and one who believed that violent pursuit of his goal through despotic wars was the answer.
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