Monday 17 May 2010



‘Who wouldn't wish to dress up like a King?’

Everyone does, of course
! But in a period when our land was torn apart by the evils of the caste system, not everyone could dream of going out dressed like a King.

On one of my visits to Krishna Singh’s house, he dug out from his collections a priced possession - a purple velvet cap. It was an old cap, but the embroidery lining running around the cap and small beads sewn on it was in perfect condition. Carefully packed inside a plastic cover he treasured the small cap all these years.

‘So what was so special about the cap?’

Krishna Singh narrated to me the story of the cap; it was connected to the history of Travancore and gives us a glimpse on the social hierarchy of the yesterdays.

The story of the cap begins many years back, in the 1930s. Dharma Bai Padma Bai, Krishna Singh’s paternal grandmother was the matriarch of the family at that time. History and hearsay tell us that they were Rajputs who had migrated to Travancore from Ayodhya. (There are Rajput settlements in Kottar (Lala Street) too; they are believed to be the decedents of the settlers who had migrated to the precincts of Suchindram temple during the reign of Krishna Deva Rayar). According to family traditions, Princess Sindhu of Oudh (Abhirami) had arrived in Suchindram during the reign of Rama Varma. The young princess was on a pilgrimage - seeking the blessings of Stanumalaya Moorthy. It is believed that the princess was a ‘mangalik’, with the evil shadow of Planet Mars in her horoscope; she had to undergo a pilgrimage, seeking blessings from gods for a happy married life. The princess’s recitation of bhajan in her sweet voice caught the attention of the King - Rama Varma and he was attracted towards her. The rest is history…..The bloody battle of succession fought between the sons of Sindhu (Abhirami) and Prince Marthanda Varma in is an important chapter in Travancore history. The Thampimar - Raman Thampi and Pappu Thampi fought against the ‘heir apparent to the throne of Travancore’, Prince Marthanda Varma. With the defeat of the Thampimar, the madampimar - Ettuveettil Pillamar who helped the brothers also met with a gruesome end.

Padma Bai’s husband Baburam Gopalram was an Anchal Inspector. Gopalram’s job took him places, after being posted in various places all over Travancore; finally, he decided to settle in the capital city. Manacaud in old days was famous for its Rajput and Pathan settlements. Several Nair and Chetti families were also concentrated in Manacaud. Its proximity to Sree Padmanabha Swamy, the nucleus of the capital city and the Chalai bazaar were the reasons why this region was comparatively ‘overpopulated’ even from old days. C.V. Raman Pillai in his epic novel ‘Marthanda Varma’ gives us a vivid description of the geographic features of ‘Manakkad’ otherwise known as ‘Manal - Kad’. ‘Puttenkotta’, a small hillock near Manacaud - Kuriyathy regions was where Umayamma Ranis palace was situated. The famed ‘Shingarathoppu’, ‘Puttenkotta Smashanam’, ‘Kalippan Kulam’ and many famous temples like Manacaud Sree Dharma Sastha temple and Attukal temple, Samadhi temple are all in its vicinity. ‘Mukilan’ (Mugalan), the Mughal chieftain who came down to sack Thiruvananthapuram had stationed in Manacaud - it is said that the local Pathans were the one who deviated him from launching an attack on the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple.

Rajpoot Songster and musician- Yale University collection.
Krishna Singh’s grandfather settled down in Manacaud in the early 20th century. The local Rajput population was usually employed in the palace. Tales of valour and an imposing physique earned them jobs in the ‘Kuthira Pattalam’, the Kings Mounted Force. Several others served as trusted ‘Choapdars’ and as emissaries on special assignments.

Sree Chithira Thirunal, wearing a velvet cap; 1924.

Madhava Singh, the ‘embroidery worker’ to the Travancore royal family lived in Manacaud. This man was an expert in making intricate embroidery works that added to the beauty of the ‘royal robes’. He was employed by His Highness Sree Moolam Tirunal (1885-1924). Velvet upholstery works in the palace were undertaken by him. However, Madhava Singh was best known for his velvet caps - velvet caps with intricate embroidery works were worn by the royals and nobles. These caps were made using high-quality velvet. First of all the frame for the cap would be made in cardboard. Velvet cloth - with intricate embroidery works - cut in appropriate dimensions would be sewn together and glued around the cylindrical cardboard piece. For decorative embroidery works floral designs were often adopted. For royals the embroidery works were done using gold thread, sometimes pearls and semi-precious stones were also used - depending upon the socio-economic status of the customer. Being a family friend, Madhava Singh frequently visited Krishna Singh’s house. Once Padma Bai asked Madhava Singh to make a velvet cap for her first grandson - like the one Madhava Singh made for ‘Chitira’ (Chithira Tirunal Bala Rama Varma).

Dharma Bai Padma Bai - From the private collection of Krishna Singh.

Krishna Singh who was four years old at that time still remembers his grandmother - a stern lady who ruled the household with an iron hand. The older generations say that she was a ‘stern, yet soft-hearted lady’. Many poor people from the surrounding area would run to her in times of need and she was always ready to help the needy. Madhava Singh was in a dilemma, he couldn’t make her unhappy, at the same time, he would be in trouble if the cap was spotted by royals or the nobles.

The velvet cap - photograph taken by the author.
Finally, he yielded to the old women’s command. One fine day he came in and placed the cap in Padma Bai’s hands. Krishna Singh’s joy knew no bounds! He was now the proud owner of a velvet cap. However, there were strict instructions from Madhava Singh - the cap was not to be worn in public. Hari Ram, Krishna Singh’s father took a photograph of his young son wearing his new cap.

Krishna Singh with his siblings, wearing his new cap - Clicked by Hariram (From the private collection of Krishna Singh).
Years passed, monarchy faded away from memory and velvet caps, once a symbol of nobility was pushed to the discreet corners of wardrobes. However, for Krishna Singh the cap is a treasure, it brings back the memories of his childhood, his long-dead grandmother, and the cap maker.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev
May, 2010.

* Krishna Singh passed away on 23rd October 2010, he was 73 years old. Krishna Singh was a good friend of mine, he always had some interesting story to tell that helped me in knowing more about the local communities of Thiruvananthapuram. A man deeply embedded to his roots, Mr. Singh was always proud of his 'Rajpoot' ancestry. May his soul rest in peace.


Manu said...

haha reminds me: there were taxes on mustaches! for example, everybody could not sport a "komban meesha". if you wanted to, you had to pay tax.

harippattukarathi said...

interestingly am a decendent of this rajputh ancestory,now lives in kannur this link was opened to me thru mr. suresh.i hail from haripad & married to mother 82 year old rugma bai is with father bhoopathi ram passed away in the year an advocate with tellicherry bar assn.
r. jagada bai

Ansa said...

Nice story Sarath. Really appriciate the efforts you take to do the field work and to bring these brilliant stories to light!!