A King and his kingdom

From as long as I can remember, I have wanted to stop here and stare. A long hard look, if you will. During this trip to Tirunelveli, I did it.

On the outskirts of Tirunelveli, just by the highway, within the precincts of a small town called Kayatharu, stands a lonely memorial. Lonely, because I haven’t seen many people stop here. Further and lip sealing evidence of no one stopping here : there is zilch commercial activity in the vicinity. No aerated drinks. No cigarettes. No parking area. Not even the cursory entry fee.

That doesn’t take away anything from the simple yet elegant majestic bearing of the pedestal, carrying a couple of drawn swords, a shield and a man standing atop, who seems ready to jump at you. I almost missed the ‘fish’, which is the emblem of the Pandyas, sitting pretty between the swords.

This is the memorial of a King who lived from from 1760 to 1799. Katabomman. Or rather, Veerapandiya Kattabomman. His life and heroics, like several others, would have continued to be confined to the dark ravines of apathy, fueled by a concoction of ignorance, a surfeit of history and the monochrome schema of day to day existence.

Thank God for the eponymous Tamil movie, starring Sivaji Ganesan that was released in 1959. For those that don’t know, Sivaji Ganesan was an actor who could get his molars to twitch and incisors to dance, just to bring alive a situation on screen. Well, almost. The film won a slew of awards and contains some searing screenplay delivered by a belligerent Sivaji. Some of those dialogues were part of the paraphernalia for any elocution competition in school. The film world brought a king, his kingdom and his time alive. A couple of centuries after his death. Sometimes, one act can condone many ills. This was one such.

His memorial stood right beside the highway and I wonder why I didn’t stop for all these years.   It is overcast today and the weather pleasant. So, under the aegis of a Sun who is playing truant, like a king who ceded his throne to the clouds, I enter tentatively.


Within seconds, I become aware there is no one else there. Its just me. Never in my life I have had a memorial all to myself.  I walk, conjuring solemn memories of watching the movie along with dad and my brother. The majestic single pedestal, an array of plants and even a small children’s play area, all stand silent. Wonderfully maintained. Which of course, was a surprise considering the absence of commerce.

In the next few minutes, I discover that the statue has been sponsored by Sivaji himself and opened by the Congress leader and former chief minister, K.Kamaraj. Sivaji sponsoring a statue of the hero of the film, who he played in the film, would sound like the height of astute self propagation, in modern day marketing terms. But, I doubt if that era had already seen the devious depths that we have sunk to now. Who knows!

I spot a line which states clearly that this after all the place where Kattabomman was hanged by the British. So, it wasn’t just a convenient location for a statue, but a place of importance after all.

The story went, as far as I could remember, Kattabomman was a valiant king, who refused to pay taxes to the British and fought them. He had initial wins but was later done in by fellow clan, was captured and naturally, executed in front of his subjects.

A king and his kingdom. It perhaps was something to become King then. I walk around, imagining how it would have been in 1799, to be a bristling 39 year old fighting the British army, in his own backyard. My faculties that normally facilitate imagination stay unresponsive and I let them be, content with the quiet. For some reason a lump forms in my throat, as the silence grows on me. Vaguely disrupted by passing vehicles on the highway and their blaring horns.

In a bit, I spot an inscription. I read it first with some awe and then with mild amusement. I reproduce it here. It was all in bold letters. That’s one change. And the only one at that.

“Katta Bomman, a great tamizh kind had power and it was visible, tangible and real for ever. A courageous king never bowed before autocracy. A dazzling hero and dashing warrior dissipated hypocrisy.

Among perfidious traitors, Katta Bomman had moving faith, miracle generating faith, situation changing faith, displayed patriotism, pacifism, pragmatism and humanism whipped off the the then calculative, crafty cruel kingdom.

Friends, no, dastardly Ettappans only betrayed him to English royalty, never Katta Bomman deviated from fairness, justness probity and nobility. The lower he fell, the higher he bounced back with vitality, had reverberating, resilient and unshakable, devotion to Lord Muruga only.

Sowed the seed of freedom and earned the eternal fame. Sowed the seed of fortitude and hushed the needless shame. Shimmered as a radiant light and roared as a lion before the then collectors, shone martyr, alas, Katta Bomman was hanged because of the traitors. – D. Chandrasekaran. I.A.S. Chennai. “

I pulled out my white handkerchief, rubbed my eyes and started reading again. To carefully craft in stone stuff of this order, would require inordinate courage of the order that Kattabomman possessed. That was clear. But to go ahead, sign it and tag the Indian Administrative Service, took this to a different plane altogether.

I stood for ten minutes speculating how such words would have sprouted. Perhaps this was literal translation from a speech. Maybe he was high. Or was promoted. Or was going to retire. Whatever.

Right next to the big stone inscription stood a smaller one. By the same D.Chandrasekaran, I.A.S, Chennai.



It sure looked like ‘adjectives’ were on short supply for a long time and suddenly, they went on a sale!  The granite plaque provides some relief to the sombre mood. After all, it was the memorial that I came for. I train my eyes again on the statue that is majestic and seemed modeled on Sivaji the actor. Perhaps, there were very little of reference points.

I leave quietly. Without saying a word. There was no one to say anything to of course. But Kattabomman’s heroics and the stone inscription by D.Chandrasekaran I.A.S, Chennai, leave me tongue tied that I don’t want to pursue any conversation with anybody, even if someone was around. As I leave, I turn and take a long look. As Kattabomman stands tall, looking at the buzzing traffic almost with disdain. I tell myself he is entitled to that view. The disdain, that is.

Back home, I dig up some history. And read about how Kattabomman and others fought the Polygar wars much before the first War of Independence in 1857! Each page revealed a slice of history that I had abysmal clues about. I read about ancestors, descendants, tax structures and many elements that complete the richness of the picture.  I sit there, sipping my filter Kaapi, thinking of what it must have been like to be a 39 year old king to be hung from a tree, in front of his subjects.

And then I think of D.Chandrasekaran, I.A.S, Chennai. The coffee seeps in to shake my inaction.

In one reflex action, I open my calendar on the phone and on the 16th October, I mark the death anniversary of Kattabomman. Silly, you may think. Some actions cant be explained. So, lets leave it there.

Reeking royalty !

The zoom lens on the camera were the first to spot it. A patch of brown in a sea of green. Some more zooming and out with curiosity more than anything else, least of all, understanding history, got us in front of this gate.

It looked like any other gate. A gate that was fastened with a chain and a piquant lock. The biggest battle that the gate seemed to wage was with the forces of nature and ofcourse, the undergrowth in the vicinity. Quite ordinary, you might think.

Except that we were standing on Palace Road. This was a gate that we passed twice, without realising that we were passing the gates of the Summer palace of the Raja of Travancore. At Kuttikanam. 140 kilometers South of Cochin in Kerala.

The royal folks that lived here are long gone. The palace sits in silence. Unpretentious yet majestic. The walls could tell you a multiple zillion stories. The walls… Its extra smooth walls, which if we were to believe the old caretaker and his young son, were polished with eggshells amongst a millon other things.

Teak floors. Teak roofs. The broken glass panes of windows that a royalty and their retinue would have operated, let in the fresh crisp sunrays of another lovely morning October morning. Like the windows would have, decades ago.

It’s a quaint, simple structure yet reeks of prosperity and a princely time that seem present, in their absence.

‘Nobody comes here’ says the caretaker, giving us a look half filled with surprise and the other half filled with curious disinterest. Yet, he indulges us in showing us around, and relating stories of a time that’s passed us all. A time, that he himself, has only heard of.

‘This is where the king received his guests’ he says pointing to a large hall with a spectacular window and view. He moves on, leaving you to fill up the picture of a king, his queen, generals and visitors. The tapestry of movies seen and narratives read, can feed the imagination well. Within no time, imaginative narratives of a scheming Diwan, a loyal minister, a lovely queen with the British knocking on the door, ran in my mind.

Only to be occasionally broken by the realistic narrative of the caretaker who by now was doubling up as a tour guide.” This is the queens room” he says lowering his voice marginally. Perhaps in awe. A yesteryear carpet still fills the floor. Decimated by time, and neglect.

The Royal emblem stares at you from the window. A broken cupboard still stands. Perhaps for reasons of pride, for falling down can reduce it to a pile of wood.

The toilet commodes are ‘Belgian’. The tiles Italian. The glass panes are from UK. So thinks the old caretaker and his young son. Who by now, we realize, has fed the curious minds of a few stray visitors like us. There is no reason why we wouldn’t believe what he was saying. It was adding up well.

I ran my fingers across the wall for some odd reason. Perhaps vicariously caressing royalty and a royal time. Ending up with an inch of dust and a consequent glare from the missus.

True to form, the kitchen could accommodate four ‘1 BHK’ Mumbai homes and has the giant bicep powered grinder. The hand grinder seemed remarkably dust free which intrigued us no end. The intrigue didnt last long though. ‘We use it’. He says. Quickly moving away leaving me facing the lotus shaped sinks, the vegetable racks and such else.

Right in the centre, is the ‘open to sky’ area. The undergrowth has come back with vengeance. Fungus, cobwebs and still air give the caretaker and his family company. So does life in flowers and bees.

Ofcourse there are those nuggets of architectural excellence like the central heating. Or the underground escape route, the splendour of using sunlight and the natural air, which by now, has become so de rigueur for us, that the eye brows don’t arch as much.

In a style that is typical of a city dweller who gets approached for taking a home loan once in two and half hours, we ask him about the owners and where they stay. Not that we had the slightest inkling of buying but then, you ask. As a matter of practice.

‘Its been bought by an IT company from Bangalore’ he says.

‘Ah IT’ is all that I mouth.

A quiet silence pervades the air.

Whats the point I wonder. Of meticulously buying glass from Belgium and tiles from Italy and leaving it to an elderly caretaker and simple visitors with interest that didn’t stretch far too beyond a curiousity enhanced imagination. Wistfully despairing the state of disrepair of dilapidation of what once must have been the nerve centre of a kingdom.

The nature of life and change being the only constant, sometimes gets eloquent reminders. This was one.

We walk away. My imagination in royal splendour for what now seems like an interminable period. Exciting possibilities of a beautiful queen, stately king, an interesting affair, blunder filled jester, , galloping horses, Lovely retinue, politics and twists, song and dance!

I don’t realize I am walking half in a trance, until the missus shakes me up.

‘Go clean your hands’, she says. ‘They are dusty’.