Marthanda Varma (Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma) (1705 – 7 July 1758) was ruler of the southern Indian state of Travancore (Malayalam: Tiruvitamkur) from 1729 until his death in 1758. He is most celebrated for crushing the Dutch expansionist designs in at the Battle of Colachel in 1741. Varma then adopted a European mode of martial discipline and expanded his domain to encompass what became the modern state of Travancore.
Varma built a substantial standing army of about 50,000, reduced the power of the Nair aristocracy (on which rulers of Kerala had earlier been dependent militarily), and fortified the northern limits of his kingdom at the so-called Travancore Lines. His alliance in 1757 with the ruler of Cochin, against Kingdom of Calicut, enabled Cochin to survive.
Travancore under Varma did make a determined bid to consolidate its power by the use of maritime outlets. At his accession to the throne in early 18th century, the only route remaining was Travancore to build an elaborate and well-organized war machine while keeping external supply lines open. The control of trade was also seen as crucial in the statecraft of the period. These principles were put into practice by Varma.
It was also the policy of Varma to extend patronage to the Syrian Christians, a large trading community in Travancore, as a means of limiting European involvement in trade. The key commodity was pepper, but other goods also came to be defined as Royal Monopoly Items, requiring a license for trade. Trivandrum (Malayalam:Thiruvananthapuram) became a prominent city in Kerala under Marthanda Varma. Prime ministers under Marthanda Varma - Arumukham Pillai (1729 – 36), Thanu Pillai (1736 – 37) and Ramayyan Dalawa (1737 – 56) - played a significant role in the raise of the Travancore state.
Marthanda Varma's policies were continued in large measure by his successor and nephew, Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma ("Dharma Raja") (1758–98), who went on to successfully defend Travancore against the Kingdom of Mysore.
Marthanda Varma was born in 1705 to queen Karthika Thirunal and Raghava Varma of Kilimanur royal house. Queen Karthika Thirunal - an adoptee from the Kingdom of Cannanore in the north - was the senior queen of Attingal at the time. The state was ruled by chief Ravi Varma during this period.
Trippappur swaroopam (Tiruvitamkur) then, was a small chiefdom extending from Edava in the north to Aruvamozhi in the south. According to historians, within this small state the power of the chief was only nominal then, due to the power of the nobles, chief among them being the Barons of the Eight Houses (Pillaimar) and the barons (Matampimar). The powers of the ruler were also to a great extent curbed by the power of the Council of Eight and a Half (Yogakkar), the managing committee of Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Trivandrum. The rivalries of European powers like the Dutch and the English made the situation more complex.
It was into these conditions, where the chief was powerless under the refractory nobles of the state, Marthanda Varma was born in 1706. According to 19th century historian P Shangunny Menon, the then 14-year-old Varma advised chief Rama Varma that the latter should sign a treaty with the state of Madurai Nayaks in order to check the power of the nobles and other rebellious chieftains. It is also known that the prince adviced the chief to sign treaty with the English East India Company. After being pleased by the maturity and administrative talent of his nephew, Rama Varma anointed the teenager as the "Prince of Neyattinkara". But due to the opposition of the nobles, Marthanda Varma had to flee the capital for the safety of places such as Kottarakara (Kollam) and Kayamkulam (Alappuzha), where he is narrated by historians, to have lived in difficulty for many years, travelling from one place to another to escape his political enemies.
After crushing the power of the feudal lords (the Nair aristocracy known as the Barons of the Eight Houses), Marthanda Varma turned his attention to the neighbouring petty chiefdoms. In 1731, the port of Quilon (Malayalam: Kollam) - which was ruled by a branch of the ancient Venad family to which Marthanda Varma also belonged - was defeated and its last chief was made to sign a treaty allowing the annexation of his chiefdom by Travancore after his death. The chief was brought to Trivandrum and lodged almost as state prisoner in the Valikoikkal palace. A contingent of Travancore army under Dalawa Arumukham Pillai was stationed at Quilon.
Varma next turned his attention towards the little chiefdom of Marta and seized it. The neighbouring chiefdom of Kayamkulam - sensing an imminent invasion by Travancore - soon allied itself with the Cochin, Purakkad and Vadakkumkur. The Kayamkulam chief was also successful in rescuing the Quilon chief from his Trivandrum prison. The allies built new fortification and strengthened their defences against the threat from Travancore. The Dutch East India Company also professed to support the war effort. The subsequent invasion of Marta by the Kayamkulam chief signalled the outbreak of the war. The Travancore army seized Nedumangad and Kottarakkara and prevented the joined forces of Elayadathu and Kayamkulam. Travancore Prime Minister Ramayyan then lead an expeditionary force to capture the city of Quilon. But, he was forced to withdraw without accomplishing his mission.
Having equipped their forces with the help of the French and the English Companies, Travancore renewed military operation against the chief of Quilon. In the campaigns that ensued the ruler of Kayamkulam was killed (1734). But the defence of the Quilon continued under the leadership of the brother of the deceased chief and Travancore forces were forced to fall back once again.
Travancore's next next campaign was against Elayadath swaroopam (Kottarakkara). When the chief of Kottarakkara who was kept in solitary confinement in Trivandrum died in 1739 Marthanda Varma refused to recognise the claim of the senior female member to succession. The princess fled to Tekkumkur where the chief gave granted her political asylum. At this juncture the Dutch Governor of Ceylon Gustaaf Willem van Imhoff sensed an opportunity to involve further in the pepper politics of Kerala. In 1739 van Imhoff arrived in Cochin, took up the cause of the female ruler of Kottarakara and protested against the annexation of that chiefdom by Marthanda Varma in a meeting between the two. In 1741 the Dutch reinstated the female ruler of the Kottarakara against the wishes of Marthanda Varma, who attacked the chiefdom and defeated the combined Kottarakkara - Dutch forces before finally fully annexing the chiefdom to Travancore while the female ruler fled to Cochin.
Travancore then launched a series of raids on the Dutch forts in the area and captured them all. In retaliation, a Dutch artillery force landed at Colachel (Kanyakumari district) from Ceylon and conquered up to Kottar. The Dutch forces then advanced against Kalkulam, Travancore's capital. Varma who was then in the north of his state promptly marched his forces to the south and arrived at Kalkulam just in time to prevent its fall to the Dutch.
In the following battle at Colachel (10 August 1741), the Travancore forces won a resounding victory over the Dutch. More than twenty Dutch were taken as prisoners of war from Colachel. Among them was Eustachius de Lannoy, who attracted the king's special notice. Eustachius de Lannoy, commonly known in Travancore as the 'Valiya Kappittan' (Senior Captain) was entrusted with the organization and drilling of a special regiment, which he did to the entire satisfaction of the king. De Lannoy was raised to the rank of general in Travancore army and proved of considerable service to Marthanda Varma in subsequent battles.
Marthanda Varma realised that Dutch power in the region stemmed from their flourishing trade at the port of Cochin (Malayalam: Kochi). He set out to conquer the major spice-producing areas and seize the Cochin hinterland to deny the Dutch access to these trade goods. After declaring a state monopoly on pepper in Travancore in 1743, between then and 1752, the king annexed multiple spice-producing areas including Quilon, Kayamkulam, Thekkumkur, Vadakkumkur and Purakkad to Travancore thereby delivering a serious blow to the commerce of the Dutch. A treaty was concluded between Marthanda Varma and the Dutch East India Company with both parties agreeing to live in peace and friendship. It was signed at Mavelikkara on 15 August 1753.
Following the expulsion of the Dutch, Varma now turned his attention once again towards Kayamkulam which continued to seek help from the Dutch. In 1742, Travancore forces attacked Kayamkulam possessions at Quilon and fought the Kayamkulam army led by Achuta Warrier and chiefs from Valiya Kakkanadu Madhom. Although Travancore was defeated at this battle, Marthanada Varma reinforced his army with cavalry brought in from Tirunelveli before mounting an attack on Kayamkulam, which led to the final defeat the chiefdom. A treaty known as the Treaty of Mannar was signed, under which Kayamkulam became a tributary state of Travancore. However by 1746, the Kayamkulam chief once again showed signs of rebellion and when his conspiracies with the northern chiefdoms such as Kottayam, Changanassery, Cochin and Ambalapuzha came to the attention of Marthanda Varma, Kayamkulam was annexed by a final battle in which the chief fled to Cochin.
Travancore now extended from Cape Comorin (Malayalam/Tamil: Kanyakumari) to Kayamkulam in the north. Following this, Ambalapuzha, Kottayam and Changanassery were also annexed to Travancore by 1753. The principality of Meenachil was also annexed. In 1753 the tributary states of Cochin collectively known as Karappuram and Alangad were ceded to Travancore. In 1755, the ruler of Calicut was also defeated at a battle in Purakkad. He was supported by the armies of some other local chiefs. This made almost all the chiefs of Kerala prostrate before the power of Marthanda Varma who was ably assisted in his military conquests by Ramayyan Dalawa, later prime minister (1737-1756) of Travancore.
Besides decisive military victories, Marthanda Varma brought about administrative reforms within the state revenue, budgetary and public works sectors amongst others. He also instituted a new knighthood for his loyal officers known as Chempakaraman Pillai, re-organized the commercial sector and monopolized the spice trade. New roads and inns were opened throughout the state with military outposts. Water transport from Varkala, Thiruvananthapuram to Cochin was implemented under Marthanda Varma while he also renovated the Padmanabhapuram Palace and built Krishnapuram Palace, Alappuzha.
Marthanda Varma also made villages the most basic sector of the kingdom and created a post known as the Mandapathu Vathilkkal, similar to the later tehsildar. He paid special attention to improving agriculture in the state. The portions of land lying east of Nagercoil, Kanyakumari called Nanjil Nadu was considered the granary of Kerala due to its extensive cultivation of paddy rice. The fertility of this area was only due to the irrigation facilities introduced by Marthanda Varma. His edicts on the subject of irrigation issued between 1729 and 1758 fill several pages in Travancore Land Revenue Manual by R Mahadeva Iyer. Only due to the digging of new canals for irrigation during his reign, the single-crop paddy fields of that area became double-crop fields, almost doubling their production.
Pallikondan dam, Chattuputhoor dam, Sabari dam, Kumari dam and Chozhanthitta dam, all on the river Pazhaya in the vicinity of Nagercoil, were constructed by him and are still operational. Near Bhoothappandy, Chattuputhoor dam was constructed and a new channel named Puthanaaru was dug from it to irrigate the Thovala areas. Puthan dam, built by him near Padmanabhapuram, provided drinking water to that area.
Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Thiruvananthapuram was re-created as the gigantic structure of today and new state ceremonies such Murajapam, Bhadra Deepam and others were introduced by Marthanda Varma. The main idol of the shrine, which was mostly destroyed in a fire during his predecessor Rama Varma's time, was also re-constructed using salagramas imported from Nepal. He also created Ottakkal Mandapam as well as the Sheevelippura. Out of the seven floors of the temple-gopuram, five were finished during his reign.
As a result of the annexation of neighbouring places, the artists and scholars from these places migrated to Trivandrum, turning it into a cultural centre. Marthanda Varma gave patronage to different temple art forms including Koothu, Padhakam, Kathakali, Thullal and Koodiyaattam. Noted artists such as Ramapurathu Warrier and Kunchan Nambiar amongst others served as his court poets.
Marthanda Varma decided to "donate" his realm to Sri Padmanabha (Vishnu) and thereafter rule as the deity's "vice-regent". The dedication took place on January 3, 1750 and thereafter he was referred to as Sree Padmanabhadasa.
The title of Sree Padmanabhadasa was prefixed to the name of every Travancore king while the women were Sree Padmanabhasevinis. In order to be eligible for the title of "Sree Padmanabhadasa", certain rituals had to be completed. On the first birthday of every royal male, the child would be placed on the 'Ottakkalmandapam' of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple and holy water from the temple would be sprinkled on the baby. Only after completion of this ceremony was the royal child proclaimed as "Sree Padmanabhadasa" in a ritual known as Adimayidal. Female royals also underwent the Padiyettam ritual, which was conducted only after their 'Pallikettu'. Only those male and female members who completed these ceremonies were allowed in the temple affairs and were also provided respect as well as the titles associated with temple as well as the royal family
Prime Minister Ramayyan Dalawa's death in 1756 caused Marthanda Varma great pain. Not only had Ramayyan Dalawa been his minister but also his friend. The king's health began to deteriorate thereafter and he died two years later in 1758. Before his death, Marthanda Varma summoned his nephew and successor Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma and gave his final instructions. These mainly concerned maintenance of all the poojas and ceremonies as well as other matters concerning the Padmanabhaswamy Temple without attempts to meddle with them. Another instruction was that the expenses of the state should never exceed its revenue while no infighting in the royal family was to be ever allowed. Within a short time of these final instructions, the king died at the age of 53.
Before he died, Marthanda Varma's last words to Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma emphasised the importance of a continuing relationship with the English East India Company:
"That, above all, the friendship existing between the English East Company and Travancore should be maintained at any risk, and that full confidence should always be placed in the support and aid of that honourable association."