Culture & Society

Secular Relations In Travancore: King Marthanda Varma And The Nellimmoottil Family

The legend involving the Hindu King of Travancore and the Syrian Christian family of Nellimoottil forms part of the larger history of religious pluralism and harmony in Kerala.

Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma
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According to the legend documented by various authors, King Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the founder of modern Travancore, had taken refuge in the Nellimoottil Tharavadu, a Syrian Christian ancestral house at Adoor, around 1720 AD (Shankunny K 1909-34, Varghese KM 1927, Pandarathil 2021), prior to his coronation in 1729 (Menon AS 1962, Varghese TC 1970). The legend goes that the adolescent king was moving around in disguise along with a Namboothiri Brahmin and Kochiravi Pillai, his trusted co-travellers, to escape assassination by his own paternal cousins, the Thampies and the Ettuveettil Pillamar a section of aristocratic Nairs who had allied together to take over the Travancore throne. 

He had in this process hid himself in dense forests, in the caves of rocky mountains, in the dark underground cellars of the Padmanabhapuram Palace and so on. He came to Adoor in the present Pathanamthitta district on the way to what he and his associates considered a safe shelter in Mavelikkara about 30 km from Adoor. He was barely 14-years-old as per one account and was finding this run extremely difficult to bear. Often, he and his associates lived on fruits and berries which they found in the jungles. 

According to the legend, the child-King was dead tired when he reached Adoor and badly wanted food and nourishment to survive that stretch of his refuge trail to Mavelikkara. His Brahmin companion wanted to fetch some milk for the child-King as it would offer the much-needed nourishment. 
As a section of the Nair gentry had turned against the heir apparent to the Travancore throne, Marthanda Varma and his associates decided to take refuge in the house of Syrian Christians at Adoor, who the adolescent King had heard from his ancestors to be a community loyal to the King.

Accordingly, the morning they reached Adoor, they first approached a prosperous Syrian Christian family. Their request was not heeded respectfully in that house. 

They therefore explored the Nellimoottil house, the abode of another well-off Syrian Christian family where the child-King and his entourage were provided loving care and hospitality by the then lady of the house at Nellimoottil, Oonnoonniamma Ammachi (mother) with no inkling of imagination that he was the heir apparent to the throne. She of course got a sense that they were no alms-seeking beggars. She placed them as itinerant travellers from Hindu upper castes who were tired due to long-distance travel by foot. The travellers told her their usual take only: that they were tired and distressed from a long travel and therefore thought of relaxing at the house for a while. 

However, Oonnoonniamma Ammachi found that the child among them was the most distressed. She went into the house and brought water in a big vessel along with three small white-brass monthas (mugs). She also took one milking cow from the cow pen to the courtyard where the guests had come and told them that sugar was already put in the monthas; they could wash the cow’s udder, milk it and have as much milk. She also welcomed them to rest as long as they wanted in the Poomukham, i.e., the drawing room in the front end of the house. She offered them a whole Kula of Poovanpazham, a sweet fragrant variety of banana and a jar of sugar. The child King is reported to have told his associates: “She is the mother who got back my life.”

After resting and recouping at Nellimoottil, when Sun’s heat showed signs of abating for a while the child King and his associates wanted to take leave of Ammachi. However, she requested them to have lunch at a Namboothiri house nearby, for which she had already sent the necessary provisions and vegetables. The royal travellers in distress, however, proceeded to the Namboothiri house after ensuring that the house had only a couple of widows and the eldest boy was just 16-years-old. After lunch, they went back to Nellimoottil and expressed their profound thanks to Oonnooniamma Ammachi for the sumptuous lunch. They confirmed the information about the name of Ammachi’s house. The child King asked Ammachi her name also. They had by then decided to move from Adoor and set up themselves securely in some other safe place before sunset. So, they bid farewell to Ammmachi, though she insisted them to stay overnight and leave the next morning only.      (There is also a version that the royal guests stayed at Nellimoottil longer). 

As the guests persisted to leave, she brought them rice flakes, bananas, and sugar as food for them on the way. It can be observed that the strict rules of accepting food between upper-castes and castes graded below them in the period were followed (Ghurye GS 1969). The child-King and upper caste associates were offered no cooked food in Nellimoottil. Only milk, bananas, and sugar were offered there, whereas provisions were provided to a Namboothiri house to cook food for them.

Years passed by. In 1729, Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma ascended the throne after suppressing the Thampies and Ettuveettil Pillamar and annexing some small principalities. He was on his way to extending the territory of Travancore with its northern boundary at Angamaly near Cochin. 

Sometime after Marthanda Varma’s coronation, a horde of officials from the Travancore King’s capital along with a large number of soldiers descended on Nellimoottil. They asked for the head of the household and wanted to know how he was related to Oonnoonniamma. On learning that Peelipose was her late husband’s younger brother, the senior official told him that they had come to take Oonnoonniamma and produce her before the King. In those days there was a practice of producing those who were awarded death penalty in front of the King or the Dewan. So Oonnoonniamma and her relatives and neighbours thought that she was going to be killed for some grave mischief that she had committed. 

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Peelippose and Onnooniamma Ammachi could only remember a bag of gold coins left by an old man whom they had given shelter. Peelippose told the official that they had enquired in Konni, from where the man said he had come, but couldn’t locate him there. The official said that they could mention these things before the King and that their brief was to only take her to Thiruvananthapuram

Oonnoonniamma took blessings from all the relatives and got into the cart brought by the King’s officials. Peelipose Appachan and a few other relatives also followed her with the necessaries required for such travel. When Ooonnoonniamma Ammachi and Peelipose were produced before King Marthanda Varma he called out for “Mizhalam”, an old man whom he had sent to test Ammachi. On hearing his name being called, an old Nair appeared before him. 

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The King asked Ammachi, “Have you seen this man before?” 

Ammachi said in broken words that one evening the man had come to Nellimoottil, stayed overnight and left a bag of gold coins. She also said she had not stolen the coins; but kept them, enquired for the man in Konni where he said he had come from, but still they could not find him. Amidst tears rolling down her eyes Ammachi sought help from the King to save her. Peelipose handed over the bag of gold coins to the King and begged him to save them from death penalty.

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At this, the King called Kochiravi Pillai and the Namboothiri Brahmin who accompanied him in his adolescence to Nellimoottil when he was living in hiding. He asked Ammachi, “Do you remember two men accompanying a boy to Nellimoottil on one morning some years ago and are those the same men?” 

To this, Ammachi said that they seemed to be those men.

Then Marthanda Varma asked Ammachi to find out the boy who came to Nellimoottil from among the officials, soldiers, other royal associates and Namboothiri boys in the court. After watching those who had gathered at the royal court closely, she said she couldn’t find that  boy amongst them. 
To this, the Raja said, “But I do see that boy here. I am standing in front of that Ammachi who gave milk, poovanpazham, sugar and life itself to a helpless boy who came to Nellimoottil along with these two men.”  

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Ammachi was still searching closely for the boy among the Namboothiri children who were standing in the royal court. Amidst her continuing search, Marthanda Varma announced: “My loving Ammachi’s boy is I myself who am standing here.” 

An astonished Ammachi reportedly fainted. 

The King then rewarded the Nellimoottil family for the kindness and hospitality extended to the helpless boy and his associates by Nellimoottil Ammachi who had no inkling that they were a royal group in disguise by gifting large tracts of paddy fields and dry lands. Ammachi was honoured with a Veerasringhala (Bracelet of Valour). The King bestowed the title of Muthalali to the Nellimoottil family and declared that through her kind acts, Onnoonniamma Ammachi had become not only his mother but the mother of all the subjects of his kingdom.

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Speaking at the 2023 annual meet of the Nellimoottil family, renowned film director Sri. Adoor Gopalakrishnan and present Karanavar (eldest) of the Mauttatthu family at Adoor hailed the inter-religious harmony which existed in Adoor in the past and is continuing. He also said that the legend of the child-King Marthanda Varma and Nellimoottil Ammachi is very touching. 

The legend involving the Hindu King of Travancore and the Syrian Christian family of Nellimoottil forms part of the larger history of religious pluralism and harmony in Kerala.

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