‘When the sword of rebellion is drawn, the sheath should be thrown away’ goes an old English saying.
Perhaps the adage encapsulates the short but eventful life of Velu Thampi Dalawa, the 19th century prime minister of erstwhile Travancore and Kerala’s iconic symbol of armed resistance against British colonial rule.
His 248th birth anniversary was celebrated last week. Incidentally, the scabbard of his legendary sword has never been found.
The Dalawa’s sword, on loan from the Union government, is on display at the Napier Museum here. The State recently requested the Union government to extend the loan period.
The 200-year-old weapon is a double-edged straight sword, which tapers towards the end and has shallow grooves on its flat side.
Conservation experts at the Kerala State Archaeology Department said the ‘blood grooves or fullers’ helped lighten the sword without compromising its strength. It also prevented the blade and hilt from getting slippery with blood during combat.
The sword’s ornate hilt is fashioned from brass and covered with silver strips. The pommel has a hole to accommodate a lanyard, which when tied to the wrist ensures the weapon is not lost in the heat of battle.
Experts said they found several notches and dents on the blade, indicating the weapon has seen combat. They restored it back to its original glory through a conservation process that took several days and is repeated periodically.
First, a soft brush is used to dust away small rust particles. Petroleum jelly is applied on the blade to unsettle deeply embedded rust, which is gently removed using cotton dabbed in a chemical solution. The process is repeated till the sword gets its original sheen back.
Defeated by intrigues, betrayals, and large-scale desertions, the Dalawa was forced to flee Thiruvananthapuram in February 1809. Colonel Leger and his colonial troops were in hot pursuit. Risking the wrath of the British, the royal family of Kilimanoor gave him refuge. In reciprocation, the Dalawa presented them his battle sword. A few weeks later, he preferred suicide (by cutting his throat at the Mannadi temple in Kollam) to capitulation to the British. His body was desecrated and hung for public display (gibbeted) at a spot since referred to as Dalawa Hill near Kannamoola here.
The legendary sword was lost to history for nearly 150 years. Then in 1957, the Kilimanoor family acknowledged its possession and gifted it to President Rajendra Prasad.
For 53 years, the sword was kept at the National Museum, New Delhi, and was almost forgotten. It was brought back to Kerala in 2010 with great fanfare and has remained here since. The sword is arguably the most popular display at the Napier Museum here and draws hundreds of visitors daily.