In a tiled-roof house, Heggade family still clings to the vestiges of royal past

By a narrow road, tucked away in coconut and areca plantations, a nondescript house in Vittla, near here, can hardly be recognised as a once powerful political centre of the region.

The idea of monarchy has lost significance, and the thick cobwebs shrouding intricate designs on the palanquin point to the death of royal traditions. But the king of the erstwhile Vittla kingdom still resides under the decaying tiled-roof house clutching on to the last vestiges of the royal past.

The spectacled and frail-framed Janardhan Verma Arasuru, 75, is still considered royalty in some social and religious rituals in 16 villages that once formed the kingdom. Mr. Verma is a descendant, through matrilineal relations, of Dombe Heggade, who started his rule in 1426 as catalogued in P. Gururaja Bhat’s book ‘Studies in Tuluva History and Culture.’

Besides ravaging the palace, age has withered the memories of the current descendants. None can trace with certitude the lineage of the royal family, or the tumultuous journey from the old palace, established nearby, to their current place of residence built in the early 1800s. Most artefacts, letters and symbols of the past had been sold or lost or given to the State government, says Nanda Verma, 72, Mr. Janardhan Verma’s younger brother and heir to the throne.

Covered in the muck of rain in the garden, the ornamental stone lamp-stand, may be one of the few remnants from this time. Mr. Nanda Verma says the inscription on it is in Kodava language, written in Tulu script. “The inscription details the rituals to perform during Deepavali,” he says, but is unable to offer more details.

Mr. Bhat writes that Dombe Heggade’s family continued to rule Vittla in relative peace till the end of the 18th century. During this time, the Panchalingeshwara temple became the religious centre of the kingdom, while the rulers became its cultural and political centre.

Even today, the new palace bears symbols of a thriving monarchy: platforms in the garden where couples got married in front of, and blessed by, the king; storage spaces for arecanut and rice collected as tax; the multi-stepped veranda of the palace where villagers sat according to their castes during durbars; and the palanquin — wood for which was procured from Madikeri — carried the king and queen to the temple during rituals.

Advent of Tipu Sultan

The family lost control of the kingdom in 1784, when Tipu Sultan’s army came close to the district, says Mr. Bhat. Tipu’s army overwhelmed the undertrained forces of Vittla, publicly hanged the king Achyutha Heggade and is said to have burnt down the palace.

Even now, amid a paddy field barely 200 metres away from the palace, the old palace is marked only by elephant-carvings of balustrades. According to Mr. Nanda Verma, the royal family fled to Thalassery, Kerala, and with the assistance of the British and the local chieftains won back their kingdom a few years later.

A new palace, albeit smaller, was built in the hope of sustaining monarchy amid the British rule. Even today, the elders of the family are “chosen as king.” Janardhan Verma laments that with fading traditions and fading collective memories, the kingdom may only be remembered as a few paragraphs in obscure history books.

More In: National | News | States | Karnataka