Hidden histories Society

An ivory skeleton for the prince

Portrait of Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma, detail from an oil painting.Photo courtesy: Sharat Sunder Rajeev   | Photo Credit: Sharat Sunder Rajeev



Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma (r.1847-1860), well known in Travancore history, as the younger brother of Swati Tirunal Rama Varma, was a sovereign with varied aptitudes. Even as a young prince, he displayed a greater affinity towards learning the ways of Europeans. He imported European furniture, books, and artefacts, and was often spotted wearing Western dresses. Varma expressed great interest in learning English and perfected his accent and defective pronunciation during his daily interaction with the Europeans.

Shungoonny Menon states that the King was particularly on good terms with the British Resident and the residency surgeon, Dr. Brown, who was stationed in Thiruvananthapuram. Marthanda Varma’s close association with Dr. Brown aroused in him a desire to learn the ‘ Doctor’s own profession,’ records Menon. Dr. Brown, it seems, was impressed by the aptitude of his royal pupil and at once engaged in teaching him the science of medicine. Under Brown’s supervision, the King received detailed lessons in anatomy and chemistry. After Brown’s departure to England, Varma was given lessons in chemistry by Caldecott, the Sircar Astronomer.

Soon after, Marthanda Varma procured a small supply of medicine from the Durbar Physician’s office and with it he started to attend to the medical needs of his attendants and their family members. He soon became a clever physician himself and was able to treat several cases successfully. Marthanda Varma established a small dispensary inside the Fort area and ordered the latest medical apparatus from England. On one occasion, Varma was praised by the English as well as the native physicians for curing his brother, Swathi Thirunal, of diarrhoea. Even orthodox Namboothiri Brahmins who came to attend the Murajapam festival were convinced of Varma’s skill and gladly took English medicines that were prescribed by him. It can be rightly said that Marthanda Varma played a key role in popularising Western medicine in Travancore.

Marthanda Varma’s interest in learning the details of human anatomy met with a serious setback, when prevailing social customs prevented him from touching dead bodies and bones. In accordance with the social and religious mores of those time, Varma had to adhere to strict ‘cleansing procedures’ if he ever happened to touch a dead body. In order to overcome this difficulty, the King got made in 1853 an ivory skeleton of the physiological outline of a man to enable his study. The ivory skeleton was praised as an excellent combination of science and artistry. It was a testimony to the skill attained by the ivory craftsmen of erstwhile Travancore. Some sources mention that local craftsmen had the ivory skeleton had been modelled by the local craftsmen based on an actual skeleton procured from Madras.

Today, the valuable historic relic that can tell us a lot about the evolution of Western medical science and its practice in Travancore is housed in the ‘Natural History Wing’ of Napier Museum in the city.

[The author is a conservation architect and history buff]


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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 1:41:32 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/society/uthram-thirunal-marthanda-varmas-penchant-for-science/article7948871.ece

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