The story of a statue

June 19, 2015 08:11 pm | Updated 08:11 pm IST

A painting of the erstwhile Maharaja of Cochin,  Rama Varma XV

A painting of the erstwhile Maharaja of Cochin, Rama Varma XV

The statue of Rama Varma XV, the Maharaja of Cochin, that stands in Subhash Park, now marred by a dash of unimaginative gold paint, is a pointer to forgotten facts and fascinating tales beyond the sparse information on the plaque. A little digging leads to a fascinating phase of history.

The Maharaja, popularly called Rajarshi, and also the Abdicated Highness, ruled Cochin from 1895-1914. Well-versed in English and a Sanskrit scholar, he was a forward-looking ruler who turned Cochin into one of the most progressive of Indian states of the time. The seeds of modern Cochin were sowed during his reign as he initiated permanent reforms in Revenue and Accounts, introduced the Shoranur-Cochin railway line, established the Sanskrit College at Tripunithura, brought in the village panchayat bill and the Tenance Act were among the many innovative schemes he launched.

A booklet published sometime in the 1930s, which is available at Mahatma Library and Reading Room, Tripunithura, provides invaluable information about the construction of the statue. It records that a ‘largely attended public meeting’ held on October 23, 1912, at which representatives from all parts of the States were present it was resolved to celebrate the shashtipurthi or the 60th birthday of the Maharaja on December 25, 1912. It was also decided that the ‘unique event be celebrated everywhere in a fitting manner, that an address of congratulation should be presented to the Highness on that auspicious day and that a suitable memorial be raised in honour of the occasion.’

The birthday was celebrated with pomp and gaiety. The members of the committee, appointed at the public meeting, went to the Hill Palace and presented the Highness an address of congratulation inscribed in a silver book and enclosed in a casket.

At a meeting on September 24, 1913, it was decided that a ‘permanent memorial should take the form of a bronze statue of the Highness to be erected on the foreshore of Ernakulam.’ Out of the subscriptions for the occasion a sufficient sum of money remained with the committee for the statue. The Diwan A.R. Banerji who was going to England ‘on furlough’ agreed to get the statue made. He advised the committee to entrust the work to Ernest G. Gillick of Chelsea, a noted British sculptor, whose statue of the Maharaja of Bikaner had impressed Banerji.

In October 1915 the committee entrusted the work to Gillick for 800 pounds. He was also asked to make six plaster of Paris life-size busts of the Highness at an aggregate cost of 100 pounds to be installed at the headquarters of the six Taluks of the State. The work was expected to be completed in a year but the dislocation to the work caused by the War and his assistants joining the army the preparation of the mould itself took a year. When the mould was ready there was a strict embargo laid on all private metal work and no metal casting could be done without the license from the Ministry of Munitions. When the embargo was removed Gillick requested for a revision of the original amount as costs had increased manifold. An additional sum of 500 pounds with a proportional enhanced amount for the busts was made. This entailed an extra expenditure of Rs. 1,000 for the committee.

The work was complete by June 1922 and the following December the statue was received in Cochin. Gillick expressed a wish that a pedestal for the statue be designed and furnished drawings for the same. This work was carried out in Pallavaram stone in Madras by the well-known engineering contractor Diwan Bahadur T. Namberumal Chettu Garu.

Gillick did not have the advantage of seeing the Highness in person and had to work on a few indifferent photographs with some personal instructions from Diwan J.W. Bhore, his wife, and I.N. Menon, the Maharaja’s son. Yet he was able to sculpt a remarkably good likeness of the Highness.

The statue was unveiled by Viscount Goschen of Hawkhurst, Governor of Madras on the afternoon of October 13, 1925 in the presence of Lady Goschen, her daughters, CWE Cotton, Agent to the Governor General, the Elaya Raja of Cochin, and an overflowing crowd of people from all parts of the State. It was the first statue in Cochin.

The entire cost for the statue was raised through public donations. The committee in the booklet published the complete receipts and expenditure incurred and the complete list of subscribers to the Memorial Fund. The total expenditure for the statue was Rs. 33,960, the remaining amount, it was decided, would be utilised for the maintenance of the ornamental garden surrounding the statue.

Interestingly, when the statue was unveiled Rama Varma XV was not the Maharaja. He had abdicated the throne in 1914 for reasons that are still not very clear. Some believe that he had differences with the British over his pro-German politics; others opine that he abdicated due to ill-health, while there are other stories that gained ground. But the abdication did certainly create a furore; it shocked his subjects as such an act was unheard of in the kingdom.

“There is this account that the Maharaja was forced to abdicate after he had hosted a party to the officers of a German cruiser. It is still believed by many that the ship was SMS Emden. This is wrong as Emden never came to Cochin. But there are records that reveal that the Maharaja did host a garden party to the officers of the German cruiser SMS Gneisenau in 1911. This had nothing to do with the abdication,” informs V.N. Venugopal, a history buff.

This was not a political act as the visit of the ship coincided with the arrival of the German crown prince Wilhem to India in December-January1911.Wilhem was a State guest at the Viceregal Lodge and Gneisenau was anchored at the Cochin harbour. The party held at Bolghatty Palace with the approval of the British. However, the detractors of the Highness attempted to hail this as a pro-German stance and use this against him later.

Others point out that there were other reasons, perhaps more serious, that forced the Highness to take this step. Perhaps the most plausible of theories that led to the abdication was a brewing hostility between the Highness and the British government on numerous issues. For instance, letters reveal that the government did not favour many of his requests. His requests to buy a house in Kodaikanal and to give an extension to Diwan P. Rajagopalachari with an enhanced salary were summarily turned down.

The Rajarshi of Cochin

Rajavamsham: Tripunithura Smaranakal

“His attempts to effect radical changes in social and religious matters, selling 14 gold caprisons of the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple and cutting the allowances of the princes to fund the Shoranur-Cochin railway, and effecting a cut in the rations to the royalty during the time of World War I, gave rise to severe criticism. It is said that the British managed to influence his brothers and relatives, declared that he was mentally and physically weak, forcing him to abdicate,” says Ramabhadran Thampuran, the sixth generation of the Maharaja’s thavazhi or lineage.

Interestingly, the Maharaja had in 1905 expressed his willingness to abdicate. This happened a month after the verdict to excommunicate and banish Kuriyedathu Thatri, in the caste inquisition or smartha vicharam . Most of those banished were rich, influential and well-connected. They spread rumours that the trial was stopped when Thathri was about to give away the name of the Highness. But the government refused to accept his ‘resignation.’ The Governor Lord Oliver Russell Ampthill wrote that there ‘is nobody at present who is fit to succeed you as Raja of Cochin and to govern the state without detriment to the interests of the people.’

But in 1914 there was no such reaction. The government accepted his letter without much fuss. He walked out of the palace with just one trunk containing his and his wife’s clothes. After abdication the Highness stayed on at Ernakulam for some months, while his palace at Thrissur was being built and then shifted to Merry Lodge Palace, the present Kerala Varma College, in 1915. The British also ensured that there was no mention of him in historical references other than a fleeting reference to the ‘king who abdicated.’

Rama Varma made just one parting request to the Government – an allowance for his maintenance during his retired life and a portion of the allowance, ‘not less than Rs. 100 a month’, may be continued after his lifetime to his wife and her children. The Maharaja passed away January 29, 1932. During a chakyarkoothu performance after his abdication, the chakyar while describing a moment when Rama leaves Sita, looked at the ex-Maharaja and asked, ‘ ozhinjatho , ozhippichatho ?’ (abdicated or removed). One never knows for sure.

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