History | Kerala

The Paliath Achans, a Cochin family that was once richer than the Maharajas

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

Illustration: Deepak Harichandan

When the Raj was still India’s reality and over a third of the subcontinent sat in the custody of assorted princes and nawabs, there lived in Cochin a middle-class royal family. Its middle-classdom was born partly of choice, and partly due to princely fecundity. On the one hand, the Maharajas were orthodox dignitaries, bound more to ceremonial baths and temple affairs than to self-aggrandizement and ambition — in 1944 a British official sneered that so unimposing was the Maharaja’s residence that a north Indian prince would think twice before using it as his stable. Indeed, much to the admiration of V.P. Menon, who would aid Sardar Patel in the integration of the princely states, Cochin’s ruler was of that rare breed which valued simplicity, cheerfully surrendering his ancestral rights in 1949 with the most unassuming demands.

On the other hand, simplicity was also forced upon the royal house due to the sheer number of people on its domestic roster: in 1878 the family included 25 princes and 39 princesses, and by 1949 the figure had swelled to 454. Many male members served as government officials, simply so they had something to do, and several princesses would go on to become teachers. One young set even flaunted communist sympathies.

Cocooned in a world of orthodoxy and irony, this large family lived in a complex outside Ernakulam, in Tripunithura, in modest buildings identified by such names as Palace No. 5 and Palace No. 15. And none of these stood on land that actually belonged to the ruler — the royal family were only tenants of the temple, within which was enshrined their family deity.

The prince’s wife

It was on the narrow road near Palaces Nos. 8 and 9 that I met the 90-year-old Ravi Achan. The royal “fort” now exists largely in name — among the old palace blocks rise apartment towers and modern bungalows. Ravi Achan’s, however, is a fairly old building. His mother came here as the wife of a prince. But that did not make Achan or his mother members of the royal family — in keeping with the matrilineal system, they were considered part of his mother’s lineage, while his father stayed superior, including in caste. “I could touch him before his morning bath,” recalls the one-time star of Kerala cricket. “Then between teatime and evening bath, there was another window.” The rest of the day, there was no question of laying hands on his twice-born father. In all his life, Ravi Achan and the man who made him never once shared a meal.

The last time I was in Tripunithura, I was soaked in the rain, hopping from one old building to the next. My companion was Prasanna Varma, a royal descendant with many anecdotes to share. For instance, some of the old princesses were so orthodox they wouldn’t set foot on a doormat, fearing pollution from dust left by ominous lower-caste feet. The lowborn also avoided the mat so that the royal family would not be offended. The result was unused doormats outside many a palace, every entrant jumping over them to preserve the sanctity of the caste order. Then there was the purity that hinged on endless baths. Travelling in a stranger’s car, for example, was polluting, so only after a dip in the pond could one enter the palace — of course, there were ‘pure’ cars with drivers of the right breed. When men first started to sit down at feasts without the obligatory dip, it was a royal scandal.

Battles and diplomacy

Ravi Achan and I drove from Tripunithura to his mother’s ancestral home. She came from the lineage of the Paliath Achans, whose seat was in Chendamangalam, 18 miles outside Ernakulam. The Paliam family were the wealthiest subjects of Cochin — wealthier even than the royal house. For nearly a century and a half, until 1809, the Paliath Achans had served as ministers of Cochin, with only a few interludes when the house was out of favour.

A painting that’s gone into history as that of Govindan Achan I, the Prime Minister who was exiled by the British. It’s actually his nephew!

A painting that’s gone into history as that of Govindan Achan I, the Prime Minister who was exiled by the British. It’s actually his nephew!

Originally styled Menons, a scribal title, by the 1590s their fortunes began to spiral: the ruler gave them the seat of a dead chieftain, and in 1622 a portion of Vypin Island. Then came the hereditary premiership of Cochin, and power. As Ravi Achan puts it, “We were not born lords. We were made lords.”

Born or made, in the generations that followed, the Achans did much for Cochin. The kingdom was shaped largely by dynamics between the ruler and successive European powers, mediated through the ubiquitous Achan. The Paliam family helped manage the Portuguese, and then when the latter grew overbearing, conspired with the Dutch to oust them. During succession disputes, the Achans sided with the legitimate heirs, fighting battles and using diplomacy.

In the 1760s, when attacked by Cochin’s traditional enemy, the Zamorin of Calicut, it was Komi Achan II who forged a defensive alliance with Travancore in the south. Later, when Hyder Ali invaded the region, it was again Paliam’s head who travelled to the invader’s court to pledge tribute. His own fortunes were wedded to his sovereign’s, so the Achan did much to preserve the throne as well as the realm.

Rebel and exile

Only occasionally did the Achans slip. In the 1720s, they lost power briefly due to a political murder executed without royal approval. In the late 18th century, when Cochin was under Sakthan Tampuran, its most formidable ruler, the Achan languished in his shadow. In 1809, Govindan Achan I rebelled against the British East India Company, Cochin’s latest European sponsors, and was sent into exile. Their properties were confiscated, with the family receiving only a ₹15,000 stipend, but when they promised to stay away from politics, their lands were returned. A bureaucracy would now govern Cochin until 1949, and the Paliath Achan became merely the greatest landlord on the horizon. But even devoid of power, his prestige was intact — and this sometimes rankled the Maharajas, whose status was nearly outshined by the stature of their “first noble”.

Officially, the Paliath Achan remained a mere subject — indeed, the Maharajas made it a point to address him as a Menon and never by his lordly title. But vocabulary didn’t matter much when the fact was, as a popular Malayalam saying puts it, half of Cochin belonged to Paliam. Nearly 12,000 tenants tilled Paliam lands, added to which was the ownership of 41 temples. It was only late in the day that the Maharajas woke up to the need to create a similar landed estate for their own family. The Achans’ exalted position meant that for weddings and major ceremonies, even such personages as the ruler of Travancore (Cochin’s richer, powerful rival to the south) sent a representative with presents; and in the early 1940s, the then Travancore Maharaja’s mother knocked on the doors of Paliam to ask if they had a bride for her son.

The Paliath Achans were Nairs, which made them Shudras to Cochin’s exalted Kshatriya rulers, but their wealth enabled a lifestyle that exceeded that of the Maharajas. This led to awkward circumstances, so that even as the Achans pledged fealty they avoided coming face to face with the rulers, before whom they had to bow.

So, when at last there was a marriage between Paliam and Cochin, it was also a forging of peace between the two families. The wedding of Ravi Achan’s parents in 1917 was in some respects a diplomatic affair. The only previous instance that could be remembered of a Cochin prince marrying a Paliam lady, generations earlier, had ended in a divorce. The woman, insulted by her royal husband, had opted to return to her Paliam home and its dignity.

When Ravi Achan and I arrived in Chendamangalam, the seat of the Achans, it was hot. The main entrance into the compound is a sturdy gateway connected to the old kovilakam or palace. Constructed by the Dutch, this is where the oldest male member stayed, with a platform in the upstairs balcony from where he addressed the common folk. Once there was a heavy bell that was rung to tell the time, but this has long since disappeared.

Paliam Palace and the ancestral nalukettu house are a heritage museum now.

Paliam Palace and the ancestral nalukettu house are a heritage museum now.

Elephants and boats

Krishnabalan Achan, manager of the family trust, told me, “A lot of things were auctioned when at last in 1956 the family split.” While lands were divided on a per-capita basis, with one share for the household deity, other valuables were sold. Great urns, brass vessels, lamps — as an establishment that fed hundreds every day, it’s not surprising that the kitchens once held an eight-foot wide uruli just to fry pappadams. One thing that nobody wanted, ironically, was the family safe — a colossal metal box sits now as an empty exhibit.

Today the Paliam Palace and the ancestral nalukettu house — with four wings and a courtyard — are a heritage museum, maintained with state support. Till 1956, the complex housed 214 residents, as well as its own doctors and a school, not to speak of elephants, boats, and a stately car. Today, about a dozen people live on the premises. One building, for instance, was constructed specifically for women when the nalukettu ran out of space. It had 14 suites, each for a female member and her children. The oldest lady, however, always resided in the main house — like the Achan in the palace, Valiyamma had an ornate canopy bed, seated on which she served as the domestic court of final appeal. If there were disputes, she settled them; if there was a ceremony for which a member required ornaments, it was her assistant who took out pieces from the 3,000-strong jewellery collection in the vault.

In the old days, no high-caste woman left her home: their Namboothiri husbands came to stay with them. In the Cochin royal family, the Brahmin husbands of princesses were described as irippukar , those who “sat” in the palace. They were paid ₹6 a month if they were from regular families, and ₹8 if they were from exalted houses. In the Paliam household, the Brahmin consorts were not paid salaries, but were allotted special buildings and servitors. They lived in the Easwara Seva or “worship” building — a name that masks the awkwardness of the fact that they were eating the salt of a non-Brahmin household. All the food, of course, was cooked by Brahmins. Assisting them were dozens of Nair women, chopping and cleaning.

Still, even when Ravi Achan’s mother left Paliam, her allowance reached her regularly. “There was a Paliam office in Tripunithura,” he remembers, “and whenever she needed anything, all she had to do was send word, and it would be done.” It did, however, mean she could not go back to Paliam. “It was a joint family; if you left, you could not return to claim physical space,” says Ravi Achan. He himself stayed at Paliam only for a year when at 16 he had to undergo the mandatory bhajanam — 12 months of rituals, a rite of passage for every Paliam boy.

Till they were 16, the boys were served food in cut plantain leaves; after the bhajanam , they graduated to a full leaf and had to move into the bachelors’ dormitory. “The only time thereafter we could go into the main house was during mealtimes. Otherwise, that space was reserved for women.” Guards in khaki were posted around the estate to ensure the rules were not breached. They carried guns, but nobody knew if these actually worked.

Everything at Paliam happened on an institutional scale. “Whenever a baby was born,” recalls Krishnabalan Achan, “the arrival was recorded by the majordomo. Specific ornaments were given, which belonged to the newborn for life.” Boys were called Kuttans, and girls Pillais, and when they attained majority they graduated to Achans and Kunjammas. “The allowances were quite generous,” remembers Ravi Achan. A college-going boy in the 1930s received ₹40 a month from the treasury. “It was so much money; we’d spend lavishly and still have enough to loan to our friends.” By their mid-20s, the allowance was reduced to ₹25, with 25 measures of paddy. For women, meanwhile, there was no cash allowance. Everything was provided by the management, including three servants per lady.

Photo: Manu S. Pillai

Photo: Manu S. Pillai

Public pressure

There were, however, also times of trouble. In 1935, Raman Achan III applied to the Maharaja for help. Debt and poor management had strained the family’s resources, and so the Cochin government issued the Paliam Proclamation, under which Paliam came under the state for 12 years. Over a decade later, there was even a satyagraha that saw the public demand that the Achans throw open roads on the estate to everyone, regardless of caste.

At the peak of their powers, the two families’ destinies were entwined. And so too in decline. In 1949, when V.P. Menon witnessed the lifestyle of the princesses of Tripunithura, their Brahmin husbands dependent on them, he was moved to do something exceptional: in addition to the privy purse, he settled allowances on all members of the royal family. That, and the periodical sale of land, heirlooms, and even their crown supported the dynasty. In Paliam, however, change came slightly later: it was 1956 when the estate was partitioned. All 214 heirs received lands and goods worth a lakh each. Some sold their inheritance and invested elsewhere; those who didn’t lost much in land reforms passed by the Kerala government. Slowly, the Paliam complex grew empty of family, staff, guards and attendants.

In Tripunithura, many palaces have been dismantled to make way for urban buildings, but in serene Chendamangalam, Paliam remains mostly intact. Much was given away to the government decades ago, but what remains is well kept and attracts visitors.

A striking portrait of a stout, bald man in the palace has a plaque that states he was Govindan Achan I, exiled by the British in 1809. With a chuckle, Ravi Achan says, “That’s not him. That’s actually his nephew.” It is too late, though, to correct things — a website, brochures, and much else carries the image now with the name of that 19th century rebel. The days of the Achans may be over, but their memory must be preserved. For even if a few mistakes creep in, the stories are all real.

The writer won the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar for The Ivory Throne (2015). His latest book is The Courtesan, the Mahatma and the Italian Brahmin.

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Printable version | Feb 13, 2022 12:44:35 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/kerala/the-paliath-achans-a-cochin-family-that-was-once-richer-than-the-maharajas/article29469185.ece