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The crown without a royal head

It was already bad enough that the Cochin royal family had been reduced to putting a price tag on their heritage, and their hope was to do so with a degree of dignity

The Tripunithura Hill Palace, the erstwhile residence of the maharajas of Cochin and now an archaeological museum. Photo: Alamy
The Tripunithura Hill Palace, the erstwhile residence of the maharajas of Cochin and now an archaeological museum. Photo: Alamy

In the late 1970s, the erstwhile royal family of Cochin decided to formally carry out something its princely peers had been doing for years in secret: a sale of its jewels and prized possessions. It wasn’t greed as much as need that drove the proposed auction, for the family had hundreds of members, many of them reduced to a dignified but strained existence. Already by 1949 this dynasty had a total of 223 princes and 231 princesses, and the state was small, without enough funds for royal stipends. When V.P. Menon, who helped Sardar Patel integrate the states, went to Cochin, he was, in fact, alarmed by what he saw. “As I talked with (the family)," he wrote, “I was reminded of an aviary…which possessed a rare collection of birds." After independence, the “birds" were liberated in the name of “ahimsa", and “soon devoured by other birds and beasts of prey". This, he feared, would be the fate of Cochin’s royal denizens, hitherto cocooned from the world, and, as a special consideration therefore, every member of the family then alive was granted a modest pension—one that is still regularly paid.

The sale of family heirlooms, however, was an act of desperation. Times were such that in 1964 even the official residence of the former rulers was shut because the family could not afford to maintain it. Landed estates were divided, and the story goes that even Indira Gandhi, who abolished privy purses in 1971, decided not to interfere with individual allowances after she met a delegation of impoverished royal descendants. But when it came to the sale of dynastic treasures, official attitudes were less generous. A 1975 public auction of furniture saw the authorities swoop in with claims. Where, for instance, a carved wooden elephant had a market price of 3 lakh, the state carted it off for 7,500. When the turn came to sell the family’s ancestral jewels, therefore, the elders worked with bureaucrats to obtain the necessary approvals. With the sole condition that nothing be carried abroad, permission was granted. And 584 items from the palace treasury, featuring all kinds of riches, were announced by Messrs Murray & Co. in Chennai as available to well-heeled buyers.

In what was indicative of their financial crisis, even the crown of the maharajas of Cochin was put up for sale. With 69 emeralds, 95 diamonds, and 244 rubies set in gold, its story is an encapsulation of the story of Cochin itself. The principality was subject to the Zamorins of Calicut—popular tradition has it that when the Portuguese sailed into the Arabian Sea at the dawn of the 16th century, the Zamorin would not allow Cochin’s rulers to even tile their palace: The princes sat under thatched roofs. But Cochin’s ruler was shrewd. After the Portuguese broke with the Zamorin, he invited them to his territory, and gave them permission to trade, in return for armed protection. The men from the West frequently let his heirs down, but, for the rest of its long existence, Cochin was essentially a European protectorate. After the Portuguese were expelled by the Dutch, it was the latter who assumed real power in Cochin, followed eventually by the English, who brought the state under the umbrella of the Raj, recognizing its good governance by giving it a respectable gun salute.

The crown itself, however, was a present from the Dutch. As such, the kings of Cochin did not wear crowns. Legend has it that after the Zamorin annexed their ancestral seat, the rulers vowed they would keep their heads bare till they reclaimed it; and since they never succeeded in doing that, there was no use for a crown. When the Dutch entered the picture, however, they decided to grant Cochin ritual sovereignty to compete with the Zamorin. An expensive crown was manufactured—with the Dutch East India Company’s emblem engraved, lest the maharajas forget who was really in control—and presented ceremoniously in 1663 to the then ruler. It was accepted with gratitude but still failed to make it to any royal head: Since the maharajas felt obliged to respect their ancestors’ vow, they would not wear it, though, out of deference to their patrons, this heirloom was carried in the lap on state occasions and during elaborate royal processions.

Now, at the end of the 1970s, on the eve of the auction, the government set its eyes on the crown and all else listed with it. In principle the action was justified—valuable antiques could hardly be sold like ordinary goods to the highest bidder. In actual fact, however, the authorities had granted permission till newspaper outrage forced them to sing a new song. When India Today interviewed the head of the family in 1981, he had resignation to offer. “We won’t forsake our basic honour. We would be lowering our dignity if we fought with (the government) over this issue." It was already bad enough that they had been reduced to putting a price tag on their heritage, and their hope was to do so with a degree of dignity. So dignity is what they got—and a fraction of the actual value of the goods they now lost forever. In that very palace where their ancestors once ruled as kings, the state established a museum, assembling the crown and much else for general edification. And when at a public ceremony the famous crown was formally handed over to a minister, the latter lifted this magnificent object that had never known a princely wearer, and, amidst gasps of royal horror, placed it on his democratically elected head.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).

The writer tweets at @UnamPillai

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