Sanskrit sources of Kerala history

by Suma Parappattoli | 2010 | 88,327 words

This study deals with the history of Kerala based on ancient Sanskrit sources, such as the Keralamahatmyam. The modern state known as Keralam or Kerala is situated on the Malabar Coast of India. The first chapter of this study discusses the historical details from the inscriptions. The second chapter deals with the historical points from the Mahatm...

This book contains Sanskrit text which you should never take for granted as transcription mistakes are always possible. Always confer with the final source and/or manuscript.

8. The Visakhavijaya by Kerala Kalidasa

The Visakhavijaya[1] and its auother, Kerala Varma Valiya Koyil Tampuran, popularly known as Kerala Kalidasa, do not require introduction to the world of scholars. The poet adorned the highest available position among the poets and scholars of Kerala during the latter half of the 19th and former half of 20th centuries. Kerala Varma belonged to the Lakshmipuram palace, Canganasseri, an offshoot of the Parappanad royal home. He was a versatile genius, a rare combination of all princely qualities and accomplishments.

The Visakhavijayam [Visakhavijaya] is generally considered to be his masterpiece. Kerala Varma’s Visakha-vijaya has the unique distinction of being the greatest historical Mahakavya in Sanskrit produced in Kerala. Since the composition of Atula’s Musakavamsa Visakha-vijayam is a mighty historical Mahakavya in twenty cantos of moderate length, consisting of 1307 verses dealing with the kingly qualities and administrative achievements of the hero, Visakham Tirunal Maharaja of Travancore (1880-1885) under whose patronage the author composed his poem and regained his royal status quo in Trivandrum. Besides being a eulogy of Visakham Tirunal, it has the unique distinction of being partly an autobiography. It tells a great deal about many people and events of the time. It is a veritable mine of information about several historical facts of which there is no other record.

Historical facts

Visakhavijayam mentioned, the parents of Visakham Tirunal had five sons and two daughters—lebhe sutān pañcassutādvayañca (I -3) The poet states that one of the son (Probably the third) and a daughter died in childhood—ekā tadīyā tanayā sutaśca (1-4) This corrects the statement of G.P. Pillai that three of the children died early[2]. The fact that Visakha Tirunal in his childhood was brought up by a dhatri (nurse) is well supported by history[3] and his autobiography.

Svati Tirunal and Utram Tirunal are returned to in the first cantos of poems. Before Svati Tirunal breathed his last he had the good fortune of seeing Vishakha Tirunal in his tenth year of age and rejoicing in the unique attainment of his young nephew[4]. Utram Tirunal was very particular about his nephews education[5]. He appointed T. Madhava Rao tutor to him[6]. The pupil came to excel the tutor himself in various subjects. In appreciation of Rao’s work as English Tutor, the Maharaja appointed him as Assistant Peishkar in 1853[7]. He was appointed Devan Peishkar in 1855 and Dewan in 1857 when he was only in his 30th year.

Visakha Tirunal observed the Samvatsara diksa of the deceased Parvati Bai for one year[8]. It is curious that the youngest son performed that rite, while the elder Ayilyam Tirunal was there. Two other elder brothers, Kerala Varma and Ravi Varma, had become in valids due to incurable diseases.

In 1857 AD Visakham Tirunal’s only sister died, leaving two infant sons[9]. In 1858, his father died when the prince had completed his 21st years. The adoption of the two princess in the royal house of Travancore from the Mavelikkara Kovilakam referred to in Kavya[10] was made effect from the 6th October 1857.

An interesting fact about Visakham Tirunal revealed in Visakha-vijayam is that he composed a poem about the presentative (in April 1860 AD) of an ornamental belt with gold embroidery and a buckle, sent by Queen Victoria to Uttram Tirunal[11] Visakham Tirunal became the heir-apparent. He spent his days in reading, writing, investigating and enjoying himself in various other intellectual activities.

In October 1859 Visakhavijayam. married a Nair lady from Arumana Amma Veedu (Tvm) with which more than one of his ancestors had been connected by marriage. The choice was entirely his own. The independence which he exhibited in the matter was disliked by his uncle, Uttram Tirunal. The momentary displeasure, however, vanished before long[12]. V.T’s joy was increased by the birth of a son to him[13]. This son was named Narayana in due come Visakham Tirunal’s consort gave birth to three daughters. He visited Madras about the end of 1861[14].

The high officers of the state like Madhava Rao and Sadasivan Pillai were exceeding by virtues and very closely attached to Visakham Tirunal They were very dutiful and obedient to the sovereign and possessed of spotless character. But Ayilyam Tirunal strongly disliked them[15]. He committed many immoral deeds and hated Visakha Tirunal who had a strong dislike for such things[16]. Ayilyam Tirunal had no interest in the welfare of his family, and all that he did was for his own pleasure. He was stated to be utterly selfish svasukhaikecchuḥ So the duty of lookig after the royal family devolved on the heir -appparent[17].

The daughter of Princess Parvati died in her infancy itself[18]. Afterwards, when she gave birth to prince Martanda Varma, Vishakham Tirunal who was the happiest man over the child birth, was not permitted to have a look at the boy[19].

Every week Ayilyam Tirunal held a drinking party in his palace. Both men and women, in pairs, took part in it. They mingled in extreme indiscriminately[20]. In the presence of one’s own wife, one kissed the lips of another’s wife, and the wife, who was also intoxicated to the maximum[21]. Some persons did not drink readily, but they were made to drink by the Maharaja and thus he brought ruins upon them. Princes Parvathi’s husband, a youth of 24 years, and some of his friends, met with untimely death by excessive drinking[22]. She lamented the loss of her husband. But she was never freed from here sorrow, which was aggravated by the sudden death of her son Aditya Varma[23]. Ayilyam Tirunal remained unaffected by such sad events. Within short time, Dewan Sastri also incurred the displeasure of the Maharaja. One day Ayilyam Tirunal mad with intoxication at a drinking party, loudly uttered some wicked words. The author wrote a letter to Dewans ‘Sastri’.

Sastri was alarmed by the letter and he precipitously showed it to the Maharaja. Ayilyam Tirunal flared up knowing that it was written by Kerala Varma, he thought it to be the best justification for the contemplates exile of Kerala Varma. Atlast, the order for the arrest of Kerala Varma was issued. Trivikraman Tampi, acting Tahasildar, Tvm appeared before Kerala Varma to execute the warrant and declared. Finally Kerala Varma was taken into custody and driven away.

Visakham Tirunal’s accession to the throne

On the auspicious occasion appointed for accession (17th 1880 June), the Maharaja visited the temple of Sri Padmanabha. From there he drove to the Durbar Hall[24] and sat in state on the ancestral musnad, decorated with gold and precious stones[25].

The investiture speech

It is a unique feature of Visakhavijaya. that it contains a summary in Sanskrit of the English speech delivered by the Maharaja in the Investiture Durbar. The author has greatly succeeded in giving a stylish and faithful Sanskrit translation of the speech. The original speech is almost lost at present. But the Sanskrit translation, if rendered buck into English, would serve the purpose and even atlast to the excellent style of the Maharaja. Then it would serve as a reconstruction of the Maharaja’s original speech.

The State procession

After the Durbar the king mounted a golden palanquin and made a round of the city.

The image purodare in the lines

hiraṇmayenāndolikayā purodare
nareśvaraṃ sañcaramāṇamaikṣata ||

Suggests that the royal procession was confined to the interior of the fort. The palanquin in which the Maharaja had a ride has some importance in the history of the state. It was the traditional vehicle of the royal family used by kings on special occasions.

Release of Prisoners

One of the first actions of Visakham Tirunal was the immediate release of a number of prisoners internal by his predecessor, who was a man of strong will and firm action. He had imprisoned many men, who, in his view, had offended him[26]. Kerala Varma’s imprisonment was under royal order and it did not carry a time limit. The offence alleged to have been committed by him was not specified. Therefore his was an internment for life. The first known act of Vishakha Tirunal as mentioned earlier, was the release of Kerala Varma. It is a noteworthy fact that Visakhavijaya[27]. reveals that there were many others who had been interned by Ayilyam Tirunal. They do not seen to have been ordinary culprits or Criminals. This is a fact unknown to history from other sources.

Remission of tax arrears

The new Maharaja ordered a general remission of arrears of taxes. The Kavya reveals that the arrears amounted to several lakhs of Rupees.

karaścirādapratipādito janairanekalakṣa.......................... || (VI-41)

This shows that the king did not favour the collections of exacting dues from the tenants Kusidam means interest, andanyāyaṃ kusīdaṃ—stands for unjust an exorbitant rates of interest on revenue arrears charged by the Sircar, Ayilyam Tirunals’ Henchman The late Maharaja had left behind a train of Henchman who survived entirely by eating his alms. They fanned up the rivalry between the two royal brothers for their own personal profits. In their bid to easy the favour of Ayilyam Tirunal they found no danger in hurting the heir apparent, Visakham Tirunal But A.T had a sudden death and it accession of Visakham Tirunal, whom they annoyed some time before to the throne frightened them. So dreadfully that they expected punitive steps from the new sovereign. But, Visakham Tirunal’s attitude was different.

The kavya says[28].—

bahūnathāśleṣarājamāśritān kṛtāparādyānapi kāṃścidātmani |
viśākhabhūpo gahanāśayo'dhinod dhanotkareṇa pratikūlaśaṅkinaḥ |

The expression pratikūlaśaṅkinaḥ suggests that they expected opposition from the king. But he is stated to have given them plenty of alms and removed their fear. In another verse the author speaks of sevakacātakaḥ of A.T. and reveals that Visakham Tirunal did not disappoint them. The five expression sevakacataka [sevakacātaka] is humorous and also meaningful. The usage jīvanāni dhanāni in the verse[29] has to be interpreted as ‘riches required for rehabilitation’ because the persons concerned had been living entirely on the favour of A.T.

The Varkala Tunnel

An important event in the reign of the new king was the completion of the construction of the navigable tunnel at Varkkala[30]. It is further states that Visakham Tirunalwanted to make the tunnel site a centre of tourist attraction.

This interesting point is contained in the verse cited below:

manovinodāya tanoḥ sukhāya ca pratiṣṭhamāno nagarāntaraṃ prati
taran suruṅgāṃ taṭitallajena tāṃ janopayogāya nṛpaḥ samādiśat ||

By the usagemanovinodāya, tanoḥ sukhāya ca pratiṣṭhamāna,—the tourist is meant[31]. It is interesting that the tunnel is called Surunga as it is even at present known as Varkalaturangam [Varkala-turanga].

Palace Administration

Visakha Tirunal introduced drastic reforms in the palace administration. The person holding to office of Sarvadhikarykkar was removed from service and one Nilakanta to be identified with Nilakantha Pillai, was appointed in the vacancy.

The reasons for the selection of Nilakantha Pillai to that office are also stated in the Kavya they are:

(1) He has hatred of the bhujaṅgavarga (eṣa dveṣṭi bhujaṅgavarga)

(2) He is intolerant of even a bad remark about Visakha Tirunal (meghadhvaniṃ śruṇvate joṣaṃ na kvacit āsyate)

(3) He is capable of knowing the king’s intention in his orders. (māmakapatrabhāvaṃ abhigantuṃ śaktaḥ)

(4) The intriguing man are afraid of him (amī jigamagāḥ ito bibhyati)

Actually the palace Sarvadhikaris jurisdiction was confined to the administration of the palace affairs and the supreme head of state administration was the Dewan whose position in the state was second only to that of the Maharaja.

Removal of the Dewan

When Visakham Tirunal ascended the throne the Dewanship was being held by Naga Narayana, to be identified with Nagom pillai Nanu Pillai. Not much after that he was asked to retire from Dewanship.

This is mentioned in the verse[32].—

amātyavaramādiśattadanu nāganārāyaṇaṃ svanīvṛtipariṣkṛtīrbahuvidhā vidhātuṃ nṛpaḥ
avekṣya punarakṣaṇaṃ tamiha dhīmatāṃ sammatāt svanāmakamakalpayat sacivapuṅgavaṃ vaiṣṇavam |

Here, amātyavara means Dewan. nāganārāyaṇa stands for Nagan Pillai Narayana Pillai. At the time of the author’s arrest he was the senior Dewan Peishkar. He was in special charge of the arrest. The reason for his removed from Dewanship is stated to be his inability to introduce the reforms proposed by the new sovereign. This seems only the pretext under which the removal was effected. The new Dewan was a Vaisnava (ie Iyengar) of the king’s own name (ie. Rama) namely Ramayyengar)

Visitor of the Governor of Madras

In October 1880, the Duke of Buckingham, the Governor of Madras came to Trivandrum on a visit to the state. It is stated that the Governor, overwhelmed by the fame of Visakham Tirunal, was desirous of seeing him in person and with that object in mind he visited Travancore.

His impressions of the Maharaja are briefly stated in an excellent stanza[33].—

bhūpāla bhuvi bhuriṣaḥ khalu mayā dṛṣṭāśca sambhāṣitāḥ
naitādṛgbahumānanīyacaritaḥ kaścidvipaścit kvacit ||

Preservation of Sanskrit manuscripts

One of the memorable events of his reign was the steps taken for preserving the rare Sanskrit manuscripts collected in the palace library[34].

manīṣibhiḥ pūrvanṛpālapuṅgavai rūpārjitaṃ saṃskṛtapustakotkaṭam
āśādviśākhaḥ katicidvipaścitaḥ cirā?[i]Âghuṇaikekṣitamāśu rakṣitum ||

It is stated that the Maharaja appointed some scholars to preserve the Sanskrit books in the palace collection.

Navaratri Festival

One of the highly valuable accounts for history contain in the Vishakhavijayam festival is the description of Navaratri at Trivandrum that played a vital role in the cultural history of not only Travancore, but also southern India as a whole.

The festival begins from the first day after the Mahalaya Amavasi in the month of Kanni. The kavya says that it approached after Sravana. This is to indicate that it came in Kanni. The mandapa in which the Puja was being conducted is described in detail. This mandapa may be identified with the Cokkttalmandapa. There the kavya reveals, damsels performed the different items of Lasya dance. Here we find the reference to the dasiyattam, or dance of the Devadasi girls of south Travancore.

In the evening the hall witnessed an assembly of scholars and their deliberations on scholarly topics. The Maharaja witnessed it. The kavya furnishes the name of some of the poets and musicians who had been present in the court. At the end of the festival Visakha Tirunal seated in a chariot, went, in state to Pujappura and performed the ampucarttal rite in the afternoon of the day of Vijayadasami. He first proceeded to the Vijayavilasa palace and from there walked to the spot piercing a coconut with an arrow and then returned to the fort.


Another important ceremony conducted by Vishakha Tirunal is the Lasadipa, this is a grant illumination at the end of Murajapa. The tenth canto of the kavya is devoted to festival in great detail.

The historical allusion contained in the verse is worth noting[35].

Other events

Vishakham Tirunal performed the Tulapurusadana and became Kulasekhara Peruamal. He visited the Kanashikha peak, to be identified with Ponmudi in the Nedumangad Taluk[36]. He celebrated the Phalagunotsava[37] in the Padmanabha Svami temple. He performed the annual Sradha of A.T. Queen Victoria conferred the order of C.I on Lakshmi Bayi the senior Rani Laksmi Bhai’s only brother passed away. Visakham Tirunal constructed a new palace at Tvm and it was named Ananthavilasam[38]. The reason for the new construction is stated to be the Maharaja’s dislike for the old palace in which A.T. dwelt. Visakham Tirunal it is asserted, did not wish to live in the worn out palace like a snake in the rat-hole[39].

Five cantos, ie one -fourth of the Kavya from the 11th to the 15th are allotted to a detailed account of Visakham Tirunals tour to northern India.

Kerala Varma Raja the eldest brother of Visakham Tirunal died on 31st August1882[40]. There is a reference in Visakhavijaya[41] to a large comet first observed on the 22nd of September 1882 in Tvm which continued visible for months. The poem gives an account of relentless heavy rain and devastating flood and the sufferings of the people[42]. The fact that Visakha Tirunal wrote an autobiography[43] is worth noting and Vishakhavijaya. is perhaps the only source which reveal this information. The historically important settlement[44] of the long pending dispute of boundary between Travancore and Cochin was a major achievement of his reign. Some of the historical facts narrated in the poem are corroborated by other sources of the history of his reign. The inscriptions discovered in the place, to be identified with Tirupparappu in south Travancore are of grant significance. Thus provide corroboration of some of the accounts of the poem. The author fulfilled it excellently with great regard for truth and greater regard for historical accuracy[45].

Footnotes and references:


Samskrita Bhaskara press, Tvm 1900 with introduction and tippani by T. Ganapati Sastri, Bombay, 1889.


Kerala Sahitya Caritram, Ullur IV -P 135


It was a custom in the Travancore royal house and Aristocratic families till recently that the new born baby was not given the mother’s breast milk. Instead Sudra women, recently confined, were hired to feed the baby with breast milk.


Visakha-vijayam I -13


Ibid 16


Ibid 20


Ibid 34


Ibid 28


Ibid 32


Ibid 33


maṇiprakāṇḍe nijamātulāya hūṇādhirājñayā prahite prasādāt |
nirmāya padyaṃ nṛpa eva hṛdyaṃ sadyassatāṃ modamadādadabhram ||


Visakhavijayam I -46


Ibid III -4


Ibid II -18 -41


Ibid 52


Ibid 53


Ibid III -5


Ibid 7


Ibid 8


Visakhavijayam III -18


api kāntamavekṣya māninī madirā kṣībatamā na mānase
aparādhara bimbacumbitaṃ madirākṣī bata mānamānaśe ||


V V III -22


Ibid 25


A pompous chamber in the newly built public offices declared open in 1873 by A.T. It is now known as the secretariat Durbar hall.


Visakhavijayam. VI -2 -3


Vide V. Bhaskaran Nair -Venad Visesangal, 1980 -PP 62 -72


ayantrayad yān nigalairanāgaso janān sa nāgarkṣaja rāmavarmarār
viśākhabhūjāniramūn amūmucadvicakṣaṇaḥ śikṣaṇarakṣaṇakrame


Visakhavijaya -6 -43


atīva tābhyatyahitārajanmanaḥ kṣitīśituḥ sevakacātakotkare
praharṣayanneṣa dhanāni jīvanā yavarṣaduccairavanīdhanadhanāḥ ||


cirāya kulyāghaṭanāya dhāraṇam gireryadārambhi nijāgrajājñayā
svakīya śaktaiṣa viśākha eva tat kimatra citraṃ samapūrayadrutam ||


Visakham Tirunal was fond of travelling and sight seeing. It remains yet to be known that he was the father of tourism in Kerala. He took many steps to develop tourism in the state.


Visakhavijayam -VI -56


Visakhavijayam -VI -60


Ibid 46


tulyākhyau naravaramantriṇāvabhūtāṃ pūrvaṃ yāviha viṣaye mahānubhāvau |
kṣemārthaṃ punarapi tavihaiva jātau deśasyetyajani sayuktikā janoktiḥ ||


Visakhavijayam. VII -16 -25—To Visakham Tirunal Ponmudi owes her development at health resort.


Same as the Painkuni festival.


We will see seperately that Vijayaraghavacharya Ramaswami Sastri and Kuttikkunju Tankacci wrote 3 small poems about the new palace. Kerala Varma composed nine verse on the same theme.


Visakha-vijayam IX -24


Ibid XVII -27


Ibid 39


Ibid XVI -46 -57.


Outline of autobiography 1882, Kottayam


On the 19th of March 1881 -Travancore State Manual II -P 641; Visakhavijayam XVII -47 -50


For more details see—
(a) Visakhavijaya -a study -Dr. Poovattur Ramakrishna Pillai, Tvm
(b) The Visakhavijaya -a historical poem of Kerala -Ed. by S. Bhaskaran Nair, Hoshiarpur, 1980
(c) Kerala Sahitya Caritram, Ullur IV -P 419 -20; Keraleya Samskrita Sahitya Caritram Vol. V -Pp 28 -64

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