Of Cows, Courts and Princes

(Published in The Hindu, September 10 2016)


Sometime in 1659, residents of the temple town of Madurai found themselves dragged into choreographed raptures at a time otherwise frightfully bleak. The reigning Nayak had just been defeated in battle and was in urgent need of the ritual legitimacy that durbar spectacles supplied. All the fanfare and pageantry, then as today, was intended precisely to deflect attention from more pressing concerns. And so, bewildered as they were, his subjects proceeded to conjure up festivities of a high order and celebrate in the face of gloom.

At the centre of the day’s programme, however, was not the Nayak but a cow of especial splendour. Even with the general sanctity the cow commands among Hindus (well, some Hindus), this one was unique. For, it was ‘she’ who granted the Nayak much-needed legitimacy, and it probably helped that ‘she’ also happened to be made of solid gold. (Of course, given recent military expenses, it is likely that this was a gold-plated copper cow — these things varied from ruler to ruler depending on the health of their exchequers at a given moment.)

The principal ceremony was the hiranyagarbha — the rite of the golden womb which allowed the Nayak a ‘rebirth’ without having to go through the inconvenience of dying in the first place.

In other words, freshly sanctified with holy waters, the man entered the golden cow through its mouth. He then spent a duration inside its ‘womb’, awaiting his second coming while court Brahmins chanted mantras and pelted the cow with flowers etc. And then, before the auspicious hour expired, the Nayak tumbled out in his new avatar.

When the vanquished Nayak emerged at the other end of the cow, born as its human offspring, he was no longer the man whose legitimacy was under stress after battlefield embarrassments; he was valorous once more, with a second shot at kingly glory. He also had to display tears. The wife of the chief priest was strategically planted near the cow’s tail so that when the Nayak landed in her lap, he could bawl like a healthy baby, while she caressed him, fed him milk, and played her part in this ceremonious charade.

The golden cow was no alternative to hard political power, though, and the Nayaks in Madurai collapsed not very long after this. But what hiranyagarbhacould offer in perilous times was sufficiently comforting duct-tape to hold together the façade of a crumbling edifice while its rulers scrambled to restore it to strength (or salvage what they could). The cow’s fate after the ritual, however, was sealed. Once the prince had milked all the legitimacy he could, the priest and his wife dismantled the ruler’s ‘mother’ and took home her pieces to live out their days in splendid piety.

Court rituals were always elaborate instruments for the validation of dynastic power. And rulers employed inventive methods to elevate themselves from mortal ordinariness to superhuman, divinely sanctioned grandeur. In the 13th century, Sultan Ghiyasuddin Balban in Delhi declared himself Allah’s vice-regent on earth, essentially cushioning himself, in ritual terms, above his unpredictable, scheming courtiers. He was a nobleman before his promotion and ever afraid of being supplanted; they could still plot, but the Sultan’s upgrade as the ‘Shadow of God’ gave them pause. And, in the event of a conspiracy, the ruler could wreak ‘God’s vengeance’ upon his enemies — and get away with it.

Sometime later, as the Sultanate imploded, two brothers who had been captured in the South and converted to Islam returned to their homeland and established a kingdom. Their guru was aware that as lapsed Hindus and former Muslims, the brothers’ appeal among local power brokers was limited. So he advised them to adopt Virupaksha as their deity and declare to rule in His name. The brothers obeyed, and inaugurated what would become one of India’s great empires: Vijayanagar. If the vanquished Nayak had needed a cow for his political resurrection, Harihara and Bukka of Vijayanagar followed Sultan Balban’s lead and found god to orchestrate a social reincarnation.

Not everybody had the patience, or necessarily the need, to invest excessively in rituals to assert their position when plain old intimidation promised superb returns. One Sultan in Gujarat, rumour has it, was fed doses of poison from infancy by his paranoid mother, so that as a grown man, his saliva, sweat, and even his semen, could be fatal to whoever happened to have dealings with him. It was an exaggeration, but it kept plotters at a reasonable distance from His Highness’ poisonous person — he died at 65 of disappointingly ordinary causes, apparently leaving behind a train of dead bed companions and every fly that happened to have rested on his skin.

When Martanda Varma of Travancore, who began his career in a political backwater in present-day Kanyakumari, marched troops to conquer south Kerala, he encountered an unusual battle against the Brahmin ruler of a small principality. The Rajah exercised power in the name of his deity and scions of his line were known as ‘Devanarayanas’. Varma’s Hindu soldiers recoiled at the prospect of assaulting a Brahmin whose kingdom belonged to a deity — the battle was won with the assistance of Christians, Muslims, and non-Malayali mercenaries.

The Devanarayanas were pensioned off but, along with the spoils of war, from them was appropriated the idea of divine regency. When Varma was finished bulldozing a dozen other states, he ‘dedicated’ his new kingdom to his own family deity, Padmanabhaswamy, and proceeded to rule as ‘Padmanabha Dasa’. Where yesterday he had been an invading upstart whose rule unwilling subjects challenged, today he emerged as god’s mortal servant managing a sacred estate — opposition to him was opposition to the divine. He then went through the hiranyagarbha and gave his house a social boost, confirming its position at the apex of the new order.

Other efforts were made to distance the dynasty from the masses and to awe them. In 1810, Travancore’s politically fragile queen refashioned her name from Lakshmi Amma — recognisable locally — to Gowri Lakshmi Bayi in the Maratha style to acquire distinction. Life in the royal household was guided by a 12-volume manual that had prescriptions for every humdrum habit. Even the language deployed was astonishingly artificial. When, for instance, a princess woke up, the first thing she did was the tirumuttuvilakku — the polishing of the royal pearls. Her subjects simply called it the brushing of teeth.

Throughout history, the invention of tradition has lent sophistication to brute force. British rule only graduated into ‘The Raj’ after it seized the Red Fort and put the Mughal emperor on a bullock cart to Burma. Elaborate durbars were hosted and India’s princes were distributed silk capes and bombastic titles by Victoria Maharani who lived oceans away. But her armies were in India. To emasculated Rajahs, the new empire offered the carrot of lofty titles in return for loyalty — or money. The Nizam of Hyderabad, for instance, went from ‘His Highness’ to ‘His Exalted Highness’ after millions in donation to the British World War I effort. Of course when H.E.H. tried to get his overlords to return territory to him, they curled their lips and told him he wasn’t all that exalted.

Monuments too mattered in cloaking the ruthless reality of empire with the illusion of glorious permanence, and in 1911 began the project of constructing the Raj’s capital in Delhi, where sprung up the Viceroy’s palace and other imposing structures — this from an empire whose founders lived in warehouses and came to India to deal in pepper and clove. It was precisely the awareness of these origins and nervousness about the colonial enterprise that led its architects to manufacture cosmetic legitimacy where there was none. But while the aura was sustained for some time, power eroded. The Viceroy departed after 1947, and into his palace went the President of a free country. (Which is telling in its own way.)

Today, quests for legitimacy continue. One political party, whose league of ancestors lacks nation-wide appeal for its polarising ideas, borrows from the pantheon of a rival party that has an overabundance of nationalist leaders to give it tradition. It is the former that possesses actual power, but the mission for a lineage has led it to the doors of the latter. New statues are being built and validation leached from the legacies of people long dead and gone. And, of course, as in 17th century Madurai or 18th century Travancore, it was only a question of time before the cow too was redeployed in the 21st century chapter of this unoriginal ancient game.