The Paliath Achans of Cochin

(Published in The Hindu, September 22 2019)

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. It was a middle-classdom born partly out of choice, and partly due to princely fecundity. On the one hand, the maharajahs of Cochin 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 maharajah’s residence that a north Indian prince would think twice before using it as his stable. Indeed, much to the admiration of VP Menon, who would aid Sardar Patel in the integration of the princely states, Cochin’s ruler was of that rare breed which valued simplicity–in 1949 the maharajah made only the most unassuming demands before cheerfully surrendering his ancestral rights to the freshly forged Indian Union. 

But on the other hand, simplicity was also forced upon the royal house due to the sheer number of people who featured on its domestic roster: in 1878 the family included 25 princes and 39 princesses, and by 1949 the figure had swelled to 454 altogether. 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 Thripunithura, 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 sat enshrined their family deity. 

It was on the narrow road near Palaces No 8 and 9 that I found Ravi Achan waiting for me when I went to fetch him from Thripunithura. The “fort” that was once the royal abode now exists largely in name—among old palace blocks rise apartment towers and modern bungalows that belong to strangers. Ravi Achan’s, however, is a fairly old building. The octogenarian’s mother came to this town as the wife of a prince. It did not mean that Achan or his mother became members of the royal family—in keeping with the matrilineal system, they belonged to his mother’s lineage, while his father stayed superior, including in caste. “I could touch him before his morning bath,” reports this one-time star of Kerala cricket. “Then between teatime and the evening bath there was another window.” The rest of the day, there was no question of laying hands on his twice-born father. And in all his life, Ravi Achan and the man who made him never once shared a meal. 

The last time I was in Thripunithura, I was soaked in the rain, hopping from one old building to the next. My companion was Prasanna Varma, a royal descendant, and many were the stories I heard. So orthodox, for instance, were some of the old princesses that they wouldn’t set foot on a doormat, which threatened pollution from dust left behind by ominous lower-caste feet. And the lowborn also avoided the mat so the royal family would not be offended. The result was unused doormats outside many a palace, every entrant jumping over it to preserve the sanctity of the caste order. Then there was 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 shuddham (pure) cars with drivers of the right breed. When men first started to sit down at feasts without the obligatory dip, it was a right royal scandal. 

Ravi Achan and I set out by car from Thripunithura for 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, in fact, even than the royal house. For nearly a century and a half, until 1809, the Paliath Achans had served as ministers of Cochin, with a few interludes when the house was out of favour. Originally styled Menons, a scribal title, by the 1590s their fortunes began to spiral: the ruler bestowed on them the seat of a dead chieftain, and in 1622 a portion of the Vypin Island was ceded. Then followed 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 got overbearing, conspired with the Dutch to oust them. During succession disputes, the Achans sided with the legitimate heirs, fighting battles and employing 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. Afterwards when Hyder Ali invaded the region, it was again this head of Paliam who travelled to the invader’s court and pledged tribute. His own fortunes were wedded to that of his sovereign, so the Achan did much to preserve the throne as well as the realm.

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

Officially, of course, the Paliath Achan remained a mere subject—indeed, the maharajahs 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 put it, half of Cochin belonged to Paliam. Nearly 12,000 tenants tilled Paliam’s lands, added to which was influence that came from owning 41 temples—it was only late in the day that the maharajahs 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 when considering prospective brides for her son, the then Travancore maharajah’s mother knocked on the doors of Paliam to ask if they had a girl. 

While the Paliath Achans were Nairs, which made them Sudras to Cochin’s exalted Kshatriya rulers, their wealth enabled a lifestyle which exceeded that of the maharajahs in Thripunithura. It could lead to awkward circumstances, where even as the Achans pledged fealty they avoided coming face to face with the rulers, before whom they had to bow. So, when there was at last a marriage between Paliam and Cochin, it was also the forging of peace between the two families. The wedding of Ravi Achan’s parents in 1917 was in some respects a diplomatic affair, for it had been generations since a Cochin prince married a Paliam lady. The only previous instance that could be remembered, incidentally, had ended in a divorce, for the woman was insulted by her royal husband, opting therefore to return to her ancestral home and its dignity.

When Ravi Achan and I arrived in Chendamangalam it was hot. The principal entrance to the Paliam 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 nearby, which was also rung to tell the time, but this has long since disappeared. As Krishnabalan Achan, manager of the family Trust, stated to me, “A lot of things were auctioned within the family 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, and other goods—as an establishment that fed hundreds everyday, it was not surprising that the kitchens held a vessel 8 feet wide, just to fry pappadoms. One thing that nobody wanted, ironically, was the family safe—a colossal metal box that takes a dozen men to lift. It sits now as an empty exhibit.

Today the Paliam Palace and the ancestral nalukettu house—with four wings and a courtyard in the centre—are a heritage museum, maintained with state support. Where till 1956 there were 214 residents in the complex, which also had its own doctors and a school for the children, not to speak of elephants, boats, and a stately car, today only about a dozen individuals live on the premises. One building, for instance, was constructed specifically for women when the nalukettu ran out of space. It had fourteen suites, every one of these granted to a female member and her children. The oldest lady, however, always resided in the main house—like the Achan in the palace, the 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 went into the vault and removed pieces from the family’s 3000-strong jewellery collection.

In the old days no woman from Paliam left home—their Namboothiri husbands came and stayed in the complex, where special buildings and servitors were allotted to them. In the Cochin royal family, these Brahmin husbands of the princesses were described as irippukar, or those who “sat” in the palace—they were paid 6 rupees a month if they were from regular families, and 8 rupees per mensem if they were from exalted houses (leading to a memorable anecdote in which one candidate asks the maharajah why there were two scales of payment for men performing the same job). In Paliam the Brahmin consorts were not paid salaries but were taken care of in a princely fashion. 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 itself, of course, was cooked by Brahmins. Assisting them were dozens of Nair women, solely to chop and clean. 

Still, when Ravi Achan’s mother left Paliam, her allowance reached her regularly. “There was a Paliam office in Thripunithura,” he remembers, “and whenever she needed anything, all she had to do was send word, and it would be done.” It did, however, prevent her from going back to Paliam. “It was a joint family—if you left,” adds Ravi Achan, “you could not return to claim physical space.” He himself only stayed at Paliam for a year when at 16 he had to undergo the mandatory bhajanam—12 months of rituals in the family temple, a rite of passage for every Paliam boy. Till they were 16 the boys were served their food in cut plantain leaves; after the bhajanam, however, they graduated to a full leaf, and had to move into the bachelors’ dormitory. “The only time thereafter we could go to the main house was for one hour every afternoon at mealtimes and then for dinner. Otherwise that space was reserved for women.” Guards in khaki were posted around the estate to ensure these rules were not breached. They carried guns but nobody knew if these actually worked.

Everything at Paliam was managed on an institutional scale. “Whenever a baby was born,” recalls Krishnabalan Achan, “the arrival was recorded by the majordomo. Specific ornaments were allotted and this 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 rupees 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-twenties, however, the allowance was reduced to 25 rupees for every male member, with 25 measures of paddy—enough to provide for their wives and children. For women, meanwhile, there was no cash allowance. Everything was provided by the management, including three servants per lady.

There were, however, also times of trouble. In 1935 Raman Achan III applied to the maharajah for assistance in running the estate. Debt and poor management had strained the family’s resources, and so the Cochin government issued the Paliam Proclamation. For 12 years Paliam would be under state management. “All acts done by Our Government,” it announced, “…and all accounts…(shall) be accepted without question by the members of the aforesaid Paliam family.” It was an embarrassing arrangement, given the awkward dynamics between the maharajah and the Achans. But it had to be done, and, as Ravi Achan states, the results were happy for everyone—the household ran at its usual standards, while financial health was restored with the assistance of the royal court. “There were disagreements between Paliam and the rulers, of course, but it was Cochin which made us. No matter what, we could never go against the maharajah.” 

But while at the peak of their powers the family’s destinies were entwined, so too in decline the families descended together. As the freedom struggle gathered momentum, Paliam could not stay immune to change—there was even a satyagraha that saw the public demand the Achans throw open roads on the estate to everyone regardless of caste. Then came independence and the accession of the princely states. When in 1949 VP Menon witnessed the lifestyle of princesses in Thripunithura, whose Brahmin husbands were dependent on their wives, he was moved to do something exceptional: in addition to the privy purse granted to the maharajah, he settled allowances on all other members of the royal family. That secured their future, and in the years that followed, the sale of land, heirlooms, and even their crown supported the dynasty. 

In Paliam change came slightly later: it was 1956 when the estate was partitioned. All 214 heirs received lands and goods worth a lakh of rupees each, even if many of them were children. Some sold their inheritance and invested elsewhere; those who didn’t lost much in land reforms passed by the Kerala Government sometime later. Slowly the Paliam complex grew empty—where once hundreds of men and women, staff and servants, guards and attendants lived, there came to reside only a few wistful descendants. 

But while in Thripunithura many palaces have been dismantled to make way for high-rises and buildings, in serene Chendamangalam, Paliam remains for most part intact. Oil paintings, palm leaf manuscripts, and other possessions were given away by the family to the government decades ago, but what remains is well kept and attracts the attention of locals and visitors. A striking portrait of a stout, bald man is placed in the palace for instance—the plaque states he was Govindan Achan I exiled by the British in 1809. But with a giggle Ravi Achan tells, “This is not him. This is 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 nineteenth 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.