Monday, January 8, 2018

The Great Wall of Malabar: Ruins of the Travancore Lines

     In the 1760s, fearing the imminent invasion of the Zamorin of Calicut and Mysore’s Haidar Ali Khan, the King of Travancore, Dharma Raja, set aside his differences with the neighboring northern kingdom of Cochin to work together to build a defensive line. This 40-feet-high bulwark was called Nedumkotta — the famed Travancore Lines. The defense line stretched roughly 30 miles east-west and extended from the Dutch fort at Kodungallur near the western seaboard through the plains of the Periyar and Chalakudy rivers to the Western Ghats, which formed the eastern border of the Malabar states (Figure 1).

     The Travancore Lines began at Kottappuram fort across the Periyar river in Kodungallur, it continued through tKrishnan Kotta on the river bank, and thereon east towards the Chalakudy river. Intercepted by the river, the embankment turned its course slightly southeast to run parallel to the river on its south side until it reached the natural walls of Western Ghats about 30 kms away. Running parallel along the northern wall of Nedumkotta was a sizeable trench measuring 20 feet deep and 16 feet wide (Valathu 1981: 73). Along the trench, there was another hedge created out of thorny shrubs and brambles. The walls contained built spaces that included not only rooms for soldiers to rest and hide, but wells for fresh drinking water and roofed storage areas for gun powder and other artillery. Many of these structures have come to light during public road projects. V.V.K. Valathu mentions the discovery of an underground cave system accessed through the drinking wells near Krishnan Kotta (Fort) during the excavation for a Panchayat road (Valathu 1981: 74). Instances of caves suddenly appearing under houses is well-known in this area, with a particularly big cave that could hold about 100 people coming to light during the monsoons in June 1978 (Mathrubhoomi 1978).
Figure 1: Map of the Travancore Lines

     Built using a fortification design template finessed by the Flemish general of Travancore Army, Eustachius de Lannoy, Nedumkotta became a key barrier against the onslaught of Haidar Ali. But, in the 1780s, Tipu Sultan, Haidar Ali’s fabled successor, broke through Nedumkotta’s defenses. Legend has it that Tipu Sultan was so furious that it took his army two attempts to breach Nedumkotta that he completely destroyed the easternmost portion of the bulwark out of sheer anger. Incidentally, the area breached by Tipu’s army in 1789 is the point at which India’s National Highway (NH-66), running north-south through the length of the state of Kerala today, cuts across the erstwhile Lines. As you travel through the Mukundapuram and Koratty Taluks of Thrissur district into Ernakulam (Cochin), you pass curious place names like Kottamurri (fort break or part of a fort), Kottaparampu (fort land), and Kottavazhi (fort path), even though there is no sign of any fortification in these areas. These are place names that likely preserve a memory of the period of the Mysorean invasion. Two names in particular stand out: Kizhakkumurri (literally, eastern break) at Koratty, Thekkemurri (western break) at Muringoor – these were the locations where Tipu Sultan breached the Nedumkotta to enter Cochin.

     Last year, I decided to take a closer look at what was left of a portion of Nedumkotta. I was curious to find the western point at which the defense lines began but, as is common in unplanned expeditions of this sort, our family excursion included my toddler son and family matriarchs and ended up at the point where Tipu breached the Lines. Since the exact location of the site was not available on Google maps or anywhere else, we followed the traditional Indian wayfinding custom — asking locals and auto rickshaw drivers. After a couple of wrong starts and dead ends, we finally made our way to what looked like a high mound, about the size of a hillock, in the village Koratty about 55 kms from Ernakulam (Figure 2).
Figure 2: Konor Gate Mound

     Atop the mound, under a tired ficus tree, a simple stone marker reads: “Konur fort gate, breached by Thippu (sic) in December 1788” (the actual year was 1789) (Figure 3). Alongside, there stands a simple oblong granite stone. A traditional Kerala lamp placed in front of it continues to be lit during the evenings to pray for the spirits of soldiers who died at the site (Figure 4). A few steps down the leeward slope of the mound, a cavern-like space emerges through the brambles. Laterite bricks in a uniform shape and size form the walls of this space, which seems to contain small rectangular rooms (Figure 5). An exterior wall appears to have had shooting holes, now silted with mud and debris. Within the darkened moldy laterite walls, there is black residue, perhaps where one of Mysore’s many cannons struck (Figure 6). Nothing else remains of Nedumkotta­, the great embankment once considered the only barrier that stopped Haidar and Tipu from conquering southwestern India. Had either of them done so, Mysore would have been able to mount an ever more serious challenge to the British in South India. And who knows what India’s geopolitical-scape might have looked like then! The ultimate breach of Nedumkotta ended in an impasse: while Tipu’s army crossed into Cochin’s territory, he had to return to Mysore as he received news of the imminent British attack on his capital at Srirangapatanam (Seringapatam). 
Figure 3: Stone marker atop the mound
Figure 4: Memorial and lamp on top of the mound

Figure 5: Laterite construction
Figure 6: Black soot on laterite wall (from cannon?)

     While Tipu’s breach took out one of the key fortification structures of the Lines, the rest of this embankment continued to exist well into the nineteenth century. In the end, what happened to Nedumkotta? The story is perhaps one that is most familiar to South Asian archaeologists and historians. What the Mysorean army began as a project of military action, modern governmental institutions completed through a combination of unchecked infrastructural development and benign neglect. Records indicate that parts of Nedumkotta were destroyed by the British as a self-protection measure in 1809, but the official reason cited was that Tipu’s breach had made the Lines structurally unsafe and therefore parts of it had to be destroyed so that it did not crumble onto unsuspecting people. Nonetheless, in the early-nineteenth century the remaining parts of Nedumkotta continued to be policed by British soldiers stationed atop it (India Office Records, MSS Eur E313/7). As late as 1928 large sections of the fortification’s walls were visible in the Thrissur-Cochin Taluks (Vallathu 1981). The most significant destruction of this rampart came post-Independence, starting with the construction of the highway by which I traveled last year to see the Lines — its construction not only required the destruction of parts of Nedumkotta but some say that mud and bricks from the rampart were mined to construct stretches of the highway and parallel railways tracks constructed in Mukundapuram Taluk. Subsequently, many of the walls were mined by locals for constructing houses and parts of the Nedumkotta land was purchased by companies that pulverized the fort walls and filled up the trenches (Figure 7).

Figure 7: Debris filled pit on Nedumkotta
     The ruins of Nedumkotta sometimes surface unexpectedly on social media. The point of breach at Konor gate in Koratty Taluk is one of the most visible parts of the ruins owing to its height. Parts of the laterite embankment are seen in villages south of Chalakudy river such as Muringoor, Mandikunnu, Aananad, and Kadukutty. In 2012, archaeology enthusiasts traveled along the visible remnants of Nedumkotta and their journey is partly documented in a YouTube video, found here. Nedumkotta reappears time and again my dissertation research as well. Earlier this year, at the British Library in London, I came across the Lines, this time in map form (one that I can’t reproduce here due to copyright issues) in MSS Eur E313/7. Here, an account of the first breach attempt by Tipu in December 1789 —a detailed and dramatic reportage—accompanied two-dimensional cartographic points at which the Mysoreans breached Nedumkotta for the first time; the point called “breach d” was the precise spot my family and I had stood only a few months back marveling the ingenuity of what was called the great wall of Malabar.

Note: You can read more about Nedumkotta and the content from the British Library records on Deepthi Murali’s personal website here).


Account of Flanking of Travancore Lines, 1809, MSS Eur E313/7, India Office Records and Private, British Library, London, UK.

Staff Writer. 1978. “Guha Kandethi.” Mathrubhoomi, June 19, 1978.
Valathu, V.V.K.. 1981. Keralathile Sthala Charithrangal: Thrissur Jilla. Thrissur: Kerala Sahitya Academi.

1 comment:

  1. I am not aware of the history of Tipu Sultan in detail in this region. However, having worked at Pattanam for two years I got to see the area around Pattanam. By your article, I am reminded of two things. First, there is a boundary stone of Kochi-Thiruvithankur state at the Sahodaran Ayappan's museum plot overlooking Njandakadavu (locally) in Pattanam village.

    Second one is more striking- fragment of a laterite wall or embankment(fallen or not properly laid out with laterite blocks). Some parts of it were also exposed in a few trial trenches laid out during Pattanam excavations (one of the latest seasons- probably 2014)This structure runs
    for a few meters. Looking at your map,what struck me was that this wall may be part of the same defense discussed in the article as Pallipuram has been shown in the map. This laterite wall is on the other side of Pallipuram fort. Some people in the Pattanam village also talk about the attack of Tipu sultan in the area. Some people say that this laterite wall was made for protection from the flood waters (in personal communication with the Director of Pattanam Excavations.) However, there is a possibility that the fragmentary nature of this structure might be related to the demolition for breaching the wall.
    --- Dr. Deepak K. Nair