Splendours of Royal Mysore -
The Untold Story of the Wodeyars


The Sands of Talakad - Myth vs Science

The Controversial Sultan

The Dewans of Mysore

The Sands of Talakad - Myth vs Science

The submerged temples of Talakad, the disappearance of Malingi and the strange phenomenon of the Wodeyar lineage raise questions that perplex any reasoning intellect.

To any rational mind, while the last line of the Rani’s curse might seem logical—that of destroying the very family of the Wodeyars for what they had done to her and her family—why the poor towns of Talakad and Malingi had to become scapegoats in this entire drama baffles everyone. Wouldn’t it have been better if she had cursed the capital city of the Wodeyars, Srirangapatna, to death and disaster? In what way did the submergence of Talakad and the whirlpool formations at Malingi affect the Wodeyars? These are questions that do not have a direct answer and remain shrouded in mystery forever.

An unbiased and scientific approach to the story of Alamelamma would naturally bring a question to anyone’s mind--- Was she someone who was spiritually powerful enough to curse an entire lineage and a town to doom? Have there been any evidences or references in the texts to suggest that she was a woman blessed with supernatural powers, bestowed on her after perhaps years of penance or meditation? Sadly none of the sort exists. Someone who is spiritually advanced enough to pronounce such terrible curses on others would generally be believed to have sacrificed all sense of attachments and desires. But here was a woman whose lust for the gold ornaments seemed all encompassing! How often in Hindu traditions do people submit offerings to a deity and take the same back for their personal use? Did the social customs of those times permit widows to deck themselves up with such fanciful jewelry? Raja Wodeyar was supposedly asking these ornaments for the Goddess of the Srirangapatna temple and not for the inmates of his harem. Someone who would rather end her life and throw the jewels in the river, than submit them to the presiding Deity could most certainly not have been a saint capable enough of pronouncing catastrophic curses.

It is noteworthy that historical documentations of the 17th and 18th century make no reference to Rani Alamelamma. In fact even the accounts of British travelers like Francis Buchanan, who has recorded the minutest of details related to the Mysore Kingdom, its people and their traditions, in his account “A Journey from Madras through the countries of Mysore, Canara and Malabar” speaks casually of a legend of the “natives” during his visit to Malingi. He records that they believed that the curious sand formation that had submerged many temples in neighbouring Talakad was the after-effects of the curse of a local woman who was drowned while crossing the river to visit the temple. So enraged was she with the God of the place for having denied her a darshan, that she cursed the temples to be submerged by sand! Nowhere is the reference made to a Queen who lost her life under such tragic circumstances. If this story was true enough, could someone like Buchanan have missed out on something as important as this, even after interviewing scores of locals for his account? Could the locals themselves have missed telling him such an interesting and significant tale? Seems extremely unlikely!

Other contemporary records have similar tales to tell. Lt. Col. Wilks, Political Resident at the Mysore Court, who compiled an exhaustive history of the region, misses out on the Rani too! These documentations were done in the early nineteenth century. If the Rani episode had indeed occurred in 1610, a neat 200 years before, could vernacular and British literature have missed the episode altogether, for so long?

The first time that Rani Alamelamma makes an appearance in the documentation of the history of Mysore is in Rice’s Gazetteer of 1876 and the three-line curse makes it presence felt. The story is further dwelt upon in the Annals with all the dramatization of the events preceding her death. Interestingly the Annals was published by the then Maharaja himself and he took active interest in its contents and publication! If this story was such an embarrassment for the Royal Family, why did the Maharaja not censor it completely? It thus becomes clear that the story of Alamelamma was a fabricated one that took birth in the 19th century—may be towards the 1830’s or 1840’s ---and was most probably at the behest of the Royal family itself. Rationalists argue that the Doctrine of Lapse of Lord Dalhousie that was enforced during that time spurred the royal court to concoct this story. The nobility must have witnessed with alarm, the annexation of numerous Indian princely kingdoms by the British on the pretext of illegitimate succession or the absence of a legal male heir. That the then King of Mysore had no legitimate male heir was reason enough for them to believe that the axe could fall on them next.

To avert this, a possible escape route might have been to attribute the childlessness to a curse of yore and try to substantiate it by placing it in a historical and geographical era and circumstance of 1610, Talakad and the Vijayanagara Viceroy’s family. Scientists, geologists and archaeologists dismiss these legends as mere mumbo-jumbo. They attribute more plausible reasons for the occurrence of these phenomena. The course of the Cauvery seems to hold the key, they say, as it takes a sharp meander on its route along the Mudukutore Betta or Hill. High school geography textbooks tell us that when a river meanders and turns back on its course, the outer banks of the river obviously get eroded by the waters of the river, but it also exposes the inner banks, which get deposited with sand and sediments. In the mid-14th century, a minister of the Vijayanagara Empire, Madhava Raya, supposedly built the Madhava Mantri dam. This created lower water stages downstream and exposed the deposits of the river that forced the Cauvery to shift its course. This, coupled with large scale deforestation in the region, created fine sand and silt which got trapped in the topographical area of Talakad bounded closely by the tall temple structures and gradually started accumulating over the entire region. Archaeologists supplement the theory by virtue of their excavations, which reveal that it was no catastrophe that killed people in large numbers or buried their remains in the sands, but a natural and gradual process. The shifting course of the Cauvery in a westward direction exposed the inner banks as stated earlier. But it also eroded the outer banks on which stood Malingi, which was perhaps what was meant by Malingi becoming a terrible whirlpool.

The curse of Rani Alamelamma remains shrouded in mystery. The third part of her curse on the Wodeyar genealogy is also something that doesn’t make rational sense. Especially because the very object of her curse, Raja Wodeyar, begot sons! If the impact of the curse was to get diluted in its very first occurrence, one can comfortably doubt its veracity and its effect on future generations. The Wodeyar lineage (till the last ruler of the Dynasty of 15 kings who succeeded Raja Wodeyar) shows that a possible impact of the Kings dying sonless might have happened only thrice in its family tree. Even in these cases, most often the Kings did not have legitimate sons from the Crown Queen. But the countless concubines or other queens had sons, but they would not have been acceptable as heirs to the Throne. It is but natural for a King with so many wives and concubines to spend the bulk of his time and divert his affection to them rather than the principal queen. Could that and not the curse have then been the reason for the absence of a male heir? Also, during the 18th Century, when the Kingdom was usurped, it was alleged that the young Kings who had been placed as puppets on the Throne were surreptitiously murdered by the usurper by the time they reached their puberty. Obviously such young lads could not have had sons at such an early age, necessitating an adoption from the collateral line.

Thus, while every rational argument goes against the myth of Alamelamma and her existence, she still continues to capture the imagination of people.But the imagery of an innocent woman being wronged by a man intoxicated with power, and the subsequent suicide of the lady in question, is too strong not to affect the psyche of the people. Perhaps for this very reason, despite all the questions being raised about the historical validity and rationale of the Alamelamma legend, it still continues to be narrated as folklore with such conviction as merits a documented fact.

Meanwhile for reasons of geological phenomena or the curse, Talakad stands as a mute spectator to this sudden metamorphosis, wailing amidst a million dunes with the fables of the past swishing with the wind across its arid expanses. The township of Talakad to this day lies submerged in sand dunes, a town on the banks of the river Cauvery that bears the brunt of its hoary past.


The Controversial Sultan

It is pertinent to mention that unlike most other historical characters, Tippu Sultan and certain aspects of his life continue to ruffle feathers to this day. In September 2006, the Karnataka Minister of Higher Education Mr Shankaramurthy made some vague comments about Tippu Sultan having been anti-Kannada, saying that he had ensured the obliteration of Kannada by the imposition and adoption of Persian as the court language. This was enough to send the so-called secularist brigade into a frenzy. Chat shows on television, articles in newspapers and general public debate was diverted from the Minister's irrelevant comment to the larger issue of how Tippu was actually one of the most secular and progressive ruler of his times. Both sides hardened their stands and what followed was a free-for-all washing of dirty linen in public by the supposed intellectuals and thinkers. Voices of reason and rationalism usually tend to get subsumed by this kind of high-decibel frenzy, which anyway aims to cultivate and nurture strategic vote-banks.

Tippu's secularism, or lack thereof, is a subject of great interest, and so merits much focus in this volume. In India, secularism is often little more than the branding of another as communal. We too resort to this game of vivisecting history and categorising the heroes and heroines of the past into air-tight compartments of secular and communal, forgetting most often that they were also human beings after all, and, like any of us, were given to their moments of weakness and greatness alike. Two diametrically opposite schools of thought dominate the current scene of Indian historical research and debate. At one extreme we have the so-called left-liberal and rational historians for whom history is but class struggle. Religion and related matters do not hold any significance for them. Their notion of secularism extends to a level where they tend to over-simplify and at times undermine a lot of things that have been revered over the centuries. Completely distinct from this approach is that of the supposed right-wing, nationalist historians who would see everything through the lens of religion and judge people thereby. The slanging match between these two groups continues as each tries to portray his version as the truth. Even with respect to Tippu, both sides have arguments and counter-arguments to buttress their claims.


The Dewans of Mysore

The Dewans of Mysore were a stark contrast to the avaricious Dalavoys who had held similar positions of eminence in the polity. Unlike the semi-literate, militarily trained, ambitious Dalavoys, this new genre of officers were suave, English-educated, well-read, exposed to modern Western philosophies of freedom, liberty and justice and were appointees of the Raj, rather than self-appointed dictators of the kingdom. They knew that their professional performance would be the only way to earn fame, rather than the earlier Dalavoys, infamous for storming palace doors with elephants and deposing the king unceremoniously. Education and exposure ensured that the Dewans had a broader vision of development, one that included the welfare of common people and projects of public utility. These measures, carried out successfully over decades of nurturing by the Dewans, catapulted Mysore into the forefront of successful states of imperial India.

In describing the successes and achievements of the Dewans, we must not forget to praise the foresight of the kings who made all this possible. Rather than the autocratic kings of earlier centuries, who appointed and dismissed Dalavoys at whim, the later Wodeyars, especially Krishnaraja Wodeyar IV, gave their Dewans the freedom and power to make Mysore a better, a more modern kingdom. In an environment free of interference, with a supportive and broad-minded king, the Dewans could make full use of their powers to make a difference during their reign. So, while the planning and implementation of various developmental projects is to the Dewans credit, we must not neglect the significant role played by their kings in this scenario.

By the turn of the 19th century, Mysore was poised to take off into the skies of progress and development. Her fundamentals were all right politically stable, socially progressive and administered by a set of remarkable men who called themselves her Kings and Dewans. The Rendition of Mysore on 25 March 1881 followed about 50 years of progressive and efficient administration by the British Commissioners. The Commissioners stint had, to a large extent, laid the foundations for a modern Mysore. If one were to take stock of the financial health of the state in 1910-12 vis-a-vis the Rendition, most of the fiscal parameters point to a surge, thereby bolstering the statement we set out to make about Mysore being poised for a confident take-off.

On the downside, the period was marred by famines, with the one in 1875-78 the severest of its kind in the region in half a century. It cost the state exchequer Rs 160 lakh and embroiled the government in debts of over Rs 80 lakh. The province also lost one million people to the famine and subsequent epidemics. From 50,55,402 in 1871, Mysore's population fell to 41,86,188 by 1881, a fall of 17 per cent. The number stabilised, however, to 58,06,193 by 1911.

The demographics of the state also saw interesting change patterns during this time. The population in the towns, which was about 13 per cent of the state's total population, fell to 11 per cent in 1911. This could be attributed to the lack of employment opportunities in towns and migration to cities, a trend that caught up during this time. The agriculture-dependent population in Mysore rose from 33 lakhs to 42 lakhs between 1881 and 1911. The same period also saw a healthy increase of 79 per cent in the area occupied for agriculture, mainly extensive and not intensive agriculture, to about 74,38,463 acres in 1911-12.

These changing socio-economic dimensions had a natural impact on the state's revenues as well. From about 50 lakhs at the time of transfer of power to the royal family after the fall of Tippu, the revenue rose to 101 lakhs by the time of Rendition. Including the accidental income that was accrued due to the gold mines at Kolar, the revenue figures jumped to a healthy 247 lakhs by 1910-11. Between Rendition and the early decades of the 20th century, the land revenue also increased from 60 lakhs to 106.5 lakhs; excise saw a hike from 10 to 67 lakhs and income from forests shot up to 21 lakhs from 7 lakhs. But along with the rise in revenues, the expenditure also doubled from 101 lakhs to 223 lakhs in the said period. Law and justice, jails, education, medical expenses and public works were the main expense items that saw an increase. This was comforting, however, as the expense was intended to create a sound socio-economic infrastructure for the state and its people. Education in particular saw a healthy increase in fund allocations from Rs 3,91,028 in 1881 to Rs 18,79,135 in 1911, a whopping 80 per cent increase, clearly demonstrating where the administration's priorities lay. Consequently, the school-going population within the kingdom of Mysore also increased from 53,872 in 1881 to 1,38,153 in 1911.

The railways was an area that was given primary importance by both the Commissioners and the rulers of Mysore. It might have begun as a means of transport for the British (especially between Mysore and their headquarters at Madras) and as a facilitator of trade activities, but in the long run it played a vital role in building a robust economy for the state. The railways, which covered only 50 miles in 1880-81 rose to 411 miles in 1910-11 and the capital outlay on them in the same period from 25 to 250 lakhs-a sharp rise indeed! The mileage of the province's road networks were also doubled since the time of Rendition. Channel irrigation was extended during this period in the Cauvery and Kapani valleys, numerous tanks were restored and repaired, the two major works of public interest-the Cauvery Power Scheme which was a pioneering electrical undertaking in the whole of India and the Marikanave Reservoir, also one of its kind in contemporary times were completed. Urban development and planning, especially in the cities of Bangalore and Mysore, began receiving royal attention. Industries like the gold mines of Kolar, manganese mines of Shimoga and a few cotton and other mills sprang up across the state.

The officials of the Madras Presidency would often remark that Mysoreans resided in one of the most beautiful and picturesque provinces of the country.

While the above description of the state's financial health in the early decades of the 20th century sets a context for discussing the enormous strides Mysore made on all fronts, it is important to delve deeper into the various aspects of this growth saga.


Splendours of Royal Mysore


Splendours of Royal Mysore nominated for Vodafone Crossword Book Award 2008.

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