The events of life and martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai took place during the reign of Marthanda Varma who is being hailed for many victories and development of the Kingdom of Travancore in agriculture, roads and the like. What then went wrong in his administration that perpetrated such injustices and pursued even persecution against Christians? To answer this it is important to understand how caste, political power and religion together played a role.
- Marthanda Varma, the King
- Pillamar (Nayar Royal Households) and the King
- Anninilation of the power of Pillamar
- Ramayyan Dalava, the Brahmins and the King
- Political Marginalization of Low Castes and Christians
- Dangers to the Kingdom from Outside and the Measures taken by the King
Born in 1705, Marthanda Varma was the son of the youngest sister of King Rama Varma (1721-1729). Three kings died within the year 1729: King Rama Varma (9 February), his nephew and successor, the Prince of Tellicherri (28 February), his successor, the Prince of Neyyatinkara (30 August)44. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Marthanda Varma. This succession did not take place in a smooth manner, because two others were claiming for their right to the throne. Marthanda Varma ascended the throne claiming his right according to marumakkalthayam by which the son of the sister, not the son of the deceased king has the right to the throne.
The new king had just succeeded in being crowned as king in the thick of political turmoil. He began to feel the crunch of problems caused by the pillamar who were an important group of local administrators. They were all Nairs and they were called “pillais”, because that was a special title for Royal Nairs. Together with the King of Travancore, they administered the estates of Padmanabhaswami Temple spread throughout the Kingdom. Ettuveettil Pillamar (pillamar of eight district), derived their names from the districts they administered: Marthandam, Ramanamatam, Kulattur, Kazhakuttam, Venganur, Chempazhanti, Kodumman and Pallichel. The district administration and the administration of properties of the temple gave pillamar much influence and power. They wielded power in the control of the treasury in such a way that the princes could not see their own treasury except in the presence of pillamar. They interfered in everything that the king was doing and their influence was so much that the king was just a toy in their hands. Marthanda Varma wanted to put an end to this domination of those Nair families and he was just waiting for an opportunity for the same.
Finally the occasion offered itself and the king rose to the occasion. The pillamar plotted to murder the king Marthanda Varma. The plot was known to the king and the pillamar conspirators were either sentenced to death or banished.
Their children and women were for some time kept as prisoners by the British, at the expense of the king. A lot of property of the pillamar was confiscated and sold. This enabled Marthanda Varma for further reorganizations in administration and in the army. The royal Nair households (tarawad) were completely ruined. Thus Marthanda Varma annihilated the power of the Nairs and with this started another important phase, the domination of Brahmins.
Ramayyan the Dalava was the most influential person in the court of the king Marthanda Varma. “Dalava” was a word which stood for prime minister and Ramayyan was the prime minister in the court of the king. He was a Tamil Brahmin from Ervadi from Tirunelveli District45. As prime minister and commander in chief of Travancore army, he excelled in military prowess and uncanny ability to subject his enemies. He was ruthless in carrying this out, even if by means like bribery.46 As a Brahmin official, Ramayyan was the most trusted confidant of the King. He was second to no one in the Kingdom except the king himself.
After De Lannoy joined the Travancore army, he too worked not side by side with Ramayyan Dalava, but under him, first as captain of European soldiers and then the commander of the Christian section among the soldiers. Even the king was very much dependent on the Dalava.
Since the end of 1745, Marthanda Varma was suffering from an illness, which made him more and more rely on Ramayyan Dalava47. His death in 1756 was an irreparable loss to Marthanda Varma.
The prominence of the highest caste in positions of power further brought down the position of the low castes, especially in political power. Even long after the times of Marthanda Varma and Devasahayam Pillai, the situation had not changed much. When eventually representatives were elected, the Nairs continued to have majority in the legislature by virtue of their birth and land tax that they paid to the government.48 As the ruling class belonged to their community, they obtained appointments in the government services. This irritated the low castes and they made frequent complaints and demanded representation in proportion to their numerical strength, but this did not bear fruit.49 Thus the social condition of South Travancore was far from satisfactory. The long sufferings of the people due to oppression were ready to receive any creed that taught freedom and found ways and means to free them from the clutches of the high castes.
Religious intolerance reached to the extent of persecutions, particularly during the reigns of Marthanda Varma and his successors. The events connected with the martyrdom of Devasahayam Pillai between 1749 and 1752 and a few years thence show to what extent religious persecutions were carried on by the Travancore government.
Having cleared the hurdles placed by the Pillamar for a smooth running of his government by ruthlessly massacring the chieftains and selling their wives and children to fishermen, the Maharaja was in a position to mind the menace from outside, especially from foreign powers, the English, the French, the Portuguese and the Dutch. To keep the other foreigners at bay, he allied with the English who had a settlement at Anjengo. One of the most successful strategies of Marthanda Varma was to recruit foreigners into his army, who entered there either as prisoners of war or as deserters. First among them was Duijvenschot, Venattu Kapittan (Captain of Venad). Duijvenschot was a German, who deserted the Dutch Army on 25 February 1741 and who played an important role in the Colachel war against the Dutch. The second of the Europeans in the Travancore army was De Lannoy, who served the King of Travancore from the end of the Colachel war in 1741 until his death in 1777.