Tipu Sultan in Travancore – II: The Tiger at the Wall

Cornwallis and Tipu's sons

(Second of a two-part series on Tipu Sultan’s invasion of Travancore)

It was 1788 C.E. and the Tiger of Mysore, Tipu Sultan, was ready for another war. Four years ago, a weary Tipu and the equally battered British agreed to end the 2nd Anglo-Mysore War. But now he set his sights on Travancore, the kingdom that defied his father. Control over Travancore meant control of the spice trade, and incredible wealth and resources. Mysore had conquered northern Kerala already, but thousands of wealthy and prominent natives, along with vast treasures, had fled to Travancore. The recurring rebellions in Malabar clearly enjoyed Travancore’s backing. Moreover, Travancore was a long-time ally of the British. Travancore had to be subjugated first to end British power.

Tipu Sultan tried to force Travancore’s submission through threats and diplomacy. His pretext for war was the existence of the Travancore Lines fortifications in Cochin, Travancore’s northern ally. Tipu claimed that Cochin was his vassal as it once paid tribute to Mysore (during his father’s reign). Therefore, Travancore’s “illegal” Wall must be demolished. Travancore’s king roundly dismissed these claims and the furious Sultan immediately launched his invasion.

In December 1789 Tipu marched from Coimbatore with 40,000 troops. Mysore’s army was feared by all: Travancore’s forces were no match. Fortunately for Travancore, her commander was the remarkable Dewan, Raja Kesavadas. Born in 1745 into an inconsequential family, Raman Kesava Pillai proved his genius from childhood. His skills, and plain chance (there is a story straight out of a fairytale here!), soon brought him into the king’s service: his subsequent rise was meteoric. He became proficient in many languages and distinguished himself as an administrator. He also gained much military experience under De Lannoy and other prominent generals. In September 1789 he was appointed Dewan. Expecting Mysore’s invasion, he shored up defenses and sought assistance, but the British Governor of Madras reacted dismissively, sending only a tiny reserve force.

On December 30, 1789, Tipu attacked the Wall, which was personally commanded by the Dewan. Tipu personally participated in the assault, galvanizing his army. By nightfall Mysore troops surged in and almost captured a prominent citadel of the Wall. However, 20 warriors hidden in a corner of the citadel suddenly emerged and poured heavy fire at the flank of the massed assault force. In the carnage and darkness, the invaders believed that they were ambushed by a huge force. Confusion and panic swept across the ranks. The defenders on the ramparts now regrouped and fired heavily at the massed enemy. Losses were high in the ensuing rout. Tipu gravely injured his leg, which apparently never healed completely. He was forcibly carried away by aides as he refused to flee. Tipu’s palanquin, sword, signet ring and jewelry were captured during Mysore’s headlong rout.

Tipu Sultan now swore to destroy “the contemptible wall”. He renewed his assault two months later after bringing reinforcements and bigger siege guns. Travancore appealed again but the British refused.  This time, Tipu focused his siege artillery on a section of the Wall, which soon collapsed under withering bombardment. Kesavadas pulled back his troops from the breached sector as enemies poured in. After a month-long contest, the entire Wall was captured. Tipu chased the fleeing Travancore troops and pillaged widely. Around May, he reached the Periyar River. As Tipu’s forces began to cross a ford, Raja Kesavadas sprung a surprise. His soldiers demolished a major barrage upstream; the ensuing flash flood swept away many troops and drenched Tipu’s gunpowder stores. As Tipu reeled from this setback, a heavy monsoon descended. Diseases broke out and supplies were contaminated. At this juncture, Governor-General Lord Cornwallis replaced the callous Governor of Madras with a more pro-active officer. Allying with the Marathas and the Nizam, the British attached Mysore. The 3rd Anglo-Mysore War had begun.

Tipu raced back to save his heartlands. But first, he ordered the Wall’s destruction, and symbolically struck the first blow. In six days, the entire Wall was demolished. Raja Kesavadas now sent detachments to harass Tipu’s retreat and assist the British. Tipu fought well but soon Lord Cornwallis himself took command. A string of crushing defeats forced Tipu to capitulate on February 1792. Tipu had to pay heavy reparations, cede half his lands and send his sons as hostages. With the British acquiring Malabar, Salem, and Dindigul, Tipu ceased to be a threat to Travancore.

The Sultan and the Dewan soon suffered grim fates. Tipu died fighting the British at the walls of Srirangapatna in May 4, 1799, apparently betrayed by his closest officers. Raja Kesavadas preceded him in death by a fortnight – beggared, imprisoned and certainly poisoned by treacherous courtiers of a new child-king. Though very little remains of the Travancore Lines today, the names of many towns and villages in the region indicate the indelible mark that the Wall and Tipu’s invasion left on public memory.  

PS: This is my article in DNA published on August 11, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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Tipu Sultan in Travancore – I: The Travancore Lines

Tipu Sultan

(First of a two-part series on Tipu Sultan’s invasion of Travancore)

Once upon a time there was a wall that spanned the narrow breadth of Kerala from the Arabian Sea to the Western Ghats. It was not as tall or long as the Great Wall of China or Hadrian’s Wall, those great defensive lines of yore, but it was no different in function. The Kingdom of Travancore in southern Kerala built this wall to defend themselves from formidable northern foes. China’s wall defended her from Eurasian hordes and Hadrian’s Wall in northern England kept away the fearsome Picts from Roman Britain. The wall across Kerala, called the Travancore Lines or “Nedumkotta”, faced the invasion of Tipu Sultan, the Tiger of Mysore. In the first part of this two-part series we look at the creation of the Wall and the events leading to Tipu’s invasion of 1789. The second part will narrate how Tipu’s ambitions floundered at what he called “The Contemptible Wall”.

Decades before Mysore invaded, there were plans to build fortifications to protect Travancore from the powerful kingdom of Calicut. Around 1759, the great King of Travancore, Rama Varma “Dharma Raja”, perceived another threat on the horizon. He understood that Mysore could conquer entire Malabar (northern Kerala) and subsequently invade Travancore. After all, under a certain general named Hyder Ali Khan, Wodeyar-ruled Mysore was becoming increasingly powerful. Mysore’s highly mobile armies were feared by all: a strong and strategically located wall could break this juggernaut. Dharma Raja decided to build this Wall in the territories of his lesser northern neighbor (and ally), the state of Cochin. Geography, resources and supply lines decided the course of the Wall, which European sources termed “Travancore Lines”. On completion in 1764, the Wall stretched about 30 miles, from the western seaboard (from a fort north of present-day Kochi city) to the Western Ghats. Consider the physical map of Kerala – this span is a narrow gap between the sea and the hostile mountains. The enemy had little room for maneuver and would be funneled towards the Wall. Some believe that ancient fortifications long existed along this gap, and that Travancore simply built over these.

In 1761, Hyder Ali deposed the Wodeyar dynasty and became Sultan of Mysore. He had previously conquered parts of Malabar for his former patron. He now decided to annex entire Kerala to control the spice trade and to claim Kerala’s wealth. Between 1761 and 1778, multiple invasions and suppression campaigns brought Malabar under Hyder Ali. Some military campaigns were led by Hyder’s heir, Prince Fateh Ali Tipu. In 1766, Calicut was defeated and her ruler, the exalted 117th Zamorin, immolated himself as Mysore’s forces closed in. Tens of thousands were killed or displaced in this period. Refugees of all religions, classes and castes poured into Travancore. Mysore had indeed become the great northern threat for Travancore – the Wall would be tested soon.

Let’s take a closer look at the Wall. It was designed and built by Eustachius De Lannoy, the Dutch commander who lost the decisive Battle of Colachel (1741) against Dharma Raja’s predecessor. De Lannoy had bent the knee; over the years he rose to become the commander of Travancore’s armed forces! He was a brilliant strategist and builder and had created bristling defenses for his adoptive homeland. His Wall was 40 feet tall and 30 feet thick. It was built with clay, mud and laterite and reinforced with stones and granite. Unlike the towering walls of old, such squat walls were better defenses against modern siege guns and mines. The Wall was protected by a trench 20-foot deep and 16-foot wide. Additionally, a thick hedge of thorny shrubs was placed beyond the trench. The Wall was well-stocked and garrisoned. It had citadels, underground tunnel networks, barracks, arsenals and supply depots. It was a great barrier to any invader coming from the north.

In 1777 De Lannoy died and his immediate successor was far less capable: Hyder Ali now tried to cow down Travancore into submission with threats and diplomacy. Dharma Raja refused and pointed out his alliances with the East India Company, Mysore’s great foe, and the Dutch (long tamed since Colachel). The enraged Sultan launched an invasion. However, he retreated just before reaching the Wall due to a sudden rebellion in Malabar and more pressing matters in the Carnatic region. Hyder Ali invaded the Carnatic in 1780, setting off the Second Anglo-Mysore War. He planned to return to Travancore once he dealt with the British. However, Hyder Ali died suddenly (of a carbuncle on his back) in 1782 and Prince Tipu ascended the throne. In 1784, Tipu Sultan and the fatigued British agreed to end the war. Tipu quietly rebuilt his strength now; he was determined to conquer Travancore and crush the British in the next war. He would get his pretext for war soon …..

PS: This is my article in DNA published on August 4, 2019. Here’s the link to the original article.

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