Sometime in the beginning of the nineteenth century in a small village in Kochi in the dead of the night an assailant had cornered a young woman with the intention of attacking her. However, before he could lay a finger on her, a chivalrous man sliced the assailant with his sword. The man with the sword was none other than Cochin monarch Rama Varma (1790-1805), better known as Sakthan Thampuran, his hobby being roaming around his territory incognito monitoring law and order, and, at times, personally delivering instant justice.
Sakthan Thampuran is rightly credited with laying the foundations of the state of Cochin. In fact, much before de jure kingship, with occasions to closely study the intricacies of state craft, he had been the de facto power-wielder with the blessings of his uncle, the reigning king. Banking on the model implemented by Mysore’s Tipu Sultan, his enemy, he strengthened revenue administration through jurisdictional division geographically, manned by appropriate official hierarchy, with direct personal supervision. Father Bartolomeo, a Carmelite missionary who had often personally met the king, had this to say about him: “Officers found guilty of corruption were sentenced to whipping and imprisonment and their whole property, ancestral as well as self-acquired, was confiscated to state.” C Achutha Menon, author of Cochin State Manual, observes: “He pursued robbers and evil-doers of all kinds with such untiring vigour and punished them with such unrelenting severity that grave crimes were of rare occurrence during his reign.”
Sakthan Thampuran is known more for his ruthless handling of wrong-doers, often verging on savagery. Quite a few were sunk alive in the backwaters, big stones tied around their necks. Annoyed and angered by the arrogance of Devaresa Kini, a wealthy trader who, living inside the British-owned Cochin Fort, had been lulled into a false sense of security, Sakthan had his head cut off through his trusted lieutenant Panikkar Kapithan, for his peccadillo of delayed supply of sugar for a royal feast!
The king’s love for Thrissur was boundless. The nationally renowned Pooram festival, a religious visual extravaganza featuring an array of richly-caparisoned elephants sporting multi-hued ornate umbrellas, presenting before enthralled spectators kaleidoscopic vignettes of splendour, accompanied by adrenalin-raising drum beats, and fireworks that sets the skyline aflame, was his innovation. Though deeply religious, he defied superstitions. The Siva temple around which the Pooram festival is held was then located within dense teak forests (the locality is still called Thekkinkad, meaning teak forest). Sakthan Thampuran decided to clear the forest. On coming to know of this, the oracle of the nearby Devi temple, ‘possessed’ by the goddess, rushed in and pranced before the king shouting that the forest, ‘matted locks of Devi’s father’, should not be destroyed, simultaneously hitting his forehead with his scimitar. Saying that the oracle’s weapon was rusty, Thampuran drew his own sword and slew him.
Sakthan Thampuran’s approach to atrocities against women, superstitions in the name of religion, and most importantly, corruption may lack judicial niceties by contemporary standards, but there are moments when we are tempted to believe some strong-arm methods are direly needed.