Reading a “Neettu” from Nineteenth-Century Kerala

Deepthi Murali

For my dissertation research, I spent many months at the Kerala State Archives in Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulam looking through documents related to art objects produced or used in the palaces of Travancore and Cochin states. As an art historian, archival research is sometimes a frustrating enterprise – decorative arts and interiors of palaces, my immediate research interests, are not often recorded and so the process includes the documentation of a variety of records that have to be read against the grain. For example, information on valuable decorative art objects such as those made from precious metals, like gold and silver vessels, is gathered not from an inventory such as they exist in the western world in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but through official proclamations (neettu/നീട്ടു) on punishments meted out to people found stealing such vessels.

Neettu proclamations, available as transcribed records at the Central Archives in Thiruvananthapuram fort, are detailed documents that provide a plethora of information on day-to-day administration including dates, money transactions, and names of citizenry that are often not found elsewhere. In this article, I focus on one such neettu written in the year 1821 that gives a detailed account of a theft and the punishment meted out to the perpetrators as an example of the rich analysis that neettu records provide to the Kerala (art) historian.

This neettu (vol. 85, p.125-129) written to Dewan Janardhana Rao came from the office of Queen Gowri Parvathi Bayi (r. 1815-1829) who ruled Travancore as Queen Regent. A theft of an item from the treasury department had taken place in the month of Avani (July-August) and it was only in the month of Meenam (March-April) that the culprits were found and punished. The item stolen was one of the many precious objects that belonged to the palace – a vaal kinnam (a vessel with a long handle) of gold or gold-plated metal. Curiously, the theft did not occur at the treasury and as far as thefts go, this was not a premeditated affair as far as one can tell.

Here is how it happened. In the Attoor1 precinct of Thiruvananthapuram, Raman Mathevan of Poonthotatthu Veedu was entrusted with the work of cleaning and polishing gold vessels from the palace treasury. He would receive into his care the vessels to be polished from Padmanabhan Raman Kuruppu, superintendent of the section, and would take them home where he and his wives, Arathamma and Kali, would work on them.  The vaal kinnam was the only vessel to have gone missing from the set that was in the custody of Mathevan. When it went missing, Mathevan appears to have not immediately reported it. There is no information on how the authorities discovered the missing vessel but at some point, they did, and started making inquiries.

They questioned Mathevan and his wives, a man called Ayyappan who also worked in some capacity with the vessels (perhaps the person who made them), and their neighbors. Ultimately they subjected Mathevan to a test that is described only as “ചിലംക വെപ്പിച്ചു ശോധന” in the text, which literally translates to a test that involves putting on an anklet, and perhaps involved walking on it or while wearing it.2 In the course of this test, it came to light that the vessel in question was buried near the fort gate at Attankulangara on the eastern side, all the way across the neighborhood in which Mathevan lived. But how did the vessel get there?

It appears that soon after the vessel went missing, Mathevan learnt that a woman named Neelima that he knew well had pinched it from his house. He discovered this when he walked into her home and found the vessel there. He retrieved the vessel but appears to have panicked and worsened the situation, for instead of returning it to the treasury, Mathevan with the help of Ayyappan, concocted a story of having found it in a deformed state, Ayyappan having made for Mathevan a vessel for that purpose. It is not clear from the record if Mathevan had already supplied this made-up story and the fraudulent vessel over to the treasury but, in any case, the story collapsed at the discovery of the original vessel.

Mathevan confessed. He had asked his wives to lie to the officials who came to check and tell them that the vessel was washed and dried and was safely being kept inside Mathevan’s house. Then Ayyappan and he had fabricated the deformed vessel and buried the real one in a precinct away from their own. During questioning, all suspects provided verbal and written false testimony, Neelima claiming that she knew absolutely nothing about the theft.

The neettu then provides a detailed description of the punishments meted out to the individuals involved in the theft. Neelima received the harshest punishment, but because women were not corporally punished, she paid a fine of 315.5 panam—all of her savings. Her deeds were publicized in the Chala market region of Trivandrum (ensuring that everyone that she knew would get to know about it) and she was then exiled from the district for three years to Thovalam Fort (possibly, the fort in Kanyakumari). Mathevan paid a hefty fine of 510 panam and then was made to walk around the precincts one thousand times. His co-conspirators Ayyappan and another man Kumaran were flayed three times each and then punished to carry loads for six months. Since Mathevan’s wives had no money to be confiscated, they, along with Mathevan, were removed from their house and precinct. In their stead, Parameshwaran and his wives Manakkaattu Narayani, Parvathy, and Lakshmi who were in charge of taking care of silver objects were moved into the precinct of Attoor and given Mathevan’s job responsibilities. There is no way of knowing what happened to Neelima, Mathevan, or others afterwards. They disappear into the sands of time, only their ignominy recorded for posterity.

Neettu documents are filled with these rich, if partial, details that allow us a glimpse into not only the processes of administration for which they were clearly produced, but they provide details of how ordinary people lived in Travancore at the time, making them an exceptionally valuable resource. While they do not always as readily inform an art historical research, a document such as this displays snippets of the lives of courtly art objects. For example, the neettu here does not provide an extended description about the vaal kinnam except that it was valuable and used within the palace. However, the contents of the neettu shed light on how these objects were maintained and who were in direct and bodily contact with objects. Snippets of information like these are valuable as they can be sutured together to produce the life histories of not only non-savarna caste people but also of decorative arts and the utilitarian use of objects in Kerala.

First page of the neettu. Kerala State Central Archives, Fort, Thiruvananthapuram. Record details: 1821-meenam-22, vol. 85, p.125.

(Deepthi Murali is a PhD candidate currently writing her dissertation “Politics of the Sensate: Transcultural Decorative Arts of Kerala” in the Art History program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. More information on her dissertation can be found at www.deepthimurali.com, and she can be reached at dmural2@uic.edu)

 

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