The Finer Art of Taste

A couple of years ago my daughter brought a little kitten home.  It had such beautiful eyes and a furry tail with soft brown down, she decided to call her Cleopatra.  And Cleo– for short—fitted the description quite well with her regal up-bearing and disdain for what cats normally do for a living—hunting.  She seldom stirred outdoors and stayed indoors expecting us to feed her all the time.  However, on rare occasions when she did indulge in the chase she made it a point to drag whatever writhing thing she brought in on to her favorite carpet in our drawing room floor very much to the chagrin of all of us.  Cleo perhaps felt that this was the safest place on earth to relish her repast, and also she must have felt she was sharing her spoils with her family!

Like Cleo most of us often tend to have a special place, even a specific posture, or seat or where we ensconce ourselves to dig into our own delicacies.  We relish food all the more when we are at peace and in our familiar or preferred surroundings. Food and the way we consume it is certainly a matter of taste, something that depends a great deal on upbringing, social background, class, race, customs and manners of the times we are in.

The oft-cited truism that what one eats becomes one’s demeanor does really hold some truth in it.  The choice of food and the practices of making/cooking, and eating/ relishing it differs considerably from people to people and from person to person. And when people migrate, or are exposed to different cultural influences, most often their food habits are usually the last ones to change. Language, clothing, and ways of thinking even would change but not so easily their habits of food.

In south India for instance there are innumerable practices of cooking, serving, eating and tasting.  Of course for the most a great deal depends on whether you are a vegetarian or an omnivore.  And another depends for the most on your social standing and exposure. Alas! One could never cherish or relish what one could dream or desire!

For the most, a majority of people (who of course, could afford to obtain food) eat with their fingers. A certain large percentage cherishes their culinary delights served and dished out in spoons and ladles and with the help of forks and knives.  Much before the advent of European colonial cultures we south Indians were wont to rely on our own fingers for eating. And of course, for the gourmet there is nothing like one’s own dear hands for savouring food!  After all, there is the matter of individual taste! Even the posture of eating has changed over the years.  When we were little kids I recall I used to enjoy sitting cross legged on the floor with the plantain leaf spread before me while they served the delicacies from left to right following a specific order beginning with a sweet and rounding it off with another in the end.  Those were good old days, and now with the advent of bad new days we are wont to sit on comfortable chairs at the dining table in the dining room. The very idea of the dining table and chair has certainly changed and transformed the manner and mode of eating.

From the south Indian combo of Idly, Vadai, Sambhar and coconut Chutney, to the North Indian Roti and Sabji , the red-rice-meals of the far south to the white and/or basmati of the Indian peninsula,  the variety of foods and food habits are so dramatically different in the Indian subcontinent. Perhaps what our ubiquitous globalising economy has achieved for us is to make all varieties available to and within reach of almost everyone. Apart from our own daily meal wherever we are, we tend to look upon all other food varieties as delicacies and of a much dearer taste. Whatever other harms globalization has brought in, this aspect of bringing variety of taste into the lives of all and sundry apparently is certainly a good thing.  While on the one hand multinational companies like McDonald-s and Kentucky Fried Chicken–s thrive in ushering in homogeneity of taste, the roving tongue of the gourmet reaches for the overseas taste and varieties made available through the interchange of economies.

Eating is not merely an act in pursuit of survival but a great art indeed. When people eat one can certainly discern in them their character, culture, class, upbringing, and their family backgrounds. Some people can approach a delicate Masala Dosa like a warlord and tear it into ungainly bits and pieces so that the onlooker might not feel like eating anything for some days after that or even bring out! Still others can make the heady repast of smoked bacon and steak rounded off with a dash of a marmalade toast look so appealing that it could make mouths water!  The children’s writer, Enid Blyton, in her adventure stories takes so much pleasure in describing the taste and smells of food charming and most endearing to her readers. Even Tolstoy and Dostoevsky would like to describe the meals of their characters quite sumptuously.  Yet other instances are writers like Somerset Maugham ,H E Bates, Raja Rao and R.K. Narayan. The Indian writer in Malayalam O.V.Vijayan who has authored such magical-realistic works as The Saga of Khasak and other immortal works of fiction, towards the end of his life created a work of different sensibility like the Dharmapuranam, wherein he specifically resorted to the use of epithets of defecation and urination alongside the finer tastes of eating and relishing. The intention of course was to shock the readers from their complacent non-committed political positions.  However, the legacy of the culinary and the gourmet’s aesthetic are so wide and large indeed and spreads across cultures and continents.

Food easily becomes a habit with most people that they tend to uphold the maxim of eat to live as something sacred and inviolable. However, there is so much to the finer art of taste than what meets the eye at the outset. In relishing good food, the eye, the ear, the nose, the tongue and even the soul come into participation. Try eating food with your eyes closed and you will find out the difference yourself.  Similar is the case with the sense of smell.  Small wonder that food appears tasteless to one who suffers from a bad cold.

In the aesthetic canon of Classical Indian art discourses among the sixty four arts equal importance is set apart for the finer art of taste in terms of cookery. However it is not merely in making delicacies but also in partaking of these in the right manner does the culinary delight lie. A good cook is also a gourmet.

For the most the Northern part of India is a wheat growing belt while the South produces lot of rice—this accounts for the staple food habits of the people as well.  South Indians use a lot of rice in their cooking while the north Indians resort to wheat and maize. This does not necessarily mean that people of the north do not relish Idlis and Dosas nor that the south Indians do not dote on Pooris, Chappathis and Paranthas. In most households people eat three meals a day. Lunch is the heaviest usually. And the south Indian rice repast is a whole meal and an art in itself in its highest form.

Kerala Brahmins are especially well-known for their gourmet tastes and there are innumerable tales revolving round the feudal Brahmin often depicted with his large pot-belly—a creature of caricature no doubt! Nevertheless the Kerala Brahmin is also credited with a highly evolved sense of taste in almost all the finer arts mentioned. There is this repartee of a Namboothiri who was specially tested by a certain King: he had been treated to a large and sumptuous meal upon completion of which he remarked blissfully that he was so full that he could eat no more! The clever King then slyly informed him that there was a special course of Palada Pradaman (a sweet rice pudding) to follow. The Nambothiri in his characteristic sparkle of wit informed the king that when the bedecked elephant arrives the crowd for all its mass makes way for it somehow!

The Chinese are said to have an equally highly evolved sense of taste. Much before Europe’s geographical explorations began, the Chinese had sailed the vast oceans and landed in all the continents. The southwest coast of Kerala likewise had had contact with the Chinese from a long time ago. Among the innumerable tales of travelers from overseas there is this one about a Chinese traveler who was shipwrecked near the south west coast and he sought asylum in a poor villager’s home. The Malayalee couple although extremely poor took good care of the man who happened to be a trader, and upon getting well, while he bade adieu to them he asked whether he could leave behind some of the big jars that he had brought his wares in (which were washed ashore along with the wreck) and which he could collect later when he could sail back in a new ship eventually. He explained that the sealed jars contained pickled tender-mangoes. The couple agreed and the Chinese sailor was on his way. After many days when they were in dire straits and couldn’t find anything to eat, the man of the house thinking that he could help themselves to a few bits of pickled mangoes from the Chinese pot opened one and thrust his hand in. Very much to his surprise what he drew out was not mangoes but gold coins!  The pot held gold coins! He made use of a few coins and tided over their difficult times. Eventually their house prospered and they became quite well off. It was years later that the Chinese came back to retrieve his pots.  The man of the house returned all the pots and told the whole story of how he helped himself to a few coins from one of the pots. He also added that he had replaced what he had taken. The Chinese traveler was quite taken aback by the honesty of the people of the household and as a token of his gratitude he gifted some of the pots to them and was on his way soon. The honest man’s house prospered and became quite well-off.  Many years afterwards when they had finished all the gold coins they used the Chinese pots for pickling tender mangoes.  The taste of these mangoes has gone down into Kerala’s legends and history.  Even to this day people talk of the heavenly taste of the tender mangoes pickled in the Kodan Bharani of Pandan Parambu! (One of the Chinese pots had a twisted mouth and hence came to be known as Kodan (Crooked) Bharani)

There are a million tales of this kind regarding the finer art of taste. Over the centuries this art too has evolved with the human beings and their history.

Let me conclude with another relating to the same series of the Chinese pots. A certain king overheard one Brahmin talking to another while partaking of the feast given to them that the meal would have tasted far better had there been a tiny morsel of tender mango pickle from the famed Kodan Bharani of Pandan Paramabu!   The King sent his courtiers forth to search for the legendary mango pickles far and wide.  Eventually they traced the Chinese pots and fetched the tender mangoes which were served alongside the other stuff at the feast the next year.  The king was a casual observer this year too and then the very same Brahman exclaimed: Wow! Now the feast is complete! We have here the legendary tender mangoes too! The king was very pleased and rewarded the Brahmin suitably for his rich taste buds that could detect such finer tastes.

If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder then taste is in the tongue of the relisher. In our blind process of ultra-fast  development and globalization where in we hasten to eat like the American in the fast-food style joints of MacDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chickens, what we are tragically laying aside are our unique taste buds which could distinguish fine and finer tastes. In a globalised village of the future technology there could be but one master taste which everyone would have to relish. Where is fled the glory and the taste of yore!


Marthanda Varma, King of Travancore (1706 – 1758)

Exactly 270 years ago on a bright August morning the great armies of Raja Marthanada Varma of Travancore marched against the Dutch forces of Van Imholf. (the Dutch governor of that time) And here is what we read in our popular history books:

A battalion of Dutch army sent from Ceylon (the present Sri Lanka) landed at Kulatchal beach and started looting houses and markets; they even attacked a small contingent of the stationed army belonging to Marthandavarma. The initial successes of the Dutch instigated them to raid the land ranging from Kulatchal to Kottar, and eventually attack Thiruvananthapuram. Ramayyan Dalava was  Marthandavarma’s commander-in-chief of the army and  this large army under the brave Dalava’s leadership marched against the forces of the Dutch. The war began on the morning of August 10 at Kulatchal. Ramayyan’s cavalry broke into the formidable infantry of the Dutch and scattered them like dead leaves. The Dutch army fled in tatters.

When one browses through the traditional books of history there are bound to be many a hero who had led his armies into famed battles and won many a war. Kings and emperors of the western world are lauded with majesty and heroism after each war, each annexation, each conquest!  The common reader of East-Asian origin on account of the innumerable conquests and traumas that this part of the world had to undergo is made to look up to the west for such popular hero heroines. Nevertheless there are countless heroes and heroines, Rajas and Maharajas, who had broken through the dark shrouds of history and found their dear places in the hearts and minds of many an Indian. Actually the list of such heroes is not too long! Maharaja Marthanda Varma was one such. Perhaps only a few genuinely interested souls who had had the occasion to go through the annals of South Indian history or even specially Travancore history would know much about the heroic deeds of this King from a tiny state in the far south of India. In his case legend, myth, fiction and history blend in so well that it becomes quite needless even to set out to separate them. He is a compound hero: at once legendary and historical.

Marthanda Varma

When the Dutch governer Van Imholf threatened him stating that he would rake Travancore down to the dust, Marthanda Varma replied boldly that in the event of such a step being taken by the Dutch he would raise a huge navy with the help of the fisher-folk and attack Europe with full force! What a bold statement that has gone down into history!

Peninsular India had for long suffered imperial depredations and assaults from a whole host of people from beyond the seas. Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Danish, French and the British had all tried on their own and also in various combinations! The Chinese and Arab traders had touched on these shores years ago in the guise of travelers and traders. The trade winds had brought in many a foreigner to these shores. But Indians especially the people of the south had always greeted foreigners graciously; nevertheless those imperial forces that swept through from the seas and mountains had to face active resistance from the Indians. The Dutch were vanquished at the great Battle of Colatchal. And Marthanda Varma had upheld the valour and gallantry of the Travancorians. He was also politically wise enough to sign a treaty with the powerful  English East India Company in 1723.  Little wonder that historians consider him as a shrewd tactician and a brilliant general: so very much like Napolean, if not a little more!

On assuming the throne in 1729, assisted by his able minister Ramayyan Dalawa, Marthanda Varma raised a well-trained army from the local people of Venad. He started on his campaign of expansion and started conquering the neighboring kingdoms. Many of these were allies of the Dutch East India Company and they declared war on his kingdom. His thirty odd years of rule were turbulent times indeed!

Marthanda Varma was born in 1706, as the son of the Junior Rani of Attingal (the queens of Travancore were titled the Ranis of Attingal) whose entire family, including herself, a sister who died, and two brothers had been adopted by Umayamma Rani of Venad on the failure of heirs in the Venad Royal house from Kolathunaad or Ezhimala Hill kingdom of North Kerala.

Kolathiri had founded the Matriarchal dynasty of Attingal in 1314 replacing the southern Nair dynasty after the reign of Udayamarthandavarma, king of Venad. Travancore at this time was known as Venad and was a very small principality extending from Attingal to the north down to Kanyakumariin the southern-most tip of the Indian sub continent. Within this small kingdom the power of the king was only nominal due to the power of the nobles known as Madambis, chief among them being the Ettuveetil Pillais or the Lords of the Eight Houses. The powers of the ruler were also to a great extent curbed by the power of the Ettara Yogam, the Managing committee of the famed temple of Sree Padmanabha in the present city of Trivandrum. The Ettuveetil Pillamar and Ettara Yogam had played a significant role in the history of Travancore and were responsible, as per legend, for the murder of Raja Aditya Varma in the previous century, the murder of five sons of Rani Umayamma and other similar crimes, all committed in a bid to extirpate the Travancore Royal House. It was into these conditions, where the sovereign was powerless under the headstrong nobles of the state that Marthanda Varma was born in 1706.

Marthanda Varma, from his formative years was an intelligent prince and it was on his advice in 1726 that Raja Rama Varma signed a treaty with the Madurai Nayaks and secured a foreign force in the country to check the activities of the Ettuveetil Pillamar and other rebellious chieftains. Previously he had also signed a treaty with the English, styling himself as the “Prince of Neyatinkara” in 1723. This incurred the wrath of the Eight Lords and thus they were bent upon murdering the prince. The result was that Marthanda Varma had to flee the capital to the safety of the northern states such as Kottarakara, Kayamkulam etc. where he lived in difficulty for many years, travelling from one place to another to escape his enemies under various disguises.

Marthanda Varma was not only a politically shrewd tactician and a ruler with a vision but an able general in battle-field as well. He led his armies from the forefront and thus instilled in them courage and valour.  In his military conquests he was ably assisted by Ramayyan Dalawa, who was later to become his Prime Minister. In 1731 Quilon or  Kollam, which was ruled by a branch of the Venad family was defeated and the last King was made to sign a document allowing the annexation of his kingdom by Marthanda Varma after his death. Marthanda Varma then turned his eyes toward Kayamkulam, another branch of the family, which allying itself with the Quilon family tried to prevent the growth of Venad. In 1734, several battles were fought against Kayamkulam and Quilon without any decisive effect. In the final battle of that year the Raja of Kayamkulam was killed and succeeded by his brother who soon appealed for peace and hostilities were ended for the moment. Marthanda Varma then, in 1734, annexed the Elayadath Swaroopam or the Kottarakara kingdom, ruled by another related Queen who was then duly pensioned off. In the same year, the Raja of Quilon died and Kayamkulam acquired the possessions of that king against the wishes of Marthanda Varma. The Raja of Cochin and Dutch, a very important foreign power by then, supported the act. The Dutch Governor of Ceylon, van Imhoff, asked the King to stop hostilities against Kayamkulam, to which Marthanda Varma replied that the Governor need not interfere in internal affairs that were no concern of his. In 1739 Van Imhoff arrived in Cochin and in 1740 espoused the cause of the Rani of Kottarakara and protested against the annexation of that kingdom by Marthanda Varma. On a subsequent interview with the Maharajah Marthanda Varma, the relations between the Dutch and Travancore became further strained. As mentioned earlier, it has been recorded that when the Dutch Governor threatened to invade the territories of Travancore the Maharaja gave a brave reply that he would invade Holland and the rest of Europe in case the Dutch misbehaved in Malabar! In 1741 the Dutch reinstated the Queen of Elayadath Swaroopam at Kottarakara against the wishes of Marthanda Varma who attacked the kingdom and completely routed the Dutch army and finally fully annexed Kottarakara to Travancore while the Queen fled to Cochin and continued to receive a pension from the Dutch.

Following the famed battle of Colachal, more than twenty Dutch men were taken prisoners. The prisoners were treated with kindness, so they were glad to serve under the Maharaja. Among them were Eustachius De Lannoy and Donadi, who attracted the maharaja’s special notice. Soon, De Lannoy, commonly known in Travancore as the ‘Valiya Kapithan’ (Great Captain) was entrusted with the organization and drilling of a special Regiment, which he did to the entire satisfaction of the Maharaja. De Lannoy was raised to the rank of General and proved of considerable service to the Maharaja in the subsequent wars. Following the expulsion of the Dutch, the Maharajah now turned his attention once again towards Kayamkulam which continued seeking help from the Dutch. In 1742, the Travancore forces attacked Quilon and fought the Kayamkulam army led by its commander Achuta Warrier stationed there. However, in this battle Travancore was defeated. But eventually reinforced with cavalry brought in from Tirunelveli, Marthanda Varma mounted a successful attack on Kayamkulam.

A treaty known as the Treaty of Mannar was signed, through which Kayamkulam became a subordinate territory.  However by 1746, the Kayamkulam Raja once again started showing signs of rebellion and when his conspiracy with the kingdoms further north (such as Kottayam, Changanassery, Cochin and Ambalapuzha) came to the attention of Marthanda Varma, Kayamkulam was annexed by a final war in which the Raja fled to the Kingdom of Cochin. By now Travancore extended from Cape Comorin to Kayamkulam in the north. In due course, Ambalapuzha, Kottayam and Changanassery were also annexed to Travancore. The principality of Meenachil was also annexed. In 1753 the tributary states of Cochin collectively known as Karappuram and Alangad were ceded to Travancore. In 1755, the Zamorin of Calicut, the most powerful king in Northern Kerala then was also defeated at a battle in Purakkad. He was supported by the armies of some other local kings also. This made almost all the Kings of Kerala succumb to the power of Marthanda Varma.

Once peace had been established in the country the King could turn his attention to other matters. The renovation of Sri Padmanabha temple, the centre of his kingdom, was begun during this time in 1731, and new state ceremonies such Murajapam, Bhadra Deepam etc. were introduced by Marthanda Varma.  The King also instituted a new knighthood for his loyal Nair officers known as Chempakaraman Pillai. The Kingdom of Travancore was formally dedicated to the Lord Sri Padmanabhaswamy on the 3rd January 1750 and after that the King came to be called Sripadmanabha Vanchipala Marthandavarma Kulasekaraperumal and the Maharajah, taking the title of Padmanabha Dasa ruled the kingdom as the devout servant of that deity. Travancore as a whole thus became the property of Lord Sri Padmanabha, which is “God’s Own Country”.

Marthanda Varma paid special attention to improving agriculture in the Kingdom. The southern district of present day Tamil Nadu, Kanyakumari, was the southern-most part of Travancore too. The famed fertility Nanji Nadu, or the land east of Nagercoil which was considered the granary of Kerala on account of the extensive cultivation of rice paddy there, was primarily due to the irrigation facilities introduced by Marthanda Varma. His Edicts on the subject of irrigation issued between 1729 and 1758 A.D fill several pages in the Travancore Land Revenue Manual recorded by R. Mahadeva Iyer. It is recorded that the single harvest paddy fields of that area became double-harvest fields during his reign. Pallikondan Dam, Sabari Dam, and Chozhanthitta Dam, all on the River Pazhayaru in the vicinity of Nagercoil, were constructed by Marthanda Varma under his direct supervision and they continue to be still operational. Near Bhoothappandy a dam was constructed and a new channel named Puthanaaru was dug from it to irrigate the land near Thovalai.  Puthan Dam built by him near Padmanabhapuram brought in drinking water to that area. Many a historian has been fond of mentioning that the Maharaja himself came to supervise work in the fields and sometimes even participated in the labour!

Legends and tales have come to be built around the turbulent life of this brave Maharaja and there are many things and places associated with his fascinating adventures. The grand old Jackfruit tree near Neyyantinkara is one such. When once Marthanda Varma had to flee from his conspirators it is said that he ran and hid himself inside the huge pothole of this giant tree. This tree known till today as Ammachi plavu can be seen in the sacred compound of the Sri Krishna temple at Neyyattinkara. It has been recorded that it was Lord Krishna himself in the guise of a little herd-boy who took the king into the folds of the giant tree and helped him hide from his enemies. The sword of Marthanada Varma is still preserved in the museum at the Padmanbhapuram palce.

It is said that the death of Ramayyan Dalawa in 1756 caused great pain to Marthanda Varma as the former was not only his minister but also his trusted friend. The King’s health started deteriorating since then and he passed away two years later in 1758. He was succeeded by his nephew Maharajah Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma Dharma Raja in 1758 who consolidated the kingdom further. Just before his death, Marthanda Varma summoned his nephew and successor and gave him some advice. His main concern was that the rituals and ceremonies in the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple were to be continued and carried forward at all costs. Never was the Kingdom to pass from the dominance of the deity. Whatever land and people were annexed by his descendents later were also to be retained likewise under the sole dominance of Sree Padmanabha. Another major instruction was that the State should always maintain its expenses to the tune of its revenue, never over-spending. Further, no infighting in the royal family was to be ever allowed. Perhaps, as a better ally, the British East India Company were to be trusted rather than the Dutch or the French.

After these words of advice the King passed away in peace.

These days the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore has come to be front-page news item in many a national newspaper. The famed wealth accidentally discovered in the Sree Padmanabha Temple has instigated curiosity and inquisitiveness all over the world and the media has taken full advantage of this situation to draw the light of the world’s attention to this tiny erstwhile princely state. Travancore was definitely the creation of Marthanda Varma. He retained the political power and provided stability and collective direction to the emerging state. Of course, throughout the three decades of his rule he was engaged in warfare for either retaining the power over his kingdom or for expanding its contours, but despite these troublesome war-ridden times Marthanada Varma kept his own people happy and contented, and attended to matters of state with utmost seriousness. This he did on account of his own personal benevolence and munificence. The spiritual presence and continued support of Lord Padmanabha was assured by situating the temple right in the heart of his country. The pious and the devout flocked from far and wide to this august presence of the supreme Lord, and so did artists and poets, writers and thinkers. However, the real flowering in terms of culture art and music in Travancore had to wait for a couple of generations more—until the golden period of his successor Swati Tirunal. The entire Kingdom of Travancore or Thiruvithamcore was surrendered to the Lord and the Kings described themselves merely as His representatives ruling on His behalf! So was it written and so it came to be! Marthanda Varma passed into history as one who consolidated the political power of the southern empire and sanctified it through his august governance.

In one of the moving passages in CV Raman Pillai’s great novel of this name that pioneered history fiction In Indian languages, he describes a scene where the young king is a captive at the hands of his enemies and is about to be executed. One of the soldiers demonstrates with his drawn sword to the awe-inspired crowds that had gathered round this spectacle: Is there anyone, he screams at the top of his voice, is there anyone among you who wants to rescue this king? For a long minute there is complete silence and then from among those assembled a man of lower caste springs forth shouting: I’ll do it. In the ensuing grand fight the king is freed and he escapes. There are many such escapades of this legendary king that make this fictionalized narrative heroic and exciting. CV Raman Pillai has made the King of Travancore come alive so very much in the lines of his own role model—Sir Walter Scott, who had sowed the seeds of romance and chivalry in the British minds. Now, Marthanada Varma, likewise will remain forever a great Heroic King of the south, a lonesome figure, tall and majestic, feared by his enemies, loved and cherished by his own countrymen.


Nagam Aiya, V. Travancore State Manual

Pillai, C. V. Raman. Marthandavarma,

Menon, P Shungunny. The History of Travancore

Menon, A. Sreedhara, A survey of Kerala History

Pillai, T.K.Velu. Travancore State Manual .Revised Edition