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Commentary/Rajeev Srinivasan

The Battle of Colachel: In remembrance of things past

A dramatic and virtually unknown past, in an area of bucolic calm surrounded by spectacular hills: that is Colachel, a name that should be better known to us. For this is where, in 1741, an extraordinary event took place -- the Battle of Colachel. For the first, and perhaps the only time in Indian history, an Indian kingdom defeated a European naval force.

The ruler of Travancore, Marthanda Varma, routed an invading Dutch fleet; the Dutch commander, Delannoy, joined the Travancore army and served for decades; the Dutch never recovered from this debacle and were never again a colonial threat to India.

It was a remarkable achievement for a small princely state; yet not one of my Indian friends has ever heard of the Battle of Colachel. This, in my opinion, is another example of our sadly skewed education -- we have adopted wholesale a Macaulayite curriculum that was designed to drum into Indians the notion that we were inherently inferior, mere powerless pawns in a European-dominated world.

We study events where Indians were crushed, massacred, trounced, humiliated: Plassey, Panipat, Tarain, Chittor, the failed First War of Independence, Jallianwallah Bagh. We study about every invader, from Alexander the Macedonian onwards, who came over the Himalayan passes and laid waste to the land. We study the disastrous history of the Indo-Gangetic Plain.

We never hear of the far more lustrous history of the Peninsula -- not of Rajendra Chola's maritime Southeast Asian empire, nor the wealth and power of fabled Vijayanagar, nor the chivalrous chaver suicide squads in the Zamorin's kingdom at Kozhikode, nor even about perhaps the greatest of Indian philosophers, the Buddhist Nagarjuna. This is a serious lacuna --and yet we wonder why we as a nation suffer from an inferiority complex?

Colachel is on the route from Thiruvananthapuram to Kanyakumari, which has some dramatic shifts of scenery. You drive down the ill-named National Highway 47, in reality an overcrowded two-lane road with no centre divider, no more than a city street with a continuous population along its entire length.

A typical interior Kerala landscape surrounds you -- tropical abundance, coconut palms, rice fields, plenty of greenery, banyan, jackfruit, tamarind and mango trees, and houses within a stone's throw of the road. Then you cross into Tamil Nadu's Kanyakumari district, and you pass my personal landmark, a century-old aqueduct.

Suddenly, without warning, the landscape opens up -- you come upon an immense flood-plain, with paddy fields, lotus-filled pools, a small river, and occasional clumps of banana trees stretching all the way to the horizon. Except, that is, where the hills are -- the very last redoubts of the Western Ghats, as the land yields grudgingly to the oceans at the Cape: A series of jagged and menacing peaks towering over you.

One especially well-shaped, conical mount resembles, in its symmetry, the Grand Tetons of Wyoming; but otherwise, the forbidding, brooding peaks of granite remind you of rogue elephants. Nestled incongruously amongst these hills is Mahendragiri, where the Indian Space Research Organisation's rocket testing facility is located.

Close by is Colachel with its Round Fort. It has a strategic and commanding view of the Arabian Sea; on a clear day you can see as far south as Land's End, the promontory at Kanyakumari. It was here, with the tactical genius of Marthanda Varma's prime minister, Ramayyan Dalava, that the Dutch fleet was vanquished. I imagine infantrymen with ancient blunderbusses repelling invaders; and a battery of archaic cannon making mincemeat of the attacking ships. It was here that the Dutchman, Delannoy, later trained Travancore soldiers in the arts of musketry and artillery.

Delannoy lies entombed at an inland fort, Udayagiri, a few miles away from Colachel. At his tomb, there is an inscription: Stand, Traveller, and behold! For here lies Captain Delannoy, who served Maharaja Marthanda Varma and Travancore faithfully for three decades

This foreigner, this feringhee, served our country well, two hundred years ago. How little we know of the reasons this man agreed to serve an enemy prince. It could hardly have been coercion -- not if he stayed on for the rest of his life. It must have been a genuine respect for, and perhaps admiration and even affection for this land and this prince.

It behooves us to understand that even at the height of the European colonisation spree, there were Indians capable of resisting and winning. Most of us know that in 1905, the Japanese under Admiral Tojo trounced the Russians in the Yellow Sea. This is considered the first example of an Asian power defeating a European power in a naval engagement. Yet here we have little Travancore defeating the Dutch two-and-a-half centuries ago; the same Dutch who went on to conquer and dominate the entire Indonesian archipelago.

As the saying goes, those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it. History is one of the most precious possessions of a people; the other being their common culture. Somehow, a common Indian culture has emerged over several millennia; nevertheless, we have been distressingly lax about remembering our past.

Perhaps because we have so much history, it has become meaningless for us. But the only way we can build up a common purpose is through the use of common mythologies and a shared racial memory. Based on our experiences, it can be argued that an open economy and free trade would be disastrous for us. There is genuine concern that the rapine and pillage of the transnational corporation will be as bad as the excesses of our former colonists. The spectre of the East India Company continues to haunt us; so do Union Carbide and Bhopal.

Behind that fear is the implicit assumption that our people and our institutions are somehow weak; somehow unable to withstand the onslaughts of rapacious aliens. Yet, as Colachel shows, there was at least one occasion when we could and did stand up to the European marauder. Our lack of faith in our ability to be competitive is at least in part because we study only a history of defeat.

Furthermore, there were great trading centers in the Peninsula -- troves of ancient Roman, Greek, and Phoenician coins have been found at Bharuch in Gujarat, Kodungalloor (Muziris) in Kerala, and Arayikkamedu in Tamil Nadu. Peninsular India was the center of a thriving and lucrative trade in gems, spices, silk, and other luxuries, much of it trans-shipped from further east such as the Moluccas or China. Ancient and medieval Indians were no mean traders; if we can recapture some of that entrepreneurial spirit -- and it is certainly alive in overseas Indian populations -- we have little to be afraid of. There is no obstacle in our path that we cannot overcome.

As we rush headlong into globalisation -- as Octavio Paz, the Mexican poet, once said of his own country, we also seem 'condemned to modernise' -- it behooves us to look into our past. For, in the cyclical nature of the Hindu universe, it is suggested that what once was, will be once again. We need to look at the Colachels of our past; not only the Jallianwalla Baghs.

Rajeev Srinivasan

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