Nineteenth century witnessed a profound transformation in the design and decor of Indian princely interiors

Nineteenth century witnessed a profound transformation in the design and decor of Indian princely interiors. From the first decades of the century, Indian princely classes began to import more luxury objects from Europe including jewelry, furniture, and decor items like mirrors and chandeliers. What this led to was a demonstrable change in the aesthetics of the Indian palace. To an earlier generation of scholars, this large-scale consumption of luxury goods (both Indian and foreign) had stood out as oriental decadence . More recent scholarship has varyingly attributed princely consumption to the dialectics of power and knowledge, performative colonial realpolitik, or westernizing taste amongst Indian upper classes. While these are important factors in the study of nineteenth century princely aesthetics, the Foucauldian power constructions that underpin these arguments has led to a myopic focus on the use of decorative arts in the subcontinent that does not take into account the processes of production of local and imported objets d’art. The imbrication of luxury consumption within the discourse of power is undeniable, but I want to turn our attention to a different colonial development that perhaps equally influenced princely Indian aesthetics. Closer examination of the processes by which decorative arts were produced offer a more complex picture, one that is borne not only from the discourse of colonial power negotiations but from a larger network and trading system birthed by the ecological imperialist practices of the nineteenth century.
Taking the princely states of Travancore and Cochin (in present-day Kerala) as case studies, I argue that the imposition of a colonial ecological model of forestry administered by the British and native states in the nineteenth century was responsible for far-reaching changes in the way decorative arts were produced in the region as well as in the value system by which raw materials and luxury objects were appraised on the Malabar Coast.1 I examine transformations in the palace interiors of Travancore arguing that production and consumption of decorative arts in the nineteenth century had a causal relationship with ecological imperialist strategy adopted by the British and subsequently emulated by the kings of Kerala. From the 1830s, there is a simultaneous increase in both the use of imported objects as well as the use of locally-made ivory luxury objects in the state alongside a concomitant decline in the use of luxury objects made of wood in Travancorean palaces. Such changes can also be seen in the Cochin state later in the century. A westernization of taste for the purposes of politics and consumption does not fully explain the changes in Travancore as local decorative arts industry was thriving at the same time as imported objects were being used. Additionally, Travancore’s decorative style remained popular well into modern times, evidently outliving the so-called westernization of nineteenth-century princely taste. The Metcalf-ian understanding of discourse of power as displayed through architecture comes to fore in Travancore in the 1860s and 70s, but it does not hold true for the period before 1860s . A broader examination of the means of production and circulation of decorative arts that were made in or imported to Travancore is therefore necessary to understand nineteenth-century Travancorean aesthetics and changes in princely taste.
This examination brings into focus the two principal raw materials used in Travancore in the nineteenth century to make decorative art objects—wood and ivory. Wood of varied kinds had been Kerala’s elite building material for centuries. Carved into floral, animal, and geometric motifs in complicated patterns, wood was both a structural building material and a medium for decoration in addition to being almost exclusively used to make furniture.The abundance of subtropical forests across the length of the Western Ghats and absence of stone in there region also made wood the most accessible building material. Wood is greatly subject to environmental depredation particularly in Kerala’s hot and humid climate that makes it ripe for insect infestation, moisture seepage and other vagaries. Due to this, Kerala’s architecture from before the sixteenth-century is practically non-existent today—what was mud and wood had returned to earth. In the decorative arts and architecture of eighteenth century Kerala, however, one sees a glimpse of the extensive and multifarious use of a wide variety of wood species often within the same object or structure (see chapter on beds).
While wood continued to be used extensively in decorative arts in the nineteenth century, two salient refinements to its use can be observed. First, the use of wood in palace architecture reduced in the course of the nineteenth century: Kuthira M?lika Palace built in the 1830s display a great amount of skilled wood craftsmanship in the form of columns, struts, ceilings, brackets, windows, jali, built-in seating and so on, showing a clear artistic link to earlier palace architecture of the region, particularly the palace complex at Padmanabhapuram. But by the time Sundara Vilasam Palace is built in the only significant use of wood was to veneer the domed ceiling in the upper story atrium and as construction material for staircases that led up to it, the architecture itself having taken on a hybrid character that combined the Kerala vernacular with neoclassical Palladianism . Second, while wood continued to be utilized to make furniture for palace interiors, the types of wood being used began to be increasingly limited over the course of the century. In place of multi-varied species of woods used in the previous century, teak and blackwood (also called rosewood) that have a high commercial viability and therefore promoted by the British on the Malabar Coast began to be adopted as the standard for princely furniture. Alongside these changes in the use of wood species, ivory’s significance as raw material increased especially with respect to decorative arts made for Travancore courts and for luxury objects made for export to other parts of India as well as Europe. Historically, ivory had always been used in Travancore. Palanquins decorate with painted ivory veneers are well-known from at least the late-eighteenth century as were cradles made for royal babies. But from 1830s, during the reign of Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma (r.1829-1846), ivory carvers began finding generous patronage in Travancore . By the 1860s, a full-fledged ivory carving industry had sprung up in Travancore under the patronage of the state.
In the following sections, I ask: how did a select few commercially valuable woods become more important than other woods used in centuries previous in the production of Travancorean decorative arts? How can one explain the sudden increase in popularity of ivory as an aesthetic artistic medium? How do the use of these raw materials connect environmental changes in Kerala to transformations in Travancorean aesthetics? In Section One, I trace the production of decorative arts, particularly, the circulation patterns of wood and ivory that were the primary raw materials in use in Travancore in addition to imported decorative arts that were made from wood, ceramics, stone, and metal. In Section Two, I demonstrate that the changing aesthetic value of wood species and the increasing use and popularity of ivory is causally linked to ecological interventions that the British instituted on the Malabar Coast as part of their strategy to exploit near-virgin forests for commercial purposes. This scheme of ecological intervention was emulated by both Travancore and Cochin states with the help of the British government leading to large-scale destruction of forests in South India . In Section Three, I examine the circulation of ivory and its sudden popularity as raw material for decorative and utilitarian luxury objects and the burgeoning ivory carving industry in the region as a direct result of the changes to Keralan forests. In Section Four, I demonstrate how the perception of aesthetic “value” of decorative arts changes through the course of the nineteenth century owing to import of European objects, the use of teak and rosewood over other species for furniture, and the burgeoning ivory craft industry in Travancore. This chapter thus examines the unforeseen consequences of environmental changes on princely aesthetics, underlining the importance of considering artistic production as part of larger systems of imperial exploitation and colonial trade.
Take it out? Another section description a few paragraphs below.Objets D’Art in Nineteenth-Century Kerala
Historical Context
The constantly evolving yet racially-motivated cultural notions about India entertained by the British has a well-recorded history. Bernard Cohn and others have amply demonstrated the generational shifts within the practice of acquiring knowledge and changes in sociocultural engagement of the British with the subcontinent.2 The production and assimilation of knowledge about the subcontinent and subsequent pejoration of Indian society and culture can be seen in all aspects of British life in India. In design history too, these changes are visible over the course of nineteenth century. Until the 1830s, the British, along with other Europeans, had for the better part of 200 years considered Indian furniture as equal in quality if not superior to their own products. There is ample evidence of the British not only carrying Indian-made furniture abroad, but bringing prototypes from Southeast Asia and other places to India to have them copied and re-made using indigenous woods by local artists.3 It was only in the second quarter of the nineteenth century that the British began to import furniture from the metropole into its colonies.4 However, even in the mid-nineteenth century, the disdain for everyday Indian furniture had not yet spread to outright rejection of princely Indian aesthetics, which continued to induce awe in British circles, both elite and otherwise. The reception of the Maharajas’ displays at the Great Exhibition of 1851 is exemplary of the popularity of Indian princely decorative arts in Europe. The ‘India’ section of the exhibition was the most popular of displays and crowds thronged to see jewelry from the subcontinent including the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond as well as the magnificent ivory throne from Travancore and many other richly worked furniture and textiles.5 Within these, of course, one can discern the fascination with princely India—the land of the opulent despot—and an exoticization of princely culture. It was post-1850s that objets d’art from or for princely India came to be distinguished from those that were made for European elite ; a change indicative of the differentiation of good Victorian taste from rather gaudy Indian taste.
Imported objects and production of taste.
In the 1840s, British luxury goods manufacturers like the cut-gass company Osler ; Co. realized the potential of an Indian market for their goods, following which many British companies started opening stores, circulating catalogs, and taking custom commissions from the many princely families of the subcontinent.6 Charting the history of Osler ; Co., Deepika Ahlawat demonstrates that it was only after the revolt of 1857 and concomitant sociopolitical changes that a bifurcation of “native” (Indian) taste as different and unnecessarily opulent than the “non-native” cultured and restrained (British) taste evolved, although in practice it was difficult to distinguish objects along the lines of these reified categories.7 The impracticality of such categories also had to do with the development of British aesthetics in the seventeenth and eighteenth century itself: as with other parts of Europe, British aesthetics and taste had been largely influenced by imports from Asia such as Indian textiles and Chinese wares. The paisley motif long considered as quintessentially British, for example, had its origins in the hills of Kashmir in north India rather than in Scottish lowlands as it was commonly believed.8 The aesthetics of India’s upper classes was emulated in continental Europe as much as Indian goods were exported to be used in rich households in the west (Figure 1).
However, towards the latter half of the nineteenth century, this model of aesthetic commensurability flipped—no longer were Indian objets d’art or the ‘Maharaja’ aesthetic as valued in Europe as they once were, but more significantly, a change in the aesthetics of Indian princely elite becomes apparent. They too begin importing foreign-made objects and many displayed a concerted effort to design their interiors as “modern,” that is, western, living spaces. Take the case of the palace There were a number of palaces in Hyderabad at this time. Maybe give the name?of Hyderabad in the 1880s—chandeliers, mirrors, and European furniture fill every inch of the photographer’s frame (Figure 2). Interiors of palatial mansions in the earlier part of the nineteenth century were starkly different from Figure 2: predominantly present in earlier courtly settings were floor-level seating cushions and other Indian furniture with emphasis on richly adorned walls and textile-covered wall and floor surfaces. Could you provide an image to support this “before and after”?Such changes in interior decor in the course of the nineteenth century have been attributed to the increased exposure to western aesthetics and living practices by princes who studied within a western model of education, some having lived abroad, bringing with them a distinct form of Indian-Britishness, but also as a way, post-1857, to signal to their British overlords of their openness to amalgamating and following western ideals of reform, progress, and modernity.9
Objects D’Art in Keralan Palaces in the Nineteenth Century
The earliest record of imported mirrors in Kerala is dated to Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma’s period (r.1829-1846).10 In 1836-37 , a handsome sum of 73000 rupees was sent to Bombay Presidency and another 13000 rupees to Bengal Presidency to procure mirrors and other objects imported from Europe. Import of foreign objects for personal use at various palaces continued throughout the reign of Swathi Thirunal and his brother and successor Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma. In 1843, mirrors and automatons were bought for the king from England by Mr. Caldecott, the British official who set up the Trivandrum observatory, and arrears for objects bought in previous year were paid. Through the 1840s to 1860s, more imported objects including mirrors, music boxes, automatons, and furniture were purchased by Travancore kings either through middlemen who traveled to England or from the Presidencies. From 1837, Travancore also conducted business directly with Arbuthnot & Co., a variety merchandize firm (and mercantile bank) established in the Madras Presidency. The Royal Family continued to purchase furniture and other objects from Arbuthnot & Co. from their Madras office into the 1860s and 70s.
A parallel process of consumption of imported objects can be observed in Cochin as well. The nineteenth-century residence of the Cochin Royal Family, Hill Palace, continue to house neoclassical mirrors from this period along with decorative floor and wall dado Victorian tiles that are used throughout the palace complex. Victorian tiles especially ones that were were hugely popular in the palaces of Cochin. These tiles were fashionable at court as can be seen by their liberal use in the most important space within Hill Palace—the Durbar Hall—where the walls surrounding the Durbar room is finished with wall tiles displaying flowers in pastel colors finished in a “crackled” glaze. Large items were also often procured from Europe like the armoire-sized orchestrion automaton from the collection of Messrs. , this piece having won a prize medal at the 1872 exhibition and therefore must have been quite costly.
Import of luxury objects, sometimes customized by the princely classes, paralleled an increase in the production of ivory objects in Travancore.11 The first recorded use of ivory in the state is from 1832 CE in a court document that indicate that sheet ivory was used as the medium to paint Swathi Thirunal’s image. There is ample proof both in the form of extant things and secondary sources, however, that ivory craft was practiced in Travancore in earlier times. Painted ivory veneers were commonly used to decorate palanquins, the technique perhaps brought to Travancore from…. In the 1830s, not only was ivory used to paint and carve portraits, but carved ivory plaques appeared as parts of larger objects such as the ivory throne of Swathi Thirunal and the ivory throne sent as a gift to Queen Victoria in 1851. (Insert Figures.) In the period following, there is a burgeoning of the ivory craft industry especially in the 1860s-1880s. This period of increasing import of European objets d’art and use of of ivory objects produced locally, is also marked by the reducing use of multi-varied wood species in architecture and decorative arts. These changes point to a distinct shift in the aesthetic value of raw materials in Travancore and Cochin — the prestigious status of wood diminished and imported objects and objects of local artistry made in ivory begin to perform in the status assigned to wood in previous centuries.
For example, in the eighteenth century and in the early decades of the nineteenth century far more wood species were used to make furniture and other objets d’art in Travancore including woods of medicinal, sensorial, and sacred import. These objects were great examples of not only the transculturality of Keralan decorative arts but of an aesthetics that evolved from an understanding of the value of raw materials in more ways than being commercially viable. By late-nineteenth century, this rich understanding of aesthetic value had changed sufficiently. An exemplary example of this change is the dressing table, occupying a corner of the transept at the Napier Art Museum in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala (Figure 4). This remarkable object, now a spot for errant local Romeos to comb their hair, was once a royal object—its credence literally stamped to its forehead Forehead?in the form of a conch shell, the royal emblem of Travancore (Figure 5). Like most decorative art objects seen in Kerala’s many palaces and museums, the dressing table has no provenance record and its exact date of manufacture and use remains unknown. Yet, from the highly developed and skilled turning of wood and ivory on this object, (Figure 6) alongside the nearly flawless inset mirrors and the style of metal joiners used, signal its production date to somewhere around the latter half of the nineteenth century. Some of the details, like the omnipresent vy?li (mythical horse-elephant-dragon beasts) suggest a date closer to the 1870s, around the time the Napier Museum was also built, such vy?la figures used as brackets on the structure of the museum as well (Figure 7). The dressing table, in itself, is a western idea, as are tables of all kinds. There are not many instances of tables and chairs in the subcontinent prior to the advent of the Portuguese at the end of the fifteenth century.12 The dressing table’s tripartite design with a central mirror and two side mirrors, the desk portion below the central mirror hollowed out for a stool insert, is typically European in its design. Yet, in no way can one look at this marvelous object and see it as anything but Travancorean in its aesthetic with the vyali, the demi-god figures, the conch shell, the materials in use and the style of carving. Where the polish has eroded, one sees the smooth grains of two different kinds of wood—teak (tékku) and blackwood (kariveetti) Would it be helpful to give the Latin names as well?(Figure 8). While these woods were always highly valued for their beauty and durability, and used a great deal to make royal furniture, after 1865, their felling was permitted only by royal decree, making these highly prized woods in even private lands under the state’s rule close to a royal monopoly. The use of these particular woods in the production of this dressing mirror is thus exemplary of the change in status of the material of wood through the course of the century.
Kerala’s Artistic Association with Wood
Archaeological evidence suggests that Kerala had long been a transcultural space from the Roman period when Roman vessels docked on the ports of the Malabar Coast for trade. A continued engagement with cultures from across Asia, Middle East, and Europe is evident in Kerala’s material culture. For example, seventeenth-century (or earlier) Ming Huanghuali (red mahogany) horseshoe displayed at Padmanabhapuram Palace were likely part of the palace interiors since the inception of the complex. The beautifully carved backrests can attest to their status as diplomatic gifts as most chairs of these kinds, valued for its priced wood, were used by Chinese aristocracy. The carved ceiling beams of the king’s bedroom chamber at Padmanabhapuram Palace also demonstrates interactions with Ming China. Seen in Figure , Chinese-style dragons are seen alongside more typical Keralan floral motifs; dragons were often painted on roof tiles as these mythical creatures were believed to have the power to symbolically protect buildings from fire. In later periods, the architecture of the region changed in significant ways to include within them cultural interactions with Europeans who made their way to the Malabar Coast from the fifteenth century onwards. The material culture of the region thus amply demonstrates a transcultural artistic ethos as well as a proclivity towards art made of forest produce — wood being the most commonly used artistic medium in architecture, sculpture, and decorative arts in eighteenth and nineteenth century Kerala. Other forest products also were important to Kerala’s art – barks and leaves of bamboo, coconut, and other palm trees, fruits and barks of various trees for dyeing and paints, as well as forest fauna including elephants whose tusks, teeth, and tail-hair were widely used for various artistic snd talismanic creations. Art of Kerala was historically transcultural and explicitly linked to environment, nature providing both raw materials and inspiration for Kerala’s artists and patrons. The problematic dialectic between art and environment seen in different cultures and through the Holocene period was exacerbated in the colonial period across the world from the duel threats of global increase in consumption after Industrial Revolution and following the exploitative conquests following the Age of Discovery. In Kerala, changes wrought by colonial ecological practices was reflected in the production and use of decorative arts and in particular the procurement and circulation of two key raw material – wood and ivory.
The rest of chapter focuses on how these changes in the use of raw materials of wood and ivory came about through changes to Keralan forests and the impact of changing environment on the aesthetics of the region. In the first section, I examine the history of use of two of Kerala’s most well-known forest produce – timber and ivory — as both raw material and as organic matter that have continued problematic procurement practices in the contemporary world. In particular, I trace the history of changing use of Kerala’s forest trees in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the history of circulation of ivory in the Indian Ocean trade system in which the Malabar Coast historically had an important role to play. (The grave issue of wildlife poaching of elephants for artistic use is discussed in the Introduction.) In the second section, I examine the changes in the status and aesthetic value of raw materials of different types of wood and the material of ivory among the princely classes of Kerala within the new practices of ecological imperialism instituted in southwestern India by the British, and reproduced and sustained by Travancore and Cochin. In the third section, I demonstrate how these shifts in the use of raw materials prompted the use of specific types of decorative art objects and the increased demand of imported objets d’art in Travancore and Cochin. Finally, in the Conclusion, I discuss how changes in the use of decorative arts and princely taste signifies a move away from traditional ways of living and philosophy of thought. I posit that the effects of ecological imperialism not only directly impacted the natural environment but also the everyday life of princely India, and contributed to the loss of traditional systems of knowledge.
Section 1: Wood
From the early decades of the nineteenth century, the British in India were steadfastly gathering information on India’s forests and forest produce, especially good-quality timber for ship-building. On the Malabar Coast, these activities started early, after the defeat of Mysore’s Tipu Sultan in 1799, an event that brought a large part of southern Karnataka (Canara region) and northern Kerala under Madras Presidency called the British Malabar.13 A committee that was instituted in 1800 came to the conclusion that the most sought-after timber of the region, from the tree, the golden teak (tectona grandis), was practically unavailable on the Coast and its procurement required greater knowledge of the mid- and high-range forests of the Western Ghats.14 Teak is an exceptionally valuable species as it is one of the strongest and most durable of all woods—ideal for ship-building. British Malabar officials were asked to procure teak for the purpose of the new naval industry set up in Bombay as early as 1805. (Ribbentrop, 1990, p.3) The necessity of teak for export also arose from the paucity of oak for decorative and utilitarian objects like cabinets in England in this time period.15
The forests of British Malabar (north Kerala) from the early nineteenth century were also a cause for concern due to both economic and political reasons. For one, the British were nervous about exerting their control over local landlords in the coastal and near-coastal regions of north Kerala. Simultaneously, the forests of the higher ranges afforded shelter to rebels; and, while the tribal peoples who inhabited these regions never claimed ownership of this land, the British recognized that historically these regions were collectively owned by their inhabitants. So in British Malabar, until the 1860s, large-scale deforestation happened in the plains and in the lower ranges, and with the permission of local landlords who were at times coerced into planting teak.16 In Cochin, a state that was an ally of the British and who had historically always been more economically challenged than Travancore, the initiation of forest depletion in the plentiful interior rainforests of the region, was executed with the forceful direction provided by the British.17 While Cochin was not a hapless player in this process, its agency was certainly curtailed by its royal family’s perpetual economic crises.
The need for teak and the culling of younger trees led to its large-scale depletion in the following decades in British Malabar, prompting Collector Henry Valentine Conolly to initiate a teak plantation in Nilambur in 1840-42. (Joseph, 44) The success of this enterprise in producing commercially valuable export timber gave rise to mono-crop plantation culture across the hilly regions of not only British Malabar but Cochin and Travancore as well. The spread of plantation cropping of not only teak but coffee and tea in Travancore and other parts of India thus was the primary cause of large-scale loss of forest footprint in the subcontinent. (Tucker, 121-130) Additionally, the expansion of cultivable land from reduced land tax in the mid-nineteenth century also led to clearing of forests. Depletion of forests in this period has therefore been compared to the “timber famine” in England in the seventeenth-century that grew out of a similar need to expand arable lands. (Wilkinson, 81) This type of intervention into South Indian forests by the British can be characterized as authoritative custodianship, such efforts spanning from 1850-1900, each generation of conservator bringing with him a patriarchal mode of operation to forestry that did not always take into consideration local forms of tree-human relationships, particularly of the inhabitants of the forests, the hill tribes. (Joseph, 17)
Even before the British, forest resources of India were highly priced products in local and international markets. Arabs bought timber from the Malabar Coast for their ship building enterprises along the Gulf Coast and northern Africa18. In sixteenth and seventeenth centuries extensive amount of timber was procured from other parts of India and used by the Mughals for shipbuilding and other imperial projects.19 The Marathas understood the need for control of forest lands and produce, and much like the British, sought to extend their ownership rights over coastal forest resources.20 Extant structures from medieval Kerala display extensive use of local wood for construction of temples and palaces. As such, by 1780s, good-grade timber was being procured not from forests lining the coastal plains but higher up along the ranges of the Western Ghats like Muvattupuzha, Ranni, Neriamangalam etc. Thus state monopolization of forest resources took place in pre-colonial India as well but it is important to understand that the complexity of forest conservation and ecological change in Kerala varied in the nineteenth century particularly after 1840 because of ecological imperialist practices associated with British governance.
It is now a well-regarded idea that control (and destruction) of environment was as important to the sustenance of colonialism as political and cultural oppression. In Kerala, this is starkly seen in the degradation of the near-virgin forests of the higher ranges of Western Ghats as a means to profit from the rich timber-resource lands under the rule of British in Malabar, and the Travancore and Cochin states as well as to expand cultivation of commercial crops like tea and coffee. But it was the setting up of railways within the subcontinent that was most devastating to Indian forests.21 From 1853-1910, 80000 kilometers of tracks were laid in the Indian subcontinent.22 It was only at this time the exhaustibility of Indian forests were truly realized by the British; a Forest Department was hurriedly set up in 1864 and the first Forest Act of India was passed in 1865. In their iconic volume, Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha along with others trace these developments, keenly analyzing the impact of the forest acts of 1865 and 1878 to come to the conclusion that colonial forestry that sprung from a need to control forest produce for imperial use was an “ecological watershed” in India’s history.23 But well before the Forest Act of 1865, the British were involved in discussion about What does this mean exactly? What are trying to claim by pointing to these earlier discussions?the forests of the Malabar Coast and its conservation. The techno-ecological imperialist exploitation of Cochin forests has been studied in detail by Sebastian Joseph. His work underlines a crucial point—that the exploitation of forest resources in Cochin was a partnership, one in which the native ruling class participated with little coercion. While the forest history of Travancore is not as well-examined as that of Cochin, British and Travancore government documents allow us to thread a narrative of similar regime of forest exploitation that was taken on through partnership with local government.
By all definitions the British interference in South Indian forestry practices constitute ecological imperialism: practices of taking over custodianship of nature, considering it as a civilizing mission, borne by the need to “teach” Indians Not just Indians, right? Ecological imperialism is unfolding all over the world.about conservation. Sebastian Joseph in his monologue Is it a monologue? Or maybe a monograph?on the colonial history of Cochin forests argues that: “…the politics of saving the forests became politics of exclusion, a specific case of subordination.”24 Scholars of environmental history now largely see the advent of forest conservation as colonization of indigenous knowledge whereby traditional ecological systems of management are refused legitimacy, and in their stead, western ideas of forestry are set up, the latter based on the prevalent German ideology of man as the sole authoritative caretaker of nature.25 Ultimately land and produce were alienated from their historical users and inhabitants, particularly forest and hill tribes of India, as a direct result of ecological imperial British practices. But ecological imperial practices had an impact on more urban peoples as well, especially the princely elite: the changing forest footprint also brought about, I posit, the colonization of attitudes towards land amongst the upper classes, thereby impacting Is this the right verb?how raw materials were sourced and used in the production of art and architecture.
Forests of Travancore
This was possible in the first place due to the ownership of all land historically by the king. Traditionally, lands were leased to people to cultivate on and the government taxed the produce from the land for revenue, such lands were hereditary but those who cultivated the land could not sell these lands. The forests, too, considered largely the realm of hill tribes, nominally belonged to the crown, and forest produce like wax and honey were taxed. However, the ownership of forests were little instituted in practice before the nineteenth century perhaps because of its geographical inaccessibility. In Travancore, the first survey of land including forests was undertaken by British officials Lt. Ward and Lr. Connor in 1816-1820. Until 1820, the felling of trees were undertaken by commercial agents who also at times were deputed as conservator of forests, demonstrating very little need for strict policing of the timber felling and export industry in Travancore. Indeed, Bourdillon, writing in the 1890s estimate that demand for timber (except teak) was really small until the eighteenth century. It was particularly since the 1850s that the demand for timber has risen owing to a general need for more timber for construction including railways, and the reduction of forest footprint because of the spread of plantation cropping. (Bourdillon, p.16-17)
Teak and blackwood (a variation of it is called rosewood) were traditionally used for imperial construction projects, both for temples and palaces, because of their superb strength, pleasing aesthetics, and blackwood was particularly easy to carve. But until the British intervention and introduction of forestry practices, these woods did not enjoy the status of being reserved for royal use. Even in late-eighteenth century, teak and other forest timber were often bought from merchants for use in palaces and temples, at the regular rates at which they were sold in the markets of the Malabar Coast.26 It was only after British intervention in forestry practices that certain woods, especially teak, were granted special status in South India. In 1820, even as the first forest conservator was appointed, the only timber subject to royal monopoly was teak while all other timber was free to be used by the people on the payment of a small river duty. (Ward & Connor, p.39). In 1844, blackwood and anjali are declared as state monopolies although it may still have been procurable by the public through a seignorage. By 1853, however, the then conservator, Mr. Kohlhoff, keen on tightening the monopoly on kõl-teak, prohibited its felling for the purposes of temple, churches, and Brahmin homesteads who were in prior years allowed to cut as much timber as they wanted once permitted. Following this, no one including temple authorities were allowed to fell trees but could apply for timber to revenue authorities who would acquisition timber as required for the purposes. (Bourdillon, 159)
Forests as ‘Commodity’
It is not that forests were considered economically value-less prior to the advent of British forestry in South India. Traditionally, the lands from the coast to the lower ranges of the Western Ghats belonged to kings or local landlords. However, higher up in the impassable ranges, land ownership was an impractical concept. Many of the produce like honey, beeswax, pepper etc. which were brought down by hill and forest tribes, however, were still taxed, that is, they were part of the larger coastal economy.27 But with the advent of new forestry techniques, the outlook towards the higher forest ranges changed in Travancore and Cochin. So, while in 1787, the kings of Travancore and Cochin were largely concerned with buying timber for a reasonable price and taxing the transportation of timber, by 1837, orders were being issued in Travancore against felling of teak, blackwood, and ebony that were considered royal monopoly.28 Until 1853, I’m so confused. In 1837, the royal monopoly is instituted, but teak is still free until 1853?teak had been supplied for the construction of temples, churches, palaces, and Brahmin residences for free of cost.29
What was starker was the denudation in the variety of woods used for making furniture on the Coast. In the eighteenth century, furniture made on the Malabar Coast used various woods including teak, ebony, and blackwood, but it was as common to see the use of timber from jackwood, ayini, and portia trees. These woods of relatively inferior strength and plasticity were used alongside teak and blackwood in both temple and palace projects, including in the making of decorative art objects for royal use. For example, even in the 1830s records indicate that furniture such as swinging cots were still being made of “non-royal” timber such as from the Neem (Indian lilac) tree, the of which timber was of narrow girth but had therapeutic qualities. It was also readily available and easily made into narrow planks for various uses.30
Within Do you mean “inland” from the coast? Or is this more like “along” the coast.the coast there was a history of use of multi-varied woods for production of luxury objects. Take the case of the royal bed of king Marthanda Varma, the illustrious eighteenth-century ruler of Travancore, who is known as the maker of modern Travancore. The bed considered to be recuperative—an Ayurvedic bed—due to the use of 64 different types of medicinally-important timber to make it, is said to have been a gift from European traders to the king (Figure 9). The bed displays timber of different grain frequencies and color gradations which suggests the use of different types of timber, 64 different planks in all in its construction (Figure 10). Recently, an Ayurvedic treatise from the nineteenth century or earlier for making medicinal cots has come to light, the treatise highlighting 64 woods, the exact number as the planks that make this bed.31 While the Ayurvedic bed highlights the medicinal value attributed to the woods of Kerala’s forests, the veneration of many of these woods within temple grounds and in sarppak?vus (sacred serpent groves) in southwestern India displays the awareness of the non-monetary value of forest produce.32 These discoveries Which discoveries? The treatise is one. What is the other?highlight two things – first, the use of more types of timber than the most revenue-generating woods for royal use, and second, that within the Malabar Coast, there was a system of valuing woods beyond their export commodity value, to consider them as useful in other ways such as for palliative and religious purposes.
Section 2: Changes to the Aesthetic Value of Wood Species
Changing ‘Value’ of Forests
Travancore from at least the 1840s was encouraged to undertake plantation cropping in its “waste” land by British Resident at court Major Cullen.33 Waste land was land in the higher ranges of Travancore that was never under western forms of ownership, where few if any non-inhabitants ventured, and where market-viable trees were dispersed over large areas. These areas were traversed by hill tribes who were largely self-governing. But the Travancore kings, witnessing profits reaped from commercial and plantation cropping in British Malabar and Cochin, enthusiastically brought in British officers and merchants as well as Indian planters to take over these forest lands for cultivation.34 The lucrative trade in teak timber combined with the European idea of forest monopoly certainly had piqued the interest of the kings of Kerala. Subsequently, large swathes of forests, determined as revenue-generating in the export market, became an active part of royal monopoly previously unestablished in any accountable way in the mountainous regions.
Citing various historical texts, environmental historians have argued for centuries-old indigenous traditions of forestry and forest-human relationships in the subcontinent that were disrupted by British colonial practices.35 In Kerala, in addition to the medicinal value places on forest produce, a sacred value was attached to different types of trees. The practice of maintaining sacred groves (sarppak?vu) within Hindu family homesteads, the trees in these groves cut only for religious ceremonial purposes is hailed as an indigenous practice of forestry by colonial British officials and Indian environmental historians.36 Sebastian Joseph has used the word “eco-sense” to describe traditional conservation practices of the people of Kerala prior to British ecological intervention such as protected trees within temple grounds and sacred groves in large family homesteads.37 Could these count as eco-sense? May be, but the use of multi-varied woods in making furniture and the ability to think about these woods as useful for medicinal, sacred, and artistic purposes point towards a culture that did not think of diverse forests rich with non-commodity trees as waste land. Indeed, historically the western Enlightenment ideas of land ownership as crucial to social reformation was imported to the colonies. As such, thinking of forests as revenue-creating waste land appears to have been strictly a product of emerging British policies and an acceptance of western ideas on forestry.
The appraisal of forests of the Western Ghats with its natural biotic diversity as waste land was a direct effect of ecological imperialism. The devaluation of forest cover and Kerala’s floristic variety is attached to this categorization of multi-varied wood forests as “waste” — a term the British introduced to qualify woods that were not of use to them and could not be exported profitably.38 Forests were abodes of gods and demons. The varied trees within the forests were valued for not only their commercial viability but for their perceived sacred and medicinal values. Decorative arts produced in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries reflect the view that the value of forest trees were not necessarily always monetary. The medicinal bed of Marthanda Varma made in the eighteenth century out of 64 species of woods that were strategically placed to eliminate body ailments is an exemplary example of the different kinds of value that is associated with forest flora in the region. Not only was the bed used for medicinal purposes, its head and foot boards, and poster columns were carved out of wood into a performative prayer for prosperity of the bed’s occupant, the material of wood itself singularly important to this realization. (More on this in the chapter on beds.)
Historically, Kerala’s famed Ayurvedic practices have used every part of trees considered medicinal. For example, barks, leaves, flowers, and seeds of trees like the Karingali, Veppu and others were extensively used for aches and pains. Neem, a panacea for many bodily ailments according to Ayurveda, is a tree of lesser girth deemed commercially useless by the British but in Travancore they were used to make beds and swinging cots—objects that had direct contact with the body. Trees like Neem and Akil (Eagle Wood Tree) were used as cure for skin diseases but finds no importance in the forest conservator’s notes. In the eighteenth century, the medicinal value of woods contributed to its aesthetic value as well, the sensorial and amelioratory functions of forest trees contributing to their status as raw materials for elite decorative art objects.
Discussion on aesthetics around here? Brief or detail?
This change of seeing multi-varied tree-covered land as waste happened in the course of the nineteenth century. There is a concomitant reduction in the production of wood objects in the period from 1830-1850 as indicated in Travancore state records with a parallel increase in this period in the import of European furniture and other luxury goods for princely interiors. From 1830s onwards there also is a discernible shift from use of wood for royal decorative art projects to ivory, and in the 1850s, ivory becomes undeniably the preferred raw material for royal use.39 I argue that change in the ecological sense of Keralan elite in the nineteenth-century—from seeing multi-species forests as ecologically or medicinally worthy or as protected for sacred or religious reasons to thinking about forests as primary commodities in the export market—affected the kind of luxury objects that were used within the interiors of Kerala’s palaces. So in the period between 1815-1880, a shift in the production and use of objets d’art takes place in Travancore—instead of making furniture and other luxury objects from locally sourced multiple types of timber and use of multi-species wood-based objects, there appears to have taken place a transfer of aesthetic value This is a little wood furniture produced of teak and imported objects within the nineteenth century. The most exemplary comparison of this change can be seen in the production of the medicinal bed and the dressing mirror—the two objects discussed earlier. Both were used by Travancore royalty; the former an eighteenth-century masterpiece that displayed Kerala’s many woods considered medicinally valuable, and the latter, an objet d’art par excellence from later in the nineteenth century made of the two woods considered the most commercially viable, hence royal. Who is making these judgements about “masterpiece” and “par excellence”? Or rather what does arguing that these are both exceptional objects (when I sense that you are trying to use them to support a generalizable claim) do for you? In Cochin too these changes are apparent, particularly in the construction and furnishing of palaces built in the latter half of the nineteenth century (more on this below). This demonstrable change in aesthetic value points to a correlation between change in forest footprint to a change in attitude towards ecological wealth and concomitant changes in art-making and decorative arts consumption practices. This is a bold and exciting argument, but the wording here seems a little circular or the relationship between these changes is perhaps not yet clear. (And “change” is used four times in one sentence.) I’m also not sure the previous discussion, which is a little jumbled, is fully supporting this point.
This remarkable difference also seen in the interiors of Kerala’s palaces constructed in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. At Padmanabhapuram Palace, the oldest of the four palaces I consider here, constructed largely in the eighteenth century, the primary building material in use is wood. From exquisitely carved wooden ceilings and roof supports to lattice-window systems called jali and sculptural doors that highlight the skill of Kerala’s woodworking artists, Padmanabhapuram is an exceptional Again, why do you feel the need to pepper this description with “exquisite” and “exceptional”? It feels a little defensive, as though you are worried your reader will not recognize the mastery of Keralas artists? Is this because this wood-work, which is not the most canonical material in Indian art history? Or are you perhaps trying to demonstrate the elite function of these spaces?work of art made in large portions out of various kinds of wood (Figure 11). Within its interior spaces too, most of the furniture used or built into the structure is made of wood including the magnificent jharoka or balcony where the king gave his dar?an to his subjects (Figure 12). Kuthira Maalika Palace in Thiruvananthapuram, built in the 1830s, continues to display this Keralan love for wood, the architecture often using wood in a playful manner, highlighting the engagement of artists with the raw material on hand. In its portico, the ceiling brackets include decorative sculpted squirrels that seem to pause in motion as they run up and down the struts (Figure 13). Another example of this playfulness with wood is the figure of a courtly servant peeking her head out from the little gable window called kiliv?thil (literally, bird-window) to presumably look at visitors outside the palace or perhaps also as a figure to ward-off the evil eye (Figure 14). By the time the Hill Palace is built in Thrippunithura (Cochin) around the 1860s, wood continues to be an important decorative and structural material in Keralan palaces but the playful engagement and liberal use of this medium as a decorative element disappears from Kerala’s palace architecture I don’t understand how you are charting a change in the “decorative” use of wood in this sentence. Is its decorative function important or not?. At Hill Palace, as in the later Kowdiar Palace in Thiruvananthapuram wood is used largely for dense-use spaces like stairways or for structurally sound ceilings.
Section 3: Popularity of Ivory as Raw Material and its Circulation
Ivory as a raw material in India has had a long history. Ivory comes from the tusks and teeth of certain mammals like the elephant, walrus, narwhal, and hippopotamus, and from extinct animals such as the mammoth. The organic matter from which ivory is carved in the Indian subcontinent are largely tusks of African and Asiatic elephants, herds having been rendered nearly extinct in Africa and Asia from their large-scale culling. Known to the colonial world as “white gold,” ivory as an artistic material compels us to look at the problematic relationship between art and environment.
Elephants were domesticated 4000 years ago in the Harappan world, ivory objects of various kinds have also been discovered from this period. Elephants were important animals from at least sixth century BCE as seen by their use in the powerful kingdom of Magadha (Sukumar, 61). By the time of the invasion of Alexander of Macedonia, fleets of war elephants were being employed in imperial armies across North India. Elephant tusk exports from India to the Arab world and East Asia appears to also have a long history with 272 tons of ivory per year being exported40 in the sixteenth century. In the colonial period, however, an increase in demand for ivory objects of luxury and utilitarian kinds in European and American markets led to large-scale exploitation, particularly of African elephant herds valued for their larger tusks in both males and females unlike the Asiatic elephants where only males sport tusks that too of smaller sizes on average. The Asiatic elephants herds in India, however, were vastly depleted, particularly in Northeast India from the British penchant for hunting for pleasure (Lahiri Choudhury, 1999, p. Xx). By 1820s, hunting had become a full-fledged British sport in Sri Lanka. (Sukumar, 77) In Keralan forests, however, wild Asiatic elephant herds were not as targeted from hunting as it was from capture and being killed in the process of capture, partly because elephants were considered a royal monopoly and perhaps because of geographic inaccessibility of the Western Ghats.
Kerala’s artistic association with ivory and elephants is rich, complicated, and probably very old, the beginnings of which is lost from historical memory. The forests of Kerala is amongst the last natural and historical refuge of Asian elephants with over living within them today. (See Sukumar) From being royal animals to hardworking laborers in Indian timber mills and as part of circuses, as omnipresent participants at temple processions and festivals since at least the medieval period, Asiatic elephants in Kerala are an integral part of both history and current society. Indeed, the importance of these leviathans to the region can be seen by Kerala’s official state seal which shows two elephants flanking the national emblem of the lion capital (from the ancient Sarnath Pillar of Emperor Asoka) as well as state insignia, the conch shell (emblem of erstwhile Travancore and Cochin) (Figure). The modern Kerala seal derives its imagery from that of Gajalakshmi, Goddess Lakshmi seated on a lotus and worshipped by two flanking elephants (Figure). The popularity of the representation of Goddess Lakshmi as Gajalakshmi (Gaja in sanskrit means elephant)on the western coast, seen adorning gables of palaces and within temples often in liminal spaces where indoor and outdoor spaces meet, is telling of the importance of Asiatic elephants to this region. While their continued and active presence in temple activities have allowed elephants to enjoy pop-star-like popularity in Kerala, their use have been plagued by issues of negligence and the question of ethics of employing wild animals and to force them to co-habit and function within human boundaries. In the nineteenth century, these problems were more exacerbated by not only the use of elephants in the forests, railways, and timber mills by both British and native rulers, but also by the large scale commercial and artistic use of ivory in the subcontinent. Trade in ivory was completely banned in India in 1986. (Sukumar, 388)
A burgeoning market for ivory products in India, Europe, and North America in the mid-eighteenth century allowed for a soaring demand for ivory worldwide, especially African ivory. (For more on this, see… Machado) Cecil Burns writing in early twentieth century remarks that the consumption rates for objects like knife-handles, billiard-balls, piano keys, chess-men and so on were so large that he is surprised that these “noble race of animals” has not become extinct yet. The need for ivory objects just in Sheffield, Burns quotes, was enough to have killed 22000 elephants. (Burns, 1) This burgeoning demand produced a burgeoning ivory craft industry in Travancore’s for artistic and utilitarian objects that were exported across India and Europe. Since the Great Exhibition of 1851, Travancore ivory objects found a steady presence in almost all exhibitions across India and outside. From 1860s onwards, such exhibitions brought in orders to Travancore’s ivory carvers who made a variety of ivory objects.
It is difficult to identify the age of carved ivory, and even more difficult to its source animal as the African or Asiatic elephant unless chemical testing is conducted. For understanding the history of ivory used in Kerala, I have traced the larger circulation of ivory in the subcontinent and ventured some inferences. In South Asia, despite the availability of ivory from Asiatic elephants, ivory objects were largely made from African tusks that were imported from eastern Africa as early as seventh and eighth centuries. (Alpers, 352) This was perhaps becausw elephants were tamed and made royal beasts of burden, war, and status symbol by Indian kings; they were more useful captured alive than dead. (Cite Trautman, page number) The war elephant continued to have a long career in the military history of South Asia until early-nineteenth century when technologically superior weaponry made them outdated. But even then, they continued to be used in wars as pack animals. In the British colonial period, elephants continued to be captured to be used in timber mills, for hauling logs in forests, and in the railways, uses by which the moniker “timber elephant” was born. (Sukumar, 79) The British in South Asia also destroyed vast numbers of elephants herds through trophy hunting, which by the 1820s had become a real sport amongst the British in Sri Lanka. (Sukumar, insert page.) This was far different from the selective culling of elephant herds carried out historically in the subcontinent where political treatises like Arthashastra (compiled between 300 BCE and 300 CE) advocated for a 1.5-2% annual culling of herds.
The circulation of African ivory in Indian markets is somewhat well-documented. The demand for African tusks were for many reasons: not only were they larger on average but African tusks may also have been easier to carve than Asiatic ones. African ivory also took a better polish than the Indian ivory which was more brittle and discolored easily. For reasons of quality and durability therefore African ivory was what was used for making majority of ivory objects in South Asia.41 However, in Kerala, craftsmen families suggest that Indian tusks were preferred since they were more “fresh” than African ones and therefore easier to work with as African tusks needed to be conditioned and hydrated before being ready to carve. (Cite SSR) (More on this below.) The trade in African ivory continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and for a great part of two centuries, it was carried on mostly by western Indian V?niya merchants who exchanged Indian textiles for ivory. (Machado, 168)
Ivory brought to the ports of Daman and Diu, and Surat was taken not only to local centers for carving but further north to Rajasthan and eastwards to Bengal.42 In none of these documents, however, one sees any mention of ivory being exported by V?niya and other merchants to Kerala. Sharat Sunder Rajeev has posited that a lot of the ivory at least later in the nineteenth century that were worked on by Travancorean craftsmen were the inner cylinder (m. Va?akkatti) of the tusk left over after western Indian craftsmen carved out ivory bangles that were an important part of western Indian jewelry and wedding trousseaux. Between the period of 1750s and 1830s, Machado has estimated that as many as 26,000-31,000 elephants were killed (each tusk calculated as weighing 60 kilograms) in the Zambesi river region and to the southern interior portions. (Machado, 207) From 1830s (the same time period as we see an increase in use of ivory in Travancore) vast quantities of ivory was imported to Indian ports of Bombay and Surat, controlled by the British. But most of this ivory did not stay in South Asia as they were exported as is or as worked objects to England, and some, onwards to North America. (Machado, 179)
So was African ivory used in Kerala? This question cannot be fully answered without scientific testing of a large number of ivory objects. In the absence of this analysis, we have a few leads that can provide us a map for the types of ivory in circulation in Kerala. As mentioned above, the circulation of African ivory especially later in the nineteenth century cannot be completely ruled out. However, records indicate that as early as 1830s, there was ivory stockpile in the royal treasury of Travancore from where ivory was weighed and distributed to artists as needed. For example, . This ivory was possibly harvested from Asiatic elephants herds roaming the Western Ghats for a number of reasons, primary of which is, in Travancore, elephants and their tusks and teeth were royal monopoly.
In his memorandum on ivory carving in Travancore, Edgar Thurston (c.1900) remarks: “No ivory is imported. Travancore depends for her supply on the elephants that are found in great numbers in her forests; and the amount obtained is amply sufficient for all her requirements.” This is evident in the export of surplus ivory from the port of Alappuzha and an ivory auction conducted there from the year . The abundance of Asiatic elephants is mentioned in nineteenth century reports. Ward and Conner’s survey from 1820 mention that wild animals, especially elephants, were gradually driving people to the coast as the disarming of Travancore army and militias in the 1810s left the population without arms to fend off beasts. (Ward and Connor, Vol. 1, p. 41) But prior to 1810, it appears that the royal monopoly was instituted much like that with timber where with a royal permit, anyone could cut pits for the capture of elephants, tax being levied per pit by the revenue officer. (Lt. Arthur, Memoir of Travancore, 1810, find correct citation) Following this period, alongside “inam” pits cut by the public, the government too cut pits to capture elephants. (Bourdillon, 163) Royal monopoly as a formal decree was instituted only in October 1869 prohibiting shooting of elephants. (Bourdillon, Appendix) In 1865, Inam pits were barred owing to the death of a large number of elephants that fell into pits that were not vigilantly watched and therefore met with untimely end. Often, pits were found decades later containing skeletons of dead elephants with their tusks intact, evidence of death by inefficient means of capture. (Bourdillon, 163).
The familiarity of people with elephants in Kerala is palpable in these reports. There are native traditions that consider elephants as part of the larger ecology of the region in both real and mystical terms. Elephant hair was considered sacred—having it bound to the body was said to ward of evil and cure illnesses. In southern Travancore, people considered certain hills as dying spots where aged elephants would come to complete the cycle of their lives. These were also places frequented by natives in search of tusks and teeth of elephants that died from natural causes. (Bourdillon, 51) The veneration of elephant as a royal animal and status symbol continues in Kerala even today where every temple procession and festival uses many number of tusked males as important participants. The value of elephants captured alive is observed in government records with an inordinate amount of discussion, detailing, and decrees brought about by the Travancore Forest Department over the course of many decades, culminating in Bourdillon’s report in the 1880s that laid out how elephants could be captured with as little accidental deaths and injury to the captured animal. (See Bourdillon, p. 163-185) Tuskers were especially prized with their tusks intact as they were employed in temple and royal festivities; most of the tuskers that were captured were sold to temples. (Bourdillon, 185) From both nineteenth century sources and contemporary data, it is quite clear that South Indian elephant populations’ rapid decline took place in the period after 1970s and not before. (Sukumar, p. 262-291)
On inspection of ivory objects from Travancore, another facet of the use of ivory comes to light. Of the objects of ivory made in the nineteenth century that I have examined, the two ivory thrones veneered with over 120 ivory plaques each on top of wood substructure are the largest. These plaques, however, are not all from elephant tusk ivory. The seats for the thrones are made from square slabs cut out of elephant teeth. In Kerala, ivory is called dantham (literally, teeth)—there is no differentiation between tusk and teeth ivories even though they differ visibly in their physical characteristics. Teeth was perhaps abundantly available in Travancore as elephants naturally shed their pair of molars after 10 years until they are divested of all 6 pairs. (The average lifespan of the wild elephant is thus 60 years since after the last pair falls off, the elephant cannot eat on its own anymore.) Of the other objects at the Napier Museum made mostly in the twentieth century and the few pieces at Napier and Chennai Art Museum from the 1870s-1880s, most are are carved from single tusks of varying girths ranging from 5″ to almost 12″, but these measurements are not enough to distinguish ivory used as African or Asiatic. This examination of ivory objects and government reports indicate that mostly Asiatic ivory locally procured from the region were used to make ivory objects in Travancore, elephants not having been strategically killed for ivory but nonetheless numbers show a large amount of ivory being procured throughout Kerala.
The presence of ivory stockpile in Travancore’s treasury and the availability of ivory locally to be sold at auctions and export markets was possible because of state monopolization of elephants’ capture that increased after the 1810s when pits were dug by government agents. There is no evidence to believe that Asiatic elephants were culled for the ivory industry in Travancore. Rather, the increase in the availability of ivory was due to the same ecological imperialist practices that led to large scale deforestation in South India. The forest conservation records from the 1880s and 1890s that reports larger number of elephant attacks on crop plantations and more elephants being captured directs our attention to the active destruction of elephant habitat in the Western Ghats through human intervention. Plantation cropping required cleaning of large swathes of mid-range forests that are home to wild elephant herds. It was natural that there were more human-elephant conflicts that led to more capture or deaths of the animals. In 1872, a decree rescinded the previous law against shooting elephants, amending it so that elephants near coffee plantations could be killed for the safety of laborers and crop. (Bourdillon, cite page.) Expansion of arable lands under a reduced tax system following mid-nineteenth century also led to furthering of cultivated crops that attracted elephants to areas near villages where they are further endangered either for protection of crops or human lives. (Sukumar, cite page number) There were also sporadic mass deaths of elephants in this period such as in 1863 when 25 pairs of tusks were recovered from southern Travancore after a murrain inflicted the herds. (Bourdillon, page number) Martin and Vigne also suggests that in Travancore where objects were always hand-carved, only lesser number of tusks were needed tas there was very little wastage. (Cite from article.)
Did an increase of ivory stockpile in early-nineteenth century prompt Swathi Thirunal to commission ivory carvers on a larger scale? Or was it the increasing popularity of ivory as a raw material across the world responsible for the initial steps towards an ivory art industry in Travancore? We cannot know for certain but it is apparent that towards the late-eighteenth-century, ivory objects such as combs that were elaborately carved began to be made on a large scale in the Maratha empire under the rule of Savai Madhavrao Peshwa (r.1780-1795). The extensive use of ivory for jewelry in western India in seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has been already mentioned. The use of ivory thrones as a mark of kingship has a long history across the world, the first mentions of it found in the Old Testament where King Solomon is said to have used an ivory throne overlaid with gold. (Barrack, 16) In South India, the legitimacy of kingship had deep ties with the use of ivory throne: the king of Mysore in the seventeenth century obtained from Mughal Emperor Aurangazeb to be recognized as ‘Raja’ and along with it the privilege to sit on an ivory throne. This throne continued to be used by Mysorean rulers since, and was found in a storage room in Tipu Sultan’s palace in 1799. Subsequently when the Wodeyar rulers of Mysore for reinstated by the British, it is this ivory throne that came to be used in coronations. (Calcutta Review, 1868, vol. 46, p. 337) Extant wall paintings at the Durbar Hall of the Thanjavur Palace show king Serfoji II seated on an ivory throne that looks remarkably similar to the ivory throne of Swathi Thirunal . It is a well-regarded fact that artistic exchanged between Thanjavur and Travancore was common during Swathi’s reign. (Footnote: Nattuvanmaar, cite record if needed. For more, see chapter on Travancore style.) I therefore posit that the concept of the ivory throne as it existed in Swathi’s court came via Thanjavur and the older tradition of thrones of ivory as a symbol of kingship in South India.
In the following decades, the proficiency of ivory artists and a ready availability of ivory at the treasury allowed for a robust industry to take root. It is during the time of Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma (r.1860-1880) that ivory objects became an export commodity in Travancore. Thurston has owed this to the continued exposure to Travancorean ivory art in the various exhibition both in India and Europe in this time period. (Cite Thurston) But perhaps, what should also be considered is the large number of tusks that came into royal possession in the 1860s which Bourdillon has attributed to murrain and killing of elephants who were a threat to plantation crops. Suggesting the larger production of ivory in the 1860s as opposed to Bourdillon consideration of 1870s and 1880s is that in 1865, all export duty on small articles and furniture was abolished. Here, the larger effect of imperial agrarian practices and imperial ecological strategy can be seen as contributing factor to the constant replenishment of ivory stockpile in Travancore and thus responsible for the flow of raw materials required to establish ivory art industry in the region.
1863: Rules for the sales of waste land.
{Section: Introduction to the material of ivory and wood – what kinds, where they come from, how are they used in Kerala etc. Mention that in Kerala wood and ivory for not masked to look like anything else. Why is that?}
Section 4: Changing Aesthetics
Change in Princely Aesthetics

The shifting aesthetic value in the princely states of Travancore and Cochin within the nineteenth century is most easily traced through the comparative study of two exemplary works of art from Travancore—the ivory throne of Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma made c.1828-29, and the ivory throne sent to Queen Victoria of England in 1850 and exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Crystal Palace, London (Figure 16). Made by the same school of artists, about 30 years apart, these two objects display the changing aesthetics of princely Travancore better than any other objects. Swathi Thirunal’s ivory throne, displayed at Kuthira Maalika Palace, and Queen Victoria’s ivory throne, currently at Windsor Palace in the United Kingdom, both demonstrate the exceptional talent of Travancorean artists in carving ivory. They also demonstrate a transfer of value from the material of wood to the material of ivory, a change that may have to do with the abundance of good-quality timber in the market and therefore the need to find another raw material far precious than wood and more difficult to procure. Ivory, long considered a material expressly used by royals, fits the bill.
But it is in the structure of the two thrones that one can discern the change in princely aesthetics. The Swathi throne (Figure 17) built in the model of the age-old Indian gaddi (a large seat often raised only a few inches above ground level in which monarch sat cross-legged and contained) is larger in both width and depth than the later throne made for Queen Victoria.43 The Windsor throne (Figure 18) is modeled along the lines of a western-style chair, its proportions and structure comparable to expensive chairs made in Europe for upper classes. While the two thrones share a sculptural affinity, that is, the style of their carvings are very similar, the content on the thrones’ surface adornment is starkly different. The Swathi throne in Figure 17 depicts motifs that in everyway reveal it to be an object of the Travancore court: Kerala’s traditional-style kombu trumpets, performers of mime that were widely popular in Swathi Thirunal’s court, local produce like pineapple, and mythical beasts associated with royalty such as dragon-like lions Clarify.. In other parts of this throne, there are also numerous references to court musicians, dancers, and other cultural references to the Malabar Coast. In contrast, the Windsor throne, as a political gift, demonstrates in its carvings its diplomatic mission, amongst the rich and dense carvings of tropical flora that provide the background are the royal emblem of Travancore—the conch shell—enclosed by British royal insignia, the British lion, the Welsh dragon, and the Scottish unicorn. The sculptural content of the two thrones communicate to very different audiences.
Even when the thrones use similar motifs, their sculptural effect varies. For example, the lion as a symbol of royalty appears on both thrones. In the Swathi throne, the lions, as described earlier, appear as almost mythical beasts and bear great resemblance to k?rtimukh?s (faces of glory) that adorn the entrances of South Indian temples in the Tamil tradition (Figure 19). While their bodies are turned three-fourths to suggest three-dimensionality, their faces remain rigidly two-dimensional and purposely formulaic so as to be readily identified. In contrast, the lions on the Windsor throne are sculpted with a three-dimensional body and facial structure—the artist displaying concerted efforts to produce an effect of realism in his carvings (Figure 20). Even the depictions of tropical flora changes between the two thrones, with the Windsor throne moving closer towards perfecting a three-dimensional reality, along the lines of objects now imported in large quantities into Kerala from Europe.
The comparative study of the two thrones suggest a change in aesthetic value attributed to both material and design of objets d’art in nineteenth-century Kerala. Not only does ivory take over from timber the mantle of the preferred material for the production of royal decorative art objects, the stylistic changes in the Travancore sculptural traditions reflect a growing interest in making objects to either emulate western design (like the dressing table) and in adopting a more naturalistic style for objects made within Kerala to communicate with an audience that may be inclined towards European decorative taste. These changes, I have argued, can be attributed to not only changing sociopolitical status of India’s princely elite but changes in ecological thought and practices, and the drastically altered forest footprint of South India.
The objects within these palaces also display the change in the aesthetic value of raw materials. In place of swinging wooden cots and medicinal bed that define the interiors of Padmanabhapuram Palace, one sees imported neoclassical mirrors, Victorian glazed tiles, and musical orchestrions (Figure 15).
Conclusion: Colonization of Thought(?), Changing Ways of Life44
This should go in conclusion: I will also connect this to the fundamental change of a way of life as well as the what a society values.

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1 Malabar Coast is the region that geographically spans the length of the state of Kerala and northern parts of Karnataka on India’s southwestern coast. In the nineteenth century, the Malabar Coast was divided politically into the British Malabar in the north (including the Canara region of Karnataka), Cochin state in central Kerala, and Travancore state to the south (including parts of present-day Tamil Nadu district of Kanyakumari).
2 Bernard Cohn, Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India (Delhi; London: Oxford University Press, 1992). Christopher A. Bayly ed., Empire and Information (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).
3 Amin Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon: Catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Peabody Essex Museum (London: V ; A Publications, 2001): 8. For a history of eighteenth century furniture production and use, see: Jan Veenendal, Furniture from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and India: During the Dutch Period (Delft: Volkenkundig Museum Nusantara, 1985).
4 Jaffer, ibid.
5 Lara Kreigal, “Narrating the Subcontinent: India at The Great Exhibition of 1851,” in The Great Exhibition of 1851: New Interdisciplinary Essays, ed. Louise Pubrick (Manchester; New York: Manchester University Press, 2001): 146-178.
6 Deepika Ahlawat, “An Empire of Glass,” 157-58.
7 ibid., 159.
8 Caroline Karpinski, “Kashmir to Paisley,” Bulletin of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (November, 1963).
9 In Travancore, an example of the change in princely aesthetics can be seen expressly during the rule of Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma and avowed Anglophile who loved to dress in the western fashion and imported many goods such as carriages, mirrors, furniture and others from London through his commodity brokers Arbuthnot ; Co. in Madras. Both Uthram Thirunal and his predecessor and brother Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma (r.1829-1846) where the earliest Travancore rulers to have studied English, western arithmetic etc. and under whom the first western-style schools and medical clinics were set up in the state. For more on princely education, see: Caroline Keen, “Chapter 2: Education,” in Princely India and the British: Political Development and the Operation of Empire (London; New York: Tauris, 2012): 46-89.
10 Footnote: we cannot be sure that no foreign objects were imported from Europe in the period before Swathi Thirunal. Archival record-keeping was institutionalized and courtly procedures separated from that of the Padmanabhaswamy temple administration only in 1810s, during the reign of Swathi Thirunal’s mother under the supervision of the first British Resident of Travancore Col. John Munro.
11 Footnote: since there are very few records available for Cochin, I will only look at Travancore’s ivory production and use for the analysis.
12 Amin Jaffer, Furniture from British India and Ceylon, 3.
13 Most of North Kerala except Wayanad had already been ceded by Tipu to the British in 1792 after the Third Anglo-Mysore War. Cite this?
14 Berthold Ribbentrop, Forestry in British India, vol. II, (Calcutta: Government Printing, 1923): 68-69.
15 Dietrich Brandis, Indian Forestry (Woking: Oriental University Institute, 1897): 8-9.
16 Ribbentrop, Forestry in British India, 3; Joseph, Cochin Forests, 44.
17 For a detailed analysis of British imperial forestry practices in Cochin, see Joseph (2016).
18 Edward Percy Stebbing, The Forests of India, vol. I (London: Oxford University Press, 1922): 34.
19 Shireen Moosvi, “Main and Nature in Mughal Era,” Indian History Congress Symposia Papers, no. 5, (New Delhi, 1993): 16.
20 Richard Grove ed., Nature and the Orient: The Environmental History of South and South-East Asia (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998): 55.
21 Ramachandra Guha, Unquiet Woods: Ecological Change and Peasant Resistance in the Himalaya, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010): 37.
22 Sebastian Joseph, Cochin Forests and BritishTechno-Ecological Imperialism in India, (Delhi: Primus Books, 2016): 45.
23 Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India (University of California Press, 1992).
24 Joseph, 24.
25 Ibid., 17.
26 Kerala State Archives’ Neettu Records Collection (from here on KSA-N), vol. 3, p.15, dated ME 961-1-22 (1786 CE)
27 Richard Tucker, “The Depletion of India’s Forests under British Imperialism: Planters, Foresters, and Peasants in Assam and Kerala,” in Donald Worster ed. The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History (Cambridge University Press, 1988): 128-140.
28 KSA-N, vol. 3, p.127, dated 962 ME (1787CE).
29 KSA-N dated ME 987-6-24 (c.1812) vol. 98, p.213; KSA-N dated ME 976-10-30 (c.1801), vol. 4, 171.
30 KSA-N, vol.27, p.221, dated ME 1010-7-24 (1835 CE).
31 From interview with Mr. Rajesh, Site Officer, Padmanabhapuram Palace, Tamil Nadu. Interview dated: August 28, 2015.
32 M. Gunasekaran and P. Balasubramanian, p. 266. For a comprehensive history of temple tree worship, see: M. G. Chandrakanth et al., “Temple Forests in India’s Forest Development,” Agroforestry Systems 11, (1990): 199-211.
33 Tucker, 135.
34 Under Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma (r.1860-1880), the first teak plantation in Travancore was established in Vemburam Island near Malayattoor. In Cochin, as early as 1813, a new department called Malam?l Vich?rippu had been set up to oversee timber felling in forests.
35 Madhav Gadgil and Ramachandra Guha, This Fissured Land: An Ecological History of India (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014).
36 Brandis, Indian Forestry, 10; Madhav Gadgil et al., “Indigenous Knowledge for Biodiversity Conservation,” Biodiversity: Ecology, Economic, Policy vol. 22; 2/3 (1993): 151-6.
37 Joseph, 37.
38 See Tucker (1988), 130.
39 This data is part of my larger chapter that discusses the history of both wood and ivory as raw materials in Kerala. A table with these sets of information produced by analyzing over 100 KSA records is forthcoming.
40 Clive Spinage, find page number
41 Professor Owen, “The Ivory and Teeth of Commerce”, Journal of the Society of Arts, V, 213 (1856), 65–70.
43 It should be noted that while this throne was made in its later stages for Queen Victoria, it was initially meant to seat Swathi Thirunal’s successor and brother, Maharaja Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma (r. 1846-1860).
44 While the relationship of ivory and art is especially a drastic case study of the complex and sometimes problematic relationship between art and environment. Historically plastic arts relied upon organic matter for their raw material—trees, animals, earth from which were derived wood, ivory (tusk, teeth), bone, horn, and stone. The increasing consumer demand from the growing middle classes of the nineteenth century may have put further pressure on the relationship between artistic production and environment. Jennifer Anderson has explored furniture-making in North America within the context of denudation of Mahogany forests of North and Latin Americas over the course of the nineteenth century. In South Asia, the fraught relationship between growing middle class consumption and denigration of forests and forests produce has been amply studied by environmental historians. In light of these studies, it is safe to posit that while ivory remains an extreme example of the art-environment art production-environmental denudation dilemma, all organic matter that is used for artistic production posed a serious threat to the environment post the increase of population and wealth following the Industrial Revolution.


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