Sunday, 21 January 2007

Day Three, Was a Transylvanian in Cochin?

Photo 1, the Dutch Palace

As evening drew near the Raja and his brother arrived at our hotel. We had decided to brave the Bandh, and see if we could visit Fort Cochin.

My son was placed in the passenger seat in the hope that any picket might be confused enough to let us pass.

Driving through the almost deserted streets was a real pleasure, as we headed for the bridges onto Mattancheri island. These bridges date from the 1920's and are a fantastic testament to their original builders. They cannot conceivably have been designed for the axle loads they have taken over the years, and must be past any design life they were ever specified for, and yet the still stand, bent and battered.

As we arrived in Mattancheri we immediately began to see old Dutch buildings very reminicsent of buildings I had seen in Malacca. Today they are run down and have many lean to's and later additions tacked on.

What potential these buildings would have could they be freed from their bonds and restored.

We almost immediately passed a gateway to a particularly fine building on our right.

Asking if we could stop and go and look at it, the brothers said, yes, we could, and started to drive into the complex. The gate guard looked surprised at our heading into the grassy and dirt track, but he obviously recognised my hosts because he immediately straightened up and let us pass.

This was the lovely Dutch Palace. A building originally built by the Portuguese in about 1557 to enhance the status of the Cochin Raja their ally in the Malabar Coast.

In those days only temples, and the Portuguese warehouses were built of stone. The Rajas had allowed the Muslim traders to have stone walls around there compounds in the years up to 1498, but they themselves felt more comfortable in their traditional housing complexes.

In 1663 the Dutch defeated the Portuguese at Cochin and took over the complex, which they reconstructed at some point after this.

Cochin had been the home of a Jewish community since at least 70AD, and quite probably before. By 1500 this population had become dispersed and lived in a number of other towns like Cranganore [today called Kodungallur] [1]

During the 16th Century it would appear that a new wave of Jews had arrived in Cochin from the Sephadi communities in Spain and Portugal. Quite possibly, the Portuguese in their unceasing search for labour to work their ships, till their soil, and fight their wars had bought these exiled and displaced peoples in their ships to Cochin, home of that most tolerant of rulers.

At the centre of this complex is a small but very beautiful Hindu Temple called I believe the Bhagarathi Temple. This has a conical central building over the holiest inner sanctum, surrounded by an outer square cloister like building. This temple complex is not open to non Hindu's, so we forebore entering.

Walking along the wall of the palace

Photo 2, the other defensive wall of the Palace complex and the Synagogue roof beyond.

we turned at the foot of the steps to climb up to the museum on the upper floor

Photo 3, the entrance door to the Palace museum

as I looked up I was presented with a painting on the door that really puzzled me

Photo 4, close up of museum door showing "Transylvanian" flower paintings

for this door didn't look at all Indian, or even very Dutch to me. It looked Transylvanian.

This could not be true. Sadly we were too late for the museum, so turning once more we walked on towards the estuary and water front. Reaching the front of the building I turned to look east, towards the tower and the Jewish synagogue.

And there staring me in the face was another "Transylvanian" building.

Photo 5, the gatehouse tower and synagogue roof behind

Why did this door and these buildings strike me as Transylvanian?

My wife has Transylvanian connections, and I have travelled to the region and studied it's history with interest for many years, for it too was an area affected by colonial activity over many centuries.

The door painting for instance have many similarities with the panels at Nagyajta Church [3] below.

Photos 6 and 7, Transylvanian painted panels inside Nagyajta church.

Nagyajta is a village in the south east corner of Transylvania about 35 kilometres north of Brasov in modern Romania. [4]

With the rolling back of the Ottoman Empire during the period after the defeat of the Turkish seige of Vienna in 1683 and following the Battle of Zenta in 1695 on the Tizsa River, when Transylvania was finally liberated from the Ottoman threat, the area with repopulated with military and other settlers from Germany and Hungary.

Many of these were Protestant and Unitarian refugees or exiles from southern Germany or western Hungary, moving east to escape the Catholic led Counter Reformation in the Habsburg world, or in lands controlled by the Catholic German Prince Bishops.

These refugees had three main places where they could move to; England, Holland and Transylvania which was traditionally open to Protestant settlers.

Following the Battle of Zenta many of the soldiers would have faced unemployment with the disbandment of much of the Austrian army. The opportunities that would have been there in a war when soldiers were always needed whatever their creed, would however have been limited for a Protestant soldier in a reduced Catholic run army in peacetime.

Perhaps this is why he went into the Dutch service like so many others.

The Dutch East India Company faced a cronic manpower shortage throughout the late 17th Century and 18th Century. Dutch men were in such demand in the booming Dutch economy, they did not want or need to go out to the colonies except for the best of jobs. Soldiering was not the best of prospects at the best of times.

As early as 1622 out of 143 soldiers in the Dutch garrison at Batavia for example, 60 were German's Swiss, English, Scots, Irish and Danes. The Dutch being Protestant preferred for obvious reason's not to employ Catholic soldiers, although instructions to this effect had to be issued and reissued by the Dutch VOC authorities, because they were so often breached.

Even the roof line of the synagogue behind the tower has many similarities with churches being built in Transylvanian in the period between 1699 and 1720.

Photo 8. As the above photo of Csikrakos church about 55 kilometres due north of Nagyajta, demonstrates at the right hand end of the church in this photo, it has an almost identical roof form and slope to the Synagogue in Cochin.

Look at the bottom of the tiles on both roofs, they both have a short broken slope at the bottom.

Other Transylvanian churches display very similar tower proportions to the gate house. The tower has been heightened during its life time.

Photo 9, shows Csikrakosrol church. The bit above the top of the tree line was added to the tower after about 1750 in a Baroque style.

Compare the base of the tower with the following photo of the side of the gate house directly outside of the synagogue entrance.

Photo 10, the gatehouse tower with the synagogue entrance on the left hand side.

The panels in Nagyajta church have been recently restored, and are therefore brighter than they would have been. They also are unusual in one other potentially very significant thing.

The vast majority of Transylvanian furniture which have these flower paintings have a bottle green painted blackground.

Whilst there are some other blue backgrounds, and in some cases the green paint fades with age towards a dark blue, it is quite unusual but not infrequent to see blue examples.

Photo 11, Transylvanian ceiling panels in unrestored colours.

So who was this architect and painter?

I believe he was a Unitarian who had lived and worked (and possibly fought) in Transylvania near Nagyajta in the period between 1699 and 1720. He had then left for India in the Dutch VOC service. He was probably a gunner.

In the English forts of this period like Fort St. David, with which I am familar, the building works were normally under the control of the Master Gunner. He was expected to be able to lay out fortifications and to be able to build gunpowder storerooms and barracks. He prepared estimates for work and supervised local labourers. In this case probably Indians.

I expect that a Dutch Master gunner would have been required to be similarly accomplished, especially as the English and Dutch armies had worked together very closely against the French during the period from 1689 to 1712.

The settlers in Transylvania were normally either German or Hungarian at this time. They were normally Protestant, and they could originate from a wide band of Europe stretching from just East of Strasburg along the northern slopes of the Alps through the Palatinate to Upper Austria, or be from Hungary where Unitarianism started.

Similar paintings can be found along this belt of land. Can anybody else work out from the style is exact origin?

The Portuguese had been brutal to both the Indian's and the Jews on many occasions during their rule.

Tradition has it that the Rajas of Cochin had on one occasion offered the Jews shelter after one of these attacks under the immediate walls of this palace. The synagogue itself is supposed to date from 1557.

In the fighting between the Portuguese and Dutch in 1663, the town had suffered damage, and quite possibly the synagogue and palace too. The Dutch are said to have rebuilt the palace in 1663.

A plaque on the tower suggests that the tower was repaired in the 1720's.

Has anybody researched the Dutch Records for Cochin in this period?

Are they as good as the East India Company ones in London for similar settlements?

Is it possible that we could find out who this "Transylvanian" gunner, architect and painter was?

If you do have anything to add on for or against my hypothesis, please contact me on

[1] See the following website for some very interesting 18th Century drawings of Cranganore

[2]A Sephardi is a Jew originating in the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) , including the descendants of those subject to expulsion from Spain by order of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella (as codified in the Alhambra decree of 1492), or from Portugal by order of King Manuel I in 1497. From


Which although in Hungarian contains several pictures of the interior of the church, and the fortifications around the church.

See also the following Hungarian website on castles and forts which has a drawing of the layout.

[4] Nagyajta 45 degrees 57" 53.83" N 25 degrees 33' 53.01" E, the church and fortified church wall shows up clearly on Google Earth. Transylvania [English] is known as Siebenb├╝rgen in German, and Erdely in Magyar.

Copyright Nick Balmer, 5th January 2007.

The Hindu Article


Journeys of discovery


Researching their ancestors, a Briton and an Indian rediscover links long forgotten.

Photo: Vipin Chandran

Shared past: Nicholas Balmer and Prema Jayakumar.

IT was a story of an extraordinary comradeship. The relation that existed between Thomas Hervey Baber, sub-collector of Tellichery in 1805 and his deputy, Kalpally Karunakara Menon, defied the norms of the period. But sadly, no one thought of documenting it. Their successors are trying to do that, in their own ways.

When Prema Jayakumar, one of the leading translators in Malayalam, started working on Kalpally Karunakara Menon, it was just an attempt to record the story of her ancestor for family members to read. Around the same time, Nicholas Balmer, an English civil engineer, inherited a "trunk full of letters" from a distant ancestor.

Little did they know then that these two names were deeply embossed in the land's history. Thomas Hervey Baber, who was Mr. Balmer's great grandfather, and his deputy, Kalpally Karunakara Menon, led the team that captured Pazhassi Raja.

Broader relevance

Both of them realised that the stories they had at hand were too big to restrict to family histories and started working on separate books. At an advanced stage of research they came to know about each other through a common friend. After a couple of years' communication through emails, they met for the first time at Kochi this December.

"We were told about our ancestor as the hero of a rather romantic story, a child who ran away from home in his teens and rose in life using his talent. But all these were wrong. I now have his will with me," said Ms. Jayakumar.

At the other end, Mr. Balmer also has a different experience. "When I started reading the letters and the history of dealing with people from different communities, I felt that I could understand it. Because I had 250 Indians and Pakistanis working for me in the Gulf. When I used to listen to my workmen, I realised what my ancestor might have been through."

The lives of Thomas H. Baber and Kalpally Karunakara Menon crossed each other's with the former's arrival as an official of English East India Company. Baber was the Sub-Collector of Tellichery when Pazhassi Raja was killed.

"Menon was often the trouble-shooter for Baber," said Ms. Jayakumar. "And he was recalled many times for specific assignments, even after he retired from service following Pazhassi Raja's death. Once he was sent to Coorg (to negotiate with the Raja of Coorg for avoiding a war) and to Pune on another occasion to negotiate release of five persons kidnapped by a local ruler."

Fruitful meeting

Both Mr. Balmer and Ms. Jayakumar are now in possession of loads of research material. Their meeting was also a chance to exchange them. One of them being a memoir by Colonel James Welsh, who came to Malabar to deal with the insurgency that broke out in Wayanad. Col. Welsh had Karunakara Menon as his guide, as recommended by Baber.

The memoir reproduces a drawing of Karunakara Menon's residence at Ramanattukara. "This banyan tree, shown here, fell the day my uncle was born," said Ms. Jayakumar, with an unmistakable joy in her voice. She then showed Mr. Balmer a black and white family photograph that had her uncle as a young man.

When he Balmer started out, Baber was just the man who tracked down Pazhassi Raja. Or that was what he could get from the Internet. But, letters and documents that Mr. Balmer inherited paint another picture of his ancestor. "He campaigned against slavery. He was an outsider with the English community here."

New material

Balmer has collected archival material, which includes an extract, as preserved in the Malabar Manual, from the complete report that Thomas Baber filed to the Collector of Malabar on December 31, 1805, where he gave a detailed account of Pazhassi Raja's last battle. The report narrates how the body of the fallen king was carried in the palanquin of Baber and his ailing lady in the palanquin of Baber's captain. The king was given a proper funeral, despite English hostility. Baber wrote: "I was induced to this conduct from the consideration that although a rebel, he (Pazhassi Raja) was one of the natural chieftains of the country, and might be considered on that account rather as a fallen enemy."

While Balmer tried to reconstruct the story of Baber's life from his "often-hurriedly written letters" and ledger entries made by East India Company clerks, Ms. Jayakumar had to cross-check the veracity of stories handed over from one generation to another within the family. Balmer, who is touring the State along with his son, wants to get "the Indian perspective of history", to complete his book. His tour programme also included hunting for the unmarked tomb of Baber and his wife at a church somewhere in Thalassery.

After retiring from the East India Company, Baber returned to London. But the lure of Malabar was too much for the Englishman and he soon returned. "There are no accounts whether Baber met Karunakara Menon on his return. But it is believed that they died almost during the same period," Ms. Jayakumar said. The story was not destined to end there. And so, the tale of friendship resumed after six generations.

© Copyright 2000 - 2006 The Hindu


Date:07/01/2007 URL: Magazine

Copyright Nick Balmer, 5th January 2007.

Day Three, 14th December 2006, The Interview

Prema had said as I entered her house "a journalist I know is going to drop by our house later this morning, you wouldn't mind speaking to him, would you?"

I was a bit surprised by this turn of events, but as I didn't really want to let her down, and because I have spoke to journalists before, I answered that I didn't mind.

I was however a bit apprehensive that they might not take kindly to the descendants of two people who had managed to track down and kill the Pyche Raja.

At 11 am Anand Haridas of the Hindu turned up with his photographer Vipin Chandran in tow.

Free Image Hosting at

The full article can be seen at

The interview turned out to be far more fun than I had expected. Haridas asked a series of good questions which were entirely to the point.

He seemed genuinely interested, and asked me later if he could get a copy of the transcripts that I had made of Thomas Baber's report of the death of the Pyche Raja.

In order to do this we set off into the empty streets of Kochi to his office in his car.

The offices surprised me by being far more advanced than I had expected, and they were using all of the latest technology, in a way that I had not really expected. But it is evidence of just how fast India is changing, for whilst India may often look somewhat tired and rundown on the outside, and in it's public face, it is obvious that behind the facade thousands of intelligent and highly motivated young people are bursting with energy waiting for their opportunity to better themselves.

Anand asked me what my job was, and I explained that I work for a major contractor building a new business unit constructing environment and sustainable energy and resource solutions, he suddenly started to tell me about the sheer scale of the environmental problems facing Kochi and Kerala.

To me with my experience, this was no surprise because I could observe this with my own eyes all around me in Kochi; what was fascinating to me was to see that the younger generation in India are now just as aware of these issues as I was myself twenty five years ago.

What I find highly encouraging is that they are quite obviously taking steps to start to improve environmental matters themselves.

So what had started out for me with a certain amount of apprehension, turned into what became an extremely interesting and informative couple of hours.

The article is a good reflection of what I had said, and is only incorrect in one minor point, Thomas Baber was my 4 x great uncle, and not a direct forebear of mine.

What I had not anticipated was the number of contacts and emails that I would go on to receive as a result of this article, not just from India but from as far away even as Australia.

Copyright Nick Balmer January 2007

Friday, 5 January 2007

Day Three, 14th December 2006, Ernakalum.

On the previous evening, the Raja had told me with evident concern that tomorrow there would be a general strike, or “bandh” across Kerala. This would curtail our activities for the coming day.

However we would be visiting our mutual friend Prema who lived nearby for breakfast.

So it was with a certain amount of trepidation that we went down to the hotel lobby.

Would there be any staff?

Would the M.G. Road be full of demonstrator’s?

Would the police be drawn up outside in their riot gear?

In fact the staff could not have been nicer if they had tried, the street outside was a gloriously peaceful and pleasant place to be on this bright morning. The strike was so complete and so universal, that there was not a truck or car to be seen.

How much more pleasant than in the normal Maelstrom of daily traffic.

Having only corresponded with Prema by email previously, it was with great anticipation that we awaited her arrival at our hotel. Within minutes of our meeting with this engaging, elegant and lively lady, with her infectious laugh, we were walking into her lovely garden compound.

For in amongst the urban sprawl that is today’s Ernakalum, she has been able to preserve a small haven of peace and calm.

Working in the Middle East, quarter of a century ago, I had made my living building gardens for Sheikh’s. The plants we had grown were by necessity often from India.

Here in Prema’s garden were many old friends of mine. For here was Canna, and there was Neem and Bananas along with many other trees and plants, which are of course impossible to grow in my native land, but which I recognised from the Gulf.

Dominating all was the biggest Mango tree that I have ever seen. Indeed, so big was it that I did could not really at first believe that it could be a Mango tree, because it had never entered my brain, that they could ever reached such a height.

Looking to my English eyes for all the world like the huge Walnut tree that was my Grandfather’s pride and joy at the top of his orchard.

Entering her house we were soon introduced to her family. Within moments Jayan and I had discovered each other’s deep and shared knowledge and interest in old maps and history.

We were away, and I could have happily spoken to him all day long. For it was extremely interesting to run so many of my hypothesis and ideas past him. For whilst it is possible to study a land and its culture from abroad through the medium of letters and documents, it is obviously far too easy for me to have to jumped to completely the wrong conclusions.

Had I understood this event correctly?

How did this work?

What does this mean?

Soon we were joining the family at quite the best Indian breakfast we were to encounter during the entirety of our stay. The families evident concern for our comfort and well being, and that we should enjoy their food, only determined my son and I the more to do the food justice. Richard, who is often particular, as most teenagers are, about his food, and who was gallantly eating with his hands, and despite being left handed, with his right hand was doing remarkably well, for somebody previously only used to a knife and fork.

Rice pancakes, and a myriad of sauces, spicy and otherwise, followed by some small and quite delicious bananas, a world away from the tough skinned coarse and pasty Bananas we buy in England. These juicy and really tasty Bananas were really great.

My Hungarian mother in law is a great cook, and prides herself on the thinnest of her pancakes, which have become a great favourite with my children, who have been know to polish off plate loads at a sitting. What fun to find that similar pancakes, all be it being made with rice flour, are just such established family favourites five thousand miles away.

We were struck by the similarities between our own families, for despite the more overt differences of race, country and colour, it was quite obvious that deep down our families, English, Hungarian and Nair, each possess the same shared deeply held core beliefs and moral code which transcends race or religion.

Had this discovery also been Thomas Baber’s experience?

I believe strongly that it had been.

Straight off the boat at Calicut and thrust in 1797 straight out and up the country into the Palghat [1] region, and aged only twenty, the same age as my own son currently, he must have been totally without friends, and quite possibly on his own, a single Englishman, sent to run a revenue district.

He must have felt just as homesick and rejected as I had by England when I make my journey to the Middle East in search of work.

With a fierce insurgency breaking out, as the Pyche Raja in 1797 broke with the East India Company [EIC], the existing senior EIC staff in the Malabar must have been stretched nearly to breaking point.

How much time can they have had left to support or mentor Thomas Baber in his first weeks and months?

Virtually none, for they were far too busy fighting for their own survival.

These officials had however put Thomas into the most isolated, and least active of the Malabar districts. For unlike the taluks [2] to the north around Tellicherry, which were predominantly Hindu, Palghat had a predominantly Muslim population, and was controlled by Moppilla’s and the descendants of former Arab traders and colonists, and their local Muslim converts.

Unwittingly they had put Thomas into the ideal training ground where he would become rapidly immersed in Malabar culture and ways of operating, whilst at the same time isolating him from his fellow Griffin’s [3].

Operating along the lines of the Roman’s, and following the model they all knew from their schooldays, the senior EIC officials had all been educated in the Roman Classics. They understood and applied the principle of “divide and rule” to their provinces.

Thomas Baber’s Kolkar’s in this strongly Muslim district were Hindu Nairs.

I believe that one of these Nairs was almost certainly Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen, who was at this time about two years older than Thomas.

Both were deep in dangerous territory, and both shared similar core beliefs. Both men were driven by a shared ambition to improve things for the community they lived in.

I believe that it was this friendship forged in the Palghat Taluk, and one that would endure for nearly 40 years, that caused Thomas Baber to risk quite literally everything on more than one occasion for causes that he saw to be essential to the public welfare of a community that he had came to love and admire.

For in the same way, that Prema’s family and mine immediately found in each others the same shared core beliefs, interests and value, I am sure Tom, had found these same values in Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen.

Prema had gone on straight away to start to teach my son and I how to understand and get by in local ways, so I feel sure had Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen set to work to instruct Thomas Baber.

Kulpilly Caranakera Menoen, I believe, went on to mould and form Thomas Baber’s thinking. Menoen, by doing so was working in the traditional role of the Nair community in Malabar society, as protectors of the community, but in also acting as a check on the arbitrary rule of wayward rulers.

[1] Palghat

[2] Taluks, districts

[3] Griffin’s, EIC slang for new arrival’s.

Copyright Nick Balmer, 5th January 2007.