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Maharajah Marthanda Varma was an able administrator, a king and a prudent military commander. He ruled the Travancore state from 1729 to 1758 AD. Under his rule, the Travancore state rose to prominence as a militarily powerful state, and its boundaries expanded to cover the whole of South India. Besides this accomplishment, he modernized the military forces under him and brought about key reforms to ensure the smooth functioning of the administrative apparatus, which include bringing reforms in revenue and budgetary systems, public works, agriculture, and building up of dams at important locations to facilitate irrigation. During his rule, the Padmanabhaswamy temple was renovated and new state ceremonies such as 'Murajapam', 'Badradeepam' etc. were introduced at the temple premises to appease the presiding deity. Apart from these, he took the title of Padmanabha Dasa and ruled the state for the presiding deity.
Marthanda Varma was born in 1706 to junior Rani of Attingal who belonged to the Kolathiri family of Malabar. The whole family of this junior Rani was later adopted by the Umayamma Rani of Venad dynasty to offset the failure of the heirs of her family to qualify for the throne. During that time, it was a small state whose jurisdiction extended from Attingal in the north and Kanyakumari in the south. From his formative years, he was an intelligent prince who had shown keen interest in the affairs of the state. It was he who advised Rajah Rama Varma of the principality to enter into a treaty with the Madurai Nayaks to obtain the services of the latter's army to stop the activities of Ettuveetil Pillamar and other rebellious chieftains who had set up a parallel government to revolt against the ruling family. Against this backdrop, he had to start his conquest against the mighty and powerful Madampis of the region to establish his genuine claim to the throne as a chosen successor.
Military Conquests and Reforms
As an able administrator and commander of the state army, he modernized the army and brought about the European discipline in it. As a result of vigorous overhaul, the army became thoroughly professional. After having destroyed the feudal system of governance that was threatening to dethrone the monarchy, he turned his attention to neighboring states that had tried to reap benefit from the troubled waters of the Travancore principality. In his quest for more battle victories, he was ably assisted by his Divan Ramayyan Dalawa who later on became the Prime Minister of the state. As a result of fighting of several battles, the Quilon, Kayamkulam and Kottarakara principalities were annexed to the state. Following the annexation of these principalities, the state of Travancore earned the enmity of the Dutch, which decided to conquer it. In the ensuing battle, rather known as the Battle of Colachel, the army led by Marthanda Varma could completely rout the Dutch army and brought an end to the reign of Dutch in Kerala.
After the defeat of the Dutch army, many of its soldiers were taken as war prisoners, among them were Eustachius De Lannoy and Donadi who were able to attract the attention of Marthanda Varma for their valor and sincerity. Eustachius De Lannoy was entrusted with the raising of a special regiment to augment the fighting ability of the army. As a result of the earnest services of this Dutch gentleman, the new regiment was raised to the satisfaction of the Maharaja. Happy with his performance, Marthanda Varma elevated this Dutch gentleman to the rank of General. From this point onwards, this gentleman was known as Valiakappithan in Travancore state. In the subsequent battles that annexed the states of Kottayam, Changanacherry, Ambalapuzha and Cochin, the services of Eustachius De Lannoy proved to be helpful. Towards the fag end of his military career, he was able to annex a small kingdom of Meenachi and state of Calicut. With the defeat of the Zamorin of Calicut, the military superiority of Marthanda Varma had become complete in Kerala.
Reforms as Administrator
He was instrumental in bringing landmark reforms in budgetary and revenue systems, and public works to enable smooth execution of state projects in the state. To strengthen the administrative machinery further, he established Knighthood for those Nair officers who were loyal to him. It was known as "Chempakaraman Pillai" in the state. Another contribution by this great visionary was in the agriculture sector. He tried to improve this field by setting up dams across important rivers at key places to facilitate the smooth irrigation of agricultural fields. His edicts on the topic of irrigation issued between 1729 and 1758 filled several pages in the Travancore Land Revenue Manual penned by R. Mahadeva Iyer. Because of the building of a network of dams and irrigation canals, the fertile single-crop lands of Nanjil Nadu, east of Nagarcoil in present day Tamil Nadu, were converted to double-crop lands, almost doubling the agricultural production. Due to this development, the Nanjil Nadu region became granary of Travancore during his lifetime.
As a head of the state, Maharajah Marthanda Varma brought in key reforms in administrative and defense departments to ensure the expansion and prosperity of the region. In the military front, he brought in the European style of functioning and overhauled the military apparatus to boost the army's preparedness for a war. As a result of this, he could expand the state to a large extend, annexing the states from north and south of its dominion. He knew that the main economy of a region relies on agriculture. Hence, he took steps to improve the irrigation of the regions that were known to feed the whole state. Accordingly, a number of dams were constructed around Nanjil Nadu to provide water to irrigate the paddy fields there. He also brought in reforms in revenue, budgets and public works departments to evenly distribute resources for overall development of the state. Under his rule, the Padmanabhaswamy temple was renovated and state rituals such as "Murajapam" were instituted to appease the presiding deity.