Nawab Wallajah with his son Amir ul Umara and grandson

Kombai S Anwar

Published in the Hindu, dated 10th May, 2019

In 1716, Farruksiyar the Mughal Emperor gifted an idol of Choodi Kodutha Nachiyar (Andal) to the Bhakthavatsala swamy temple at Sholingur in Tamil Nadu. Recording the gift, the Tamil inscription at the temple, following local traditions, begins with the honorific title of the Mughal as “Swasthishree Manth Mahamandaleswara Rajadhi Raja Raja Parameswara Raja Pirathaapa Mugalayi Farookseeya Saayibu Batcha.” Perhaps such gifts and titles were not unusual in those times, when our history and society weren’t coloured with the tinted view of the colonial historians, who viewed Indian history in the binaries of Hindu versus the Muslim.

As the Mughal’s deputies, the Nawabs of Carnatic, also known as Arcot Nawabs, followed in the footsteps of their masters. During their height of influence in the 18th century, the Arcot Nawabs not only continued the Mughal policies but went even further, as the Mughal power waned.

Record of conversation

The sacking of Delhi by the Persian adventurer Nadir Shah in 1739 C.E. precipitated the decline of Mughal authority. Even if news took weeks to reach the southern extremes of the empire, it was being anxiously monitored by every vested interest, from the Nawabs of Arcot to the European colonial powers. Ananda Ranga Pillai, dubash with the French at Pondicherry and privy to many of the discussions the French Governors had with the Arcot Nawabs and their associates, records some of the conversations which centred around the calamity that befell Delhi and the Mughal emperor.

Pillai, who maintained meticulous records of the happenings of the day, writes: “…after imprisoning Muhammad Sha (the Mughal Emperor), the Persian King (Nadir Shah) wrote asking the Surat Nawab to henceforth issue coins in his name.” Surat at that point was still a thriving Mughal port. Among the many acts of Nadir Shah in his Hindustani campaign, issuing coins in the Persian King’s name was an act clearly meant to drive home the point that the Mughal was no more in command at Delhi. Muhammad Shah’s subordinates like the Nizam-ul-Mulk Asaf Jah of Hyderabad and many other deputies, unable to defend the Mughal left Delhi disgraced. They retreated to their provinces, to create their own kingdoms, owing only nominal allegiance to the Mughal in Delhi.

Till then it was the practice of Nawabs of Carnatic to mint coins only in the name of the great Mughal. Perhaps as an act of asserting their new found freedom, coins came to be issued in the name of the Nawabs. Plant, flower, animal, crescent moon, star, sun and armour were some of the motifs found in the newly minted coins. Most interestingly, there were Hindu religious motifs, and along with Persian, Tamil and other languages of the region too found their way into the engraving.

arcot nawab rama
The Arcot Nawabs coin on the right has an image of Sri Rama engraved

With the variation of the Nawab engraved on the one side of the coin as Nawabu or Nababu in Tamil, the other side of the coin depicted a linga or a mosque. Or it had an of image of bow and arrow, fish, peacock, horse, etc. The Hindu deities of Murugan, Sri Rama, Krishna with a flute, Vishnu and Hanuman were also to be seen in various coins.

“These coins reveal the religious harmony of the Arcot Nawabs, their faith to Islam, their strategy to deal with the subjects, as coins contain both Tamil and Persian legends mostly,” writes Dr. V. Jeyaraj, former Curator, Government Museum, in his book, A Technical Study on the Coins of Arcot Nawabs.

However an intriguing aspect of these coins with Hindu religious motifs and Tamil script is that they lack the year of minting. Among the Nawabs and their contenders Chanda Sayabu, Anwaruddin, Mahfus Khan, Muhammad Ali Wallajah and Khan Sahib (Marudhanayagam) have their names engraved in Tamil with Hindu and Islamic religious motifs. Another mystery is the title “Asunaba,” which numismatist Jawahar Babu considers as that of Asaf Jah, the Nizam who was the immediate overlord of these Nawabs.

“Bulk of these Tamil coins are mostly found in southern Tamil Nadu,” points out Sankar Raman, another coin collector with a good collection from the Tamil region. Abdul Rasul, another avid numismatist with a collection of Arcot and South Indian coins concurs with Sankar Raman.

As one tries to understand, as to when and who among the Nawabs started the trend of issuing coins in Tamil, with their own names, the early contenders are Chanda Sahib and Nawab Anwarudeen. Chanda Sahib comes first with his deceitful take over of Trichy from Queen Minakshi. He “…proclaimed himself as Nawab of Tiruchi in the name of the Mughal” says N.S Ramaswami, in his book, Political History of Carnatic under the Nawabs.

An ambitious Chanda Sahib appointed his brothers as the Governors of Dindigul and Madurai. Around the time the Mughal power lay shattered in Delhi, Chanda Sahib had not only declared himself Nawab of Trichy but according to Benjamin Babington, appointed Fr Constanzo G. Beschi, the polyglot Jesuit of “Madura Mission” as his Diwan. Fr Beschi was not another European Jesuit on missionary work. The Italian Jesuit had fallen in love with Tamil, so much so that he rechristened himself as Veera Mamunivar.

Beschi is credited with composing the first Tamil lexicon, a Tamil-Latin dictionary, translations of a number of ancient Tamil literary works into various European languages, composing many Tamil literary works himself. Among his various Tamil literary works, Thembavani (The Unfading Ornament) is considered a great Tamil epic. A chance meeting with Chanda Sahib in the early 1730s would lead to an almost decade long friendship, an extraordinary relationship which according to some culminated in Beschi being appointed as Chanda Sahib’s diwan at Trichy.

Fr Fr Constanzo G. Beschi, the Jesuit who acted as diwan for Nawab Chanda sahib

Beschi’s role

Did the coming together of Beschi, an ardent advocate of Tamil and Chanda Sahib, an ambitious scion of the Arcot Nawabs, familiar with languages and customs of the land, lead to the coins being minted with Tamil script, perhaps as an extension of the earlier rulers coinages that had religious motifs and local languages? One wonders if the Jesuit as diwan had a role to play in the sudden appearance of the Arcot Nawabs’ names in Tamil? Chanda Sahib’s rise to power in Trichy rattled his own clansmen ruling from Arcot and also the Nizam, paving the way for the Marathas to besiege Trichy in 1741 and take him away as prisoner. A helpless Veera Mamunivar is supposed to have left Trichy in a huff and eventually faded away according to Babington, who translated Beschi’s 1728 Tamil rendition of Paramartha Guruvin Kathai into English.

Unfortunately material on Chanda Sahib or Fr Beschi during those crucial years is rather scarce. Chanda Sahib re-emerges as a contender to the throne in 1748, and wages an unsuccessful campaign aligning himself with the French, only to be killed in 1752.

Though, “who and when it was started” remains a puzzle, the Tamil and various religious motif coins add another dimension to our understanding of the Arcot Nawabs. From restoring Varadar to his rightful place of worship at Kanchipuram to granting endowments to temples, churches, darghas and mosques, the Nawabs of Arcot saw themselves as just rulers of the land, patronising different faiths.