Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

Eurasian Empires. Integration processes and identity formations.

What holds people together and what makes them willing to fit within larger political structures? Our project examines this question in the practices of dynastic rulership in Eurasia ca. 1300-1800.

2011  -   2016
Jeroen Duindam


The synthesis of this project has now been published in open access.

Our program brings together a team of senior researchers based in three Dutch universities: Leiden, Amsterdam (UvA) and Nijmegen. Together they coach eight researchers who each focus on a specific project within the program’s overall scope, covering Europe, West Asia, South Asia and East Asia.

While the projects take shape on the basis of specific language expertise and the study of primary sources, researchers define joint themes and produce joint papers. In this way the program as a whole seeks to bridge the gap between approaches of global history distant from sources and languages and the specialized studies of regional experts. This program explicitly aims to bring together researchers from many institutions and disciplines.

Since its inception the modern nation-state experiences problems in integrating regions and groups that do not comfortably fit the national stereotype. At the interstate level, supranational political structures have been notoriously ineffective in generating the political and cultural loyalties that alone can guarantee their success. Our program examines this problem in another age. We study how and to what extent Eurasian dynastic empires were successful in their efforts to hold together peoples, a process crystallizing around a conspicuous centre of redistribution and ritual, the court.

What held together peoples in the dynastic empire-states of Eurasia, ca. 1300-1800? Among the three levels that are usually accepted as determining compliance in political systems, i.e. coercion, perceived interest, and sanctified ideals and traditions, historical research has long focused on the development of a coercive apparatus. State-building traditionally served as main paradigm for the study of the early modern age, whereas the wider socio-cultural ramifications of state power were seen as a more recent development, emerging only with enlightenment, revolution, and the rise of nationalism. This construes consensus as a vital basis of modern states, while underlining force as the key element in pre-modern states and empires. In pre-modern states and empires, however, limited means of resource extraction as well as communication made it practically impossible to uniformly sustain an effective administrative and military presence. A monopoly of violence was never easily established, let alone preserved. The resulting typically loose structures of government functioned effectively only if the political-cultural centre maintained ties with a hierarchy of socio-political elites through administrative channels buttressed by patron-client connections, as well as through shared ideals and expectations. The population at large perceived the political centre not only through the mediation of elites, but also by the conspicuous show of power created around the (dynastic) ruler. Although often based on an ideology of sacred omnipotence, and frequently resorting to forceful measures, dynastic regimes in practice needed to accommodate regional elites, accepting semi- autonomy of groups nominally under their purview. We examine the attitudes, practices and processes by which the dynastic centre could draw such groups into its orbit.

We study this process through the prism of an institution almost universal in pre-modern global history: dynastic government. The structures and practices recurring in the history of dynastic government invite and make possible a thorough intercultural comparative examination based on historical-anthropological perspectives rather than on classical political or economic approaches. Focusing on an institution as characteristic for Alteuropa as it was for Asia, we steer clear of the complications caused by studying the rise of modernity. The logic of dynastic power itself offers a clear-cut basis for our comparative layout, starting with the figure in the centre, advancing to the household or court serving the ruler and his kin, finally reaching the level of the elites governing the empire. These three levels of ruler, court, and empire, are examined in terms of the core ruling person(s) or groups, their immediate relations and connections, and finally their representation as well as their perception by others.

Research supervision group

Three Dutch letters on an Indian royal career

Within the Eurasian Empires program one of our aims is to extensively use different types of primary sources to study various areas. This is the first in a serie of pieces in which we highlight another set of sources and make some examples available to a larger audience.


The records of the Dutch East India Company contain numerous references to Asian courts, for instance with regard to dynastic successions. The three letters below—all kept in the Netherlands National Archives—concern the south Indian kingdom of Ramnad during the 1720s. Two of these letters were exchanged between Dutch settlements in and around the kingdom, while one was received from the Ramnad court itself. They reveal hitherto unknown facts about the career of Bhavani Sankara, who was a bastard son of an earlier king. He had already tried to ascend Ramnad’s throne on his father’s death in 1710, but proved unacceptable to the court because of his illegitimate descent. Another member of the royal family was enthroned instead.

In the first letter, dating from 1725, we read how that ruler has now passed away and Bhavani finally becomes king of Ramnad. Remarkably, this happens by way of a public ceremony in which all the kingdom’s powerful people—and even the neighbouring Tondaiman ruler—publicly recognise him, except for some rivals, who flee to the nearby kingdom of Tanjavur.

The second letter, also from 1725, is written by Bhavani Sankara himself and addressed to the Dutch governor of Ceylon. It turns out Bhavani has been helped in attaining his regal position by the Tanjavur kingdom (the very place his rivals flee to!). Fresh on the throne, Bhavani Sankara seems eager to legitimise his new status. He relates how he—after being seen off by the king of Tanjavur and with assistance of its general—has defeated some competitors, acquired the kingdom’s regalia, captured the capital Ramanathapuram, and celebrated an important royal festival (most probably Navaratri). Besides, seeking more allies, he is keen to establish friendly relations with the Dutch.

However, in the third letter (an extract, to be precise), written in 1729, we learn that Bhavani Sankara has just lost the throne. Apparently he has fallen from grace with Tanjavur, as that kingdom now supports some of Bhavani’s rivals who earlier fled to Tanjavur. Probably because Bhavani Sankara has proved to be a too independent-minded king, this time the Tanjavur king takes no chances and literally divides and rules: Ramnad is handed over to two throne pretenders with a vague instruction to divide it equally between the two of them. Not surprisingly, they soon fall out with one another, which eventually leads to a partition of the kingdom.

Later Dutch documents show that Tanjavur continued trying to intervene with Ramnad’s dynastic politics, always supporting rivals of whoever happened to be king. In the 1730s, another army was sent to Ramnad, now featuring Bhavani Sankara again, but without success. Bhavani never regained the throne and after a while disappeared from the Dutch records altogether.

The letters below have been translated as literally as grammar and readability allow.

Letter from Kilakkarai to Tuticorin (VOC archives, inv. no. 2026, ff. 834v-5)

[f. 834v] To the Sir Jan Driemondt, chief of the Madurai Coast, and second of the commission in the pearl fishery –

These humble [words] just serve to announce to Your Honour the death of His Excellency within the stronghold Arantangi on the 8th of this [month], on Sunday late afternoon around four o’clock, having followed in his place the son of his ancestor, named Bhavani Sankara Rama Raja, whom all the court nobles, beside the warriors, accompanied by the Tondaiman and his following, by the raising of both hands, have already publicly recognised as king of the Maravar realm and worshipped according to the country’s way, except for Kattaya Tevar and the son of one Tanda Tevar, who both have fled to Tanjavur, out of fear that some harm might befall them as rivals and blood relatives, but according to rumours there was not the least expectation of uprising by the said two persons, because of their impotence and because they have left wife and children and their entire wealth behind and in the power of the present Tevar, who, since his elevation, had the stronghold Ramanathapuram and further places of importance properly provided with soldiery, for keeping away all calamities and the peace of mind of the merchant and subject – [f. 835] 137 wives, concubines and maidservants of the deceased Tevar Lord having jumped into the fire alive, on the 10th of this [month] at Arantangi, and on the 14th thereafter at Ramanathapuram 86 of this sex followed, thus together making up 223 pieces, and at the first-mentioned place one of the real wives of the deceased Tevar is said to be still alive, who was spared for her pregnancy, further, thank god all still goes as wished over here, and a copy of this [letter] is presently about to be respectfully sent to Tuticorin, from where we, with Your Honour’s favourable permission, should it occur, will respectfully make a request for a sloop and a party of troops, but not earlier than when necessary, wherewith etc. / standing below / Your Honour’s entirely humble and obedient servants (was signed) R. Helmondt and Js. Crenting / aside / Kilakkarai the 16th April 1725 / standing lower / approved / was signed / R. Helmondt.

Click for larger image: 1st letter

Letter from Bhavani Sankara to Colombo (VOC archives, inv. no. 2046, ff. 762-2v)

[f. 762] Translated Malabari [Tamil] olai [palm leaf letter] by the free Lord Hiranyagarbhayaji Sri [?] Kulasekhara Bhavani Sankara Rama Raja Setupati Katta Tevar to the Honourable Lord Extraordinary Councillor of the Indies and Ceylon’s Governor Joannes Hertenberg / ‘Z.G.’ / written the 16th October 1725 –

Reading according to the preceding ordinary introduction.

The last 21st August, after taking my leave of the Tanjavuri King Chinnaraja [Sarabhoji Raja], I have departed with all war power and arrived at Hanumankudi [?], where I – having met and spoken with Ananda Rao – at the mentioned [f. 762v] place have rounded up Muttu Vijaya and Alagappa Mudaliar [?], who had caused some revolts, and [I] captured from them the elephant of state, the palanquin wrought with gold, periyaperikai [throne], kutai [umbrella], melsalli [drum] and other stately things, with which I, beside Ananda Rao, in the company of four thousand riders and forty thousand heads of foot soldiers, arrived at Ramanathapuram, and over there had one Malai Viraja [?], brother-in-law of abovementioned Muttu Vijaya, attacked, who fleeing thither had stayed in the fort, and had myself raised to the government, which I have announced to the resident of Kilakkarai Mr. Reijnier Helmondt, who will have communicated such to Your Honour, further I have completed with all pleasure the ceremonial festival of water bathing [?] that must be celebrated on the 5th October, and while the Honourable Company lets His Honour share in the happiness that comes over me, so [I] request that the friendship that has been maintained between the Honourable Company and my ancestors from now on may also be increased, and announce to me if something here may be of service to you. (was signed) some characters / standing below / for the translation / was signed / –

Ls. Paulusz

Click for larger image: 2nd letter first part | 2nd letter second part

Extract from letter from Tuticorin to Colombo (VOC archives, inv. no. 2158, ff. 850-1)

[f. 950] Idem extract dated 29 September 1729, written to and from as before –

Namely that the fleeing of Kattaya Tevar and Nalkottai Udaya Tevar to the Tondaiman, as which is stated in our humble writing of that same [f. 950v] day, has just been a false pretext, as the mentioned Kattaya Tevar has not only been appointed king of the Maravars [Ramnad] by the Tanjavuri, instead of the most recently reigning Tevar Lord Bhavani Sankara Rama Raja, and, on the 16th before that, has arrived at Ramanathapuram, provided with parties of foot and horse soldiers, but also on the next day was confirmed in that position and publicly introduced to the people over there – the wife and children as well as the entire court retinue of the mentioned Bhavani Sankara Rama Raja on the 19th of this [month] being taken away by the Tanjavuri with all honour and respect from the mentioned stronghold to Arantangi, where the said Bhavani is still put under arrest, but the fellow of the aforementioned Kattaya Tevar, named Nalkottai Udaya Tevar, being entirely dissatisfied with his said appointment, was thought, for that [f. 951] reason, to have left to a certain village located near the week market of Pativenalur, while in the meantime, through this created change, the Tanjavur [king] has almost reached his target, because he currently keeps half of the Maravars’ land, up to Tondi, in full possession – that king having handed over the remaining places south of the bight of Tondi as fiefs to the aforementioned Kattaya Tevar and Nalkottai Udaya Tevar, with the recommendation to equally divide these among them both, except for the stronghold Ramanathapuram, which he, as the seat of the Maravar kings, has separately presented to Kattaya Tevar.

Click for larger image: 3rd letter first part | 3rd letter second part

Lennart Bes

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