Famines in British Raj – How Travancore proved to be a Dharma Rajya

The British Raj is known for having caused several famines apart from mismanagement of natural famines. Death and desolation in the country was very normal. Princely states also suffered from these famines partly because the Raj did not really give a freehand to the rulers. Despite this, we are able to see that the princely state of Travancore fared far better. Their adherence to concept of Dharma Rajya being one of the main reasons for this achievement.

We shall take for our study, three famines – 1860, 1876-78 and 1943-44 – and the steps taken during these famines as well as the precautions undertaken. The Great Famine of 1876-78 affected the Bombay and Madras Presidencies as well as Princely states of Hyderabad and Mysore. Travancore is missing from almost all narratives regarding this famine. Travancore had already faced a severe famine in 1860. It seems lessons were learnt and steps taken to avoid such precarious situation in future.

Travancore state was in a permanent precarious situation on the issue of food security. Nanjilnadu and Kuttanadu regions were the rice bowls of the kingdom. But they never produced enough rice to feed the entire population. The kingdom had to depend on imported rice to tide over the food shortage. Travancore exported spices and cash crops while importing rice, the staple food of the people.

Famine of 1860

Ayilyom Thirunal was the reigning monarch who had just ascended the throne. Famine struck Travancore due to black caterpillar attack and low rainfall. The monarch imported food grains in large quantities. Grain and clothes were rationed out to the public as much as possible. Public Works Department was set up in Travancore kingdom and able bodied men were given ‘food for work’ under the PWD umbrella. Roads and canals were constructed during this period, which proved useful in alleviating drought conditions in future. Despite much lower rainfall during the years 1870, 1881, 1892-93 etc. resulting in almost drought like situation, the careful repair and construction of canals and waterbodies during 1860 seems to have become a blessing to the kingdom as famine was avoided due to judicious utilization of such infrastructure.

Despite such munificence, lack of proper connectivity took its toll on the masses during 1860 famine. In some places, the poorest sold their children to slavery for low price – some Muhammadans seem to have taken advantage of the dire state of the poor and forced such ignominy upon the poor parents. The state did enact justice wherever such perpetrators were caught. Temple Oottapuras (annadana halls) served the famine affected in the state.

Overall, the subjects had definitely fared far better than people under direct British Raj. Deaths due to famines, while unfortunate, were proportionately far less than British Raj provinces. The government of the monarch took honest and much appreciated steps to alleviate the hunger of people.

Famine of 1876-78

Great Famine of 1876-78 affected almost the entire southern peninsula. About 50 Lacs to 1 Crore people perished due to this famine. British rulers handled famine relief in a very callous manner expecting very hard labor for a miniscule amount of meal despite their own physicians opposing it. The Raj cared only about their finances, not the lives of the people. While data is available about the severe famine in other areas of the peninsula, no mention is made of famine in Travancore. It seems that the efforts of the monarch Ayilyom Thirunal yielded fruits during his own reign. The state escaped this devastating famine with few scars.

On the other hand, people from Madras Presidency seem to have received solace at Travancore kingdom – reestablishing the fact that the kingdom took its title of being a Dharma Rajya very seriously. The monarch had set up several hospitals and veterinary clinics during his reign – which contributed to the better health of the people of the kingdom in general.

While Ayilyom Thirunal’s rule started with a disastrous famine, he had brought the state out of said famine and ensured that it could cope with monsoon failures to a far better extent. This great monarch breathed his last in 1880 – supposedly saying “I merge myself now with Sree Krishna Paramatma”. No wonder this monarch had performed like a true karma yogi – taking his duty very seriously and worshipping the divine by properly adhering to his duties as a king.

Tapioca – the wonder that was introduced

Vishagom Thirunal ascended the throne in 1880. Among his numerous achievements, the best and most important was the introduction of tapioca to the kingdom’s people. As Travancore was a rice-deficit kingdom, there was always a threat of famines playing havoc. Vishagom Thirunal made a vow that people should not starve in Padmanabha’s kingdom (Travancore royals had presented the kingdom to their tutelary deity, Sri Padmanabha and ruled in His name). After due research, the monarch decided to introduce tapioca to Kerala as the alternate crop – the tuber being rich in starch was considered a blessing as it can easily replace rice due to similarity in nutrients.

As the people were reluctant to take to this new food, Vishagom Thirunal used an ingenious tactic. He planted the tubers in 5 acres of land and put a sign next to it. The sign board stated “My subjects are hereby informed that cuttings of a tuber known as tapioca have been imported and planted at Sreepadom. As it is very tasty to eat, I understand that many people are interested in them. Anyone stealing the cutting shall be punished with imprisonment and other penalties” (as narrated by MKK Nayar). The Raja seems to have known about his praja very well. Within a week, all cuttings disappeared from the five acres of land. After this, the Raja gave a proclamation mentioning how the tapioca has to be processed and cooked before eating it.

The effect of this introduction was that Travancore did not face any true famine till 1943. Any shortfall in rice production/availability was set right by the availability of tapioca. As mentioned earlier, even during years of low rainfall, there was no fear of famine in Travancore post 1860 for several decades. The ruling dynasty of Travancore had taken up steps to ensure that a recurrence does not happen. But good times also come to an end and Travancore had to face famine again in 1943 – during World War II.

Famine of 1943

Tapioca was one of the main reasons why Travancore escaped hunger pangs compared to rest of the nation. British Raj was waging war on behalf of the Allies. In the name of provisions for war, grains and clothes were used for war front in huge quantities. Bengal had to face one of its worst famines (entirely man made) where millions died due to artificial shortage of food created by the British policies. Rice was sent to war front during drought – leading to huge man made shortage of food grains in rural Bengal. Millions died due to starvation and epidemics as a result. The same policy affected Travancore. Rice import from Burma had stopped due to Japanese occupation of Burma. So, Travancore could not import rice to meet her requirements.

Tapioca could be used in textile industry and to meet war time demands, cloth mills were producing huge quantities of textiles. Tapioca was procured by these cloth mills and this could not be avoided by the kingdom – as denial would lead to the Raj descending upon it with vengeance (and there shall be famine anyway). This led to a situation where tapioca could not perform as substitute for rice as it had done in previous decades. Famine loomed large in Travancore kingdom.

The reigning monarch Chithira Thirunal, and his Diwan CPR Iyer, took steps to ensure that famine shall be managed as best as possible to avoid unnecessary deaths. Since both rice and tapioca could not be found in enough quantities, bajra was imported by the kingdom. Bajra was not part of the daily cuisine of Malayalis and thus, some resistance was also met. But the government went ahead with this scheme as it was the best available resource to avert disaster at that moment. Public rationing was introduced in both rural and urban areas with ration cards being issued. Ration distribution system was set up and utilized to distribute basic food ration to the public.

There was some inefficiency in the newly established food distribution system and a few thousand people moved to Malabar or Southern districts of Madras Province in search of food and work. But by and large, the kingdom survived the famine much better than Bengal. Where about 6% of Bengal population perished due to famine (with more than half of them due to direct starvation), corresponding figure for Travancore did not even touch 0.5%. Considering that Bengal produced enough rice to feed 90% of its population while Travancore was always a rice deficient kingdom (producing only half of its requirement), this achievement given the dire circumstances (especially with tapioca being not available for consumption) is laudable.

The monarchs of Travancore were handicapped by the presence of British Raj and the resulting financial pressure which always cast a huge shadow over the free functioning of local kingdoms. Despite this pressure, the royals of Travancore tried various ingenious ways to ensure that the praja are not affected too much during famines. Result being that famine deaths as a proportion of population was much lesser than the other provinces. It is a standing testimony to the fact that Dharma Rajya prevailed in Travancore where the lives of her citizens were given due importance by her rulers (something which the current rulers of Kerala must learn – given what we see in Attapady where infant mortality is very high).

Hindu royals were expected to rule their kingdom in line with Dharma. The raja had several duties with respect to his praja. It was not merely a divine right based royalty but a royalty which was wedded to karma and dharma. The rulers of Travancore (descendants of Ay and Chera dynasty – who ruled for more than two millennia) adhered to their duties as was expected of any dharmika ruler. It is one of the main reasons why the kingdom was hailed as Dharma Rajya.


  1. Native Life in Travancore by Rev Samuel Mateer
  2. Travancore State Manual by V Nagam Aiya
  3. Story of an Era told without Ill-will by MKK Nayar
  4. Politics, Women and Well-being: How Kerala became a Model by Robin Jeffrey
  5. ‘The Famine in India’ – New York Times 30th March 1861
  6. Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple by HH Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi

Note: This article has been jointly written by Trasadasya (@dasyavevrka) and Paanchajanya (@paanchajanyaa)

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Yato dharmas tato jayah... Tweets at @paanchajanyaa
  • Opinionator

    As I read this I am grateful to the Lord that I was born in such a land that was ruled by such great ones. If only current Democratically elected rulers were even a 10th of them in discharging their duties.