Statesman, Administrator Extraordinaire the Life and Times of Rajah Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao

Urmila Lal 


 By Urmila Lal

{The great granddaughter of Thanjavur Madhava Rau, who was a Diwan of the erstwhile State of Travancore in the mid-19th century. Ms. Urmila Lal is an Ex Senior Scientist, Defense Research & Development Organisation, Ministry of Defense, Government of India}


The second half of the nineteenth century saw the consolidation of British rule in the Indian sub-continent. The years following the revolt in 1857 A. D. witnessed a qualitative shift in the policies of the colonial power, as well as a period of change in the princely states of the country which too had to engage  with the British administration. Within the states there were two major trends visible: genuine efforts to offer a modern and efficient administration within the state, and consistent policies to retain the identity of the princely states even as the ascendent British rulers were pursuing a policy of expansion.


Sir Madhava Rao Thanjavurkar.

Sir Madhava Rao Thanjavurkar.

It is against this backdrop that one situates the contribution of Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao (1828 AD -1891 AD) who was the Dewan in the three princely states of Travancore, Indore and Baroda (Vadodara) for over a quarter of a century. His stewardship of the three states left an indelible imprint in the region and undeniably it was always the coming together of the visionary administrator and a benevolent ruler in the three states – Travancore ( 1858 AD – 1872 AD), Indore (1873 AD – 1875 AD) and Baroda ( 1875 AD – 1882 AD).


Ancestry of Raja Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao


Raja Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao was a great statesman and administrator whose lineage is traced to the Marathas who migrated to Thanjavur, the last stronghold of the Marathas, which was under Raja Shivaji II. The small principality of Thanjavur marks probably the first attempt of the Marathas, in colonizing territories outside Maharashtra itself. This immigration and colonization had the full support of Shahu Maharaj and Raja Ram, Shivaji’s heirs and descendants.


The Peshwas, who came later, further supported the movement and from time to time took a great deal of interest in the development of their southern kinsmen, many of whom received state honours at the hands of the then Maratha rulers. The first Peshwa Balaji Rao was in favour of such a colonization. Such an attitude of the Peshwas was responsible for the colonization of many areas, in the North like Gujarat, Malwa, and Madhya Pradesh, where the Gaikwads, Scindias, the Bhonsles of Satara, and  the Holkars of Indore carved out a niche for their rule which they and their descendants ruled with distinction until the merger of the Princely States to the Indian Union.


Rise of a visionary administrator


After his early  education in Kumbhakonam (Tamil Nadu),Rajah Sir Thanjavur Madhava Rao  moved to Madras (Chennai) for higher education. Young Madhava Rao’s exposure to the education system of the British was definitely the first step towards the moulding of a fine administrator-reformer who found the appropriate opportunity in every one of his chosen assignments in the Indian princely states he served. It would be apt to mention that progressive administration was also the hallmark of the British rule in India during this period because the colonial administration was adopting education, communication and transportation facilities to its Indian territories. Needless to say that the young Madhava Rao was assimilating these changes, which he later adopted for improving in leaps and bounds in the states he served as the Dewan.


Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao’s ascent in the echelons of administration came very early in life. Beginning his career as a school teacher for mathematics, physics and natural sciences in Kumbhakonam he moved to Thanjavur (Tamil Nadu) in 1847 AD in the collector’s office. This short stint was followed up with an assignment in Madras (Chennai) in the Accountant General’s Office. The timely shift to Madras (Chennai) opened the doors to his role as tutor to the princes of Travancore on the recommendation of the British Resident, Mr. Cullen, who had identified the spark in the young man. At this stage it may be mentioned in those days Madras (Chennai) Presidency comprised of Malabar in Kerala, which also included the princely states of Travancore and Cochin. It also comprised of the present states of Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. Mr. Madhava Rao arrived in Trivandrum on August 1849 AD.


The Maharaja was quite pleased with him and put him in charge of teaching the Princes Ayillyam Thirunal and Visakham Thirunal. He also asked him to take care of any English letter writing for him.


 Dewan of Travancore 1858 AD – 1872 AD


Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao came to Travancore at a very critical juncture in its history: the State itself was threatened with annexation to the British Government. He handled this crisis with admirable courage and administrative acumen. India, being under British rule, the ‘native’ states had to perforce accept the resident as their overall head. Beginning his service to the Travancore state as tutor, Madhava Rao rose to become the Dewan of the state by sheer dint of merit and the acumen he displayed in raising standards of administration of the state.


Travancore emerged as a model state in the country for the innovative, modern and forward-looking policies that were introduced from time to time. The architect of a well-structured state administrative framework, adoption of progressive reforms and welfare measures, are the hallmark of Travancore in the period under the dewanship of Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao. It would be worthwhile to remember that the first trip by the ruler of Travancore to the Madras (Chennai) Presidency was possible due to the balance that Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao struck in putting the relationship between the Native princely state and the British residency on even keel.


Travancore as a state has many firsts to its credit – it touched education, health, public works department, civic amenities, postal service, women’s education, criminal justice system, fiscal and agricultural reforms, district administration – name it. Madhava Rao had taken a positive  decision on it ! Many proclamations and ‘firmans’ (notices) were issued by Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao during his tenure for the abolition of duty on tobacco, pepper and rubber.


Madhava Rao took over an administration that could at best be described as ineffective. it was at a time when the British threatened to take over the administration that Madhava Rao was given the responsibility of conducting the affairs of the state and postponing British control of Travancore.


Dewanship of Indore 1873 AD – 1875


When he laid down office in 1872 AD in Travancore he was offered a seat in the Imperial Legislative Council but did not accept it. However the British government realized his potential to improve conditions in the state and was quick to consider Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao’s name to serve as Dewan to Maharaja Tukoji Rao Holkar of Indore who had made a request to the British government. He served the Indore government for two years between 1873 AD – 1875 AD.


Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao came to Indore with the experience of introducing several innovative policies in Travancore which put the state on the track of modernization. Indore, therefore became his second chance to prove his mettle yet again. Putting in place a Postal Department which the state did not have was among the first steps he took. He thought it inconsistent with an enlightened administration and the march of times to pull on without postal arrangements. he drew up a scheme by which State Post Offices were opened at the head quarters of all Parganas. The Dak was carried by the runners, the private letters of the Sowcars and the Ryots at large passed through the State Post Offices. The rates charged for a private letter were in accordance with those of the British Post Office. The other area where he left his imprint was the introduction of the Indore Penal Code, the forerunner of the Indian Penal Code. With Rajah Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao’s appointment began what may be called the Secretariat system of work. The Durbar was properly constituted. All State work was divided into regular departments such as Revenue, Judicial, Military, Foreign and General.


Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao’s period of office was marked by many conspicuous reforms. He put a stop to illegal exercise of civil powers by Sirkari firms, The police force which till then did not have definitive roles was separated from the military and given critical roles to play in the administration. The Minister was very keen and solicitious about the necessary rudiments of an enlightened rule. District administrations were structured with specific roles for the officials at every level. Despite a short period of two years in Indore, Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao had ensured that the reforms he put in place would have a lasting impact on the future progress of Indore.


Dewanship of Baroda 1875 AD – 1882 AD


About this time Malhar Rao Gaikwad of Baroda had been deposed for the maladministration of the state. The offer of the post of an  administrator of the state was offered to Sir Thanjavur Madhava Rao in recognition of his talents, which he accepted. Baroda was then in a perilous condition. Treachery, murder and rioting were rampant everywhere. There was discord among the people. Life and property were unsafe and a strong man was needed to restore peace and order.


Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao took over as Dewan from the late Dadabhai Naoroji.


Perhaps the greatest contribution which Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao made in Baroda was in training and supervising the education of the future ruler of Baroda, the great Maharaja  Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III of Baroda  (1881 AD – 1939 AD) who was a legend in his lifetime. The transformation of a young boy into a ruler whose accession to the throne marked the beginning of a long and illustrious rule and a milestone in Baroda’s (Vadodara) history is the stuff that legends are made of.


Regency Council took special care in grooming the young ruler to assume the responsibility of administering the kingdom of Baroda. It was at the end of this grooming that he was initiated in the art of administration by Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao ( 1875 AD – 1882 AD), his Dewan, who was also a member of the Regency Council. His instructions which were in the form of a series of talks on each of the government departments that  reflect  the distinct wisdom of his long experience as the Dewan. These are compiled in the form of a book titled “Minor Hints”. These words of wisdom served Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III as guidelines in running the government. In other words Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao was not only his tutor but also his mentor.


The greatest difficulty that required to be surmounted at the commencement in Baroda was the reform of the revenue administration. Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao, by special acts of state compelled the Sirdars to sell their rights. The Sirdars would not easily submit to a new regime. Astute lawyers quoted law and precedent, and spoke of appealing to the Secretary of State for redressal. However, Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao pursued his course undaunted. By dint of entreaty, intimidation and deportation of troublesome people, he succeeded in restoring order.


Yet another hurdle to smooth administration was the total absence of clarity regarding the powers and roles of the Sirdars who held absolute rights over land on condition of providing troops. In this feudalistic arrangement it was difficult to find an easy solution but, Madhava Rao was not one to retract from his decision. The old records were hunted up, and the Sirdars were called upon to make payments, at a moment’s notice, of all their dues with interest for seventeen or eighteen years. Their rights were attached in default of payment. Another knotty -problem was with regard to the standing army of the  disorderly regiments consisting of Arabs and Ethiopians called ‘soldiers by courtesy’. They were furnished with arms and they committed open ravages wherever they went. Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao determined to do away with this needless encumberance, and succeeded in disbanding the regiments man after man, by giving them civil employment


Courts of law, schools and libraries, and a host of other beneficial institutions were organised. The services of emminent men from Bombay (Mumbai) and Madras (Chennai) were secured to help in the administration. Useless taxes were abolished, narrow insanitary alleys were burnt down, and clean rows of houses were built instead, at the cost of the Government. Foundations were laid of costly and  graceful structures to adorn the city. Parks and museums were erected at great cost for the amusement and instruction of the people.


“It would be false modesty. Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao wrote in his last Administration Report, to disguise the fact that during these five years our work has been exceedingly heavy and trying, for the fact that accounts for our visible delays and deficiencies. It is not simply that we have had to carry on ordinary current business. We have had to investigate and decide a multitude of matters inherited by us, which in number and complexity are probably unsurpassed in any other native State. We have had to organize the machinery of the Government. We have had to carefully consider and carry out vital reforms. We have had to bring under control a vast expenditure in all its dark and intricate ramifications. We have had to rectify our relations with our numerous and diversified neighbours. In this respect, grave and embarrassing aberrations from sound principles had, in course of time and by neglect, sprung up, and their correction presented peculiar difficulties, we have had to bring them to the notice of the authorities concerned, to explain, to discuss, to convince, and sometimes to respectfully expostulate. The extra strain thus caused has, however, begun now sensibly to diminish, and it is, therefore, hoped that we shall be increasingly enabled to devote our time and energies to the development of internal improvement. it must be frankly admitted that there is still abundant scope for our exertions in this direction. All we claim to have done is that we have fulfilled the primary obligations of a civilzed Government”.

In many ways Raja Sir Thanjavur Madhava Rao can be called the’architect’ of Sayaji Rao Gaekwad III’s Baroda.


It was when Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao was Dewan – Regent of Baorda that H. R. H. the Prince of Wales visited India; and in his “The Prince of Wales Tour: a Diary in India”, William Howard Russell, after referring to Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao’s early career, summarizes his work in Baroda in these words:- “He has re-constructed the revenue system, the police, the Courts of Justice, and has reformed the whole administration of the State. He had acted on the principle of paying of all Government officers very high salaries, so as to secure able men and to diminish the temptations to peculation and corruption which operate so powerfully in countries beyond the boundaries of Hindustan;  and it is stated, on very good authority, that justice is administered, and law and order established and maintained,  with firmness and certainty. The village watchman still exercises his calling, but he is well paid, and is made direcly responsible for his village; so onwards and upwards in all branches of the administration. Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao has so organised the offices that there is no ground of complaint of inadequate or irregular payment, while the revenue shows a large and rapid increase. He  has not begun by sweeping away all old institutions and customs, tearing up tradition by the roots, and leaving a bleeding and irritating surface to receive the application of new ideas; but he has worked on the old basis and repaired the ancient structure. Here we have a man of the intellectual type like that of Purnea of Mysore described by an illustrious Englishman, who said, when speaking of Talleyrand, ‘He is like Purnea, only not so clever’; but Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao is, in point of character and directness, greatly the superior of Wellesley’s typical Brahmin Minister.’



While in Baroda, Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao was made a Fellow of the Bombay University. He also received an invitation from the Viceroy to give  evidence before the Finance Committee in England; but he was constrained to decline it on religious grounds. in 1877 AD, Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao attended the Imperial Assemblage at Delhi with his royal ward, and was treated with marked consideration. On this occassion the title of “Raja” was conferred on him by the Goverrnment of Lord Lytton.


Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao continued administering the affairs of Baroda (Vadodara) with untiring zeal and ability till 1882 AD. He formed a Council, composed of the Resident and the heads of departments, to help him in the administration. He personally superintended the education of the young Gaekwad, which was placed under the care of Mr. F. A. H. Elliot, a Bombay (Mumbai) civilian, Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao himself, along with the highest officers, personally giving instruction to his Highness. The Maharaja attained his majority in 1881  AD., and was formally installed on the gadi in the same year by Sir. James Fergusson, Governor of Bombay. Soon differences of opinion arose between the Maharaja and his Dewan. The latter, therefore, thought it prudent to retire from the service, having learnt to be careful from his past experience in Travancore. He tendered his resignation in September, 1882 AD., bringing to a close the career of one of the most illustrious administrators who shaped the destinies of the three princely states of Travancore, Indore and Baroda, through tumultuous periods in their political histories and shaped the destinies of the emerging states to fit in as members of a modern states system.


He displayed extraordinary visionary leadership and skills as an administrator; integrity was the most important aspect of his personality. His loyalty to the rulers he served and his pragmatic, relationship with the British are exemplary. His fairness as an administrator is well known.


What Lord Napier had to say about Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao’s contribution to Travancore holds good for his stewardship of Indore and Baroda too – “What Pericles did to Athens and Cromwell to England, Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao has done for Travancore. He had made Travancore a modern state.”


All the above facts and descriptions have been brought forth by the great great grand daughter of Raja Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao – Urmila Lal  in her forth coming book Statesman, Extraordinaire, Life and Times of Raja Sir. Thanjavur Madhava Rao.


The above synopsis is the sole property of Ms. Urmila Lal who holds the proprietery rights of publishing the same. In no way should this be copied or translated without the permission of the undersinged.


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