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Archived article from the April 2001 [vol2,no2] issue of Princely States Report

The Maharaja Portraits: A Beginner's Guide to Cochin's Maharaja Stamps
- Ron Rice

Cochin was a small state on the Malabar coast, deep in the southwestern region of the Indian peninsula. Malayalam, the language of the region, is displayed on the stamps of both Cochin and Travancore. However, it's not necessary to learn Malayalam, as all the stamps of these states are bi-lingual, displaying both Malayalam and English. For the advanced collector, it will be useful to learn a bit of Malayalam in order to identify errors that occur in the typesetting of the script.

Cochin had the highest literacy rate of any state during the British raj, and the people of Cochin were very fond of writing letters. Thus there are many covers and used stamps available for a reasonable cost. Mint stamps are much less common—it seems that a very high percentage of stamps purchased were rapidly used. Many mint stamps catalogue at 10 or more times the used value. Some experts believe that the mint stamps are even scarcer than previously thought, giving them nice investment potential.

This article is focused on the series of Maharaja portraits that appeared on Cochin postage stamps from 1911 to 1950. Prior to this period, stamps displaying state symbols and numerals were issued, but they are not discussed here. Cochin issued many nice revenues depicting the Maharajas, but they are also not covered in this article.

For those collectors who utilize the Scott catalogue, there are 84 major varieties of regular issues and 96 major varieties of official (overprinted) issues. These numbers increase to 112 and 116 respectively when one includes all the sub-varieties (represented by lower case letters such as 12a, 12b, ...). The Stanley Gibbons catalogue examines the portrait series in greater detail, resulting in 102 major varieties of regular issues and and 112 major varieties of official issues. Including sub-varieties, these numbers rise to 179 and 197 respectively. Thus, there are a total of 376 varieties of Maharajas on Cochin stamps in the most detailed mainstream catalogue. Additional varieties are described in advanced literature, and I have no doubt that there are varieties yet to be discovered.

Below is a brief account of each ruler, including those immediately before and after the period with which we are concerned. A quick note about the names of rulers: The title "Rama Varma" denotes the eldest son of a matriarch. A second son takes the name "Kerala Varma", and "Ravi Varma" denotes a third son. An additional title, "Goda Varma" for a fourth son, was used until the late 17th century.

H. H. Sir Sri Kerala Varma, Raja of Cochin, 1865-1895

Kerala Varma, also known as Chinga Masatrhil Theepta Vallia Thampuran, is not portrayed on the stamps of Cochin. He had a strong association with the British as was given the title K.C.I.E (Knight Commander of Most Emminent Order of the Indian Empire) prior to his rulership of Cochin. Fees for postage were introduced in Cochin in 1865, and the first adhesives of Cochin were issued during Kerala Varma's reign in 1892.

H. H. Sir Sri Rama Varma I, Raja of Cochin, 1895-1914

Rama Varma I, also known as Ozinja Vallia Thampuran, resigned in 1914 due to differences with the British Empire. He is the first of six rulers portrayed on Cochin's postage stamps. A set of eight values (2p, 3p, 4p, 9p, 1a, 1½a, 2a, 3a) were recess printed by Perkins, Bacon & Co. from 1911 to 1913. The basic set of regular issues is obtainable, but expect to pay a premium for the 3a vermillion of 1913 [Sc 21/SG 33]. This stamp is unusual for a Cochin issue, in that the used stamp is worth slightly more than the mint stamp. Keep your eye out for the 3p blue with compound perf (14 × 12½) [Sc 15a/SG 27a]. Those who wish to go a bit further with this set can look into the inverted and sideways watermarks.

Nine stamps were overprinted for official use in 1913. The 2p was never overprinted, but two additional values—12a and 1½r—are only found with overprints. A used set of the nine major varieties is obtainable, but be prepared to spend a bit more for the scarce 1½r deep green [Sc O9/SG O9]. The same set in mint state will require a good amount of patience and a healthy pocketbook. For the advanced collector, several combinations of watermark and overprint varieties have been catalogued.

H. H. Sir Sri Rama Varma II, Raja/Maharaja of Cochin, 1914-1932

Rama Varma II was also known as Madrasil Theepeta Thampuran. In 1921 his title was changed from Raja to Maharaja, and all subsequent rulers were given this new title as well. A set of 11 values (2p, 4p, 6p, 8p, 9p, 10p, 1a, 1½a, 2a, 2¼a, 3a) were recess printed by Perkins, Bacon & Co. from 1916 to 1930. The 1a orange is unique in this set, created for both anchal and revenue use. The basic set is reasonably priced and quite easy to obtain in both used and mint condition. When one considers the variety of perforation heads, papers and design variations, this set makes a wonderful advanced study that won't drain your bank account.

Between 1922 and 1933, an assortment of surcharges were overprinted on Rama Varma II stamps. Four varieties of 2p surcharges were overprinted on the 3p blue (1922-29); one type of 1a surcharge is found on the 2¼a yellow-green (1928); a 3p surcharge appears on both the 4p green and the 8p sepia (1932-33); a 9p surcharge was overprinted on the 10p blue (1932-33); and finally, a 6 p surcharge was placed on the 8p sepia and the 10p blue (1934). Of particular note is the sans-serif numeral 2 surcharge on the 3p blue [Sc 34d/SG 49b], which is worth a pretty penny if found used (watch out for forged cancels!). There are many settings and errors to explore in this set.

A large assortment of Rama Varma II stamps are found overprinted for official use. The basic set (1919-33) consists of 12 values—the 2p and the 1a were never used for officials, and 6a, 12a and 1½r are only found overprinted. The 1½r deep green [Sc O22/SG O19b] is particularly valuable in used condition. The rest of the set is easily obtainable in used condition but worth quite a lot if unused. A slightly different official overprint was used between 1929 and 1931 on only seven values (4p, 6p, 8p, 10p, 2a, 3a, 6a). This set is quite inexpensive used, but expensive in mint state. Between 1923 and 1933 a variety of surcharges were applied to officials, resulting in an array of stamps with two overprints.

In summary, when one considers the varieties of design, perforation, paper, surcharges, and official overprints, the stamps of Rama Varma II could keep the advanced collector busy for years.

H. H. Sir Sri Rama Varma III, Maharaja of Cochin, 1932-1941

Rama Varma III was also known as Chowarayil Theepeta Thampuran. In 1938 Perkins, Bacon & Co. discontinued the contract with the state of Cochin, and an Indian firm began printing the stamps by lithographic process. Thus, two very different printings are found during the reign of Rama Varma III—those beautifully recess printed by Perkins, Bacon & Co., and those of the less-attractive offset printed variety. It's important to learn to distinguish between these printings. The recess printed stamps are brighter, and the design appears slightly raised (looking at the back of the stamp, one can usually see an embossed image of the design). The litho, or offset, stamps are entirely flat, and the general appearance is dull in comparison. All Cochin stamps after 1938 were offset printed.

From 1933 to 1938, 11 values (2p, 4p, 6p, 1a, 1a8p, 2a, 2¼a, 3a, 3a4p, 6a8p, 10a) were recess printed by Perkins, Bacon & Co. The entire set is quite attainable in both used and unused condition. In 1938, five values (2p, 4p, 6p, 1a, 2¼a) were offset printed by The Associated Printers in Madras. The 1a brown-orange [Sc 57A/SG 70] is scarce, and the rest of the set is inexpensive in both mint and used condition.

In 1939, 1a stamps were overprinted "ANCHAL" for postal purposes (those not overprinted were used for revenue purposes). Here an understanding of the two printing types is useful. The recess printed 1a overprinted "ANCHAL" is quite common in used and mint condition, but the litho printed variety [Sc 59/SG 73] is rare in mint state. However, a slightly different "ANCHAL" was also printed on the litho, and it is very common in both used and unused condition. From 1942 to 1944, both recess and offset printed stamps were surcharged. It is difficult to obtain a complete set of the surcharged overprints, as many of them are scarce to rare.

The official overprints of Rama Varma III are complex and beyond the scope of this introductory article. The combinations of overprint types, underlying print types, surcharges, and perforations is enough to keep the advanced collector busy for many years.

H. H. Sir Sri Kerala Varma II, Maharaja of Cochin, 1941-1943

Kerala Varma II, also known as Medukan Thampuran, was the younger brother of the previous ruler. His crude portrait on stamps is rather unfortunate, as his true appearance is much more clean and elegant. He had a short white beard that must have been difficult to illustrate. Kerala Varma II only ruled for two years. His stamps were printed in 1943, then overprinted for official use in 1944.

Six values (2p, 4p, 6p, 9p, 1a, 2¼a) were offset printed by The Associated Printers. The 2p, 4p, and 1a values were first printed on paper with the umbrella watermark of the earlier stamps. A new watermark was later introduced and used with all six values in this set. The new watermark had a large design, resulting in stamps that show various parts or none of the watermark. Among the umbrella watermarked varieties, the 4p green [Sc 64a/SG 85b] is rare, and the 1a brown-orange [Sc 67a/SG 85c] is somewhat scarce. The 1a brown orange with the larger watermark [Sc 67/SG 90] is also scarce. Watch out for forged cancels on the 1a—it was primarily used fiscally and authentic postal cancels are seldom encountered. The other values on the larger watermark are fairly easy to obtain. Nine varieties of surcharge overprints are found on the regular issues of Kerala Varma II—all are common, but expect to pay a bit more for the 3p on 4p green [Sc 69a/SG 92].

Six values were overprinted for official use—the 2p and 9p were never overprinted, and additional 2a and 3a values are only found with overprints. In this basic set of officials, all but one are easy to obtain. The 1a brown-orange [SG O70] (not listed in Scott) is somewhat scarce in used condition and very rare in mint state. Seven varieties of surcharge overprints occur on these officials, all of which are common and fairly easy to obtain.

H. H. Sir Sri Ravi Varma, Maharaja of Cochin, 1943-46

Ravi Varma was the younger brother of the previous ruler, who was in turn the younger brother of the ruler before him. Like the previous ruler, his reign was short—only three years. From 1944 to 1948 three values (9p, 1a3p, 1a9p) were offset printed by The Associated Printers. In this set, the Maharaja is shown with head turned slightly toward the right side of the stamp design. From 1946 to 1948, eight values (2p, 3p, 4p, 6p, 9p, 1a, 2a, 3a) were printed where the Maharaja's head is turned slightly toward the left side of the design. The first set of three is fairly common. The second set of eight in used condition is within the reach of many collectors, but expect to pay a bit more for the scarce 4p grey-green [Sc 83A/SG 103] and the 1a orange [SC 86/SG 106]. This set in mint condition is rare and valuable.

In 1949, five surcharges were overprinted on the stamps of Ravi Varma—6p (on 1a3p) and 1a (on 1a9p) with head facing right, and 3p (on 9p), 6p (on 1a3p), and 1a (on 1a9p) with head facing left. The basic set is reasonably priced, but some valuable sub-varieties are catalogued. Later in the same year, a different type of surcharge was introduced—6p (on 1a) and 9p (on 1a) with head facing left. These are scarce in mint state and even more scarce in used condition.

The three values of the first type (head facing right) were overprinted for official use, and the basic varieties are all common in both used and unused condition. The 1a9p value is also commonly found surcharged 1a. Nine values of the second type (head facing left) are overprinted for official use—the 2p and 1a were not overprinted, and additional 1a3p, 1a9p, and 2¼a values are only found with overprints. The 1a9p value, as with the other type, is found surcharged 1a, though it is less common. All of Ravi Varma's official issues are within a reasonable price range, making them a nice series for the beginning to intermediate collector.

H. H. Sir Sri Kerala Varma III, Maharaja of Cochin, 1946-1948

Kerala Varma III, also known as Ikyakeralam Thampuran, was the last Cochin ruler to be portrayed on stamps. Like the two rulers before him, his reign was very short—only two years. Eight values (2p, 3p, 4p, 6p, 9p, 2a, 3a, 3a4p) were offset printed by The Associated Printers of Madras from 1948-1950. All but one in the basic set are common in used condition—the 3a4p violet [Sc 97/SG 116] is quite rare. Several values in this set are scarce in mint state. Three common surcharges are found—two types of 3p (on 9p) and a 6p (on 9p). Some of the sub-varieities of these surcharges are scarce to very rare.

Eight values were overprinted for official use in 1949—the 2p was not overprinted, and an additional 2¼a value was only issued with the official overprint. This complete set is reasonably priced in both used and mint state. In this same year, three surcharges were overprinted on officials—6p (on 3p), 9p (on 4p) and 3p (on 9p). The basic varieties are common, but several scarce sub-varieties are catalogued.

In 1949, two new stamp designs were introduced that are unlike any others in the Maharaja portrait series. They are horizontal in format, and the ruler's image is reduced to the upper right corner. The main part of the design is pictorial, showing Chinese fishing nets on one (2a value) and a Dutch palace on the other (2¼a value). Both are common in used and unused condition. They were not surcharged or overprinted for official use.

H. H. Sir Sri Rama Varma IV, Maharaja of Cochin, 1948-1949

Rama Varma IV, also known as Parikshith Thampuran, was the last official ruler of the Cochin Empire. He is not portrayed on the stamps of the state. A few stamps depicting the former ruler were still in production during his reign. In 1949 Travancore and Cochin merged and his kingdom came to an end. He ruled for just one year, but was recognized as the Velliya Thampuran of Cochin until his death in 1964. Under the State Reorganization Act of 1956, Travancore-Cochin lost a few districts and gained a few others, to form a new state, Kerala, which is still in existence today.


It is my hope that this beginning guide will prompt newcomers to explore this wonderful series. There is a simple, yet powerful elegance to the Maharaja portraits of Cochin. When assembled on album pages by ruler, value, color, or just about any other arrangment, they make for a visually stunning display. There is a substantial amount of material available for the low-budget collector and just as many rare varieties for wealthy philatelists. I recommend consulting the Stanley Gibbons catalogue for more information about sub-varieties. Those wishing to learn about more advanced literature on the subject may contact me at editor@princelystates.com.

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