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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Stamps of Indian Princely States-Cochin Maharaja Stamps

Maharaja Portraits of Cochin (For the background contained in this post I am deeply indebted to Ron Rice who wrote a clear and detailed article on the history and stamp issues of the Maharajas of Cochin. The article can be found in the April 2001 (vol 2, no 2) issue of the Princely States Report. It can be read at

The Maharaja Portraits: A Beginner's Guide to Cochin's Maharaja Stamps (Please note.....stamp illustrations can be enlarged by clicking on them)

Cochin was a small state on the Malabar coast, in the southwestern region of the Indian peninsula. Malayalam is the language of the region, and is used on the stamps of Cochin. However the stamps are bi-ligual and are printed in both Malayalam and English. For the advanced collector, it will be useful to learn to recognise 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 avid  letter writers. 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. During and prior to this period, stamps displaying state symbols and numerals were issued. 5 examples can be seen above

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 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 Eminent Order of the Indian Empire) prior to his ruler ship 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, 1 a, 2a, 3a) were recess printed by Perkins, Bacon & Co. from 1911 to 1913.
Nine stamps were overprinted for official use in 1913.

This group shows some of the varieties that were produced during his reign. With many being overprinted for government use both in red and black. The watermark is an umbrella, sometimes inverted or on the side left or right.

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, 1 a, 2a, 2 a, 3a) were recess printed by Perkins, Bacon & Co. from 1916 to 1930. The 1anna orange in this set was created for both Anchal and revenue use.

This group shows some of the overprints and the 1 anna issue for Anchal and revenue use

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. This can be easily seen comparing these two 6 pies issues  above.      

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. Here too the 1 anna issue is used for postal and revenue purposes. The 2 groups above show some of the varieties of overprinting/surcharges and off set/litho variations in these issues

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. 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, 2 a) 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.
The group above shows some of the surcharges and overprints including a 3 pies on 6 joined pair. Now all litho printed issues.

a small group of 2/2 and a quarter/and 3 anna values

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.

     This group shows the original issue with a shade variety in the 9 pies issue

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 2 a 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-varieties of these surcharges are scarce to very rare.

Three of the 2 pies issue of H H Sir Sri Kerala Varma 111 showing shades and die variations.

Two dies were also used in the production of  Varma the 3rd stamps. In Die 1, the back of the hat touching the frame/ Die 2 (a scarcer variety) with a small space between the hat and frame.

Eight values were overprinted for official use in 1949 the 2p was not overprinted, and an additional 2 a 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.

                            A group showing overprint varieties of the last Maharaja's issues
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 (2 a 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.

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 (Ron Rice) at

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