Devji Bhimji – A Gujarati Who Became Malayalam Media Mogul

Millions of Malayalis in Kerala and across the globe may not have much idea that printing and publishing in their language were pioneered by a businessman hailing from distant Gujarat, 2,300 kilometres away.

Nor for that matter, the people in Gujarat who, otherwise proud of their trading prowess wherever they have gone and settled, have set in motion the process of globalisation, long before the world began to talk about it.

The story of Devji Bhimji, the pioneer and his work needs re-telling after 146 years since it is also the account of the first clash between princely India and an entrepreneur who succeeded in establishing his right to print and publish – in sum, the freedom of expression. The Kerala Media Academy (KMA) records term it as “the Royal Wrath”.

“It fell to a Gujarathi’s lot to launch the first systematic ‘newspaper’ in Malayalam. Devji Bhimji started a printing press at Cochin in 1865 under the name of the Keralamitram Press. In running the press Devji Bhimji had to face heavy odds. There was the obvious disadvantage of embarking upon a hitherto uncharted course. But more discouraging was the unhelpful attitude of the authorities.

“In an unprovoked gesture, the police authorities slapped an order on Devji Bhimji requiring him to submit all matters meant for printing for the prior scrutiny and approval of the authorities. On his preferring an appeal seeking reconsideration of this blanket order the authorities retaliated by forcing the closure of the establishment.

“Devji Bhimji was not daunted. He approached the Divan on at least six occasions for a redressal of his grievances. But the Divan was averse to rescinding the censorship orders. In exasperation, Devji Bhimji now turned to the British Resident, Henry Neville, for justice. His perseverance paid at last after almost a year of forced closure of the press when the British resident prevailed upon the authorities to withdraw their orders.”

Sir Henry Neville directed the Diwan that his administration annul all restrictions, including the Press Regulation (Censorship) law, and unsealing of the printing press. This was in 1865.

Yet, history tells us that numerous more battles continued to be fought in British India. Among the more celebrated fighters, as recorded in these columns earlier, was a Briton, Benjamin Guy Horniman, who exposed the infamous Jalianwala Bagh massacre in Punjab. The story of Devji Bhimji precedes that by 55 years.

There is no record of his family from Kutch moving to Mattancherry, a Cochin suburb, to set up businesses, including stationary and gold jewellery shops. What we know is that his family followed a long line of migration to Kerala that began way back in the fourth century. Settled along the coast, the Gujaratis traded in pepper, cardamom and other spices.

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Devji Bhimji pioneered the publishing business with an old printing press. Till then, Malayalam prose and literature were in cyclostyled sheets. Journals and periodicals in Malayalam were first started by missionaries, in most cases for propagating religion. Their contribution to the development of Malayalam prose and journalism, however, has been considerable, according to the KMA’s study.

“Reading matter was spread across the pages with neither columns nor cross-heads to break the monotony.” Among them was Rajyasamacharam by a German missionary, Herbert Gundart, a renowned scholar and grandfather of poet Herman Hesse.

Devji Bhimji took publishing beyond the religious literature that missionaries of all faith published till then. The success against the Cochin Travancore administration emboldened him to go for newspapers and journals and educational material.

His Kerala Mithram was the earliest Malayalam language newspaper, published in the first and third week of every month. The first editor-in-chief was a bright 24-year-old, Kandathil Varghese Mappillai, who went to found Malayala Manorama. The deputy was T.G. Paily.

Devji Bhimji also launched The Western Star in 1860, entrusting the editorship to a Briton, an absolute greenhorn with no prior experience. A weekly, it was the first English-language journal published in Kerala.  Its Malayalam edition was called Paschimatraka.

The KMA study records: “Ironically, the first of this genre to be published from Kerala was in the English language…..  Charles Lawson, who had left England after completing his studies, took over as the paper’s editor. This was Lawson’s maiden essay into journalism. The assignment obviously stood him in good stead when he migrated to Madras to launch the Madras Mail in later years.

The Western Star continued from Cochin for a long time. In due course, there were changes in ownership as well as the location of the paper. The publication base was shifted to Thiruvananthapuram. Thereafter its appearance was irregular.”

Devji Bhimji improved the printing machinery and by 1886, he was publishing in Sanskrit, English, Marathi, Gujarati and Malayalam. Hindi included Amarkosh, Kadambari and Padmasamhita. They had a wide readership in the north.

Kerala Kokil served Marathi readers everywhere, till sold to Krishnaji Athale, who took it to Bombay in 1898. References to Devji Bhimji’s contribution to Marathi literature and journalism are found in 1898 made by Mahadev Govind Ranade, one of Maharashtra’s tallest jurist-scholar and social activists. 

The port city where Devji Bhimji began his endeavour, still has 500-odd Gujarati families, while dwindling numbers are in Allapuzha, Changnacheri, Ponnani and other places in Kerala.

In a sense, Devji Bhimji sowed the seeds of Malayala Manorama. His experiences in the field of publishing “were happy for he was already toying with the idea of starting a paper on his own. This blossomed into reality with the launching, on New Year’s Day of 1881, of the Keralamitram. In a number of respects, the Keralamitram can be hailed as the first “newspaper” in the Malayalam language.

“The Keralamitram was fortunate in that it had as its first editor none other than Kandathil Varghese Mappilai who later founded the Malayala Manorama. With Kandathil Varghese Mappilai’s flair for journalism and Devji Bhimji’s acumen as an entrepreneur, it is no wonder that the new publication made a lasting impact on Malayalam journalism.”

Kerala’s success story as one of the most literate states is inseparable from that of this newspaper chain. First published as a weekly on 22 March 1888, it currently claims a readership of over 9 million (with a circulation base of over 1.9 million copies). According to the World Association of Newspapers, as of 2016, it was the 14th most circulated newspaper in the world.

The Gujarati merchant was way ahead of his time. What is left of his legacy is a crumbling building with the signboard: “Devaji Bhimji Trust, Cochin-2.”

The writer can be contacted at

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Kusum Choppra
Kusum Choppra
1 year ago

Wow,Mahen. What history! N that too of newspapers. Age old links show that India was one until it was rent apart into separate identities.

Mahendra Ved
Mahendra Ved
1 year ago
Reply to  Kusum Choppra


1 year ago

This harkback to such positives is so good for the morale, esp in such difficult times.

Mahendra Ved
Mahendra Ved
1 year ago
Reply to  Kusum


Mahendra Ved
Mahendra Ved
1 year ago
Reply to  Kusum

I was happy to learn that the Indian institute of Mass communication (IIMC) where I used to be visiting faculty organises memorial oration in the name of Devji Bhimji.

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