(This obituary I wrote of Uthradam Tirunal Marthanda Varma was published by Firstpost on 16th December 2013. For the original link, click here.)
Kerala’s last link with the glamorous era of Maharajahs and princes has been severed. Uthradam Tirunal Marthanda Varma, the head of the erstwhile royal family of Travancore died yesterday in Thiruvananthapuram of cardiac arrest at the grand old age of ninety-one. The news comes days after the passing of the much younger titular Maharajah of Mysore, Srikanta Datta Wodeyar.
Both Wodeyar and Varma were popular in their respective states, not least because of their socio-religious relevance in a variety of roles. In Mysore the Maharajah presided over the Dussera celebrations, a principal highlight every year, while in Kerala the late nonagenarian was the custodian of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, one of the state’s historic shrines, which was recently in the limelight after the ‘discovery’ of billion-dollar treasures in its vaults.
Marthanda Varma was born on the 22nd of March 1922 to Sethu Parvathi Bayi, the Junior Maharani of Travancore, and her husband Ravi Varma. Under the matrilineal tradition then current in Kerala, it was through his mother that Varma inherited his princely rank. His father was only an aristocrat, exalted as a royal consort. Indeed, a selection of five well-bred noblemen was presented to the young Junior Maharani, who then picked Varma’s father after she was informed of his academic achievements and scholarship in Sanskrit. Varma was the youngest of three children born to this couple, his older siblings being Chithira Tirunal Balarama Varma, the last reigning Maharajah of Travancore, and a sister, Karthika Tirunal Lakshmi Bayi, who died in 2008 and was known as ‘the First Princess’.
The story goes that Marthanda Varma was born on a staircase in the old Sundara Vilasam Palace in Trivandrum Fort, while his mother was on her way down. She went into labour suddenly and the midwives and attendants rushed to deliver the baby right there instead of in a specially prepared, ritually sanctified space in another building nearby. Perhaps his unorthodox arrival was fitting, for Marthanda Varma would never be a ‘real’ Maharajah. Instead it would devolve upon him to watch over the dynasty as it entered the twenty-first century and an age when its relevance had eroded. This drew him even closer to the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple and his hereditary rights as the temple’s esteemed steward, which alone kept something of bygone days alive.
I first met Marthanda Varma in 2011 at his ‘palace’, a rather haphazard and modest bungalow in a place called Pattam. He was extremely warm in his reception and had very cultivated manners, but didn’t really seem especially Maharajah-esque. He could have been just another Malayali grandfather, in his white cotton shirt and plain mundu. At a feast we had attended earlier, I saw him enjoying his spread of traditional Kerala fare with a typical relish, like any other Malayali of that generation. In 2012 I again saw Marthanda Varma but didn’t speak to him. The occasion was the Pallivetta, an annual ritual hunt associated with the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Normally he would walk down the road, attended to by other male members of his family, sword in hand, before taking a bow and shooting an arrow into a makeshift ‘forest’. In 2012, however, he was already very old and tired, and came by car. But his determination to participate and perform his duty was impressive and I saw something of a Maharajah in the dark, bent old man.
Marthanda Varma’s early life was spent at Kowdiar Palace, a sprawling structure full of antiques, chandeliers, paintings, and other curios one would expect around royalty. Today the palace appears to be largely in neglected disuse, but in its heyday it had hundreds of servants, guards, ADCs, and all sorts of other characters about the place. Life within was an arduous even if somewhat fascinating affair. Varma’s cousin and the current matriarch of the royal family, Karthika Tirunal Indira Bayi, who grew up in another palace recalled to me how privacy was at a complete discount in their household. You couldn’t go from one room to another without a bevy of maids and attendants following you around. Another princess, Bharani Tirunal Rukmini Bayi (better known as the painter Rukmini Varma), recalled being taken for a daily walk at 4 o’clock as a child. There were always two liveried bodyguards in front and behind and on either side, along with all her personal servants, so that it was about sixteen people surrounding her during what was meant to be a casual stroll in the gardens! Marthanda Varma had a similar upbringing, with substantial amount of ceremonious ritual and protocol governing everyday life.
Kowdiar Palace, however, was also exposed to the best of culture that the British Raj and a royal durbar had to offer. The Junior Maharani, his mother, was a famous veena exponent and classical revivalist. She was patron to some of the leading lights of Carnatic music in the last century and these artists and musicians were a permanent fixture at his childhood home. The Junior Maharani was also a famous hostess, who threw legendary banquets and garden parties for the who’s who of the time. As a young boy Varma experienced all of this, besides being a dignitary in his own right as Elayarajah (Heir Apparent) of Travancore.
Until he was nearly ten years old, Varma’s aunt, the Senior Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, ruled Travancore in what was a momentous era. In 1931, after he came of age, his brother Maharajah Chithira Tirunal took over the government and held the mantle of power until 1949. The adolescent Varma witnessed his brother preside over some epochal changes during this time, including the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936 which, for the first time in centuries, allowed Dalits access to Hindu shrines. The Maharajah was also a hugely revered figure in Travancore, and Varma too held him in great regard and was famously devoted to him. Both brothers also shared a mutual passion for their family deity, Sri Padmanabhaswamy, which VP Menon recorded as bordering on the fanatic.
By the time Varma was a teenager, he was already very confident and self-assured. A letter written by the then British Resident speaks of his first public engagement at the age of fifteen in 1938 when he opened an animal hospital in Trivandrum. ‘Sir CP [the then chief minister] will presumably write his speech for him,’ the Resident recorded, ‘but the boy’s got plenty of character and will of his own.’ This was in contrast to his brother, the Maharajah, who was generally seen as a gentle, tender personality, to the extent of being dominated by his mother, the Junior Maharani.
Although the ruler was Maharajah Chithira Tirunal, it was well acknowledged that power really lay in the hands of the minister, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, and the Junior Maharani. Neither of them was especially popular. The same Resident also records ‘the intense, almost hysterical hatred shown by the educated and semi-educated classes’ for Sir C.P., adding: ‘His methods are Machiavellian; he rules by dividing, he bribes with office and other favours, he sets traps for his critics, and plays on the weaknesses of his enemies. It is no wonder that the man on the street does not love him.’ The Junior Maharani, for all her cultural attainments, was equally disliked on the ground, and was considered ‘the real villain of the piece.’ But Varma was more than capable of standing his ground with two such forceful personalities around him.
One episode that he recalled himself years later was an instance when he was on the tennis court with his brother. Sir C.P. arrived, evidently in a great temper, and rudely flung a file at the Maharajah for him to sign. The ever polite and courteous Chithira Tirunal picked up the file, signed the papers, and held it up for the minister without the slightest hint of annoyance at his rudeness. Varma, however, decided to do what he could to stand up for his brother. Grabbing the file, he threw it straight back into Sir C.P.’s astonished face. With his mother, similarly, he stood his ground on the matter of marriage and selected his own spouse, a beautiful woman called Radha Devi. She predeceased him and died of cancer in Chennai eight years ago.
Perhaps what is most crucial about Varma’s death to historians is that he was the last witness within the palace of certain critical events in 1947. As India’s independence approached, an eventuality which the Maharajahs had for long been in collective denial about, the Junior Maharani and Sir C.P. began to entertain hopes of retaining Travancore as a free political entity in its own right. Sir C.P. especially hated Gandhi and the Congress party and a report by Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India, records that he considered the Mahatma ‘a dangerous sex maniac who could not keep his hands off young girls’ and ‘the most dangerous influence in India.’ Sir C.P. went to the extent of initiating discussions with Jinnah for an alliance with Pakistan and corresponding with British ministers as well as the Americans to gather support for Travancore. The Viceroy eventually convinced him against such a deluded course of action, and if there were any lasting doubts in Sir C.P.’s mind, they vanished when an attempt was made to murder him in Travancore. He swiftly packed his bags and decamped, and the Maharajah cabled his consent to merge with India.
Nobody really knew the role of Kowdiar Palace in all this for a very long time and there was generally a tendency to place the blame squarely on Sir C.P. That was until the historian Sreedhara Menon brought to light documents and papers that showed that the Maharajah and the Junior Maharani not only endorsed Sir C.P. but even directed his actions in this regard. The subject is still hazy, however, and not one that members of the royal family speak about in public very much. With the death of Marthanda Varma, the last witness to what happened in the palace in the summer of 1947 has passed away, leaving behind no more answers than before.
The royal family witnessed some radical events after independence. Politically it was the rise of communism in Kerala in the 1950s, which affected them in more ways than one. Personally as well, much changed. As early as 1949, Marthanda Varma’s cousin and the daughter of the Senior Maharani, decided she had had enough of palace life. In what was unheard of at the time in princely circles, she gave up the luxuries of palace life and moved to Bangalore with her husband and children and began to live as an ordinary person. Varma too did something similar, when a year or two later his wife and he moved to Bangalore. He set up Varma Industries in the city, which was not very successful and was eventually sold, and lived here until the early 1990s. His wife, for about two decades, was a well-known socialite in the city and a popular face at the Century Club. Both of them were dedicated to the mystic, Anandamayi Ma, and were engaged in a number of charitable activities.
In 1991, when Maharajah Chithira Tirunal died, there was a massive outpouring of grief in Kerala. Marthanda Varma now succeeded him as head of the royal family and people began to address him as the Maharajah, even if the title was now divested of all political significance and was relevant only in the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple. And here again the winds of change began to blow against Varma. There is a legal question as to his status as the custodian of the temple, as this right was vested in the ‘Ruler of Travancore’. The concept of being a ‘Ruler’ ceased to exist after Indira Gandhi’s constitutional amendment in 1971 that de-recognised the Maharajahs, and the Kerala High Court held that the ‘Ruler’ today is the State of Kerala and not the Maharajah’s brother and familial heir.
To add to this, controversy broke out about the treasures secured in the vaults of the temple. According to the High Court judgment of 2011, in a claim in a newspaper some years before, Marthanda Varma had declared the treasures to be the personal property of the royal family. This provoked a backlash from members of the public. In the last couple of years the position of the royal family appears to have changed and they now vociferously claim that it is the temple that owns all the treasure, and they are fighting chiefly for their rights of custodianship only. The matter is now pending before the Supreme Court.
With Marthanda Varma’s death, this disputed custodianship now passes to his sister’s son, Mulam Tirunal Rama Varma, a Kerala-based entrepreneur. The next in line are Revathi Tirunal Balagopal Varma in Bangalore followed by the novelist Punartham Tirunal Shreekumar Varma in Chennai, both grandsons of the Senior Maharani. Marthanda Varma’s own children, Padmanabha Varma and Parvathi Devi, both of whom lived with him in the palace at Pattam, have no claim to the title.
Traditionally the Maharajahs of Travancore ruled over the state as deputies of Sri Padmanabhaswamy. They carried the title of ‘Sri Padmanabha Dasa’ (Servant of Padmanabha) as their foremost honorific and were devoutly attached to it. Marthanda Varma was perhaps the last of the historic Padmanabha Dasas, a line that began with a great king of the same name ten generations ago, in the eighteenth century. He may not have been a real king in today’s day and age but in the temple, he was its foremost devotee and steward, famously declaring that he would not even take a grain of sand that belonged to his deity, leave along his treasures.