The Last Queen of Travancore
I had written an article on Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (Pooradam Thirunal), a very interesting person who ruled over the state of Travancore for 7 years, on my previous blog. After I deleted that blog the article was lost but a recent correspondence with the Maharani’s granddaughter, Dr. Lakshmi Raghunandan (Makham Thirunal), brought to my attention even more facts and details and hence this post about Sethu Lakshmi Bayi.
The Travancore Royal Family, considered among the oldest royalties of India, is descended from the historic Chera dynasty of South India. That branch of the Cheras that settled in the extreme south of Kerala was called the Kupaka family and a similar branch settled also in the extreme north and came to be known as the Mooshikas. During the course of the last 800 years, the Kupakas found themselves on the brink of extinction (due to the absence of female members so essential to the perpetuation of the family in the matrilineal Marumakkathayam tradition) on several occasions and in every such instance the line was continued by adopting heirs from the Mooshika house. Indeed whereas the Mooshikas were known as the “Northern Kolathiris”, the Kupakas were addressed as the “Southern Kolathiris”. The first such adoption occurred in 1315 when two princesses of Mooshika (Kolathunad) were adopted into Kupaka (Travancore). The place known as Attingal was set apart for them and they were installed as the Senior and Junior Ranis of that place and it was decreed that only the sons of the Attingal Ranis would henceforward succeed to the Travancore throne. Further adoptions took place in the years 1684, 1718, 1748, 1788 and 1857. The “maker of modern Travancore”, Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma Maharajah (1730-1758) was born of the 1688 adoption (made by the legendary Aswathy Thirunal Umayamma Rani). His successor Dharma Rajah Karthika Thirunal (1758-1798) was the son of the princess adopted in 1718. The next ruler Avittom Thirunal Balarama Varma Maharajah was a descendent of the 1748 adoption. The adoption of 1788 brought about a long line of remarkable rulers starting with Maharani Ayilyam Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi (1810-1815) and ending with Maharajah Moolam Thirunal (1885-1924) who was the great grandson of Gowri Lakshmi Bayi. Moolam Thirunal’s mother Pooradam Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi, the sole female member in the royal family at the time, died eleven days after his birth in 1857 and once again the Travancore House found itself facing the threat of extinction.
Only a few years after the 1788 adoption, Tipu Sultan invaded Malabar and all the Rajahs of that place, unable to offer resistance, fled to Travancore. Once the war was concluded and peace was restored, the main branch of the Kolathunad family, known as Chirackal Kottaram, returned to their ancestral seat. However three cousins of the recently adopted Attingal Ranis who belonged to Chenga Kottaram remained in Travancore and they were settled at Ennakkad, Mavelikkara and Prayikkara respectively by the ruling Maharajah. Thus when in 1857 the need was felt for another adoption, the Maharajah decided to adopt princesses from one of these three houses.
Among the nominees for adoption were two daughters of Chamunda Amma Thampuran of Mavelikkara. The then Maharajah Uthram Thirunal found them satisfactory and thus in 1857 the 6th adoption into the Travancore royal family was concluded by adopting Bharani Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi as Senior Rani and Bharani Thirunal Parvathi Bayi as Junior Rani.
The Senior Rani was married in 1859 to Sri. Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran (whose erudition and talent at literature won him the appellation of Kerala Kalidasa) and the Junior Rani was married the next year. However this adoption proved entirely fruitless in that while the Senior Rani had no issue, the Junior Rani gave birth to four sons and a single daughter who died soon after birth. By 1894 the Junior Rani and one of her sons had already died and the royal family now came to consist of the Maharajah Moolam Thirunal (the last of the 1788 line), the Senior Rani, the Elayarajah Revathi Thirunal Kerala Varma, First Prince Chathayam Thirunal Rama Varma and Second Prince Aswathy Thirunal Marthanda Varma. As the Senior Rani was well past the childbearing age, once again the problem of succession came to haunt the royal family.
It was obvious that a 7th adoption would be required to perpetuate the line and as Senior Rani and eldest member of the royal family, Rani Lakshmi Bayi had the authority to nominate her successors. Her youngest sister in Mavelikkara, Pururuttathinnal Bhageerathi Amma Thampuran had married the celebrated artist Raja Ravi Varma and to this couple was born two sons and three daughters. The first two daughters, Ayilyamnnal Mahaprabha Thampuran and Thiruvadirannal Kochukunji Thampuran had been married and Mahaprabha, who appears to have been very close to the Rani, had already had a son R. Marthanda Varma. The Rani looked upon these two nieces of hers to give birth to daughters whom she could subsequently adopt into the royal family. With this in mind the Rani went on a pilgrimage to Rameswaram and undertook the Sethusnanam in the company of Mahaprabha and Kochukunji. Her prayers were heard for in 1895 Mahaprabha gave birth to a daughter followed in 1896 by Kochukunji. Since the birth of these girls was seen as an outcome of the Sethusnanam, the elder child, born under the star of Pooradam, was named Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and the younger child, born under Moolam, was named Sethu Parvathi Bayi. 1895 was also the year when the Elayarajah died and Chathayam Thirunal succeeded to that position.
In 1900, after the girls were “old enough to be introduced into the royal etiquette”, Rani Lakshmi Bayi formally petitioned her brother Moolam Thirunal to adopt the children to succeed to her “estate and its appurtenances”. The British Resident met the children and although he felt they were too young, he communicated his approval of the proposal. It is said that Moolam Thirunal was not very keen on adoption at that particular juncture but acceded to the desire of the Senior Rani. However the Elayarajah Chathayam Thirunal, who was disgruntled with the Maharajah’s refusal to sanction large funds for his daughter’s wedding, opposed the move and suggested that the adoption be made from Ennakkad or Prayikkara. However legal opinion was sought and it was found that the Elayarajah’s dissent was inconsequential. Also Raja Ravi Varma, grandfather of the girls, exerted his own influence with the Viceroy who sanctioned the Mavelikkara adoption. Thus in 1900, Pooradam Thirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi became Junior Rani of Attingal and Moolam Thirunal Sethu Parvathi Bayi became First Princess by adoption. The Elayarajah boycotted the ceremony and went on a tour of North Travancore and to avoid embarrassment the Maharajah and the Senior Rani also stayed away. It was the First Prince Aswathy Thirunal, an intelligent man who was the first Indian royal to secure a BA degree, who adopted the little princesses into the royal family.
Only a few months later, however, the First Prince died and Rani Lakshmi Bayi, who was overjoyed after the adoption, felt so much grief at the loss that she herself fell ill. Her consort, Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran, became the guardian and “grandfather” of the little princesses. In 1901 the Elayarajah, who was on bad terms with the Maharajah, also died and the Senior Rani “grieved but little” on hearing the news. Her own condition was much deteriorated by now and a week later Rani Lakshmi Bayi also died. These happenings within less than a year of the adoption made Sethu Lakshmi Bayi the Senior Rani and her sister Sethu Parvathi Bayi the Junior Rani.
The Valiya Koil Thampuran now lavished all his attention on the little Ranis. However the seeds of dissension between the two princesses were sown at this early stage itself. In the royal family, matters were governed by tradition, rank and precedence and not always by more amiable human feelings. Thus even though they were children of nearly the same age, they were always seen in the light of their positions as Senior and Junior Ranis. Thus the Junior Rani, early in life, realized that her position was secondary to her sister due to the order of precedence and it is possible that for the little girl being constantly overshadowed by her sister much regret was fostered. Everyone who met the Ranis commented on how intelligent both were, but it was always the Senior Rani who, owing to her position, took center stage. For the talented and intelligent Junior Rani, this was not always pleasant. But as years later the Senior Rani would advise, “however unpleasant or unnatural this position may be, it has to be reconciled to…very often we have to face things as they are instead of worrying about what they should be.”
The two Ranis were brought up as per the royal custom and the best education of the time, overseen by the Valiya Koil Thampuran and an English governess Miss. DH Watts was provided for them. It was noted that the Senior Rani was “reserved but nonetheless good natured”, “gifted with a good memory”, and “a young mathematician” while the Junior Rani was “quick and vivacious”. A foreigner, Henry Bruce, in 1908 noted “the elder is more reserved, more conscious of her dignity and also the quicker pupil”. Beside their ordinary studies, the Ranis also traveled with their guardian and visited places of importance. Thus by the time the Ranis were 10 years old, they were both aware of their position and had turned into real little princesses.
In 1906 when the Senior Rani was still 10 years old it was decided to get her married as per the convention of the royal family. Two boys aged 16 and 22 from the Harippad family of Koil Thampurans, who were nephews of the Valiya Koil Thampuran, were presented to her. While she was advised to select the elder one, the Senior Rani chose the younger one. All preparations were made and after many decades Trivandrum witnessed a Pallikettu (royal wedding) when the Senior Rani was married to Makayiramnnal Rama Varma Koil Thampuran of Harippad. The following year the Junior Rani was married to Ravi Varma Koil Thampuran of Kilimanoor who was almost 11 years older than her.
When the Ranis turned 14 their marriages were consummated and they began to live with their husbands. Much excitement resulted and everywhere the talk was regarding which of the two Ranis would give birth to a son who would be heir to the throne. In 1910 the Senior Rani became pregnant but suffered an abortion but as her aunt Kochukunji noted, “I do not think she is very upset because of the abortion. I think she is worried because her Koil Pandala (husband) is not allowed to come here”. Already the Senior Rani had grown very close to her husband and theirs would be happy marriage that would last nearly 70 years.
In 1912 the Junior Rani became pregnant and in November gave birth to a son. It was the Senior Rani who performed the first ceremony of giving the baby gold and honey although the 17 year old confessed to having been “afraid to even touch him.” This baby boy came to be called Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma and would become the last Maharajah of Travancore. For the Junior Rani the birth of her son was the commencement of a new phase. Having always been secondary to the Senior Rani, the birth of the Elayarajah to her meant a whole new position for herself and the disaffection between the two Ranis, which had so far been domestic in nature, now began to grow in proportion. Only a few days after the birth of Chithira Thirunal, the Senior Rani wrote in a letter to her mother, “there is not a moment when directly or indirectly they do not insinuate something. Though I feel very hurt at the time, I do not think about it later and grieve.” Ever since her miscarriage in 1910 the Senior Rani had been facing questions and, eventually, sarcastic jabs about her inability to conceive.
Having given birth to the Elayarajah, the Junior Rani felt no need to remain in her sister’s shadow and hence applied to the Maharajah to grant Vadakkay Kottaram, the traditional residence of the heir apparent, to her. The grant was made and thus the two Ranis now had separate establishments. In 1913 when she came of age, the Senior Rani took over the Sreepadom Estate in her position as eldest female member of the royal family. Since the Junior Rani did not desire to remain in the Sreepadom establishment, under her sister’s authority, she was given an allowance of Rs. 7000 from February 1914 and the Sreepadom was henceforward “to be no longer bothered about her.” However trouble was brewing in the palace that would alienate the Senior Rani and her husband Rama Varma from the Maharajah.
For one, the Ranis had been adopted for the perpetuation of the dynasty and the Senior Rani’s inability to have children since her miscarriage irritated the Maharajah. The Rani herself went under tremendous stress because of this and religious offerings, even in famous Christian churches, were made. But more importantly the Maharajah appears to have been annoyed by the Senior Rani’s refusal to hold court for his “chief favorite”, Sankaran Thampi. This man, who had begun his career as a palace servant, had risen to power over the years so much so that he had tremendous influence over the Maharajah. Things became even better for him when the Maharajah took a fancy to his wife, Karthyayani Amma, and in 1899 married her. Thampi married the sister of his ex-wife (now the royal consort known as Vadasseri Ammachi) and his relation to the ruler as “the Maharajah’s present wife’s former husband” (in the words of Swadeshabhimani Ramakrishna Pillai, who was banished from Travancore for objecting to Sankaran Thampi’s influence) made him all the more powerful. The Valiya Koil Thampuran, who had died in a car accident in 1914 causing much pain to the Senior Rani, also had issues with Sankaran Thampi. During the childhood of the Senior Rani, Thampi was entertained on occasions such as Vishu, Onam etc with gifts. However after attaining majority the Senior Rani saw no reason to entertain the man. Her consort Rama Varma, who after the death of the Valiya Koil Thampuran had succeeded to that position, was constantly induced to get his wife to send for the “chief favorite” to honour him on such occasions. “The Maharajah seems to be very anxious that the Rani should see and get his favorite’s favour.” While the Junior Rani easily acquiesced, the Senior Rani saw now reason to show deference to Sankaran Thampi and this irked the Maharajah. Although she was his niece, the Maharajah could not directly admonish the Senior Rani and hence all his anger was vented out to her husband, Rama Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran. On the one hand her childlessness and on the other the Maharajah’s irritation with her husband put the Senior Rani in a difficult position.
Meanwhile the Junior Rani had been granted Kowdiar in 1915 to construct a palace for herself while the Senior Rani received Poojappura. Since she was the head of the Sreepadom, this property was added to the estate, which would have severe implications later. In 1916 the Junior Rani gave birth to a daughter, Karthika Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi and in 1922 another son, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma. The Senior Rani meanwhile underwent treatments and when even these did not work, reconciled to her childlessness. Additionally, in 1919 her mother died and as the eldest daughter, the responsibility of all her younger siblings fell upon her. It was her husband, who was in perpetual disfavour with the Maharajah, who stood by her during these trying times.
Suddenly and very unexpectedly in 1923 the Senior Rani became pregnant. On New Year’s Eve in 1923, after nearly 14 years since her miscarriage, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi became a mother with the birth of Princess Uthram Thirunal Lalithamba Bayi (see my article on her: The Reluctant Princess). While great joy and happiness followed, the sufferings of the past could not be easily forgotten.
In August 1924, when the Senior Rani was holidaying with her husband and daughter at Varkala and when the Junior Rani was sojourning at Ooty, news reached them that the Maharajah was critical. On the 7th of that month Moolam Thirunal died and a new chapter began in the life of the Senior Rani.
The Elayarajah was only 12 years old and at least for the next 6 years, until he came of age, Travancore would need to be ruled. In other princely states, such circumstances resulted in the appointment of Regency Councils that would administer the state during the minority and the late Maharajah’s widow and the mother of the minor heir would act as Regent with limited powers. However in Travancore, under the matrilineal system, the minority of the heir meant that the eldest female in the royal family, the Senior Rani, would assume ruling powers. Thus Her Highness Sri Padmanabha Sevini Vanchi Dharma Vardhini Raja Rajeshwari Rani Pooradam Thirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, Senior Rani of Attingal was proclaimed Maharajah Regent of Travancore. The title “Maharajah” was used in the proclamation to show that she reigned in her own right as head of the royal family and not as widow or mother of a Maharajah. The titles of Senior Maharani and Junior Maharani were created and henceforward Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was addressed during her reign as the Maharani Regent of Travancore. However this appointment of her sister as Regent for her son irked the Junior Maharani. Now that power was involved, the Junior Maharani began a feud with her sister, which would last many decades into the future.
The regency of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi came to be known as the “Golden Age of Travancore”. The first problem she had to tackle, which she did admirably, was the famous flood of 1924 that affected most of Travancore. Relief work was carried out very well and she won the appreciation of her people and also the British government. Already, at her installation durbar she had ended the custom of presenting costly nuzzars to royalty which came as a pleasant surprise to all those waiting on her. Towards the end of Moolam Thirunal’s reign, a serious issue known as the Vaikom Satyagraha had troubled the government and this problem had been handed down to her. She dealt with the issue and after a meeting with Mahatma Gandhi in 1925 threw upon all the public roads in Travancore to all Hindus irrespective of caste or community. Mahatma Gandhi too returned with a wonderful impression of the Maharani whom he described as the “ideal of Indian womanhood” and complimented her for the “marvelous progress” of Travancore. The Maharani raised the Women’s College to First Grade in Trivandrum and also appointed the first Indian woman as the head of a major department (Dr. Mrs. Poonen Lukose was appointed Head of the Medical Department) and member of the Legislative Council of Travancore. The Maharani abolished the custom of women having to bare their breasts in temples and in 1926 the obscene “Pooram songs” were strictly prohibited. In 1930 “Her Highness’ Government sanctioned a complete cessation” of the Devadasi system. The Maharani, in spite of the severe opposition she had to face, ended the age old custom of appointing only caste Hindus as Dewans of Travancore and made an Anglo-Indian Travancore Christian, ME Watts, her Dewan in 1925. In the same year the Maharani constituted a committee to look into the establishment of a Travancore University, a task completed in the next reign by her nephew Maharajah Chithira Thirunal. 1925 also saw the abolishment of the custom of animal sacrifice that was in vogue in certain temples in the state. An act was passed in 1925 to reform the Marumakkathayam system and in 1928 the Maharani’s government formally ended the system. In 1925 the Maharani also instituted the Panchayati Raj in Travancore. Travancore invested in the Cochin Harbour Project and reaped tremendous economic benefits. In 1928 the Central Road Board was constituted and many new highways and bridges were constructed all over the state. In 1929 the Quilon-Ernakulam railway project was completed and in the same year electricity reached Trivandrum for the first time. Telephone services were throne open for the use of the public. The Maharani also instituted a special Banking Enquiry Committee to look into the provision of rural credit facilities in Travancore, another task which her successor would complete. Taxation in kind on the Kandukrishi “Crown” lands of Travancore was abolished and in 1927 alone 2995 acres of land was redistributed among the landless. Ports were developed in Travancore and by 1927 the Dewan’s report showed a good surplus due to this. Education received a major boost and after 3 years of her regency the Senior Maharani had become so popular both within and outside the state. As Lady Golver notes in her 1927 book “Great Queens: Famous Women Rulers of the East”:
“During the short time she has held it (power), she has shown that her rule will be a wise one and a blessing to her people…She has won the affection and respect of her subjects during her short reign on account of her justice and benevolence, which are extended to all alike, no matter what may be their caste or religion”.
This enlightened rule of the Maharani was rewarded by the British government in 1929 when the Maharani was made a Companion of the Most Imperial Order of the Crown of India.
However during this time the Maharani also had to face problems from within the royal family emerging from her sister the Junior Maharani. With the backing of the Nairs, the Junior Maharani first objected to the appointment of a Christian Dewan. In spite of this, which included a great deal of mud slinging against the Maharani Regent and the British Resident, when the appointment was confirmed the Valiya Koil Thampuran became the next target. Indeed throughout the regency as the Maharani herself could not be attacked, any opposition was vented out onto the Valiya Koil Thampuran. His integrity and character had already impressed the British government even before the regency and he played a major role in 1914 when the Rajah of Cochin (Ozhinja Valiya Thampuran) was accused of being sympathetic to the Germans. Rama Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran vouched for the Cochin Rajah, which helped avert punishment for that ruler although he had to abdicate the throne. However after the Regency commenced, the Valiya Koil Thampuran found himself at the receiving end of a great deal of malice. From 1925 onwards, up to 1930 when the Senior Maharani’s determination finally closed the matter, the Junior Maharani caused much trouble over the determination of the Civil List. The Junior Maharani wanted complete control over her son’s Rs 7 lacs, which could not be logically granted. Although the funds for the management of Kowdiar Palace were made available to her, she continued to demand access to further funds, which could not be given. Thereafter she sent a memorial to the Viceroy complaining of the Maharani Regent’s attitude towards her. The Senior Maharani presented an excellent case justifying her decision and the memorial was therefore dismissed but not before the Regent stated that the Junior Maharani’s attitude towards her since the commencement of the regency was one of “militant antagonism” and she would have to reform this. Every time the Resident changed, the Junior Maharani would broach the subject of the civil list till finally in 1930 the new Resident Col. Pritchard decided not to “reopen the question.”
The Junior Maharani had other ways of harassing the Maharani Regent. In 1926 she attempted to involve the Maharani Regent in a domestic quarrel she had with her husband the Kochu Koil Thampuran by pronouncing him to be “mentally unsound”. In 1927 when intelligence reached the Maharani Regent of certain plans being made by the Junior Maharani at Ooty with the help of Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer, the Valiya Koil Thampuran’s friend S. Satyamurthi was sent to find out the truth. Although Sir CP referred to the Senior Maharani is grand terms, a suspicion lingered in her mind. The Junior Maharani had by now become impatient with the Regency and wanted the succession of her son to full ruling powers to be effected quickly. A report by the Dewan Mr. Watts in 1928 shows the Junior Maharani’s eagerness to discredit the regency government. Another memorial was sent to the Viceroy with the help of Sir CP, Sardar KM Panikker, Sir Vasudeva Raja of Kollengode and others which called for the creation of a Regency Council for “things have never been so bad” in Travancore. However the Resident communicated the truth of affairs in the state and the Viceroy being satisfied with the Maharani Regent’s government dismissed the memorial.
The Junior Maharani’s several memorials and other attempts not having worked, a new programme was embarked upon: Black Magic. In February 1929 the Maharani Regent received intelligence of the performance of certain sinister ceremonies at Kowdiar Palace. She did not involve herself directly and instead asked the Resident and the Dewan to deal with the matter. Capt. Harvey, the young Maharajah’s tutor who watched matters from close quarters, was an informer and the Junior Maharani’s manager was told of the “expediency of her terminating these secret ceremonies” as soon as possible or to face trouble. Finally the Resident who was at Munnar called the brothers of the Junior Maharani, who were principal actors in these ceremonies, and after ordering them to put an end to all the “costly tomfoolery” they were engaged in, told them to leave Kowdiar palace with their mother and sisters. They were not, thereafter, permitted to meet the Junior Maharani or the Maharajah without prior permission from the Resident. The entire black magic incident shocked the establishment, to say the least.
Meanwhile the Maharani Regent had been informed that the Maharajah would not succeed with full ruling powers on his 18th birthday but only after completing 19 and half years of age. The Junior Maharani was indignant at the delay and so frustrated that at a meeting in 1930 that she had with Parukutty Nethyaramma aka Lady Rama Varma, the consort of the Cochin Maharajah, she flourished a revolver and threatened to shoot herself. The Resident’s fortnightly report after this incident speaks of the Junior Maharani’s “fondness for intrigue” among other things. Even earlier when news of the extension of the regency had been communicated, Sir CP had left for England and once again the Maharani Regent was troubled with thoughts of what the next problem would be. But nothing came of this for it was immediately after this that when the Viceroy Lord Irwin visited Travancore that he decorated the Maharani with the insignia of the Order of the Crown of India. However what did happen was that the Junior Maharani’s black magic misadventure caused the Government of India to separate the Maharajah from his mother by sending him for administrative training to the state of Mysore earlier than had been planned. In April 1931 however, Lord Irwin retired and was replaced by Lord Willingdon who invited Sir CP to join his Executive Council. The Junior Maharani laid her case before the new Viceroy and finally secured her goal under the auspices of Sir CP. The Maharani Regent was informed that the Maharajah was to be installed with full ruling powers in November 1931 on his 19th birthday as opposed to August 1932 as had been planned. The Viceroy however made it clear that the early termination of the regency was not due to any dissatisfaction with the government of the Maharani Regent but due to other considerations. Thus the second phase of the life of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi came to a close.
It may be mentioned at this point that the Senior Maharani had a genuine interest in the upbringing of the young Maharajah, her nephew, in spite of the Junior Maharani’s attitude towards her. As early as 1913 the Junior Maharani and her mother had tried to distance the child from the Senior Maharani and Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran and whenever either expressed a wish to see the baby, a messenger would sent to communicate some excuse. Kerala Varma, the father of the Senior Maharani, noted that the “Rani too is much disgusted with Kochukunji’s insolent behaviour.” However during the Regency the Senior Maharani took great care to ensure a worthy upbringing for her successor. Even when the black magic incident occurred, her primary concern was regarding the Maharajah and the effect witnessing such absurdities would have on him. When the time came for his administrative training the British Government was of the opinion that the administrative tutor must not be paid more than the Dewan of the state. Although the Maharani was also of the same opinion initially, she waived the condition and offered to pay a higher salary than that of the Dewan in order to secure the best possible man to train the Maharajah. A formidable series of 65 letters were exchanged between the Maharani and the Government of India to detail every aspect of the training and she was keen to see that when the time came the Maharajah would be fully equipped to assume his responsibilities.
The Senior Maharani now requested the Government of India to continue all the privileges and allowances she had been receiving as Maharani Regent, keeping in view her unique position. The Maharani had been drawing an annual allowance of Rs 200,000, which, in order to prevent a backlash from the Junior Maharani, she expected to be continued. The Viceroy however sanctioned a pension of Rs 75,000 to the Senior Maharani. Sir CP assured the Viceroy that her privileges and position as Senior Maharani and the Rani of Attingal, besides being the head of the royal family, would be respected. However the Senior Maharani was disappointed with the arrangements made for her and even the British Resident registered his dissatisfaction. An excerpt from a letter she wrote around this time to the Valiya Thampuran of Cochin is as follows:
After seven years of strenuous hard work performed under very difficult conditions, I am naturally sighing for that quiet and peace which I fondly hope may be my portion in retirement. I emerge a wiser woman from the Regency and have learnt that often in this world one gets kicks for honest selfless work, while the canting self seeker wins half pence.
This excerpt is a rather interesting, and not surprising, observation made by the Maharani which holds true even today.
The Junior Maharani and Sir CP dominate the next stage in the history of Travancore from 1932 until 1947. The Senior Maharani was now made to live under the control of the Junior Maharani and the nature of her future treatment was evident on the very day her rule came to an end. Immediately after the installation durbar of the Maharajah, the ex-Regent was sent back in an ordinary carriage without escort or any state dignities. Although she felt the insult, the Senior Maharani was now looking forward to a life of retirement. With this in mind she had constructed in 1930 a “country residence” for herself beside the Vellayani Lake known as Lalindloch Palace. In 1926 she had given birth to her second daughter Karthika Thirunal Indira Bayi and for her daughters and husband, Lalindloch became home. They had another favourite resort at the Kovalam beach known as Halcyon castle that belonged to the Valiya Koil Thampuran, in addition to his villa at Pothencode, which was constructed a few years later. During the summers the Senior Maharani and her family retired to her estate at Peermade. However the rift with the Junior Maharani did not permit her the happy retirement she desired.
In 1939 the Maharajah took over the Sreepadom Estate and the Senior Maharani’s complaint that this was her ancestral possession and essential to the dignity attached to the position of the Rani of Attingal was not accepted. Very soon after she lost the Sreepadom, and therefore the ownership rights of Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum, the Maharani was informed that her estate at Peermade belonged to the Maharajah as well. However the Maharani involved the Resident who prevented a breach of justice and decided that the property was the Senior Maharani’s private holding and the Maharajah had no ownership over it. In 1941 the Senior Maharani was informed that unless she made “courtesy calls” every now and then to the Maharajah at Kowdiar Palace, her pension would be stopped. She was also informed that her residence at Vellayani was harmful to the prestige of the royal family and hence she would have to reside at Satelmond Palace, under the control of the Maharajah. Sometime in the 1930s, all the documents and official papers pertaining to the Regency of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi were also destroyed in a “mysterious fire”.
The Maharani’s daughters began to regret these trappings of royalty and the Senior Maharani was not in the happiest circumstances when in 1947 India became independent and in 1949 the states were merged into the Indian Union. The Maharajah was awarded a Privy Purse of Rs 18,00,000 per annum and the other members of the royal family received separate allowances. Finally, after more than 15 years the Senior Maharani and her family were free of the Junior Maharani’s control. In 1949 itself Princess Lalithamba Bayi moved with her husband to Bangalore and in 1953 Princess Indira Bayi took up residence in Madras. By 1958 the Senior Maharani was lonely in Trivandrum and hence moved to Bangalore where she lived for the remainder of her life. She never returned to Travancore.
The Maharani certainly did miss her homeland and by all means the transition from being the Maharani of millions to an ordinary amooma (grandmother) must not have been easy for Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (who in subsequent documents chose to identify herself as Srimathi and no longer as a Highness). However she adapted herself with poise to changing times. Her sense of maturity and wisdom is clearly reflected in the following extract from a letter she wrote to her daughter Lalithamba Bayi regarding her grandchildren:
We have to make sacrifices for the children’s sake. It will do them good to be on their own sometimes. It is not like the olden days. We can have no idea, through what all paths life is going to lead them. They must be trained and prepared to face everything.
In 1971 the Government of India passed a constitutional amendment by which the privy purses were stopped. A partition was effected in the Travancore royal family and the Sreepadom estate was divided between the two branches. Satelmond Palace was claimed successfully by the Maharajah and by then the Senior Maharani had disposed of most of her private properties. In 1975 the Valiya Koil Thampuran died in Bangalore and the Maharani became more or less of a recluse thereafter. Her grandson Shreekumar Varma wrote about his impression of her last days:
I remember the small rectangular room where she spent her last days, lonely and occasionally visited, watching the dusk slip in and out of a series of windows. She read the newspaper and listened to songs by Yesudas. She kept toffees and carefully clipped-out comic strips ready for her grandchildren. She spent her days waiting for festivals like Onam and Vishu when she would get streams of visitors. One day towards the end, she confessed she was in danger of “forgetting how to talk”. An inherent optimism kept her going. It is frightening to consider such a darkening of life.
In 1979, after more than 20 years, she met the Junior Maharani who called at her Bangalore residence “Shreenivas”, causing much surprise to the Maharani. All the members of the Junior Maharani’s family visited the Senior Maharani and Lalithamba Bayi in Bangalore in a sort of unexpected family reunion. It was to be the final meeting of the two Maharanis. In 1983 the Junior Maharani died and in 1985 Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi breathed her last in Bangalore. She was then the last living C.I. and a grand old lady of 90 who had seen three generations of her descendants.
Her daughter Uthram Thirunal Lalithamba Bayi resided in Bangalore till her own demise in 2008. Lalithamba Bayi had seven children; all based in Bangalore, including the artist Rukmini Varma (Princess Bharani Thirunal) and author Dr. Lakshmi Raghunandan (Princess Makham Thirunal). Her only son, and the first grandson of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, is Balagopal Varma (Revathi Thirunal).
Princess Karthika Thirunal Indira Bayi, who is at present the eldest female member of the Travancore royal family, resides in Madras with her husband and two children. Her son Shreekumar Varma (Punardam Thirunal) is a writer and she has a daughter Shobhana Varma (Swathi Thirunal).
This post is based on the following books: Lakshmi Raghunandan’s “At the Turn of the Tide” (1995) (which can be read here), Prof Sreedhara Menon’s “Triumph and Tragedy in Travancore” (2001), the Travancore State Manual (1940) by TK Velu Pillai, and “No elephants for the Maharajah” by Louise Ouwererk and Dick Kooiman (1994). I am grateful for the wealth of information I could access through Dr Lakshmi Raghunandan and also my grandparents for communicating to me the general public impression of various members of the royal family in the 1930s and 40s. A special thanks to Mrs Rukmini Varma for permitting me to use her latest portrait of the Maharani on this blog. To the best of my knowledge all the above stated is accurate and correct.
(This article was redrafted on the 25th of June 2010 as the earlier version published last year was not entirely satisfactory. The matter, content and course of the narrative remains the same. It may also be worth mentioning that certain objections were raised to this article and these along with my replies and the attendant arguments may be read below in the comments section. However as the language used by some individuals is not in healthy taste, I feel it might be prudent to warn a potential reader of the same.)