The 23rd of October 1926 was a day of much rejoicing all over Travancore state in South India. By the late morning congratulatory messages and telegrams reached the Regent Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi from all over the country conveying their best wishes on the occasion of the birth of her second child. As the Satelmond Palace Guild’s monthly magazine, The Microcosm, which was edited by none other than the Maharani’s consort Sri Rama Varma, the Valiya Koil Thampuran, reported:
The event is memorable for its uniqueness, in as much as, a sovereign ruler of the State giving birth to a child has not taken place during the last hundred years, the last instance being that of Her Highness Gowri Lakshmi Bayi.
(Gowri Lakshmi Bayi was the mother of the famous Maharajah Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma (1829-1846) who was also the only Queen Regnant of Travancore)
Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi with Princess Indira Bayi
While the Dewan made the official announcement of the royal birth in the state assembly, a holiday was proclaimed in all public institutions and special religious offerings were made in the name of the newborn princess. The same day in the evening at 5 PM the Regent Maharani’s sister, Junior Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi and her son, the minor Maharajah Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma came to see the child after which the Maharajah made the customary distribution of sugar to all the Brahmins and state officials present. When, 28 days later, the asterism of Karthika, under which the princess was born, returned, a grand feast was prepared at Satelmond Palace followed by garden parties and other functions. The Maharani and Valiya Koil Thampuran decided to name their second daughter Indira, after the goddess Lakshmi. The name was unusual in the royal family, which usually called their princesses Lakshmi, Parvathi, Rukmini, Ambika, Uma etc. The full title of the baby was now Karthika Thirunal Indira Bayi, Third Princess of Travancore.
The first few years of Princess Indira’s life were spent at Satelmond Palace in the company of her parents and elder sister Uthram Thirunal Lalithamba Bayi. Her mother’s sisters and their children also resided on the premises of Satelmond Palace but as per the orthodox usages of the royal family, these relatives could not mingle freely with their royal cousins. Every day they visited the Maharani at specific timings to pay their respects and there always lingered a certain formality in expression, although the Maharani was very close to her sisters of whom she took great care. It appears that right from her childhood Princess Indira would be embarrassed by these customs which decreed that her own aunts and relatives, so much older than her, should refer to her as a Highness and not as a little girl.
Princess Indira as a child
The Maharani appointed the best tutors, including Miss DH Watts, her own teacher and the sister of the Dewan ME Watts, to educate her little daughters. In keeping with the usages of the royal family, the princess received instruction in Sanskrit and Malayalam for 10 years under the tutelage of the eminent scholar Narayana Pisharody. Mr. Shankara Subbu Iyen and a certain Miss Paulose taught other subjects such as Maths, Hindi, and English etc.. After her regency terminated in November 1931, the Maharani did express a desire to send Princesses Lalitha and Indira to a public school but knew that permission would not be granted. Princess Indira thus found at her disposal many toys and books and other comforts, but had one essential component of a healthy childhood missing: friendship.
But the rigidity of royal life reduced considerably during the family’s vacations outside the capital city of Trivandrum. With her parents and sister, Princess Indira made many trips to places like Courtallam, Coonoor, Peermade, Kovalam etc. These were, however, occasional holidays and a return to the palace was unavoidable. Hence the Maharani’s daughters made the most of their little vacations outside. Princess Indira displayed great creativity right from her childhood and often, on such holidays, would lead the maidservants in song and dance. A sojourn in Coonoor, for instance, in 1932 saw great fun with little Indira Bayi, accompanied by the maids, acting out the story of Krishna and Kuchela on one day followed by that of Santanagopalam on the next. Kochu Paru, a favourite maid, was often the lead actor while Princess Indira sang in her delightful voice.
Halcyon Castle, Kovalam
A particularly favourite place of residence for the princess and her family was their resort at Kovalam called Halcyon Castle. Constructed by the Valiya Koil Thampuran on a 40-acre property on the beach, the entire structure was made of granite. Little cottages for the Maharani and her daughters, the household staff, servants etc. dotted the premises. The Valiya Koil Thampuran also designed beautiful gardens around the main building and a special outdoor dining area was also built. Often their father would take the little princesses on boat rides and on other occasions the local fisher folk would bring to them very interesting shells, stones and other treasures from the sea. A giant telescope was perched atop the tower of the building and special seats were made providing a brilliant view of the area. Years later Princess Indira would refer to Halcyon Castle as her “dream home”. When the princesses were not in their special “school house” they would be walking around the beach in the company of their father, meeting ordinary people and villagers who lived there.
Like in any family, there were humorous occasions of sibling rivalry also. Princess Indira’s elder sister Lalitha was a rather strong willed child and did not like being left out of things. For instance in 1935, when their father was away at his hometown in Harippad, Princess Indira developed a swelling in her leg and to comfort his daughter the Valiya Koil Thampuran sent her a letter full of jokes. Lalitha too decided to have her own letter and so she knocked her foot against the stairs and wrote to her father about how painful it was. As time passed, however, and the princesses grew up, the two sisters became very close to each other. This might also have been because of the conspicuous absence of other children around them.
A 1928 photograph of Princesses Lalitha and Indira with their mother, the Maharani
But growing up meant that the Indira had to take on more responsibilities pertaining to her position as a princess of the royal house of Travancore. Living in a palace meant that she could not step out into the open without a band of liveried attendants following her. Special occasions, and in the royal family there were many of these, meant that Princess Indira and her sister would be paraded around the city in palanquins or atop elephants, to the accompaniment of piped music, drums and trumpets, not to mention all the soldiers, guards and ordinary crowds that followed them everywhere. Whereas her mother the Maharani had become accustomed to this life, for the princess it resulted in major embarrassment and nothing more. She once said:
I was born in a cage. A golden cage, but a cage nevertheless. Traditions and ancient customs- the bars. Yet my childhood was not unhappy. The beauties surrounding our house enchanted me- the sea, the mountains…
While on the one hand the princess felt increasingly restricted by her royal status, on the other her aunt, the Junior Maharani’s animosity towards her mother made things worse. Every time something had to be done, care had to be taken to ensure that the Junior Maharani would not in the least feel antagonised, for then more trouble would ensue. The princess and her family thus went about their daily affairs without much interaction with the Junior Maharani and her family.
In 1938 Princess Lalithamba Bayi had been married to Kerala Varma of Kilimanoor. The marriage took place only after the Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi conciliated the Junior Maharani by paying a visit to Kowdiar Palace as the latter had desired. After the marriage, which was a seven-day state function, Princess Lalitha left on her honeymoon and the Maharani had only Princess Indira with her. The princess sensed her mother’s loneliness and spent most of her time with her, thereby forging a “special bond” between them. By now the princess had displayed a flair for writing stories and poetry and the Maharani encouraged her to study and become a graduate.
Princess Karthika Thirunal
After her schooling it was decided that Princess Indira could attend college with regular students instead of learning under tutors. Her daily classes in college were her first taste of freedom. For the princess going to college was nothing less than thrilling. For the first time she would leave the protected, orthodox, royal environs of the palace and venture into the “real world”. “For some reason I went about barefoot”, she recollects and this habit seems to have resulted in many comments from fellow students, who perhaps expected to see a fairytale princess in their classroom instead of this excited young girl who wondered at the lives they led instead. The princess was also often awestruck by her ordinary classmates who wore the latest clothes and ornaments while her own attire was not the most fashionable. The style of living in the Travancore royal family was simple and it was only on special occasions that the family dressed up. Otherwise their dress, food and other aspects of daily life were unusually simple; something that caused even Mahatma Gandhi some surprise. To return to Princess Indira’s college education, she went on to become the first female graduate of the Travancore royal family although marriage and children interrupted her studies before she secured her BA degree.
Meanwhile in 1939 a serious issue cropped up. The Maharani’s estate at Peermade was purchased in the name of Princess Indira and suddenly the Maharajah’s manager informed her that this property did not belong to the princess but to the Maharajah. However the timely intervention of the British Resident prevented a miscarriage of justice and it was established that the property in Peermade belonged to Princess Indira and nobody else. It remained in her ownership until 1952 when it was sold. More trouble followed in 1941 when the Maharajah desired that the Maharani and her daughters reside at Trivandrum and not at Lalindloch Palace in Vellayani, where they had been based for a few years past, in keeping with the “dignity” of the royal family. More and more restrictions were placed on their lives, much to the princess’ unhappiness.
Just as the Second World War was coming to an end, in June 1945 it was decided to get the princess married. Her father’s nephew from Harippad, lovingly called Kuttan, was the groom and as the princess had no objection, the marriage was finalized and conducted. Princess Indira now looked on to a new phase in her life but this happiness was short lived for her husband was found to be ill constantly. He was diagnosed with cancer and, in those days, there was no advanced treatment for it. In May 1949 Rama Varma “Kuttan” Koil Thampuran passed away at Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum. At the age of 23 Indira Bayi found herself a widow.
The Third Princess as a young woman
For the young girl this shock was tremendous and the Maharani decided that a change of environment would do her daughter good. The princess was sent to Trichonopoly, where the Maharani’s brother Kerala Varma was at that time based, along with her aunt Aswathynnal Kutty Amma Thampuran (whose son Dr. RM Varma is the famous neurosurgeon). However the loss sustained by the princess was severe and for two years after this she led a very secluded and private life. The Maharani, not used to seeing her bright daughter in such an unhappy state, encouraged her to concentrate on her studies, even as proposals were being considered for her remarriage. 1949 was also the year in which Princess Lalitha moved away with her husband and daughters to Bangalore and settled there.
Being a princess, Indira’s education was interrupted often and it was in 1951 that she passed the matriculation examinations, which helped revive her spirits. Meanwhile a suitable proposal had been accepted and she was engaged to K. Kerala Varma of Kilimanoor. In May 1952 Princess Indira was married to Kerala Varma at her sister’s residence in Bangalore, where the Maharani had been staying since August 1951. After the tragedy, for the first time Indira looked radiant and happy and all set to begin a new chapter in her life. The Maharani too was greatly relieved that the worst had passed. In November 1952 a house was purchased for Indira in Madras, where her husband was based and plans were afoot to move there. Even as she was preparing for her intermediate exams, Princess Indira became pregnant and in 1953 gave birth to her daughter, Shobhana. Shobhana’s birth brought new joy to Indira and as the entire family spent the summer of 1954 in Coonoor, it finally looked like the doors of the golden cage had opened up.
Princess Indira and her family with the Maharani in Madras
A son Shreekumar followed in 1955 and the princess, now known as Mrs. Indira Varma, began to enjoy her life in Madras where she could be herself, without the baggage of royalty that stuck to her in Trivandrum. She studied and secured a BA degree a few years after the birth of her son. An avid reader and a writer of short stories and poems, she introduced her children to the world of books. In 1958 the Maharani moved to Bangalore permanently and the connection with Travancore was for most part severed. Every summer Indira and her family would visit Bangalore and stay with the Maharani. Occasionally she would go with her father to Kerala where, in spite of the changing times, she was still considered royal. Her son Shreekumar Varma, describes an interesting experience in the late 1960s when on a temple visit a grand procession, attended by a couple of hundred local people, followed them throughout. Indira and Shobhana, who were present, along with an aunt Snehalatha, “bore the limelight far more gracefully” than Shreekumar who was then a Madras schoolboy, unaccustomed to such things.
Indira Varma in the early 1980s with her mother during a Bangalore visit
In 1971 after the Government of India passed a constitutional amendment derecognising the Maharajahs, the Sreepadom Estate was partitioned between the branches of the Maharanis Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi. Among the royal properties only Thevarathu Koikkal came to Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. Of the property, Saraswathi Vilasom Palace was given to Indira who retained it until 1988 when she sold it to the Hindi Prachar Sabha, with the condition that the property must not be demolished or sold and the name must not be changed (The surrounding land and other buildings, including a Kalyana Mandapom, the Maharani’s first bungalow called Moonbeam etc. were the share of Princess Lalitha and her children). The government in 1964 had already acquired her “dream home” Halcyon Castle and the other properties too were sold. It was clear that her move to Madras was permanent and subsequently her children married and settled there as well. Except for a few occasional and rare trips to Kerala, Madras and Bangalore became home for the princess and her family.
Shreekumar Varma (Photo by SS Kumar, courtesy The Hindu)
Indira’s husband KK Varma was a lawyer in the Supreme Court of India and sometime Chairman and MD of India Meters. Her son Shreekumar Varma is an author and journalist whose works include The Lament of Mohini (2000), Devils Garden: Tales of Pappudom (2006), The Magic Store of Nu-Cham-Vu (2009) Maria’s Room (2010) etc. He is married to Geeta Varma of Nilambur Kovilakam and has two sons, Vinayak Varma (an artist, scriptwriter, and illustrator etc.) and Karthik Varma (a student in college and an actor and musician). Her daughter Shobhana Varma studied Law and Homeopathy and is married to Goda Varma of Kilimanoor. She had an only daughter, Mathangi Varma, who passed away in 2001. The death of her granddaughter affected Indira Bayi greatly and I reproduce a stanza from a poem she wrote in memory of Mathangi:
Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh,
Beat of my pulse, song of my heart,
Did I love you too much dear one?
Did jealous fate resent the gift,
Of so much love to a single soul,
And take you, leaving me bereft?
Indira Varma continues to reside in Madras/Chennai today with her family. Had the princely order continued she would today have been the Senior Maharani of Travancore. So many years have passed since the days of the princes in India but even today the Government recognizes her as Her Highness Karthika Thirunal Indira Bayi, Third Princess of Travancore.
This post is derived from the following articles published in The Hindu’s Magazine: Benign Presence (2006) by Shreekumar Varma and Halcyon Days at Kovalam (2005) by Indira Varma. I have also referred to Lakshmi Raghunandan’s At the Turn of the Tide (1995) and Shreekumar Varma’s essay Those were the Daze that was published in Anita Nair’s Where the Rain is Born: Writings about Kerala (2002). I specially thank Shreekumar Varma for the pictures and also for conveying his mother’s appreciation of this article to me. To the best of my knowledge the above stated is accurate and any inaccuracies will be subsequently corrected as and when they come to my attention.