The Ivory Throne

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by Manu

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The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore (HarperCollins) is my first book of non-fiction, released in December 2015.

Excerpts, reviews, interviews and other information is up here.

The Ivory Throne is available for online orders (India) here, (UK) here, and (US) here.

Of Forgotten Consorts and Queens

Posted in Uncategorized on October 28, 2016 by Manu

(This was an essay written for the Mint Lounge dated 15th October 2016.)

When I met the maharaja’s great-great-granddaughter, she was wielding a plastic bucket. The afternoon was hot, and beads of sweat had formed above her lips as she told me, smiling, to leave my shoes outside—the cleaners had just washed the family shrine. The temple itself didn’t impress me—far too much concrete, I thought, and far too wet—but I paused, wondering if my socks would embarrass me. I had spent all morning sweating in Thiruvananthapuram fort, a neighbourhood as labyrinthine as its name. I knew from faded photographs that this was once a picturesque setting of neat pagoda-style houses of stone and wood—today it has become a crowded jumble of poorly preserved buildings bearing flex banners, jostling for space among monstrosities that have facades of glass. Those parts of town of colonial vintage, with wider roads, flowering trees and more protected structures, were better, I concluded, than these streets surrounding the city’s principal temple and cultural nerve centre.

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Maharajah Visakham Tirunal of Travancore

The lady I had come to meet, though, lived on a street that begins outside the west gate of the fort. If I hadn’t come at a time when Thiruvananthapuram was battling a garbage disposal crisis and people had reconciled to mounds of trash on the streets, one could have compared this stretch to White Town in Puducherry. For, touching the roadside, one after the other, are half a dozen stately mansions built in that very 19th century fashion that married Portuguese and Dutch influences with British and Malayali architectural styles—bay windows, fluted pillars, arched gateways, gabled roofs, with exquisite craftsmanship in wood. These buildings are ammaveedus, a Malayalam word for an institution peculiar to Thiruvananthapuram and to the age of the maharajas of Travancore. Not all these properties are intact—one, where Jawaharlal Nehru stayed in 1931, was demolished, while those that survive find their compounds sliced between battling heirs from numerous branches of the grand families that occupied these homes. Here too, glass monstrosities now loom.

Nandini, my bucket-holding interlocutor that afternoon, belonged to the ammaveedu of Arumana, with old tales of riches and glamour, of fortunes secreted and squandered, and of scandals whispered from one generation of grandmothers to the next. The ammaveedus were closely connected to the royal court, for they were the palaces of the consorts of the maharajas. Nandini’s great-great-grandfather was the ruler of the principality for five years, from 1880. The British loved him as a rational, scientific-minded “native” who meditated on issues such as “The Horrors of War and Benefits of Peace”. He was celebrated as unorthodox and “progressive”, but it was an open secret among Brahmins in the great temple that the prince also had the gift of clairvoyance. He had a presentiment, Nandini told me with conviction, that his reign would last precisely five years. And on the eve of his death, he declared in his diary: “Adieu to all ceremonies! I am sinking faster and faster. I wind all my worldly concerns and devote myself to God.”

It was easier said than done, though, and Nandini, who, after all these generations, bears something of her illustrious ancestor’s triangular features, is representative of the gravest concern confronting the dying maharaja—the future of his family. The royal house followed the matrilineal system of succession, under which power passed not from father to son, but from uncle to nephew. The throne was reserved for the offspring of the royal sisters, not of wives, who could only be nobility at best. It was the uterine bond of brother and sister—king and queen, respectively—that was sacred in matriliny, not alliances cemented by marriage. And indeed, among the matrilineal elite, marriage could be a fickle affair—permanence was never expected, even if it often existed.

Walking around the clamorous fort area, it was easy to see the maharajas kept even a physical distance from their wives. Centred on the temple to Padmanabha (where the discovery of riches worth billions—from the Roman epoch down to the age of Napoleon—invited the spotlight of the world on the city some years ago), the fort was a sacred space occupied by palaces and the homes of Brahmins and Nair functionaries connected to the temple. It was outsidethe western walls that the consorts were given their mansions. In the late 1780s, Thiruvananthapuram was that peculiar proposition—a planned city. Like the power of its rulers, everything was new. The splendid, ornate gopuramof the temple had been sculpted only two decades earlier, replacing a more ordinary gabled gateway. The deity too was of recent physical provenance—as the authority of Travancore, once a political backwater, crept up the coast, the wooden image was replaced with the glorious 18ft, gem-encrusted god of stone one beholds today. Palaces in teak, intricately carved, were erected to match the new-found grandeur of the dynasty, and Brahmins from Tamil country were imported to legitimize the maharaja’s claim as a great protector of the Hindu tradition.

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Dharma Rajah of Travancore, who moved his capital to Thiruvananthapuram

When, in the 1790s, the ruler finally abandoned his old capital in Padmanabhapuram for his new court in Thiruvananthapuram, his four wives went with him. They hailed, it is said, from the villages of Vadasseri, Arumana, Nagercoil and Thiruvattar, and it’s for them that the four ammaveedus were constructed outside the fort. A fifth was added in the 1840s, after the then ruler fell in love with a dancer from Thanjavur, an episode that provoked both controversy and a hundred songs of romance. Whenever a maharaja wished to see his lady, she would set out in a palanquin for his palace, but he would never visit her ammaveedu—wives and children were not matrilineal kin, so royal fathers never attended even the weddings of their daughters. It was Nandini’s great-great-grandfather who breached the norm for the first time, in May 1883, celebrating the weddings of his girls “with great pomp, all the great officers of the State joining in the marriage procession”. There were Nair ladies “decked with jewels”, one account says, “wearing jessamine wreaths”, followed by nautch girls and women “dressed in kimkhab, with jewels from head to foot”. Of course, there were richly caparisoned elephants too, carrying the sons-in-law of the maharaja, with bearers honouring them with parasols of silk.

All this endured as long as a ruler lived. After his death, his widow lived a life of guarded seclusion (unusual in the matrilineal system), and his children eventually faded into oblivion, enjoying pensions and some marks of honour but no formal status in the eyes of the public—today, when reference is made to “the royal family” in Thiruvananthapuram, Nandini and her line do not feature in the picture it evokes. They always knew, of course, that this would be their fate. It was “painful”, Augusta Blandford, an Englishwoman with a penchant for mild exaggeration, noted, “on state occasions to see the Rajah’s sons standing among the attendants behind their father’s throne while the Princes, their cousins, are seated on chairs of state”. Once a ruler died, his palace was closed for at least a generation, sealing with it the prospects of his family. If he had been wise, he would have transferred enough wealth to his ammaveedu during his reign; if not, his lady and children were at the mercy of successors who had their own wives to promote. The man who reigned between 1860 and 1880, for instance, married a woman of great intelligence and creativity—her ammaveedu, Nagercoil, was fabled as the richest of them all. But after his death, she too suffered. “She is very thin and delicate looking, and has lost much of her beauty,” wrote Blandford, who read the Bible with her. “She seems so friendless and lonely that I feel very sorry for her.”

Nandini’s ancestor lived in a palace called Anantha Vilasam, with elaborate Corinthian columns and influences drawn from Baroque European buildings. He could never go abroad due to the injunctions court Brahmins had issued (no wonder he called his state the “most priest-ridden country in India”), but collected picture books and modelled his residence on what he observed. When I went to Anantha Vilasam, however, I found a place with the plaster peeling and heavy walls crumbling as water trickled down from the roof. No king lives here today—at some point after Kerala elected its first communist chief minister, possession moved into the hands of a public bank. Chairs of plastic and steel have taken the place of rosewood, and under high ceilings, from which once hung glorious chandeliers, sit middle-aged bureaucrats, lording over heaps of files. There is no trace left of the prince who died in 1885, and if at one time his wife and children were denied a place here by court conventions, the turn of history has denied a memorial to the maharaja too. Today, he is known not for his once-charming palace-turned-bank, but as the man who brought the tapioca to Kerala.

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Arumana Ammachi, the consort of Maharajah Visakham Tirunal

Ironically, the consort’s home (Arumana ammaveedu) has fared somewhat better—while different buildings went to different members of Nandini’s family, the principal mansion from which the consort watched her husband escort his family deity for a festive seaside bath every year, survives to this day. It is, of course, another matter that if the structure retains some splendour, it is because it functions as a heritage restaurant and is in the charge of a business house. Where once the maharaja’s daughters had their personal quarters, I watched as white men and women from oceans away carved their meat at candlelit tables, surrounded by furniture that is not as old as it pretends to be. Not everything is an innovation though—while meat would never have been allowed inside, Europeans were welcome. Englishwomen of distinction were permitted to call on the maharaja’s consort between 7.30 and 8 o’clock in the morning. That way, she could shake hands before her bath and then wash away the taint of ritual pollution with a dip in the pond. All that was then—today there is no pond to begin with. It was filled up, and in its place stands a cement and brick building with sliding windows and posters on its walls advertising coaching classes.

Nandini spoke with affection about the great-great-grandmother she had never seen. Widowed before she was 40, the lady lived for decades more, a quiet presence in a big house, hiding from everyone’s view the portrait in which she appeared with her husband—protocol prohibited consorts from being seen with their exalted spouses, and the lady was always embarrassed about this work in oil that showed her with the lord of the Ivory Throne. She was a mere mortal, small and plump, standing behind him; he, god’s regent on earth, sat triumphant in an armchair. The last time she saw him was over a week before his death, for in his final moments he could only be surrounded by Brahmins and matrilineal relations (one Brahmin was paid 10,000 rupees to embrace the dying monarch, assume his sins and then leave the state forever). Even in life, he was never permitted to eat food cooked by her hand, or to touch her during the day. He could never appear publicly with her, nor could their children be acknowledged as his—in official papers, they were only children of Arumana, not of the maharaja, who was, in theory, above such earthly affairs as fathering children. But there was affection and genuine concern, and in his dying moments the ruler revealed that he too was a man of flesh and blood.

“Ten days before his death,” it is chronicled, “he sent for his Consort and children, and they came before him in the evening very late. He beckoned his daughters to approach close to the cot, and the light not being very bright, he bade his Consort trim the flickering lamp in order to enable him to see his daughters well, and he gazed on them for a while and wept. His Consort and children also wept; but he told them that God would protect and help them, and asked them to take leave. His Consort, his son, and daughters prostrated themselves at his feet…and took their last farewell. On the same night his Consort and his eldest daughter took ill, being overcome with grief.” Nandini had not read this account and was moved when I sent it to her. I did take off my shoes, as it happened, and sat at the edge of the temple by an ugly concrete pillar. She and I spoke for 2 hours of old stories and the way things were. I absorbed all she said, and she was eager to tell me all she knew—the consorts do not have many who wish to hear their tales. When the time arrived to say goodbye, she came to the gate to see me off. We shook hands, exchanged numbers and wished each other well. And then Nandini, descendant of a king, walked down that street of mansions, bucketless, but drenched like me in the heat of the afternoon.

***

The heat was less troubling when I arrived in Bengaluru to resurrect a queen. Behind smiles and the aura of once majestic buildings, Nandini and her line lament in silence their peripheral place in accounts of royal glory. The woman I now sought, scion of the matrilineal royal line, occupied the very heart of it. Yet she left the land her ancestors ruled, embracing obscurity as her destiny—she has no Nandini in Thiruvananthapuram to keep her flame. Struggles for power, intrigues at court and a crown of personal humiliation drained her appetite for the pretensions of royal life. Melancholy, she remarked that perhaps it was easier being a consort—one had all the privileges of royalty, without the responsibility. Little did she understand: They in the ammaveedus wistfully craved responsibility and acknowledgment, but she, paramount and revered in the palace, bore power as her cross. The consorts were lucky, even if they didn’t know it—it was queens who lived in worlds of regret.

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Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi with her consort and children

She suffered much in the years after her reign, an experience especially bitter, for she had achieved a great deal and hoped for gratitude, not persecution. It was her daughter, a princess with a grin wider than princesses were allowed, who rebelled, preferring the anonymity of city life after India won independence to ceremonious depression in the palace—those buildings that so charmed outsiders could rot for all she cared as she moved into a rectangular house on Richmond Road, between the Furtados and the D’Mellos. And then, in 1957, the last maharani of Travancore also took leave of her heritage—the palace servants had unionized under Communist leadership, cornering her in her own home. In 1985, she died in the city of her exile, a century after the passing of her dynastic predecessor: Nandini’s great-great-grandfather. But at least the maharaja had the consolation of dying in a palace—in 1985, his fallen great-niece had to settle for a public hospital, meeting her maker through the means of an electric crematorium. Gone from her too were the gun salutes and honours that ammaveedus were once denied—time had toppled even those who sat on chairs of state while their cousins stood.

Thiruvananthapuram held little for me till I discovered the tragic tale of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. I decided to tell her story in my book and ventured into a city that had forgotten her—not unconsciously, for her name was erased systematically in favour of a rival power. She was an undemonstrative woman and left only official letters. But I was in luck, for she did have many homes into which she retreated to escape the drama that was life at court. Unlike the consorts guarded outside the fort, the queens of Travancore were freer to live where they pleased. I went to Kovalam, where she had a house of granite by the sea. It had a tower and vast rose gardens, and she called it Halcyon Castle. Under the Communist regime, it was snatched from her, however, and sold to a stranger. After the public objected, the “castle” lapsed into litigation. When I went there, policemen were stationed on the premises, their underpants hanging on a line in the veranda where the maharani once settled to catch the evening breeze. I had come seeking her spirit, but what I found was jarring reality.

I then went to the lake in Vellayani by which Sethu Lakshmi Bayi had her favourite home. Surrounded only by villages, and removed from the capital, it was here that she escaped after relinquishing authority, watching the monsoon melt water into water. This place too was lost when the government wanted a sturdy roof for the College of Agriculture. The bungalow with the arbour where the maharani lived is now a hostel for girls, its vast halls chopped up in deference to contemporary practicalities—queens could live in enormous bedrooms; young girls investigating harvest varieties sleep like sheep in a pen. Men are not allowed here, and I was shooed away by the wardens. In that girls’ hostel, once protected by liveried household guards watching over an embattled queen, I might have felt Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s presence. But here also there was no soul.

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Satelmond Palace, Thiruvananthapuram

It was in the end that I came to her city residence. It was called Vijaya Vilasam, the Palace of Victory, but most remember it as Satelmond Palace, where defeat was at home. Today, it houses a medical research institution—at midnight one day in 1976, its founder obtained from Sethu Lakshmi Bayi her sanction for the handover, after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency invaded the grounds, seeking to establish a police outpost. It was the last vestige of the maharani’s haunted past, and so detached had she become that she smiled and declared while signing her warrant of renunciation: “Aah, this is freedom at midnight!” Nothing linked Thiruvananthapuram to Sethu Lakshmi Bayi any more—the hallowed palace that once governed millions, where she received Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, found a new purpose for its existence. Thiruvananthapuram was the city that installed her as its queen when she was 5. Now it forgot all about her. The feeling was mutual, though, for she too wished nothing more than to forget the city.

A cheerful man with a thriving belly showed me around. I had a picture of the palace in my mind from conversations with Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s heirs, as unknown in the land of their ancestors as were the consorts of yore. I went into a hall with a black and white chequered floor—the maharani’s drawing room houses books, rack after aluminium rack reducing its vastness into a cramped library. I went upstairs to her bedroom, now conquered by a plywood desk, cabinets and shelves skirting walls that once showcased masterpieces in oil. In the dining wing, the marble was devastated to make way for the atrocity of ceramic tiles. The building where the ladies-in-waiting lived was a giant hole in the ground; the guest house was closed; the kitchens where 24 cooks manifested culinary sensations sheltered an electronic device. I walked downhill to the tank where aromas of medicinal waters and exquisite bath oils once wafted through the air. I smelt filth. Thiruvananthapuram’s garbage crisis had affected even those who occupied old palaces. There was no sign of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi at the Palace of Victory either. Like Anantha Vilasam, the Palace of Bliss where Nandini’s ancestor lived, here too men with files prevailed.

History charted oblivion in its eyes for the consorts of maharajas, and the Nandinis left behind reconciled to this. But the maharanis of Travancore also possessed consorts who had to resign themselves to circumstance—husbands who could not sit with their wives, men unequal to the “Highnesses” they married. Though they were fathers to princes, they had to bow to their sons, who held precedence. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was devoted to her man, though. She let him sit with her, drive with her, and even gave him a say in government. Where her minister had precedence over him, she upset the order and gave her husband a place of honour. He was nobody till she, aged 10, looked down from a gallery at boys offered to her and selected the skinny one as her companion. Overnight, he was plucked from his village and planted at the high table, learning to eat with a fork and knife, and to dress and behave. He played hopscotch with his royal wife and read fairy tales to her. When they grew, she invited him to her chambers, where they made love on nights astrologers deemed most propitious for producing the male heir they never had.

The consort who was a nobody saw no romance in renunciation, for even renunciation is a privilege. But his wife was a queen, and queens are stubborn even in downfall. He warned her that she would not be remembered if she left the city she once ruled. She did not care, for she had suffered. He told her that queens must have palaces or they would be nothing. She had lived all her life in one and sought instead a cottage with a breath of fresh air. Fresh air, he argued, was overrated. She did as she pleased anyway. She was generous to a fault, dividing her money and property, marrying expensive presents to her inexpensive affections. The consort warned her that family must never be pampered, and purse strings clutched tight even in exile. She would not listen. Familiarity breeds contempt, he declared in rage as her old limousine went up on sale, but she had been worshipped all her life in a gilded cage—a little bit of contempt made her human.

The consort died first, aged almost 90. And he died a very rich man, leaving two million rupees to be paid in estate duties and a mansion with pile carpets and stuffed bears. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi followed a decade later, also aged almost 90. She had a bed and a metal trunk of memories, for which there were no estate duties. Outsiders shook their heads and said that the consort was the wise one. But the queen’s penance was complete—she had become nobody. I went to the place where she lived in Bengaluru—a bungalow surrounded by her favourite roses, with a pond in the garden. What I found was a crowded thoroughfare beside which stood an unremarkable apartment block in shades of blue and maroon. The house too was gone, and the woman who renounced Thiruvananthapuram had left no trace here again. I turned around and returned to archives abroad, to look in paper for the woman who wanted to be forgotten, and for the city of monstrosities that obliged her desire.

The Consort

Posted in Uncategorized on February 25, 2016 by Manu

(This essay, based on an episode in my book The Ivory Throne, was first published in Open Magazine in February 2016.)

The story of Lalitamba Bayi and Kerala Varma is no ordinary love story. It tells of many political machinations and the slow unravelling of the matrilineal court in Travancore.

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Kerala Varma Koil Tampuran in a portrait (2015) by his daughter, Rukmini Varma

One evening in the autumn of 1937, a princess of Travancore entered the library at Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum where her parents were ensconced sorting wedding proposals for her. “There’s no need to look anymore,” she declared casually. She’d just returned from a procession, escorted around Trivandrum Fort in an ornate palanquin, heralded by pipers, drummers, and the liveried guards. All of them looked sufficiently solemn and Lalitamba Bayi was meant to play her part and act appropriately poised. But this mutinous princess popped her head out and waved at her pious, somewhat startled subjects. And there— in the crowd on a certain inner street, she saw him. Without a hint of reservation she at once decided she would marry this man, and no amount of frenzied parleying with her apoplectic father, her bewildered mother, or even the formidable British Resident could convince her otherwise.

Enquiries were made — after the princess threatened to take off from the roof—and the mystery man was identified. He proved to be of suitable family; from the clan of Ravi Varma, the painter, who was Lalitamba’s great-grandfather. Besides, at the end of the day it was perfectly reasonable for the princesses of Travancore to select husbands of their liking. Lalitamba’s mother, the Senior Maharani, had glanced from an upstairs balcony at two boys presented to her and that’s how Lalitamba’s father, a country grandee, entered the picture. Her aunt, the Junior Maharani, was offered a somewhat more ample selection of five candidates from which she took her pick. So the princess hadn’t, strictly speaking, broken any rules. The boy in question was summoned to the palace for an interview and the father of the bride sat him down. “Tell me about your reading habits,” he suggested, smiling sweetly. The nervous boy commenced his rattling when suddenly his prospective father-in-law growled: “Who was the author of Ivanhoe?”“I hadn’t a clue,” the bridegroom-elect would recount years later, “and said the first thing that came to my head: Rip Van Winkle!”

The father of the princess was not pleased, but he had no say. The Senior Maharani confirmed the wedding and the boy failed his college examinations in all the jubilation that followed. The palace doctors subjected him to a most thorough inspection to ensure everything was in order, while the grand dame at court, an enormous Anglo-Indian spinster called Miss Watts, arrived in her equally imposing yellow car to give him lessons in etiquette. Finally, on the eve of the wedding, when the boy returned from a tour of high-end garment stores in Madras, he was introduced to the family priest to discuss matters of a more delicate nature. Awkwardly the wizened Brahmin tutored his ward in what was and wasn’t appropriate when making love to a princess of Travancore. The hapless man absorbed it quietly, while back in the palace the girl giggled through her mother’s pithy remarks. The wedding took place in 1938, and overnight, Mr Kerala Varma, ex-BSc student at the Maharajah’s College, was exalted as MR Ry Sri Kerala Varma Koil Tampuran Avargal, Consort to Her Highness the Second Princess of Travancore.

But it wasn’t too heady an elevation. After all, consorts could never be princes.

In matrilineal Travancore—to put it simplistically—the king’s wife was not his queen; it was his sister who was the queen and her children who succeeded him to the throne. The Maharajah could flaunt a wordy string of a dozen embellished titles, but his son was always Mr So-and-So, living at the grace and favour of his royal father. “I have seen standing unnoticed in a shop,” one traveller noted, “the son of [a] highly distinguished late Maharajah.” The Maharajah’s wife was never addressed as anything other than a ‘consort’ and according to the mandates of tradition, was not a member of the royal household. ‘She has neither official nor social position at court,’ it was observed, ‘and cannot even be seen in public with the ruler whose wife she is.’

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Kerala Varma with Uthram Tirunal Lalitamba Bayi in 1938

A 1912 feature in London’s The Lady explained the position succinctly:

Whenever a stranger goes to Travancore, one of the largest and most picturesque native States, situated in south-western India, they always tell him not to address her as ‘Your Highness’. They think this word is too dignified to apply to her. No doubt she is the Ruler’s spouse; but that does not make her the Maharani or even the Rani. She is only Ammachi, just the mother of His Highness’ children, and they believe that word is good enough to express her relationship to the man who is autocrat of more than 2,950,000 people, inhabiting [over] seven thousand square miles of territory, yielding an annual revenue of about £700,000.

In fact, the Maharajah could not, during the day, even touch his wife and children who were considered below caste, let alone dine with them. As late as the 1940s, as a member of the family recalls, “They couldn’t come anywhere near us when a meal was being eaten, and if by accident they did, then the whole meal had to be sent back… Dinner was always a bit more relaxed because that was after sunset when everything is more relaxed.” The demands of caste and ritual purity evidently went up and down with the sun, allowing the Maharajahs a sufficient window to invite their consorts to the royal bedchamber and to transact personal business without having retainers shove court customs down their princely throats.

But if this was the predicament of women who married Maharajahs of Travancore, men who were favoured by the sister-Maharanis fared only a little better. Like female consorts, these men also received courtesy titles, but had no status at court. With the queens they might produce heirs to the throne, but when they died, their bodies were sent back to their natal families, and their royal wives and children did not attend the funeral. As late as the 1920s, the sole entitlement of the husbands of princesses was ‘a monthly allowance from the durbar of Rs 200 per mensem with meals from the palace and the use of a brougham and a pair of horses.’ By the 1940s they were a little better off with Rs 300 per month. At grand banquets in the palace, the Maharanis and their offspring were served four varieties of dessert; the consorts were permitted two.

Similarly, husbands of the Maharanis were not allowed to share the same bedroom as their highborn spouses—when Lalitamba and her young consort did in 1938, it was considered massively inventive. In the old days, the consort could call on his wife only on previously rostered dates and times, and if she wished to entertain him. He was not permitted to sit in his wife’s presence, and always had to address her as ‘Your Highness’. If the couple had to travel, the consort followed in a less stately carriage—and if some bureaucratic oversight and dreadful breach of protocol caused him to end up in the same coach as his royal partner, it was essential he park himself opposite and not next to her.

In the 1910s, patricians at court were outraged when Lalitamba’s mother, the Senior Maharani, amended the custom as she ‘modernised’ things. ‘It is a matter of common knowledge,’ the Resident reported to the Viceroy in Delhi, that the then Maharajah ‘much disapproved of the [Maharani] allowing [Lalitamba’s father] to sit in her presence and to drive in the same carriage.’

Clearly, it didn’t take too much to manufacture a scandal in princely Travancore.

The idea behind much of this antiquated court culture was to preserve a halo around the matrilineal dynasty and to ensure that no husband or wife married to its members forgot their place in the order of things. It was also in the interests of dynastic preservation that outside individuals should not gain undue influence over the king or queen. In practice, however, things did not always pan out in ways desired by the twelve-volume ‘Palace Manual’. The Maharajah who ruled from 1885 till 1924, for instance, first married the adopted daughter of his uncle, the previous ruler. She died in childbirth, and he brought up their son to become his ADC—which was as close to royalty as the boy could get. During the intervening years, the Maharajah remained unwed, till about fifteen years down the line he made his acquaintance with a woman called Kartyayani. Swiftly she was adopted into one of the noble houses in the capital, with aristocracy conferred upon her. She picked up ‘a few polite English phrases’ and acquired ‘an excess of adipose tissue’, which was apparently ‘a sign of prosperity’. ‘The ruler’s wife, no doubt,’ a magazine sneered, ‘is lucky as few women are, and she has therefore every incentive to be as fat as Nature may let her grow.’

But while the Maharajah’s wife inflated in bodily proportions, so too did corruption at court. The matter was that when the ruler met the lady, she was already a married woman. Her husband, a palace menial, relinquished her to the Maharajah and in return, the grateful monarch appointed him his chamberlain. With the passage of years, it was reported that the Maharajah lapsed into a ‘dreamy stupor’ around his new keeper (‘the former husband of the Maharajah’s present wife’) who controlled orders emanating from the palace and was recorded as a collector of tremendous sums in bribes. ‘The state of the Court here,’ a bishop summarised, ‘is very bad. Unworthy favourites rule and we hear of great scandals.’ In neighbouring Cochin State, the Rajah who reigned in the 1920s grew ill and disoriented with age (given to laughing wildly during formal durbars and causing a monumental tremble to play upon the Resident’s decidedly stiff upper lip). His consort, ‘whose ruling passion is the acquisition of wealth for her already wealthy family’, usurped the functioning of the palace and the government, provoking an uprising from the rightful princes of Cochin born in the matrilineal line.

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Kerala Varma in 1948 with his royal daughters: Rohini Tirunal Parvathi Bayi, Bharani Tirunal Rukmini Bayi, and Bharani Tirunal Uma Bayi

If Maharajahs could, thus, be influenced by their wives and the latter’s partisans, the consorts of the Maharanis also possessed significant influence over the royal ladies. In public they might not sit with them, but how much leeway they had depended on the character of the princesses. While the Junior Maharani in Travancore, for instance, was recorded as perfectly capable of keeping her husband ‘in his proper place’, the Senior Maharani was devoted to the ideal of the ‘good’, patriarchal wife who thought walking a step behind her husband was a matter of high honour. The allowance of a superior position than was due to Lalitamba’s father drew objections from the Junior Maharani. Outsiders warned that the Senior Maharani’s consort had to remain ‘ever conscious of the line of demarcation between his privileges as royal partner and his duties as loyal citizen.’ And if one of those duties entailed bowing to the Junior Maharani, it wasn’t becoming of him to refuse to do this even if he were married to the Senior.

What began, then, as a trivial battle about protocol soon assumed historic proportions that would affect the lives of millions of Travancoreans—the Senior’s husband would not bow, and the Junior resented his audacity. ‘Nothing will,’ bemoaned the Resident, ‘terminate the feud between the Junior Maharani and [the Senior’s consort] but the death of one of them.’ It didn’t help that it was the Junior Maharani who produced the next Maharajah, but that during the latter’s minority, the state was entrusted to the Senior as Regent. She proved to be a remarkably capable ruler, but her husband, though ‘not venal’ did harbour a ‘passion to play King’—a treasonous gamble for a mere consort. He spent mornings ‘giving audiences to subordinate officials seeking to avoid unwelcome transfers or to obtain undeserved promotions’ and soon there was a rebellion in the local papers, which rallied around the Junior Maharani and her son.

Power politics, the machinations of factions at court, and ceaseless disagreements on etiquette drove the wedge deeper between the Maharanis and the palace smouldered with episodes of black magic, stories of assassination attempts, and a great deal of mutual suspicion. As ruler, the Senior Maharani championed the rights of the minorities, Dalits and the disempowered, while the dominant high-caste Hindus reinforced the position of the Junior Maharani. Petitions were filed with the Viceroy in Delhi claiming that the consort had ‘usurped the reins of power’. ‘He controls admissions to the royal presence,’ one of them stated, and ‘It is suspected that Her Highness is allowed access only to such channels of information and organs of public opinion as he deems fit that she should have…What passes behind the scenes is no longer a mystery and it is suspected… that sanctions and orders emanating from the palace have not always been personally approved of by the Maharani herself.’ What happened in Cochin—a consort arrogating powers—was alleged to be transpiring in Travancore, also to calamitous dynastic and public detriment.

The hawk-eyed Resident investigated the matter clandestinely and discovered that the consort of the Senior Maharani did not, in fact, possess as much influence as he was rumoured to have—he was merely a scapegoat to destabilise the Regency. The Senior Maharani did walk a step behind him insofar as appearances went, but when it came to matters of policy, she drew a line and installed him firmly behind it. When in turn the Junior Maharani’s son came to power, ‘unkind rumour’ suggested that she was so paranoid about a future wife commandeering her son, that she formulated with her minister an ‘unholy pact’ to ensure he wouldn’t marry. Officially the line was that the new Maharajah disliked the matrilineal system that offered no status to his consort and her issue, and chose to remain a bachelor. His secretary and associates privately, however, informed the Resident that this decision had more to do with his mother who was ‘obsessed by the idea that she must maintain control over His Highness’.

What mattered in an old, seasoned dynasty was power and the perpetuation of power. And if consorts got in the way, consorts could be kept away.

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Kerala Varma and Lalitamba Bayi– now transformed into Mrs Lalitha Varma– in the 1960s with their family

It was into this world that Princess Lalitamba swept young Kerala Varma in 1938. Since he no longer needed to fret about a career, this newest entrant in the family decided to focus on art and music instead. Eschewing court intrigue, he obtained the tutelage of durbar artists and maestros, and spent his time painting, playing the veena, or at sport. The battle between the Maharanis and the older consorts continued to play out, but it was a battle of desperation in an already sinking world. By the end of World War II, it became clear that the princely states would inevitably confront dissolution. The Junior Maharani and her son made a misguided attempt in 1947 to keep Travancore independent, even sending an envoy to Jinnah. But it was an ill-fated venture. An assassination attempt caused their faithful minister to pack his bags and leave, and the young Maharajah cabled the Viceroy his accession to India.

The ever-rebellious Lalitamba, on the other hand, decided to move with the times. In 1949, she and Kerala Varma did the unthinkable—they left the regal palace and settled in Bangalore to consciously become ‘ordinary’. She transformed, overnight, into Mrs Lalitha Varma, and her husband set himself up as an industrialist. Their children’s nannies and tutors were dismissed and they were enrolled in public schools with their titles dropped. From entertaining Viceroys and Residents, the couple began to deal with businessmen at the Bangalore Club and with Presidents and Governors at official receptions. And as the years passed, their palaces in what was old Travancore disappeared too—some were sold, many were acquired by assorted Communist governments, and some simply crumbled into dust.

Tucked away on Richmond Road in today’s Bengaluru, Lalitha and Kerala Varma’s home survives as one of the city’s last colonial bungalows. Obscured from traffic on the street by a series of erratic constructions, this is a place of nostalgic darkness. Ancient chandeliers that once hung in great halls creak from the vaulted ceilings. Verandahs with intricately patterned Italian tiles open into rooms with more ‘modern’ mosaic floors. Antique furniture is scattered in heaps around the house, and portraits of glorious ancestors look down wistfully from the walls. A handsome grandfather clock stands imperiously in a corner, while books in the study gather dust in cabinets that have not been opened in years.

Lalitha died in 2008, content with her great transformation— from a princess who had no conception in 1949 of what on earth a ‘rooh-pee’ was, she had, over the decades, taken to driving her own car, cooking in her own kitchen, and, when required, sweeping her own floor. With her death, her husband has lost interest in most things. After all, his life was wedded too closely to the story of this woman who had picked him off the streets of Trivandrum in 1937. He was only 20 then, and now, nearing 100, Kerala Varma alone survives from those times gone by, as the last of the warring consorts of the House of Travancore, now relegated to the pages of history.

Death of a Maharajah: Uthradam Tirunal Marthanda Varma

Posted in Uncategorized on December 16, 2013 by Manu

(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.

Uthradam Tirunal as a child

Uthradam Tirunal as a child

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.

Uthradam Tirunal as a young man in the 1940s

Uthradam Tirunal as a young man in the 1940s

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.

Uthradam Tirunal with his wife Radha Devi and their daughter Parvathi Devi in the late 1940s

Uthradam Tirunal with his wife Radha Devi and their daughter Parvathi Devi in the late 1940s

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.

Uthradam Tirunal in later years in Trivandrum

Uthradam Tirunal in later years in Trivandrum

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.

The Damodara Simharus of Meenachil

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on September 27, 2013 by Manu

The eighteenth century was perhaps one of the most fascinating periods in the history of Kerala in terms of the sheer brutality it witnessed. Drenched in blood and war, this era was characterised by the ultimate decline of the feudal system of governance, where loose hierarchies and confederacies of petty princes and chieftains reigned supreme across a largely fragmented geography. In Malabar, the end was particularly painful when in the second half of that century the dreaded Hyder Ali’s armies from Mysore marched in and rained death on a helpless aristocracy. Such was the chaos this provoked that even the Zamorin of Calicut, who was the most potent ruler in the vicinity, was compelled to abandon his ancestral lands and flee. Hyder’s son Tipu continued these traumatic invasions and by the 1790s the region was completely lost to its original Malayali owners, passing into the hands of the English who alone were able to trounce the formidable Sultan.

In southern Kerala, however, the annihilation of the feudal class had begun several decades before, as early as the 1730s. For here it was Marthanda Varma, the region’s most glorified ruler, who mounted an aggressive and deliberate campaign to decimate the entire race of chieftains and nobles that stood between his throne and absolute power. Even before his accession in 1729, Marthanda Varma had made it state policy to delve into every nook and cranny and uproot even the slightest hint of feudal influence that challenged central authority. The result was that power, which hitherto had to be shared among innumerable nobles and lords, now came to rest entirely in the person of the reigning sovereign. It was certainly useful, for when Tipu’s armies arrived at the frontiers of Travancore, they found the entire population rise as one man to defend the land under the leadership of their one and only king. The tragedy in this, however, is that in the Rajah’s zeal to unify the region, he destroyed so many ancient families and regional clans that significant volumes of local, medieval history were lost. The houses that did not actually perish, quietly faded away, making it all the more difficult to reconstruct local history, social as well as political, before the times of Marthanda Varma.

The Rajah Marthanda Varma

The Rajah Marthanda Varma

This Maker of Modern Travancore was merciless with the feudal class, despite their best efforts to avert liquidation. Before he began to seize the various principalities around him, Marthanda Varma first put to the sword 42 principal nobles in his ancestral territory, Venad, and even more lords and barons of a lower rank. While most accounts portray him as a gallant warrior and noble prince, he was not beneath timidly sneaking out of a besieged fort in disguise or murdering his own cousins in cold blood for standing up to him. Objective accounts of his rule depict a Machiavelli who was shrewd and ruthless, but also a master of propaganda and self-transformation; after destroying the feudal class and causing such upheavals in Kerala society, Marthanda Varma conveniently reinvented himself as a semi-divine vassal of Sri Padmanabhaswamy, a deity, and wiped his bloodied sword clean. The kingdom, built on the wholesale massacre of the old nobility, was conveniently dedicated to god, and any action against the state, and by conjunction against the now-hallowed king, became a sin. Without a doubt, the Rajah had one of the cleverest brains in eighteenth-century Kerala, and it was his cold-hearted policy alone that helped Travancore withstand the onslaught of colonialism and modernity and survive into the twentieth century.

After ridding Venad of its lords and barons, who until a generation before had the power to make the king dance to their tunes, Marthanda Varma went for the regions ruled by collateral branches of his own family. He was unforgiving even with his cousins and one by one the old principalities of south Kerala fell before his might. He breached more than one rule and custom of warfare in the process; it was often with English weapons and mercenary forces that he managed to inflict decisive defeats on his enemies. When some Rajahs tried to buy time by having Brahmins shield their men on the battlefield, Marthanda Varma’s commander, Ramayyan, cared little for their sacerdotal immunity and shot them down, sending waves of terror across Kerala. When an offensive alliance almost defeated him, the Rajah brought more mercenaries from outside to do his bidding. Thus, one way or another, he achieved exactly what he wanted. And thus fell to him the principalities of Kottarakkara, Quilon, Kayamkulam, Pandalam, Poonjar, Attingal, Purakkad, Thekkumkur, Vadakkumkur, and more.

Thekkumkur was at that time ruled by an ancient Samanta dynasty (about whom I have written before) and although they resisted the advance of Travancore for some time, in the end they were forced to concede defeat and go into exile. The people in the region, however, were undaunted and for many years Marthanda Varma faced rebellion and trouble here. But having annexed Thekkumkur, the ambitious Rajah now turned his attention to an eastern principality at the foot of the Western Ghats, ruled by yet another Samanta dynasty. It is said that incriminating evidence was discovered against this family in the Thekkumkur Palace and it was hence that Marthanda Varma turned against them. Either way, by the year 1754, the district of Meenachil also came into his possession, and its ancient rulers followed Thekkumkur into exile and oblivion. This was the house of the Njavakkatu Karthavus, one of the many old families of Kerala that had their own folklore, history, and traditions, all of which became sidelined with the rise of Travancore.

Rajah Rama Varma

The Rajah Rama Varma

The origins of the Njavakkattu family of Meenachil are shrouded in legend and fable, although circumstantial evidence suggests a considerable degree of truth in these stories. The family tradition states that they were originally of Rajput extraction, with roots in the Sisodia state of Mewar in modern day Rajasthan; it was this provenance that resulted in their seat in Meenachil to be named Mevada as well. At some point in history these Rajputs, either because of quarrels with relatives or because of Islamic invasions and the trouble this fostered in their homeland, migrated to South India. They settled close to the Tamil coast, at Kumbakonam and it was from here that they were brought to Kerala around 357 AD and anointed some years later as the chieftains of Meenachil. They remained, according to this tradition, rulers of the region for 1400 years before Marthanda Varma’s armies chased them out and put an end to their regime.

The story goes that forty-one years after the reign of the Perumals began in Kerala, the heads of two Brahmin Swarupams (dynasties), namely Elangallur (today known as Edappally Rajah) and Elamprakkat (which I cannot identify), married sisters from this family in Kumbakonam and brought them into the Malayali country. The names of these ancestors were Sridevi and Ambika Devi, and until recently the Tampatties of Meenachil prefixed the former as a title with their own names. Soon afterwards two sons were born to these women, named Sri Vira Damodara Simharu and Sri Vira Rama Simharu. The surname of ‘Simharu’ is a corrupt form of the Rajput ‘Singh’ that is found commonly in Rajasthan. The former is supposed to have been the first chieftain of Meenachil, and in his memory all the male members attached his name to their own. The story also says that the family’s first territories in the region were five desoms (village clusters) purchased from Elamprakkat Swarupam and then dedicated to the Kidangoor and Poovarani Temples, which Vira Damodara Simharu built, twenty-two years after their arrival. The vast bulk of their territory, however, which was thirty-six desoms, was given to them by Cheraman Perumal some years later, along with a sword of authority and the title of Njanachan. This title, as it happens, is least known among the family’s several other titles, which include Njavakkattu Kaimal, Njavakkattu Karthavu, and Mevada Thampan. Another title they seem to have held under the Thekkumkur Rajahs was Adhikarikal and there was a copper plate record from the early eighteenth century mentioning one Njavakkattu Damodaran Chingar Adhikarikal, which eventually went missing. The family also had military alliances with the family of the Poonjar Rajah, who was another princely neighbour of theirs.

The chief minister of the Meenachil Karthavu was the head of the Arakkal Menon family and their finance minister was one Valappil Menon. Both of these Nair houses became extinct by the early twentieth century, but there are indications that the Thampans of Meenachil married their women. The consort of the ruling Karthavu was known as the Ammachi and there is at least one legend mentioning the Arakkal Ammachi who haughtily asked her husband to execute an innocent man because of an imagined insult. The Meenachil Karthavus, although they were allied to Thekkumkur, were entirely independent within their domains and even waged war against their overlords; such was the loose structure of Kerala’s polity before Marthanda Varma. One story, which might have its exaggerations, is instructive about the power and rights of the Karthavu. It tells how the chieftain once built a large mansion for himself and invited the Thekkumkur Rajah for the housewarming ceremony. The Rajah gladly agreed to be present but on his way, he met a Nambutiri Brahmin who mischievously told him that the Karthavu had already concluded the feast without waiting for the prince to arrive. Livid with rage, the Rajah vowed not to eat a meal till he had seen the ashes of the Meenachil mansion, and his soldiers proceeded to destroy the building. This led to a number of military confrontations between the Karthavu and the Rajah at a place known as Kadapattur, which ultimately led to a truce. And the beneficiary of the truce was the very same mischievous Nambutiri, for the Karthavu as part of the peace settlement granted the entire desom of Kadapattur to him as a freehold!

By the time Marthanda Varma began to conquer the principalities of south Kerala, the Karthavus became extremely nervous, not least because of the treatment that was meted out to the defeated princes and chieftains. They may or may not have helped Thekkumkur in its campaigns against Travancore, but either way the armies of the latter arrived one day on the borders of Meenachil. At this time the family had just recovered from an internal conflict, where the reigning Karthavu had been literally stabbed in the back and murdered by the next in line, and the internal organisation of the principality was in a mess. The other members of the royal family included three men, aged 74, 64, and 51, two women aged 34 and 30, and two children aged 5 and a half and 2 and a half respectively. When the soldiers of Travancore showed up, the family conferred and decided resistance was futile and elected to go into exile. Another version states that they did in fact engage the Travancore troops in battle but were defeated by treachery and had no option but to escape. Disguising themselves as Nambutiri Brahmins, on the 29th of Meenam 929 ME (i.e. sometime in 1754) they fled first to a place known as Kizhathadiyur. Here, at the house of the Ponallur Nambutiri, they signed documents granting the Kidangoor and Poovarani Temples and all the associated properties, to a dignitary known as the Thiruvarpu Swamiyar, and having made this donation, they continued northwards into Malabar.

The refugee royal family first arrived at a place known as Koratty, where the senior lady of the family died of exhaustion and trauma. The rest of the family then proceeded to the famous temple-town of Guruvayoor and lived at a building known as the Perakathu Vakiye Palace for some time, placed at their disposal by the Zamorin. The oldest male member and the only other lady in the family died here soon afterwards and their funeral ceremonies were conducted far away from their ancestral home, in a Thirunelli in Wynad. The next man of the family died thereafter at a place called Manathinnel. In 942 ME, the last male member of the family died at Pulootil Palace in Kodungallur and the family came to consist of two sisters alone, who were merely children at the time of their exodus to the north. They had both grown up by now and were married in 937 ME in Guruvayoor to two Nambutiries and subsisted on a pension granted by the Zamorin.

It was in 1766 AD that Hyder Ali’s forces occupied Malabar for the first time, and the two young princesses requested the Zamorin’s permission to leave the war-torn country and go back to Travancore. They were graciously allowed to do so, and the Zamorin even sent an ambassador of his known as Jayanthan Pattar to plead their case and ask the Travancore Rajah to reinstate them in Meenachil. One Kanjirakkattu Nambutiri, probably a husband of one of the two ladies, also accompanied them and together they arrived in Travancore, twelve years after fleeing their homeland. The ambassador and the Nambutiri requested Rama Varma, the nephew and successor of Marthanda Varma, to be merciful to the two destitute princesses, and he agreed. A mansion was constructed for them and a pension of 6 parahs of paddy per person was granted. Four tax-free gardens were also given to the family, and they were allowed to return to Meenachil in return for waiving all their ancestral claims on the district. And thus, the Njavakkatu Karthavus returned to Meenachil, no longer proud chieftains but as humbled subjects of Travancore. The state treated them charitably enough and a number of cash allowances were also granted (50 panams for a baby’s choroonu, 250 for a funeral, 300 for a first death anniversary, 300 for a wedding, and so on, until a further Rs. 25 per month was granted at the end of the nineteenth century). They also had special privileges during the famous Murajapam festival in the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple and other prerogatives from the royal court, most of which continued until the end of the nineteenth century.

Ten years after their return, around 1776 AD, the family branched into two houses when the younger of the two ladies moved to Kumpanilparambu in Meenachil proper. The ancestral mansion of the family, which Marthanda Varma had confiscated, was returned at this time and remained the residence of her descendants until 1819 when a great flood swept away the palace as well as many of the family’s old records and documents. Eventually, as the size of the family grew, further branches appeared and separate houses were built for them. The eldest male member was always known as the Damodara Simharu (for example, Sri Vira Kerala Damodara Simharu), and other male members were commonly known by family nicknames, such as Kochaniyan Karthavu, Kunchoman Karthavu, and so on. The ladies were addressed as Tampatties, which is a lower form of Tampuratti. The family were reasonably close to the royal family of Travancore in the nineteenth century, and in the 1840s one member was a government munsiff (a lower grade judge) while in the 1880s another served as an ADC of sorts to Maharajah Visakham Tirunal. But their days of glory had passed long ago and they were merely a country aristocracy now, dependent on the government of Travancore. They were not permitted to change any of their customs, for instance, without permission from the Maharajah, on pain of forfeiting their pensions, some of which were in any case taken away by Mulam Tirunal Maharajah and the Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. The general allowances, however, continued for a long time and are perhaps still given to the family by the government.

This essay on the Meenachil Karthas is based almost entirely on G. Raman Menon’s writing in the Kerala Society Papers in 1931, where he has presented a lot of information on the family, collected from one of its senior male members. I reproduce it here in my own words so that another snippet of local history from Kerala, such as that of the Vadakkumkur-Thekkumkur Rajahs, is available to interested students of history on the internet. I am also grateful to Dr. Gopidas Unnithan who first told me about this Rajput family and sparked an interest in their history in me.

Profile of an Artist: Rukmini Varma

Posted in Uncategorized on June 20, 2013 by Manu

In a time when India was still a land of splendid Maharajahs and fabulous courts, Rukmini Varma was born in 1940 into one of its most ancient royal houses, with an unbroken dynastic lineage of over 1200 years.

Rukmini Varma (1960)

Rukmini Varma (1960)

Titled Her Highness Bharani Tirunal Rukmini Bayi Tampuran, Fourth Princess of Travancore, her early life was an idyllic fairytale, with all the enchanting aura and ceremony surrounding a royal princess. Her grandmother, the Maharani Setu Lakshmi Bayi (1895-1985) was the revered matriarch of the house, who had ruled the State of Travancore and its five million people with much distinction in the 1920s, and the entire family lived in her hallowed shadows. Rukmini was her eldest (and favourite) grandchild, and in a dynasty that traced its bloodline through the female, her birth was of signal importance for matters of succession to the gaddi of Travancore.

Growing up in Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum, art came almost naturally to Rukmini. Her great grandfather, Raja Ravi Varma, was a master painter, venerated to this day as the Father of Modern Art in India. And some of his most fabulous works adorned the palace walls where Rukmini grew up. Her grandmother, the Maharani, was a patron of many local artists whose creations, from portraits & landscapes to mural paintings & dramatic scenes from the great epics, were an ever-present inspiration. But what captured Rukmini’s attention most were the hard-bound, tastefully produced annual catalogues of major art galleries from across Europe that her grandmother collected. The works of great baroque masters like Rembrandt, Rubens, and Caravaggio fascinated her, and while she was still a child she began to experiment with colour.

Rukmini at a family wedding

Rukmini at a family wedding

On her sixth birthday, Rukmini received her first full set of brushes and paints from her uncle, who observed her growing interest in this direction and ordered a complete kit from Bombay.  Her grandmother also, noticing her general inclination towards the arts, appointed dance and music instructors, and in the years to come Rukmini would master such forms as Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kathak, and more. This combined with an appreciation of the cultural heritage of India and an interest in history, mythology, religion, architecture and more, would all hugely influence her, and reveal itself in her work in the years ahead.

By the eve of India’s independence from the British in 1947, however, things began to change in the royal household. Rukmini’s parents began to spend much of their time away from the palace, in the popular hill resorts of Kotagiri, Coonoor, and Kodaikanal, where they chose to enroll their children in public schools instead of having a train of tutors follow them around. The slowness of palace life was replaced by a regular routine focused on academic achievements instead of art. In 1949 the State of Travancore vanished from the map forever when it was merged with Independent India, and the royal family retired from active public life. Rukmini’s parents decided to move to the cosmopolitan ‘garden city’ of Bangalore, and soon after the Maharani also joined them there. Satelmond Palace and the old world it represented vanished. The liveried servants, royal guards, and all the ritualistic ceremony of palace life slowly faded away, and the family began to live more freely and privately, away from the land that had once been their kingdom.

Rukmini in the early 1960s

Rukmini in the early 1960s

For the next two decades painting too largely took a backseat for Rukmini as school and college in Bangalore intervened, followed by marriage and children- all by the time she was twenty-one. She kept her artistic interests alive, however, and recalls how she would try to recreate pictures from Greek mythology, painting Venus, Aphrodite, Paris, and other characters. And her classmates and friends were quick to ask for these pictures and to get her to paint more. Her grandmother, in all the family, supported her a great deal (even as her father insisted on an academic focus because of her excellence in science), advising her, when she was in her teens, that she should aim to exhibit her pictures in due course and work towards the corresponding perfection in her paintings. The encouragement helped- Rukmini chose art and not science.

During the 1960s Rukmini also excelled in dance. Training under the renowned U.S. Krishna Rao and Chandrabhaga Devi as well as Uma Rama Rao, she gave several exclusive performances, including for charities. Film directors (including the likes of Raj Kapoor) began to approach her, as did people with modelling offers, on account of her exceptional good looks (Mysindia, for instance, referred to her in 1968 as ‘an Ajanta painting come to life’). Magazine covers began to feature her and she became the toast of Bangalore society. Rukmini successfully dabbled in a variety of artistic spheres in the 1960s, which she considers her ‘most creative phase.’ In 1965 she started her own dance school in Bangalore in the halls of Travancore House, her family home on Richmond Road, which became an instant success. But the social pressures on a princess from a royal family dancing resulted in a premature termination of this phase of her career, to the greatest regret of her gurus. The Maharani, for whom Rukmini performed often in private, as usual helped her move on by suggesting an alternative and giving her all the encouragement she needed.

Since dancing was considered too unorthodox, Rukmini returned to painting where social constraints were, it was felt, less pressing. And soon enough she began to enjoy it actively and took it up with a renewed vigour. By 1970 she had completed her first series of oil paintings, which were exhibited in Bangalore to positive reviews. This led to work on her second exhibition in 1973, which was opened by the Governor Mohanlal Sukhadia of Karnataka State (where 34 of the 39 paintings displayed were sold in a matter of days), and her third series in 1974, inaugurated by the President of India, V.V. Giri, at the Lalit Kala Academy in Delhi. This last one was called ‘The Conch and the Cauvery’ and captured scenes from rural Karnataka (the Cauvery basin) and Kerala (the land of the Conch), and brought her serious recognition in India’s art circles (including from Svetoslav Roerich, with whom Rukmini later sat on the Advisory Board of the Chitrakala Parishad in Karnataka). These works also stood out as they were all in the impressionist style at a time when abstract expressionism had become popular in India. Rukmini was one of the few old-style artists working in the country and as she honed her talents and skill, more and more art collectors began to pick up her work. Another popular series called ‘Wayside Vignettes’, also depicting rural life and South Indian temple culture, followed and Rukmini became more confident of her work.

Rukmini with her older son Venugopal (Rohini Tirunal) in 1965

Rukmini with her older son Venugopal (Rohini Tirunal) in 1965

In 1976, upon the invitation of BK Nehru and Natwar Singh, Rukmini embarked on her first major international exhibition at India House in London, which was opened by Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. He was so impressed by her skill and ability that he asked her, subsequently, if she would do a portrait of him in traditional Indian attire, wearing a turban and an achchkan. This was despite knowing that she did not normally do portraits and ‘created’ her own people and subjects. They also became friends briefly, with Mountbatten inviting her to go fox hunting and picnicking with him on his country estate. The commission, unfortunately, could not be completed owing to Lord Mountbatten’s tragic assassination in 1979, just before he was due to visit India with Prince Charles and give Rukmini her promised three sittings.

Subsequent exhibitions followed in Bonn, Cologne, and Neuenahr in Germany, along with invitations from Paris, Zurich, Madrid, and Rome, and interviews and features on European television networks. Among the exhibitions in Europe was her acclaimed ‘Alter Ego Series’, which was a tremendous success, including commercially. Queries and requests for her work began to increase and come in from collectors around the world, although mainly from Europe, America, Singapore, and the Middle East. In 1981 she had another highly successful exhibition in Bombay at the Jehangir Art Gallery and at The Taj Art Gallery (where she won the appreciation of M.F. Hussain), with newspapers describing a ‘stampede’ to view her paintings.

One of the reasons this exhibition was such a sensation was because it included her ‘Flesh and Gems’ series, which had female nudes, in mythological settings. As the Illustrated Weekly of India noted, the normally ‘ethereal figures of chastity and sublimity who crowd our puranas and epics’ were depicted by Rukmini in a more earthy manner, as ‘voluptuous, sometimes wanton beauties’. They were not meant to trigger any ‘erotic fantasies’ but were a celebration of the human, particularly female, form and experience. ‘In some paintings such as Mother and Child,’ the review continues, ‘the woman, larger than life, is rooted in reality: you see the smallest blue veins under the translucent skin and you cannot but appreciate the artist’s sensitivity to detail, especially considering that Rukmini is a self-taught artist. In Kunti-Surya what distracts your eye from Kunti’s nubile nakedness is her innocent look- tinged with shyness, mingled with awe- on being suddenly confronted with a resplendent Sun God. Woman with a Fan, however’, it adds somewhat disapprovingly, ‘does look a little fleshy.’

tumblr_inline_o48h9g7P8z1rmjehd_500.jpg

Rukmini in the mid-1970s

Throughout her career until now Rukmini was always compared with her renowned ancestor, Raja Ravi Varma, but, as the Illustrated Weekly noted with the ‘Flesh and Gems’ series, while she followed his style when depicting scenes from the epics, there was a substantial difference: Ravi Varma’s women were always luxuriously draped. Rukmini, on the other hand, had no qualms about painting them nude. It was a courageous move for the times. And it was noticed.

In the 1890s Ravi Varma had ruffled some feathers when he began to paint goddesses and celestial beauties. And this was at the slightest artistic revelation of the female body and flesh. With Rukmini, nearly a century later, similar reactions followed when she went where Ravi Varma never dared to go, with many (including Swami Chinmayananda, for instance) commenting that she ought not to have painted nudes based on the epics, which had some religious value and could give offence. Her ‘Pratiksha’ series from the early 1980s, which included many nudes, was therefore quietly sold into private collections in India and abroad, and was not exhibited anywhere so as not to provoke the orthodoxy.

Through the 1980s, Rukmini experimented with nudes through ‘Pratiksha’, despite objections, including from family circles. She was very disillusioned by this prudish conservatism in art, stating years later: ‘I got fed up with all these restrictions. You couldn’t express yourself in the way you wanted. I am certain even Ravi Varma wanted to paint flesh as flesh is, without restrictions…Skin tones fascinate artists because there are so many shades and colours there. You clothe the skin and you paint drapery. Drapery could be used to offset the skin, but if you cover all the skin, it loses the point you are trying to make.’ Rukmini was going through a phase of rebellion. Interestingly, this corresponded with the time when her commercial success was at its peak, and artists and collectors alike would regularly show up to meet her at Travancore House. Since all her previous series had been sold out, it was ‘Pratiksha’ that they all went back with.

Rukmini photographed at an event in the late 1970s

Rukmini photographed at an event in the late 1970s

Tragedy, however, struck when in 1988 her youngest son, Ranjit, died in an accident at the age of twenty. Rukmini was devastated by the event and for the next several years did not pick up the brush. She moved out of her grand old house into a private flat so as to escape attention from the now-steady stream of visitors and the media. A separation from her husband followed. Then, in the mid-1990s Rukmini once again began to paint when she began work on a portrait of Ranjit (one of the few portraits she has done). Another one followed but she was unable to complete either of them. To the genuine satisfaction of her collectors and well-wishers, however, she slowly began to do other paintings as well. Her lifestyle remained reclusive, though, and she turned down all invitations to exhibit her latest works and did not receive visitors.

Over the last eighteen years until now, Rukmini has been painting in Bangalore, with a dedicated group of private collectors following the progress of her work. She continues to avoid visitors for most part along with requests from the press, even as her work, although much reduced in volume, remains singular in style and excellence.

It was after considerable persuasion by her friends and family that she allowed a tumblr website with a brief bio to be set up for her here. Her Facebook Page can be found here with a number of her photographs and paintings.

Her Highness and the Pretender

Posted in history, kerala, people with tags , , , on April 14, 2011 by Manu

In 1810, after a twelve-year unsatisfactory reign that saw a multiplicity of problems, His Highness Rajah Avittom Thirunal Bala Rama Varma of Travancore died. His successor was the legendary Attingal Rani Ayilyam Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi, who was the progenitor of all the Rajahs and Maharajahs of Travancore until Sri Moolam Thirunal, who died in 1924. It is well known in history, however, that Gowri Lakshmi Bayi’s accession was fraught with difficulties not only due to the disagreeable state of affairs in the country but also because of a rival claimant who insisted he was the true heir to the Travancore gaddi. This is an account of that episode in Travancore history when the Attingal Rani was pitched against the ‘Elayarajah’ in a contest for power.

Ayilyam Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi

While prominent historians like P. Shungoonny Menon and V. Nagam Aiya have recorded the existence of this rival and the fact that his claims were eventually dispelled, not much information has so far (to the best of my knowledge) been available on the background and identity of this Pretender. I have not read details of this part of Travancore history anywhere on the internet either, and hence this is possibly a largely forgotten story.

As is well known, the Travancore royal family had to resort to adoption from the Kola Swaroopam every now and then in order to perpetuate their line. The Rajah Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma, better known as the Dharmarajah, was the son of a Kola princess adopted in 1718 and his successor, the infamous Rajah Avittom Thirunal, was the descendant of one of the four princesses adopted in 1748. By 1788 another adoption was necessitated and, thus, begins our story.

At the time there was in the Chenga Kovilakam branch of the Kola family a matriarch by the name of Chathayam Thirunal Mahaprabha Amma Thampuran. This Amma Thampuran had five daughters, namely Hastham Thirunal Bhageerathi Amma, Bharani Thirunal Parvathi Amma, Uthram Thirunal Uma Amma, Uttrittadhi Thirunal Mahaprabha Amma, and Revathi Thirunal Arya Amma. In 1788 the Dharmarajah of Travancore adopted her second and third daughters into the Travancore royal family, making them, respectively, the Attingal Mootha Thampuran (Senior Rani) and the Attingal Elaya Thampuran (Junior Rani). The girls were married soon after to Koil Thampurans of Kilimanoor and in 1790 a daughter was born to the Senior Rani.

However, very soon after the adoption, due to the invasion of Malabar by Tipu Sultan, the mother and siblings of the two Ranis moved to Travancore with other members of the Chenga Kovilakam. While the rest of the family resided at Mavelikkara (and eventually branched off into the Ennakkad and Prayikkara families), the Amma Thampuran, along with her other children moved into her royal daughters’ palace at Attingal and lived there for some time. Initially the reunion was happy and the Ranis Bharani Thirunal and Uthram Thirunal were delighted with the presence of their mother and siblings.

But it was only a matter of time before problems began to crop up. In Travancore the Attingal Ranis had a distinctive position and enjoyed considerable power and authority. Indeed it is generally agreed that there were no other female Thampurans in the whole of Kerala who could equal the Attingal Ranis in importance. Also traditions and precedence governed life in the palace, and so when the Amma Thampuran came to live at Attingal, she found that her daughters’ standing and prestige far exceeded her own.

Chathayam Thirunal Amma Thampuran is said to have been a woman of much ambition and strong will and it was not long before she began to resent her daughters’ precedence and status. On the other hand, Rani Bharani Thirunal was equally strong willed and in absolutely no doubt of her position. Capable and assertive, she managed her affairs herself, with no need for any direction from her mother. And this caused a clash between mother and daughter and a whole series of palace intrigues and conspiracies followed. Indeed so determined for power was the Amma Thampuran that she began eyeing for herself the position of Attingal Rani and was bent upon having her way.

By now it was well known that the Dharmarajah was disturbed by the personality and incapability of his young teenaged heir, Avittom Thirunal, who was lacking in so many respects. Well aware of the Rajah’s anxiety, the Amma Thampuran made a proposal: that her eldest grandson Kerala Varma, the son of her first daughter Hastham Thirunal Bhageerathi Amma, be adopted into the royal family, to bypass Avittom Thirunal and secure a more capable future Rajah to succeed to the throne. The objective was also that once the elderly Dharmarajah died and her grandson came to power, she could easily assume the position of Attingal Rani.

However the plan went nowhere and the young Rani Bharani Thirunal fought tooth and nail to protect her rights. When she realised that the Dharmarajah was actually considering the adoption, she pointed out to him the document signed by his uncle Marthanda Varma with her predecessor Pururuttathi Thirunal Attingal Rani in 1747, which specified that only unmarried females could be adopted into the royal family as Attingal Thampurans, and that only their sons could succeed to the throne. Hence, although he was personally inclined otherwise, the Rajah deferred to the wishes of the Attingal Rani. Later in 1798, when the Junior Rani Uthram Thirunal died, the Amma Thampuran tried to have her funeral ceremonies performed by Kerala Varma. Again, it was Rani Bharani Thirunal who prevented this and made the baby prince of her late sister perform the rituals, under her own direction. Very soon after this the little boy died, supposedly due to the intrigues of the Amma Thampuran.

While the rumours regarding the Amma Thampuran’s role in the death of the little prince remained unsubstantiated, the Rani Bharani Thirunal decided to take stronger steps and insisted on the removal of her mother from Attingal. Once again the Dharmarajah deferred to her wishes and Chathayam Thirunal and her other children, and also Kerala Varma, were sent away to Mavelikkara. For the time being there was some peace in the Rani’s palace.

In the same year (1798) Dharmarajah passed away and, to everyone’s general dismay, Avittom Thirunal succeeded as Rajah of Travancore. This sixteen-year-old Rajah was surrounded by a shady coterie, headed by Odiery Jayanthan Sankaran Namburi, Mathoo Tharakan, and others. Just as Sankaran Thampi would secure an almost hypnotic influence over Moolam Thirunal in the 20th century, now at the start of the 19th century Avittom Thirunal was completely in the hands of the Namburi and his friends. The first person to fall prey to their intrigues was the renowned old Dalawa (Prime Minister) Rajah Kesava Das. Next on the agenda of the conspirators was to trouble the Attingal Rani herself.

Jayanthan Namburi, who got himself appointed the new Dalawa, became a friend of Chathayam Thirunal Amma Thampuran and aided her in her objective to get Kerala Varma adopted into the royal family. Avittom Thirunal was easy to sway and sanctioned the adoption and thus the preliminary ceremonies were conducted. On hearing of this, Rani Bharani Thirunal was shocked: ‘She tore her hair, refused all nourishment for three days and lamented with expressions of poignant sorrow the cruelty of her fate’. But then she became more determined than ever. Even though she had no say in the management of the country, as Attingal Rani she was still powerful in her own right. And as the eldest member of the royal family, when she refused to recognise the adoption of Kerala Varma, the Ettara Yogam of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple obeyed her commands and prevented him from performing the necessary ritual of the Padiyettam. But this did not matter to the Amma Thampuran and the Dalawa. The young grandson of Chathayam Thirunal now became Sri Visakham Thirunal Kerala Varma Avargal, Elayarajah of Travancore. But more interestingly, the Amma Thampuran began to freely occupy palaces in Attingal and Trivandrum and signing letters as the Attingal Rani. She had got what she wanted, at least for the time being.

Rani Bharani Thirunal had lost this round of the game. But the game itself had not ended. She continued to withhold recognition to the new Elayarajah and imbibed in her children (Princess Avittom Thirunal born in 1795, a son, and Princess Uttrittadhi Thirunal born in 1801, besides the eldest Princess Ayilyam Thirunal born in 1790) an awareness of their position and rights and the illegitimacy of the claims of their cousin Kerala Varma, as also the vengefulness of their grandmother. The years passed and the celebrated Velu Thampi Dalawa threw Jayanthan Namburi out of power. But by now powerful members of the administration were slowly accepting Kerala Varma into the royal family. At the same time Rani Bharani Thirunal’s health was also deteriorating and her influence began to diminish in the circles of power.

In 1808 the Rani was ailing and the end was certain. In keeping with custom, the Dalawa Velu Thampi ordered certain special rituals and offerings for her benefit in the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, and it was decided that the Elayarajah should perform these on the Rani’s behalf. But no sooner did she hear this than the Rani got out of her bed, proceeded to the temple, and performed the ceremonies by herself. Her final act, in all her determination, was to reject Kerala Varma once again and having conducted the temple rituals she returned and died the same evening at her palace. In keeping with her wishes, it was her young son who performed the funeral ceremonies and not Kerala Varma. Rani Bharani Thirunal had died, but her sworn anger towards the Elayarajah had not.

Soon after the Rani’s death her young son also died and once again rumours began to go around that this was also the Amma Thampuran’s doing. With the death of her daughter, she could now, she thought, easily try to assert her position as Attingal Rani, but little did she expect tough resistance from her granddaughter, Princess Ayilyam Thirunal. The Ettara Yogam accepted this eldest daughter of Bharani Thirunal as the new Attingal Rani and with her Padiyettam, the Amma Thampuran’s hopes to secure that place with at least some element of legitimacy were quashed once again. But the final battle for power was not yet over.

In 1810 the Rajah Avittom Thirunal died, leaving behind a difficult inheritance for his heir. The country and administration was in disarray, the threat of annexation by the British loomed large, and succession was uncertain. And that is when the contest began.

The Elayarajah claimed to the British Resident, the celebrated Col. Munro, that as he was the heir apparent, he should be allowed to succeed at the soonest possible date. But the stronger voice was that of his cousin, Rani Ayilyam Thirunal, who not only asserted her views in person to the Col., but also placed in his hands the same document her mother had cited many years ago to Dharmarajah. And thus Col. Munro found that ‘none but the children of the Tampurattees [Ranis] are entitled to succeed’, ‘none but Tampurattees were adopted in the past’, and that ‘none but the sons of the Tampurattees are entitled to succeed’. Kerala Varma’s mother Hastham Thirunal Bhageerathi Amma was never adopted into the royal family (as at the time of the adoption she was already married with a child) and was consequently not an Attingal Rani. Thus his title of ‘Elayarajah’ was found to be not legitimate. And thus, it was notified ‘under the command of the English East India Company Bahadur Avargal (sic), that Attingal Moopil Lakshmi Amma, the Valiya Tampuratti Avargal, is hereby declared the ruler of the State’. And so, the claims of Visakham Thirunal Kerala Varma, the Elayarajah, were dismissed and the reign of Her Highness Rani Ayilyam Thirunal Gowri Lakshmi Bayi aka Attingal Moopil Lakshmi Amma commenced.

Kerala Varma was permitted to remain in Trivandrum for some time after this but was found very soon to be engaging in all sorts of conspiracies to secure the gaddi for himself. When this came to the notice of the British Resident he was removed from the capital and eventually banished and imprisoned at Chingleput for the remainder of his life. The Amma Thampuran was sent away to Mavelikkara where she remained for the rest of her days till her death in 1832, and Gowri Lakshmi Bayi went on to become one of the most celebrated rulers of Travancore. Her first sister Princess Avittom Thirunal died and hence upon her own death in 1814, her youngest sister Gowri Parvathi Bayi went on to rule Travancore on behalf of her infant son Swathi Thirunal. Later, however, in 1857 the great granddaughters of Chathayam Thirunal Amma Thampuran’s youngest daughter, Revathi Thirunal Arya Amma, would be adopted into the royal family, and after that in 1900 two more of her descendants from the same line would be adopted as Attingal Thampurans. (See my articles on Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi)

This article is based on the correspondence of Col. Munro in 1818 with the authorities in Fort St. George, Madras, in which he gives a detailed account of the background of Gowri Lakshmi Bayi’s investiture, including the intrigues of her grandmother the Amma Thampuran, the documents destroyed by Kerala Varma to push his claims at the expense of the Rani, and so on. I have also made use of the durbar proclamation of Gowri Lakshmi Bayi in 1810. I am very grateful to Mr. M. Sasidhara Varma of Manoormadhom Kottaram, Mavelikkara, whose family tree of the Mavelikkara Thampurans helped chart relations between the characters mentioned by Col. Munro. I have also referred to books by Shungoonny Menon and Nagam Aiya while writing this article. This article has been pieced together through these sources and the narration is, to the best of my knowledge, therefore accurate.