The Ivory Throne

Posted in Uncategorized on November 22, 2015 by Manu

The Ivory Throne_cover copy 2

The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore (HarperCollins) is my first  book of non-fiction and will hit stores by December 2015. It is available for pre-order (India) here, (UK) here, and (US) here. Excerpts, reviews, and interviews coming up here!

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.’

Rukmini in the early 1980s

Rukmini in the early 1980s

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.

The Third Princess

Posted in history, india, kerala, people, random, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 19, 2010 by Manu

The 23rd of October 1926 was a day of much rejoicing all over Travancore state in South India. By the late morning congratulatory messages and telegrams reached the Regent Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi from all over the country conveying their best wishes on the occasion of the birth of her second child. As the Satelmond Palace Guild’s monthly magazine, The Microcosm, which was edited by none other than the Maharani’s consort Sri Rama Varma, the Valiya Koil Thampuran, reported:

The event is memorable for its uniqueness, in as much as, a sovereign ruler of the State giving birth to a child has not taken place during the last hundred years, the last instance being that of Her Highness Gowri Lakshmi Bayi. 

(Gowri Lakshmi Bayi was the mother of the famous Maharajah Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma (1829-1846) who was also the only Queen Regnant of Travancore)

Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi with Princess Indira Bayi

While the Dewan made the official announcement of the royal birth in the state assembly, a holiday was proclaimed in all public institutions and special religious offerings were made in the name of the newborn princess. The same day in the evening at 5 PM the Regent Maharani’s sister, Junior Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi and her son, the minor Maharajah Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma came to see the child after which the Maharajah made the customary distribution of sugar to all the Brahmins and state officials present. When, 28 days later, the asterism of Karthika, under which the princess was born, returned, a grand feast was prepared at Satelmond Palace followed by garden parties and other functions. The Maharani and Valiya Koil Thampuran decided to name their second daughter Indira, after the goddess Lakshmi. The name was unusual in the royal family, which usually called their princesses Lakshmi, Parvathi, Rukmini, Ambika, Uma etc. The full title of the baby was now Karthika Thirunal Indira Bayi, Third Princess of Travancore.

The first few years of Princess Indira’s life were spent at Satelmond Palace in the company of her parents and elder sister Uthram Thirunal Lalithamba Bayi. Her mother’s sisters and their children also resided on the premises of Satelmond Palace but as per the orthodox usages of the royal family, these relatives could not mingle freely with their royal cousins. Every day they visited the Maharani at specific timings to pay their respects and there always lingered a certain formality in expression, although the Maharani was very close to her sisters of whom she took great care. It appears that right from her childhood Princess Indira would be embarrassed by these customs which decreed that her own aunts and relatives, so much older than her, should refer to her as a Highness and not as a little girl.

Princess Indira as a child

The Maharani appointed the best tutors, including Miss DH Watts, her own teacher and the sister of the Dewan ME Watts, to educate her little daughters. In keeping with the usages of the royal family, the princess received instruction in Sanskrit and Malayalam for 10 years under the tutelage of the eminent scholar Narayana Pisharody. Mr. Shankara Subbu Iyen and a certain Miss Paulose taught other subjects such as Maths, Hindi, and English etc.. After her regency terminated in November 1931, the Maharani did express a desire to send Princesses Lalitha and Indira to a public school but knew that permission would not be granted. Princess Indira thus found at her disposal many toys and books and other comforts, but had one essential component of a healthy childhood missing: friendship.

But the rigidity of royal life reduced considerably during the family’s vacations outside the capital city of Trivandrum. With her parents and sister, Princess Indira made many trips to places like Courtallam, Coonoor, Peermade, Kovalam etc. These were, however, occasional holidays and a return to the palace was unavoidable. Hence the Maharani’s daughters made the most of their little vacations outside. Princess Indira displayed great creativity right from her childhood and often, on such holidays, would lead the maidservants in song and dance. A sojourn in Coonoor, for instance, in 1932 saw great fun with little Indira Bayi, accompanied by the maids, acting out the story of Krishna and Kuchela on one day followed by that of Santanagopalam on the next. Kochu Paru, a favourite maid, was often the lead actor while Princess Indira sang in her delightful voice.

Halcyon Castle, Kovalam

A particularly favourite place of residence for the princess and her family was their resort at Kovalam called Halcyon Castle. Constructed by the Valiya Koil Thampuran on a 40-acre property on the beach, the entire structure was made of granite. Little cottages for the Maharani and her daughters, the household staff, servants etc. dotted the premises. The Valiya Koil Thampuran also designed beautiful gardens around the main building and a special outdoor dining area was also built. Often their father would take the little princesses on boat rides and on other occasions the local fisher folk would bring to them very interesting shells, stones and other treasures from the sea. A giant telescope was perched atop the tower of the building and special seats were made providing a brilliant view of the area. Years later Princess Indira would refer to Halcyon Castle as her “dream home”. When the princesses were not in their special “school house” they would be walking around the beach in the company of their father, meeting ordinary people and villagers who lived there.

Like in any family, there were humorous occasions of sibling rivalry also. Princess Indira’s elder sister Lalitha was a rather strong willed child and did not like being left out of things. For instance in 1935, when their father was away at his hometown in Harippad, Princess Indira developed a swelling in her leg and to comfort his daughter the Valiya Koil Thampuran sent her a letter full of jokes. Lalitha too decided to have her own letter and so she knocked her foot against the stairs and wrote to her father about how painful it was. As time passed, however, and the princesses grew up, the two sisters became very close to each other. This might also have been because of the conspicuous absence of other children around them.

A 1928 photograph of Princesses Lalitha and Indira with their mother, the Maharani

But growing up meant that the Indira had to take on more responsibilities pertaining to her position as a princess of the royal house of Travancore. Living in a palace meant that she could not step out into the open without a band of liveried attendants following her. Special occasions, and in the royal family there were many of these, meant that Princess Indira and her sister would be paraded around the city in palanquins or atop elephants, to the accompaniment of piped music, drums and trumpets, not to mention all the soldiers, guards and ordinary crowds that followed them everywhere. Whereas her mother the Maharani had become accustomed to this life, for the princess it resulted in major embarrassment and nothing more. She once said:

I was born in a cage. A golden cage, but a cage nevertheless. Traditions and ancient customs- the bars. Yet my childhood was not unhappy. The beauties surrounding our house enchanted me- the sea, the mountains…

While on the one hand the princess felt increasingly restricted by her royal status, on the other her aunt, the Junior Maharani’s animosity towards her mother made things worse. Every time something had to be done, care had to be taken to ensure that the Junior Maharani would not in the least feel antagonised, for then more trouble would ensue. The princess and her family thus went about their daily affairs without much interaction with the Junior Maharani and her family.

In 1938 Princess Lalithamba Bayi had been married to Kerala Varma of Kilimanoor. The marriage took place only after the Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi conciliated the Junior Maharani by paying a visit to Kowdiar Palace as the latter had desired. After the marriage, which was a seven-day state function, Princess Lalitha left on her honeymoon and the Maharani had only Princess Indira with her. The princess sensed her mother’s loneliness and spent most of her time with her, thereby forging a “special bond” between them. By now the princess had displayed a flair for writing stories and poetry and the Maharani encouraged her to study and become a graduate.

Princess Karthika Thirunal

After her schooling it was decided that Princess Indira could attend college with regular students instead of learning under tutors. Her daily classes in college were her first taste of freedom. For the princess going to college was nothing less than thrilling. For the first time she would leave the protected, orthodox, royal environs of the palace and venture into the “real world”. “For some reason I went about barefoot”, she recollects and this habit seems to have resulted in many comments from fellow students, who perhaps expected to see a fairytale princess in their classroom instead of this excited young girl who wondered at the lives they led instead. The princess was also often awestruck by her ordinary classmates who wore the latest clothes and ornaments while her own attire was not the most fashionable. The style of living in the Travancore royal family was simple and it was only on special occasions that the family dressed up. Otherwise their dress, food and other aspects of daily life were unusually simple; something that caused even Mahatma Gandhi some surprise. To return to Princess Indira’s college education, she went on to become the first female graduate of the Travancore royal family although marriage and children interrupted her studies before she secured her BA degree.

Meanwhile in 1939 a serious issue cropped up. The Maharani’s estate at Peermade was purchased in the name of Princess Indira and suddenly the Maharajah’s manager informed her that this property did not belong to the princess but to the Maharajah. However the timely intervention of the British Resident prevented a miscarriage of justice and it was established that the property in Peermade belonged to Princess Indira and nobody else. It remained in her ownership until 1952 when it was sold. More trouble followed in 1941 when the Maharajah desired that the Maharani and her daughters reside at Trivandrum and not at Lalindloch Palace in Vellayani, where they had been based for a few years past, in keeping with the “dignity” of the royal family. More and more restrictions were placed on their lives, much to the princess’ unhappiness.

Just as the Second World War was coming to an end, in June 1945 it was decided to get the princess married. Her father’s nephew from Harippad, lovingly called Kuttan, was the groom and as the princess had no objection, the marriage was finalized and conducted. Princess Indira now looked on to a new phase in her life but this happiness was short lived for her husband was found to be ill constantly. He was diagnosed with cancer and, in those days, there was no advanced treatment for it. In May 1949 Rama Varma “Kuttan” Koil Thampuran passed away at Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum. At the age of 23 Indira Bayi found herself a widow.

The Third Princess as a young woman

For the young girl this shock was tremendous and the Maharani decided that a change of environment would do her daughter good. The princess was sent to Trichonopoly, where the Maharani’s brother Kerala Varma was at that time based, along with her aunt Aswathynnal Kutty Amma Thampuran (whose son Dr. RM Varma is the famous neurosurgeon). However the loss sustained by the princess was severe and for two years after this she led a very secluded and private life. The Maharani, not used to seeing her bright daughter in such an unhappy state, encouraged her to concentrate on her studies, even as proposals were being considered for her remarriage. 1949 was also the year in which Princess Lalitha moved away with her husband and daughters to Bangalore and settled there.

Being a princess, Indira’s education was interrupted often and it was in 1951 that she passed the matriculation examinations, which helped revive her spirits. Meanwhile a suitable proposal had been accepted and she was engaged to K. Kerala Varma of Kilimanoor. In May 1952 Princess Indira was married to Kerala Varma at her sister’s residence in Bangalore, where the Maharani had been staying since August 1951. After the tragedy, for the first time Indira looked radiant and happy and all set to begin a new chapter in her life. The Maharani too was greatly relieved that the worst had passed. In November 1952 a house was purchased for Indira in Madras, where her husband was based and plans were afoot to move there. Even as she was preparing for her intermediate exams, Princess Indira became pregnant and in 1953 gave birth to her daughter, Shobhana. Shobhana’s birth brought new joy to Indira and as the entire family spent the summer of 1954 in Coonoor, it finally looked like the doors of the golden cage had opened up.

Princess Indira and her family with the Maharani in Madras

A son Shreekumar followed in 1955 and the princess, now known as Mrs. Indira Varma, began to enjoy her life in Madras where she could be herself, without the baggage of royalty that stuck to her in Trivandrum. She studied and secured a BA degree a few years after the birth of her son. An avid reader and a writer of short stories and poems, she introduced her children to the world of books. In 1958 the Maharani moved to Bangalore permanently and the connection with Travancore was for most part severed. Every summer Indira and her family would visit Bangalore and stay with the Maharani. Occasionally she would go with her father to Kerala where, in spite of the changing times, she was still considered royal. Her son Shreekumar Varma, describes an interesting experience in the late 1960s when on a temple visit a grand procession, attended by a couple of hundred local people, followed them throughout. Indira and Shobhana, who were present, along with an aunt Snehalatha, “bore the limelight far more gracefully” than Shreekumar who was then a Madras schoolboy, unaccustomed to such things.

Indira Varma in the early 1980s with her mother during a Bangalore visit

In 1971 after the Government of India passed a constitutional amendment derecognising the Maharajahs, the Sreepadom Estate was partitioned between the branches of the Maharanis Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi. Among the royal properties only Thevarathu Koikkal came to Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. Of the property, Saraswathi Vilasom Palace was given to Indira who retained it until 1988 when she sold it to the Hindi Prachar Sabha, with the condition that the property must not be demolished or sold and the name must not be changed (The surrounding land and other buildings, including a Kalyana Mandapom, the Maharani’s first bungalow called Moonbeam etc. were the share of Princess Lalitha and her children). The government in 1964 had already acquired her “dream home” Halcyon Castle and the other properties too were sold. It was clear that her move to Madras was permanent and subsequently her children married and settled there as well. Except for a few occasional and rare trips to Kerala, Madras and Bangalore became home for the princess and her family.

Shreekumar Varma (Photo by SS Kumar, courtesy The Hindu)

Indira’s husband KK Varma was a lawyer in the Supreme Court of India and sometime Chairman and MD of India Meters. Her son Shreekumar Varma is an author and journalist whose works include The Lament of Mohini (2000), Devils Garden: Tales of Pappudom (2006), The Magic Store of Nu-Cham-Vu (2009) Maria’s Room (2010) etc. He is married to Geeta Varma of Nilambur Kovilakam and has two sons, Vinayak Varma (an artist, scriptwriter, and illustrator etc.) and Karthik Varma (a student in college and an actor and musician). Her daughter Shobhana Varma studied Law and Homeopathy and is married to Goda Varma of Kilimanoor. She had an only daughter, Mathangi Varma, who passed away in 2001. The death of her granddaughter affected Indira Bayi greatly and I reproduce a stanza from a poem she wrote in memory of Mathangi:

Blood of my blood, flesh of my flesh,

Beat of my pulse, song of my heart,

Did I love you too much dear one?

Did jealous fate resent the gift,

Of so much love to a single soul,

And take you, leaving me bereft?

Indira Varma continues to reside in Madras/Chennai today with her family. Had the princely order continued she would today have been the Senior Maharani of Travancore. So many years have passed since the days of the princes in India but even today the Government recognizes her as Her Highness Karthika Thirunal Indira Bayi, Third Princess of Travancore.

This post is derived from the following articles published in The Hindu’s Magazine: Benign Presence (2006) by Shreekumar Varma and Halcyon Days at Kovalam (2005) by Indira Varma. I have also referred to Lakshmi Raghunandan’s At the Turn of the Tide (1995) and Shreekumar Varma’s essay Those were the Daze that was published in Anita Nair’s Where the Rain is Born: Writings about Kerala (2002). I specially thank Shreekumar Varma for the pictures and also for conveying his mother’s appreciation of this article to me. To the best of my knowledge the above stated is accurate and any inaccuracies will be subsequently corrected as and when they come to my attention.

The Rajahs of Vadakkumkur

Posted in history, india, kerala, random with tags , , , , , on April 4, 2010 by Manu

Within the shelter afforded by the Arabian sea on the west and the Western Ghats on the East, Kerala was insulated from the happenings in the rest of India to a great extent. The most conspicuous cultural difference is the matriarchal system that survived untouched into the last century in complete contrast with the remainder of the subcontinent. Similarly, although it was such a small landmass, Kerala was ruled up to the 18th century by many princes and Rajahs. The geographical isolation of the region permitted them to engage in their petty quarrels and maintain little “kingdoms” till Marthanda Varma conquered and annexed these principalities. Even so, Kerala’s rulers remained in their own little cocooned world until Hyder Ali of Mysore attacked, revealing their weakness and, for the first time in centuries, shaking them to reality. Only Marthanda Varma and his successors thought beyond the confines of Kerala and this foresight later came to Travancore’s advantage during the Mysorean invasion of Kerala.

To return to the narrative on the Rajahs and Thampurans who ruled over little territories in Kerala; there were about thirty three such princely families, excluding the prominent royal houses of Travancore, Cochin, Calicut and Kolathunad. One of these princes was the Rajah of Vadakkumkur whose domain was located in what is now called South Kerala.

Maharajah Marthanda Varma of Travancore

The geographical extent of Vadakkumkur in the 18th century included the regions surrounding Ettumanoor, Vaikom and some portions of Meenachil. At its height, according to Prof. Sreedhara Menon, the Rajah owned all the land between the Vembanad lake in the west and the Pandya (Tamil) territories in the east. To the south it shared borders with Thekkumkur (which was ruled by a collateral branch of the same family) and in the north it extended up to Kothamangalam. The ancestors of the Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur families ruled over Vempolinad, which is referred to in Sanskrit texts as Bimbalidesa. The rulers were called Bimbalisas and it was sometime in the 12th century AD that Vempolinad broke into the two aforementioned principalities. Vadakkumkur had its capital at Kadathuruthi from where it later moved to Vaikom.

The legends of the Vadakkumkur family state that the division took place at a juncture when the family consisted only of two sisters. They divided Vempolinad between themselves and thus established the two royal families of Vadakkumkur (the Piementa kingdom of the Dutch) and Thekkumkur. Subsequently while Thekkumkoor remained independent, Vadakkumkur became a “subsidiary ally” of the Cochin Rajah. The Cochin Rajah also had enangar relations with both Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur whereby males from the Cochin family performed the Talikettu Kalyanam for princesses of those families and KM Panikker calls Vadakkumkur Cochin’s ally “by marriage”. There was however a distinct point of difference between the two families in that while Vadakkumkur, as earlier stated, supported Cochin, Thekkumkur leaned towards the Zamorin of Calicut, the traditional rival of Cochin. Thekkumkur however had to play safe for often they would need to adopt princesses from Vadakkumkur to perpetuate their lineage. 

In the 18th century during the time of Marthanda Varma, Vadakkumkur faced a crisis. Its ruler had been murdered by his own brother who usurped power (KM Panikker gives 1733 as the year of this event). The other claimants to the throne pressed the Cochin Rajah for support who in turn was preoccupied with his own dynastic troubles. While this is the state of affairs as provided by TK Velu Pillai in the Travancore State Manual (1940), the Vadakkumkur family’s traditionally passed down stories say that there were, at the time, only two male members in the family: one very old reigning Rajah and a little child. In any case both accounts are consistent in agreeing that the state was in disarray when Marthanda Varma attacked. Vadakkumkur had earlier supported the Rajah of Kayamkulam against Travancore. Kayamkulam was defeated in 1746 by Marthanda Varma, with the connivance of the local nobles known as the Aaruveetil Madampimar, and the Rajah and his family had fled to the Zamorin’s country. For the next three years however the leaderless forces of Kayamkulam kept Marthanda Varma’s armies engaged. By 1749 when Kayamkulam fully surrendered to Travancore, Marthanda Varma discovered proof of the support provided by the Rajahs of Ambalapuzha and Vadakkumkur to Kayamkulam and turned his attention towards them. Ambalapuzha was annexed after its minister, Thekkedathu Bhattathiri, and commander, Mathur Panicker, defected to Travancore. Thekkumkur came next. The brother of the ruling Rajah sought Travancore’s support to depose the ruler. He was thereafter treacherously killed by the Rajah. This provided a pretext to Marthanda Varma and Thekkumkur was annexed. Then came Vadakkumkur’s turn. The battle was inconsequential. Within no time the Travancore forces conquered the country and the hapless old Rajah fled with his family to Calicut. Marthanda Varma destroyed the Vadakkumkur forts and by 1754 the Vadakkumkur subsidiary, the Meenachil Karthavu aka Mevada Thampan (a Rajput family) was also defeated. They too sought asylum in Calicut.

The customary sources that deal with Travancore history proceed to other matters at this juncture. The Travancore State Manual, in passing, mentions  that the Vadakkumkur Rajah was invited to return on a “reasonable pension” and settled down at Vaikom. Thereafter there is no information as to what happened to these dispossessed Rajahs and their families. Thekkumkur and Vadakkumkur returned, as did the Meenachil Karthavu’s family (in 1766 when the Zamorin’s family fled to Travancore unable to stand up to Hyder Ali). The Ambalapuzha Rajah’s family accepted a pension as well and returned to Kodumaloor (or Thrissur). What happened to the family of the Kayamkulam Rajah is unknown to me.

The Vadakkumkur Rajahs returned to Vaikom after accepting the “reasonable pension” offered by Travancore. They, however, lost political identity as “Rajahs” and were hereafter addressed with that title suffixed to the name (as in “Vadakkumkur Rajaraja Varma Raja”) as a caste title and not as a prefix of sovereignty. The pension was fixed initially at about 12,000 paras of paddy which was later revised in monetary terms. Another condition set upon them was that nobody from their extended joint family would ever work, although this clause was introduced at that time to prevent any efforts to regain their lost territories. The maintenance of the family was taken up by the Travancore government and up to 1949 the government would make payments during births, deaths and similar events in that family. In the early 20th century, however, the family filed a suit in court and secured the right to employment and work. To this day all the members of the Vadakkumkur family who were born before 1949 receive their promised allowance and maintenance from the Government of Kerala. 

In matters of caste and traditional practices, like the Cochin, Parappanad, Poonjar and the Koil Thampuran families, the Vadakkumkur family had Namboothiri Brahmins to marry their womenfolk while the men had Nair wives. Indeed, according to an interview given by RP Raja of the Mavelikkara family to Mrs. Rupika Chawla, only the members of the Kola Swaroopam (Kolathunad, Travancore, Ennakkad etc) had Kshatriyas to marry their women. The remaining Kshatriya families accepted Brahmin husbands. The Vadakkumkur family also followed the naming convention of “Amba, Ambika, Ambalika” for their women. What is surprising is that although the Kshatriya title of ‘Varma’ is suffixed to the names of the men and the customs followed by the family were those of Kshatriyas, the Vadakkumkur (and therefore presumably also Thekkumkur) family were Samantha Kshatriyas who did not wear the poonool. Indeed there are ancient documents which speak of the “Vadakkumkur Nair”, the “Nair chief who controlled the market of pepper produced in the hills in the interior”. 

The Vadakkumkur family today in Vaikom is divided into several branches, most of whom broke away in the early 20th century after the passing of the connected legislation providing for the same by the Travancore government. The eldest thavazhi (branch) resided at Vazhutanakkattu Koikkal while the other  thavazhis had Kochanattu Koikkal and Thekke Koikkal. Another branch is the Pattattu Koikkal. There is also a family known as Kadanattu Vadakkumkur which originated from the marriage of a princess of the Vadakkumkur family with a man of the Elayathu caste, which was Brahmin but of diminished social standing. 

The fate of the dispossessed Rajahs of the Travancore region had always interested me and I could, at best, only find scattered sources that mentioned them in passing. I am still highly intrigued as to what happened to the Kayamkulam Rajah who was perhaps the fiercest and most difficult enemy of Travancore so much so that Marthanda Varma on his death bed instructed his successor that the enmity of the Kayamkulam Rajah was “never to be forgotten”. For the details regarding the Vadakkumkur family at present I am grateful to a member of that family who does not wish to be named. The rest of the information is sourced from Prof. Sreedhara Menon’s “A Survey of Kerala History”, “The Rajas of Cochin” by Dr. Hugo s’Jacob, “Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India” by Rupika Chawla, “Malabar and the Portuguese” by KM Panikker and the Travancore State Manuals of 1906 (Nagam Aiya) and 1940 (TK Velu Pillai).


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