Archive for October, 2009

The Reluctant Princess

Posted in history, kerala, people, random with tags , , , on October 16, 2009 by Manu

Drums and trumpets announced the birth of Princess Lalithamba Bayi as all over Travancore the customary proclamations of Thiruvayaru Ozhinju were made. After a long period of waiting, in 1923 when suspicions of her pregnancy were confirmed, the Senior Rani of Attingal, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, could not believe it. After suffering a miscarriage at the age of 15 in 1910 she had reconciled to her childlessness. It was a matter of no small sorrow to the Rani, for the pressures from within the matrilineal royal family and the attendant problems at court were all consequent to this. So when a daughter was born to her on New Year’s Eve in 1923 there was great rejoicing.

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Little Lalithamba Bayi with her mother, the Senior Maharani, in 1924.

Little Lalithamba Bayi was known as Princess Uthram Thirunal, after the asterism of her birth. She was less than a year old in 1924 when, while on a holiday with her parents at Varkala, news reached them that the Maharajah Moolam Thirunal, her granduncle, was critical. The Senior Rani and her family returned hastily to Trivandrum and a few days later the 67-year-old Maharajah died. Princess Uthram Thirunal’s 12-year-old cousin, the elder son of the Junior Rani of Attingal, Sethu Parvathi Bayi, was proclaimed Maharajah. Being a minor, however, the mantle of the state fell upon the eldest member of the royal family: the Senior Rani. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was to rule over Travancore as Regent until the boy Maharajah came of age. Now styled as Maharani Regent of Travancore, she ruled the state until November 1931 and thus the Princess’s early childhood was spent during a time when her mother held sovereign power.

 

A second daughter was born to the Maharani Regent in 1926: Princess Karthika Thirunal Indira Bayi. The two girls were the centre of the world for their parents and amidst their busy schedules the Maharani and her consort, Sri Rama Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran, always found time to dote over their little princesses, born after over a decade of childlessness. While Karthika Thirunal was the soft, gentle and artistic one, it was Uthram Thirunal who was more sporty, energetic and always in a mood for fun. The Maharani and her husband did not deter their daughters from thinking for themselves. Indeed very early in life Princess Uthram Thirunal demonstrated that she had a mind of her own and intended to live life on her own terms; not a very agreeable prospect within the many bindings and trappings of royalty.

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Lalithamba Bayi with her sister Indira Bayi and their parents in 1928.

When the regency of the Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi terminated in 1931, the Junior Maharani’s son came to power. Thereafter the lives of the princess and her family were almost totally controlled by the Maharajah. The distance between the two Maharanis did not make things easier for the Senior Maharani and her family and Uthram Thirunal found that they were not even permitted to live where they desired. All their activities needed the Maharajah’s, and more importantly the Junior Maharani’s, approval and anything done otherwise would be at the risk of losing their allowances.

 

For the enthusiastic Uthram Thirunal, all these constraints and controls became unbearable and she saw no reason why she should live as per the dictates of her aunt and her family. As her sister, Karthika Thirunal, later said, they lived in a golden cage, where customs and traditions were the bars holding them back. The princess resented the constant rupture between the two branches of the royal family.

The year 1938 brought about a major change in the life of Princess Uthram Thirunal and she found that her role as a princess took precedence over her individuality. In 1934 the Junior Maharani’s daughter Karthika Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi had married and in 1938 given birth to a son. The addition of a third male member into the branch of the Junior Maharani alarmed the Senior Maharani. Succession was an important matter and it was vital to have heirs in her branch of the family as well, particularly so with rumours doing the rounds that the principal objective of the Junior Maharani was to keep succession to the gaddi in her line of the family. The Valiya Koil Thampuran decided that Uthram Thirunal should be married as soon as possible. For the 14-year-old princess this was a sudden and unexpected development.

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Lalithamba Bayi in 1937.

For her own reasons the princess had no intention of marrying her father’s nominee. She had no choice but to marry. However she was determined that she alone would choose her consort. One day, around this time, Uthram Thirunal decided to go to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The procession passed Moodathu Madhom, an old house that belonged to the family of the Kilimanoor Rajahs. The bachelors from that aristocratic family who were in Trivandrum for college education resided at Moodathu Madhom. As the procession passed that way, among the many faces she saw in the gathered crowd, the princess noticed one particularly handsome young man. Then and there she made up her mind. She would marry him and no one else.

The Senior Maharani and the Valiya Koil Thampuran were shocked at the very proposition. They had no idea about the identity of the boy, his family, caste, and character etc. that were such decisive factors in selecting a royal consort. However when a photograph of the young man in question was brought, they heaved a sigh of relief for he turned out to be a distant nephew of the Maharani. His name was Kerala Varma and the Maharani and her husband gave their consent. But then the Junior Maharani objected that such a young girl could not, surely, be capable of selecting her own consort and that she herself would nominate someone for Uthram Thirunal. But the princess would have none of this. She categorically stated that if she were compelled to marry anyone else she would throw herself off the third floor window. Finally, through the mediation of the British Resident at the Travancore court, the marriage was sanctioned by the Maharajah although permission came only after the Senior Maharani had made a personal visit to Kowdiar Palace, as the Junior Maharani desired. Thus in 1938, after a seven-day public ceremony, Princess Uthram Thirunal Lalithamba Bayi was married to Sri Uttrittadhinnal Kerala Varma Koil Thampuran of Kilimanoor.

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Lalithamba Bayi with her consort Kerala Varma in 1938.

The Maharani was fully aware of the independent nature of her daughter and, hence, permitted the princess to reside separately whenever she wished to go away from the custom and etiquette bound atmosphere of Trivandrum. In 1939 the Maharani was at Lalindloch Palace, her country residence at Vellayini, when a letter arrived from Uthram Thirunal who was at Halcyon Castle, their beach resort at Kovalam. The Princess was expecting a child.

 

The news caused an outbreak of jubilant activity at the palace. While the Maharani nervously advised her daughter to take care, all over Travancore proclamations were issued about the news. In 1940 Princess Uthram Thirunal gave birth to a daughter at Satelmond Palace in Trivandrum, causing much joy to the Senior Maharani at the advent of her first grandchild.

After the public ceremonies connected with a royal birth were performed the matter of the child’s naming ceremony came up. The princess and her husband had chosen the name Sharada for their daughter. But the Junior Maharani did not permit this. The child was named by her and came to be called Princess Bharani Thirunal Rukmini Bayi. Bharani Thirunal Uma Bayi, Rohini Thirunal Parvathi Bayi and Makham Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi followed her. It was the Junior Maharani who named all the children. The denial of the right to even name her own children further alienated the princess from her royal status. Rank, position and customs seemed to garner greater importance than human feelings in the royal family. Her daughters, in the order of precedence, were now styled the fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth princesses of Travancore.

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Lalithamba Bayi with her family in the early 1960s.

The year 1947 marked the beginning of a new phase in the life of the Senior Maharani and her family. It brought independence not only for India but also for them from the shackle-hold of the Maharajah. Once the Government of India guaranteed their allowances, they were free to chart their own future. For Uthram Thirunal there was no more Travancore, no more of being a princess, no more bearing heirs. She was free.

 

The princess and her husband lived initially for a while with their daughters in Kodaikanal. However it could not be made a permanent settlement and so after a happy and fun filled stay, surrounded by her cousins, children, husband and others, she decided to move elsewhere.

In 1949 Mrs. Lalitha K Varma, as she preferred to call herself now, and her husband went to Bangalore and moved into a house at Malleswaram. They enrolled their little daughters into the Baldwin Girl’s High School and decided that Bangalore was a suitable city and they would settle there. However there was still an authority they were answerable to, albeit a benign one: the Maharani and Valiya Koil Thampuran. The subject was tentatively broached to the parents and Lalitha, who expected to be admonished, was quite surprised to receive their consent. The Maharani knew her daughter’s longing for a free and independent life, which was impossible in Trivandrum. A large house was purchased at No 9, Richmond Road in Bangalore from relations of Sir Mirza Ismail, sometime Dewan of Mysore state. Lalitha and Kerala Varma moved in and began a new life in Bangalore.

In 1958 the Maharani, now alone in Trivandrum after Indira Bayi shifted to Madras in 1953, decided to move to Bangalore. She purchased No 7 at Richmond Road after getting the property released from army control. Although the Maharani never, for the next 27 years of her life, went back to Kerala, the Valiya Koil Thampuran retired every winter to his villa at Pothencode, accompanied by his grandchildren. Lalitha had, meanwhile, given birth to a son, Balagopal, and two daughters, Ambika and Devika. For her, Kerala symbolized an unhappy and constrained period of her life and hence she rarely visited the place. She had voluntarily and consciously given up her title and attachment to Travancore. Bangalore was where she preferred to live.

After 1971 when the erstwhile royalty was derecognised by the Government of India, the royal properties in Trivandrum were divided between the families of the Senior Maharani and the Junior Maharani. Satelmond Palace was claimed successfully by the Maharajah and a subsequent court case could not recover it for the Senior Maharani. Lalitha quickly disposed of her properties in Kerala and concluded that chapter of her life. It was all a matter of the past and she was happy in Bangalore.

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Lalitha in later years in Bangalore.

Lalitha had a very lively and eventful life in Bangalore. Surrounded by her children and grandchildren (and pets with Russian names), her life at No 9 was full of fun. She was active in many social and charitable activities. She travelled the world, from England and France to Botswana in Africa. She had a liberal outlook towards life and when a marriage was suggested for her daughter Parvathi in 1963 with a member of the Cochin Royal family, traditionally considered condescendingly by the Travancore family, neither Lalitha nor the Maharani had any objections. Years later, she gave her blessings to her grandchildren marrying outside the Malayali community. She encouraged her family to pave a path for themselves and determine their own identity. In any case whenever they faced problems she was there for them at home with her never ending collection of jokes and her fabulous meals. “GOK” she would say, acronymic for “God only knows” if she did not know the answer to something. As her daughter, Lakshmi, says, “It was that joi de vivre which was her most endearing quality, and, of course, her genuine compassion for others.”

 

“She used to love driving the car, and even towards her last days she would ask one of us to take her for an “L.D.” (long drive)… She had an invincible sense of humour that endeared her to everyone irrespective of age. In fact, even now, when I think of her, though there is a sorrow in my heart, I see her bright smile and one of her famous sayings come up, and I end up laughing, instead of grieving. Maybe that’s the way she wanted to be remembered.”

Lalitha K Varma passed away in 2008 at her Richmond Road residence in Bangalore where she had lived for nearly 60 years and spent the best part of her life. As the Varma family at No 9 misses their dear old grandmother, somewhere in the annals of history, Lalithamba Bayi will be remembered, forever, as a reluctant princess.

(This article’s original beginning spoke of drums and trumpets announcing the birth of Princess Lalithamba Bayi as the Rani held her up for the crowds gathered below the palace to see. This has been altered after I was informed that in the royal family custom decreed that a baby could not be brought out or shown in public for 6 months after birth. This custom was amended when Lalithamba Bayi’s sister, Indira Bayi was born in 1926.)