The Ammachies of Travancore
For a student of Travancore history, there are many resources dealing with the reigns of the Maharajahs and the occasional Attingal Ranis. Their personal lives, however, have been quite carefully guarded and references to these, whenever they are made, are largely in passing only. Here again, there is someinformation available about the consorts of the Attingal Ranis, known as the Koil Thampurans, mainly because they fathered future Maharajahs, and therefore had some kind of attendant royal glory. What strikes one, then, is the unfortunate paucity of information concerning the Ammachies, i.e. the ladies of the male members of the Travancore royal family, who neither by themselves nor through their descendants had any claim on power.
The matrilineal Marumakkathayam system ensured that the rules governing marriage for both male and female members of the royal family were more or less similar. Thus, for instance, a Koil Thampuran or an Ammachi would continue to remain, even after marrying royalty, a subject of the royal family. There was, of course, some grandeur in the alliance, but legally they did not cease to be subordinate to their spouses. Thus, until the Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi in the 20th century altered the custom, the Koil Thampurans were not permitted to be seen seated next to their royal consorts. Similarly they were prohibited from travelling in the same carriages as their wives, and if by some oversight they ended up together, it was crucial that the husband did not sit next to the Rani but placed himself opposite her. In public they had to, invariably, address their wives as Highnesses and accord every mark of superiority to them. Indeed, with such diligence were these customs maintained that when Sethu Lakshmi Bayi gave her husband a seat at a banquet during the late 1920s above that of the then Dewan, it caused quite a hue and cry, for he was technically not supposed to be superior to his wife’s chief minister! In that case, however, the Maharani stuck to her guns and established her husband’s precedence over the Dewan.
The Ammachies also were subject to similar rules, a famous instance being from the time Ayilyam Thirunal (Maharajah from 1860-1880) commissioned an English painter called Theodore Jenson for a portrait of his wife and him. Not once did the Maharajah and his consort appear together and each gave separate sittings to Jenson, who appears to be have found this custom quite annoying, for a picture that was to show them together. Of course the same could not be done for photographs and in these the two appear seated together, with the Ammachi at a respectable distance from her royal husband. Indeed this demonstrates an additional factor in the marital relationship, which the Koil Thampurans did not have to face: caste.
The Ammachies were never taken from the same caste as the Maharajahs and belonged to the Nair community, which was classed as Sudra, i.e. as belonging to the lowest rung of the Chatur Varna system. Thus, in spite of the marriage (which was Sambandham), the Kshatriya Ayilyam Thirunal could not publicly be seen touching his Sudra wife. Similarly, the food cooked by her could never be eaten by him (pickles and roasted items being exceptions). This was not peculiar to the royal family alone and in all instances of inter-caste marriage in Kerala, the same applied. This custom appears to have continued even into the 1940s and Rukmini Varma, who was then Fourth Princess of Travancore, remembers feasts at Satelmond Palace in Poojappura:
The whole family would assemble for this ritual (feast), but not the Ammachies. They couldn’t come anywhere near us when a meal was being eaten and if by accident they did, then the whole meal had to be sent back- because if anyone below caste set foot in the room while the meal was in progress, it would have to be cooked again. Dinner was always a bit more relaxed because that was after sunset, when everything is more relaxed.
The Ammachi also lacked relevance at court. Privately and socially, of course, she was held in high esteem, but none of this was of political significance. This was because, owing to Marumakkathayam, succession depended on the Attingal Ranis, and the Maharajah’s wife was of no consequence in this most crucial question. Her official position is nicely paraphrased by Samuel Mateer, a 19th century observer, as follows:
The Ammachi has no communication with the reigning Ranis. She is not a member of the royal household, has neither official nor social position at court, and cannot even be seen in public with the ruler whose associate she is. Her issue occupy the same position as herself, and the law of Malabar excludes them from all claims of public recognition.
The last part of Mateer’s understanding is slightly faulty, for the children of the Maharajahs were indeed publicly recognised through titles and dignities, as will be described ahead, but his basic comprehension of the position of an Ammachi is not incorrect. Interestingly, while the Ammachi had no political importance, she also did not have the freedom a private individual enjoyed. On the contrary she faced social difficulties that were considerably more prohibitive than those of the Attingal Ranis. She was, for one, kept as ghosha i.e. in purdah and could interact with very few men other than her husband. If her husband decided to leave her, she was bound to remain as before, in seclusion, and not permitted to remarry, which was otherwise the norm in Marumakkathayam. Indeed, when her husband lay dying, she was not permitted to see him while he lay ailing, lest her presence ‘pollute’ him and add to his bad karma, causing him to be reborn poorly. Thus, on the one hand while the Ammachi secured glory by marrying a Maharajah, it came at quite a serious cost.
Nevertheless, an institution meant to protect the Ammachies and safeguard their interests also came into existence. This was the Ammaveedu, literally meaning ‘the house of an Ammachi’. There are a handful of families in Thiruvananthapuram that are called Ammaveedus, but principal among them are four, namely the Vadasseri, Nagercoil, Thiruvattar, and Arumana Ammaveedus. Some historians consider these four houses to be the ‘harems’ of the Travancore Maharajahs, but that is an incorrect definition. The Ammaveedus were basically joint families and each prince of Travancore could select a consort from among the women born into them. They were, of course, free to marry from outside, but there would be much to lose by opting for such an alliance, as will be shown ahead.
The Ammaveedus have an obscure origin and K. Rajayyan in his History of Tamil Nadu states that in old Venad (the antecedent of Travancore), which largely covered the Tamil country, there were certain families from among whom the royal family’s male members took ladies. These were the original Ammaveedus. Then, local legends from Thiruvananthapuram tell us that in the late 18th century, when Dharmarajah (1858-1898) moved the capital of Travancore from Padmanabhapuram to that city, he brought with him his four wives, who belonged to the villages of Vadasseri, Nagercoil, Arumana, and Thiruvattar. New buildings were constructed for them outside the Fort and then the Maharajah decreed that henceforward all the male members of his family must select consorts only from among these four Ammaveedus, thereby boosting them into prominence over the other families. In any case, in the succeeding period, we find the Maharajahs of Travancore all marrying from these four families only.
The Ammaveedus had special privileges and dignities, perhaps to compensate for the lack of power. Much landed property with tax concessions were granted them, along with ceremonial honours on both special and ordinary occasions. For instance, the sons of a Maharajah were permitted to appear before their father’s successor without a turban, which was otherwise mandatory. They could visit the palace unannounced and the Maharajahs were obliged to receive them with honour. The use of palanquins, grand celebrations during weddings, and many other distinctions were also allowed the Ammaveedus. Then there were special titles. The consort of the Maharajah was the Ammachi, with the title of Panapillai Amma, and the children born of her were called Thampis if they were male, and Thankachies if they were female. Later the Thankachi became Kochamma. Thampi and Thankachi are Tamil words, perhaps also pointing at the Tamil origins of the old Ammaveedus. The sons of the Maharajahs also prefixed the honorific ‘Sri’ to their names. The use of palaces also appears to have been permitted and we have in the late 18th century the marriage of the Maharajah’s daughter, Thiruvattathu Elaya Panapillai, celebrated at Sreepadom Palace in the Fort. All these privileges and allowances, however, were contingent upon belonging to an Ammaveedu. If a Maharajah married from outside, the lady and her children would have no claim on any of these, as seen in the early 20th century when the Elayarajah Chathayam Thirunal’s relationship with his uncle Maharajah Moolam Thirunal soured because the latter would not make special arrangements for the former’s wife, who was from an ordinary Nair family. In such cases the lady in question and her immediate family could be ‘adopted’ into one of the Ammaveedus, thereby making them aristocratic and suitable for marriage with a Travancore prince.
Originally, as RP Raja points out in his excellent New Light on Swathi Thirunal, while the Maharajahs used to marry Tamil Saiva Pillais, by the second half of the 19th century the Ammaveedus all became Nair families. Avittom Thirunal (1798-1810) had a Tamil wife (Vadasseri Ammaveedu) as also a Nair lady (Arumana Ammaveedu), the latter of whom is suppose to have assisted Velu Thampi Dalawa in his rebellion against the British by leaking palace secrets. After Avittom Thirunal, the next male ruler was Swathi Thirunal (1829-1846). RP Raja tells us how he first, at the age of 17, married an ordinary Nair lady from Thambacham Veedu, Kollam, by adopting her into the Thiruvattar Ammaveedu. This was Thiruvattathu Ammachi Panapillai Ayikutty Pillai Narayani Pillai Kochamma. Together they had three children but in 1839 the Ammachi died, leaving behind a sole surviving son. A few months later, apparently for the care of the baby, the Maharajah married another lady called Neelamma by adopting her into the Thiruvattar Ammaveedu. Then, finally, in 1843 Swathi Thirunal became the last Travancore Maharajah to marry a Tamil lady, when he married a Mudaliyar dancer called Sundaralakshmi. She was adopted with her family into the Vadasseri Ammaveedu, which as stated above was also Tamil at the time, and these two wives were his companions until his demise in 1846. It might be worth mentioning here that the famous story of the dancer ‘Sugandhavalli’, who was supposedly the Maharajah’s mistress, and on bad terms with his first wife, has been disproved by RP Raja and has been found to contain more fiction than fact.
Swathi Thirunal’s successor, Uthram Thirunal, married once from the Thiruvattar Ammaveedu and was so attached to his consort that soon after her demise, he too succumbed. His daughter Panapillai Madhavi Pillai Lakshmi Pillai Kochamma was married in 1854 to his nephew and heir, Ayilyam Thirunal, but she too died soon after. That Maharajah then in 1860 married the daughter of Nadavarambathu Kunju Krishna Menon, sometime Dewan of Cochin, by adopting her into the Nagercoil Ammaveedu. Interestingly, the lady, Panapillai Lakshmi Pillai Kalyani Pillai Kochamma, was first married to Uthram Thirunal’s secretary Easwara Pillai Vicharippukkar, and had to have her marriage with him dissolved in order to become the Ayilyam Thirunal’s consort. She went on to achieve much celebrity during her husband’s reign as a poetess and playwright, although after his demise she slowly faded out.
Ayilyam Thirunal’s brother and successor, Viskham Thirunal, married in 1859 from the Arumana Ammaveedu and his wife, Panapillai Bharathi Pillai Lakshmi Pillai Kochamma, was the first high-caste lady to commence English education in Travancore, giving the lead to the then Attingal Ranis. The next Maharajah, Moolam Thirunal, was first married in 1879 to Panapillai Anantha Lakshmi Pillai Kochamma, the adopted daughter of Ayilyam Thirunal and Nagercoil Ammachi, but she died after childbirth in 1882. Interestingly, Moolam Thirunal took his baby son, Sri Narayanan Thampi, with him to his palace and brought up the boy until he was eighteen. In a previous instance, when Swathi Thirunal’s wife died leaving a young son, this was not permissible and the child, Sri Ananthapadmanabhan Thampi, had to be left in the Thiruvattar Ammaveedu, under the care of his step-mother.
In 1899 Moolam Thirunal married again, Panapillai Lakshmi Pillai Karthyayani Pillai Kochamma, who was previously wife of a palace servant called Sankaran Pillai, and belonged to the Kaipalli Veedu family in Thiruvananthapuram. She was adopted with her son, Velayudhan Pillai, into the Vadasseri Ammaveedu, and her ex-husband, who became notorious thereafter for his overwhelming influence over the Maharajah, was given the title of Thampi and the hand of Karthyayani’s younger sister.
Moolam Thirunal was the last of the Travancore princes to marry within the Ammaveedu system. His male successor, Chithira Thirunal, never married. The last Elayarajah, Uthradom Thirunal, however, married in 1945 an ordinary Nair lady, originally from Kayamkulam, and with this marriage the Ammaveedu system ceased to exist. This lady, Radha Devi, was not adopted into an Ammaveedu; she lived with her husband; and her children took his surname. A last vestige of the old tradition remained, however, in that when she died in the early 2000s, the Elayarajah did not participate in the Malayali rituals associated with the demise, but only performed certain rites at the year-end ceremonies.
The Ammaveedu system interested me very much right from the onset, because I was always curious to know what happened to the sons and daughters and later descendants of the many Maharajahs after their times. History appears to have forgotten these people for they had no locus standi in their own fathers’ state and were reduced, after a few generations, into ordinary people who could claim only a descent and nothing else from the Maharajahs of Travancore.
This article is based on information from the Travancore State Manuals by TK Velu Pillai, Shungoonny Menon’s History of Travancore, Deepanjana Pal’s The Painter, Lakshmi Raghunandan’s At the Turn of the Tide, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma’s Travancore: The Footprints of Destiny, K. Rajayyan’s History of Tamil Nadu, and RP Raja’s New Light on Swathi Thirunal. I am also thankful to Sharat Sunder Rajeev for conveying certain local stories from Thiruvananthapuram to me. This article was redrafted on the 5th of November 2011 after new information, mainly from RP Raja’s book, clarified many aspects on Swathi Thirunal’s personal life.