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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).

At the Turn of the Tide

Posted in Books, history, india, people, random with tags , , on February 25, 2010 by Manu

 

Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (1895-1985)

An earlier post by me on Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi had generated much debate and heated argument. In the commentary that followed I had cited several documents many of which can be accessed online now. “At the Turn of Tide: The Life and Times of Maharani Setu Lakshmi Bayi, the Last Queen of Travancore”, the biography of the Maharani by her granddaughter Dr. Lakshmi Raghunandan has now been released on Google as an ebook. This can now be read by everyone and the relevant letters and documents that are cited, with a wealth of pictures, may now be accessed. Any comments regarding the book may also be made in the reviews column.

The Life and Times of Rani Lakshmi Bayi

Posted in history, india, kerala, people, random, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on January 10, 2010 by Manu

The year was 1857 and the problem facing Maharajah Uthram Thirunal of Travancore was of severe gravity. His only niece, Rani Pooradam Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi  had died 11 days after giving birth to a son, Prince Moolam Thirunal. As in the past 5 cases, adoption would be the only recourse for the perpetuation of the royal line and the Maharajah wrote thus to the Paramount Power:

You are well aware, I believe, of the peculiar importance of the position held by the Ranees in our family and indeed in the whole policy of the country, religious as well as social. Their presence is absolutely and indispensably necessary to the performance of all religious ceremonies both in our family and in the principal Pagodas. In that female line is vested also, as is further well known to you, the right of inheritance and succession in our own family as well as in the great bulk of our subjects… I now propose to bring in two, the most eligible female members from among our relations.. as Senior and Junior Ranees.

The two “most eligible” princesses chosen were the first and second daughters of Bharaninnal Amma Thampuran of Mavelikkara. Accordingly, after receiving due sanction, on the 27th of December 1857, Bharani Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi and Bharani Thirunal Parvathi Bayi were adopted into the Travancore Royal Family and installed as the Ranis of Attingal. This is the story of the Senior Rani Lakshmi Bayi who achieved much celebrity in the 19th century, not only due to her singular achievements and accomplishments, but also because of her uncompromising loyalty towards her spouse, Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran.

Rani Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore

At the young age of 8, Lakshmi Bayi had been installed as Queen of Travancore. Along with her sister, she was taught everything a princess was expected to know. In 1859, less than two years after the adoption the Maharajah decided to get the Rani married and three young suitors were presented to her. One of them was Kerala Varma of Changanassery, the grandnephew of the Maharajah’s father. The other was Kerala Varma from Kilimanoor while the third was a Ravi Varma, also from Kilimanoor. The choice had to be made most carefully. A royal consort would father future Maharajahs and hence intelligence, good looks etc were all essential qualities. Rani Lakshmi Bayi chose the Koil Thampuran from Changanassery. She had rejected Ravi Varma because he was dark skinned and her sister Rani Parvathi Bayi had selected the second person. Ravi Varma, perhaps as a consolation, was married to Bhageerathi, the sister of the Ranis in Mavelikkara, and went on to become famous as Raja Ravi Varma.

Rani Lakshmi Bayi and Kerala Varma were happy in almost all respects. The Rani was a very talented musician while her husband’s erudition in Sanskrit and his ability in writing eventually earned him the appellation of Kerala Kalidasa and “Father of Malayalam Literature”. In 1865, Arumana Ammachi (Panapillai Bharathipillai Lakshmipillai Kochamma), the consort of Prince Visakham Thirunal commenced English education under the tutelage of some missionaries. The Rani was inspired and within a month began learning English along with her sister. The Rani’s artistic talent and her scholarly pursuits brought for her, along with the popularity she already enjoyed, a great deal of acclaim and respect. She was, by all means, a perfect role model and princess.

Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran CSI

Yet there was one thing that marred the happiness of the Rani’s marriage to Kerala Varma: she was childless. In Travancore this had, beyond personal sorrow, serious dynastic implications. In those days the Rani could have easily disposed of her consort and selected another husband. She, however, was far too attached and in love with Kerala Varma to even contemplate a divorce. The fact that the Junior Rani had had several sons was, perhaps, a consolation but the absence of females in the family was, once again, a recurrence of some kind of a curse.

Within a decade of her marriage with Kerala Varma, problems began to creep into the royal family. The Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal, who ascended the musnud in 1860, was on bad terms with the Elayarajah Visakham Thirunal, who it was rumored had tried to secure the removal of his brother with the connivance of Dewan Rajah Sir T. Madhava Rao. The Dewan had been “retired” with a handsome pension, but the relationship between the Maharajah and his brother remained tense. Kerala Varma, who was a protege of the Elayarajah, became the Maharajah’s pawn to punish his brother. 

The Rani was placed in a very delicate position due to the Maharajah’s distaste towards her husband. On the one hand she was obliged to obey her uncle and on the other, her love for her husband made her protect him. For about 5 years Rani Lakshmi Bayi managed to maintain the status quo in the family. But then in 1875 an anonymous letter, supposedly authored by Kerala Varma, reached the Dewan Seshayya Sastri warning him of the Maharajah’s intention to do away with him. 

Kerala Varma had earlier been ordered to move to a palace at Poojappura and was permitted to visit the Rani only once a week on Fridays. But the Valiya Koil Thampuran often flouted the rules set by the Maharajah and did otherwise. To add to the atmosphere of intrigues and conspiracies, the Maharajah’s palace on the beach was set on fire one night, by suspected partisans of the Elayarajah and Kerala Varma. The surfacing of the controversial letter was the final straw. The Maharajah, after securing the approval of the Madras government, ordered the arrest of Kerala Varma.

The town magistrate Trivikraman Thampi arrived at Saraswathi Vilasom Palace with a large contingent of policemen. He was ushered into the presence of the Rani and her consort and after the customary salutation to Her Highness, he read out the warrant of arrest:

For the crime of treason, the transportation of Kerala Varma from the Palace of his residence, namely Thevarathu Koikkal to a different town has been ordered by the Dewan of Travancore. Accordingly, I arrest the said Kerala Varma.

The Rani’s voice was full of terrible fury as she replied. In a ringing voice, as Kerala Varma stood behind her, she ordered the policemen to leave the premises of her residence. Trivikraman Thampi, who as a good friend of the Valiya Koil Thampuran was already embarrassed by his obligation to arrest him, stood confused, as the Queen rebuked the order given by the King. The police left the palace as the Rani hastily wrote a letter to the Maharajah asking him to forgive her husband. The reply was prompt and negative. 

“Use any means necessary to carry out the orders”, commanded the Maharajah to Nanu Pillai, deputy Dewan. Pillai went to the Rani’s palace and attempted to pacify the furious lady. But when she refused to budge, he stood aside and gave orders to physically remove the Rani. The Brahmin officers forced the Rani to a side as a pair of handcuffs were clapped onto Kerala Varma’s hands. He was now a prisoner of the state. He was escorted into the carriage waiting outside which quickly began to move.

Just then, from the southern gate of the palace, appeared a figure. Rani Lakshmi Bayi ran out of Saraswathi Vilasom, with all the speed she could gather, crying out piercingly for her husband. The police stopped her and she collapsed into a heap on the road, as Kerala Varma was driven away. A gun shot was heard and the Maharajah got his signal. Kerala Varma had been taken. 

News reached the Rani that her husband had been taken to Allepey and imprisoned at the palace there. She wrote to the Maharajah that she would accompany her husband to prison but was prohibited from doing so. The Maharajah then wanted to strip Kerala Varma of his title as Valiya Koil Thampuran, which he held as consort to the Senior Rani. Subtly the matter of divorcing Kerala Varma was broached to the Rani but she refused immediately. The Maharajah decided to force her hands. The Sreepadom estate which she managed, and derived a good amount of income, was taken over by the Maharajah and the Rani’s allowances were curtailed. But the Rani, although her position restrained her physically, had a mind of her own and dealt with all these problems. She would often raise loans from loyal friends and associates of her consort and manage her affairs. The Maharajah even threatened the annulment of her adoption, but the Senior Rani was far too well educated to be cowed down by such threats which could not be legally sustained.

Rani Lakshmi Bayi wearing the insignia of the Order of the Crown of India

The Rani did find some solace in her sister and the support that Visakham Thirunal provided her. Through the efforts of his family Kerala Varma was, in 1877, allowed to go to his family home in Harippad and thereafter confined there. The years passed and the Rani stoically maintained her stand, knowing that a day would come when she would be reunited with her husband. 

That day came in 1880. Ayilyam Thirunal died and was succeeded by Visakham Thirunal. The first act of the new Maharajah was to order the release of the Valiya Koil Thampuran who returned to Trivandrum. Thus after a period of 5 years the Rani was reunited with husband again. The most troublesome phase in the life of Rani Lakshmi Bayi had passed. 

The story of Lakshmi Bayi’s unwavering loyalty towards her husband reached England and the ears of Queen Victoria. In 1881 the Senior Rani was invested with the Order of the Crown of India by the Queen, as a mark of distinction and special favour. Years later in 1894 Kerala Varma would also be awarded the Order of the Star of India. Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore came to epitomize a character so pure, graceful and respectable that even when she visited Madras, sometime in the early 1880s, she was greeted by large crowds of people.

The 1880s was a happy period in the life of the Rani. The absence of female members in the family still irked her, but there was always hope that her sister, whose only daughter died when a few months old, would give birth to a girl. In 1885 Visakham Thirunal died and his nephew, the adoptive younger brother of the Rani, Moolam Thirunal ascended the gaddi. The reign of Moolam Thirunal from 1885 until the early 20th century was very progressive and successful and the Maharajah was even accorded a personal 21 gun salute by the British. In 1893 the Junior Rani died.

The royal family now came to consist of Maharajah Moolam Thirunal, Elayarajah Revathi Thirunal and Princes Chathayam Thirunal and Aswathy Thirunal. The Rani was exceedingly proud of her nephews, and the youngest also had the distinction of being the first Indian prince to graduate with a college degree. Yet the death of Rani Parvathi Bayi brought the problem of dynastic perpetuation to the forefront again. By 1894 the Senior Rani was greatly troubled by the prospects of the royal family. 

The Rani now looked upon her two nieces in Mavelikkara, Ayilyamnnal Mahaprabha Thampuran and Thiruvadirannal Kochukunji Thampuran, daughters of Bhageerathi and Raja Ravi Varma to give birth to girls who could, subsequently, be adopted into the royal family. With this in mind, in 1894 the Rani, accompanied by her mother and nieces, went to Rameshwaram to undertake the Sethusnanam. Legend has it that she had a divine vision here which conveyed that her wish would be granted. Yet the seriousness of the problem was such that it never left her mind. In a letter to Mahaprabha she wrote:

Many thoughts in connection with this trouble my mind perpetually. If only the girl had survived (the Junior Rani’s daughter) how consoled I would have been. Oh God! I do not have the strength to think on this! The fortunate ones are those who can live happily without such thoughts.

Her wish was granted. In November 1895 Mahaprabha gave birth to a daughter, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, and in November 1896 Kochukunji’s daughter, Sethu Parvathi Bayi was born. The birth of her grandnieces brought great joy to the Rani but less than a month later, on the 5th of December, the Elayarajah Revathi Thirunal Kerala Varma died and Chathayam Thirunal became Elayarajah. But her little grandnieces returned to occupy her thoughts and her letters from this period show an eager interest in their upbringing, with the Rani advising her nieces in Mavelikkara on everything from the diet of the children to which temples they must visit. Although there were now suitable children she could adopt, nothing was done immediately regarding the same. In 1896 the former Dewan Seshayya Sastri wrote to the Rani regarding the urgent need to adopt heirs into the dynasty, recollecting a dream he had of the Rani presenting two little girls to Sree Padmanabhaswamy at the Trivandrum temple. It seemed that these two girls were destined to be queens of Travancore, for when Sastri wrote of his dream, Sethu Parvathi Bayi had not even been conceived. 

In the year 1899 the Senior Rani formally informed the Maharajah Moolam Thirunal of her desire to adopt heirs to succeed to her estate and its appurtenances. The adoption was not an easy affair. It is said that Moolam Thirunal was not very keen on it and the Elayarajah was positively opposed to the idea. The Maharajah’s consent was gained, and the First Prince Aswathy Thirunal was also agreeable. In addition Raja Ravi Varma exerted his influence with the Governor General and the adoption was sanctioned in spite of the Elayarajah’s opposition. The ceremony took place on the 31st of August 1900. 

Rani Lakshmi Bayi with Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (standing) and Sethu Parvathi Bayi

The Rani lavished all her affection on the newly installed little Junior Rani and First Princess of Attingal. With great enchantment she would write of how the little girls would call her “grandmother” and the Valiya Koil Thampuran “grandfather”. But her happiness was short lived. In October 1900 Aswathy Thirunal had suddenly died and such was the shock sustained by the Rani that she herself fell ill. Such was her health that she had to entrust the little princesses to the Valiya Koil Thampuran’s care as she herself was in no position to look after them. Her condition began to deteriorate further and another unhappy event sounded the possibility of her imminent demise. On the 6th of June 1901 the Elayarajah Chathayam Thirunal died and the Rani was by now so weak that when the news was communicated to her, she “grieved but little”. A week later, on the 15th of June 1901 Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran noted in his diary:

My angel, my life, my darling, my all in all, my love, my pride, my idol, my sweetheart – alas! and what not- expired quietly at 8 pm.

Rani Bharani Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi had died.

Lakshmi Bayi had been a great queen and had gone through terrible experiences during her lifetime. Yet her greatest sorrow was her childlessness and constant worry about the future of the royal line. Perhaps, hence, soon after she had fulfilled her duty towards the dynasty by adopting successors, her role ended and she drifted into the pages of history. Below is the little description of the Rani that a Frenchman, Pierre Loti made:

The Queen holds her receptions in a room on the first floor… but she herself in national costume, looks like a charming personification of India. She has a regular profile, pure features and magnificent large eyes, in fact all the beauty of her race. In accordance with the tradition of the Nayar family her jet black hair is wound round her forehead. Enormous rings of diamonds and rubies hang from her earlobes and her naked arms, which are much bejeweled, are unconcealed by her velvet bodice… Oh! it is easy to imagine the degree of refinement to which a noble lady of sovereign race may attain in this country where even the lower classes are cultured, but the especial charm of the Maharanee lies in her benevolence and in a reserved and gentle sweetness… so before leaving I seek to impress her image on my mind, for her face does not seem to belong to our times, and it is only in old Indian miniatures that I have had a glimpse of such princesses.

Note: The adopted princesses Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi grew up into worthy successors of the Rani. The elder one ruled Travancore for 8 years as Regent after the death of Moolam Thirunal in 1924 while the younger one was the mother of the last Maharajah of Travancore and the driving force behind the throne from 1932 until 1947. Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran was in 1901 appointed guardian to the little Ranis and remained so until his death due to a car accident in 1914. (For the portrait of Rani Lakshmi Bayi, of which I have used a cropped part, I am grateful to Sharat Sunder Rajeev and for the letters that have been quoted to Dr. Lakshmi Raghunandan.)

(29/05/2010: Paragraph 4 of this article that talks of the marriage of Rani Lakshmi Bayi carries information on the rejection of Raja Ravi Varma as royal consort. While this is a very popular story, it has now come to my attention that the same is not true. The royal wedding took place in 1859 and Ravi Varma was not brought to Trivandrum until 1862. This information is from Rupika Chawla’s “Raja Ravi Varma: Painter of Colonial India” (2010) where she derived the information from Dr. RP Raja, descendant of the artist from the Mavelikkara family.)

Cleopatra and Cheraman Perumal

Posted in history, india, kerala, mythology & legend, people, places, random with tags , , , , on November 11, 2009 by Manu

Cheraman Perumal was the last King of the Chera dynasty and popular legend tells how he divided his country among his relatives and dependents, converted to Islam and left for Mecca. He is said to have died there. However a story that I heard from Dr. Lakshmi Raghunandan of the Travancore Royal Family merits a mention and finding little online, I decided to post it on my blog.

The story is essentially not really about Cheraman Perumal but about his departure from Kerala which was the result of something hitherto unknown. The general consensus, I understand, is that he left sometime in the 9th or 10th century AD. However the roots of the story go back a millennium into history far away to Egypt to the times of Queen Cleopatra.

Cleopatra-Coin

Cleopatra

Octavius Caesar decided to attack Cleopatra’s kingdom which was defended by the famous Mark Anthony. The reason was that Cleopatra had a son by Julius Caesar, Caesorian, who Octavius feared could claim the throne of Rome as his father’s heir. Collecting a large army he attacked Cleopatra’s country and although Mark Anthony fought valiantly, he knew the end was near. For the Queen, the safety of her son was paramount and she decided to send him somewhere safe.

It is a historical fact that the Cheras of Kerala traded extensively with Egypt, China etc. Historians also concur that Cleopatra decided to send her son for safety to Kerala in India. Obviously she was on very good terms with the Chera king and I am told that members of the Travancore Royal family have indeed heard vague stories from their elders about letters exchanged between Cleopatra and their contemporary ancestor. Anyhow the story gets a little hazy here with two views emerging. The historian George Woodcock says that Caesarion did indeed manage to escape with a large treasure and was granted asylum in Kerala. Lucy Hughes-Hallet in her book “Cleopatra: histories, dreams, distortions” says that the Queen herself intended to flee to India but fell ill and therefore ordered her son to leave without her. The other view is that her son did indeed depart for the safety of the Chera country but was ambushed by Octavius en route and killed. In any case, whether or not he reached Kerala and survived is not known clearly, but the story assumes that he arrived in Kerala and was received as a honored guest of the royal family.

Rukmini Varma

In fact, such was the respect and importance of this guest that there is said to have been a matrimonial alliance between the Egyptian prince and a Chera Princess. When I first heard this, it seemed extremely incredible. However it cannot be dismissed as impossible. When Rukmini Varma of the Travancore Royal family, an artist, dancer and writer with a keen interest in Egyptology heard of this story for the first time, she visited the Padmanabhapuram Palace where certain relics are said to be preserved.She saw over there, and I presume it is still there, an important Egyptian statue of a King with his arms crossed, similar to the statues placed in the Pyramids of the ancient rulers, along with other artifacts. These had been unearthed many years ago from Quilon and remained for long in the custody of the royal family. These could simply be gifts from Egyptian rulers to their trade partner, the Chera king but anyhow the story states that the prince established a connection with the Cheras. Just like the royalties of so many places later were given asylum in Travancore, it is said the Egyptian prince too was welcomed.

The story picks up centuries later with the legendary Cheraman Perumal who ruled his kingdom well for many years from near Cochin. The story about this time notes the two families of the Travancore and Cochin royalties as separate. They were directly related to the Perumal. It was now that the Perumal decided to go looking for his lost relatives in Egypt and proclaimed that he was going to cross the ocean and visit the lands beyond. By now Brahminical hinduism seems to have secured a hold over the region and the Brahmins declared that the king would sustain “bhrashthu” or impurity due to this from which he would never be able to redeem himself. The king however had made up his mind and departed with the Arab traders who regularly travelled the way. Perhaps it was because these traders were Muslims that the king when he left was also considered a Muslim by the Brahmins of his country. The story of an Islamic conversion may have gained currency due to this, or perhaps to travel abroad the king deliberately converted. Anyhow, Cheraman Perumal left and we hear the last of him.

DSC00859

Cheraman Perumal

When he died many years later news eventually reached Kerala. The Rajahs of Cochin ignored the news but the Travancore Rajah decided to perform the “pula” ceremonies. The Brahmins were astounded and declared that the Travancore family having maintained pula and performed funeral obsequies for a converted, impure relative, were diminished in caste themselves now. They had no right to wear the poonool after this and the only way to redeem themselves was through expensive Danoms and associated ceremonies such as Hiranyagarbham. Thus began the tradition of every Travancore Maharajah performing this ceremony to “purify” himself. It may be noted that the Travancore State Manual, and I think, Prof. Sreedhara Menon also, records the story of a member of the royal family performing funeral ceremonies for Cheraman Perumal.

Thus this story traces the arrival of Cleopatra’s son in Kerala and then the departure of a possible descendant, the Perumal, who left to seek his lost relations in Egypt. Historians and scholars on Cleopatra and her times are divided on whether her son reached Kerala or not, but both possibilities may be weighed and studied. This new dimension of the Cheraman Perumal story is also interesting.

Obviously discrepancies may appear in the story. I have merely stated here yet another legend and story connected to Cheraman Perumal. Whether or not it is true is for real historians to determine.

(I am thankful to Dr. Lakshmi Raghunandan for introducing me to this story. The picture of Cheraman Perumal is taken from Shungunny Menon’s “History of Travancore” published in the 19th century. For the photograph of Mrs. Rukmini Varma, I thank her son, Mr. Jay Varma. Rukmini Varma is the granddaughter of HH Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and was born in 1940 as Princess Bharani Thirunal Rukmini Bayi. In 1949 her family shifted to Bangalore where she is now based. Had the princely order continued, she would today have held the titles of “Attingal Elaya Thampuran” and Junior Maharani of Travancore.)