Archive for the people Category

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.

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 Ammachies of Travancore

Posted in history, kerala, people, random with tags , , , , on February 12, 2010 by Manu

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.

Arumana Ammachi

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.

Rukmini Varma (1965)

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.

Nagercoil Elaya Panapillai

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.

Maharajah Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma

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.

Radha Devi (1968)

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.

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.



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.


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.)

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.


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.)