A Queen Written Out of History

Review by Govind Krishnan V

In The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore, (Harper Collins India, 2015) Manu S. Pillai tries to write accessible history as well reclaim the reputation of one of British India’s most remarkable rulers, Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi who ruled the erstwhile princely state of Travancore as regent. There is always a narrative tension between these differing tasks of the historian, but Pillai manages it quite well, easily switching back and forth between historical narrative and personal biography, the broad canvas of political change and the minute piecing together of contested events.

Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was the granddaughter of Raja Ravi Varma, the painter, and ruled as regent from 1924-1931, during the minority of her nephew Chittira Thirunal Balarama Varma. In these seven years, she introduced a number of reforms that provided jobs, free education, and access to public spaces for untouchable castes and religious minorities. She reduced nepotism and corruption, made foundational changes in the state’s economy, massively expanded road and rail infrastructure, and went against religious orthodoxy to create the framework for a secular state within a Hindu kingdom.

Her achievements are formidable by any standards and, Pillai argues, unmatched by any other ruler in her dynasty. But she has disappeared from the public memory of contemporary Kerala, which mostly remembers Chittira Thirunal who succeeded her as the the last ruler of Travancore. The two facts are not entirely unconnected. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s relationship with Chittira Thirunal’s mother (her cousin) was fraught almost from the beginning and deteriorated progressively once the regency ended.

After Independence, Lakshmi Bayi and her family left their former capital Thiruvananthapuram and migrated to Bengaluru, while Chittira Thirunal was Raj Pramukh of Kerala till 1971, and then the titular Maharaja. Even as bitter legal disputes dragged on between the two branches of the family, Chittira Thirunal himself become a symbol of royal grace and humility by the time he died in 1991. As new economic opportunities beckoned, to a people turning away from the communist legacy and seeking new self-definitions, Chittira Thirunal and the royal family became cultural symbols that fit into cherished notions of the past.

This was a generation too young to remember palace intrigues and scandals, or the opprobrium and bloodshed with which Chittira Thirunal’s reign ended. On the advice of the Dewan C. P. Ramawamy Iyer, Chittira Thirunal and his mother Parvathi Bayi tried to form an independent state of Travancore, rather than joining the Indian Union. The quixotic attempt turned into high farce when CP entered into a food sharing agreement with Jinnah and made plans to apply for UN membership. It took an assassination attempt on the dewan to bring the royal family to its senses, and Travancore into the Indian Union.

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Critical histories of the Travancore royal dynasty are not plentiful; most confine themselves to listing the administrative reforms undertaken by each ruler. This fits into the popular narrative of the rulers as enlightened autocrats whose progressive policies tilled the soil for post-Independence Kerala’s social egalitarianism. The Ivory Throne examines the roles that different royal protagonists at the helm of the state played in the crucial years of transformation in which modern Travancore came into being. It details the power politics, court intrigues, personal rivalries, pettiness and dysfunctionality behind the monarchy’s carefully cultivated image of moral purity and religious orthodoxy.

The book is nominally a history of the royal house of Travancore, the Kupakas, who rose from obscurity and conquered all of southern Kerala under the brilliant but ruthless Marthanda Varma (ruled 1729 to 1758). But the period of focus is from the turn of the 20th century to Independence, when the Travancore dynasty presided over momentous social and cultural changes which presaged the arrival of modernity and democracy.

Any historical work on the Travancore of that time has to contend with the partisan nature of the available sources: a historiography tilted towards one or other set of actors, a press polarised along communal lines, and memoirs embellished to preserve personal reputations. Pillai’s work  breaks new ground  because he  is able to fill in the picture from as neutral a vantage point on Travancore’s politics as is possible, that of the British government. His work is based on an extensive overview of invaluable material from the records of the India Office Archives in London. It draws upon fortnightly assessments, confidential reports and official letters sent by the British Resident to the India government, on correspondence between the latter’s political department and the British foreign office, official letters of the Viceroy, etc., Pillai supplements this with the personal and official letters of Sethu Lakhsmi Bayi, collected and published by her granddaughter.

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Uniquely for a female regent, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi ruled with the full powers of a monarch unhampered by a council of regency. She issued all proclamations under her own name rather than the minor male heir. This was because, for her people, she was maharani, and not regent, following the unique matrilineal system of the ruling house as well as the dominant Nair caste in Kerala. Succession happened through the female side and management of the property passed from the male head to his younger brother or the eldest male child of the most senior female member. But the fortunes of the Kupakas were as inverted as their customs. In sharp contrast to most ruling houses in India, the line had a fecundity of men and trouble producing female children at the appropriate juncture. Such a crisis led to the adoption into the royal family of the cousins Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi when they were children. Their duty was to produce male heirs to succeed the king, Mulam Thirunal.

When she was 11, Sethu Lakhsmi Bayi married Rama Varma, an aristocrat of the Parappanad royal family. In the matrilineal system, spouses did not carry much weight. The king’s wife, whom he could change at will, was merely called ‘Ammachi’, meaning the mother of his children. Female members of the royal household were, until the beginning of the 20th century, perfectly entitled to discard their current consort when they pleased and start a relationship with a new man. While Lakshmi Bayi had a string of titles equal to the Maharajah’s, Rama Varma was simply the royal consort (Koil Thampuran). By tradition, Rama Varma could not even sit in Lakshmi Bayi’s presence in public, and had to bow down to her as well as the Junior Maharani.

Lakshmi Bayi ascended the throne in 1924 at a crucial junction in Travancore’s destiny, and she took it in a completely unexpected and different direction from that of her predecessors. But the powerful historical currents that shaped her reign and whose flow she altered in turn had their birth two centuries earlier, in two singular events that altered the socio-political map of south Kerala in profound ways. The first was the succession of Marthanda Varma to the Kupaka throne, and the second was the arrival of the British East India Company.

The Kupakas, though they could trace their lineage to the ancient Cheras, were little more than glorified provincial rulers at the start of the 18th century and held what is now the district of Thiruvananthapuram. They were controlled by powerful Nair nobles. Across south Kerala the writ of thousands of Nair feudal lords ran, with no centralised political authority. In a ruthless purge Marthanda Varma executed dozens of nobles, sold their families into slavery and tamed the power of the feudal chieftains in a series of successful but brutal military campaigns.

He made himself master of all territory south of Kochi and extending to Kanyakumari. With a standing army at his command, he built an autocratic state that was the glory of the Kupakas and replaced the feudal system. However, within a generation of Marthanda Varma, the state he built was facing an existential threat in the form of a British annexation for money owed for military assistance. To make matters worse, the heir was only five years old. Within the matrilineal system of inheritance followed by the Kupakas, the eldest female member could rule in her own right as sovereign in the absence of an eligible male. The British, whose own patriarchal culture viewed women in positions of power as a deeply suspect proposition, were less than enthused.

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The British put off annexation in favour of an interim arrangement where Travancore promised to modernise its administration and implement reforms that would rationalise revenue collection. But the queen, Gowri Lakshmi Bayi would have to rule as regent to satisfy British qualms about gender. If Travancore managed to increase efficiency of production and generated enough revenue to pay tribute, the British would consider letting the Kupakas rule under British authority. John Munro, a Scotsman who was appointed British Resident, was invited by a politically perspicuous queen to serve as dewan. Given a free hand, he abolished forced labour, created a modern bureaucracy based on merit rather than hereditary posts, and removed many of the laws regarding caste discrimination.

By the time Munro left, the state’s finances had improved and annexation was off the table. But the structural changes he introduced had set in motion economic and social forces that would fundamentally alter the power hierarchies in Travancore. Ezhavas and Syrian Christians were the first communities to benefit from the changes that allowed non-Hindus and lower castes a greater role in the state’s economic and social life. The Ezhavas, an untouchable caste engaged in toddy cultivation, freed from customary agricultural serfdom, started making a living off coir production by the end of the 19th century. The state invested in schools and encouraged Christian missionaries to spread education. Modernisation along Victorian lines proceeded throughout the 19th century.

Sometimes reforms were energetically pushed by the rulers under British encouragement and at other times reluctantly under British coercion. But while the physical structures of modernisation were put in place, there was no corresponding drive for social change from a monarchy whose legitimacy rested on the social support of Hindu upper castes. The result was dissatisfaction among all communities competing for the same jobs, and social turbulence which gained increasing power as Travancore entered the 20th century.

When Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi were brought to Thiruvananthapuram as young princesses, a new English educated elite emerged among the Nairs, Ezhavas, Christians and Muslims, and the Enlightenment imports of “rationality and reason”, became an important touchstone for deciding a diverse range of issues. The princesses grew up learning English, Sankskrit, golf, piano and an assortment of things that fitted in with Europeans notion of being “cultured”.

Lakshmi Bayi turned out to be something of a bookworm, devouring Victorian fiction as well as contemporary English periodicals, and the intelligence and breadth of her mind built a worldview whose individuality was not apparent externally. From her mother shed had inherited religious orthodoxy as well as a keen awareness at all times of her responsibility to the dynasty. She would, for example, never meet any male visitor alone unless her husband was present, including the dewan and the resident.

Parvathi Bayi was also an intelligent and avid reader, and would go on in her life to display a refreshing streak of rebellion and unorthodoxy compared to the more staid and retiring Lakshmi Bayi. But more importantly, the course of their lives differed because while Lakhsmi Bayi failed in her primary duty of producing a male heir, Parvathi Bayi succeeded. When maharajah Mulam Thirunal died and Lakhsmi Bayi became regent, she brought to the Ivory Throne of the Kupakas notions of state and citizenship that deviated sharply from that of the autocratic state and was in line with the evolving aspirations of Travancoreans.

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One of her first orders on becoming regent was to order the release of hundreds of satyagrahis arrested by the previous administration for demanding that all castes should have access to temple roads, then open only to high castes. This was against the policy of Dewan Ragavaiah, who tried his best to thwart Lakshmi Bayi’s policy towards the rising anti-caste movement. She could not expect support from either her family or her high-caste dominated government. It was risky for a new ruler and a woman, to go against the establishment. Kerala was the most Brahminical state in the country and the upper castes considered untouchability to be transmittable by air.

A Pulayan was supposed to stay 64 feet from a Nair and 90 feet from a Namboothiri. When the historic Vaikkam Satyagraha started, Gandhi came down to Travancore to resolve the deadlock. He was received as a state guest by the maharani who in a private interview assured him of her sympathies and signalled to the Ezhava movement her support for the cause. In spite of the dewan’s obstructionism and that of her own government, once public support for the cause became apparent she passed orders to open most roads around temples to all castes. The decision brought her glowing acclaim across the country, with Gandhi writing a tribute in Young India.  She would soon open up all public roads and offices to everyone, giving the benefit of the state’s infrastructure enjoyed so far by 8 lakh upper caste people, to over 20 lakh of her subjects.

The previous 50 years of modernisation had led to an explosion of newspapers and periodicals in Travancore and a democratisation of the public sphere. Paradoxically, this led to a competitive communalism with religions and castes using political representation in the Popular Legislative Assembly and newspapers, to push for a maximum share in the rights they had now come to expect from the state. Previous regimes had sought to maintain power by placating the Nairs, who as the numerically strong land-owning class dominated the Assembly. Lakshmi Bayi, in a quick succession of social reforms, radically reversed this policy. She opened up all government departments except temple administration to all castes and religions. Appointments, government policy declared, would now be decided on merit, with special consideration for backward castes and minorities.

Amid a torrent of criticism from all sections, she appointed a foreign Christian, Watts, as dewan. The reasoning was precisely that he would be neutral, not owing allegiance to any of the disputing communities in Travancore. The government also gave aid to schools that provided free education to all castes, bearing 75 per cent of any expenditure above income to girls’ schools and 50 per cent to boys’ schools, alongside a mid-day meal scheme. Community colleges for backward communities were eventually integrated into the mainstream. Within a generation, this led to an explosion in literacy in the state.

All this paved the way for Chittira Thirunal’s historical “Temple Entry Proclamation” in 1936, when all subjects of Travancore were given equal right to worship in all temples. In caste-mad Kerala, this led immediately to the Cochin Maharajah banning all Travancoreans from entering to prevent the spread of ritual pollution. Lakhmi Bayi also systematically expanded education and employment for women. Colleges for women, which were confined to vocational training, were converted to full-fledged higher education institutes. She appointed a woman to the Legislative Assembly, the first time in India.  Dr Mary Luckose, who headed a women and children’s hospital, was made the head of the state medical department. Anna Chandy became the irst female judge in the Anglo-Saxon world. The extent of enfranchisement of women can be seen in the fact that the Popular Assembly decided in 1931 to allow land-owning women to vote and stand for elections.

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The true significance of regency era achievements become clearer when seen in contrast with the policies and politics of its successor regime, that of Chittira Thirunal. The reports of British Residents of the time corroborate the truth of the major allegation which has always been levelled against Chittira Thirunal, both by contemporary sources and latter day historians. They establish that he was completely controlled by two ambitious individuals, his domineering mother Parvathi Bayi and Dewan C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer.  While Iyer, known to all as C.P,  was incorruptible, the dense concentration of power in his and the Junior Maharani’s hands re-introduced nepotism, which always worked along communal lines in Travancore, into the administrative apparatus. Most tellingly, the momentum of political survival aligned the monarchy back with the interests of social groups that favoured maintaining its essentially autocratic nature.

The Nairs were wooed assiduously while Christians and Muslims were again sidelined in appointments and government patronage. Even the temple entry proclamation was made for mixed reasons, not least among them being the need for a Hindu consolidation. While C.P’s administration was efficient, it was socially and politically regressive. In the years leading up to the Second World War, as the clamour for constitutional government along the lines of British India grew in Travancore, he introduced a series of suppressive measures including putting the entire Congress leadership in prison. Rabindranath Tagore decried the growth of what he termed fascism, in Travancore.

In 1946, the army killed hundreds of people while crushing a communist uprising by Ezhava factory workers in Punnapra and Vayalar. (The exact number of victims is disputed.)  On June 18, 1947, Chittira Thirunal, on CP’s advice, declared the independent state of Travancore. A year of dictatorship followed, which ended in July 1948, when a young socialist slashed C.P’s throat at a music concert. C.P fled to Madras, and a shaken maharaja and the junior maharani bowed to the inevitable merging of the kingdom with the Indian Union in 1949 after negotiations with V. P Menon.

By this time the senior maharani had disappeared from the political scene. Chittira Thirunal, apparently on Parvathi Bayi’s insistence, wreaked petty revenge on Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, stripping her of ceremonial honours and powers, taking effective control of her estates, and visiting a series of humiliations on her. In 1958, she moved to Madras and the next year to Bangalore. She started living in Bangalore with her oldest daughter Indira, dying as an old grandmother no different from any other old woman. Except that in a trunk under her bed she kept a wealth of administrative records: the history of what she had accomplished.

She refused to be regretful or nostalgic about the old days, never talking about it. Towards the end of her life, she started signing her name simply as Smt. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, refusing to use any of the string of grandiloquent royal honorofics recognised by the Indian government. She passed away in 1985, never returning to Travancore. The separation is mutual. There are hardly any monuments or memorials to her name in Thiruvananthapuram today. She has effectively been deleted from the history of the kingdom that she ruled and transformed not so long ago.

Source: Fountain Ink Magazine

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