Queen of Her Realm

An intriguing account of the life of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, ruler of Travancore, is also a story of how a progressive matrilineal system was upstaged by Victorian prudery and patriarchy.
By Tony Joseph

Manu S Pillai has three stories to tell — and one book to pack them all in. First and foremost is the remarkable life story of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who ruled the state of Travancore for seven years between 1924 and 1931. The feud between this modernising queen, who was loved by her 5 million subjects, and her ambitious and scheming younger sister, Sethu Parvathi Bayi, whose son took the crown in 1931, is the heart of Pillai’s book, The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore. This is a riveting human interest story all by itself, full of unforgettable characters and gripping tales of intrigue, sorcery and rivalry.

But the second story that Pillai tells is equally engrossing — the intricate details of how the matrilineal system of Travancore worked, in both theory and practice. The status, power and freedoms that women wielded within the system will be an eye-opener to all those who have never questioned the certainties and assumptions of modern-day patriarchy. Because of Pillai’s novelistic style, and the enormous amount of research and detailing that have gone into his book (notes and references alone make up 105 of its 694 pages), his account is both in-depth and easily graspable (that is, after you have gone past a couple of dozen pages and gotten used to the intricate genealogy that characterises the Kerala matrilineal system). After reading it, it’s difficult not to come to the conclusion that it was Victorian prudery that unjustly condemned the matrilineal system as decadent.

The third story that Pillai tells will be even more valuable to those who are historically-inclined, and that is an account of the forces and events that caused the thorough social transformation of Travancore in the 20th century. To be more precise, the collapse of the matrilineal system and the adoption of Victorian mores of gender and sexuality, the decimation of the caste hierarchy and the rise of the lower castes, the spread of education and the emergence of revolutionary communist parties, and, of course, the eclipse and disappearance of an entire way of life as practised by Travancore royalty and their subjects. Pillai’s account of this transformation would, by necessity, be partial, because power is the perch from which his three, interwoven accounts are told, and one cannot get an adequate and unbiased understanding of social transformation without viewing it from other, less exalted perches as well.

This is a criticism that can apply to other parts of The Ivory Throne as well. Since the book adopts the points of view of royalty and imperial decision-makers most of the time, its descriptions of royalty are sometimes overly rose-tinted, while one also gets the feeling that the reality of life in Travancore has not been fully captured. For example, if Kerala was the “mad house” of castes as it was known to be and as Vivekananda once observed, there is too little evidence of it.

Another point of view is missing in the book — that of the “villain”, the Junior Maharani, Sethu Parvathi Bayi. Her side of the family refused to talk to the author, and it is an open question whether the tone of the book would have changed, even if slightly, if they had. It is fair to say, though, that the account runs close to popular perceptions, especially in the case of the despotic actions of their diwan, CP Ramaswami Iyer, whose decision to open fire on hundreds of protesters at Punnapra-Vayalar helped strengthen the communist movement in the state. Iyer is one of the prominent characters in the book, which details his efforts to win “independence” for Travancore from the rest of India, much against the wishes of the people of the state, who were with the nationalist movement of the Congress. Iyer finally had to leave the state in ignominy, after a violent attack on him.

Despite these infirmities, there is no doubt that the author has produced a gem of a book which is both an interesting read and a significant addition to existing work on Indian princely states. The perspective he adopts may be from the side of the royalty, but within that, the meticulous attention that he pays to facts as they are recorded, help bring detail and clarity to many questions. For example, what forces and calculations went into historic royal decisions to open temple roads to the public, and later, to enact the Temple Entry Proclamation? How did the British Raj, the “paramount power” whose suzerainty the Kingdom of Travancore accepted, influence and shape the economic and social policies of the rulers?

The book begins dramatically — with the arrival of Vasco da Gama at Calicut and his utter failure to impress the Zamorin. And it ends touchingly — with the passing away of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and her generation and the gradual eclipse of their heritage. I found reading the book a pleasure, and look forward to many more from Pillai — after all, he is only 25.

Source: The Indian Express

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