A Queen’s Tale

The Ivory Throne chronicles the life and times of the last queen of Travancore

[Feature by Nikhil Varma, The Hindu, January 11, 2016]

Twenty-five year old International Relations graduate-turned-debutant novelist Manu Pillai’s, The Ivory throne: Chronicles of the house of Travancore (HarperCollins) is a tale of relationships, court and palace intrigue; and provides a glimpse of life of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, regent queen of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. She ruled the kingdom for six years in the late 1920’s on behalf of her nephew and is credited with many policies that left a distinct mark on the political and social landscape of Kerala. At the launch of the book in Atta Galata, Manu talked about the reasons for choosing to profile Lakshmi Bayi and the Travancore royal family in a freewheeling conversation with author Vikram Sampath.

He says, “When I chanced upon this character, I was fascinated. She came from a broken home and became the queen of Travancore. She grew up surrounded by the notions of elaborate rituals, purity, orthodoxy and by the time she was 30, she was ruling a state of five million people. After the conclusion of the regency, she was sidelined by her cousin and the junior maharani. When she was 50, her former kingdom was dissolved. She was 62 when she gave up her palaces and privileges, and decided to spend the remainder of her life in Bengaluru, far from the land she once ruled. She died in her 80s, in obscurity. Here was a woman whose life was full of ups and downs, packed with drama, rich with experience, and left a legacy for millions of people.”

“She tried to cut the power of the court elite and brought many women into the administration of the state. Her rule also heralded many changes in the social sphere, including the abolition of the matrilineal system. Some of these policies were used by her nephew to curtail her powers.”

Talking about the book, Vikram Sampath said, “Writing biographies is always a tough ask. It is fortunate that Sethu Lakshmi Bayi had someone like Manu to tell her story. I feel that work in history is always an interim assessment. Every generation analyses the past on their own terms. The book is researched well and is very accessible. I felt that the characters were relatable.”

Talking about the matrilineal system in vogue in Kerala, Manu says, “It is amazing that women in that time and age held so much power. Since inheritance was from the mother’s side, the king’s sisters were queens, not his wife.

By the early 20 Century, outside influences had begun to change this system. Women were treated with more respect and played an important role in deciding policy, especially among the nobility.” In the course of working on the book, Manu says he used the national archives in India and the maharani’s personal papers and papers from the India office in London.

“I have tried to stay true to these accounts in the portrayal of intrigue and tiffs within the royal family. Unlike her cousin, the junior maharani led a different life. Since, I was denied access to the family; I was not able to get the complexities of her character.”

Was he ever scared of offending people with the book? “I have focussed on the impact of these court intrigues on the politics of the day, gleaned from British and Indian records, most of which are largely sympathetic to the senior maharani’s perspective.”

Source: The Hindu

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