Princess Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi has authored books on the Padmanabha Swamy and Travancore temples, culture and heritage.
The palatial building, with its gigantic pillars and imposing veranda, lies in the heart of Adyar. In a city whose physical and cultural contours are changing every hour, the structure, showing signs of age, is a reminder of a past era. I am here at the palace to interview Princess Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi, niece of the late Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma and his brother, Sri Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the present head of the royal House of Travancore.
Sri Marthanda Varma won widespread admiration for renouncing the claim of the royal family to the enormous riches discovered recently in the Sri Padmanabha Swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. The Travancore rulers, the hereditary trustees of the temple, have considered themselves as rulers on behalf of the Lord for hundreds of years.
Simplicity truly marks this royal house. When Gouri Lakshmi Bayi enters, she is most unostentatiously dressed. In the vast hall she is a slight figure, but commands a presence. She is a scholar writer, her book on the Padmanabha Swamy temple has run to several editions.
In addition she has written a book on Travancore temples, a booklet on the architecture of Kerala temples, two collections of English poems, numerous articles in newspapers, and books on culture and heritage - more than 10 books in all.
Among books in the pipeline are those on Maharaja Sri Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma and on some more temples of Travancore. Her scholarship has won her numerous awards.
“The books are all in English,” she says. “I am more fluent in the language than in Malayalam. I never went to school,” she adds. Gouri Lakshmi Bayi, her elder sister Gouri Parvathy Bayi and their younger brother Sri Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma who is next in line to the title, were all taught at home by an Anglo-Indian tutor as was common in most royal families of the time. “But we all went to college”, she says.
The princess began writing poems as a child. “I am solitary by nature and as a royal there was more chance of being alone, which was very conducive to my writing.
“Adoration of Lord Padmanabha permeates everything the family does. From the time we remember we grew up with His name,” she recalls.
Sri Chithira Thirunal, the previous ruler inspires much admiration. “He was our role model and we try to do all we can to try to take his ideals forward,” she says. “The ruler and his mother established trusts for the poor, for education, art and culture and health care. Sri Chithira Thirunal saw the Padmanabha Swamy temple built in Adyar.”
How were they able to surrender all the wealth found at the temple? “It was not ours to give,” she replies instantly. “For once you have given something, it is not yours. All these submissions were given to Him; it is His and should be so forever.
“As to why it was all was raked up, I cannot comment on it. The matter is in court. But it is not anger we feel; we feel traumatised,” she says.
“The restrictions for the royal family have ceased with my generation,” the conversation changes tack. “For the next generation, it is not so.” Is that why her daughter- in- law Gopika Varma has been able to establish herself as a Mohiniyattom dancer? “Gopika is immensely talented and dedicated,” she replies.
She explains how in the matrilineal system, the family continues through the women but the head of the family is a man. “If there was no man to succeed to the title, then the woman could become a ruler. There have been queen regents.”
Religion and heritage form the themes of her writing. She has written the text of a book on Raja Ravi Varma who was her great grandmother's father.
Has there been an increase in demand for her books on the Padmanabha Swamy temple since the discovery of the treasure?
“A tremendous increase because of recent developments,” she replies. “But I cannot say I have written the book, I have been allowed to write by Him,” she says.
In Travancore, the head of the royal house is not a servant of god, but a slave of Lord Padmanabha Swamy - Padmanabha dasa, she points out. “A servant can leave, a slave cannot,” she ends, testifying to the power of absolute surrender.
An act of submission
If in the course of its evolution Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple was initially owned by the State and its sovereigns, with the Thrippati Danam of Marthanda Varma the Great, this Temple, and its presiding Deity Sree Padmanabha Perumal , came to own the State…
On the first birthday of each male child born into the house of Travancore, the baby is initially taken to the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple by the mother. A Puliyillakara Neryathu (a white Mundu with black border traditionally worn by persons of standing) is spread on the Ottakkal Mandapam and the little one is placed on it by the mother along with grains of rice and Thulasi leaves and after sprinkling of water, he is offered to Sree Padmanabha Swamy as His Dasa. The seniormost among the palace attendants, employed for services connected with the Temple, takes the child from the Mandapam. After receiving Teertham and Prasadam and worshipping at all the shrines, the baby prince is taken back to the Palace.
It is with this act of submission known as Atimayital meaning “Surrender as a Slave,” that this child gains the right to be called “ Sree Padmanabha Dasa.”
(From ‘Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple' by Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi)