A statue was installed in honour of Chitra Tirunal, in Chennai, for enabling temple access to all Hindus
Chitra Tirunal Bala Rama Varma was the last ruler of Travancore. He became ruler at the age of 12, his aunt Setu Lakshmi Bayi serving as the regent. In 1930, he became ‘maharajah' in his own right and ruled till 1947.
A saintly man, whose devotion to the deity of Ananthapadmanabhaswami was legendary, his reign was marked by several enlightened acts, in most of which he was guided by a formidable duo — his mother, Setu Parvati Bayi, the junior ‘maharani', and his ‘dewan', the multi-faceted and controversial Sir C.P. Ramaswami Aiyar.
One of the most acclaimed steps taken by the ‘maharajah' was the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936, which opened temples in Travancore to all Hindus, irrespective of caste. In its time it was a path-breaking measure and praised by many, including Mahatma Gandhi. In a way, it marked the culmination of the Vaikkom Satyagraha launched with similar aims in the 1920s by Periyar E.V. Ramaswami Naicker. Chitra Tirunal was feted and honoured, and in Madras, public appreciation manifested into a statue.
Sculpted by M.S. Nagappa, it was installed on October 28, 1939, at a corner of the Esplanade, roughly opposite the Raja Annamalai Manram. A park was developed at the rear of the statue and this became the Travancore Maharajah's Park. A passing shot in the 1942 film En Manaivi, as seen on YouTube, captures the statue in all its glory.
With time, the statue was forgotten. A bus terminus gobbled up the park and the pedestal of the statue, which bears the full text of the 1936 proclamation, became a convenient urinal. The ruler's hand often carried the flag of the political party that last conducted a rally in the vicinity.
When Chitra Tirunal died in 1991, several of his admirers, including veteran vocalist Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, came together to move the statue to a better spot. It now stands in a corner of the Ananthapadmanabhaswami temple in Gandhi Nagar, a much-better location, for the ruler was partly responsible for this shrine.
The Travancore family's Madras palace — Ramalayam — stands at the corner of Besant Avenue and Sardar Patel Road. The Sishya School and housing colonies such as Padmanabha Nagar and Parameswari Nagar have come up on the former palace grounds.
In the 1950s, when residents of the newly formed Madras Co-operative House Construction Society (now Gandhi Nagar) desired a temple, they approached the ‘maharajah' for help. He funded the acquisition of land in part, and also underwrote the sculpting of the main idol, which is fashioned after the deity at the Thiruvananthapuram temple.
When the statue was moved in the 1990s, the pedestal was preserved too, making it possible to read the text of the Temple Entry Proclamation and reflect on how our society has changed for the better. And the ‘maharajah' is probably happier at the foot of his favourite deity.
Sriram V. is convener, INTACH. The views expressed in this column are his own.