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Updated: June 6, 2013 14:01 IST

A kingdom and a temple

A. Srivathsan
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UTHRADOM THIRUNAL MARTHANDA VARMA: ‘Whenever you change
a tradition, there is a problem.’ Photo: S. MAHINSHA
UTHRADOM THIRUNAL MARTHANDA VARMA: ‘Whenever you change a tradition, there is a problem.’ Photo: S. MAHINSHA

Interview with Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma.

Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, 89, is the seniormost member of Travancore's erstwhile royal family, yet simple and unassuming in his manner. He met A. Srivathsan, Deputy Editor of The Hindu on July 17 at the Pattom Palace in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram and answered questions regarding the Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple — which is in the news in the context of valuable finds in its underground vaults in recent weeks — and his family's association with it. For reasons to do with the ongoing legal proceedings, he expressed his inability to answer any questions relating to the opening of the temple vaults. Excerpts from the interview:

The Travancore royal family took a different approach to ruling its territories and managing the properties of the State. The king served as Padmanabha Dasa — [who] ruled on behalf of god and swore allegiance only to god. In 1949, Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma came close to refusing the post of Rajpramukh because he could not “give oath to the Indian government.” What led the Travancore kings to take to the idea of dasa? In what way is this concept different from the modern idea of trusteeship?

There are two things to the idea of Padmanabha Dasa. One is the A to Z of the concept, which is new, and the other is the corollary, which is ancient. Let me explain the A to Z first. There was a king in England called Henry VIII. He had two passions: one, he wanted to change his wife, get a second one; and two, he wanted to impose a new faith. He asked his Cardinal to find a way to achieve this. When his Cardinal suggested that he start a new faith, the Church of England, the king asked how and why people would listen to him. The Cardinal had a simple answer. He advised him to add one more to his catalogue of names: Defender of the Faith. And then, if anyone goes against it, ‘your defence will be to go offensive,' he advised. That is Defender of the Faith, but we [the Travancore kings] are attendants of faith. That is a dasa.

The corollary of this concept is in the story of Bharata in the Ramayana. When Bharata refused to rule Ayodhya by himself, he took Rama's sandals, placed it on the throne, wore the robe of an ascetic and ruled on his brother's behalf. The god is the master.

When you are trustee, chairman, benefactor or president, your personality is still there. In this [dasa] nothing is there, you are nobody. You carry on your duty.

Anizhom Thirunal Marthanda Varma was the first maharaja to usher in this concept of Padmanabha Dasa in the 18th century. What historical reasons led him to this principle?

His actions were not political but dharmic. How did Fleming discover penicillin? The idea was always there, but hidden. He only discovered it. The dasa concept was always there. It came to him [Anizhom Thirunal] as the conductor.

Was ruling the kingdom as a dasa one of the main reasons for the safety and stability of Travancore and the temple? Did it in any way change the attitude of other rulers towards Travancore?

History is there to prove it. It [ruling as a dasa] was driving that. Unfortunately the concept of dasa was not copied by other rulers. You may find it in Puri where the king sweeps the street with the silver broomstick before the car festival, or in Mewar where the king goes to the Eklangi temple as a Maharana, but enters the shrine as a servant. But nothing is as total as this.

Kalkulam, which was renamed as Padmanabhapuram by Anizhom Thirunal, was the capital before the capital was moved to Trivandrum. The Tiruvattar temple near Padmanabhapuram is ichnographically and architecturally similar to the Padmanabhaswamy temple. Is there any relation between the two temples?

Both are Padmanabhas and are equally venerated. However, there are some differences between the two temples. In Trivandrum, the reclining Vishnu is in yoga nidra and at Tiruvattar, the eyes are fully awake. His feet is on the right side here and there at Tiruvattar it is to the left. Here there is a Shiva icon below the arm of Vishnu but it is not this way there. Though the main deity in Tiruvattar is known as Adikesava [Adi meaning ancient], Trivandrum is also ancient. There is a bond between the two temples, but there are no temple traditions as of now that recall the shifting from Padmanabhapuram.

Raja Ravi Varma, another member of the Travancore royal family and renowned painter, spent an important part of his lifetime in Trivandrum. While he painted many gods and even printed them as oleographs, he never painted Padmanabha or the temple. How can we understand this conspicuous absence?

Certain things have to come from inside. It [painting] cannot be visualising norms. He probably felt Padmanabhaswamy was beyond his brush. Ravi Varma did a great service by not painting Padmanabha.

Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma, your elder brother, was the last ruler of Travancore. He is compared to Anizhom Thirunal in terms of devotion to the temple. You must have been a boy when his investiture ceremony took place. Can you recall your visits to the temple with him?

All of us were ardent devotees. My brother was elder to me by 10 years. I could not have gone with him to the temple.

His visits were his personal audience with the god as the king. But I have been going to the temple since I was eight years old and have attended various festivals along with family members.

Since 1991, after the demise of your elder brother, you've been going to the temple in his place. The respect and affection the people have for you and your family must be unchanged and quite visible.

Even before, they had affection. Even now, when everything is ex-, ex-… I'm still wanted in public functions. I do about 200 [functions] a year, [although] I'm nobody. No different from other people. They like, and I go.

The Travancore State and the Padmanabhaswamy temple witnessed momentous changes during Maharaja Chithira Thirunal's time. In 1936, the Padmanabhaswamy temple was the first in India to proclaim temple entry for all, which made Gandhiji describe Chithira Thirunal as a ‘Modern Ashoka.' In 1949 the princely states were abolished and the temple administration changed. In 1971, the privy purse was abolished and grants given to erstwhile rulers were stopped. But Chithira Thirunal still managed to support the temple from his private funds. Can you tell us how he faced these changes?

That is [change] part of life, otherwise we'll not be here. Even as a boy he understood it. In 1924, Mahatma Gandhi came [to Trivandrum] and at that time he was too young to rule. My aunt, his mother's elder sister, was the Regent. Gandhiji came and met her. ‘Is this the Maharani?' he enquired. He looked at her simple dress and asked: Where are the golden saris? Where are the jewels? He then asked her: ‘Is it not very unfair that around the temple in Vaikom, a dog, a cat, a cow, can walk, but a man cannot?' She said, yes. ‘Then why don't you do something about it?' he quizzed. ‘I am a Regent and only carrying on the administration till he grows up. Why don't you ask him [Chithira Thirunal]?' she urged. Gandhiji then asked him: ‘When you become the person in charge, will you allow everyone to enter temples?' As a young boy he said, ‘yes.' He took over in 1931 and granted temple entry in 1936. The remarkable thing was that there was no resistance [from the people who were associated with temple administration].

Did Chithira Thirunal want the administration of the temple to keep up with the times?

It [traditions] began somewhere and goes on as it changes. What has not changed is the [human] body.

Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi has mentioned in her book on the Padmanabhaswamy temple that for the first time, in the 1960s, a deva prasnam (astrological consultation) was conducted when Chithira Thirunal had to decide whether the temple could be electrified? Do you remember the moment?

Astrologers and tantris were consulted. Whenever you change a tradition, there is a problem. The government then said that we cannot burn coconut oil since it is for man. What can we do, they were in power. So we had to go for electrification. But it was done in the outside prakara or sivelippura, but not inside. The cheruchuttu, the inner enclosure, was not electrified. People also took to it since it made their job easier.

Can you tell us something more about the legends of the snake and protection of treasures? Have you heard about them from your family?

There are two kinds of snakes. One is naga, and it stays. The other is sarpa, which goes. It is misunderstood as a creature. They are messengers. I'll tell you an incident. We have a beautiful naga temple near Kuthira Malika [a palace near the Padmanabhaswamy temple]. I go there every ashlesham [ayilyam] day. On one of those days, people forgot to light the lamp in the main shrine. That night, a serpent came here [to his palace]. I knew something was wrong. Serpents are satya (true) creatures. It's more prevalent in Kerala.

The folks of Ashokar would have disappointed as the PIL was filed someone like him and the then Marxist Govt intention to take over the temple is still subjudice.The iventry process revealed the Travancore Clan were more than honest in keeping the temple assets. At the same time it has exposed to security problems necessitating spending crores of money by state Govt which is very much cash crunched. Inquilab Zindabzd.

from:  K.V.N.NAMBOODIRI
Posted on: Jul 31, 2011 at 10:25 IST

Even before, H.R.H.Anishomthirunal Marthanda Varma declared himself as the servant of God(1750),Chembakaseery Raja (Ambalapuzha Raja),the Namboothiry king submitted his kingdom to God and ruled as His vice regent(Pooradam Thirunal Devanarayana Maharaja-1613) and came to be known as Devanarayana Rajas.It is quite possible that Marthanda Varma got this unique idea from the Namboothiry Naaduvashy.When Marthanda Varma annexed Ambalapuzha (1756), the then ruling Itturutady Devanarayan Raja placed the key of the royal treasury in front the idol of Lord Krishna in the Ambalpuzha temple and prayed for permission to surrender his kingdom to Venadu.However,Marthanda Varma made special orders not to use the wealth of the Namboothiry king in the temple because of respect for the latter's priestly title and caste.

from:  J.P.PANDARAKALAM
Posted on: Jul 30, 2011 at 19:50 IST

there a lot of mumbo-jumbo here. the money doesnt belong to travancore kings any more than the 2G scam money belongs to Raja. To say it belongs to God is just escaping the real issue. When and from where the money was collected.
Travancore and the Nizam of Hyderabad some things in common. Both declared independence from India and only the threat of police action (& some actual violence) caused them to return to India's fold. The Indian Govt aggressively went after the Nizam's hoard while it seems lead footed here in Kerala.

from:  ashokr
Posted on: Jul 29, 2011 at 04:58 IST

An intersting report of interview. However it is not touching the fact of mindboggling extent of tresures found in the undergound chambers of Sri Padmansabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram; when, how, by whom it was done, when the the management was fully under the royal family and no one else had access. Was it part of the empire, out of donations or converted from the kingdom's revenue? Then it was not spent on the welfare of works benefitting the people. Erstwhile British Raj in a hundred year's existence at least constructed huge dams, built roads, railroads etc., but no such people-benefitting works in Travancore are visible,but treasures, treasures, hidden away for God knows how many hundred years. Shame on a poor country! Are we having an ancient Swiss Bank branch here?

from:  M.B.Bhatt
Posted on: Jul 27, 2011 at 21:26 IST

The interview was indeed an eye opener for all indians that we had and have some great people with principles among ourselves which we should be proud of and hope that our politicians take a leaf out of this and practise it in their lifes to make india a proud nation.

from:  Satish Nair
Posted on: Jul 27, 2011 at 13:23 IST

My humble greetings to the Maharaja. What a contrast with the British Royal Family. I remember meeting Maharaja Chithra Thirunal once in Tvm. He appeared so down to earth that it was hard to believe that time that he was our King. May God bestow them more glory and happiness.

from:  VEENA
Posted on: Jul 26, 2011 at 15:50 IST

The very concept of Dasa is alien to democratic tradition. Likewise the boasting to be servants of the people is also bizarre. It is better activists or leaders talk of their duties and rights as cooperating citizens or human beings to transform and make a better society in terms of equality, fraternity and liberty as dignified individuals.

from:  Mallikarjuna Sharma
Posted on: Jul 24, 2011 at 09:50 IST

While the Supreme Court of India brought to light the treasure in the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, 'The Hindu' by this interview brought out the 'treasure' in the Travancore Royals.

from:  V C Sekar
Posted on: Jul 23, 2011 at 21:58 IST

I am humbled by the erudition and simplicity of Marthanda Verma.

from:  Gopal
Posted on: Jul 23, 2011 at 10:32 IST

A. srivathsan deserves a rich pat n his shoulders for having elicited a ton of information to the benefit of readers relating to the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The truth is most of us were not aware of the history or its background Equally it was exciting to read the 'socrates' style of replies given by Sri Marthanda Varma! His extempore tone and language have further reiterated the proverbial 'brevity is the sole of wit'.

from:  P M Gopalan
Posted on: Jul 23, 2011 at 05:54 IST

This is a nice interview and amazing to have such a person in this hitech world.I like his simplicity and being as one among the common public. Current policitions/govt.corruptors and culprits should learnt from Sri Marthanda Varma. May everybody has blessings of Lord Sri Padmanabha Swami.

from:  Viswa
Posted on: Jul 23, 2011 at 05:13 IST

A very good interview. Congratulations to the Hindu, and to the Deputy editor for the way that he has conducted the interview. The questions are interesting. They are connected with the past, but are also valid for our contemporary life. Particularly interesting are the discussion about 'DASA'. Certainly we can ask ourself if those who are in politics, would not have to follow the concept of Dasa, when they are at the head of a state. This is an old concept, Very old concept , but always modern. One can wonder if this concept was not polluted by the policy, with the advent of the Modern States. Very interesting are the views of Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma. They are smooth and pertinent . He speaks, with dignity. His thoughts are rich and deep. But they are not a coming from a person obnubilated in the past. In many parts of the interview , we saw that the royal family, was able to adapt to new situations. Lastly, he says one interesting remark : "His actions were not political but dharmic ". When we act in a political manner we are not able to satisfy everybody. But when we act in a dharmic manner, may be we are able to obtain the adhesion of everybody.

from:  Sougoumar Mayoura
Posted on: Jul 23, 2011 at 03:33 IST

It is a poignant interview. The king quotes the example of Henry VIII but the UK today is very different country where over 40% of the populace are atheists and the queen is a mere symbol. Governance should forever be with people and religion should forever stay out of governance.

from:  Ravi Chandran
Posted on: Jul 23, 2011 at 02:31 IST

Nice interview; no showmanship, pretensions; things coming from heart.It is refreshing to read this interview and fills the mind with happiness. How our country was prosperous before foreign invasion, we can understand the reason. We can only sigh now that we had such noble people. Why in spite of all the bad things happening around us we progress, and people from developed countries are visiting us to become our partners - the reason may be the presence of few such people among us. There is a poem, if there is a single good person,for their sake all will get rain..( Nallaar oruvar Ularel avar poruttu yellorkkum peiyum Mazhai. )

from:  Gopalan
Posted on: Jul 23, 2011 at 00:48 IST

His Highness Maharaja, as an ardent devotee of Adikesava and a resident of Thiruvattar,I am eager to know more about the links between this temple and Padmanabhaswamy temple at Thiruvananthapuram.

from:  Ayyappan Thiruvattar
Posted on: Jul 22, 2011 at 21:27 IST

One of the best interviews I have ever read. Kudos to the value system of Travancore royal family for preserving the Lord's wealth.Kerala has once again proved that it is god's own country. Bharat Mata has proved herself to be a Ratna Garbha.Fortunately the wealth is not exposed during invasions and foreign rules. Let all Indians commit themselves to safeguard the holy wealth of Lord Padmanabha.

from:  Lalitha R
Posted on: Jul 22, 2011 at 15:17 IST

A very rare personality described in this article. This is the real king .

from:  Gaurav Mogha
Posted on: Jul 22, 2011 at 12:33 IST

todays maharajas and chotta chieftans of our country at least now think of the people and not swindling the wealth of our country.

from:  T R Subramanian
Posted on: Jul 22, 2011 at 06:21 IST

The plaintiff who filed the case alleging mismanagement by UTHRADOM THIRUNAL MARTHANDA VARMA Raja has really helped the keralites and several thousands of Indians in India and abroad to really evaluate the greatness of the members of the Travancore Royal Family. The interview with the present trustee of the temple shows that he is highly transparent and that he has lead the life of a real Padmanabha dasa. I am confident that the Supreme Court of India also will give a clean chit to UTHRADOM THIRUNAL and take care of the temple property.

from:  C.P.Chandradas
Posted on: Jul 22, 2011 at 01:35 IST

It is a nice reading,a DASA culture of a royal family. Can the presnt political aspirants learn a lesson from it ?

from:  Vijay dogra
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 23:30 IST

The replies help gain uncommon insights into the Travancore royal families' perception of their basic role as rulers...The observation 'Ravi Varma did a great service by not painting Padmanabha'shows the deep devotion to the Deity, in thought and deed...a remarkable interview...not satisfied with extracts...wish could access full report...

from:  HVV Chellappa
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 22:59 IST

To know Our Heritage Great!-Our elders used to tell about Their greatness-Trivandrum Maharajas consider themselves as dasas to Padmanabha swamy-They only do namaskaram(SASTANGA)on othakal mandapam -Where who ever do namaskaram there they belongs to Padmanabha Swamy (dasa).Thankful to read-article of Uthiradam Thirunal answers and his Opinions !

from:  Padmaaiyer
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 22:56 IST

It is a matter of great pride for all Malayalees in general and Travancoreans in particular that we have the good fortune of having true Philosopher Kings for centuries. Plato said "There will be no end to the troubles of States till Philosophers become Kings --or till those we now call Kings and Rulers really and truly become Philosophers." Kautilya prescribed-- " In the happiness of his subjects lies the King's Welfare."
Our First Prime Minister declared that he will be the First Servant of the people of India as long as the people wanted him as their First Servant. And they chose him as their PM till he lived. Had he known about the Philosophy of our Maharaja he would have used the title 'Dasa' instead of 'Servant'. I would request the Hindu to propagate about these Great Philosopher Kings of Malayalees who have been the incarnation of Humility, wisdom and deep love and respect for his subjects.This should serve as an effulgent example and model for all Rulers,

from:  Capt. Alexander Francis
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 22:40 IST

Refreshing! Can our politicians ever learn anything from this Maharajah?

from:  Chandra
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 22:24 IST

Very good interview. Kudos to the reporter, when all the recent discussions had been solely around the treasure. Highly informative about the austere lifestyle of Travancore kingdom, unlike the other princely states in India

from:  Ranjith
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 21:21 IST

A wonderful interview with such an erudite scholar who also happens to be a member of the erstwhile ruling family. What a humble person and the concept of dasa for a king is unbelievable and to think that this was some thing his forefathers thought of so long ago!!!!

from:  Ramesh
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 21:18 IST

This inspirational indepth interview brought true to Indian tradition a distinctive face of erstwhile Royal of Travancore Kingdom, a man of humbleness with a sense of beyond materialistic!

from:  Mohamed Mohideen
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 21:00 IST

Thank you for publishing this highly informative, well-researched and well-written article. Myself being a Keralite (living outside Kerala for decades) never knew these facts, though I have visited this great temple once. The royal representative who spoke to your correspondent is a brilliant person though he maintains a low profile. My respect for the Travancore royal family has gone up several fold after reading this article. Keep it up.

from:  Vaidyanathan
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 18:51 IST

It gives me an immense pleasure and great pride that to be apart of travancore state that my forefathers lived and guided by great rajas, thank you

from:  P. Ratheesh Kumar
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 18:36 IST

Wonderful interview!

from:  Sree Srinivasan
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 18:20 IST

Democracy in India is also supposed to be based on the concept of service to the country and her people. But the irony as usual is such a concept already existed in India long before our constitution was framed. Hope our politicians take a leaf out of the Maharaja's books and rediscover this concept.

from:  Vinay
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 17:08 IST

A very nice interview with no discussion on the wealth, which seems to be the only topic of interviews now a days in other newspaper. Hope the non-usage of wealth by the royal family and his simple life teaches the society an eternal truth. Even if you have all the wealth to buy all the resources in the world, you should not do it because wealth is like a personal insurance against eventualities but not a means to loot the resources which are meant for the society.

from:  Jishnu
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 17:05 IST

Traditionally, the rulers and other members of Travancore Royal Family are known for their simplicity in all walks of life. Unlike other kings and kingdoms, the Travancore Rulers were 'Dasas'of Lord Sree Padmanabha. The present Head of the Royal Family Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma is also no exception to the old traditions.

Ravi Varma Raja

from:  Ravi Varma Raja
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 17:03 IST

Thanks for the Interview

from:  Rama Krishna
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 16:43 IST

The erstwhile rulers of of Travancore were quiet different from that of other rulers. They were certain that the people are with them since they have not done any thing against the will of the people.Even though our family is From Mavelikara I still remember the respect given to His Highness Chithira Thirunal by our parents. He and his brother was defenitely knowing the availability of treasure in the temple premises and never thought about shifting it from the temple.His Highness Marthanda Varma's opinion must be sought and adopted by all.

from:  Chandrasekharan Nair
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 16:36 IST

What a persona!!!
Amazing culture and humility of the Travancore Royal Family exudes in the interview, a rarest quality seen among our erstwhile Maharajas. We all need to learn a lot, especially the political class, while handling the public money. Hope, the revelation shall touch the consciousness of many who are looting this great nation.

from:  Dr. Niranjana Murthy.
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 16:17 IST

A very interesting and informed interview. I met the Maharaja of Travancore only once. I remember him as a thoroughly knowledgeable person, steeped in history and tradition of Kerala. His humility, simplicity and attitude to life are remarkable.

from:  Sumanta K Bhowmick
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 12:32 IST

A brilliant interview. The narrative gives an insight into the lives, values and discipline of the Travancore Maharajahs. The current royal while being humble exudes royalty in his speech.

from:  Mani Sandilya
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 08:29 IST

This article made for a very nice read. It felt heartwarming to know that such enlightened people exist in this world who have not felt compelled to cast away traditions for the sake of modernity. A humbling story... something I never learnt about Travancore in history texts. Kudos for the excellent interview.

from:  Anurag Mandalika
Posted on: Jul 21, 2011 at 05:41 IST
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