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Royal vignettes: Travancore - Simplicity graces this House

Commercialism has taken a toll of the quality of life in Kerala, says Sri Uthradom Tirunal Marthanda Varma. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM spoke to the head of the Travancore dynasty.

The Kaudiar palace...

IT is seven in the morning and Sri Uthradom Tirunal Marthanda Varma is on his way through the ancient corridors to offer worship at the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. Accompanied by a few close members of family and staff, he stands in silence and surrender before the Lord for a quarter of an hour, a practice followed without fail by his ancestors for the last 300 years. A day's lapse in attendance means paying a fine. But the rulers consider it worse punishment to skip a single day in offering their prayers, whether it is owing to ill-health or being away from the capital.

The temple and the Lord are the centre of existence for the Travancore royalty. "We are rulers on His behalf," reverently says Sri Marthanda Varma, 80-year-old head of the Travancore House. "I live because of His grace."

Simplicity is the theme of this dynastic house — be it attire, habits and lifestyle — inspite of being very wealthy and figuring among the most important royal houses in the country. When I visit Thiruvananthapuram, the annual festival of music is on at the Navarathri Mandapam in the Kudira Maliga palace constructed by the prince composer Swati Tirunal in the 1800s. Gazing at the golden vimana of the Padmanabhaswamy temple, Swati Tirunal composed wonderful kirthanas in praise of the Lord. The magnificent wooden structure derives its name from the hundreds of carved horses in mid-gallop adorning its roof all around.

Everything in this former royal house is done in subdued style. There are just a couple of temple priests and an official of the palace staff waiting for Sri Marthanda Varma and his family members to arrive for the concert. In the light drizzle, his niece, Princess Gouri Lakshmi Bayi, followed by her husband and son, and then her mother, Princess Lakshmi Bayi, make their way to the mandapam.

The princess, the elder sister of Sri Marthanda Varma, is met with great respect for this is a dynasty that believes in matrilineal succession. The son of the ruler's sister has ascended the throne for generations to ensure the purity of the line. After the recital and prayers, the family members sit on the ground while the meal is served on plaintain leaves.

"When we have guests, my wife and I serve them sometimes," says Sri Marthanda Varma when you meet him at the modest Pattom palace the next day. "In fact, a mediaperson from Germany who probably expected me to dress in fine clothes, once mistook me for my secretary," he chuckles.

Sri Uthradom Tirunal Marthanda Varma

"From the age of eight, I have grown up in an atmosphere pervaded by religion. The State was surrendered to Lord Padmanabhaswamy in 1750 by my ancestor whose name I bear. Nothing is greater than this concept and since that day, every morning, the ruler has the tradition of rendering an account of the previous day's administrative events to the lord. Whether I can communicate this attachment and devotion to others — the younger people in the family — is what worries me. Are they in attendance at the right time at the temple? This alone bothers me."

In 1971, he says, Yashwant Rao Chavan declared that as "we are an egalitarian State, you (royalty) should go." The privy purses were abolished and the family lost Rs. 18 lakhs every year. Krishna Menon offered the head of the family a choice — "to either keep this temple or else become president of a thousand other temples. Except Pallivetta (the royal ritualistic hunt of the deities) and the Arat, when the deity is taken in procession to the seashore, we lost all other privileges. We sold our personal assets to keep this temple," he says passionately.

He is unhappy that colonisation took away the core of all that makes a region unique. "Many now can't speak their regional language for more than a few minutes for they don't know it well enough.

"Travancore was such a well knit State. It had the potential to be like Switzerland, for it had an enterprising people. Vast numbers of skilled, educated persons have migrated," he says with regret. "Consumerism and commercialism have taken a heavy toll of the quality of life, and the simplicity of the people which made the State so beautiful is now gone. Kerala, once a land of pristine white, is now full of garish colour. Onam today seems to mean only shopping. Simple truths are being forgotten. King Mahabali's was an act of extreme surrender. According to legend, he was very handsome, but he is being depicted as ugly. Rakshasas are now associated with ugliness though this is not so if you know the puranas."

Sri Marthanda Varma is respected for his erudition. A graduate of the Travancore University, he is known for his deep interest and knowledge in the areas of religion, philosophy and medicine. (The first from a princely family to graduate in India was Marthanda Varma Aswathi Tirunal in 1891 from the Madras University.) An expert photographer, Sri Marthanda Varma's work is now displayed at the Kudirai Maligai which has been converted into a museum housing a number of portraits and artefacts of the dynasty. "My brother gave me my first camera, a Roliflex, in 1934 and I still have it," he says.

In the outside world, the royalty evokes mixed reactions. While old timers continue to have a fondness and respect for the royals, socialists and the young look upon them as an outdated institution. But the family members say they run a number of trusts to help the cause of education, health and developmental activities.

Princes Aswathi Tirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi

When he talks of his late brother, tears spring to his eyes. "Sri Chithira Tirunal Maharaja was a visionary. Gandhiji came here after the Temple Entry Proclamation was made by my brother, throwing open the temples to all the castes. The Mahatma said it was not a trip but a pilgrimage. The carpet on which he sat is now a prized possession of the family."

Sri Marthanda Varma, who is married to Radha Devi, has a daughter, Parvathy Devi, and a son, Sri Padmanabha Varma. He is proud of the matrilineal system. "I am what I am because I was the son of a princess. Women have always been very educated and progressive in my family." He narrates an amusing incident with relish. After Eleanor Roosevelt returned to America from a trip to Travancore, she wrote, "I went to a State at the extreme tip of India. Here the king's son is not the king, but the king's sister is a very important person. Anyway, it is very good for the women."

The State had a secular tradition and till Independence, Christmas carols were sung outside the palace every year. "Now it is all divide and rule," he says sadly.

Sri Marthanda Varma's spirits rise magically at the mention of Sri Padmanabhaswamy and the Arat festival in which, sword in hand he walks barefoot accompanying the procession carrying the image of the Lord.

"I have the PM's knee because of the wearing off of the cartilage. Even after a knee operation a few years ago, I was able to walk the distance after taking local anaesthesia. For I'm the servant of the Lord who is as effulgent as a thousand suns," says this descendant of an ancient line who prides himself, like his ancestors, on the appellation "Padmanabhadasa" above all else.

Ancient line

THE founding members of the Travancore royal family are said to have come to this southern tip from the banks of the Narmada. Legend has it that Lord Parasurama himself crowned the first ruler. Historically, the line can be traced to 820 A.D. Keralam ("Cheralam") in ancient times was under the influence of Tamil culture. According to historian Anees Jung, the most ancient royal families of the country are the Houses of Udaipur and Travancore.

The passion for the arts that made Swati Tirunal and Ravi Varma immortal was to be seen in many of the other rulers too. And the lovely murals and the beautiful palaces in wood in the typical Kerala style stand witness to their eye for aesthetics and feel for space.

* * *

The abode

GIFTED to Maharani Sethu Parvathy Bayi by Sri Moolam Tirunal in 1915, the Kaudiar palace, an impressive structure, was the residence of Sri Chithira Tirunal Balarama Varma, the last ruler of Travancore State. It is now the residence of the heirs of the family. The princess, and her two daughters, Gouri Parvathy Bayi and Gouri Lakshmi Bayi, live here with their spouses and children.

Princess Gouri Lakshmi Bayi clad in the typical white mundu and a flaming orange blouse exudes charm and graciousness as she welcomes you.

Gouri Lakshmi Bayi, a graduate in economics, is the author of five books including a detailed study of the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple. She has just completed writing the text of a "super deluxe edition", of artist Ravi Varma, who was "my great grandmother's father".

"We have no regrets," she says in a brief interview the previous evening sitting on the stone steps of the Navarathri Mandapam. "We have a very good bond with the people. Maharaja Chithira Tirunal taught us that politics is a fickle mistress. We follow old customs and set great store by them. We still can't come to terms with Sri Chithira Thirunal's death. When he died, Travancore mourned."

Learned and talented, Princess Gouri Lakshmi Bayi symbolises the spirit of the women of the family. Her liberal attitude is evident in that she has encouraged her daughter-in-law, Gopika Varma, a trained Mohiniyattam dancer, to give performances. "If somebody has a talent for art, you should not stifle it. My sister's son, Rama Varma, is a singer and we are proud of him."

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