In 1817 the British agent in Travancore reported to his bosses an anxiety the royal house entertained about some of its subjects. The incumbent Rani wished to visit some northern districts but was informed that people in these parts held “feelings of resentment and hostility against the reigning family”.
As Colonel Munro explained, this hatred for the dynasty ruling from Thiruvananthapuram apparently stemmed from the fact that these lands were conquered only a few decades before, after which they were long held “by the most cruel and rigorous exercise of despotic power”.
As it happened, then, he escorted the Rani on her tour to the area, finding in the process, however, that her fears were overstated: people flocked to see the royals, revealing, he wrote, an “attachment, zeal, and devotion, bordering upon idolatry”.
While Munro tried to spin this as a consequence of the state’s alliance with the British, in reality the Rani owed her near-divine status to a shrewd ancestor. Martanda Varma, heir to a political backwater in what is now Tamil Nadu’s Kanniyakumari district, had in the 18th century birthed Travancore in fire and blood: dozens of noble houses were destroyed, princely lines were toppled, and conquest upon conquest made.
Aiding him were mercenaries, bribery, a Dutch commander, and English arms. But while he was a sharp strategist, Varma was denied legitimacy in subjugated territories. Many were surprised when he conquered even a state under Brahmin rule — given Hindu soldiers’ refusal to fight here, Varma carted in Muslims and Christians. Elsewhere, as his men seized temple property, local priests beat them with brooms.
So, having forged Travancore and become ruler of south Kerala, the Rajah decided to secure legitimacy. And for this, the Padmanabhaswamy temple was critical.
As a site of worship, it is over 1,000 years old, with origin myths featuring a Dalit woman, a sage, and a divine child. While the area’s rulers were always wedded to the temple, its present splendour is chiefly Martanda Varma’s legacy: the Tamil-style gopuram , the magnificent stone corridor, and even the image of the deity, made of 12,008 salagramas , replacing the old wooden idol, were installed by this Rajah, employing thousands of sculptors and masons. Famously, 20 years into his reign, Martanda Varma also performed the trippadidanam , by which, placing his sword before the shrine, he pledged all his conquests and his person to the deity within.
While this “surrendering” of his possessions may have been a spiritual moment, as the official tale goes, it was also wedded to political goals. By making god his state’s owner, the parvenu prince — seen as an invader, a usurper, a breaker of norms, and a man of ruthless ambition — became ‘Padmanabha Dasa’, god’s humble servant. Everything was shielded by the deity’s aura now. Festivals were inaugurated, patronage of Brahmins reached unprecedented levels, and his family obtained a caste upgrade, slowly coming to occupy a place next to divinity. As a court historian wrote, Varma “strengthened the position of his heirs” in a “religious” sense; a “sacred regard” was constructed, making the ruler akin to “the Pope in Rome”. Why, even to “speak ill” of the ruler became, as the Travancore State Manual put it, equivalent to “blaspheming the deity”.
This fusing of the religious with the political, the divine with the dynastic, was in many ways a standard pattern for Hindu kingship — its romanticising in Travancore, however, expunges the historical circumstances that caused the royal family to ceremoniously broadcast its bond with Padmanabhaswamy.
In the 19th century, as sovereign power slipped into the hands of the British (unsurprising, given that Varma, on his deathbed, while advising his heirs to preserve the temple also asked them to stay close to the East India Company), ritual sovereignty compensated for that loss. Swathi Tirunal, the composer king, made massive donations to the temple, for example, boxed in as he was by the British who leeched real authority. Subsequent rulers also, several of whom led controversial lives (like many Popes), nevertheless, remained devoted to the temple, which was also a source of prestige.
While in Varma’s day, his family came to possess unilateral power over the shrine by cutting to size its council and disbanding the ring of nobles in control, the merger of Travancore with the Indian Union meant new arrangements were made. The government of India recognised the ruler’s right in the temple, and till his death in 1991, the last king, Balarama Varma, was at the helm. His brother held the reins till his own demise in 2013, during which time, however, legal challenges emerged. Indeed, while the recent Supreme Court judgement has been spun as a “victory” for the ex-royals, it actually shows the triumph of compromise: the original claim that the temple was a “private” one was modified to acknowledge it as a public institution; the right to unilateral control made way for administration by a committee featuring outsiders.
In some ways then, while Martanda Varma rendered toothless the council that governed the temple till the 18th century, the court’s acceptance of the committee formula by the man’s 21st century descendants, is history coming a full circle. The ex-royals will be supreme in ceremonial matters while Padmanabhaswamy’s everyday interests will be guided by a group of five: the head priest, a nominee from Delhi, a Kerala government representative, a person nominated by the titular Rajah, and the district judge. For extraordinary expenses, physical alterations, and changes in “fundamental” practices, the Rajah is supreme, but routine power resides with the committee. As the verdict observes, this is “quite balanced”, allowing both tradition as instituted by Varma to continue, while ensuring checks and balances will replace what used to be singular control.
Elephant in the room
There is, however, an elephant in the room: succession. The court has upheld the matrilineal or marumakkathayam system of succession to temple trusteeship. While this is described generally as succession from maternal uncle to nephew, it is more complex. As is the practice with the Zamorin Rajah’s family, the ex-royals of Cochin, and even ordinary matrilineal families, the eldest male born in the female line, taking all branchesof a house together , becomes the head. In Travancore, this means lineal heirs of the last Senior Maharani, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, and Junior Maharani, Sethu Parvathi Bayi. The latter had two sons, the older of whom was the last ruler, the other the man who died in 2013. Her grandson, born in 1949, is the current head. But next in seniority are males born in the 1950s, from the branch of the Senior Maharani (which holds 30 of the 37 total members of the family).
This was a woman whose life proved such a nightmare in Thiruvananthapuram that she exiled herself to Bangalore after Independence and died in obscurity there; despite having herself once ruled the state, the recognition she received was such that in 1949, VP Menon’s team, during the integration of the state, found the last ruler behaving as though the Senior Maharani did not even exist. Even the home she built and raised her children in was deemed the property of the Junior Maharani’s son. While marumakkathayam grants Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s descendants a claim to future trusteeship, whether this will open up fresh complications, given this troubled history, will need to be seen. One branch, by possession of seniority in age of its males, has controlled the temple for nearly a century now; the approaching turn of the other may spark off new dynamics in Padmanabhaswamy’s house.
(Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore)