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.