Centenary recalls life and times of Raja Rajagopala Thondaiman, the last king of Pudukottai

R Rajagopal Thondaiman, the heir to the former ruler, takes us through the palace in Tiruchi, highlighting the simplicity of his adoptive father to mark his centenary

July 08, 2022 06:50 pm | Updated July 21, 2022 01:13 pm IST

R Rajagopal Thondaiman with his wife Sarubala R Thondaiman, the former Mayor of Tiruchi, at Pudukkottai Palace in Tiruchi.

R Rajagopal Thondaiman with his wife Sarubala R Thondaiman, the former Mayor of Tiruchi, at Pudukkottai Palace in Tiruchi. | Photo Credit: M Moorthy

Yellow highlights the compound walls of the Pudukottai Palace in the heart of Tiruchi’s residential Cantonment area. The gates lead down wooded driveways, each bordered by a heritage building. As the fragrance of lunch wafts up from the kitchen wing, alert dogs set up a chorus, announcing the presence of visitors.

The reception hall of the palace, built in 1892, is imposing, with antique furniture and wainscot walls. A small shrine framed in with massive ivory tusks at the mantelpiece draws the eye to the portrait of Raja Rajagopala Thondaiman, the ninth and last ruler of the princely state of Pudukkottai.

The centenary of the erstwhile king was celebrated over four days from June 23 with state honours in Pudukottai. The former ruler had given his palace, measuring 99.9 acres in Pudukottai Town in deference to a request from the late Chief Minister M Karunanidhi for establishing the District Collectorate when Pudukottai was created as a separate district in 1974.  So the announcement of a government memorial-cum-museum for Rajagopala Thondaiman coming up in Pudukottai has brought much cheer to local residents

“We are really thankful to the Tamil Nadu government for this gesture, as it would be a great way to commemorate my father,” says R Rajagopal Thondaiman, the present heir to the former ruler.

Early years

Born on June 23, 1922, to Rajkumar Ramachandra Thondaiman and Janaki Rajayi, Rajagopala Thondaiman succeeded Marthanda Bhairava Thondaiman as Raja of Pudukottai at the age of six, on November 19, 1928.

His official title was His Highness Sri Brahdamba Dasa Raja Rajagopala Thondaiman Bahadur.

Due to the prince’s young age, administrator and Pudukottai royal family member Vijaya Raghunatha Pallavarayar Dorai Raja served as the regent until February 1929, after which the princely kingdom was governed by a council of regency appointed by the British until 1944.

Archival documents show that Rajagopala Thondaiman was privately tutored in academic subjects, and was a polyglot who was fluent in Tamil, English, Malayalam, Telugu, Sanskrit, Arabic and French. His coronation ceremony, according to palace records, cost ₹1,982, 15 annas and 9 paise.

The young ruler had three sisters (Rajkumari Kamalambal Aayi, Rajkumari Mathurambal Rajayi and Rajkumari Brihadambal Rajayi) and two brothers (Rajkumar Radhakrishnan Thondaiman and Rajkumar Vijayaraghunatha Thondaiman).

Joining the mainstream

As part of the merger of 562 princely states with the nation after August 15, 1947, Rajagopala Thondaiman acceded his kingdom to the Government of India in 1948. At the time, Pudukottai was one of five princely states in the then-Madras Presidency, the others being Travancore, Cochin, Banganapalli and Sandur.

The Pudukottai Samasthanam, as the dynasty was known, had an extent of 1,177 square miles consisting the taluks of Kulathur, Alangudi and Tirumayam. Sir Alexander Tottenham and P Khalifullah were among the notable administrators who made their name as ‘Diwans’ of the princely state. 

An early photograph of Raja Rajagopala Thondaiman from the royal family’s archives.

An early photograph of Raja Rajagopala Thondaiman from the royal family’s archives. | Photo Credit: M Moorthy

Portrait of Raja Rajagopala Thondaiman from family archives.

Portrait of Raja Rajagopala Thondaiman from family archives. | Photo Credit: M Moorthy

Pudukottai became a Revenue Division in the Tiruchi district with a sub-collector as head, from March 3, 1948.

“We still do not know if His Highness felt any remorse or sense of loss. After all, the Thondaimans had been in power as chieftains and rulers for close to three centuries before the East India Company came to India. My father never spoke about that day when he signed the document of accession, though we have official correspondence that remarks on the dignity with which he handed over power. Apparently, he even left behind the golden pen that he signed the documents with, saying it was no longer his property,” says Rajagopal.

Over time, the former ruler made the palace in Tiruchi (at present 16 acres in extent) his family seat, while overseeing estates in Kodaikanal and Pudukottai.

Unusual upbringing

The son of Radhakrishnan Thondaiman and Rama Devi, Rajagopal (born in 1957) was adopted by the bachelor king as his legal heir in 1970. “I was given over by my parents through the ‘Sweekaaram’ ritual, and legally as well. My parents and siblings were based in Pudukottai, while I stayed in Tiruchi with His Highness since my adoption,” says Rajagopal.

His spouse Sarubala Thondaiman is the former mayor of Tiruchi. “I had originally wanted to celebrate my father-in-law’s 70th birthday in a grand manner, but somehow that did not happen. So I organised the centenary to commemorate his unique personality,” Sarubala says. “My father-in-law was known for his hospitality. His first question to any visitor would be ‘Have you eaten, may we serve you something?’” she recalls.

Rajagopal admits his upbringing was unusual. “My foster father succeeded to the throne at the age of six, in 1928, and ruled from 1944-‘48. His Highness never married, so growing up with him was a new experience for a young boy like me. He was a peace-loving man, and very reluctant to scold or discipline anyone. I never saw him lose his temper, though his eyes would speak volumes. None of us had the courage to look at him directly, or be seated in his presence. He used to be known as ‘Raja Rishi’ (royal sage) for his austerity and wisdom,” he says.

An engineer at heart

Pudukottai Palace was built originally as a guest lodge and then used as a hospital during the Second World War before it became a family home. A wine cellar is among the few vestiges of the old structure; the sweeping high-ceilinged suites of rooms on three floors have been tastefully modernised over the years.

The Land Rover used by Rajagopala Thondaiman.

The Land Rover used by Rajagopala Thondaiman. | Photo Credit: M Moorthy

Rajagopal remembers his father’s abiding interest in engineering, particularly in automobiles.

“He had set up mechanical workshop on the palace grounds, where he would work with several technicians. I picked up his interest in mechanics from him, though I don’t know if I can ever match his skill. Dressed in green khaki trousers and shirt, and Bata hunter boots to keep his feet safe from the lathe, His Highness would spend most of his day there, repairing things like cameras, cars and motors, clothes smeared with grease. He even designed his own automobile, and excelled in casting metal statues,” says Rajagopal.

The erstwhile ruler was known for his love for travel. “Though he had a fleet of imported cars, his preferred ride was a rugged Jeep or Land Rover (still present in the palace’s fleet of cars). On long drives from Tiruchi to Kodaikanal, he would make his staff sit in his Impala or Mercedes-Benz, while he travelled ahead in the Land Rover,” recalls Rajagopal.

Man of his people

Says J Raja Mohamed, historian and former curator of the Pudukottai Government Museum, “Rajagopala Thondaiman was a progressive administrator, and though he ruled officially only for four years, he made his kingdom stand out with many policy decisions, especially in helping the poor, job reservations and education. I was introduced to him in the 1970s, and His Highness would always refer to me as ‘Curator’. I was taken aback when in 1992, he delayed lunch for some distinguished visitors from abroad in Tiruchi while he waited for me to join him from Pudukottai, and personally escorted me to my place at the royal dining table before we started the meal.”

Rajagopala Thondaiman passed away on January 16, 1997 at the Pudukottai Palace, at the age of 75. A local holiday was declared as the royal cortege travelled to Pudukottai for the final rites. Says Mohamed, “the Raja remained emotionally invested in his public until the very end. Even when he was no longer in power, people, rich and poor, would look him up and seek his blessings.”

The reception room of the Pudukkottai Palace, built in 1892, in Tiruchi.

The reception room of the Pudukkottai Palace, built in 1892, in Tiruchi. | Photo Credit: M Moorthy

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