Travancore, in pre-Independent India, was one of the bigger princely sates, though not big enough to figure in the mnemonic coined by General Wavell, Viceroy, which went like this: Hot Kippers Make Good Breakfast, referring to the 21-gun-salute states of Hyderabad, Kashmir, Mysore, Gwalior and Baroda. What it lacked in pomp was made up—along with its smaller neighbour, Cochin—by bestowing a legacy of social development upon the successor-state of Kerala that is unmatched elsewhere in India.
The story of the house of Travancore, which played a part in Kerala’s evolution, has hardly been told. The family ruled Travancore continuously from the reign of Marthanda Varma (1729-1758) to independence—as a British fief from the early 19th century. Outside of officially commissioned histories and early classics of Malayalam fiction and the novels of C.V. Raman Pillai, the royals remain largely unseen. It is into this recess of Kerala history that Manu S. Pillai trains his attention. Pillai calls it ‘chronicles’, not ‘history’. Nevertheless, he has invested in it the rigour and care found in history proper.
When the lights were about to go out on the house of Travancore just before independence, there were three brooding characters in the palace, and a diwan outside, who, by popular perception, was an evil genius. The eldest of them, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who ruled the state as a regent, was a de facto monarch since she was the head of the Nair matrilineal family. But she was by then powerless and largely ignored. Her more extrovert cousin, Sethu Parvathi Bayi, the mother of the king, did have her say in matters. The maharajah, Balarama Varma, in his thirties, nursed grand visions for himself and the state and had impetuously declared Travancore’s intention to remain independent over the radio. Much of the blame for the state’s refusal to join the Indian Union went, quite rightly, to the diwan, Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, who had only recently bloodied his hands in unprecedented carnage of Communists at Vayalar and Punnapra in southern Travancore. The picture at twilight was bleak.
Pillai pivots his book around the regent-queen, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the brightest of the trio. He traces the growth of what was actually a Tamil family to become the most influential dynasty in the region. It takes some skill to tell the story, given the intricate Nair matrilineal hierarchy. A series of adoption of daughters by the family—historically low on fertility—would have turned the narrative into a veritable maze, but Pillai keeps it on a tight leash.
The most spectacular non-event of Lakshmi Bayi’s reign was, of course, her not signing the Temple Entry proclamation. The credit for that went to her successor and second cousin, Balarama Varma. But only nominally; historians easily guessed the deft hand of the formidable Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer in the making of it. He was specially installed by the British to hand-hold the young maharajah. Entry to roads on the sides of the Siva temple in Vaikom in South Travancore was by law and custom denied to Dalits and other non-elite castes. In 1924, an agitation was started to get them opened to all and it soon caught the national imagination. Gandhiji himself was on the scene.
The house of Travancore was also the keeper and perpetrator of Hindu orthodoxy. The state, like the rest of Kerala, witnessed a dehumanising caste system. What separates Travancore from other Indian princely states, mostly notorious for their opulence and debauchery, is the progressive steps they initiated. Movements like Temple Entry agitation more than nudged the royals in that direction.
This is a book of the interiors, about the goings-on inside the palace. Intrigues and gossip apart, it also gives insights into governance in the princely era. It’s also a book on royals, so it’s futile to look for subalterns—they were but specks in the horizon from the palace window. Well-researched and well-written, The Ivory Throne adds a new point of view to the study of Kerala.
Predating Plassey, Travancore’s triumphant Battle of Colachel against the Dutch (1741) was a major one of the era—the Dutch rout was a factor in later British rise.