The book by Princess Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi makes a great contribution to the increasing literature on the legendary Maharaja of Travancore, whom Mahatma Gandhi called the ‘Mahatma’.
Princess Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi already enjoys a formidable reputation as the chronicler par excellence of Travancore royalty and its deity, SreePadmanabha Swamy. The latter is also the presiding deity of Thiruvananthapuram, named after the giant snake, Anantha, under whose hood he reclines majestically, keeping an eye on the whole of Travancore. The narrative is on the deity himself, who she regards as the protector of the whole kingdom, the mother of the Maharaja, the Junior Rani and her “Ponnammavan”, her maternal uncle, the last King of Travancore, Sree Chithira Thirunal, the embodiment of all virtues, the living God till a few years ago. The mood of her earlier writings about them in most of her twelve books of poetry and prose, is one of awe, absolute devotion and abiding faith. They overflow with devotion, empathy and gratitude. There are no villains in them, no malice, not an iota of ill will.
Her latest work, her magnum opus, History Liberated, The Sree Chithira Saga(Konark, 470 pages, Rs2500) the first edition of which has already been sold out before publication, is in the nature of setting the record straight as she is distraught by some writings, particularly by one from the family and another by a young researcher and writer. The mood is one of righteous indignation. Instead of answering specific charges or questions, she has chosen to write an authentic biography of her uncle and her grandmother in great detail. She lays bare the interrelationships in the family to absolve them of any responsibility for the unpleasant events of the period. Her basic assertion is that her uncle, the Maharaja and his mother the Junior Rani, were the victims of the machinations of the closest members of their family, some advisers, some British officials and teachers and the functionaries at different levels within the palace.
Two young girls got adopted to the Travancore royal family as there was no one in the family eligible to give birth to an heir to the throne. They grew up in the palace and married their chosen consorts before they became teenagers. The crucial question was whether one of the princesses would have a baby boy to become the heir to the throne of Travancore. Should there be no male issue to either of the two princesses, then, after Sree Moolam Thirunal’s time, the senior Princess would ascend the throne. This situation was a sure recipe for disaster for personal relationships. Gods, astrologers and black magicians came into play in an explosive situation of suspicion, rivalry and bitterness.
As it happened, the elder princess gave birth to two girls and the younger one to two boys and a girl, which created a situation in which Sree Chithira Thirunal became the heir, but it was not clear whether the then Maharaja would survive till the little prince attained maturity. As it happened, the Maharaja passed away when the prince was 11 years old and the Regency fell on the elder princess, who became the Senior Maharani and the younger princess, mother of the future king the Junior Maharani. Then started what the author calls the “untold story” of the sufferings of the Junior Maharani.
The “untold story” is nothing short of sensational. Apart from narrating the agony of her grandmother in great detail in response to the version of the events in Senior Rani’s granddaughter Lakshmi Raghunandan’s book At the Turn of the Tide and the adulation of the regent in Manu Pillai’s book The Ivory Throne, the author has provided a list of the indignities heaped on the Junior Rani, which include assassination attempts, charges of black magic, attempted child sacrifice, total alienation from immediate family, presence of staff of proven disloyalty, whose presence spelt danger, spying by a tutor of the young prince, facing a hostile administration in Delhi and isolation and extreme insecurity. The consort of the Senior Rani played a crucial role in the humiliation of the Junior Rani. Any weaker person would have wilted in the circumstances, but she stood her ground even on the matter of attempts made by the regent’s people to delay the assumption of power by the Maharaja under different pretexts. It was after she sought the Viceroy’s intervention with the help of Sir C.P. that the date of the transfer of power was settled.
In fairness to the Senior Maharani, the author has listed a number of accomplishments of the regent as “the significant years of the Regency cannot be banished into oblivion by Travancore history”.These include a solution to the Vaikom Satyagraha, banning of animal sacrifice in temples, abolition of the Devadasi system, impetus to education and women’s welfare,and the appointment of Dr. Mary P. Lukose as Durbar physician, which led to her appointment as the first Indian woman Surgeon General. The author also recalls a farewell visit that the Senior Rani paid to the Padmanabha Swamy temple on her way to the railway station in a chapter called “Adieu Travancore”. The author counters Manu Pillai’s contention in his book that the Senior Rani was forced out of Thiruvananthapuram without being given an opportunity even to visit the Padmanabha Swamy temple. Her decision to leave the city for good and to address the deity, seated in her car to say “Please forgive me, I must leave” were taken at her own free will, according to the author.
After the departure of the Senior Rani, which was quite eventful, the book becomes a historic record of Sree Chithira Thirunal’s growth and development as a benevolent Maharaja and the role played by his mother, having survived the trial by fire in her earlier years. The Temple Entry Proclamation, the establishment of Travancore University and other major accomplishments have been analysed in detail. The authoralso confirms that the Maharaja had invited Albert Einstein to be the Vice-Chancellor of the new University, but Einstein opted to join the Princeton University. She also mentions that Sir C.P. felt that there could be a future in nuclear technology being harnessed for positive and peaceful uses. He sought the help of Sir C.V. Raman to help explore these possibilities. This part is the most comprehensive account of the Maharaja’s contribution to the state and the country, an epic story in itself.
The second part of the book comprises a wide canvas of loving reminiscences of Maharaja Sree Chithira Thirunal and his mother Maharani Setu Parvathi Bayi by members of their direct family. Through a lifetime of vibrant memories, they bring the two central characters closer to the readers. The writers include Sree Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the Maharaja’s brother, the present head of the family, the author’s older sister, her daughter and son and the children of the author herself. The author has also written a special tribute to her father, the legendary Col. Goda Varma Raja for this part. One member of the family, Shri C.R.R. Varma, the consort of Princess Gouri Parvathy Bai, the elder sister of the author, has not written a separate chapter, but has contributed to the book in various ways, with his reservoir of immeasurable memories and wisdom.
The author reveals that she had started writing the book in May 1995, but “put it away as it would inevitably invite unpalatable exposure”. But since some recent books were written on the Maharaja and his mother “in prose dipped in yellow ink”, she decided to make the other side of history available to posterity, without window dressing or artificial colouring. “Despite attempts at vilification, my grandmother and uncle will never be unsung, they should not remain unheard.” She admits that a drawback of the book may be her inability to present an objective clinical analysis of the mother and son. She requests those who expect the book to be totally impersonal, not to read it. She craves the indulgence of her uncle if she has erred in writing the book and places it at the feet of SreePadmnabha Swamy.
No one genuinely interested in an intimate “Sree Chithira Saga”, will be able to put down this monumental work without reading it with admiration for the author’s labour of love and duty, imbued with intimacy and historic authenticity. The book makes a great contribution to the increasing literature on the legendary Maharaja of Travancore, whom Mahatma Gandhi called the “Mahatma”.The book has a befitting royal look and an elegant cover designed by the author and is produced with care and style by Konark Publishers and printed on art paper, with nearly 150 rare photographs, a true collectors’ treasure.
T.P. Sreenivasan is former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA, Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services, Director General, Kerala International Centre.