Much ado about a royal throne (16 March 2019)

(My column in Mint Lounge, March 16 2019)

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Uthram Tirunal Martanda Varma was a man with fascinating interests and a sunny disposition. Raja of Travancore from 1846-60, this prince was perhaps the first Malayali to appear in Western costume, sitting for a portrait in “European dress”. A lover of Kathakali, he was also an amateur actor. Thwarted by courtiers who decreed it unbecoming for a ruler to perform on stage, Martanda Varma satisfied his thespian yearnings before his bedroom mirror. He dabbled in medicine and was fascinated by anatomy. And when Brahmins shook their heads and pronounced bones impure, the raja merrily assembled a skeleton made of carved ivory. A man of infinite curiosity, as a ruler, though, Martanda Varma was not as much of a success. When, for instance, he spent lakhs of rupees on weighing himself in gold and conducting festivals (also simultaneously pleading lack of funds to pay tribute to the East India Company, his suzerains), the colonial establishment was apoplectic.

Martanda Varma was, however, a man of charm and diplomacy. The rulers of his house sat upon an ivory throne, the prestige of which had been elevated considerably during the reigns of his mother and brother. In 1849, the raja was in the process of constructing a new seat for himself when news arrived about what would become the Great Exhibition in London of 1851. It was an event designed by Queen Victoria’s husband to showcase the arts and industrial output of the empire, and Martanda Varma was also called upon to contribute to this exercise in imperial propaganda. “A very satisfactory collection consisting of all the raw products and manufactures of Travancore was made,” an officer under the raja recorded, and the latter decided to add his new throne as well. This was, after all, “a fit specimen of Travancore workmanship”. The queen was impressed—decades later, when she was proclaimed empress of India in 1877, her official photograph showed her enthroned in this very “magnificent chair”.

At one level, the throne (or “chair”, depending on who was looking at it) was simply an object of beauty: a “native” masterpiece representing “native” accomplishment. With diamonds, emeralds and rubies, it married Indian motifs to European designs. Its feet were shaped like lions’ paws, and the armrests ended with lions’ heads. “The back,” we are told, “is in the form of a shell supported by elephants, rampant.” Along with such recognizable Kerala elements, the throne also featured the unicorn and the dragon, borrowed from the royal coat of arms of the UK. The seat was made of elephant teeth and the chair “has a gold and silver tissue draper around the underside of the frame, finished with tassels and richly chased ormolu ornaments”. The cushion, in green velvet, was embroidered with gold and silver, so that, all in all, it was no wonder that the throne attracted, as the TheIllustrated London News put it, “much notice” in London.

But Martanda Varma’s present to the British sovereign was also a political act at a time when the East India Company was breathing down Travancore’s neck. A few years earlier, when his brother was in power, for example, the latter was nearly driven to abdicate, and Martanda Varma too confronted difficult dynamics with his overlords. As real power slipped out of the hands of his family and company representatives began behaving increasingly like schoolyard bullies, the throne became, as scholar Deepthi Murali notes, a means for the raja to reach out directly to their faraway queen. In the letter Martanda Varma sent her, he hoped that “Your Majesty will graciously condescend to receive this friendly, but humble tribute”, carefully emphasizing their unequal relationship. But he also reminded the queen that he, “like every one of his predecessors”, was a “faithful ally and dependent of the British Government”, hoping to uphold “a relation which I humbly trust will continue to the end of time”.

There is a strange irony in the whole exchange, which revealed the status of India’s princely states in general—the fact that a throne designed for Travancore’s ruler was shipped abroad for Victoria’s amusement is telling of where power resided. When the queen responded to Martanda Varma in 1851 with a letter under her sign-manual, he was, therefore, thrilled. “As this was the first event of the kind in Travancore, nay, in any native court of India,” a court chronicler recalled, “His Highness considered it no ordinary honor.” A durbar was organized and every house in town was ordered to have its gates decorated with flowers (and, interestingly, get its compound walls whitewashed). The grandest elephant available was commandeered to carry the queen’s kharita, accompanied by a large procession. When the letter was actually handed over to Martanda Varma, he held it up and touched it to his forehead, “while his eyes were filled with tears of joy”.

These were all efforts at winning imperial favour, but our charismatic prince only belatedly realized that such attempts did not compensate entirely for lack of support from local company authorities. Only a few years later, for instance, mounting expenses, missionary complaints about “abuses” suffered by low-castes, and more, delivered a “most dreadful” communique from Company to palace. Annexation was threatened, and the raja had to subscribe to colonial notions of “progress” and modern government. New officers, who enjoyed British approval, were appointed, and debts had to be cleared before the threat was withdrawn. But the dance of protocol continued regardless, ostentatious ceremony making up for the absence of real autonomy.

So when Victoria sent Martanda Varma a present (a belt) in 1860, another grand durbar was organized where the raja declared himself “the most fortunate among all the Princes in India”. And then, when the celebrations were over, he quietly went to the side of his ailing wife, who died that very night. A few months later, Martanda Varma too was dead. And his heir now took his seat on the old, less ornate throne of Travancore, while the “splendid chair” of Victoria’s grand public spectacle was added to the royal collection, sitting to this day in Windsor Castle.

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