(Published in Mint Lounge, October 15 2016)
When I met the maharaja’s great-great-granddaughter, she was wielding a plastic bucket. The afternoon was hot, and beads of sweat had formed above her lips as she told me, smiling, to leave my shoes outside—the cleaners had just washed the family shrine. The temple itself didn’t impress me—far too much concrete, I thought, and far too wet—but I paused, wondering if my socks would embarrass me. I had spent all morning sweating in Thiruvananthapuram fort, a neighbourhood as labyrinthine as its name. I knew from faded photographs that this was once a picturesque setting of neat pagoda-style houses of stone and wood—today it has become a crowded jumble of poorly preserved buildings bearing flex banners, jostling for space among monstrosities that have facades of glass. Those parts of town of colonial vintage, with wider roads, flowering trees and more protected structures, were better, I concluded, than these streets surrounding the city’s principal temple and cultural nerve centre.
The lady I had come to meet, though, lived on a street that begins outside the west gate of the fort. If I hadn’t come at a time when Thiruvananthapuram was battling a garbage disposal crisis and people had reconciled to mounds of trash on the streets, one could have compared this stretch to White Town in Puducherry. For, touching the roadside, one after the other, are half a dozen stately mansions built in that very 19th century fashion that married Portuguese and Dutch influences with British and Malayali architectural styles—bay windows, fluted pillars, arched gateways, gabled roofs, with exquisite craftsmanship in wood. These buildings are ammaveedus, a Malayalam word for an institution peculiar to Thiruvananthapuram and to the age of the maharajas of Travancore. Not all these properties are intact—one, where Jawaharlal Nehru stayed in 1931, was demolished, while those that survive find their compounds sliced between battling heirs from numerous branches of the grand families that occupied these homes. Here too, glass monstrosities now loom.
Nandini, my bucket-holding interlocutor that afternoon, belonged to the ammaveedu of Arumana, with old tales of riches and glamour, of fortunes secreted and squandered, and of scandals whispered from one generation of grandmothers to the next. The ammaveedus were closely connected to the royal court, for they were the palaces of the consorts of the maharajas. Nandini’s great-great-grandfather was the ruler of the principality for five years, from 1880. The British loved him as a rational, scientific-minded “native” who meditated on issues such as “The Horrors of War and Benefits of Peace”. He was celebrated as unorthodox and “progressive”, but it was an open secret among Brahmins in the great temple that the prince also had the gift of clairvoyance. He had a presentiment, Nandini told me with conviction, that his reign would last precisely five years. And on the eve of his death, he declared in his diary: “Adieu to all ceremonies! I am sinking faster and faster. I wind all my worldly concerns and devote myself to God.”
It was easier said than done, though, and Nandini, who, after all these generations, bears something of her illustrious ancestor’s triangular features, is representative of the gravest concern confronting the dying maharaja—the future of his family. The royal house followed the matrilineal system of succession, under which power passed not from father to son, but from uncle to nephew. The throne was reserved for the offspring of the royal sisters, not of wives, who could only be nobility at best. It was the uterine bond of brother and sister—king and queen, respectively—that was sacred in matriliny, not alliances cemented by marriage. And indeed, among the matrilineal elite, marriage could be a fickle affair—permanence was never expected, even if it often existed.
Walking around the clamorous fort area, it was easy to see the maharajas kept even a physical distance from their wives. Centred on the temple to Padmanabha (where the discovery of riches worth billions—from the Roman epoch down to the age of Napoleon—invited the spotlight of the world on the city some years ago), the fort was a sacred space occupied by palaces and the homes of Brahmins and Nair functionaries connected to the temple. It was outsidethe western walls that the consorts were given their mansions. In the late 1780s, Thiruvananthapuram was that peculiar proposition—a planned city. Like the power of its rulers, everything was new. The splendid, ornate gopuramof the temple had been sculpted only two decades earlier, replacing a more ordinary gabled gateway. The deity too was of recent physical provenance—as the authority of Travancore, once a political backwater, crept up the coast, the wooden image was replaced with the glorious 18ft, gem-encrusted god of stone one beholds today. Palaces in teak, intricately carved, were erected to match the new-found grandeur of the dynasty, and Brahmins from Tamil country were imported to legitimize the maharaja’s claim as a great protector of the Hindu tradition.
When, in the 1790s, the ruler finally abandoned his old capital in Padmanabhapuram for his new court in Thiruvananthapuram, his four wives went with him. They hailed, it is said, from the villages of Vadasseri, Arumana, Nagercoil and Thiruvattar, and it’s for them that the four ammaveedus were constructed outside the fort. A fifth was added in the 1840s, after the then ruler fell in love with a dancer from Thanjavur, an episode that provoked both controversy and a hundred songs of romance. Whenever a maharaja wished to see his lady, she would set out in a palanquin for his palace, but he would never visit her ammaveedu—wives and children were not matrilineal kin, so royal fathers never attended even the weddings of their daughters. It was Nandini’s great-great-grandfather who breached the norm for the first time, in May 1883, celebrating the weddings of his girls “with great pomp, all the great officers of the State joining in the marriage procession”. There were Nair ladies “decked with jewels”, one account says, “wearing jessamine wreaths”, followed by nautch girls and women “dressed in kimkhab, with jewels from head to foot”. Of course, there were richly caparisoned elephants too, carrying the sons-in-law of the maharaja, with bearers honouring them with parasols of silk.
All this endured as long as a ruler lived. After his death, his widow lived a life of guarded seclusion (unusual in the matrilineal system), and his children eventually faded into oblivion, enjoying pensions and some marks of honour but no formal status in the eyes of the public—today, when reference is made to “the royal family” in Thiruvananthapuram, Nandini and her line do not feature in the picture it evokes. They always knew, of course, that this would be their fate. It was “painful”, Augusta Blandford, an Englishwoman with a penchant for mild exaggeration, noted, “on state occasions to see the Rajah’s sons standing among the attendants behind their father’s throne while the Princes, their cousins, are seated on chairs of state”. Once a ruler died, his palace was closed for at least a generation, sealing with it the prospects of his family. If he had been wise, he would have transferred enough wealth to his ammaveedu during his reign; if not, his lady and children were at the mercy of successors who had their own wives to promote. The man who reigned between 1860 and 1880, for instance, married a woman of great intelligence and creativity—her ammaveedu, Nagercoil, was fabled as the richest of them all. But after his death, she too suffered. “She is very thin and delicate looking, and has lost much of her beauty,” wrote Blandford, who read the Bible with her. “She seems so friendless and lonely that I feel very sorry for her.”
Nandini’s ancestor lived in a palace called Anantha Vilasam, with elaborate Corinthian columns and influences drawn from Baroque European buildings. He could never go abroad due to the injunctions court Brahmins had issued (no wonder he called his state the “most priest-ridden country in India”), but collected picture books and modelled his residence on what he observed. When I went to Anantha Vilasam, however, I found a place with the plaster peeling and heavy walls crumbling as water trickled down from the roof. No king lives here today—at some point after Kerala elected its first communist chief minister, possession moved into the hands of a public bank. Chairs of plastic and steel have taken the place of rosewood, and under high ceilings, from which once hung glorious chandeliers, sit middle-aged bureaucrats, lording over heaps of files. There is no trace left of the prince who died in 1885, and if at one time his wife and children were denied a place here by court conventions, the turn of history has denied a memorial to the maharaja too. Today, he is known not for his once-charming palace-turned-bank, but as the man who brought the tapioca to Kerala.
Ironically, the consort’s home (Arumana ammaveedu) has fared somewhat better—while different buildings went to different members of Nandini’s family, the principal mansion from which the consort watched her husband escort his family deity for a festive seaside bath every year, survives to this day. It is, of course, another matter that if the structure retains some splendour, it is because it functions as a heritage restaurant and is in the charge of a business house. Where once the maharaja’s daughters had their personal quarters, I watched as white men and women from oceans away carved their meat at candlelit tables, surrounded by furniture that is not as old as it pretends to be. Not everything is an innovation though—while meat would never have been allowed inside, Europeans were welcome. Englishwomen of distinction were permitted to call on the maharaja’s consort between 7.30 and 8 o’clock in the morning. That way, she could shake hands before her bath and then wash away the taint of ritual pollution with a dip in the pond. All that was then—today there is no pond to begin with. It was filled up, and in its place stands a cement and brick building with sliding windows and posters on its walls advertising coaching classes.
Nandini spoke with affection about the great-great-grandmother she had never seen. Widowed before she was 40, the lady lived for decades more, a quiet presence in a big house, hiding from everyone’s view the portrait in which she appeared with her husband—protocol prohibited consorts from being seen with their exalted spouses, and the lady was always embarrassed about this work in oil that showed her with the lord of the Ivory Throne. She was a mere mortal, small and plump, standing behind him; he, god’s regent on earth, sat triumphant in an armchair. The last time she saw him was over a week before his death, for in his final moments he could only be surrounded by Brahmins and matrilineal relations (one Brahmin was paid 10,000 rupees to embrace the dying monarch, assume his sins and then leave the state forever). Even in life, he was never permitted to eat food cooked by her hand, or to touch her during the day. He could never appear publicly with her, nor could their children be acknowledged as his—in official papers, they were only children of Arumana, not of the maharaja, who was, in theory, above such earthly affairs as fathering children. But there was affection and genuine concern, and in his dying moments the ruler revealed that he too was a man of flesh and blood.
“Ten days before his death,” it is chronicled, “he sent for his Consort and children, and they came before him in the evening very late. He beckoned his daughters to approach close to the cot, and the light not being very bright, he bade his Consort trim the flickering lamp in order to enable him to see his daughters well, and he gazed on them for a while and wept. His Consort and children also wept; but he told them that God would protect and help them, and asked them to take leave. His Consort, his son, and daughters prostrated themselves at his feet…and took their last farewell. On the same night his Consort and his eldest daughter took ill, being overcome with grief.” Nandini had not read this account and was moved when I sent it to her. I did take off my shoes, as it happened, and sat at the edge of the temple by an ugly concrete pillar. She and I spoke for 2 hours of old stories and the way things were. I absorbed all she said, and she was eager to tell me all she knew—the consorts do not have many who wish to hear their tales. When the time arrived to say goodbye, she came to the gate to see me off. We shook hands, exchanged numbers and wished each other well. And then Nandini, descendant of a king, walked down that street of mansions, bucketless, but drenched like me in the heat of the afternoon.
The heat was less troubling when I arrived in Bengaluru to resurrect a queen. Behind smiles and the aura of once majestic buildings, Nandini and her line lament in silence their peripheral place in accounts of royal glory. The woman I now sought, scion of the matrilineal royal line, occupied the very heart of it. Yet she left the land her ancestors ruled, embracing obscurity as her destiny—she has no Nandini in Thiruvananthapuram to keep her flame. Struggles for power, intrigues at court and a crown of personal humiliation drained her appetite for the pretensions of royal life. Melancholy, she remarked that perhaps it was easier being a consort—one had all the privileges of royalty, without the responsibility. Little did she understand: They in the ammaveedus wistfully craved responsibility and acknowledgment, but she, paramount and revered in the palace, bore power as her cross. The consorts were lucky, even if they didn’t know it—it was queens who lived in worlds of regret.
She suffered much in the years after her reign, an experience especially bitter, for she had achieved a great deal and hoped for gratitude, not persecution. It was her daughter, a princess with a grin wider than princesses were allowed, who rebelled, preferring the anonymity of city life after India won independence to ceremonious depression in the palace—those buildings that so charmed outsiders could rot for all she cared as she moved into a rectangular house on Richmond Road, between the Furtados and the D’Mellos. And then, in 1957, the last maharani of Travancore also took leave of her heritage—the palace servants had unionized under Communist leadership, cornering her in her own home. In 1985, she died in the city of her exile, a century after the passing of her dynastic predecessor: Nandini’s great-great-grandfather. But at least the maharaja had the consolation of dying in a palace—in 1985, his fallen great-niece had to settle for a public hospital, meeting her maker through the means of an electric crematorium. Gone from her too were the gun salutes and honours that ammaveedus were once denied—time had toppled even those who sat on chairs of state while their cousins stood.
Thiruvananthapuram held little for me till I discovered the tragic tale of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. I decided to tell her story in my book and ventured into a city that had forgotten her—not unconsciously, for her name was erased systematically in favour of a rival power. She was an undemonstrative woman and left only official letters. But I was in luck, for she did have many homes into which she retreated to escape the drama that was life at court. Unlike the consorts guarded outside the fort, the queens of Travancore were freer to live where they pleased. I went to Kovalam, where she had a house of granite by the sea. It had a tower and vast rose gardens, and she called it Halcyon Castle. Under the Communist regime, it was snatched from her, however, and sold to a stranger. After the public objected, the “castle” lapsed into litigation. When I went there, policemen were stationed on the premises, their underpants hanging on a line in the veranda where the maharani once settled to catch the evening breeze. I had come seeking her spirit, but what I found was jarring reality.
I then went to the lake in Vellayani by which Sethu Lakshmi Bayi had her favourite home. Surrounded only by villages, and removed from the capital, it was here that she escaped after relinquishing authority, watching the monsoon melt water into water. This place too was lost when the government wanted a sturdy roof for the College of Agriculture. The bungalow with the arbour where the maharani lived is now a hostel for girls, its vast halls chopped up in deference to contemporary practicalities—queens could live in enormous bedrooms; young girls investigating harvest varieties sleep like sheep in a pen. Men are not allowed here, and I was shooed away by the wardens. In that girls’ hostel, once protected by liveried household guards watching over an embattled queen, I might have felt Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s presence. But here also there was no soul.
It was in the end that I came to her city residence. It was called Vijaya Vilasam, the Palace of Victory, but most remember it as Satelmond Palace, where defeat was at home. Today, it houses a medical research institution—at midnight one day in 1976, its founder obtained from Sethu Lakshmi Bayi her sanction for the handover, after Indira Gandhi’s Emergency invaded the grounds, seeking to establish a police outpost. It was the last vestige of the maharani’s haunted past, and so detached had she become that she smiled and declared while signing her warrant of renunciation: “Aah, this is freedom at midnight!” Nothing linked Thiruvananthapuram to Sethu Lakshmi Bayi any more—the hallowed palace that once governed millions, where she received Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore, found a new purpose for its existence. Thiruvananthapuram was the city that installed her as its queen when she was 5. Now it forgot all about her. The feeling was mutual, though, for she too wished nothing more than to forget the city.
A cheerful man with a thriving belly showed me around. I had a picture of the palace in my mind from conversations with Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s heirs, as unknown in the land of their ancestors as were the consorts of yore. I went into a hall with a black and white chequered floor—the maharani’s drawing room houses books, rack after aluminium rack reducing its vastness into a cramped library. I went upstairs to her bedroom, now conquered by a plywood desk, cabinets and shelves skirting walls that once showcased masterpieces in oil. In the dining wing, the marble was devastated to make way for the atrocity of ceramic tiles. The building where the ladies-in-waiting lived was a giant hole in the ground; the guest house was closed; the kitchens where 24 cooks manifested culinary sensations sheltered an electronic device. I walked downhill to the tank where aromas of medicinal waters and exquisite bath oils once wafted through the air. I smelt filth. Thiruvananthapuram’s garbage crisis had affected even those who occupied old palaces. There was no sign of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi at the Palace of Victory either. Like Anantha Vilasam, the Palace of Bliss where Nandini’s ancestor lived, here too men with files prevailed.
History charted oblivion in its eyes for the consorts of maharajas, and the Nandinis left behind reconciled to this. But the maharanis of Travancore also possessed consorts who had to resign themselves to circumstance—husbands who could not sit with their wives, men unequal to the “Highnesses” they married. Though they were fathers to princes, they had to bow to their sons, who held precedence. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was devoted to her man, though. She let him sit with her, drive with her, and even gave him a say in government. Where her minister had precedence over him, she upset the order and gave her husband a place of honour. He was nobody till she, aged 10, looked down from a gallery at boys offered to her and selected the skinny one as her companion. Overnight, he was plucked from his village and planted at the high table, learning to eat with a fork and knife, and to dress and behave. He played hopscotch with his royal wife and read fairy tales to her. When they grew, she invited him to her chambers, where they made love on nights astrologers deemed most propitious for producing the male heir they never had.
The consort who was a nobody saw no romance in renunciation, for even renunciation is a privilege. But his wife was a queen, and queens are stubborn even in downfall. He warned her that she would not be remembered if she left the city she once ruled. She did not care, for she had suffered. He told her that queens must have palaces or they would be nothing. She had lived all her life in one and sought instead a cottage with a breath of fresh air. Fresh air, he argued, was overrated. She did as she pleased anyway. She was generous to a fault, dividing her money and property, marrying expensive presents to her inexpensive affections. The consort warned her that family must never be pampered, and purse strings clutched tight even in exile. She would not listen. Familiarity breeds contempt, he declared in rage as her old limousine went up on sale, but she had been worshipped all her life in a gilded cage—a little bit of contempt made her human.
The consort died first, aged almost 90. And he died a very rich man, leaving two million rupees to be paid in estate duties and a mansion with pile carpets and stuffed bears. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi followed a decade later, also aged almost 90. She had a bed and a metal trunk of memories, for which there were no estate duties. Outsiders shook their heads and said that the consort was the wise one. But the queen’s penance was complete—she had become nobody. I went to the place where she lived in Bengaluru—a bungalow surrounded by her favourite roses, with a pond in the garden. What I found was a crowded thoroughfare beside which stood an unremarkable apartment block in shades of blue and maroon. The house too was gone, and the woman who renounced Thiruvananthapuram had left no trace here again. I turned around and returned to archives abroad, to look in paper for the woman who wanted to be forgotten, and for the city of monstrosities that obliged her desire.