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175 – The Maharanis of Travancore

The Maharanis of Travancore. Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (right). Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India). c. 1905

Image contributed by Jay Varma, Text by Manu S. Pillai, New Delhi

(This narrative is an edited version to suit the format of this archive.)

It was in the fall of 1900, that the Maharajah of Travancore adopted the two girls in this photograph (taken in c. 1905), as his Maharanis — and as his ‘nieces’. For in Kerala, queens were never wives of monarchs, but their sisters. Under the matrilineal system of succession, ranks and titles passed in the female line; the Maharajah was a ruler not because his father was king before him, but because his mother was queen.

The Maharajahs of Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India) inherited the crown from their mother’s brothers, and thus power passed in a topsy turvy fashion from uncle to nephew, down the generations. Naturally, then, the sons of kings from their own wives were not seen as princes, but were only exalted nobles of the realm, fated for oblivion after the deaths of their royal fathers. Instead, princely dignities were granted to sons of royal sisters, and it was these boys who were considered heirs to the throne.

In 1900, however, the Maharajah had no heirs through his sister, and so the two girls seen here were adopted. They were cousins, and granddaughters of the famous artist Raja Ravi Varma. Sometime before the princesses were born, their mothers had journeyed to Rameswaram (Tamil Nadu) on a pilgrimage to pray for the birth of daughters to them. Legend has it that the deity appeared to them in a dream and promised the fulfilment of their desire. And thus when the girls were born, they were named Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left) and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (seated right) respectively, with the prefix ‘Sethu’ denoting their divine origins from the lord of Sethu Samudram in Rameswaram.

The girls grew up in Trivandrum Fort as ‘Junior Maharani’ (Sethu Parvathi Bayi) and ‘Senior Maharani’ (Sethu Lakshmi Bayi) respectively. Indian as well as Anglo-Indian tutors were appointed for them and before long they were able to speak the King’s English, cultivating manners that marked Edwardian high society. They played tennis, golf, and croquet, all in their traditional costumes. In music they mastered the piano and the veena, and they read voraciously, becoming expert conversationalists, impressing everyone who met them.

When they turned 10, a set of boys from the aristocracy was presented to them to select one each as their consorts (the men were never officially called ‘husbands’). Though these consorts were wedded to the Maharanis, they were considered subjects: they lived in separate palaces and only visited their royal wives when summoned; they had to bow to them and refer to them as Highnesses. In public, they were prohibited from being seated in the presence of their highborn brides. The little Maharanis spent several years playing hopscotch with their husbands, and reading fairytales together in the palace library until in their teens the marriages were consummated on nights when the stars were in perfect alignment.

It was the Junior Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi who gave birth to a boy, Chithira Thirunal, in 1912. But until he came of age, for over seven years, the destinies of Travancore were entrusted to the Senior Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who had two daughters but no sons. Power corrupted relations between the two royal matriarchs and records speak of the Junior Maharani as ‘the villain’. She felt that as mother of the future Maharajah, she ought to have been allowed to rule Travancore on his behalf and not her sister. But law and tradition decreed that only the Senior Maharani could reign.

So it was Sethu Lakshmi Bayi who ruled Travancore in the 1920s. She initiated far-reaching reforms constructing highways, bringing electricity and telephone services to her people, spending nearly a fifth of her revenues on education, which augmented Kerala’s high rate of literacy, developing Cochin (now Kochi) into the modern trading port it is today, appointing the first female minister in India, employing hundreds of educated women in her government, and thousands as teachers and nurses, installing the first Dalit and Muslim judges in the state, selecting a Christian Prime Minister instead of a traditional Brahmin or Nair; and opening up public roads to all in Travancore, hitherto accessible only to high caste Hindus.

By the end of 1931, the Senior Maharani relinquished power and handed the mantle of state to her nephew Chithira Thirunal, the Junior Maharani’s son. By then relations between the sisters had deteriorated irreparably, with palace intrigue, black magic, and more vitiating the air at court. For the next many years, the Senior Maharani, despite her acclaimed services to the five million people of Travancore, lived under the vexing control of the Junior Maharani. British authorities noted that while the Senior Maharani was ‘popular and respected’ and ‘held in the greatest reverence and esteem throughout the state’, the Junior was ‘cordially hated’ by their subjects, and was a ‘jealous and masterful’ modern day Catherine de’ Medici. There was perhaps bias, for the Junior Maharani who showed great independence and held unorthodox views, but the man on the ground held her in fear, and not love.

In 1947, when India became independent, the Senior Maharani’s family sensed relief and freedom from control of the Junior Maharani. Her daughters moved to Bangalore and Madras (now Bengaluru and Chennai), leading new lives as ordinary citizens; they cooked their own food, drove their own cars, and brought up their children as regular citizens. In 1957, the Senior Maharani decided to leave her palace and renounce her royal past. From being ‘Her Highness Sri Padmanabha Sevini Vanchi Dharma Vardhini Raja Rajeshwari Maharani Pooradam Tirunal Sethu Lakshmi Bayi Maharajah, Companion of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India and Senior Maharani of Travancore,’ she retired to Bangalore simply as ‘Smt Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’. From a palace with 300 servants, she moved into an ordinary bungalow with a staff of seven and spent the remainder of her days as a quiet recluse. She gave up her palaces to the people of Kerala; her summer palace is now with the Agriculture College; her official residence is a medical research institute; her beach resort was given to the ITDC.

Some years before her death, bedridden, she remarked wistfully with a stoic smile, to a visitor: ‘Once I had a kingdom, but it is gone. Then I thought the palace was mine but that is gone too. Then I thought I had this house, but now I can only say I have this room.’

In 1983 the Junior Maharani died in her stately palace in Trivandrum where she and her family had continued to reside as royalty. She was granted a state funeral by the Government of Kerala, attended by celebrities and politicians alike. In 1985, the Senior Maharani died in a general hospital in Bangalore. She was cremated at the Wilson Gardens Electric Crematorium, like just anybody else, surrounded by family members. She wrote many years earlier, ‘I have emerged a wiser woman learning that often in this world one gets kicks for honest selfless work, while the canting self-seeker wins half pence.’

And thus ended the saga of the two Sethus, daughters of providence adopted and raised to princely ranks, with one dying as a nobody, faraway from the land she loved and served, and the other meeting her maker in the comforts of her palace, still a queen long after time dissolved her kingdom into the pages of history.


Winner of the 2017  Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar, Manu S Pillai is the author of the award winning book ‘The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore’. The book can be purchased here. 


50 – The six triple degree holding sisters of Agra

My mother Shalini (middle, bottom) and her six sisters Kusum, Madhavi, Suman, Aruna & Nalini. Agra, Uttar Pradesh. 1961-1971

Image and Text contribution by Anusha Yadav, Mumbai

This is a collective image of my mother and her sisters, photographed holding their degrees with pride, between 1961-1971, as it was the custom at the time for women to be photographed to prove that they were educated. Some of these images were also then used as matrimonial pictures. All the sisters (Left to right) Kusum, Madhavi, Suman, Aruna, Shalini and Nalini were born between 1935 – 1946 and brought up in Raja Mandi, Agra in Uttar Pradesh. There were also four brothers, the eldest of which is Rajendra Yadav, one of the foremost Hindi writers of the country. My grandfather Mishri Lal, was a very well respected Doctor, with a signature white horse which he rode when out on rounds, and my grandmother, Tara, his second wife hailed from Maharashtra with a royal lineage.

My eldest aunt Kusum (left most), passed away in 1967 under mysterious circumstances, some say it was suicide and some that it was food poisoning, and my youngest aunt Nalini, found courage to elope from home to marry, her neighbor in old Delhi, the love of her life at the time, a Punjabi gentleman. A move which was considered extremely scandalous for an highly respected intellectual but a conservative Yadav family. The rest led quieter lives, doing what was prescribed at the time for ‘good’ Indian women to do.

Quite amazingly all sisters were highly educated, triple degree holders, in Bachelors, Masters and Commercial Diplomas in Science, History, Economics, Dance, Arts, Painting and Teaching and each one was formally trained in Tailoring, Embroidery, Shooting, First Aid, Swimming, Horse-riding, Music, Dance, Crafts and Cooking in Delhi, Kota, Mathura and Agra. It still baffles me that, not one sought pro-actively to form careers of their own, and my aunt Madhavi (middle, top)  says it was due to the protective brothers, who didn’t think it was appropriate for single women to work before marriage.

Only Aruna Masi (left bottom) and my mother Shalini did continue to work after their marriages. Aruna, with a Masters in History,  moved to Oregon, USA after her marriage and still works (out of choice) as a Chartered Accountant and my mother is now retired, but only worked because she had to, after the death of my father.

All sisters still get along, well, more or less, however as all conservative families go, when ambitions in women lie unfulfilled, it channelizes that frustration in different aspects of their lives for years to come, with consequences that are both good and bad. Marriage did offer them security, but the desire to do something with their lives aside from being great home-makers still causes angst.

Having said that, as kids, my sisters, my cousins and I learnt a lot, from each and every one of these women. They were all feisty, fiercely talented and ensured that we received at least some of their knowledge from the time we could walk. We were encouraged to read, Hindi Literature and English, we were trained in classical and folk music & dances, embroidery, painting and cooking – first at home and then some of us were sent to schools to further that knowledge, even if it were private lessons. I do realise, that cultural knowledge like that is now hard to come by, and our own children by virtue of being 21st century products, will never fully have a grasp on such enriching guidance, however domestic it may seem. For which I will forever be grateful.