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1900s

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. 


170 – Mixed marriages of the Indian Subcontinent and Africa

My wife's aunt & uncle. Circa 1930s. Kenya [Composited with an colour background at a later date]

My wife’s aunt & uncle. Circa 1930s-1940s. Kenya [Composited with colour at a later date]

Image & Text contributed by Krishan Lal, Kenya (with help from his son Dileep Nagpal)

This image is of my wife’s relatives in Kenya as a reference to the narrative below.

In the late 19th century, an enterprising and adventurous Parsi Indian Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee left Karachi (now Pakistan) and sailed to Australia. As a house-to-house hawker, he managed to gain some knowledge of the English language and eventually migrated to East Africa in 1890. There, he established contact with British investors who were looking for some help to manage the planned Uganda Railways. After five years, Jeevanjee was awarded the contract to recruit Indian labourers from Punjab,  to build the Uganda Railways in Kenya  and the IBEAC (Imperial British East Africa Company) began building the railways construction from Kilindini Harbour, Mombasa.

Beginning 1891, thousands of the Indian ‘coolies‘  (today this word is considered a racial slur in many African countries), mainly Sikhs & Punjabis, were recruited for a three-year-contract to build Kenya Uganda Railways. Almost all of them came alone, leaving their wives in India.

One of the reasons why Indian labourers, instead of locals, were recruited was that the British faced severely hostility from the citizens of that country. The Indians on the other hand were there purely for economical reasons. They were also strong, tough and reliable hard workers and had previous experience with construction of building railways, roads, bridges and canals in India. In Kenya though, they had to face several hardships. Living in huddled groups in tents, they worked tirelessly to clear thick jungles, and break routes through hills and mountain stone with steel hammers and bare hands. Under harsh weathers, mosquitoes, snakebites, wild beast attacks, injuries and fevers were fervent. Hundred were dragged from their tents and eaten by Lions.

Amongst them was my maternal grandfather Makhan Ram Vadvae, a technically savvy man who came from Lahore, (now Pakistan) leaving his wife in India. He was appointed foreman and would check the rail tracks while seated on trolley pushed by fellow workers. His name in the labor force records is signed in Urdu as “Man eater of Tsavo”.

After the completion of railways in 1905, and the end of their contract – 51% of the workforce returned back to India, most in bad health, 8% of the work force died on job, 21% did not take their entitled return tickets and chose to stay in East Africa – setting up businesses along the railway lines, towns and cities. By year 1911, 12,000 Indians mainly Punjabis, Gujaratis, and Parsees (compared to 3,000 Europeans) were living in Kenya.  A good number of them married local African women, others married mixed blood women and settled in East Africa giving birth to four generations of people with Indian-Kenyan origin.  My maternal grandfather Makhan Ram too married a Kenyan woman, had children with her and settled in Kenya. He never went back to India.

While things have changed for the better over time, the colour and gene based racism was rampant at the time and with the exception of Parsees, within most other Indians. The mixed blooded children of Indian men who married local African were frowned upon. Rejected and segregated by Indians themselves, they had a terrible time trying to fit into their father’s communities, schools, neighborhoods, work places, temples and Gurudwaras. Some were treated so badly by the father’s families that it forced them to convert to Islam and Christianity – communities where they were received well and given equal place in society. Ironically, visually, majority of mixed blood children were of fair colour and beautiful features – skin-deep characteristics that many Indians preferred over any other.

My father Jagan Nath Nagpal too came to Kenya from Gujranwala, Punjab (now Partly Pakistan territory) around 1912 and began a tea stall at a railway station. Eventually he established a confectionery shop in the capital city, Nairobi. He married my mother, Maya Devi, Makhan Ram’s daughter. Two years after his marriage in 1914, he invited his elder brother from Punjab to Kenya, handed over the shop to him and decided to return to India.

Around 1938, when I was around five years old and my sister Krishna was 10, my father decided to return to Kenya. I remember the four of us sailed to Kenya in an over crowded dhow (carrying 300+ people) from Porbander, Gujarat to Mombasa. It was a perilous journey of three months, during which many people died at sea, sick with typhoid, diarrhea and malnutrition. When we landed ashore in Mombasa, most people due to being crammed on the dhow and sitting in postulate positions for weeks & months had forgotten how to walk – people were falling down, whilst others were walking backwards. Almost all children and some adults had lice in their hair.

Perhaps in India my father had gained more skills and in Kenya he became a skilled Halwai (sweets & dessert maker) who could make all kinds of delicious North Indian sweets. Later my parents had seven more children -Shakuntala, Baldev, Raji, Swarni, Subhash, Sukversha and Ashok.

Years later, my father took a huge loan with a heavy interest to pay his eldest daughter’s marriage dowry, which he was unable to pay. To supplement some family income, as soon as I finished Form 2 (half way into Secondary School), in 1947, I had to start working at the age of 14 as a Crane Driver with East African Railways & Harbours, Mombasa. Four years later at the age of 18, I married a 14-year-old beautiful young mixed blood lady Rampyari Kohli. Born in Kenya, she was the daughter of an African mother and a Kashmiri father.

After my father died in of a heart attack in 1951, I became the only support for the family. My wife and I had two boys and four girls. Then we adopted two more boys from my wife’s side of the family. All were born, bred and well educated in Kenya and overseas. Today most of them are living all over the world living in Australia, England, Germany and America. Some of them hold high positions as Bankers, Chartered Accountant, General Manager, University lecturers and directors.

My daughter and I are still live in Kenya, a country I call my home.


79 – A 100 years ago, she stepped into a world where no widow had dared tread

My great grand parents (right most) with the Chennagiri Family. Tumkur, Mysore State (now in Karnataka). Circa 1901

Image and Text contributed by Laxmi Murthy, Bangalore

This picture is thought to have been taken in Tumkur, State of Mysore, immediately after the marriage of my great grand parents Chennagiri Amba Bai, 12 years old (standing top right) with Sreenivasa Rao, then 18 (middle row, sitting right most), with Amba Bai’s paternal family, the Chennagiris. I must thank my aunt Prabhamani Rao for all the help in identifying the people of my ancestral family found in this image.

Born in 1889 into an orthodox Brahmin family in the erstwhile Mysore State (now in Karnataka), she was widowed at the age of 24 with three children. Sreenivasa Rao, Ambi’s husband was in the Police. He was also a wrestler and a champion swimmer. He died suddenly in 1913, caught in a whirlpool while swimming in Kempambudi Lake (now a sewerage collection tank) in Bangalore.

Amba Bai whom we fondly called Ambi, triumphed over her tragic destiny by empowering herself with education. She defied conservative society to educate herself through college, become economically independent, and went on to become the principal of Vani Vilas Girls School in Bangalore. Nothing short of a saga of grit and determination, Ambi’s story serves as an inspiration to women who face oppression till today. In her determination to break away from the shackles of social customs, which heaped on a widow the most inhuman treatment, she had the support of her enlightened father, C Krishna Rao, fondly called Rayaru, and his colleagues. With their encouragement she managed to step into a world where no widow had dared to tread.

Ambi’s father Rayaru (middle row, third from left) was the head of the Chennagiri family and a Director of Public Instruction. He was much respected and loved for his vision, intelligence and belief in women’s education. He fathered 14 children, the one on his lap being the 11th, C Padmanabha Rao.

Ambi died in 1971 at the grand old age of 82, leaving behind a legacy of love, courage and strong values, which are cherished to this day by three generations of women after her. The story of Amba Bai, Ambi, has been reconstructed by her granddaughter Vimala Murthy, my mother, with inputs from surviving members of her family.

Chronicling the extraordinary grit and courage of this woman of nearly 100 years ago, the book is not just a tribute from two generations of progeny but also a very valuable record of a vanished socio-cultural-familial scenarios. The book, self published in 2007, in addition to being an account of life in Karnataka in the early 20th century, also contains rare photographs more than a century old, reproductions of Amba Bai’s diaries, letters, accounts books and notations – a unique addition to any archive on women. For copies of the book you can write to me here.


67 – The first Hindu girl student of St. Xaviers, who went on to become an Honorary Magistrate

My mother, Kamini Agaskar, grandmother Kamala Vijaykar, me, Mrudula Joshi and in my lap my daughter, Anupamaa Joshi, Bombay, Maharashtra. Circa 1970

Image and Text contributed by Mrudula Prabhuram Joshi, Mumbai

Kamala Vijayakar, my grandmother (sitting, center) was born in 1890 in a well-to-do Pathare Prabhu family in Bombay. Pathare Prabhus are the original residents of the Bombay Islands along with the Agaris, the Bhandaris and the Kolis since 700 years. They are known to be a small, close-knit, and a 100 % literate community. Kamala was a bright student of the Alexandra Girls’ School. She passed her Matriculation exam in 1910 and joined St. Xavier’s College for higher education the same year. She was ”the first Hindu girl student” of this esteemed college. She excelled in higher studies and was preparing for the First Year Arts examination when she got engaged to Mr. Narayan Vijaykar, who was an artist but non-matriculate. According to the prevalent norms, the wife could never be more educated than the husband, so she had to give up college education, start family life, raising children and fulfilling the duties of a good housewife.

Settled in Malad, a distant suburb in Bombay, she began taking a keen interest in the Local District Board activities and the emancipation of women around her. She was a fluent and forceful speaker in English, and was appointed as the Honorary Magistrate at Malad. A lady Magistrate was a major novelty in those days and people would throng the courts when she delivered her judgments. When she left her home to go to the courts, people would stand on both sides of the road just ”to see ” how a lady magistrate looked. She had long innings at the Malad District Court. Kamalabai Vijaykar was appointed ”Justice of Peace ” (Honorary Magistrate) by the government, and she later became popular as ”J. P. Kamalabai ” all over Bombay. She was also a staunch Congress-woman.

All her life, she held Education dear to her heart. Her own children, 7 in all, fulfilled her own dream of becoming Graduates and Double-graduates. She lived long enough to see even her grandchildren become double graduates. She breathed her last on 8th August, 1972, at the ripe old age of 82, content in the knowledge that she had done her bit to empower at least some women around her by providing for their education.


55 – Six generations of a British Family in India, one of whom was a Photographer for Times of India.

(Left) My Great Great Grandparents Edwin Ebenezer Scott (1850-1931) & Emily Good Andre (1862-1946), Bangalore, 1915. (Right) My Great grandparents, Algernon Edwin Scott & Desiree Leferve with my Grandfather, Bert Scott as a two or three year old boy. Cannanore, Karnataka. 1919

Image and Text contributed by Jason Scott Tilley, Birmingham UK

These are two photographs from My Grandfather Bert Scott’s family photographic archive. The photograph on the left, of my Great Great Grandparents Edwin and Emily Scott was taken on Christmas day in 1925 at  3, Campbell road, Richmond Town, Bangalore, our family’s house which was one of the old British Bungalows and has sadly like many of the rest, been demolished. On the old ground now stands St Philomenas hospital, right in the very heart of Bangalore.

On the right, are my great grandparents Algernon Edwin Scott and Desiree Leferve with my Grandfather, Bert Scott as a two or three year old boy, the image was taken in 1919 in Cannanore, Karnataka. (now Kannur and in the state of Kerala)

My family came to India in 1798 when James Scott Savory joined the East India Company as a writer of the Records of state. He was the second assistant under the Collector of Krisnagearry (Krishnagiri). Edwin Ebenezer (left image) is his great great grandson. From the church death records at St. Marks Cathedral in Bangalore it states that Edwin Ebenezer was the Assistant commisioner of Salt in South India.

Bert Scott, (little boy on the right) was my Grandfather, and he was born in Bangalore in 1915. He went to Bishop Cottons school before he joined the Times of India in 1936 as a press photographer.

Son of Algernon Edwin Scott and Desiree Marie Louise Josephene Leferve, (she was the daughter of a French professor of English from Pondicherry). Algernon Scott (Bert’s father) worked for the ‘Salt and Abkeri’ before he joined the army and went to Mesopatamia region from 1916-1919. After Algernon Scott left Mesopotamia he then went to the North West Frontier province until 1921 when he was discharged as Lieutenant. In 1925 he joined Burmah Oil company until 1933 he worked at Caltex until the out break of War.

My Grandfather Bert Scott, whom I fondly call ‘Grandpa’, was mainly brought up by his Grandparents, this must have been because his parents were away much of the time. He was educated at the famous ‘Eaton of the East’, Bishop Cottons school in Bangalore and then at St. Joseph’s college in Cannanore on the way up to Ooty in the Nilgiri’s. In 1936 he took a job as a press photographer at the Times of India Newspaper in Bombay where he worked until the out break of World War II.  He initially joined up as a ‘Gunner’ but soon took the Job as Head photographer for the Indian Army during the second world war where he worked out of GHQ New Delhi (Now Parliament), His duties include photographing ceremonies and Japanese positions behind enemy lines in Burma.

My grandfather married his Bride, Doll Miles at the church of redemption in New Delhi and 1943 and my Mother Anne Scott was born later that year in Amritsar, Punjab, whilst he was away on active duty during the war. He was in position on 14th August 1947 to photograph the hand over of Power and watched as the Mountbattens left Vicregal lodge (now Rashtrapati Bhavan). During the troubles of partition, because my family were Anglo Indian, they fled from Delhi to Bombay, and then took a ship to the new country of Pakistan where in November of that  same year they left for a new life in the United Kingdom.

For more images via Jason please click here


13 – Culturally from Mangalore, they adapted to Maharashtra with ease

My great-grandparents Tavadappa Talwar with his wife Laxmibai Talwar. Bombay, Maharashtra. Circa 1900's

Image and Text Contributed by Manorath Palan, Mumbai

My great-grand parents Mr Tavadappa Talwar and Mrs Laxmibai Talwar migrated to Bombay from Mangalore, Karnataka in the early 1900’s. Cultures like the Marathas were unheard of for a native of Mangalore, yet my Great Grandparents adopted the native Maharashtrian attire and culture without any compulsion or threat from the locals as opposed to the present situation in Mumbai.This picture was taken weeks into their moving to Bombay, sometime in the early 1900s.