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Posts Tagged ‘1905’

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.