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Posts Tagged ‘Fort’

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. 


73 – He folded sarees for One paisa each, and went on to become the Director of a Bank.

My maternal grandfather, Manikchand Veerchand Shah (seated in white turban) and extended family, Solapur, Maharashtra. 1956

Image and Text contributed by Anshumalin Shah, Bangalore

This image of maternal grandfather, Shri Manikchand Veerchand Shah and our extended family was photographed in November 1956, by the famous ‘Malage Photographer – Oriental Photo Studio’ who charged a tidy sum of 30-0-0 (Rupee-Anna-Paise) for two Black & White 6” x 8”copies with embossed-border mounts. The occasion was my grandfather’s birthday, he had just turned 60.

The family was photographed in the front yard of the bungalow called ‘Ratnakuti’ opposite the Fort in Solapur (then Sholapoor), Maharashtra. Ratnakuti was one of twin bungalows built around 1932 as mirror images of each other, known as ‘Jod-Bangla’. Beautifully crafted in stone and plaster, with imposing pillars, balconies and rooms with ceramic-chip handcrafted flooring, exquisite teak, brass grills for windows, coloured glass panes on windows and doors, verandahs with neat terracotta tiles, a large court-yard in front, ‘Ratnakuti’ and its twin would never fail to draw the attention of passers-by and stands to this day as a well known landmark. Eventually, the two bungalows were sold and are now owned by the Goyal family.

My grandfather, Manikchand Veerchand Shah, born in 1896, came from a pioneering and visionary Gujarati Digambar Jain family. He was a self-educated, successful entrepreneurial man with modest beginnings. Before 1910, he along with his younger brother, Walchand Motichand Shah, worked in a Saree shop of their guardian where they got paid One Paisa for every saree they neatly folded, ready for dispatch or sale and delivered on a bicycle to the shop at Phaltan Galli.

As they grew up together, my grandfather and his brother established and operated several businesses together complementing each other’s strengths. The businesses included a handloom cloth dyeing unit, in Valsang, near Solapur, for which the dyes were imported from Japan. They also began importing General Motors cars, motorcycles and trucks around 1922. I am told my grandfather would drive and deliver the imported truck chassis himself from Bombay to Pune and Sholapur. Their firm ‘Sholapur Motor Stores’ continues on in Pune, albeit only as a Fuel Station. He also established the well-known ‘India Garage’ in the 1930s where the present showrooms of Renault and Volkswagen stand, still operated by the family.

Closely associated with the freedom movement in Solapur, opposing the Martial Law imposed in 1930, he was arrested by the British, sent to Bijapur Central Jail and later exiled. Not to be outdone by the British, he used his stay at Bijapur Jail to monitor the establishment of a ‘Sholapur Motor Stores’ branch in the city.

Also associated with the Hindu Mahasabha, he rubbed shoulders with very important personalities like V. D. Savarkar, Dr. K. B. Hedgewar, M. S. Golwalker Guruji and Gulabchand Hirachand Doshi. While he was also deeply involved with several causes for the people of Valsang, unfortunately, owing to his association with the Hindu Mahasabha, an irate mob of villagers from Valsang set his car on fire in a frenzied reaction to the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30, 1948. Barely managing to escape with his life, he was deeply hurt and disillusioned by the senseless act by the people of Valsang. In consequence, he wound up his businesses and left Valsang, never to return.

After the death of his wife, my grandmother, when he was just 34, and as a sign of love for her, he changed his attire to only pristine white – a white turban, coat and a dhoti with white canvas pump shoes. While visiting us in Hyderabad, he would regularly buy the special black metal ‘Bidriware’ buttons for his white coats from a handicraft showroom at Abid Road.

My grandfather was a man of many parts. He was the Director on the Board of Bank of Maharashtra Ltd. As well as on the governing council for several religious and temple trusts. His contribution to the educational infrastructure development from his own funds at Solapur is widely acknowledged. He offered personal loans, scholarships and donor’s seats at the Walchand College of Engineering, Sangli for students pursuing higher studies in the 1950s and 60s. Several successful senior Engineers owe their careers to him.

Farming, Gardening, and Photography were his passions. I remember us youngsters gathering on his farms near Sholapur during summer holidays and enjoying the juiciest mangoes to our brim. Quite taken up with Photography as well, he had acquired a glass-negative Camera in the 1920s and his collection of glass negatives and pictures are our family’s priceless treasures.

My grandfather passed away in June 1968. Many members of the two older generations of the three appearing in the pictures have also passed on. The third generation now have their own children and grand-children. I feel very honoured to have shared some of the birthday celebrations along with my grandfather as we were both born only a few days apart.

Time moves on, but photographs manage to freeze fleeting moments here and there. If we could preserve these photographs, we succeed in reliving those moments over and over again and again.