My grandmother’s private past

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My great great grandmother Ethel and grandmother Joan. Calcutta. (now Kolkata). Circa 1945

This is a picture of my maternal grandmother Joan Thompson (right) with her maternal grandmother Ethel Minnie McNair (left). It was taken in Calcutta (now Kolkata) around 1945. My grandmother Joan was born in Ranchi in 1930, illegitimately. Not much is known about the events surrounding her parentage though photographs in our family archives show her father Frank Thompson and mother Kathleen Chaplin, both in each other's company and with friends, as young people. Ethel, my great-great grandmother in the picture, was married to a British reverend Joseph Chaplin and had three daughters and a son including Kathleen and they lived in Calcutta. She was a matron at La Martinere and I remember my grandmother Joan saying that Ethel worked with midwifery too, since we also have photographs of her working with babies. Joan described Ethel as being born in Srivilliputtur, Tamil Nadu and as half-caste which could mean she was Anglo Indian (Eurasian), but could also mean that she was instead of mixed Indian ethnicity who had adopted Christianity. I have been told that Kathleen always wore gloves and make-up to conceal her heritage.

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The Maharanis of Travancore

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

The Maharanis of Travancore. Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (right) and Sethu Parvathi Bayi (left). Travancore (now central and Southern Kerala, India). c. 1905 Image contributed by Jay Varma, Narrative 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…

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