Through a landmark judgement , the Supreme Court of India yesterday restored the “Shebaitship” [ rights to manage the financial affairs ] of the richest temple in the world – Sri Padmanabha Swami Temple at Thiruvananthapuram to the Royal family of erstwhile Travancore State. After the demise of the last Maharaja His Highness Bala Rama Varma in 1991, there was an attempt by the Kerala Govt to take over the assets of the temple especially after the sensational findings of the hidden riches of the temple. The younger brother of the Maharaja , Marthanda Varma III had filed a case in the Supreme Court to prevent such a take over and after his demise in 2013 , the judgement has now come out vindicating his stand based on ancient tradition prevailing for centuries. The erstwhile King of Travancore , Marthanda Varma I who ruled the kingdom during the 18th century had pledged the temple with all its riches to the deity to invoke the Lord’s blessings and ruled the kingdom as ” Padmanabha dasa ” – servant of the God. This tradition continued till date and the Royal Family never touched any of the wealth of the temple ! A few rationalists today argue if the temple’s vast treasures valued at around 90,000 Crores [USD 22 billion] should be kept in tact with the titular monarchy in safe custody or utilized for the development of the Kerala state .
I was born in 1942 at a place named Mavelikara in central Travancore and our primary school had the tradition of singing the state’s song every morning during the assembly. The Song beginning with the line “Vanchi Bhoomi pathe chiram ” was basically invoking the king’s name and wishing him and the kingdom long life and prosperity . Vanchi Bhoomi was another name of Travancore . After Independence in 1947, the king became the ” Raja Pramukh ” and the tradition continued till 1950 when India became a Republic. We used to get a holiday for the Maharaja’s birthday also. Cochin princely state joined Travancore in 1949 and remained as a joint entity called Travancore-Cochin state till 1st Nov 1956 when Kerala state was born after the State Re-organisation scheme based on a study by Sardar K M Panicker .
Mavelikara had a direct connection with the Travancore Royal family . When there was a crisis of succession to the throne , two young girls namely Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi from Mavelikara Palace were adopted by the ruling King to his royal family . They were the grand daughters of world famous artist Raja Ravi Varma. Raja Ravi Varma’s son Rama Varma was also a renowned artist in his own right and lived at Mavelikara in our neighborhood. We as children used to visit his studio often. He started the Ravi Varma Painting school adjacent to his palace. Many well known artists in Kerala today were trained in this school. I remember meeting Malayalam movie director Hariharan there often during my school days.This school , I learn, has now grown to a national stature with various allied disciplines added to its offerings. My uncle’s elder brother Mr K P Padmanabhan Thampi from Trivandrum was a well known Art Critic at that time and he had a fabulous collection of paintings from all over the world in his house . He had a few Ravi Varma paintings and I also recollect a famous painting by Nicholas Roerich , a Russian Artist depicting a Peacock. He also worked as a Curator at the Government’s Art Museum at Trivandrum and used to visit Artist Rama Varma frequently . I used to accompany him to the studio. I also remember a very senior Ayurvedic Physician Sri Rama Varma Thampuran at the Mavelikara palace where he ran his clinic. We used to go to him for consultation and medicines. He was the uncle of the Maharaja of Travancore and made occasional visits to Trivandrum .
Sethu Lashmi Bayi later ruled Travancore as Regent from 1924 to 1931 to bridge the gap between the demise of Maharaja Sri Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma and the adulthood of the young prince Bala Rama Varma who was only 12 when the Maharaja passed away. Many books and other notes on her life and time are available in print and on line . Two notable books either for their contents or some controversial views are ” The Ivory Throne ” by Manu S Pillai , hailing from Mavelikara and ” At the Turn of the Tide ” penned by the Regent Queen’s grand daughter Laksmi Raghunandan Raghunandan incidentally is from Cochin Royal family and also my class mate at the Engineering College.Palakkad..
The Travancore monarchs after Marthanda Varma led a very austere life and devoted their tenure to the development of the state . Most of the major infrastructure projects you see in Kerala even today bear their stamp . It was only after the Gulf boom that Kerala started various new initiatives . The temple entry proclamation by the Maharaja in 1936 was very revolutionary and abolished the ban on the so called “low cast people ” from entering Hindu temples in the princely state of Travancore.. The annual “Arattu” [ritual bath of the deity in the Arabian sea 6 km away] processionfrom the Padmanabha temple passes cutting the international airport runway near the sea and even today ,the airport is closed for 5 to 6 hours in the afternoon on that day to facilitate this !. This gesture amply illustrate the love and affection of the people for the monarchy and the reverence to the temple rituals.