Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Life and Times of Rani Lakshmi Bayi

The year was 1857 and the problem facing Maharajah Uthram Thirunal of Travancore was of severe gravity. His only niece, Rani Pooradam Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi  had died 11 days after giving birth to a son, Prince Moolam Thirunal. As in the past 5 cases, adoption would be the only recourse for the perpetuation of the royal line and the Maharajah wrote thus to the Paramount Power:

You are well aware, I believe, of the peculiar importance of the position held by the Ranees in our family and indeed in the whole policy of the country, religious as well as social. Their presence is absolutely and indispensably necessary to the performance of all religious ceremonies both in our family and in the principal Pagodas. In that female line is vested also, as is further well known to you, the right of inheritance and succession in our own family as well as in the great bulk of our subjects… I now propose to bring in two, the most eligible female members from among our relations.. as Senior and Junior Ranees.


HH Rani Lakshmi Bayi

The two “most eligible” princesses chosen were the first and second daughters of Bharaninnal Amma Thampuran of Mavelikkara. Accordingly, after receiving due sanction, on the 27th of December 1857, Bharani Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi and Bharani Thirunal Parvathi Bayi were adopted into the Travancore Royal Family and installed as the Ranis of Attingal. This is the story of the Senior Rani Lakshmi Bayi who achieved much celebrity in the 19th century, not only due to her singular achievements and accomplishments, but also because of her uncompromising loyalty towards her spouse, Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran.

At the young age of 8, Lakshmi Bayi had been installed as Queen of Travancore. Along with her sister, she was taught everything a princess was expected to know. In 1859, less than two years after the adoption the Maharajah decided to get the Rani married and three young suitors were presented to her. One of them was Kerala Varma of Changanassery, the grandnephew of the Maharajah’s father. The other was Kerala Varma from Kilimanoor while the third was a Ravi Varma, also from Kilimanoor. The choice had to be made most carefully. A royal consort would father future Maharajahs and hence intelligence, good looks etc were all essential qualities. Rani Lakshmi Bayi chose the Koil Thampuran from Changanassery. She had rejected Ravi Varma because he was dark skinned and her sister Rani Parvathi Bayi had selected the second person. Ravi Varma, perhaps as a consolation, was married to Bhageerathi, the sister of the Ranis in Mavelikkara, and went on to become famous as Raja Ravi Varma.

Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran


Rani Lakshmi Bayi and Kerala Varma were happy in almost all respects. The Rani was a very talented musician while her husband’s erudition in Sanskrit and his ability in writing eventually earned him the appellation of Kerala Kalidasa and “Father of Malayalam Literature”. In 1865, Arumana Ammachi (Panapillai Bharathipillai Lakshmipillai Kochamma), the consort of Prince Visakham Thirunal commenced English education under the tutelage of some missionaries. The Rani was inspired and within a month began learning English along with her sister. The Rani’s artistic talent and her scholarly pursuits brought for her, along with the popularity she already enjoyed, a great deal of acclaim and respect. She was, by all means, a perfect role model and princess.

Yet there was one thing that marred the happiness of the Rani’s marriage to Kerala Varma: she was childless. In Travancore this had, beyond personal sorrow, serious dynastic implications. In those days the Rani could have easily disposed of her consort and selected another husband. She, however, was far too attached and in love with Kerala Varma to even contemplate a divorce. The fact that the Junior Rani had had several sons was, perhaps, a consolation but the absence of females in the family was, once again, a recurrence of some kind of a curse.

Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal

Within a decade of her marriage with Kerala Varma, problems began to creep into the royal family. The Maharajah Ayilyam Thirunal, who ascended the musnud in 1860, was on bad terms with the Elayarajah Visakham Thirunal, who it was rumored had tried to secure the removal of his brother with the connivance of Dewan Rajah Sir T. Madhava Rao. The Dewan had been “retired” with a handsome pension, but the relationship between the Maharajah and his brother remained tense. Kerala Varma, who was a protege of the Elayarajah, became the Maharajah’s pawn to punish his brother. 

The Rani was placed in a very delicate position due to the Maharajah’s distaste towards her husband. On the one hand she was obliged to obey her uncle and on the other, her love for her husband made her protect him. For about 5 years Rani Lakshmi Bayi managed to maintain the status quo in the family. But then in 1875 an anonymous letter, supposedly authored by Kerala Varma, reached the Dewan Seshayya Sastri warning him of the Maharajah’s intention to do away with him. 

Kerala Varma had earlier been ordered to move to a palace at Poojappura and was permitted to visit the Rani only once a week on Fridays. But the Valiya Koil Thampuran often flouted the rules set by the Maharajah and did otherwise. To add to the atmosphere of intrigues and conspiracies, the Maharajah’s palace on the beach was set on fire one night, by suspected partisans of the Elayarajah and Kerala Varma. The surfacing of the controversial letter was the final straw. The Maharajah, after securing the approval of the Madras government, ordered the arrest of Kerala Varma.

For the crime of treason, the transportation of Kerala Varma from the Palace of his residence, namely Thevarathu Koikkal to a different town has been ordered by the Dewan of Travancore. Accordingly, I arrest the said Kerala Varma.


Maharajah Visakham Thirunal


The Rani’s voice was full of terrible fury as she replied. In a ringing voice, as Kerala Varma stood behind her, she ordered the policemen to leave the premises of her residence. Trivikraman Thampi, who as a good friend of the Valiya Koil Thampuran was already embarrassed by his obligation to arrest him, stood confused, as the Queen rebuked the order given by the King. The police left the palace as the Rani hastily wrote a letter to the Maharajah asking him to forgive her husband. The reply was prompt and negative. 

“Use any means necessary to carry out the orders”, commanded the Maharajah to Nanu Pillai, deputy Dewan. Pillai went to the Rani’s palace and attempted to pacify the furious lady. But when she refused to budge, he stood aside and gave orders to physically remove the Rani. The Brahmin officers forced the Rani to a side as a pair of handcuffs were clapped onto Kerala Varma’s hands. He was now a prisoner of the state. He was escorted into the carriage waiting outside which quickly began to move.

Just then, from the southern gate of the palace, appeared a figure. Rani Lakshmi Bayi ran out of Saraswathi Vilasom, with all the speed she could gather, crying out piercingly for her husband. The police stopped her and she collapsed into a heap on the road, as Kerala Varma was driven away. A gun shot was heard and the Maharajah got his signal. Kerala Varma had been taken. 

News reached the Rani that her husband had been taken to Allepey and imprisoned at the palace there. She wrote to the Maharajah that she would accompany her husband to prison but was prohibited from doing so. The Maharajah then wanted to strip Kerala Varma of his title as Valiya Koil Thampuran, which he held as consort to the Senior Rani. Subtly the matter of divorcing Kerala Varma was broached to the Rani but she refused immediately. The Maharajah decided to force her hands. The Sreedpadom estate which she managed, and derived a good amount of income, was taken over by the Maharajah and the Rani’s allowances were curtailed. But the Rani, although her position restrained her physically, had a mind of her own and dealt with all these problems. She would often raise loans from loyal friends and associates of her consort and manage her affairs. The Maharajah even threatened the annulment of her adoption, but the Senior Rani was far too well educated to be cowed down by such threats which could not be legally sustained. 

The Rani did find some solace in her sister and the support the Visakham Thirunal provided her. Through the efforts of his family Kerala Varma was, in 1877, allowed to go to his family home in Harippad and thereafter confined there. The years passed and the Rani stoically maintained her stand, knowing that a day would come when she would be reunited with her husband. 

That day came in 1880. Ayilyam Thirunal died and was succeeded by Visakham Thirunal. The first act of the new Maharajah was to order the release of the Valiya Koil Thampuran who returned to Trivandrum. Thus after a period of 5 years the Rani was reunited with husband again. The most troublesome phase in the life of Rani Lakshmi Bayi had passed. 

Rani Lakshmi Bayi (portrait)


The story of Lakshmi Bayi’s unwavering loyalty towards her husband reached England and the ears of Queen Victoria. In 1881 the Senior Rani was invested with the Order of the Crown of India by the Queen, as a mark of distinction and special favour. Years later in 1894 Kerala Varma would also be awarded the Order of the Star of India. Lakshmi Bayi of Travancore came to epitomize a character so pure, graceful and respectable that even when she visited Madras, sometime in the early 1880s, she was greeted by large crowds of people.

The 1880s was a happy period in the life of the Rani. The absence of female members in the family still irked her, but there was always hope that her sister, whose only daughter died when a few months old, would give birth to a girl. In 1885 Visakham Thirunal died and his nephew, the adoptive younger brother of the Rani, Moolam Thirunal ascended the gaddi. The reign of Moolam Thirunal from 1885 until the early 20th century was very progressive and successful and the Maharajah was even accorded a personal 21 gun salute by the British. In 1893 the Junior Rani died.

The royal family now came to consist of Maharajah Moolam Thirunal, Elayarajah Revathi Thirunal and Princes Chathayam Thirunal and Aswathy Thirunal. The Rani was exceedingly proud of her nephews, and the youngest also had the distinction of being the first Indian prince to graduate with a college degree. Yet the death of Rani Parvathi Bayi brought the problem of dynastic perpetuation to the forefront again. By 1894 the Senior Rani was greatly troubled by the prospects of the royal family. 

The Rani now looked upon her two nieces in Mavelikkara, Ayilyamnnal Mahaprabha Thampuran and Thiruvadirannal Kochukunji Thampuran, daughters of Bhageerathi and Raja Ravi Varma to give birth to daughters who could, subsequently, be adopted into the royal family. With this in mind, in 1894 the Rani, accompanied by her mother and nieces, went to Rameshwaram to undertake the Sethusnanam. Legend has it that she had a divine vision here which conveyed that her wish would be granted. Yet the seriousness of the problem was such that it never left her mind. In a letter to Mahaprabha she wrote:

Many thoughts in connection with this trouble my mind perpetually. If only the girl had survived (the Junior Rani’s daughter) how consoled I would have been. Oh God! I do not have the strength to think on this! The fortunate ones are those who can live happily without such thoughts.


Rani Lakshmi Bayi with Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (standing) and Sethu Parvathi Bayi in 1900


Her wish was granted. In November 1895 Mahaprabha gave birth to a daughter, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, and in November 1896 Kochukunji’s daughter, Sethu Parvathi Bayi was born. The birth of her grandnieces brought great joy to the Rani but less than a month later, on the 5th of December, the Elayarajah Revathi Thirunal Kerala Varma died and Chathayam Thirunal became Elayarajah. But her little grandnieces returned to occupy her thoughts and her letters from this period show an eager interest in their upbringing, with the Rani advising her nieces in Mavelikkara on everything from the diet of the children to which temples they must visit. Although there were now suitable children she could adopt, nothing was done immediately regarding the same. In 1896 the former Dewan Seshayya Sastri wrote to the Rani regarding the urgent need to adopt heirs into the dynasty, recollecting a dream he had of the Rani presenting two little girls to Sree Padmanabhaswamy at the Trivandrum temple. It seemed that these two girls were destined to be queens of Travancore.

In the year 1899 the Senior Rani formally informed the Maharajah Moolam Thirunal of her desire to adopt heirs to succeed to her estate and its appurtenances. The adoption was not an easy affair. It is said that Moolam Thirunal was not very keen on it and the Elayarajah was positively opposed to the idea. The Maharajah’s consent was gained, and the First Prince Aswathy Thirunal was also agreeable. In addition Raja Ravi Varma exerted his influence with the Governor General and the adoption was sanctioned in spite of the Elayarajah’s opposition. The ceremony took place on the 31st of August 1900. 

Maharajah Moolam Thirunal


The Rani lavished all her affection on the newly installed little Junior Rani and First Princess of Attingal. With great enchantment she would write of how the little girls would call her “grandmother” and the Valiya Koil Thampuran “grandfather”. But her happiness was short lived. In October 1900 Aswathy Thirunal had suddenly died and such was the shock sustained by the Rani that she herself fell ill. Such was her health that she had to entrust the little princesses to the Valiya Koil Thampuran’s care as she herself was in no position to look after them. Her condition began to deteriorate further and another unhappy event sounded the possibility of her imminent demise. On the 6th of June 1901 the Elayarajah Chathayam Thirunal died and the Rani was by now so weak that when the news was communicated to her, she “grieved but little”. A week later, on the 15th of June 1901 Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran noted in his diary:

My angel, my life, my darling, my all in all, my love, my pride, my idol, my sweetheart – alas! and what not- expired quietly at 8 pm.

Rani Bharani Thirunal Lakshmi Bayi had died. 

Junior Rani Parvathi Bayi


Lakshmi Bayi had been a great queen and had gone through terrible experiences during her lifetime. Yet her greatest sorrow was her childlessness and constant worry about the future of the royal line. Perhaps, hence, soon after she had fulfilled her duty towards the dynasty by adopting successors, her role ended and she drifted into the pages of history. Below is the little description of the Rani that a Frenchman, Pierre Loti made:

The Queen holds her receptions in a room on the first floor… but she herself in national costume, looks like a charming personification of India. She has a regular profile, pure features and magnificent large eyes, in fact all the beauty of her race. In accordance with the tradition of the Nayar family her jet black hair is wound round her forehead. Enormous rings of diamonds and rubies hang from her earlobes and her naked arms, which are much bejeweled, are unconcealed by her velvet bodice… Oh! it is easy to imagine the degree of refinement to which a noble lady of sovereign race may attain in this country where even the lower classes are cultured, but the especial charm of the Maharanee lies in her benevolence and in a reserved and gentle sweetness… so before leaving I seek to impress her image on my mind, for her face does not seem to belong to our times, and it is only in old Indian miniatures that I have had a glimpse of such princesses.

Note: The adopted princesses Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and Sethu Parvathi Bayi grew up into worthy successors of the Rani. The elder one ruled Travancore for 8 years as Regent after the death of Moolam Thirunal in 1924 while the younger one was the mother of the last Maharajah of Travancore and the driving force behind the throne from 1932 until 1947. Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran was in 1901 appointed guardian to the little Ranis and remained so until his death due to a car accident in 1914. (For the portrait of Rani Lakshmi Bayi, of which I have used a cropped part, I am grateful to Sharat Sunder Rajeev and for the letters that have been quoted to Dr. Lakshmi Raghunandan.)


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