How does one capture 400 years of history in 500 printed pages?  Perhaps by focusing on the lifetime of one person, and providing context and texture to the story by giving historical perspective to the events of this life.  In The Ivory Throne, Manu Pillai takes a stab at this monumental task, and weaves the end of the Travancore Empire into the intricate tapestry of the history of Kerala. It is well researched, and considering that it is the debut work of a young author, it is certainly no mean achievement.  

Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (or Senior Maharani) was the maternal aunt of the last Maharajah of the Travancore dynasty, Maharajah Chithira Tirunal.  As the author mentions in interviews, he chose to focus this book on the Senior Maharani because she appears to be singled out as the one ruler of the House of Travancore who is not revered and recollected as the others are.  Could this be because she was just a woman, and only a regent to the underage Maharajah at that?  Or is it because her powerful and conniving cousin Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi (or Junior Maharani), the mother of Chithira Tirunal, ensured that she was marginalized from the people’s perspective and designated to a distant penumbra of historical vision?  

Sethu Lakshmi and her younger cousin belonged to the unusual matrilineal tradition in which the unit of the family does not mean husband, wife and their children, but brother, sister and her children, and dynastic succession occurred from maternal uncle to nephew.  As a result of a dearth of girls born of royal blood, the two maharanis were adopted in 1900 into the royal House of Travancore as children at the ages of 5 and 4 respectively, so that heirs may be forthcoming to keep the lineage alive. As the principal Attingal Rani, Sethu Lakshmi was of royal lineage in her own right, and was also the granddaughter of the eminent painter Raja Ravi Varma.  Her rigorous grooming for the role she was destined for appeared initially to be in vain as she seemed unable to bear children, and her cousin Sethu Parvathi won the race to produce a male heir. However, the rules of matrilineal lineage again decreed that the Senior Maharani would be the regent to the young king when the reigning Maharajah Mulam Tirunal died, much to the chagrin of Sethu Parvathi.  The author comments “As the Junior Maharani’s name suffered, her cousin’s seemed to assume an added lustre. It was most likely not a pleasing development for the former and very plausibly aggravated their relentlessly unhappy relations. For as one contemporary put it, ‘that her quiet, retiring and orthodox cousin became Regent was a bitter blow to her; that she won the love and respect of her people was still more bitter.’”

This rivalry between the palaces of these two maharanis forms the immediate backdrop for the brief (1924-1931) though impactful rule of Sethu Lakshmi over the kingdom of Travancore, while the history of 400 years of rival rulers and ambitious usurping chieftains from Travancore, Cochin, and the kingdoms of the Malabar coast including Calicut; and effects of powerful foreign interlopers from Portugal and Britain provide an extended context.  The period of Sethu Lakshmi’s rule coincided with a time of great change in the political and social fabric of India.

The House of Travancore had pledged allegiance to the British Raj and had become one of its most reliable subordinates.  Sethu Lakshmi was extremely successful at navigating both the British domination, or the Paramount Power as they had taken to calling themselves, while still maintaining the importance and relevance of the changing social landscape of her own people in Travancore.  She created a successful dynamic in her interactions with the British Resident who was a direct representative of the Paramount Power, and the Dewan who was usually appointed by the Resident, while placating general opinion that her consort and husband, the Valiya Koil Tampuran, was being given undue political power.  And she juggled all these personalities during the period of ascendency of Mahatma Gandhi, and the increasing traction of the Indian Independence movement. Sethu Lakshmi steered Travancore with calm authority through the rivalries and conflicts between the local castes and religious groups such as Nairs, Ezhavas, Christians, and Muslims.  She also undertook impactful social reform which included the promotion of education and employment for women in Travancore. Several of her policies contributed greatly to the preeminence of Kerala as it was created as a state in independent India. Once Chithira Tirunal became an adult, Sethu Lakshmi was prevailed upon to leave Travancore and took up residence in Bangalore as a private citizen where she ended her days surrounded by family, much in contrast to her barren state at the start of her marriage.  

The portrayal of Sethu Lakshmi is meticulous in its eye for detail, and in the copious references which are documented.  However, one is left wondering about the bias which is apparent between the portrayal of the Senior and Junior Maharanis.  The portrayal of Sethu Parvathi, the junior Maharani is one dimensional although the author does imply that she was intelligent, non-traditional and dynamic.  Her negative role has far reaching consequences in this narrative and extends to the manner in which she over-shadows her son, the Maharajah, once he takes on the reigns of state, and of her ensuring her choice of Dewan as the wily Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer.  As the author quotes from a Memorial entitled, “All Subjects of Travancore,” written in 1939, “The mother’s influence over the young Maharajah and Sir C.P.Ramaswami Iyer’s influence over the Maharani are notorious.”

The author comments on the imposition of Victorian mores by the British upon the powerful and free-thinking women of Kerala along with their matriliny, which apparently led to their becoming more traditional and subservient in a patriarchal society.  However, the portrayal of Sethu Lakshmi is sometimes more reminiscent of the latter, although her traditional behavior is portrayed in a positive light. Further, her entreaties to the British in the matter of what she considered an equitable pension seem almost pathetic and strike a discordant note.  While it does not seem fitting for a respected, far-sighted, and regal Queen, it is also in contradiction to the privileged lifestyle that she apparently led as alluded to by the multiple residences that she and her immediate family enjoyed. One of Sethu Lakshmi’s grand-daughters recalls that in one of their residences “There were cabinets full of jars of gems, arranged by type and color: pink diamonds in one, blue diamonds in the next, rubies in the third, and so on.”

There is an abundance of detail in the minutiae of the lives of the personalities and in their interactions, and at times one loses the forest for the trees.  This along with the fact that the narrative is not always in chronological order causes a staccato flow. Perhaps the details of court intrigues of secondary characters could have been sacrificed for a more fleshed out discussion of aspects of Sethu Lakshmi’s rule such as her alleged silencing of the press, and the impact that the freedom struggle and the British reactions to it had on the sunset of her reign and life. 

Irrespective of these failings, The Ivory Throne is a thoroughly enjoyable read, and Manu Pillai has made a complex and multifaceted slice of history accessible to the reader.

A scientist by training, the author has always been an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction books.  She enjoys writing short stories, and also currently works with a local cultural organization that promotes classical music and dance. 

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