The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore by Manu S Pillai
Five years after Columbus mistook America for India, Vasco da Gama actually got to India with the help of what Manu Pillai calls “a distinctly expendable crew of convicts and criminals.” Apparently da Gama thought they might encounter the legendary Christian emperor Prester John, but instead they were summoned before one maharajah Manivikrama, otherwise known as the Zamorin of Calicut, with whose power and opulence they were suitably impressed.
However, da Gama was informed that if he wanted to set up a trading relationship with the Zamorin, he would have to come up with presents that were a little classier than hats, wash-basins and honey: they wanted gold. At this point da Gama tried to turn himself into an ambassador, but the Zamorin ignored the claim. He did, however, say the Portuguese could trade like anyone else, although they would have no special treatment.
Thus Europeans first set foot in Kerala, and, over the coming centuries, “unleashed a wave of political fury that would topple local powers like a house of cards.” Out of the ensuing chaos emerged, eventually, the area known as Travancore under its powerful leader Martanda Varma.
It is the story of his line which Manu Pillai tells us in this vast and learned work, brimming with anecdotes of adventure, lust, black magic, political intrigue and fascinating characters. He weaves all this around the career of Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (1895-1985), a woman who ruled (she didn’t just reign, although the British might have liked her to) as regent over Travancore from 1921 to 1934, and whose remarkable achievements in power are chronicled in detail for the first time (in English) by Manu Pillai, educated at Fergusson College, Pune, and King’s College, London, who has worked in both England and India with politicians, as well as with the BBC as a researcher for the Incarnations series, a documentary which chronicles the history of India through the lives of fifty famous people.
This is one of the most thoroughly-researched books of its kind that I have read in a long time. Pillai deserves high praise for his incredibly meticulous grasp of his subject; not only has he read just about everything, but he has also interviewed surviving members of the Travancore royal family and other people concerned with the events he describes. The bibliography is huge and the end-notes copious. He evinces a great sympathy for Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, the central figure of his narrative, but he is always objective and is sometimes quite critical.
However, Pillai is not out to make a statement—he wants to tell an interesting and fascinating story, and he does it with consummate skill, tact, and humor, too. He is so thorough that we even know what the Maharani had for breakfast; she liked milk, idlis and chutney, all presented on a silver breakfast service. Some readers might see this as overkill, but what it does is make the characters more human, and Pillai writes so well that one can picture Her Highness sitting in bed enjoying her breakfast before getting dressed. For this reviewer, the long discussions on the economics of mid 20th-century Travancore and the exigencies of matrilineal law were a bit tedious and complex, but no doubt scholars will find them most edifying, and there is plenty here for the general interested reader to enjoy.
The main appeal is the cast of characters. In Travancore women often exercised a great deal of power because succession was matrilineal. Some of the men chafed under the system; Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s husband, known as the Valiya Koil Tampuran, sometimes found things difficult, but his wife always stuck by him and they seem to have had a loving marriage right to the end. Another prince, Ravi Varma, connected to the royal family by marriage, became one of India’s best-known artists, combining his knowledge of Western and Indian art to produce works which appealed to everyone.
Then there were the women: from 1810 to 1829 Travancore was ruled by two queens regnant, Gowri Lakshmi Bayi (1810-14) and Gowri Parvathi Bayi (1814-29). Then came Sethu Lakshmi Bayi in 1924. In between, however, there were other remarkable women who exercised power and influence over a succession of maharajahs whose priorities were either aesthetic, erotic, or both.
Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who might be termed the “heroine” of this story, was the last of her line to exercise real power, although her half-sister’s son Chithira Tirunal, after Sethu’s abdication as regent, ruled as maharajah until 1949. Along with these royals we find a number of favorites wielding power as well as engaging in wife-swapping and diligent British attachés trying to negotiate the bewildering world of Travancore politics.
Throughout most of the saga the one constant is Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, a woman who was able to steer her way through it all without any loss of dignity. She was intelligent, compassionate and shrewd (she timed her few nervous breakdowns perfectly), and seems to have been universally beloved by everyone except her half-sister Sethu Parvathi Bayi, who was always trying to undermine just about everything the maharani did and finally succeeded in getting her son on the throne by himself. Due to the strength of many of these characters, the political situation was often toxic, even crazy, and few people could have negotiated it like Sethu Lakshmi Bayi.
Pillai has given us a wonderful book.
I remember looking at the faces of some of the characters in my grandfather’s stamp collection and wondering where Travancore was and who these people might be, with their bejewelled crowns and haughty expressions. We are fortunate that we can see them all in this book, too, because Pillai has included many photographs, some in colour, that bring them to life and add to the enjoyment. In a book of this kind, it’s essential that the reader can see the people and places, because for the most part they will be unfamiliar with them, even if they are Indian readers.
I have no reservations about recommending this book to anyone interested in the connection between the personal and the political, the conflicts between family members, and the strength and decency of the one woman who, ultimately, succeeded in holding the whole tottering edifice together through quarrels, machinations, incompetent advisers and downright nasty-mindedness.