When you listen to Princess Gouri, the niece of the late Maharaja Chithira Thirunal Bala Rama Varma, her intellect shines through very quickly, thanks to her gilt-edged wit and wry observations.
At the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, the princess was graceful and dignified in her simple blue silk sari, a plain cotton blouse and a long braid. It became obvious within minutes that it was mostly commoners like me, as I mentioned earlier in Part I of this blog post, who were dying to pass off for unacknowledged royalty.
Princess Gouri’s first-hand account of the impact of the royal family of South India’s Travancore added depth and dimension to the Maharaja exhibit at the museum that recounts the lives of royalty in India over the centuries until independence in 1947. Visitors like me couldn’t stop convulsing over turban ornaments on display, circa 1750, studded with rubies, diamonds, emeralds, pearls and sapphires; we gaped at gold bracelets and anklets thick as PVC pipes, ornate silver and golden thrones, bridal trousseau with elaborate zardosi embroidery work, an elephant throne (or howdah) and a magnificent opaque watercolor on paper of the procession of the Maharaja Krishnaraja Wodeyar III through Mysore. The biggest crowd-puller was, of course, a silver carriage that pays homage to India’s silverwork heritage as well as the art nouveau movement in Europe. Built for the Maharaja of Bhavnagar in 1915, this magnificent carriage had to be lowered in by crane after removing glass panels in an upstairs window.
By virtue of birth, princely families received the best of education and in the Thirunal family, scholarship runs deep. This matrilineal family of Travancore gave birth to one of India’s foremost painters, Raja Ravi Varma about whom I wrote here, as well as one of India’s eminent composers in the Carnatic tradition, Maharaja Swati Thirunal, a brilliant musician and scholar who composed masterpieces in many languages. Among the fascinating details that the princess shared with us was another nugget from antiquity: a Chera ancestor in her family was mentioned in India’s epic tale, The Mahabharatha, in descriptions of the battle. Historians estimate that the Battle of Kurushetra described in the epic took place around 10th Century BC. It was impossible to not marvel at this rare, 4000-year-old bloodline.
We learned that the Dutch East India Company was defeated by Maharaja Marthanda Varma’s army in 1741 in the Battle of Colachel. “What am I going to do with the prisoners of war, let them go back home to Holland,” the raja of Travancore is supposed to have said magnanimously to his conquests. But the Dutch said they rather liked it in Kerala and Eustacius Benedictus de Lannoy, naval commander of the Dutch East India Company, became commander of the army of Travancore, serving Maharaja Varma. “President Roosevelt’s family traces its link to De Lannoy,” the princess added, pointing out many other interesting American connections in the life of the Travancore royals as the evening progressed.
She showed us a charming picture that was taken of her with Jackie Kennedy in the sixties –Mrs. Kennedy even asked for a second piece of chocolate cake–when she visited the Travancore palace. When Arun Kumar, the moderator for the talk, mentioned how stunning Princess Parvathi looked in that picture, she chose to vent her frustrations about aging. “Don’t even go there,” she warned, generating a ripple of “we’ve been there too” in the audience. Age is indeed life’s greatest equalizer; fortunately, even the royals have to deal with it, with the exception of Cleopatra about whom Shakespeare most probably lied anyway.
As I wrote in my previous post on the subject, the royals felt accountable for the happiness of their subjects. The princess’ talk demonstrated this in innumerable ways. When the British demanded that the Maharajah Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma (1885-1924) send his soldiers to fight in World War I, he demurred, saying he would not force his people to go and fight. “And so the British reduced Travancore Maharaja’s gun salute from 21 to 19,” she said, with a chuckle. Yet another of her ancestors, Karthika Thirunal Raja Varma (1758-98), wrote the second treatise of Natya Shastra (treatise of Indian classical dance) and composed pieces for Kathakali dance. The visual arts developed and flourished under his patronage.
From eschewing bonded labor to abolishing capital punishment, from building the first Indian observatory to establishing the first printing press in India, these reigning kings and queens of Travancore oversaw the grooming of the people of Kerala into the most literate and adventurous of all in India.
One of Travancore’s contributions to the British monarchy during the Great Exhibition of London was an exquisite ivory throne crafted by Travancore artists. Don’t forget to read the exchange between the Travancore and the British royalties here and certainly page down to see a photograph of the distinguished Queen Victoria seated on the ivory throne.
The family, by the accounts of people from Kerala, leads a simple and frugal life even today and this interview in The Hindustan Times of July 2011 speaks volumes about the humanitarian outlook and self-discipline of the current king.
Princess Gouri lives with her husband, Chembrol Raja Raja Varma, in Thiruvananthapuram’s Kowdiar Palace, of which I found evocative images here. Taking us through pictures of the palace, she told us how she and her siblings were born and raised there and brought up to be respectful, principled and conscious about energy and water conservation. ”The royals of the north are opulent. We have never been that way. Even now, we sit on the floor and eat off of banana leaves,” the princess says. Then she makes yet another reference from contemporary western life. “It’s eco-friendly. Fewer dishes to wash.”
She talked about the spectacular Ananthapadmanabhaswamy temple adjacent to Kuthiramalika Palace of Travancore, the residence of the Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma. She invited the audience to attend the free concerts at the Swathi Music Festival held January 6-12 of every year in memory of Swathi Thirunal in the grounds of the palace he built in 1840.