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Manu S Pillai’s The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of The House of Travancore is an insightful book about the royals of Kerala and their customs.
“Once I had a kingdom. But that is gone. Then I thought Satelmond was mine, but that is gone too. Then I thought this house was mine, but now I can only say this room is mine.”
Thus spoke the frail old lady who once used to be the Regent of erstwhile Travancore, a queen in the line of Attingal princesses. She lived through glory, vicissitudes, fame, wealth and exile with her characteristic strength and lack of rancor.
Manu.S.Pillai chronicles the story of the royal Travancore family in what can only be called a magnum opus. It is indeed surprising to know that this is Pillai’s first book. Thoroughly researched, beautifully written, this is an insightful book about the royals of Kerala and their customs.
The book is able to deftly capture the social norms and customs of each passing reign. It hinges on the story of Senior Queen Sethu Lakshmi Bayi and rightly so. The author moves back the curtains of a forgotten era and reveals to us this stalwart whose policies and life ought to be remembered and honoured.
The quiet child of a strong mother and a painter grandfather (the path-breaking Raja Ravi Varma) Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was adopted by the Queen Rani Lakshmi Bayi, as was her cousin Sethu Parvathi Bayi at the tender age of five. Both cousins were taken to Travancore from Mavellikara, where a life of rigorous academics, activities and prayer awaited them.
Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was a studious child with a serene nature. She corresponded with her birth parents who encouraged her to stay a steady course with respect to her responsibilities. “As her mother would impress upon her, she was no longer a little girl; she had become an icon and an institution, the traditions and honour of which she was bound to preserve for life.”
Sethu grew to be a queen who was willing to listen to all but make decisions on her own. Anyone who made the mistake of thinking her weak due to her gender or mild demeanour was to quickly learn that she was anything but weak. She was a continuing thread in the strong matrilineal line of leadership that Kerala followed. Her regency which lasted from 1924 to 1931 is considered a golden era of enlightened governance.
She took charge in an atmosphere of uncertainty and great change. The Satyagraha movement under Gandhi was picking speed, as was the strong opposition to the young queen particularly by the Junior Rani Sethu Parvati Bai. Furthermore, the people of Travancore were deeply divided along caste and gender lines. The general feeling was that the queen was only an interim ruler, her nephew being next in line to the throne. She was also considered as a figurehead by the then Dewan Raghaviah, since that had been the case with the previous ruler Mulam Thirunal. He fought hard to quell the young queen who turned out to be a keen strategist herself.
The leaders of the Swadeshi movement, however, felt that all citizens of India must be treated as equals in the eyes of the Lord. Naturally there was great resistance from the upper castes. Gandhi came down to Travancore to intervene and resolve the matter. The Queen met with the Mahatma who was deeply impressed with her statesmanship.
Moderation, discussion, consensus, patience and balance became the hallmarks of her reign. She had to constantly keep the British, nationalist forces and the royal establishment on an even keel, a task she did not always succeed in.
She was responsible for the passing of the 1925 Village Panchayat Act of Travancore. Its stress on autonomy and involvement in village developmental works is seen in Kerala, which has strong people driven panchayat governance even today.
The Ivory Throne : Chronicles of the House of Travancore
She was also instrumental in opening the doors of colleges and offices to women. She also ensured the abolition of special schools for lower castes. The schools in her administration had zero-tolerance for segregation on religious or caste. Midday meals were provided for children from poorer backgrounds and grants for education were instituted. She found despite being diagnosed with tuberculosis the energy to be constantly in touch with her people, democratize administration and spend time with her children.
She lived the remainder of her years as mother and grandmother. Manu.S.Pillai’s book is remarkable in that he brings to the public eye this forward-looking Queen who seems to have been way ahead of her time, despite the confines of tradition and royalty. She was a leader with her own distinctive voice who enthralled whomsoever met her – be it a citizen or a dignitary like Lord Mountbatten.
The author has provided copious notes that give the reader an idea of the depth of research that has been undertaken in its writing. The span of The Ivory Throne is vast covering the reigns of the Zamorins, the successive Thirunals, the invading Portuguese, Dutch, British, trade relations with the Chinese, the various royal houses of Kerala, the remarkable line of Amazon princess- The Attingal princess and the cousins who turned into rival queens. He paints a canvas that is vivid and gripping. Standing tall amidst it is the glorious Senior Queen, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi. Through this book Manu.S.Pillai has immortalised her and ensured that she will never be forgotten. The Ivory Throne is as robust and enlightening as the queen it honours.
Image source: royalty Kerala by Shutterstock.
Sheeba is the co-founder and editor at Little Kulture, a website dedicated to discovering
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