As a part of Kerala’s vast and scattered diaspora, I grew up hearing interesting titbits about the land I had sprung from: communism, literacy, matriliny and, more recently, Arabian Nights-type tales about treasures hidden in the vaults of Padmanabhaswamy Temple. I absorbed this information in my childhood without exploring it in any depth because the only books available were either written by colonial-era social anthropologists or Indian historians too wedded to the format of academic books to make them genuinely readable, crammed full of dates and details but with little attention paid to literary art.
Luckily, debut author Manu S Pillai has now accessed all of those texts and created the book I always longed for—a narrative history of Kerala that faithfully records and indexes its sources but also tells a cracking story. The focus is on the last queen of erstwhile Travancore state, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi (aka Senior Maharani), who ruled from 1924 as a regent for seven years while the British authorities waited for the future Maharajah, Chithira Tirunal, to come of age. Chithira Tirunal was the son of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s adoptive sister who came to be known as Junior Maharani. Many people in Trivandrum remember the publicly fraught relationship that existed between these two Maharanis grappling for power in the decade before India became independent, an event that was unforeseen at the time and ultimately rendered their fight rather poignantly futile.
In reality, the two ‘sisters’ were first cousins who were adopted together in 1900 from the Kolathiri clan of Mavelikkara to preserve Travancore’s shaky matrilineal line. After a series of miscarriages beset the Senior Maharani, it was the Junior Maharani who bore the heir to the throne. While it fell upon Sethu Lakshmi Bayi to play regent as the future Maharajah grew up, the Junior Maharani, cast in an unenviably vacuous position during the regency years, naturally made it her business to ensure a powerful role for herself as soon as her son became king. This was eventually achieved, with much help from the flamboyant and brilliant Sir CP Ramaswami Iyer, and was—the book suggests—employed to make the Senior Maharani’s position untenable once Chithira Tirunal came to power. The present royal family residing at Kowdiar Palace in Trivandrum are descendants of the Junior Maharani while the family of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi left Kerala to settle in Bangalore, Chennai and beyond after the regency period came to an end.
Manu Pillai charts this divided journey in vivid and comprehensive fashion, bringing events virtually up to the present day and telling the story occasionally like a family saga. Personal letters and interviews reveal the kind of tensions and jealousies that run through all families and this is rendered doubly riveting when set against the backdrop of ‘palaces and princes’.
However, it would be doing the book a huge disservice to suggest that it does not rise beyond mere historical biography. This 700-page whopper of a book is much, much more than the story of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, fascinating as it is to read about this able female ruler who was responsible for many policies now taken for granted in Kerala (eg, the Nair Succession Act that effectively and, in my view, rather regrettably abolished matriliny). For me, the best aspects of The Ivory Throne lay in those authorly excursions that efficiently answered all the questions I had stored up from my childhood in a maranaadan Malayali home.
From Vasco da Gama’s chaotic arrival on the shores of Calicut to Martanda Varma’s ingenious melding of royalty and divinity when he declared himself Padmanabhadasan, from the Temple Proclamation Act that finally allowed lower caste Hindus into temples to the abolition of the privy purse—this book swirls through Kerala’s history like a dervish possessed by the intention of telling a magnificent story, and telling it marvellously well.