Tuesday, 12 May 2009



It was a hot February noon and I was sitting in my father’s studio, waiting for a phone call - a phone call that could make one of my dreams come true. A day back, my friend Uma Maheshwari, who is writing the biography of Maharaja had promised to take me with her, to Pattom palace!

Many years back, standing on the terrace of my father’s old studio, I saw an old car, with the royal insignia of the erstwhile royal family passing down the street. Then somebody told me that it was the King of Travancore, on his daily routine, on his way to the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. The next day also I waited there to see the King, but I got only a glimpse of him. On yet another day, sitting on the rear seat of my father’s scooter I even followed him to the gates of the old city. I noticed that many people on seeing the car stood up and bowed in reverence.

When I was studying in the tenth standard, on my first visit to Padmanabha Swamy temple we were told that the King was coming for his daily prayers and that we will have to wait until he has finished. I rushed to see him; this time also I did not have much luck as he passed by quickly. Through the stories told by my grandfather and other senior family members, the members of the royal family had become a household name. It was one of my dreams to meet them. Through the drawing competitions conducted by Chitrakalamandalam, I had the opportunity to meet Karthika Tirunal Thampuratti and her daughters, the princesses. However, I have not met or talked to the King.

Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, as a small boy - Picture reproduced from Temple Entry Proclamation Souvenir.
As I did not get any response from Uma, I called her. Palace secretary said that the King already had many visitors, but he asked her to come. It kind of let down my spirits, as I have heard Uma saying that sometimes she had to wait for days to see him. However, after some time she called me and said that we could meet him. The meeting was scheduled at three p.m., borrowing my mother’s Activa; I went to the University office to pick Uma.

I was feeling a little tensed as I approached the large arched gate, inside I saw an old palace with many later additions, even though in the traditional style they did not seem to match with the old structure. It was disappointing that the palace of the King was not so large or grand (compared to Kowdiar palace) as I had expected. The secretary’s office seemed to be a treasure trove of old photographs and paintings. A large painting of the long gone Aanacutcherry, a landmark of old Travancore claim a major portion of one wall, an intricate portrait of the King, by Krishnan Nair, done using coloured sand catches our attention.

The Maharaja who was born in 1922 is going to celebrate his 88th birthday this March. I was surprised that even at this old age he had to keep up with a busy schedule. There were many people waiting to see him. After waiting for some time, we were asked to go inside, Uma Maheshwari who was familiar to the staff and palace, led the way. We were led to a medium sized living room. We stood there waiting for the King. The room was decorated with many old photographs and paintings. A huge painting of Sree Moolam Tirunal, by P. Mukundan Thampi, dated 1910 adorn a wall (the portrait is clearly a copy of a similar one by Raja Ravi Varma, the great-grandfather of the Maharaja). There were old photographs of Chithira Tirunal, Amma Maharani and old photographs of the King’s late wife. Another painting, which caught my attention, was that of Chithira Tirunal wearing a green turban, Uma told me that Marthanda Varma was an expert in tying turbans and he used to make one in less than two minutes, for his ‘Annan’, the late Maharaja Chithira Tirunal Bala Rama Varma.

Marthanda Varma and his wife Sri Radha Devi.
Standing there, I could see that the next room led to an open courtyard on one side there were many idols of gods, a Brahmin was cleaning/preparing for pooja. The building, even though a royal palace, was warm and cosy like an old middle-class tharavad. It brought back the memories of my grandmother’s old tharavad.

A man came and asked Uma whether she got a calendar published by Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple trust, she said no and he went inside. After a few seconds, a small man wearing a loose white shirt and a mundu entered, his back was bend, which reminded me of Karthika Tirunal during her last years. Actually, I took some time to realize that it was the King. Uma bowed in reverence. He presented her the calendar. I folded my hands and greeted him with a ‘Namaste’.

Even though I had seen him many times before, I had expected to find a more powerful man, but to my surprise, in front of me, sitting in an old model European chair was the Maharaja of Travancore. Uma who was a frequent visitor began talking to him, by that time I was closely studying him. He wore an old-fashioned white shirt, with the royal emblem embroidered on his right chest. The simple white mundu and the paragon 'maethiyadi' chappals gave him a ‘common man’ look. Yet when he talked, he showed clear marks of his aristocratic upbringing. The only gold ornaments that he was wearing were three gold rings, one with his initials M.V., a ‘Navaratna’ ring and a ring with an emerald stone.

Uma had prepared a list of ‘things to do’ for the forthcoming release of the book. It seems that he was not satisfied with the publishers, they were very slow. Uma wanted them to release the book before the King’s birthday, which is in March. It was interesting that he cracked some jokes while talking and this made him look more casual. After talking to Uma he asked her who this new boy was, Uma introduced me and told him that I was doing some sketches for his book. He asked me whether I could do a picture of him, with Sreepadmanabha’s feet in his heart.

While talking he said that the behaviour of people has changed drastically, they have chosen the path of ‘Ravana’, the path of ‘adharma’. He seemed distressed at the state of his lost kingdom. Travancore had seen its days of glory under the rule of her famous Kings. Starting from Veera Marthanda Varma, the father of modern Travancore who was both a mastermind in uniting the kingdom and at the same time was a ruthless tyrant; and the ‘musician king’ Swathi to our beloved last ruler, the ‘Rajarishi’, Sree Chithira Tirunal Bala Rama Varma.

I had the privilege of showing him the manuscript of my family history. He was interested to know that I had written it and had made the illustrations myself. He read some parts from the book, particularly the portion that said about the great London exhibition of 1851. He told me that the ivory throne sent to the exhibition was awarded a second prize, which was a great achievement for his kingdom and for the craftsmen who made it. He seemed to like my handwriting and commented that on seeing my penmanship he is thinking of stop writing.

Marthanda Varma - sketch by the author (2009).
After some time one of his attendants came and said that he had another visitor, he was let in. A man entered the room, bowed the king and took out three silver ‘kindis’ of fine quality from his bag and placed them on a table. After inspecting the kindis Marthanda Varma gave him some instructions on how to make a box for keeping them. The man listened to him and took leave. After he had gone, the king told us that the man was an Achari specialized in making silver artefacts; he once made a silver tray for him. It was packed in a wooden box and was presented to a friend, however on opening the box, the room was filled with a sweet scent that attracted all those who were present there, and thus he became a favourite of the royal family and now makes silver artefacts for the King.

We didn't notice that time was sliding by as we were talking, soon it was time for his evening prayers and we stood up and took leave.

This article was written in February 2009.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev.