by V.N. Gopalakrishnan, Mumbai
His Highness Sri Padmanabha Dasa Vanchipala Sir Bala Rama Varma III, Kulasekhara Kiritapati Manney Sultan Maharaja Raja Ramaraja Bahadur, Shamsher Jang, Maharaja of Travancore, GCSI, GCIE was the last ruler of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore. Upon the death of his adoptive maternal uncle, Sri Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma on August 7, 1924, Sri Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma succeeded to the throne of Travancore under the rule of Marumakkathayam Law of Inheritance. Since the boy Maharajah was still a minor, it was decided that the Senior Maharani should assume power and be Regent ruler until he came of age. Accordingly, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was proclaimed Maharani Regent of Travancore and commenced the regency in September 1924.
Sri Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma took over the reins of Travancore on November 6, 1931and ruled for 67 years and his birth centenary was celebrated on November 7, this year. He was the last surviving Knight Grand Commander of both the Order of the Star of India and of the Order of the Indian Empire. Sri Chithira Thirunal was proficient in many languages and was an embodiment of humility. He lived his divine life as a Padmanabha Dasa and contributed to every walk of life in Kerala like education, healthcare, music, spirituality as well as democracy. Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma was the first Maharaja to usher in the concept of Padmanabha Dasa in the 18th century and Sri Chithira Thirunal has been compared to Anizham Thirunal in terms of devotion to the temple.
Under Sri Chithira Thirunal, Travancore became a typical modern state and a model to the rest of India. Though opinion might be divided about the Legislative Reforms Act of 1932, everyone must applaud the courage and wisdom underlying the proclamation of 1936 opening the temples of Travancore to every Hindu, irrespective of caste or sex. By abolishing the capital punishment in Travancore, it became a remarkable first step in the entire Asian sub-continent. The universal adult franchise was introduced in 1940.The mid-day meal scheme in the form of the Vanchi Poor Fund in Travancore was introduced to encourage poor children to attend school. The State Transport System inaugurated in 1937 has been an eye-opener to all as a public utility service earning a big net income for the state. Bombay was connected with Trivandrum by an air service in 1935. The Pallivasal Scheme (1933-40) was the first attempt in India to harness the waterfalls to man’s service by generation of electricity.
The University of Travancore (subsequently named as Kerala University) was founded in 1937 not only provided for a well-recognised demand but also initiated movements for similar universities for the conservation of regional culture and research. Sri Chithira Thirunal became the first Chancellor and Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer as the Vice Chancellor of the Travancore University. The Padmanabhapuram Palace built during Marthanda Varma's regime was renovated and the Trivandrum Art Gallery was expanded. Aerodrome, Radio Station, Public Service Commission, Medical and Engineering Colleges were started in the state. However, the Maharaja’s his tenure was marred by the Punnapra-Vayalar Uprising that took place between the Communists and the Government, in which more than a thousand people were assumed to have died.
Balarama Varma was born on November 7, 1912 on the Deepavali day under the star Chithira and hence came to be known as Sri Chithira Thirunal. His father Ravi Varma Kochu Koyi Thampuran was the great nephew of Raja Ravi Varma, the legendary painter. His mother Sethu Parvathi Bayi was the junior Rani of Attingal who was distantly connected to the Travancore royal family. In 1900 she was adopted into the Royal family by her maternal aunt Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi because of the absence of male successors in the family.
Though he was the last Maharaja of Travancore, he became a historic personality during his lifetime due to the administrative reforms implemented during his tenure. When Gandhiji came to Kerala in 1932 for participating in the Vaikkom Satyagraha, he appealed to Travancore people to fight for justice. Gandhiji’s Vaikkom Satyagraha, K. Kelappan’s Guruvayur Satyagraha, the influence of Narayana Guru and Chattambi Swami and Savarna Jaatha led by K. Kelappan were the main factors that resulted in the Temple Entry Proclamation. When Savarna Jaatha was organised, high class Hindus from different parts of the state participated to prove that they have no objection with the entry of low caste people in temples. It proved to be a milestone in the annals of Kerala history.
On May 9 and 10, 1936 a meeting was held at Thiruvanathapuram under the leadership of Rameswari Nehru, nephew of Motilal Nehru. It brought all Kerala under one umbrella and was known as ‘Akhila Kerala Khetrapraveshana Sammelanam’. It was not only for Travancore, but also for allowing low caste people all over Kerala to enter temples, including Kochi and Malabar. On November 3, 1936, a memorandum was submitted before the Maharaja after collecting huge number of signatures from high caste people.
On November 12, 1936 with the co-operation of Maharani Sethu Parvathi Bayi and Dewan Sir.C.P Ramaswamy Iyer, Sri Chithira Thirunal issued the famous Temple Entry Proclamation on his 25th Aatta Thirunal (birthday) allowing Hindus of all castes and classes, including Harijans, the right to enter temples. Mahatma Gandhi and other social reformers praised the Maharaja for this proclamation though the conservative Hindus opposed it. Padmanabha Swamy temple was the first in India to proclaim temple entry for all, which made Mahatma Gandhi describe Sri Chithira Thirunal as a ‘Modern Ashoka’. He sent a message appreciating the Maharaja for this historic decision.
British India became independent as two dominions in 1947 and after some initial hesitation, Sri Chithira Thirunal agreed to accede Travancore to the new Dominion of India. In 1949, Sri Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma came close to refusing the post of Rajpramukh because he could not “give oath to the Indian government” and he stated that he would stand for the welfare of the people. However, he served as the Rajapramukh of the Travancore-Cochin union from July 1, 1949 to October 31, 1956. On November 1, 1956, the Travancore-Cochin union was merged with the Malabar district of Madras state to form the state of Kerala and Sri Chithira Thirunal's office of Rajpramukh came to an end. On December 28, 1971, Sri Chithira Thirunal lost his Privy Purse and other privileges when the Government of India derecognized the rulers of the erstwhile princely states.
Despite losing the Privy Purse, Sri Chithira Thirunal still managed to support the temple from his private funds and he could conduct Murajapa and Lakshadeepa more times than his predecessors. He was also a witness to the use of electric lights for the first time for the Lakshadeepa when there was scarcity of oil and cost escalation. Aswathi Thirunal Gouri Lakshmi Bayi has mentioned in her book on the Padmanabha Swamy temple that for the first time, in the 1960s, a deva prasnam (astrological consultation) was conducted when Sri Chithira Thirunal had to decide whether the temple could be electrified.
Sri Chithira Thirunal, the last ruler of Travancore breathed his last at the Kowdiar Palace on July 19, 1991 at the age of 78. He was succeeded as head of the royal house of Travancore by his brother, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma.
On the recent discovery of priceless treasures in the vaults of Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram, the family shrine of Travancore royals, Uthradom Tirunal stated: "It has been in the temple vaults for centuries and the royal family has been well aware of that...It is the wealth of Lord Padmanabha and we have never ever felt any interest in it. It should be preserved as God's wealth in future also."
The Government of India issued a Stamp of Maharaja in 1991, commemorating the reforms that marked the rule of Sri Chithira Thirunal in Travancore. The Sri Chithira Thirunal Institute of Medical Sciences and Technology and the Sree Chithira Thirunal College of Engineering at Trivandrum were named after him. A statue of the late ruler was also unveiled by Dr. C Rangarajan, Governor of Andhra Pradesh on November 13, 2001.
(Author is Director, Indo-Gulf Consulting, a PR consulting firm. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)
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