Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, whose birth anniversary was this month, once ruled over Travancore with absolute authority
Mass adulation did not, however, protect the maharani from the insidious politics of the palace
In October 1949, M.K. Vellodi, who helped V.P. Menon in the integration of the princely states, submitted a report on Travancore in the south. The ex-ruler of the region, Balarama Varma, had acceded to the Indian union in return for a privy purse as well as allowances for members of his matrilineal family. Proposals were put forth by the maharaja with regard to his mother, i.e. the junior maharani, and his sister, but another branch of the royal house was, oddly, neglected. As Vellodi recorded, “During my discussions…with the Maharaja, he not once referred even to the existence of (his aunt) the Senior Maharani" and “completely omitted" her and her children from the table—a detail that was especially puzzling given that the latter was “regarded…with greater affection than either the Junior Maharani or her son" by the state’s six million subjects.
For Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, whose birth anniversary it was this month, such treatment from her nephew was not surprising. For years, she had been living in a gilded cage, seemingly privileged but also entirely powerless. A few months earlier, for instance, when Vellodi had paid her a simple courtesy call, she was thrilled—as one account notes, for nearly two decades she had been so eclipsed that his visit became “one of the rare occasions when a person of status from outside the state called on her". Now, as integration was being discussed, the maharaja did summon her, only to announce that her family would continue receiving their modest allowances—her daughters, for instance, were allotted less than half the income granted to the ruler’s sister. So when Vellodi and Menon stepped in and ensured a fairer distribution, the maharani was so grateful, she sent an effusive letter of thanks for this “sympathy".
Sethu Lakshmi Bayi had not always been in the position of a supplicant. Installed as queen in Travancore before the age of 6, she once enjoyed near absolute power. Between 1924-31, she governed the state with immense success, winning praise not only from stalwarts of the Raj but also from nationalist icons. Revenues rose, massive budgetary allocations were made for public works and education, electricity and telephone services appeared, and modern medical facilities were made accessible to a third of her people. Minorities thrived in Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s regime, as she defied conservative pressure and offered senior positions (including the chief ministership) to Christians and marginalized groups. In 1929, the viceroy referred to her rule as a period of “unexampled prosperity" while Mahatma Gandhi, impressed by her “severe simplicity", declared her “an object lesson" for other, less service-minded princes.
As the product of a fading matrilineal society, in theory Sethu Lakshmi Bayi ought to have lived a life of tremendous influence: When in power, she was addressed with the male honorific of maharaja, for instance, and while the British defined her as regent for her nephew, in practice they permitted her to govern like any other male ruler. She created spaces for women in society (providing police protection to Kerala’s first low-caste film actress, and sending women across caste divides into a representative council) but presented herself as the ideal of orthodox femininity—one middle-aged colonial agent even had to reluctantly get married because the maharani thought it scandalous to entertain a bachelor. But the tightrope she walked between tradition and modernity endeared her to her people, and it was precisely this popularity that impressed Vellodi and Menon decades later. As the former noted, though she had long been out of power, any discrimination in 1949 against Sethu Lakshmi Bayi “would not only be unjust" but also “unpopular in the State".
Mass adulation did not, however, protect the senior maharani from the insidious politics of the palace. Relations between the maharaja and his mother, on the one hand, and Sethu Lakshmi Bayi had been strained for years, and as power shifted from her hands into those of her nephew, the maharani’s downfall was sealed. Described once as a “very striking smallish woman…with a delicate beautiful face, and shy manner", she found herself unable to prevail in the resultant quarrels. Like successive British representatives, Vellodi also put on record how “various kinds of humiliation and illtreatment (sic)" were inflicted on her: A pension was granted for her services to the state, for example, but only after much graceless bickering. And it was still considerably less than the allowance casually bestowed on the maharaja’s teenaged brother a few years later.
For a decade after she relinquished authority, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi tried to protest the hostility of her nephew’s government, appealing to the British for justice. But the Raj abandoned her to her fate. By the 1940s, then, she had been forced into obedience: Even her official residence and household was no longer in her control. The result was that to the government of independent India she made only one significant request—that it give her a guarantee that the palace she had built, and in which her children were raised, would continue to be hers. Menon did try: He requested the maharaja to confirm this in 1950, and when the plea was ignored, sent a reminder in 1951. “I do not see the necessity for giving a formal assurance," wrote the maharaja in response. Frustrated and seeking freer lives, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi’s daughters left for good, and, in 1957, the maharani too departed the land she had once ruled, never to return.
Sethu Lakshmi Bayi died nearly three decades later, bedridden in Bengaluru, watching, as a grandson recalls, “the dusk slip in and out of a series of windows". Sometime after she transferred ownership even of her bungalow to her family, a visitor came calling. To them the ex-maharani remarked with a smile of resignation: “Once I had a kingdom. But that is gone. Then I thought I had my palace, but that is gone too. Then I thought this house was mine, but now I can only say this room is mine." When she died in 1985, it was a quiet affair in a public crematorium. For the maharaja who followed in 1991, there was, of course, a state funeral.
Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015) and Rebel Sultans (2018).