The head of a former royal family renounced any personal claim to billions of dollars’ worth of ancient treasure discovered in a temple in Thiruvanantharam, the kingdom his ancestors once ruled. Padma Rao Sundarji speaks to Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, the former King of Tranvancore.
PRS: What is your family’s connection with the Padmanabhaswamy temple?
Varma: We are the Cheras, one of the four erstwhile royal families of South India and have a long and dynastic family tree. By 1750 Travancore had become rich and big. So my ancestor, the then king, made a unique spiritual and historical contribution. He decided to surrender all his riches to the temple – Padmanabhaswamy is also our family deity. He said our family would look after that wealth, the temple and the kingdom forever. But he did want the ego that comes with possessing it. He was influenced by Emperor Ashoka’s catharsis in the killing fields of Kalinga. So he declared our family to be Padmanabha’s ‘dasas’, devotees. A servant can resign his job, but a dasa can do so only when he dies.
PRS: You are one of the wealthiest families in India and yet, you live in a spartan way, unlike many other ex-royals. Why?
Varma: I have to go back a bit in time, to explain why. Everybody thinks that we Indians first rose against British colonial rule in 1857. Wrong. In 1741, Travancore was the only Asian power to defeat the Dutch when they arrived here. After the battle, all the Dutch soldiers kneeled before my ancestors. One Dutchman, Benedictus Eustachius, even joined our army. We called him the Great Kapitan. Later, I learned that he was [US president] Franklin Roosevelt’s ancestor when the latter’s grandson came to look at our historical records.
Then in 1839, almost two decades before the mutiny, we rose against the British. Our punishment was severe. They disbanded our police and army of 50,000, transferred our capital to Kollam, dumped two British regiments on us, and ordered us to pay for their upkeep. Thomas Munroe named himself Diwan of Travancore. When our spirit still did not flag, they brought in missionaries. But we did not get gobbled up by Western thought. We travel abroad occasionally, but it has not affected or changed our simple way of life. Why am I telling you this? So that you get an idea of how much our life has revolved around our faith, despite so many outside influences and kept us going.
PRS: How do you feel about what is happening around the temple right now – its cellars being opened up, your donations being discussed around the world, the criticism, the furore?
Varma: Sorry, I cannot comment on what is happening there – the matter is subjudice. But this much I will say. I have no problem with the inventory and additional security being provided by the state to the temple. But please don’t remove those objects from the temple. They belong to nobody, certainly not to our family. They belong to god and our law permits that. All these debates swirling around the riches is unfortunate. That’s all I can say – I have to listen to my doctor, lawyer and auditor. Our family has been donating objects to the temple for centuries. As chief patron of the temple, I go there every day. If I miss a day, I am fined Rs 166.35 – an old Travancore tradition.
PRS: But you cannot deny that such wealth could be put to better use for the poor.
Varma: We Indians are more educated now. But this reaction to donations inside a temple is anything but progressive. We are slowly losing our Indian identity. Money has become everything. But I am not surprised. I would rather be philosophical than disillusioned because I can’t change the world.
PRS: Then there is the rationalist argument that this is blind faith.
Varma: Please think of England’s Henry VIII in the late 1500s. He had two passions. Wives and money. So he pillaged churches. Finally, he ran into a problem because he wanted a divorce from Catherine of Aragon. The church refused, because she was a zealous Spanish Catholic. His cardinal advised him to invent his own church. So he did that – just to get a divorce. Is that rational?
It is rather difficult to explain our faith to the new world where people have none anymore. When selfishness grows, everything you do seems right, and everything others do seems wrong. It’s all about what do I get, not about what do I do. I like the memory of my trip to a game reserve South Africa. After seeing many wild animals, I asked the guide which was the most rapacious and fearsome. He showed me a mirror.
PRS: What is your source of income? What does your family live off ?
Varma: We have travel and hotel businesses. I am chairman of a former British company that exports various items from Kerala – but no, not pepper to Buckingham Palace, as reported. We also run seven trusts. We spend R5-8 lakh a year on education, health and housing for the poor. We pay good salaries. And the family itself contributes money every month. No government has acknowledged our work but that is all right. We do it because we want to do it.
PRS: Gold statues studded with rubies and diamonds, saphhires, gold coins of the Napoleonic era and the East India Company. Is all that true?
Varma: I have never been inside those cellars. Our philosophy has always been not to look at such objects and get tempted. But of course I know what is inside them.
PRS: Are the younger members of your family angrier than you about the heated public debate?
Varma: I am the most hot-blooded in this family but on this matter, we all feel the same. I was a soldier – a colonel for 15 years in the Madras Regiment. I would like to ask those criticizing us for donating these objects: why are they bothered about what someone else has done? What are they doing in the name of faith themselves ? Why the hot gossip over a donation to God?
PRS: At 90, you don’t even use a walking stick. What is your daily routine ?
Varma: We have all been brought up very strictly and frugally. My day starts at 4 am with yoga. I only drink milk, I am a vegetarian and a tee totaler. I read the Vedas everyday. I go the temple for a ten-minute private audience with the deity every morning. After that, I indulge in one of my hobbies – “media surgery.” I read the newspapers and clip articles over breakfast. I have a collection of the past 30 years. I will give those to the Trust because my children may not be interested. People come to meet me, they invite me to inaugurate functions. I speak extempore. I go from vertical to horizontal for about 20 minutes in the afternoon. I am in bed by 9.45 PM. I have always slept well. Since there is nothing on my conscience, sleep comes swiftly.
PRS: Are you now thinking of insuring those treasures, now that the whole world is talking about them, or are they already insured ?
Varma: (laughs) I am least worried that they will be stolen. If that happens, then it was the Lord’s will.
PRS: Among your ancestors were famous Carnatic musician Swati Thirunal and painter Raja Ravi Varma. What are your passions?
Varma: Those two ancestors gave music and art divinity and humanity respectively. That continues. I love art. I once saw a piece of exquisite china in Venice. It was a girl on a swing with the sand looking worn just where her feet touched the ground each time. It cost 100 pounds, I could only afford 40, as foreign exchange was limited those days. So I went away. The dealer called me back and gave it to me. He said he could tell that I was not one of those who ordered 200 pieces of one kind, that I valued minute details.
PRS: Kerala has been a Communist bastion for more than 50 years. Don’t you find it peculiar that people here still flurry around you, they respect you, they still call you Your Highness.
Varma: Yes, that is quite amazing because I am a simple man, I don’t expect it at all. At religious gatherings in Haridwar where one of my two gurus lives, I always sit in the last row and am always dressed like this – mundu and bush-shirt. People who don’t know me come looking for the Raja of the South. When I raise my hand, they don’t believe me.
PRS: How wealthy is your family, compared to the other – and internationally more famous – royals of Rajasthan and elsewhere?
Varma: That is a mere technicality and has never been relevant to me. But I’ll tell you a story which will give you an idea. There used to be a British gun salute for the princely states of India: 21, the highest for the richest ruler, 11 for the poorest. When Tranvancore refused to contribute soldiers to the British Army in World War I, our slipped from 21 to 19.
PRS: Who is your heir?
Varma: We have a matriarchal system of inheritance. I have a daughter and a son but it is my sister’s son who will be king after me. I remember a European lady visiting us. I explained this complicated law of succession to her. When she went back, she told her friends that she had not understood a word, but only knew that whatever it was, it was good for women. Kerala is slowly turning patriarchal again. That is not good. Overall in our country, we treat women as second-class citizens. When you look at a man, you are looking at a human being, when you look at a woman, you are looking at a family.
PRS: What is the feeling you get, when you spend those ten minutes at the Padmanabha shrine ? The daily communion between ruler and master, as you put it ?
Varma: Gooseflesh. Everything is surrendered. It is a great, elating feeling. My hair stands on end with joy. Each and every time.
(Padma Rao Sundarji is South Asia bureau chief of Der Spiegel)
(contributed by:Mohan Rao on 16.07.2011)