SRI PADMANABHASAWMY TEMPLE, TRIVANDRUM
SIR THOMAS MUNRO, GOVERNOR of MADRAS
Hinduism, also called Sanathana Dharma, is universal in application and does not make any difference between one religion and the other. All the devotees who believe and follow the tenets of Hinduism are respected and rewarded alike. The foregoing is a classic example of an Englishman by name Sir Thomas Munro [1761-1827] who was the Governor of Madras and his devotional attachment to Sri Padmanabha Swamy Temple at Trivandrum [then called Travancore].
When India was ruled by the British, there were so many princely states like Mysore, Rajasthan, Travancore etc. which were directly ruled by the respective Maharajas who owed allegiance to the British throne. The erstwhile Maharajas of Travancore ruled the State in the belief that it was their ‘Divine Right to Rule’. They were simultaneously aware of the fact that the Right to Rule entirely depended on their ability to rule ‘rightly’ in keeping with the tenets of Hindu Dharma or Raja Dharma as it is called in Sanskrit. They also knew that it was Divinity that gave them the power to rule.
In 1750, King Martanda Varma, the most powerful of the Travancore rulers, pledged that he and his descendents would serve the kingdom as servants of Lord Padmanabha [Padmanabha Dasa], the Lord being the King. The British had observed the tradition and honoured the Lord with a 21-gun salute.
When the Indian states were merged, Independent India appointed the Travancore royal head as the Raj Pramukh; but he preferred to be known as Padmanabha Dasa, and not as Raja Pramukh. The government had continued to honour the tradition of 21 gun-salutes to the Lord till 1970 when, along with the abolition of princely titles, the honour of the Lord was withdrawn.
Sri Padmanabha Swamy Temple, as seen today, was built by Maharaja Martanda Varma in 1773. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the Temple has an 18 feet long idol and a seven-tier Gopuram.
Sometime in the early 19th century, the State was ruled by Maharaja Martanda Varma. When he passed away in 1813 he had no male heir to succeed him to the throne. So, the British Government approved of a provisional arrangement to rule the State by making his wife Rani Lakshmibai as a Regent. This was an immediate and temporary arrangement till a final decision was taken about the successor. At that time Thomas Munro who was stationed at Travancore was representing the British Government as Dewan.of Travancore. After sometime, the Governor General of India asked Munro to intimate the name of a suitable successor. Munro could not give an immediate reply as he knew that at that time Rani Lakshmibai was carrying and the delivery was expected soon. If the Rani failed to deliver a male child, the Travancore State, as per the Doctrine of Succession, would lapse to the British throne.
When a final reminder came from the Governor General for an immediate reply and the decision could not brook any delay, Munro was in a real fix. The Queen had not yet delivered. However, as Munro had great respect to Hinduism and believed in the Divinity of Lord Padmanabha and as he was also keen on continuing the lineage of the Maharaja, he prayed to Lord Padmanabha and sent a letter to the Governor General saying that the Queen had delivered a male child, even though no delivery had taken place. He took a great risk of uttering a lie, guided by an inner voice that divine intervention would prove him true.
Munro spent sleepless nights after sending the letter. One fine morning he went on horse back to the East Fort at Travancore and facing the Lord murmured “O Lord! I believe you are omnipotent. I adore you. Please grant me a boon. Let Her Highness deliver a male child. There should not be a gap in your Slave Kings. Bless Her Highness with a male child for the throne”. He further added “if it is true that you are there, grant me my boon. If it is not granted, I cannot say what I will do”. After his prayer, Munro returned to the Residency, his official residence. Within a few minutes, he heard the news that Her Highness had delivered a male child. The joy of the Resident knew no bounds. He cried in ecstasy “O Lord Padmanabha! You are a reality. You are very much there in flesh and blood”.
The male child that was born to Rani Lakshmibai in 1813 was none other than the most famous ruler of the State who later ascended the throne of Travancore as Swathi Tirunal Maharaja—one of the greatest composers of Carnatic music. Besides music, His Highness was highly learned in Sanskrit, poetry and other fine arts. Though His Highness died at the young age of 34 years, he ruled the State for nearly 18 years and was a master of 13 languages. Apart from music compositions, he has written a book on “The Theory of Music” in his own handwriting which is preserved even today in the Department of Oriental Studies, Trivandrum.
Munro became an ardent devotee of Lord Padmanabha and personally undertook the work of temple administration. The code he evolved in Temple Administration is even now followed in several temples of that region.
As a digression, it may be noted that when Munro first came to India and took service under the British Government in 1801, he was for some time looking after the administration of some of the districts in the South, ceded by the Nizam of Hyderabad. In this capacity, he was once entrusted with the job of bringing the land on which the famous Sri Raghavendra Swamy Math is situated in Mantralaya under the control and jurisdiction of the East India Company under the Permanent Settlement Act. When this order came to the notice of the local citizens, many natives and devotees of the Math vehemently opposed the move as they thought it would be a religious sacrilege for a foreign government to encroach upon the holy premises of the Math. They approached Munro with their grievance. Munro decided to visit Mantralaya personally and check about the religious sanctity of the Math. It is said that when he reached the Math premises, removed his shoes and was about to enter the Math, Sri Raghavendra Swamy himself appeared before him in a vision and it is further said that both became involved in a conversation. However, no one knew about this till the fact was made known by Munro himself. A subsequent issue of the Madras Government Gazette, however, bears witness to this strange incident. It is also learnt that soon after this incident, Munro was promoted as the Governor of Madras Presidency in which capacity he got cancelled the earlier decision of the British Government to annex Mantralaya. When the Math sent some consecrated coloured rice [Mantrakshatha] to Munro as God’s Blessings on the occasion of his elevation to the post of Governor, he received it with all humility and reverence.
Sir Thomas Munro, Scottish by birth and Hindu at heart, died of Cholera in India in 1827 when he was on tour of the Northern Districts.
(contributed by:Mohan Rao on 25.06.2011)