Sree Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, 90, head of the erstwhile Travancore royal family talks of his intimate relationship with the Padmanabhaswamy temple, whose vaults has treasures worth over Rs 1 lakh crore stashed away in them. A last vault—kallara B—is yet to be opened and the Supreme Court appointed panel will take a call whether to open it. However, Marthanda Varma refrained from speaking on the vaults and the treasures, saying the matter was sub-judice.
I meet up with Marthanda Varma at the Pattom Palace, tucked away behind the SUT hospital, hidden from the casual onlooker. The shanka (conch shell) emblem of the Travancore royal family embellishes the palace gates, the bevy of four wheeled beauties and even the grills of the palace windows. A devotional chorus swells down the corridor as Marthanda Varma, in a simple blue shirt and mundu, meets us in the visitor’s room. A 1939 mechanical Solix watch adorns his left hand. Almost immediately our attention is drawn to the watch. He points to it and talks of his interest in watches. “I have 31 watches of different makes,” he says simply. “All of them are gifts.” I begin my interview with Marthanda Varma. I found him extremely alert and clear-headed. (Excerpts from the interview were published by Outlook issue dated 8 August 2011.)
Q: You have said the Padmanabhaswamy temple is your life and breath. What is your relationship to the temple?
A: In the Ramayana, there is a fantastic illustration of what you have asked. At the last moment of the coronation of Sree Rama as the king of Ayodhya- Rama was in the middle, Sita on one side, Lakshman and Bharath on the other and Hanuman at his feet, with his hands folded. Sita asked Rama why he was spending so much time gazing at the monkey. Rama pulled out a hair from Hanuman’s back and placed it in Sita’s ear and the hair was reciting: ‘Ram, Ram…’ If you examine my skin, I get goose pimples, my hair stands on end when I hear Lord Padmanabha’s name. He is completely saturating me. That is what I want.
Q: The idea of ruling the kingdom as a Padmanabhadasa(servant of Padmanabha) is a unique one. The creation of such a position by Marthanda Varma in 1750 must have had its political advantages?
A: In all our dealings we have never thought of using Him as means for a political end. It was an act of pure surrender. In England, in the early 16th century, King Henry VIII for various domestic reasons wanted to marry again without the consent of the pope. He asked his ecclesiastical people for a solution. They suggested that the King make a new church called the Church of England and style himself as the Defender of the Faith. We are only attenders of the faith and we see ourselves as vassals.
In those days when you fought a war you saw it. In 3rd B.C., when Emperor Ashoka witnessed the destruction caused by the Kalinga war, he became a Buddhist and lived by the tenets of Buddhism. In our case, after we won the wars during the formation of Travancore, we didn’t want any glory. My ancestor Marthanda Varma surrendered the state, family and himself to Sree Padmanabha and he became a vassal. A servant is different from a vassal, a servant can leave the employment whereas a vassal cannot leave, he has to die in harness.
We come from a very old family. It is divided into three parts. One is beyond the scope of the historic, the second puranic and the third historically from 870 AD. From the first Ay family to the present, the family has been humble, humane and god oriented. India was like that earlier. But during the invasions the culture got diluted. In the extreme South we have had no problem. Our contact with the outside world has been mainly through the sea. North Malabar with the Arabs, Central with the Portuguese and Travancore with Dutch and the British. They all came here for pepper.
Q. Is that the reason the Travancore royal family is known for its simple lifestyle?
A: There are two reasons. One was our culture was not easily invaded and we were left alone. Two, we are much more religiously oriented than the kings in the North. These traditions keep us tight on behavior, food habits and living habits. For instance, since 870 AD, no one in the family drinks (alcohol), given to smoking or eaten meat. Our family does not travel abroad, we prefer to stay at home. What you wear, what you eat and how you live must be suited to the surroundings. Otherwise it would be toxic. Clothes should suit the climate. Same as in the case of food- what grows in large quantities here nature has decided for us and you should know what to do with it and not eat what other people are eating.
Q: People turn poetic when they enter the temple. Are there any instances?
A: Yes, about 40 years ago, one Maharaja who came from the extreme north of India sang bhajans in the temple for 15 minutes. Nobody asked him to. It moved him.
Q. What most do you miss about the old Thiruvanathapuram?
A.The very name Thiruvanathapuram is Sree Ananthapuram which means blessed eternal city. It was in keeping with the surroundings. We have now gone modern and we have imported architectural patterns from all over the world. The style of buildings are mixed and confused and the finishes are all foreign. It does not meld with the surroundings. I miss the old architectural pattern. The impact of other cultures is transferable so quickly through the media, films, TV etc… So we tend to get bit careless about backgrounds and the pristine quality gets diluted. It is my home I like the most. It is unchanged.
Q. What do you do on a given day? And what do you enjoy doing most?
A. I am now running 90 years. I have a fairly disciplined routine. I get up at 4.30 am. I do fifteen minutes of yoga. In the south we are told to love and respect mother earth and I pray please forgive me for walking on her. I then take a bath. At 5.30 am I go to the pooja room. Till 6.05 a.m. I read religious books, the Bagwad Gita, a book written by my forbears in 312 BC called Mukunda Mala, few slokhas, I count the rosary. Then I do the ritualistic pooja. That takes half an hour. I get into the car at 7 a.m. and leave for the temple. At the temple when the word comes for me I enter the temple and worship for 12 minutes. I come back and after breakfast, I read 4 to 5 newspapers. For 30 years I have been cutting articles anything from cooking to religion and pasting them in files. They are voluminous and I am on 180th file. I see visitors after that and then have lunch at 1. I lie down for 20 minutes and then do my correspondence.
I was a sportsman and I have played all games except cricket. I am not able to play now because of my old age. I am interested in motoring and riding, I receive 4 to 6 visitors in the evening and I attend about 220 to 221 functions every year. Either I preside or light a lamp. I come back and I do my devotions and if there is anything worthwhile on TV, I watch it, otherwise I go to bed by 9.30 pm.
Q.Your family does a lot of charity work?
A. In my brother’s time, he felt that his capacity to do charity would diminish so he started four charitable societies in the 70s. We give about 30 to 40 lakhs every year. We are giving everywhere hospitals, schools, colleges, houses, poor people in dire poverty. For cultural activities for music and arts etc…