The Colour of a People (The Ivory Throne-Part 2)

“If I were a Devadasi.”

It is time to get transported into one of the most fascinating milieus and yet another brood of the notorious caste system – the Devadasis. We could have easily been talking about the age of romanticism where women dedicated themselves to deities and temples. As resonates through The Ivory Throne : “their lives committed in service of god, dancing and singing and preserving high culture in great Hindu temples of the land.” To add to the romance, imagine a vivid picture of the great shrine of Mahakala in Ujjain, which resounded with the sound of the ankle bells of dancing girls: The Meghadutam by Kalidasa.

This was an older institution in Travancore and other parts of India as well. “These women enjoyed a high position in society and they were honourable invitees in all important festivals such as the coronation of the queen or the king,” writes the researcher in the author. “They were educated women of wealth and means, instituting endowments, building temples, etc.” There is a kind of reassurance and beauty which the setup of Devadasis imbues for me; there is a section of society dedicated to dance and drama, to lending aesthetic value. I found more than meets the eye – it radiates a sense of free flow in society, an enhanced sense of consciousness where one can choose his own way of life. Simultaneously, a lineage of strong singular women of pride for idols was being bred.

“Even in the colonial 19th century, Devadasis remained dedicated to their vocation, some winning fame as musicians and actresses,” the book leading on, as to how these actresses and theatre troupes could never enjoy the status a Devadasi had come to possess. Manu Pillai may not have chosen to get into these intricacies but what followed is an interesting play of instincts which allows us to witness the rise of rungs or hierarchies in a society. The Devadasis looked down on the theatre actresses which basically was to say that the former’s art was superior to the latter’s. After all, these actresses had taken the liberty of transcending from being Devadasis to find another niche.

Kerala is becoming almost folklorish, a legend to my sensibilities as I pore over The Ivory Throne, for all that it cultivated and tended to, in its length and breadth. When I read about Balamani, the ‘queen of theatre’ who was also a Kumbakonam based Devadasi and the trains that would halt for fixed periods to allow passengers to attend her shows; or about a troupe of devadasis as early as 1838, the first indigenous artists to perform all over Europe, it stirs and quenches my thirst for the ‘curved line of beauty’.

To add a touch of realism to this romance, a famous name is enough – MS Subbulakshmi. The doyenne of Carnatic music in the 20th century who did more to popularise Indian music around the world than anyone else, descended from a ‘line of accomplished and highly talented Devadasis.’ The progressive decline that these years saw in women’s participation in dance, music, and drama has its roots in the linear Victorian sensibilities that saw primitivity in jungle fires. Did they feel threatened by meandering rivers that the women of India once were? While on one hand women were being sent to college and asked to take up vocations, on the other their sexual personality had to fit the patriarchal model of a daughter, sister, wife, or mother.


MS Subbulakshmi (in the centre above) was introduced to the world as a perfect image of Tamil Brahmin housewife, shedding her Devadasi past. The hunger to control could have even made them change the colour of the people – the only thing they could not. They even controlled the rhythm of bodies as I read- “Rukmini Devi Arundale stripped the Bharatnatyam dance drama, once performed in the temple mandapams, of its eroticism and adapted it to the Western style stage, giving it “respectability” even while wrenching it from its ancient custodians, the Devadasis.” It beguiles me to no end how the Indian eye saw beauty in eroticism and its detailing as we can see in Khajuraho with unabashed appreciation. The roving British eye which hailed the Queen, saw “overt” sexual tenor in Kerala’s Mohiniattam.

It is heartening and delightful when an artist works to enhance another artist’s art, such instances seem to have been far and few as the Ivory Throne remains tight lipped about it – “Raja Ravi Varma made even his voluptuous female figures sensuous but not seductive, forthcoming but not coquettish.”

Devadasis, the beautiful feisty women did not take this lying down as they unleashed their brilliant intellect in arguing that it was inappropriate to equate an Indian Devadasi to a western prostitute who sold her body for personal economic reasons. How could they be judged from the angle of western culture, that passed judgement on Hindu society ‘without understanding the genius of its construct’. For me, Devadasis gave the defining lines of the book.

They had to jibe the society that had helped them blossom and the biggest traitor in the history of women, Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who had grown up watching nautch performances by Devadasis at court. 15th August 1931, marked the last day of the most original and profound concept of the Devadasis, which till now feels like a void as men and women drift away from the idea of celebrating the feminine.

The parting words of the Devadasis to Sethu Lakshmi Bayi were- “We are women not having the disadvantages of most Hindu women but possess on the contrary all the privileges of males in regard to property, special laws of inheritance, rights, and privileges in temples.” It was a jibe at the Maharani who was now the epitome of ‘good’ and ‘devoted’ wife, standing at par with a Maharajah of any Indian state owing to the Matrilineal system of Kerala which she put an end to even before the Devadasis’.

“We are the prodigies of Matriliny.”

What caste system entailed was looking to work in the interests of people. So when one reads about the Nairs of Travancore, it is captivating not in its novelty but in its ingenuity. On Nairs lay the duty to continue the tradition of ancient martial art. Hence, the boys were sent off to train in military gymnasiums from the age of eight and their sole occupation from thereafter was to master the art of warfare. What is most intriguing is the heightened sense of intensity they imbibed towards it which can easily be construed from the book: “For them death by any other means than at the end of a sword on the battlefield was a mortifying ignominy.”  Look at the capacity of reasonability of people who devised the system of caste or whatever that is they intended to.

“So, a Nair man would never ‘marry’ a woman, as in other parts of India, and start a family with their children. Instead he would visit a lady in her natal home every now and then, solely for sexual purposes, and the offspring would be her responsibility entirely.”

The book notes that the marriage system (or the absence of it) was one of the things that never failed to fascinate visitors to Kerala. Because there were sambandhams (relationships) terminable at will and there was no sentimentality of sanctimony blobbed on it. So women needed outside men only to father children as they lived with pride in the security of their natal homes.  What a great way to look at women as equal shareholders in the economic and social realms of the houses they were born into. Definitely, at a certain point in history, the system of marriage was looking to make women vulnerable. And it continues to do so.

It is difficult to know the intentions of our author Manu S Pillai when he details about the consorts to the illustrious Maharanis who ruled Travancore. Consorts, in present day English being ‘the husbands’ were addressed as Valiya Koil Tampurans back in Travancore. Whether Pillai is trying to humour us when he divulges about these men, who were at times educated and groomed to become worthy of the Ranis or just sharing the colour of a gender, its similarities and contrasts with the other, in the role reversal. Pillai makes sure to bring Koil Tampurans in limelight as they take on the domain much enjoyed by women – churning rumours and always making space for controversies.

There is yet another angle in which the convenience of sambandhams helped blur the well defined lines of caste as explored by Pillai. “Among Nambutiri Brahmins only the eldest son was permitted to take a Brahmin wife and all other men had to seek sambandhams from the high caste matrilineal communities.” And so we finally reach the crowning glory of the Ivory Throne- the matrilineal system. It cannot be grouped under or sub categorized with the caste system because it stands way above, in its very concept and intent. It will be fair to capture the matrilineal system by quoting from the book, an article published in London’s The Lady in 1912 about Travancore – “a family did not take after the patriarchal model of man, wife, and their children. Instead it consisted of man, sister and her children. The crown passed not from father to son but from maternal uncle to nephew, and the Rani was never the Maharajah’s wife but his sister or niece or great niece.” Hence, sambandhams enabled exchange of bloodlines and women always held the advantage of being married in to higher castes in turn securing their position further in the society.

“Sexual freedom was also remarkable so that while polygamy was happily recognized in other parts of India, in Kerala women were allowed polyandry. Nair women were free to divorce without any social stigma. Widowhood was no catastrophic disaster and they were effectively at par with men when it came to sexual rights, with complete control over their bodies.” The writer couldn’t have put it in a more uncomplicated manner. Believe it or not, the same applied to the women of royal houses, something that women of the clingy royal houses of Rajasthan as of 2017 do not wish to enjoy as they convey a woman in a sari with pallu on the head, an image of a much married modern Rajasthani woman.

But how did this kind of freedom and equality exist in isolation in only one part of India?

When two Kolathiri princesses were adopted by the king of Travancore in the 14th century, he also laid the foundation of pennu-malayalam, the kingdom of women. The Tamil affiliations of Travancore made sure the princesses hold on to their goddess tighter. Hence, Kolathiri’s miniature was carved out at Attingal which became the headquarters of Travancore. With all essentials taken care of, the princesses spread their wings and Attingal became an independent kingdom which had the might of holding Travancore ransom, from time to time. The book wants to be loud and clear when it declares- “Only a woman could rule in Attingal and only male heirs born to her could be the Rajahs of Travancore, with each side sovereign and perfectly capable of going to war against the other.”

Although there has been the great north-south divide, but did North Indian women ever come close to their Keralaite counterparts or did it wane for them with the contagious Victorian bite, much more emphatic in Delhi? Or did it emanate in Kerala and died there itself?

These Attingal Ranis not only led their soldiers in the battlefield but also enjoyed a thriving trade with the foreigners, wherein one shouldn’t paint a charitable picture of these queens as we would today, for they did as they pleased. The English enjoyed excellent relations with these Ranis as they “received her command with utmost deference.” The Ranis, on their part, served them with learning experiences every now and then; when the Rani on one occasion observed- “They (the English) were troublesome to my people and therefore I ordered that they should go and make no more contracts in my Land.”
They haven’t really left, since.

This is the second of a series of articles inspired from Manu Pillai’s The Ivory Throne: Chronicles of the House of Travancore. Read the first part here.

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