Last Sunday I visited the Ananthapadmanabhaswami Temple in Gandhi Nagar, Adyar. After the visit, my younger son and I strolled around the place looking for the statue of the last Maharajah of Travancore, Chitra Tirunal Balarama Varma. During the years he ruled, he was more or less guided in every way by his mother, the Junior Maharani Setu Parvathi Bayi and the Dewan, Sir CP Ramaswami Aiyar. The Maharajah is remembered today for his piety and devotion to Padmanabhaswami, the tutelar deity of the royal family. In his time he was a hero for it was he who first threw open temples in Travancore to people of all castes. The Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936 was a landmark in the history of our country.
Shortly thereafter, a statue was put up for the Maharajah in the Esplanade area of Madras, bordering the Law College Campus. A park came up behind the statue and it was known as the Travancore Maharajah’s Park. In the 1950s, the Annamalai Manram came up opposite and it had its own Rajah as well – Sir Annamalai Chettiar standing as a statue facing the Maharajah. The difference of course lay in that Chitra Tirunal was alive and well (he lived up to a ripe old age, dying in 1991) while Raja Sir was already dead.
The difference ended there, for as the years passed, Raja Sir’s statue was really cared for while Chitra Tirunal was sorely neglected. A bus terminus swallowed the park and the statue became a convenient urinal. The base, that bore the full text of the Temple Entry Proclamation, was covered with posters of political parties that claimed to fight for social equality and stuck in the Maharajah’s hand was usually the flag of the party that had last conducted a rally along the Esplanade. I have often wondered as to what Chitra Tirunal must have felt if he ever drove past that area and saw his statue.
In the early 1990s, some friends and well-wishers of the Maharajah, including Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer, lobbied hard for shifting the statue to more civilized surroundings. And what better location than the compound of the Ananthapadamanabhaswami Temple? The ruler would be close to the deity he loved. So the shift was made and the Maharajah was put up in a small triangular patch of land next to the temple. But alas! It occurred to some bright spark that the statue was better painted and so it was done up in the best Kollywood tradition. The face and hands became pancake pink, the robes a gaudy blue and the turban yellow. He looked as though he was in some 1930s theatrical production of Alli Arjuna. I remember taking a photo of him then which I have conveniently lost.
But on Sunday, all was well. The statue had lost its paint and was back to its usual look. The original pedestal had been retained (which is something of a miracle in our country) and so the Proclamation was there for all to see. But what of the surroundings? Well, it appears that the Maharajah is destined to remain in a dumpyard though it is much better than where he was in the Esplanade. The present location is where the old broken tiles and various discarded wooden decorations from the temple are stored. But it is a protective shelter and Maharajahs ought to consider themselves lucky these days if they get that.
My son liked the way the robes of the Maharajah were depicted in folds at the rear of the statue and he took some of the shots. Its a good way to make history interesting I suppose! Interestingly, Adyar is also the place where the Travancore royal family owned a lot of land. The city palace Ramalayam, still stands close to the Muthulakshmi Reddy Park and it was on the grounds of the palace that the Sishya School and Padmanabha/Parameswari Nagars came to be built. The temple site gives details on how it was built and how the Maharajah helped – http://ananthapadmanabhaswamytemple.org/templehistory.php
The story appeared in The Hindu in my column Hidden Histories dated 15th May 2012