Sri Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma
(April 16, 1813 - December 25, 1846) was the Maharaja
of the state of Travancore
, in India
. He reigned under the regency of his mother Maharani Gowri Lakshmi Bayi
from 1813 till 1815 and henceforth under the regency of his aunt Maharani Gowri Parvati Bayi
from 1815 till 1829. In 1829 he turned major and assumed full powers of ruler and ruled Travancore
till his demise in 1846.
Besides being an able ruler, he was a patron of music and a musician himself. He encouraged both broad systems of Indian music, Hindustani and Carnatic music, though he was essentially a connoisseur of the Carnatic music tradition. He is credited with composing over 400 compositions in Carnatic music as well as Hindustani music. Some of his favorite compositions are Padmanabha Pahi, Deva Deva, Sarasijanabha and Sree Ramana Vibho. The king was fluent in a number of languages such as Sanskrit, Hindi, Malayalam, Marathi, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali, Tamil, Oriya and English.
The Astronomical Observatory in Thiruvananthapuram, the Museum & Zoo, the Government Press, Trivandrum Public Library (now State Central Library), the Oriental Manuscript Library, etc. were started by Swathi Thirunal.
Swathi Thirunal (as he is commonly known) was born into the Kulasekhara dynasty of the Royal family of Travancore
state, which is now a part of Kerala
State in India
) on April 16, 1813. He was the second child of the Regent Queen Gowri Lakshmi Bayi
who ruled Travancore
during 1811 - 1815, and Rajaraja Varma Koyithampuran of Changanasseri Palace. The famous poet and composer and close relative Iraiyamman Tampi
wrote the song Omanathinkalkkitavo nalla komalathamarappuvo
(ഓമനത്തിങ്കള്ക്കിടാവോ നല്ല കോമളത്താമരപ്പൂവോ), perhaps the most famous lullaby in Malayalam, about Swathi Thirunal when he was born. He had an elder sister (Rukmini Bai) and a younger brother (Uthram Thirunal
Marthanda Varma). Rani Gowri Lakshmi Bayi
died about two months after the birth of her third child. After her death, her younger sister Gowri Parvati Bayi
was in charge of the state and the children. Since Rama Varma was just seventeen months old when his mother died, Gowri Parvati Bayi
ruled for fourteen years before Swathi Thirunal took over as the king. When he was just four months old, his mother invited Col. Munro (who was the representative of the British East India Company
) and his officials and declared in the Durbar that she was entrusting the British East India Company with the care of her child and expected the Company to co-operate with him in future.
Both his aunt/foster mother, who was well-versed in music, and his father, a Sanskrit scholar. took special care about his education. Col. Munro also is said to have taken interest in his education. He started learning Malayalam
at the age of six and English at the age of seven. The young Prince studied several languages, including Malayalam
. He impressed all his teachers, and even guests from abroad, with his keen understanding of not only languages but also other subjects like geometry. P. Sankunni Menon (A History of Travancore from the Earliest Times, 1878) records an incident when Swathi Thirunal told Col. Welsh, a visiting British officer, that the word geometry and words like hexagon, septagon and so on were derived from Sanskrit
As a Musician
Swathi Thirunal was deeply interested in music right from childhood. He tried to learn the languages in which he found good music. His education in music started with the first lessons from Karamana Subrahmania Bhagavathar and Karamana Padmanabha Bhagavathar. Later, he studied music from his English teacher Subbarao. He continued to learn music by listening to accomplished musicians and practicing himself. This was a period when music and art were thriving in many parts of south India. The triumvirate of Carnatic music, Tyagaraja
(1767-1847), Syama Sastri
(1762-1827) and Muthuswami Dikshitar
(1775-1835), lived and enriched music during this period. Swati Tirunal's palace also was home to many musicians and artistes of the period, including the famous Thanjavur Quartet
's disciple Kannayya Bhagavathar, Ananthapadmanabha Goswami (a Maharashtrian singer known as Kokilakanthameru swami), Shadkala Govinda Marar
, and many others.
Prince Rama Varma
, the South Indian Classical Musician, is a descendent of Maharaja Swathi Thirunal. He is the organiser for Swathi Sangeethotsavam
, a week long music festival featuring exclusively the compositions of Swathi Thirunal. This unique musical event is conducted every year from 6th to 12th January at Kuthira Malika
As a Ruler
Swathi Thirunal took over the reins of Travancore
from his aunt (She was the regent in lieu Swathi Thirunal in his boyhood) at the age of sixteen. He appointed his teacher Subbarao as the chief minister (Diwan). One of his first moves was to shift the government secretariat from Kollam
(about seventy five kilometres away) to Thiruvananthapuram
. This enabled him to give personal attention to government affairs. He took steps to curb corruption in the government, and told even the Diwan to resign when he heard that the Diwan had acted to favour a particular party in a land dispute. He started an English school at Thiruvananthapuram
in 1834, which came to be called the Raja's Government Free School and later became Maharaja's High School and then Maharaja's College. This is now the University College. Later, similar schools were started at many other places. He also implemented reforms in the legal sector, starting Munsif, District and Appellate Courts and modernising laws. He identified one Kandan Menon from Malabar and appointed him as Huzoor Diwan Peshkar to bring about legal reforms. Another of his achievements was to settle many land disputes by carrying out a resurvey of the land, in which also Menon helped him. He also conducted the first census of the state in 1836. As per the census, the population of Travancore was 1,28,068.
Swathi Thirunal was also instrumental in bringing modern medicine to the state. He appointed a European as the palace physician. He was also given the responsibility of providing medical assistance to local people, for which hospitals were started. It is this post that was known as Surgeon General till the formation of Kerala State. He also started an engineering department, which was placed under the command of one Lieutenant Horsley. The Karamana bridge was built at that time.
Another area where Swathi Thirunal took interest was in astronomy. He wished to compare Western findings with Indian knowledge. For this, he invited one Caldecott, an industrial representative who lived in Alapuzha, who used to fabricate instruments for astronomical observations. Finding that there was much common between western and Indian knowledge about the universe, Swathi Thirunal started an observatory and placed Caldecott in charge. Started in 1837, some of the equipment is still to be seen at the Thiruvananthapuram observatory (now under the Department of Physics, University of Kerala). He is also credited with starting the first government press (the only press at that time was CMS Press in Kottayam), and the museum and zoo in Trivandrum.
Maharajah Swathi Thirunal was only a child when his mother Maharani Gowri Lakshmi Bayi died and he grew up under the maternal care of his childless aunt, who was the Regent of Travancore on his behalf, Maharani Gowri Parvati Bayi. He had a brother, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, who succeeded him in 1846 till his demise in 1860. The Maharajah also had a sister, Maharani Gowri Rukmini Bayi, whose children ascended the Travancore musnud consecutively. Her only daughter was the mother of Maharajah Moolam Thirunal Sir Rama Varma.
Swathi Thirunal married Thiruvattar Ammachi Panapillai Amma Srimathi Narayani Pillai Kochamma of the Thiruvattar Ammaveedu family. She was an expert carnatic singer and Veena player. She originally belonged to an aristocratic Nair family in Quilon by the name of Aaikutty Veedu. Prior to her marriage with the king she was adopted in the Thiruvattar Ammaveedu along with her mother and siblings (her sister was married to the Maharajah's brother and successor Uthram Thirunal). From this marriage the Maharajah had a son, Thiruvattar Chithira Nal Anantha Padmanabhan Chempakaraman Thampi. Legend has it that the Maharajah fell in love with a Thanjavur dancer, Sughandavalli, whom he married later and built a house known as Thanjavur Ammaveedu, which still exists, in 1845. However Sugandhavalli, rechristened as Thanjavur Ammachi Panapillai Amma Shrimathi Sugandha Parvati Bayi, was banished from Travancore at the instigation of his aunt, Maharani Gowri Parvati Bayi, his high caste first wife, and other members of the royal house, which resulted in the Maharajah plunging into deep depression. Though he was the Maharajah, he found that the real master of the his land was the British which was unacceptable to him. With the banishment of Sughandavalli, he was convinced that he could not rule as per his will. He decided to end his life with slow starvation and eventually died at the young age of thirty three the next year in 1846. He was succeeded by his younger brother, Uthram Thirunal.