The riches belong to nobody, certainly not to our family'
http://www.hindustantimes.com/ The-riches- belong-to- nobody-certainly -not-to-our- family/H1- Article1- 719270.aspx
Padma Rao Sudarji, Hindustan Times
July 09, 2011
The head of a former royal family renounced any personal claim to
billions of dollars' worth of ancient treasure discovered in a temple
in Thiruvanantharam, the kingdom his ancestors once ruled. Excerpts of
an interview with Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Verma, the former King
of Tranvancore by Padma Rao Sudarji.
PRS: What is your family's connection with the Padmanabhaswamy temple?
VARMA: We are the Cheras, one of the four erstwhile royal families of
South India and have a long and dynastic family tree. By 1750
Travancore had become rich and big. So my ancestor, the then king,
made a unique spiritual and historical contribution. He decided to
surrender all his riches to the temple - Padmanabhaswamy is also our
family deity. He said our family would look after that wealth, the
temple and the kingdom forever. But he did want the ego that comes
with possessing it. He was influenced by Emperor Ashoka's catharsis in
the killing fields of Kalinga. So he declared our family to be
Padmanabha's 'dasas', devotees. A servant can resign his job, but a
dasa can do so only when he dies.
PRS: You are one of the wealthiest families in India and yet, you live
in a spartan way, unlike many other ex-royals. Why?
VARMA: I have to go back a bit in time, to explain why. Everybody
thinks that we Indians first rose against British colonial rule in
1857. Wrong. In 1741, Travancore was the only Asian power to defeat
the Dutch when they arrived here. After the battle, all the Dutch
soldiers kneeled before my ancestors. One Dutchman, Benedictus
Eustachius, even joined our army. We called him the Great Kapitan.
Later, I learned that he was [US president] Franklin Roosevelt's
ancestor when the latter's grandson came to look at our historical
Then in 1839, almost two decades before the mutiny, we rose against
Our punishment was severe. They disbanded our police and army of
50,000, transferred our capital to Kollam, dumped two British
regiments on us, and ordered us to pay for their upkeep. Thomas Munroe
named himself Diwan of Travancore. When our spirit still did not flag,
they brought in missionaries. But we did not get gobbled up by Western
thought. We travel abroad occasionally, but it has not affected or
changed our simple way of life. Why am I telling you this? So that you
get an idea of how much our life has revolved around our faith,
despite so many outside influences and kept us going.
PRS: How do you feel about what is happening around the temple right
now - its cellars being opened up, your donations being discussed
around the world, the criticism, the furore?
VARMA: Sorry, I cannot comment on what is happening there - the matter
is sub-judice. But this much I will say. I have no problem with the
inventory and additional security being provided by the state to the
temple. But please don't remove those objects from the temple. They
belong to nobody, certainly not to our family. They belong to god and
our law permits that. All these debates swirling around the riches is
unfortunate. That's all I can say - I have to listen to my doctor,
lawyer and auditor.
Our family has been donating objects to the temple for centuries. As
chief patron of the temple, I go there every day. If I miss a day, I
am fined Rs 166.35 - an old Travancore tradition.
PRS: But you cannot deny that such wealth could be put to better use
for the poor.
VARMA: We Indians are more educated now. But this reaction to
donations inside a temple is anything but progressive. We are slowly
losing our Indian identity. Money has become everything. But I am not
surprised. I would rather be philosophical than disillusioned because
I can't change the world.
PRS: Then there is the rationalist argument that this is blind faith.
VARMA: Please think of England's Henry VIII in the late 1500s. He had
two passions. Wives and money. So he pillaged churches. Finally, he
ran into a problem because he wanted a divorce from Catherine of
Aragon. The church refused, because she was a zealous Spanish
Catholic. His cardinal advised him to invent his own church. So he did
that - just to get a divorce. Is that rational?
It is rather difficult to explain our faith to the new world where
people have none anymore. When selfishness grows, everything you do
seems right, and everything others do seems wrong. It's all about what
do I get, not about what do I do. I like the memory of my trip to a
game reserve South Africa. After seeing many wild animals, I asked the
guide which was the most rapacious and fearsome. He showed me a
PRS: What is your source of income? What does your family live off ?
VARMA: We have travel and hotel businesses. I am chairman of a former
British company that exports various items from Kerala - but no, not
pepper to Buckingham Palace, as reported. We also run seven trusts.
We spend R5-8 lakh a year on education, health and housing for the
poor. We pay good salaries. And the family itself contributes money
every month. No government has acknowledged our work but that is all
right. We do it because we want to do it.
PRS: Gold statues studded with rubies and diamonds, saphhires, gold
coins of the Napoleonic era and the East India Company. Is all that
VARMA: I have never been inside those cellars. Our philosophy has
always been not to look at such objects and get tempted. But of course
I know what is inside them.
PRS: Are the younger members of your family angrier than you about the
heated public debate?
VARMA: I am the most hot-blooded in this family but on this matter, we
all feel the same. I was a soldier - a colonel for 15 years in the
Madras Regiment. I would like to ask those criticizing us for donating
these objects: why are they bothered about what someone else has done?
What are they doing in the name of faith themselves ? Why the hot
gossip over a donation to God?
PRS: At 90, you don't even use a walking stick. What is your daily routine ?
VARMA: We have all been brought up very strictly and frugally. My day
starts at 4 am with yoga. I only drink milk, I am a vegetarian and a
teetotaler. I read the Vedas everyday. I go the temple for a
ten-minute private audience with the deity every morning. After that,
I indulge in one of my hobbies - "media surgery." I read the
newspapers and clip articles over breakfast. I have a collection of
the past 30 years.
I will give those to the Trust because my children may not be
interested. People come to meet me, they invite me to inaugurate
functions. I speak extempore. I go from vertical to horizontal for
about 20 minutes in the afternoon. I am in bed by 945. I have always
slept well. Since there is nothing on my conscience, sleep comes
PRS: Are you now thinking of insuring those treasures, now that the
whole world is talking about them, or are they already insured ?
VARMA: (laughs) I am least worried that they will be stolen. If that
happens, then it was the Lord's will.
PRS: Among your ancestors were famous Carnatic musician Swati Thirunal
and painter Raja Ravi Varma. What are your passions?
VARMA: Those two ancestors gave music and art divinity and humanity
respectively. That continues. I love art. I once saw a piece of
exquisite china in Venice. It was a girl on a swing with the sand
looking worn just where her feet touched the ground each time. It cost
100 pounds, I could only afford 40, as foreign exchange was limited
those days. So I went away. The dealer called me back and gave it to
me. He said he could tell that I was not one of those who ordered 200
pieces of one kind, that I valued minute details.
PRS: Kerala has been a Communist bastion for more than 50 years. Don't
you find it peculiar that people here still flurry around you, they
respect you, they still call you Your Highness.
VARMA: Yes, that is quite amazing because I am a simple man, I don't
expect it at all. At religious gatherings in Haridwar where one of my
two gurus lives, I always sit in the last row and am always dressed
like this - mundu and bush-shirt. People who don't know me come
looking for the Raja of the South. When I raise my hand, they don't
PRS: How wealthy is your family, compared to the other - and
internationally more famous - royals of Rajasthan and elsewhere?
VARMA: That is a mere technicality and has never been relevant to me.
But I'll tell you a story which will give you an idea. There used to
be a British gun salute for the princely states of India: 21, the
highest for the richest ruler, 11 for the poorest. When Tranvancore
refused to contribute soldiers to the British Army in World War I, our
slipped from 21 to 19.
PRS: Who is your heir?
VARMA: We have a matriarchal system of inheritance. I have a daughter
and a son but it is my sister's son who will be king after me. I
remember a European lady visiting us. I explained this complicated law
of succession to her. When she went back, she told her friends that
she had not understood a word, but only knew that whatever it was, it
was good for women. Kerala is slowly turning patriarchal again. That
is not good. Overall in our country, we treat women as second-class
citizens. When you look at a man, you are looking at a human being,
when you look at a woman, you are looking at a family.
PRS: What is the feeling you get, when you spend those ten minutes at
the Padmanabha shrine ? The daily communion between ruler and master,
as you put it ?
VARMA: Gooseflesh. Everything is surrendered. It is a great, elating
feeling. My hair stands on end with joy. Each and every time.
(Padma Rao Sundarji is South Asia bureau chief of Der Spiegel)