Swathi Thirunal

Prof: A.Sreedhara Menon
Historian & Former Registrar,University of Kerala

               Rama Varma , known to history as Maharaja Swati Tirunal, is one of the most accomplished and enlightened rulers of the illustrious royal house of Travancore. He was born on the 16th April 1813 as the son of Gouri Lekshmi Bai, the ruling Queen and Rajaraja Varma Valia Koil Tampuran of Changanacherry. As there was no male heir to succeed Gouri Lekshmi Bai, the birth of the baby prince provided an occasion for universal rejoicings to people all over the State and he came to be hailed as Garbhasriman, ie, one who had claim to the throne even before his birth. A poet like Irayimman Tampi who adorned the Travancore court at the time went into raptures and composed the immortal lullaby in Malayalam Omanatinkalkidavo attributing to the new born baby all that is noble, sweet and covetable in life.


As the new born prince was the star of a new hope for the royal family, his education received all the attention that it deserved. According to the Ramavarma Vijaya, a contemporary literary work, Swati Tirunal achieved proficiency in eighteen languages including Sanskrit, Malayalam, English, Telugu, Tamil, Marathi, Persian etc. under separate tutors at a very early age and he could compose poems in all these languages. Among his many tutors the most outstanding was Subba Rao who taught him English, Marathi, Political Science, Ethics and many miscellaneous subjects including even Music and later served him also as Diwan of the State. Swati Tirunal received a very sound education in the theory and practice of music at the hands of such veterans of Karnatic music as Karamana Padmanabha Bhagavatar, Meruswami, Vativelu and a host of others. Colonel Welsh who happened to meet the prince when he was only thirteen has recorded a very high opinion of his versatile abilities in his Military Reminiscences.

In April 1829 Swati Tirunal assumed the direct reins of administration from the Regent Gouri Parvathi Bai and from then onwards he bestowed his personal attention on the affairs of state. Venkata Rao, a competent administrator, was Diwan at this time and he continued in that capacity till 1830 when, following his resignation, Subba Rao, the former Tutor to Swati, was himself appointed to the post. Both the Diwans helped Swati Tirunal to introduce progressive reforms in all fields of administration and project an image of Travancore as a "Model State" to the rest of the country. However, the arrival on the scene of an autocratic and self-opinionated person like Cullen as the British Resident (1840) created problems for the ruler. General Cullen was in the habit of interfering in the day-to-day administration of the State to such an extent as to reduce royal authority to vanishing point. Though the Maharaja took up the matter with the British Government with some effect, he had often to acquiesce himself in the unhappy situation of having to obey the dictates of the Resident in matters of administration much against his conscience. The humilation he suffered at the hands of this Resident deeply affected his sensitive mind and before long, Swati Tirunal adopted an attitude of detachment in regard to affairs of the state and became almost a recluse, spending his days in silent meditation and prayer. He was also not in the best of health. Following an illness spread over a period of two years Swati Tirunal passed away on the 25th December 1846 at the peak of his fame and popularity.

As an administrator

The reign of Swati Tirunal was one of enlightened and liberal administration. One of his earliest measures was the transfer of the Huzur Cutchery and other public offices from Quilon to a building in close proximity to his palace within the Fort area in Trivandrum. This helped the expeditious disposal of Government business and kept the officials of the State ever on their toes. The Maharaja also set apart a few hours every day for official business in order to acquaint himself personally with all aspects of administration. Swati Tirunal stood for a clean administration and was therefore strict in dealing with officials accused of corruption. He suspended even Diwan Subba Rao, his own erstwhile teacher, when a charge of corruption was levelled against him. The First Judge of the Court of Appeal (Narayanan Kesavan) and the Diwan Peishkar (Kochusankara Pillai) had to quit service on the orders of the ruler following charges of corruption. The acceptance of presents by Government officials from the beneficiaries of their actions in the course of day-to-day administration was considered a serious offence and drastic action was initated in all such cases which came to his notice. Officials accused of corruption, even when cleared by judicial commissions, could not get reinstatement in office at the hands of the ruler. Swati Tirunal thus stood for incorruptibility in administration and set a shining example for future administrators to follow.

The reform of the judiciary received the special attention of Swati Tirunal. The three-tier judicial system comprised of the Appellate Court, Zilla Courts and Munsiff's Courts took shape during this period. A committee of experienced officers under Cundan Menon, an officer in the service of the Madras Government, was set up to draft a legal code and on the basis of its recommendations the first Code of Regulations of Travancore was issued in 1836. The reorganisation of the Magistracy and the Police on the model of those prevailing in British India was also effected.

With the reign of Swati Tirunal may be associated the beginnings of English education in Travancore . In 1834 an English School was started in Trivandrum and Roberts, an Englishman who was running a private school at Nagarcoil, was put in charge on a monthly honorarium of Rs. 100/-. In 1836 it was converted into the Raja's Free School and the salary of Roberts was raised to Rs. 300 per mensem, an incredibly high salary in the State at that time. It was this Raja's Free School which eventually became the Maharaja's High School and later the Maharaja's College, the nucleus of the later University of Travancore (Kerala). It should be said to the credit of Swati Tirunal that he brought the benefits of Western education to Travancore at a time when even the neighbouring Madras Presidency which was under the direct rule of the British did not have that facility.

The Maharaja was deeply interested in Astronomy and on his initiative was established the Trivandrum Observatory (1837) equipped with the most sophisticated instruments available at the time in the west. Swati Tirunal also arranged for the collection and transcription of rare and valuable manuscripts and thus laid the foundations of the Palace Grandhapura which later developed into the famous Oriental Research Institute and Manuscripts Library, Trivandrum. The credit for establishing a printing press of its own for the State Government should also go to Swati Tirunal. He also organised in 1836 the first census of Travancore state. He had his own menagerie which contained a rare collection of birds and animals. This was to form the nucleus of the Trivandrum Zoo of later days. Thus the reign of Swati Tirunal turned out to be a landmark in the cultural history of modern Kerala.

In addition to the measures described above, Swati Tirunal has to his credit achievements in some other fields of administration as well. He started an Engineering Department under an English Engineer by name Horsely. It was under the personal supervision of this Engineer that the three-span stone bridge over the Karamana river in Trivandrum was built. Special Maramath sections for the construction of palaces and temples as well as for the execution of irrigation works were started. The claims of medical and health services also received the Maharaja's attention. With his faith in the Western system of medicine, he started a Charity Hospital at Trivandrum and appointed the Palace Physician, himself an Allopathic Doctor, as its Superintendent. Swati Tirunal gave an impetus to dairy farming by importing the finest breeds of cattle from Gujarat, Surat and such other centres in India. His royal dairy was a model of its kind in South India.

The Maharaja quickened the transition of his State from the medieval to the modern age by introducing several social innovations. He abolished as many as 165 feudal imposts which hampered freedom of trade and stifled economic activity. Social reform engaged his special attention. The age-long practice of shaving off the head of women criminals and banishing them form the State in disgrace was done away with. The Satyapariksha or trial ordeal prevailing in the Suchindram temple (Suchindram Kaimukku) under which Antarjanams (Nambutiri women) accused of adultery had to prove their innocence by dipping their fingers in boiling ghee, was also banned under royal orders. These reforms of Swati Tirunal entitle him to a high place among the enligtened rulers in Kerala history.

Contributions to Poetry and Music

Swati Tirunal made his mark as a scholar and man of letters. He was a poet par excellence. Among his literary works of high merit in Sanskrit may be mentioned the Bhaktimanjari, the Syanandurapuravarnanaprabandha and the Padmanabha Sataka, all of which have Lord Padmanabha for their theme. The Bhaktimanjari is a stotra modelled after Melpathurs' Narayaniyam and comprises of one thousand verses divided into ten satakas of one hundred verses each. The Syanandurapuravarnanaprabandha is a kavya written in a mixture of verse and prose with the traditional history of the Sri Padmanabhaswami temple and its festivals as the theme. The Padmanabhashataka which is considered to be the best literary work of Swathi Thirunal, is also a stotra addressed to Sri Padmanabha in one hundred verses and it is recited by devotees inside the temple even today. The Ajamilopakhyana and Kuchelopakhyana are two other Sanskrit works of Swati written in a mixture of verse and prose. They are intended for the use of the exponents of Harikathakalakshepam, a kind of musico-religious entertainment which came to Kerala from Maharashtra.Apart from composing these literary works, the Maharaja standardised the music of of the Sri Padmanabhaswami temple by composing songs in appropriate ragas to suit the special needs arising from the conduct of various festivals.

Swati Tirunal distinguished himself as a musician and musical composer of a very high order. In fact, he takes his rank among the greatest figures of Karnatic music along with the famous 'Trinity', viz, Saint Tyagaraja(1767-1847), Muthuswami Dikshitar (1776-1835) and Syama Sastri (1762-1827). The sound education in music that Swati Tirunal received in his boyhood naturally helped in the flowering of his musical genius. As a devotee of Sri Padmanabha, he utilised his talents to sing the glories of the Lord. Kirtanas (devotional songs set to raga and tala), about two hundred in number, form the bulk of his musical compositions. Almost all of them are in Sanskrit with the exception of one in Kannada. There is none in Malayalam or Tamil. Though the majority of these Kirtanas are in praise of Vishnu, there are quite a few in praise of other Gods and Goddesses as well (eg. Siva, Parvati, Lekshmi, Saraswathi, Ganapati, Subramanya and Hanuman). These compositions furnish proof of Swati Tirunal's catholicity. In his Kirtanas the Maharaja shows himself to be an expert in the use of Swaraskshara. It is a device in which the composer achieves the identity of the Swara in the music part with the corresponding syllable in the text part. Most of the Kirtanas of Swati Tirunal are set to well known ragas, but there are some rare ragas too like Mohanakalyani which are his own original creations.

Mention may also be made in this context of the two distinct groups of Kritis among Swati Tirunal's compositions.They are the Navaratri Kirtanas and the Navaratnamalika. The former comprises of nine compositions
which are to be sung as the main songs on each of the nine days of the Navaratri festival and they help to preserve the memory of Swati Tirunal to this day. The Navaratnamalika is an anthology of nine compositions each of which is devoted to nine forms of conventional devotion (Bhakti). In addition to the Kirtanas, Swati
Tirunal has also composed several dance forms of music too. These include Swarajatis, Varnas, Padas and Tilanas. The bulk of the Malayalam compositions of Swathi Thirunal come under this category. About fifty padas attributed to him have come to light, though some scholars have expressed the view that some of these might have been the compositions of Irayimman Tampi. The Utsavaprabandham is the most important of his Malalyalam works. It contains a description of each day's celebrations connected with the ten-day Utsavam in the Sri Padmanabhaswami temple and is intended for use in Harikathakalakshepam. It may also be noted in this context that the Maharaja has also to his credit some North Indian forms of music. There are thirty-eight songs of his in Hindustani which have come to light. These songs bear evidence of the influence of the poetry of Surdas, Tulasidas and Mirabai. Though they have all gone out of currency, some have been adopted by Karnatic musicians in forms suitable for their purpose.

Tanjore Quartette
Maharaja Swati Tirunal was a generous patron of artistes and men of letters. His court was the rendezvous of musicians and singers from all parts of the country. The most celebrated musician in Swati's court was Meruswami. He was an acknowledged authority on the theory and practice of Karnatic music. He sang at a
high pitch which won for him the title Kokila Kanda. He was also a pastmaster in the art of Harikathakalakshepam. Meruswami held the covetable post of royal musician under Swati Tirunal and initiated the ruler into the inner subtlities of Karnatic music

.The Tanjore Quartette, viz, the four brothers Vativelu, Ponnayya, Chinnayya and Sivanandan were among the other shining lights of music in Swati's court. All of them were disciples of Muthuswami Dikshitar, one of the Trinity of Karnatic music. Vativelu was an expert in the composition of dance forms of music and he collaborated with the Maharaja in his endeavours in this direction. He was largely instrumental to the introduction of Violin in Karnatic music and the Maharaja presented him with a violin in ivory as a token of his appreciation of Vativelu's services in this regard. Subbukutti Ayya, an authority on Vina, also adorned the court of Swati Tirunal. Kannayya Bhagavatar, a disciple of Saint Tyagaraja, was yet another celebrity who shed lustre on the court of Swati Tirunal. He used to sing the songs of saint Tyagaraja in the royal court kindling in the mind of his royal patron a deep desire to get acquainted with this genius of Karnatic music.

Shadkala Govinda Marar
A musical prodigy who adorned the court of Swati Tirunal was Shadkala Govinda Marar, (1798-1841) a native of Ramamangalam near Muvattupuzha. The members of Marar's family had been specialists in playing percussion instruments like Chenda, Edakka and Timila, but owing to rheumatic complaint and consequential physical handicap, Govinda Marar was almost a cripple and he found it difficult to handle these instruments with the required ease and dexterity. Marar therefore turned his attention to vocal music in which he acquired a high level of proficiency after an intensive six-year course under Haripad Ramaswami Bhagavatar and then made his debut at Trivandrum. By this time he had come to be known by the honorific title "Shadkala" as he exhibited rare skill in singing Pallavis to six tempi or degrees of time while even the very best singers could handle only three (fast, medium and slow). He had also the distinction of having devised a Tamburu with seven strings instead of the usual four.

Marar had undertaken a tour of all the famous pilgrim centres of the country before he came to Swati's court. During these tours he had collected many songs which had gained currency in Tamilnadu and these
included, among others, those of Margadarsi Sesha Ayyanagar, an eminent musician who was looked upon as a pioneer in the field. Marar who got a hearty welcome in Swati's court presented this valuable collection to the
Maharaja and won his appreciation. Moreover, Marar used to sing to the Maharaja the enchanting musical compositions of Saint Tyagaraja in his own inimitable style. The Maharaja evenutally conceived the idea of sending Govinda Marar in the company of Vadivelu to Tiruvayyar to persuade Tyagaraja to pay a visit to his
court at Trivandrum.

The royal emissaries reached the presence of Saint Tyagaraja at Tiruvayyar on their mission. At the request of the saint, Marar played his tamburu and sang the verse beginning with the words Chandna Charchita Nilakalebara from Jayadeva's Gita Govinda in his captivating and masterly way and sent the music loving audience to the heights of ecstasy. Tyagaraja himself was so moved by Marar's preformance that he instantaneously composed in Sriraga his immortal song Entaro Mahabhavalu Antairiki vandanamu (there are ever so many great men in this world and I bow to all of them). Marar and Vadivelu failed to achieve the immediate objective of their mission, though Tyagaraja expressed his personal regard for the Maharaja and sent him his greetings. Marar seems to have taken his failure too much to heart. Therefore, instead of returing to Trivandrum,he went to Pandharpur in Maharashtra where he spent the last year of his life in prayer and meditation.

Mention should also be made of some other musical celebrities like Parameswara Bhagavatar of Palghat (the composer of the famous Varnam Sarasijanabha, in Nattai) the Chief Palace musician under Swati Tirunal and three of his successors to the throne, Maliyekkal Krishna Marar, an expert in singing classical songs to the accompaniment of Edakka and Mukundaram and Nandaram from Mysore, two experts on Vina who flourised in the court of Swati Tirunal. Swati extended his patronage to Hindustani music as well. Syed Sulaiman, an expert in Svarabat and Alauddin, a gifted vocalist, were in the permanent service of the Maharaja.

Dancing, Painting etc.

In addition to music, other fine arts like dancing, painting and architecture also benefited from Swati's patronage. He is credited with having developed Mohini Attam. A large number of Padas and Padavarnas composed by him in Malayalam were intended for use in Mohini Attam. Swati also designed the elegant dress which the Mohini Attam artistes use at present.Famous exponents of dance like Nagaratnam of Sri Rangam and Kanakamala of Tanjore received his special encouragement. A Hindhustani dance troup of eight artistes was maintained by Swati at Trivandrum. Painters like Ramaswami Naickar, Alagiri Naidu and Pedda Dasari were also generously patronised by the Maharaja. It was from the days of Swati Tirunal that ivory work as a handicraft was developed in Trivandrum. The Raja obtained the services of talented ivory workers from Changanacherry and got exquisite works done by them, eg . the violin which he presented to Vadivelu. The
Puthanmalika and Rangavilasam in the Valiyakottaram at Trivandrum are fine specimens of the architecture of the age and they were built on the orders of Swati. Another standing monument to his interest in architecture is the impressive Durbar Hall at Padmanabhapuram. It is also noted for its beautiful sculptures.

Literature in Swati's Court

Swati Tirunal's patronage of literature too deserves a passing notice. Irayimman Tampi (1782-1856), to whom several references have been made earlier, was the most distinguished poet in his court. He composed several Kirtanams, Varnams, Padams, Attakathas and narrative poems. He was appointed by Swathi as the
Asthanakavi or Poet Laureate. Vidwan Rajaraja Varma Koil Tampuran of Kilimanoor who wrote the Ravanavijayam Attakatha was a close friend of the Maharaja. Sankaranatha Josier, a distinguished scholar-statesman from North Kerala, who had served Maharaja Ranjit Singh of the Punjab with singular distinction was brought to Trivandrum by Swati through the good offices of Lord William Bentinck, the Governor General and appointed as the First Judge of the Appeal Court. Josier is credited with the partial translation into Malayalam of the Devibhagavatam which was one of the valuable Sanskrit manuscripts he brought to Trivandrum from the Punjab. Sanskrit scholars from all parts of the country also came to attend the annual Vakyartha Sadas organised by the Maharaja in connection with the annual Navaratri festival. Rev. Peet and Rev. Bailey, the European missionaries who compiled a Grammar of Malayalam and an English-Malayalam Dictionary, received financial assistance for their works from Swati Tirunal.

Thus judged by whatever standard of merit, Maharaja Swati Tirunal has claims to be regarded as one of the greatest rulers in Kerala history. His premature death at the age of thirty-three was indeed a tragic loss to the country. But even during his short span of life he had crowned himself with glory by his significant achieve-ments in diverse fields of activity. The reign of Swati Tirunal will continue to shed lustre on the pages of Keralahistory for ages to come.

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