Lineage of Great Ancestors – Know Few of Tamilnadu’s Royal Blood Existing Today
Tamil Nadu has a hoary history. Ruled by successions of Pandyas, Cholas, Cheras and Pallavas, the region’s art, culture and architecture is stamped with their contributions. Their kingdoms may have long disappeared under the sands of time and the royalty fallen victim to the abolition of privy purses, but their legacy lingers on, in the hands of a few of their descendants, who, though relieved of many privileges, retain pride in their great ancestry. We caught up with the few royalty left in Tamil Nadu—the Sethupathis of Ramnad, the Thanjavur Marathas and the rulers of Pudukottai — for a fascinating insight into their current lives.
The Sethupatis of Ramnad
The imposing gates bearing the emblem of the Sethupatis of Ramnad or Ramnathapuram, remained partially open as we let ourselves in. A squeal of tyres announced the arrival of the Raja and his wife, who apologised profusely for being late.
Kumaran Sethupati, the current Raja of Ramnad seems to have his hands full. Matters of business (he owns an injection moulding company) occupy his time, in between invites to inaugurate jewellery shops and visits to temples.
He spent his childhood in Chennai, accustomed to military discipline enforced by his aunt, having lost his father when he was a toddler. His is a great legacy which dates back a few centuries to the time when the Sethupathis held sway over a fifth of Tamil Nadu, as ‘Overlords of the Causeway’, the causeway being the bridge at Rameswaram, built by Lord Rama and his Vanara Sena. The Ramanthaswamy temple at Rameswaram has enjoyed the patronage of the Sethupati rulers, with the current raja its hereditary Chairman. “Not only temples, but even mosques and churches received royal patronage. The famous Erwadi dargah rests on land donated by the Sethupathis,” pipes in the Rani, and continues, “The Sethupathis had the welfare of their subjects at heart, and built several chattrams (rest houses) for pilgrims along the road to Rameswaram. A lot of money was spent on restoration of the temple too, as well as on a couple of government colleges and hospitals.” Both the Raja and the Rani take active interest in their 100-year-old Raja’s Higher Secondary School as well.
There is a fierce pride about their ancestry, especially about their ancestor Bhaskara Sethupati, who financed Swami Vivekananda’s Chicago visit to attend the Parliament of Religions. The Ramnad Raja changed his mind after meeting the great monk and volunteered to send him in his place.
So, how do the public view the current Raja? “Oh, they love and adore him,” says the Rani. During Dasera, there is close interaction between the Raja and the people. “I walk as much as five kilometres with the public. It’s a great feeling, a great connect,” says the Raja. Tennis ranks high among his interests, as also football, with the Raja the president of the Football Association Club. His children, a boy and a girl, study in a residential school in Madurai.
The Marathas of Thanjavur
Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu has long remained a seat of art and culture, ruled by successive kings of the Chola, Pandya and Chera dynasties, before the Marathas vanquished their predecessors, the Nayaks and claimed the fertile delta region as their own. The Thanjavur Maratha dynasty flourished here, effortlessly amalgamating its culture with that of the locals. That their line is flourishing was established when the tall, simply-clad figure of Babaji Rajah Bhonsle, the 13th descendant, welcomed us warmly.
Babaji acknowledges he has never been able to getting used to media attention. He speaks in calm tones, revealing that he was only 16 when his father passed away, leaving the weight of royal responsibilities on his shoulders. The intervening years having made him acutely aware of his heritage, and the duties that went along with it. “I’m only a bridge between the people and the government,” says the prince, a trustee for 88 temples in the region, modestly.
The 39-year-old prince recalls the great achievements of his ancestors, who, while great conquerors, were extremely religious and patrons of art. “They built a lot of choultries for travellers, now under government supervision,” says Babaji. The Saraswati Mahal Library, which houses rare books and manuscripts, attracts scholars from all over, he says. Chandramouleeshwar (Shiva) is their tutelary deity. Babaji and his family offer prayers at the big temple every day. “The temple is a living monument,” he says emphatically.
The prince, who counts reading and travelling to historical places as his favourite pastimes, is active in public life too. “We are often invited to various functions of Muslims and Christians,” he says. Sometimes, he is busy attending religions conventions and sometimes he finds himself caught up in bureaucratic tangles. His family, consisting of his wife Gayatri Raje from the Baroda royalty, his mother and two children, are also media shy.
So how does he view this legacy? “I’m here just to pass on the baton to the next generation,” summarises Babaji.
The Raja of Pudukottai
Even a lost cricket match doesn’t seem to disturb Mannar Rajagopala Thondaiman, the current Raja of Pudukottai, as he prepares for the interview. However, he cannot resist a jibe, “It happens, just like it does for the men in blue.” Currently residing in Trichy after the Pudukottai palace was converted into a collectorate, the palace still brings back soothing memories for the Raja, who lived there through his teenage. “The palace at Pudukottai, spread across 100 acres, was like a piece of heaven. Demands of protocol saw leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Zakir Hussain and V V Giri visiting here. I think my mom even has a photograph of me holding hands with the former PM,” he reminiscences. After Class VI, he moved to Trichy, with uncle Rajagopala Thondaiman, the last ruler of Pudukottai, adopting him as his legal heir. Since then, he has stayed on in Trichy, while his mother and siblings stay in the outskirts of Pudukottai.
There is a deep pride when he talks of his legacy, alluding to Pudukottai’s 1,000-year-old history, with a reign that lasted 500 years. “Pudukottai,” he says, “was the only princely state during the Raj. It had police and judicial powers and even printed its own currency.” He adds, “Now we have no title, but the villagers still respect us. The government, though, is another matter.” The prince maintains a low profile, helping build temples and trying to fix the woes of the villagers. He gives politics a wide berth, though the same doesn’t apply to wife Rani Sarubala Thondaiman, who has been the mayor of Trichy.
The media might have pegged him as an car industrialist, but the Prince disagrees. “I’m a mechanic and I love tinkering in my workshop.” It’s a passion that his adoptive father has passed on to him. “A simpler person one could not find. Many a time he would be working in the workshop dressed in green khakis, and unaware passersby would ask him about the Maharaja’s whereabouts,” says the prince with a laugh.
Cricket apart, the Prince enjoys shooting. He was part of the Indian shooting team in the 1990s. His son has followed in his footsteps, as a member of the Indian team at Doha Asian Shooting Championships. When not fixing cars, he takes care of his vast coffee estates near Kodaikanal. “My children have ambitious business plans, but I don’t want to end up losing whatever I have,” he signs off, cautiously.