The Maharaja’s last battle

(My article for the Hindustan Times, dated Dec 17, 2013)

Just a few days after Srikantadatta, the last scion of the Wodeyars, passed away in Mysore another titular Maharaja, Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma of Travancore died of a cardiac arrest early on Sunday morning, at the age of 91.

 Although he had no official duties, serving a ceremonial purpose, and headed many charitable trusts, Marthanda Varma was under the media’s scanner during the last few years of his life after reports of the immense wealth stored inside the Padmanabha Swamy Temple in Thiruvanathapuram came to the fore.

 Born on March 22, 1922, Marthanda Varma inherited the title in 1991 after the death of his older brother, Chithira Thirunal Balarama Varma — the last ruling monarch of the princely state.

Marthanda Verma
The Maharaja of Travancore, Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma at the Pattom Palace in Thiruvananthapuram July 12, 2011. Photo/SIVARAM V FOR MINT

As the head of the royal family, he was the custodian of the temple and would make it a point to visit it every morning at 7 am, failing which he would be fined a sum of R157.35 as per tradition.

 In 2011, reports of newly discovered treasures (including gold coins, jewels and statues) being stored in the temple vaults surfaced and was subject to much legal scrutiny as to who should actually control the wealth. Various reports pegged the wealth to be worth anywhere between R32,000 crore to R1.2 lakh crore.

 The Kerala High Court concluded that Varma, under a 1950 religious institutions Act, could not claim management rights of the temple; its properties and assets would revert back and vest in the State Government under Article 295 and Article 296 of the Constitution of India.

 Varma, who stayed away from politics his entire life, had duly acknowledged the presence of the wealth was known to the royal family for centuries but challenged the petition saying it must be preserved in the temple for future generations.  

 Kerala’s chief minister Oommen Chandy had also supported the royal family’s stance. Chandy, who was in Delhi on Monday for official work has cut short his trip and will attend Varma’s funeral back in Thiruvanthapuram where a state holiday has been declared in his tribute.

 The decision of what to do with the riches is now impending with a special committee appointed by the Supreme Court.

 It also remains to be seen if the Maharaja’s last battle would be continued by his nephew and successor, Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma who is currently on the managing board of a Mangalore-based shipping company in which the royal family has a stake.

(A printed version of this article appeared on Dec 17, 2012 on page 9 of the Hindustan Times)