The sun rose as usual on that day, marking Uthara Star in the month of Dhanu 1937. Some minutes later, when it broke free of the horizon to its full glory, the cannons at the Royal Armoury boomed, announcing the dawn of the thirteenth birthday of Uthrom Thirunal Princess Lalitamba Bai, Second Princess of Travancore.

Lalitamba pushed aside the tray upon which her jewelled ornaments for the day were laid. “I will not dress up as a popinjay,” she announced firmly.
“Your Highness,” protested the shocked maids standing by, “this will alarm the whole palace.”

Lalitamba burst into peals of infectious laughter, “That would be something to see!” she exclaimed, ecstatically.

Her sister, Karthika Thirunal Indira Bai, Third Princess of Travancore, and three years younger, ran to her elder sibling whom she looked up to as a sort of heroine who always did the unconventional and broke rules and protocol and frequently caused mayhem in the royal household at Satelmond. “Akke, don’t risk it!” she cried, “better wear all of it. After all it IS your birthday!”

“Keep quiet Kochanthee,” Lalitamba laughed, “I‘ll have my way. Hmmm. Let me see now.... I’ll wear just the mulla mottu maala. And two bangles on each hand. And these small eardrops. That’s about it.”
“Akke!” Indira said in a whisper, “those maids have alerted our Aunts! Kochammachy and Valiyammachy are coming in! Oh please, please, quickly put on the rest of the aabharan!”

“What is going on!” Elder Ammathampuran, sister of the Maharani interjected sharply, “I might have guessed! Mootha kunju, defiant as usual! “
“Best let her have her way,” said younger Ammathampuran placatingly, “saves time. The carriage is already at the North Entrance downstairs. We can’t keep the Temple officials waiting.”

The people lining Main Street on each side craned their necks, between the horse guards stationed at intervals, striving to catch a glimpse of the two princesses in the open horse-drawn royal carriage, taking them to the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple to have Darshan of the Family Deity on this auspicious day of the Second Princess’s birthday.

The lively young princess , bubbling with energy, sat upon the cushioned seat, her demure younger sister beside her, while the entourage, headed by the State Guards and completed by the Maharani’s two sisters, the aunts of the princesses, in another carriage followed behind with another set of guards.

Lalitamba giggled. “Look at the coachman! “ she said, “his back is as stiff as wood! Suppose we tickle his armpit with the end of this umbrella!”
“Akke, for god’s sake,” Indira cried, don’t! Ammachies are right behind us!”
“Of course they are! Don’t worry Konchanthee. I won’t do it. Not because I daren’t, but because the poor man will fall off his perch, and we will be late!”
They suppressed giggles at the image this thought.

Merrily chatting in hushed whispers, interspersed with bubbling laughter as Lalitamba dissected the characters of various relatives, imitating certain quirks of theirs with irrepressible hilarity, the two princesses sat, outwardly maintaining royal demeanour, as the coach proceeded majestically down Main Street.

Lalitamba had not the slightest clue what was in store for her. Destiny was about to deal a hand that would forever change her life in a manner she could never imagine.

The two princesses were as unlike each other as could be imagined.
Indira was docile and lady-like, reflecting the correct deportment lessons taught by the Royal Governess, everything a princess should be. She was petite and exquisitely beautiful with her oval countenance, ivory complexion and large gazelle eyes.

Lalita was vivacious, bright and sparkling and though not a classically perfect beauty, her expressive countenance and scintillating presence earned her instant attention in a room full of people, possessing that magic quality to become the centre of attraction. All through her life she was the life and soul of any gathering.

From childhood she was unable to sit still, while her sister sat in royal demeanour, her apparel in perfect order, not a fold out of place from morning till night, despite whatever action she was engaged in, Lalita was in perpetual disarray, having run around the palace compound leading the maids, guards, footmen and other members of the royal retinue to a merry chase whenever the moment permitted. Guards at the gates probably suffered from aching arms having “presented arms” in traditional gun salute each time she passed by. The two aunts, mootha Ammathampuran and elaya Ammathampuran, sisters of the Maharani, who were deputed to be the guardians of the two princesses had a difficult time controlling Lalita, and most times had to let her have her way.
“I wish I had been born a boy!” Lalita frequently complained to her younger sister, “there wouldn’t have been so many restrictions and what fun I would have had playing foo ball and climbing trees!”
However she did have her way too.
“Anna, let’s play football,” she told her cousin Sukumaran, son of her eldest aunt, three years her senior and her companion-in- mischief, “but how do we get a ball?” “ No problem, Aneethee. I can ask Kesavan to buy one from my pocket money.”

“Gosh, that’s wonderful Anna. Wish we had pocket money too.” But when Lalita had spoken about the matter of pocket money earlier, thee aunts had been shocked. Pocket money for a princess! Why, all she had to do was say whatever she wished for and it would be brought before her by retainers. Except that it would not include footballs and other such items as are required by ordinary folk. Now if it were jewels or ornaments or apparel of silks and satins she could ask for whatever needed. But that was exactly what she did not wish for. She thought the life of an ordinary individual the most exciting thing in the world.
She formed her own “team” with her cousin Sukumaran and frequently played football with other boys of the family, scouting rules. This could only end up in one thing— summons before the Great Presence.

If there was one person she was in great awe of, it was her mother, the Maharani. Beautiful, regal, elegant, Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi was the epitome of royal grace. Not a single action of hers, be it a mere lift of the hand, was gauche, inspiring the State bards to compose poems galore, eulogising her unique qualities of holding anyone spellbound by her presence.
“Kunje, what is this I hear? “ she asked, “ you’ve been playing rough games.”
Lalita stood awkwardly before her mother, fidgeting, wordless.
“You have to maintain the decorum of behaviour expected of you,” the Maharani was firm, “this is absolutely necessary to uphold our family image.
How often must you be told ?”
“I-I—I’ll try,” Lalita murmured, knowing in her heart it would not be possible for her to follow rules that were of other people’s making.
“Don’t let me hear of it again,” the Maharani said. Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi abhorred punishing children, whoever they may be, but family decorum must be maintained.
Lalita did keep her promise to her mother, and was quiet and dutiful, but for exactly one hour. After that she simply could not help it, her boundless vivacity had to be expressed.
“Race you to Akkarakunnu!” she dared and cousin Sukumaran instantly took up the challenge, “Done!” The two of them broke free of the other playmates and ran towards the Spring Palace a kilometre from Satelmond. But this meant going out of bounds, into forbidden territory, climbing walls and breaking out of the confinement of maids and pattakkars and guards!

Of course, life was very much easier for her cousins, who did not have such restrictions to cope with. Very soon she had done the unthinkable— there she was atop the promontory facing Akkarakunnu Palace! Lalita was breathless with excitement. The run was every bit worth the effort.

Thought of confronting her mother did not deter her from breaking free whenever she could. Nevertheless, she adored her mother. It was simply that it was not in her nature to submit meekly to any sort of rules.

Years later, she was to tell her children how she considered her mother the most awe inspiring person in her life and how much she admired her.

“I used to stare at her remarkable person,” she said, “I used to watch in speechless wonder at the manner in which she conducted herself. Every inch a real queen! I remember standing below the North Wing Stairs, looking up as Mother came down it, Father behind, on their way to a State Banquet at Kanakakunnu Palace. I was about four or five years at the time. She was dressed in a pale green blouse and her mundu was sparkling white. She had not worn many ornaments, but she was stunning beyond words. She had a long, diaphanous tissue shawl trailing to her feet. She walked slowly, regally, so, so very gracefully. No one could walk like she did. Just behind her. Father was also arresting in a black frock coat with tails, spotless white shirt with diamond buttons, and jewelled pocket watch with gold chain, very precisely proper, with his silver walking stick and top hat. I’ll never forget the sight. The first time I realised my mother was a Queen!”

Many were the pranks Princess Lalita played within the palace. In spite of the “confinement “ within the gilded cage, there was never a dull moment.


Rukmini Varma

Rukmini Varma is a leading Indian artist who paints in the classical tradition.