Sunday, January 5, 2014
The new titular head of the Royal Family of Travancore, Moolam Tirunaal Rama Varma, was formally anointed last Friday. That is a good reason to think of the last monarch of Travancore, or to give it its vernacular name, Thiruvithamcoor, who decreed that temples are not exclusive to any group of people. It might sound trivial today, but a century ago, entry into temples was restricted only to “caste Hindoos”. That was the prevailing practice across the whole of India, and it was a young ruler from South India who opened the floodgates with his “Temple Entry Proclamation” in 1936.
Chithira Thirunaal Balarama Varma Maharaja was barely 24 when he declared that "...there should henceforth be no restriction placed on any Hindu by birth or religion on entering or worshipping at temples controlled by us and our Government", thereby putting an end to centuries of discrimination. The decree was welcomed by both the British government as well as the Indian nationalists. Therefore, when there was a move to erect a statue of the Maharaja in Madras, it met with little resistance. Of course, it was projected more as a commemoration of the event, rather than the man. The statute of Maharaja Balarama Varma came up in the Travancore Maharaja Park, opposite the Raja Annamalai Mandram in Esplanade.
The Raja of Travancore had large tracts of land in Adyar, which is where his Madras 'camp' palace was. As Adyar developed into a residential area, Balarama Varma granted the new residents' request to provide land for a temple, the only proviso being that it should be dedicated to Padmanabhaswamy, the presiding deity of Travancore. So it was that the temple came up in what is Gandhi Nagar today. That grant helped the Raja's statue as well; by the early 1990s, the Travancore Maharaja Park had become a parking spot for buses and the city formalised it by converting the park into a bus terminus. The statute was sadly out of place and was in danger of being vandalised. Luckily, it was shifted to a corner of the Padmanabhaswamy temple, where it stands, appropriately holding the proclamation that lets anyone with faith enter the temples!