Producing a Throne Fit for a Queen: Travancore's Contribution to the Great Exhibition in Crystal Palace, 1851

A throne sheathed in exquistely carved plaques of ivory was sent by Maharaja Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma of Travancore, to England, for the Great Exhibition of 1851. In the following excerpt from a larger paper, I examine the politics of production and transport of this throne. To date, the throne occupies a position of privilege in the Garter Throne Room at Windsor Castle, although lately, it appears to be an object of controversy and remains hidden from view during official dinners. (More on the throne's seeming notoriety here.)

The earliest reference to the throne is found in a contemporaneous historical volume, which comments on a “state chair” under construction for the Maharaja in 1849.[1] Not much else is known about the throne’s initial stages of production. In the same year, the EIC sent word to all princely kingdoms: they were asked to send appropriate “objects of industry” from their territories to London for the Great Exhibition. In Travancore, the Maharaja, in consultation with two British officials in his government and his minister, designated the throne as befitting the occasion.[2] While other objects accompanied it, the throne was the pièce de résistance. In a letter accompanying the throne, Marthanda Varma insisted that the Queen accept the object as a gift from his person after the throne had served its purpose as an exhibit.[3] In the following pages, I argue that the move to offer the throne as a gift was one that recognized the object’s agency as a potent, artistic yet utilitarian thing, that could (and did) infiltrate the private circles of British royalty. The throne enacted the role of a political mediator that cut across sociopolitical boundaries set in place by EIC in South Asia, and allowed communication between a South Asian potentate and the Queen through the complex sieve that was the EIC. This section posits that the throne undertook its role as an interlocutor on behalf of Travancore by making use of its decorative and material aspects. If taking part in The Great Exhibition was a way to showcase Travancore’s craft offerings to a larger European public,[4] that participation also became an opportunity to establish a direct political conduit between Travancore and Britain, and wrestle power of representation away from what Travancore considered to be middlemen—the EIC.[5]

The carvings on ivory panels that sheath the wooden base structure of the throne certainly exhibit the makers’ intention to use its surface as a visual vignette of Travancore’s alliance and friendship with the British crown. About 120 plaques of elephant-ivory, with detailed carvings of both figural and floral representations connected to Travancore and Britain, are nailed to the base, to create a glowing white sculptural mass. Principle motifs include Travancore’s royal emblem—the conch shell—in various compositional combinations with animals seen in British royal insignia such as the lion, the unicorn, and the dragon.[6] In addition to these, nude cherubs resembling European putti are also seen in many of the plaques, as well as boy angels with flutes, garlands, and trumpets. There are also a few indigenous girls clothed and semi-clothed in foliage and drapes that act like book-ends for the sculptural programs.

Although many of the figural representations are European, the carving style is predominantly Malabari.[7] The figural representations can be found within a tangled mass of lush sub-tropical foliage made up mainly of ferns and floral garlands. In a number of tiers, compositional arches imitating structural Indo-Islamic arches are used to divide and center individual tableaus. The lush vegetal background and use of compositional arches as framing devices are part of early modern South Indian style of ivory carving.[8] However, the use of royal motifs in furniture is fairly uncommon in this period in Travancore.

Yet, within the crafted visual narrative, one can observe both the imagined conditions as well as the subversive tendencies within the Travancore-British relationship, which bring to light frictions within nineteenth-century South Asian colonial diplomacy. To further understand the politics of presenting the throne as a royal gift, it is important to examine the practice of gift-giving in colonial South Asia and Great Britain in this period and the sociopolitical context that mandated this presentation. For Travancore, the royal gift was meant to impress upon British royalty, materially and politically, its self-sufficiency, its exquisite taste characteristic of elite classes, and its capacity for modernization. The materiality of the throne, therefore, was to contribute to its political intent. In 1850, Travancore’s position as a nominally independent kingdom was precarious. Contemporary accounts show that the “fear of annexation” to British India was an impending threat made serious by the constant reporting of Travancore’s administrative woes in English news outlets within South Asia.[9] Additionally, the high turnover of senior administrators within the government boded ill for the new king Marthanda Varma.

As the younger brother to a reigning king, Marthanda Varma was not expected to take up the reigns of the kingdom, and until his enthronement, had enjoyed a life devoid of scrutiny. While the previous king (his elder brother) was subject to the tradition-bound expectations of courtly life, Marthanda Varma was familiar with European ways and living. He was known to dress in the western manner and was very popular with British officials within Travancore.[10] Unlike his brother, Marthanda Varma enjoyed a close friendship with the British Resident of Travancore Major Cullen, often referring to him as “ammavan” (maternal uncle) in his conversations.[11] In consultation with Cullen and the committee set up to select objects and products to be sent for the exhibition, Marthanda Varma decided to gift the throne to the Queen after its exhibition at the Crystal Palace.[12]

The throne, at this time, was already under construction for the use of the Maharaja, and, under his orders, its completion was quickened.[13] From the information we have about the initial stages of the throne’s production, two characteristics can be determined. Firstly, the throne’s westernized structure was not specifically fashioned for the Queen. Rather, the Maharaja, with his well-known taste for European furniture, possibly commissioned it to his liking. However, following the orders that arrived via EIC to send articles of merit to The Great Exhibition, the purpose of the throne changed—from furniture crafted for the Maharaja to an object for exhibition and gift for the British Queen. It is conceivably at this point that details symbolizing British royalty entered the object’s iconography. Secondly, Marthanda Varma considered an object made for him, and crafted to appeal to his taste to be a worthy gift for the British queen. In his letter accompanying the throne, Marthanda Varma writes:

The transmission of articles from this country for the exhibition, has afforded me an opportunity of which I am anxious to avail myself of forwarding also to London a chair of State, made of ivory, carved and ornamented, the production wholly of the native artists of my country and which I request permission to offer for Your Majesty’s acceptance, as a curiosity, and at the same time as a slight token of my profound respect for Your Majesty’s exalted person…

I beg Your Majesty will graciously condescend to receive this friendly, but humble, tribute, from the Native Prince of a country situated at the very southern extremity of Your Majesty’s vast Indian Empire, who is, as everyone of his predecessors has always been a faithful ally and dependent of the British Government, which on its part, has ever extended to us, its protection and favour, a relation which I humbly trust, will continue to the end of time.[14]


The letter clearly differentiates the ivory throne from the rest of the objects sent to London along with it. It is also evident from the excerpt above that, for Marthanda Varma, the throne stands out from the rest of the objects because it is a “humble tribute” made from a sensually exquisite and expensive material such as ivory, by “native artists” of his country, from his person to the monarch who rules the “vast Indian empire” neighboring his kingdom.

For the South Asian king then, the purpose of the gift was to impress upon Queen Victoria the nature of his kingdom as self-sufficient and sophisticated, a kingdom capable of producing an object of great artistic merit and comprised of exquisite and valuable materials, and offering it in a friendly gesture as “humble tribute” to the ruler of the larger kingdom adjoining his own. In this narrative, the royal gift symbolizes in its material and artistry Travancore’s self-sufficiency, contrary to news reports circulating within British India.[15] If the throne’s explicit purpose was to distinguish Travancore from other princely Indian states in London, and more importantly, engage at a personal level with the Queen, the subtext of this exhibitory purpose was to notify British officials, within the Madras government that oversaw South Indian princely states, of the kingdom’s cultural and financial worth. At a time when Travancore continued to fear for its independent existence as a princely state, it was imperative to impress the local government in charge as well as make its presence felt in the metropole.

The duality of this communication presents not just the precariousness of princely states in early colonial South Asia but also the need to legitimize, in different ways, the indigenous state, with different levels of colonial government. Princely states at this time, and later in the nineteenth century, were measured by their marks of “reform” and “progress” based on Western Enlightenment ideals. The failure and success of the princely states were inextricably linked to their relationships with colonial officials, and their ability to adapt to colonial modernity. At the same time, it was important for both these indigenous states as well as the British that the former adopt western reforms and modernize, while still remaining “different”. This meant that each princely state in the subcontinent engage with local colonial administration and British culture in different ways, and also function as autonomous powers to varying degrees; their relative autonomy heavily depended on this balancing act of adapting to colonial modernity yet differentiating them culturally from the metropole as well as from British India.[16]

On the one hand, the throne--through its very materiality and its tortuous transportation by road from Thiruvananthapuram in Travancore across many regions within British India--[17]was visually present within grounds controlled by various British governmental agencies in South India. Numerous communications regarding the movement of the throne from various outlets including the offices of Tinnelvelly collector, Madras Governor, Arbuthenot & Co. (the trading company in charge of transporting the throne from Madras to London), and the British Resident’s office in Quilon and Travancore, to the king’s office is evidence of the throne’s continued presence in British administration’s communications in 1850-51. The near-constant communications surrounding the transport of the throne within EIC administrative units in South India interestingly coincides with a gradual decrease in negative press coverage of Travancore.[18] On the other hand, the greater purpose of the gift was to make Travancore materially and politically visible at the metropole, particularly to the Queen. This was not merely a function of gratifying the ruler of the larger empire; Travancore was greatly dependent on Britain for its survival, but its existence as a nominally autonomous state was simultaneously being threatened by Britain’s representative in India, the EIC. Rather, I contend that the act of gift-giving was meant to invoke multiple pre-colonial legacies within South Asian, and particularly, South Indian kingship that, for Travancore, would bind it in a reciprocal if hierarchical relationship with Britain.

Communication connected to the transport of the throne sheds some light on this uneasy relationship between the EIC and Marthanda Varma’s administration. In a particularly strong-worded letter, Dewan Krishna Rao (prime minister) admonishes the local EIC official in Tinnelvelly for asking for an estimated value of the throne. In his reply, via the British Resident’s office, Rao writes:

Surefuly I beg to acquaint you that the material of which the State Chair was made were furnished from the Sirkar store and the work was carried out by paid servants of the Sirkar so that no estimated value has hitherto been set upon the State Chair. This State Chair having been forwarded as a present to Her Majesty the Queen of England from His Highness the Rajah of Travancore with the sanction of the Madras Government, I beg to submit it as a matter for consideration how far the demand of the Ag. Collector of Tinnevelly by the Sirkar may be reasonable or proper.[19]


The Dewan’s indignation is clear in these lines as are the properties of the throne that make it a priceless object beyond estimations of value in terms of currency. Significantly, what makes the throne “priceless” is its association with the king’s possessions, which, by extension, become connected to the king’s person. Rao states that the material belongs to the royal treasury as do the craftsmen who were directly employed by the king. He further points out that the gift is a “present” from the Travancore king to the British Queen. Rao creates an equivalence between the Maharajah and the Queen while excluding British EIC officials who are part of the throne’s transportation and management. Thus, the Dewan clarifies the difference in status between the EIC, the British Queen, and the Travancore Maharaja, the king being in a superior position to the EIC but perhaps in a subordinate relationship to the British monarch. These ideas are also relayed on the surface of the throne itself.



[1] P. Shungoonny Menon. A History of Travancore from the Earliest Times. (Higginbotham: 1878): 447

[2] Ibid.

[3] Kerala State Central Archive Records [here on referred to as KSCA] KSCA/383/153/b-23

[4] The Great Exhibition of 1851, like other exhibitions at this time, was an elaborate trade show aimed at showcasing the Empire and its wares, and in many ways, acted as a life-size buyer’s catalog. At the same time, the exhibition was also an educational enterprise to educate the European public about “crafts”. For further study, see: Carol Breckenridge (1988), Tim Barringer (1998), and Peter Hoffenberg (2001).

[5] The idea of constitutional monarchy is unfamiliar in the subcontinent and unwelcomed by Indian princes in the early nineteenth century. [See Manu B. Bhagavan (2003).] For Indian princely kingdoms, the role of EIC and the British parliament as governing institutions was less desirable than the direct rule of the crown.

[6] The national animals of England, Scotland, and Wales are lion, unicorn, and dragon respectively. The lion and the unicorn have also formed part of the Royal coat of arms of the United Kingdom since the eighteenth century.

[7] The introduction to my dissertation will also include a section on Malabari style, where I discuss the predominant stylistic features of Malabari decorative arts in relation to murals and sculptural elements from temple architecture of the region. The term “Malabari” designates the area along the Malabar Coast in southwestern India, the coastal region between Kanara in the north and the Kanyakumari region of the Tamil country in the south.

[8] Amin Jaffer, “Cabinet with Adam and Eve” in Furniture from British India and Ceylon. (Salem, MA: Peabody Essex Museum): 2001.

Ibid.’s letter 1851. Source: dustry of All Nations y lude for comparative study in my disserationwill o enrich s who worked f

Ibid.’s letter 1851. Source: dustry of All Nations y lude for comparative study in my disserationwill o enrich s who worked f

[9] Menon, 468.

[10] Ibid. 447.

[11] V. Nagam Aiyya, Travancore State Manual. (Madras, Government Press: 1904).

[12] Menon, 467.

[13] Ibid.

[14] KSCA/383/153/b-23

[15] Reports from Madras Athenaeum newspaper quoted by Shungoony Menon (1878).

[16] (See Manu Bhagavan, 2003).

[17] KSCA/383/153/b-19.

[18] I make this inference through information gained from preliminary analysis of newspaper reports from the Madras Presidency in the period from 1849-1851. Indeed, the throne and Travancore received positive coverage in many newspapers in London during the exhibition, and as I argue elsewhere in this chapter, pro-imperial groups in the metropole appropriated the presentation of the gift and Travancore’s political viability for their own purposes.

[19] KSCA/383/158/b-23

[PAPER ABSTRACT] Mediating in Ivory: The Royal Gift as Political Interlocutor in Travancore-British Relations, 1849-1851.


This paper is an excerpt from my as-yet-unnamed dissertation chapter that looks at issues of political and cultural diplomacy between Kerala courts and Europeans. In this chapter, I discuss the role of gifts and trade-related objects as political and cultural mediators in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and suggest that a shared Eurasian 'taste' acted as a viable force of cultural communication. In the second section of this chapter, I explore the agency of two ivory thrones through a study of the somatic affects the objects produced in users and viewers of these thrones, and the act of mediation between various elite classes of India and Britain that the thrones undertake. Simultaneously, I discuss each throne’s use or disuse over the course of the century. 

This section explores the agency of art objects as royal gifts in the nineteenth century by studying the decorative and material aspects of the ivory throne gifted by Maharaja Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma of Travancore (a kingdom in South India) to British Sovereign Queen Victoria. Analysis of the carving program of the throne’s many ivory plaques reveals a structured design that was intended to communicate a set of ideals, which allowed the throne to assist Travancore in establishing a stronger (political) relationship with British royalty. At the same time, the ivory carvings display subtle subversions that speak of issues concerning sovereignty and kingship in South Asia in the early colonial period and the concomitant sociopolitical complexities in Travancore’s interactions with the British East India Company, the immediate British governing presence in the subcontinent at this time. Both the crafting and the material of the throne served as modes of communication. The throne thus acted as a mediator that symbolically relieved the British East India Company as middleman, and enacted the role of a direct royal conduit between Travancore and Britain.


Location of Identity: A Transcultural European’s Indian Tomb

Conference Abstract: 2016 Annual International Conference of the Society of Architectural Historians

In 1741CE Eustachius de Lannoy, a Flemish-born, Roman Catholic sergeant of Dutch East India Company (VOC) was taken prisoner by Maharaja of Travancore, after the Dutch defeat at Battle of Colachel in south India. De Lannoy subsequently joined Travancore’s army and rose through ranks to become its commander. A man valued greatly by Travancore royals as well as locals, he was fondly called Valiya Kappithan (Great Captain). When he died in 1777CE, he was buried, as per his wishes, within the walls of the church built for him by the maharaja. Yet, in his lifetime, the Christian commander was not allowed into the court of the Hindu king, their relationship built upon religious boundaries prevalent in eighteenth century south India. De Lannoy’s tomb was also never listed as a Dutch tomb, perhaps due to its location outside Dutch-occupied India, or his status as a VOC defector.

The tomb of de Lannoy remains today, at Udayagiri fort in Tamil Nadu, his residence for over thirty-five years. What was the identity of this ‘European-Indian’? How does the tomb re-contextualize his identity as a transcultural being? My paper addresses these questions to locate ambivalent transcultural identities of early modern European “others” in the Indian subcontinent. In doing so, I argue that transcultural identities, as constantly negotiated entities, were crystallized and captured momentarily in works of architecture, such as de Lannoy’s tomb. For this purpose, I analyze the ledger stone of his tomb, including visual and textual material, along with the remains of his church. Finally, this paper will tackle the idea of mutability of early modern identities. I posit that while the eighteenth century European Other could not “go native”, it was possible to negotiate an identity that was both transcultural and local, perhaps resembling diasporic identities we are familiar with today. 

Ivory Atelier: Cosmopolitanism, Transculturality, and Devotion in the Works of Nineteenth-Century Craftsmen of Travancore, India.

Conference Abstract: Association of Historians of Nineteenth-Century 2016 Art Graduate Student Conference

In early nineteenth century, an ivory throne was made for Maharaja Swati Thirunal of Travancore, the most important kingdom on the Malabar Coast of India. Adorned with exquisitely carved ivory plaques filled with floral, geometric, and figural motifs, the throne was a marvelous object made in the form of a takht—a large, square seat, in which the sitter could comfortably rest his raised and folded legs under him. Each plaque was carved to resemble two layers; the abstract, patterned “background” was carved in higher relief than the representational motifs that formed the foreground. These motifs included exotic dancers from the north of the subcontinent, ferocious lions as flag-bearers, royal emblems, and on occasion, stylized tropical fruits and mythical beasts. About twenty years later, a more elaborately sheathed ivory throne was made in Travancore; this time, however, as a royal gift for Queen Victoria of England. The structure, the carving program, and the aesthetic value of the two thrones were vastly different from one another. In contrast to the older throne which exhibits a South Asian aesthetic particularly appealing to Indian royalty, Queen Victoria’s throne was quite evidently “westernized” and its representational framework was overtly political. However, the two thrones shared the distinct double-layered patterned method of carving, quiet unlike ivory carving elsewhere in South Asia.

            In this paper, I analyze the form, technique of construction, and carving program of the two thrones to provide evidence that both thrones were made by the same school of craftsmen. I argue that the developments in design and form, without any accompanying changes in construction techniques, demonstrate the cosmopolitanism of Travancore craftsmen—their ability to maintain artistic continuity while pursuing non-traditional visual strategies, and adapt to rapidly changing political and cultural environments. I also contend that the carving program of the thrones are evidence of transcultural artistic encounters of these craftsmen with art and artists from other regions in the subcontinent (Tamil country immediately east of Travancore, Gujarat in western India, and Sri Lanka) and with contemporaneous European art. I posit that the craftsmen who worked on ivory were not only aware of contemporary trends but they were also keen innovators who continuously appropriated and updated their craft vocabulary with the specific intention to make objects that were aesthetically pleasing to groups both in India and in Europe. Finally, I present these craftsmen as exclusive servants of Travancore, for whom, perfection of the crafted art object was tantamount to devotion to their king. As such, the production of these thrones was an act of piety, equal in stature to the production of carvings for Hindu temple structures. In making this argument, I suggest that at the level of the courtly craftsmen, kingliness and godliness were at the very least comparable devotional structures if not conflated, and therefore, the art that they produced for the king, were also votive offerings to the gods.

            In studying cosmopolitanism, transculturality, and devotion as central features of craft production in Travancore, I offer a way to study South Asian craftsmen through their art as well as situate them within their contemporaneous sociopolitical context in which both transnational politics and localized religion functioned as artistic determinants. Simultaneously, my study offers a glimpse into social hierarchies of courtly artists and their impact on political and cultural mediations in Eurasia.


Tell-tale Beds: Translocal Practices and Transcultural Negotiations in Early Modern Malabar

Conference Abstract: 2014 University of Chicago South Asia Graduate Students Conference

Furniture, such as beds, chairs, and various forms of cabinetry, has had a long history of production in South India and was custom-manufactured for export or use by Europeans.[1] In mid-to-late 18th century, two beds of carved wood were commissioned on the Malabar Coast of South India. In the 1740s, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) gifted one of them to Maharaja Marthanda Varma, ruler of Travancore. The other was exported to Portugal in the 1770s, and used by the Queen’s Secretary at the Royal Palace in Lisbon. Stylistically similar, the beds, in their carvings, combined Indian motifs and European subject matter. Such visual hybridization made the beds, at once, familiar and foreign to both Indians and Europeans. Thus, while the state bed of Marthanda Varma was a valued ‘European’ gift, the bed at Lisbon Palace was considered an exotic ‘Indian’ object.

In this paper I analyze the style and structure of the two beds, examining both South Indian and European artistic traditions displayed. By tracing South Indian stylistic motifs and techniques, I argue that artistic practice in the early modern period in South India was spatiotemporally porous; that is, across borders and communities, there existed in the post-Vijayanagara period, complex yet common visual traditions, made possible due to movement of craftspeople and creative adaptation of artistic techniques. Simultaneously, I trace European subject matter represented on these beds, along with an examination of the sociopolitical contexts within which these luxury objects were used. Employing these data, I exhibit that the hybridized style of manufacture of these beds as well as, the perception of these beds as high quality luxury goods in both India and Europe, suggest a commensurability of taste in early modern Eurasia. In doing so, I claim that dynamic encounters in early modern South Asia, developed a visual palette, that was able to convey both familiarity and foreignness to both Indian and European consumers. Finally, I argue that, in making use of this visual palette, the beds are evidence of translocal artistic encounters in early modern South India, and, were powerful interlocutors in transcultural negotiations between groups of Indians and Europeans in this period.


[1] Amin Jaffer, “Life in Early British India,” in Furniture from British India and Ceylon: A Catalogue of the Collections in the Victoria and Albert Museum and Peabody Essex Museum, ed. Amin Jaffer et al. (Salem, Mass.: Peabody Essex Museum, 2001), 14.