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