From Princesses to Lace-Makers: Women in Travancore through Mrs Murray Mitchell’s Eyes

[Mrs Murray Mitchell, a missionary, visited the south Indian Christian missions in the 1880s and published a memoir of this journey in 1885 called In Southern India: A Visit to Some of the Chief Mission Stations in the Madras Presidency in which she made observations on women she met in Travancore, from princesses to the skilled lace makers of south Travancore who are probably among the first groups of skilled wage worker women in this region. Much of it, sadly, is less of observation and more of condescending approbation; however, there are some valuable passages. For example, her incomprehension of matrilineal marital and family norms which seemed to pose disadvantages to the husband is coupled with her observations about the extent to which caste practices were rampant among the apparently-cultured and well-off sudras (Nairs). She makes the former observation as a pure outsider, but the latter observation comes also from her own direct experience of being treated as a possible source of pollution by the upper caste people she met here! Some of her account is slightly mistaken too — for example, the princesses of Travancore did not marry men simply chosen for them. They were asked to chose from three young men who were found suitable for them (which actually put them somewhat close to marriage practices in 19th century Britain!)

Her account of meeting the Travancore princesses is also valuable for a picture of a particularly defiant princess of Travancore, Bharani Tirunal Lakshmi Bai (1848-1901), who refused to bow down to family pressures to abandon her husband. In matrilineal families, especially powerful ones, young women were often pawns that their uncles or brothers could use to make or break alliances. Their feelings mattered little. In many such families, including my own, there are stories of grandmothers who were ‘divorced’ from their husbands without any sort of prior consultation, and who were remarried when the patriarchs found it useful. I grew up hearing the story of a grandmother on my mother’s side, the daughter of an king, who had first married her cousin (as was custom), who was also her first love. One year after, while she was resting after childbirth, a messenger apparently arrived from Thiruvananthapuram to order the karanavar – the senior male – of her family – to get her divorced from the existing husband and marry her off to a Maratha officer who had recently joined the Travancore army as the Secretary of the Royal Stables. The young woman fell into deep depression, unable to resist. It is said that she bore the second husband (who was reportedly a very soft-hearted and sentimental person!) many children but would not even touch a single one.

Bharani Tirunal faced such a situation, but she resisted it with all her might. A portrait of this princess emerges in Mrs Murray Mitchell’s account. In Malayalam she is well-known – indirectly — through the husband who was banished — Kerala Varma, who was a very acclaimed poet and scholar of early modern Malayalam. Kerala Varma fell out with the Raja of Travancore, Maharajah Ayilyam Tirunal, and was confined to a palace in Haripad for five years, in 1875-80. The period is largely famous for having inspired Kerala Varma to write a famous sandesha-kavya (or ‘message-poem) the Mayurasandesham, which bid the peacocks of the Haripad temple to take a message of love to his beloved in Thiruvananthapuram. The Raja too figures in Mrs Mitchell’s portrait. In this period, Bharani Tirunal was not allowed to join her husband in confinement despite her entreaties; indeed, the Maharajah, her adoptive uncle (and therefore, lifelong guardian with powers of life and death) put pressure on her to give up Kerala Varma and marry another. Her allowances were cut and she was forced to borrow money to carry one. The missionaries of Travancore read the Christian virtue of chastity in this, and news of her determination reached London, and in 1881, she was awarded the honour established by Queen Victoria for royal women, the Order of the Crown of India. Bharani Tirunal was the Senior Rani — that is, the Queen of Attingal — who was, before the founder of modern Travancore, King Marthanda Varma, took away the independence of Attingal — was a ruler with powers and independence. Perhaps it was the dignity of this office which must have persisted even after its abolishment that gave her the courage to resist?

In the first of the following excerpts, Mrs Mitchell recounts her visit to the Princess Bharani Tirunal; in the second, she writes of her visit to a Sudra woman in south Travancore along with another woman missionary, and in the third, she offers a small portrait of the lace-workers, converted women, of south Travancore trained by missionary women, producing high-quality products, and receiving a regular wage. ]

“Today our friend Miss Blandford came for us early, and we started in her carriage to see something of her work. We first went by appointment to the Palace, entered the Fort by a huge gateway, and stood before the door of a handsome pile, where we were received by a gentleman of the Court, and straightaway ushered into the presence of the Senior Rani. She shook hands with us all, my husband not excepted, and received us as any English lady would receive her guests. Her rooms are very pretty, nicely furnished, with mirrors and a few pictures, one or two couches, and a table with books, not at all crowded, nor like an upholsterer’s shop, which is the usual native taste. The floor is of cool, highly-polished chunam, as smooth as marble and nearly as white, and no carpet. My first thought was, what a contrast to the usual zenana — at least, of Bengal — and how striking the difference which this lady presents with all her surroundings to those poor faded Ranis in their dreary apartments in Tanjore! Here, you see at once what education, refinement, and intercourse with a cultivated Christian lady have accomplished. These influences have had a magical effect. Miss Blandford had reason to thank God for her successful work. All the ladies are much attached to her personally; and let us hope and pray that ere long the crowning joy may be hers of seeing them profess to be Christ’s. The Rani is a pleasing person, not very young, with soft, retiring manners, perfect self-possession, wonderfully fair for a Southern woman, and having a gentle though intelligent expression of countenance. Her hair was all gathered into a great knot at one side, — a Madras fashion — not a becoming one — and she was simply though richly attired, her chief ornament being the decoration sent to her by the Queen. Of this she is immensely proud, and displayed it with utmost satisfaction. She talks English wonderfully well; reads, writes, draws, and employs herself as educated women do. She has no children and thus all her time is her own. She does needlework beautifully, and showed us a group of flowers that she was embroidering on velvet; she also took us downstairs, and she showed us the rooms in which she studies with Miss Blandford, including a room for painting, and art in which she delights. I noticed that in every apartment almost, there hung a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen of whom Her Highness speaks with the greatest reverence and affection. She is not a Baptised Christian; but a Bible lay in more than one of the rooms and Miss Blandford reads it with her constantly, and she seems to be at least intellectually, a believer. May her heart be opened to the Lord, as was Lydia’s!

We were surprised to find that the man who had received us at the door in the most unpretending way, and conducted us upstairs — was the Rani’s husband — a small man of about forty, with no shoes or socks, and a turban on his head. In this strange country, husbands seem to be only appendages. From whatever I have already said about the queer laws of succession, you will see that the Maharajah’s own son cannot succeed him. If he has a brother, and if he is in the right mind, he can and will succeed him, but the late Maharajah had no brother; he therefore adopted two nieces, his sister’s children, who. by virtue of this adoption, became Ranis, and are the two ladies we have been visiting. They were married to two men chosen for them; but unfortunately, as I have said, the Senior Rani has no children, which must be a great grief to her. This proved the wisdom of having adopted two ladies instead of only one. The junior Rani has three sons now alive, and they are the heirs to the throne; and so she is a person of great consequence. There was also a little princess born, at which event there were great rejoicings. How strange it is: here the joy is when a girl is born! In Bengal and other parts such an event is a calamity, and the attendants are afraid to go and break the sad tidings to the expectant father. But this poor little princess died, and a terrible grief it was. In consequence, there must be another case of adopting; for none of the children who may be born to any of the three lads, who are themselves heirs, will be eligible for the throne. Their father is dead, but their mother is married again, but it does not matter how many different fathers the various children have so long as their mother is the same, and if she has a little girl, her children will be the heirs. Let who can comprehend: I have made it plain as far as my comprehension goes.

The senior Rani and her husband are a most happy and devoted couple. He incurred the displeasure of the Late Maharajah somehow, and for years was banished from the Court. But his wife was faithful to him, although they tried to induce her to marry someone else. On his deathbed the old man relented, and the banished man was allowed to return and join his wife. Now they are living happily together, he sympathising with her in all her higher tastes. He charged himself with Mr Mitchell’s entertainment, who found him not only intelligent, but really learned in Sanskrit and other lore…. (Mrs Murray Mitchel 1885: pp. 242-45)


[From the section ‘Women’s Work — Sunday at Nagercoil’]

One of the specialities in Nagercoil is the lace industry, which is carried on by the Christian women, superintended by the missionaries’ wives. It was introduced some 50 years ago by the late Mrs Mault, and has done wonders for the people. Hundreds of poor Christians gain a living by it. The ladies take the orders, and also all the troubles for the sale. After the women are paid for their work, the profits, whatever these may amount to, go to the support of the Bible-women’s work. The success of this industry is most cheering; and now it has two off-shoots: one under Mrs Caldwell who is a daughter of Mrs Mault — and one at Benares. But it originated in Nagercoil; and the lace manufactured here has gained medals at three national exhibitions.

Mrs Duthie very kindly has had an assemblage of lace-makers on the veranda, that I might see them at work. About forty women came — tidy, respectable, intelligent matrons — who sat in a row around the veranda on the floor, their lace-pillows on their laps; and the clever, handy ways in which they manipulated the fine thread and pins, and produced the delicate fabric, was most curious and interesting to see; and the workers seemed equally pleased to show their work. … (p. 202)

[Later, meeting these women again at Church at Agasteeswaram]… I had a most interesting hour with the women, who during a pause in the services, gathered around me, bringing their lace-pillows with them, and working neatly and deftly as we talked. I also visited some of the homes, which were clean and neat; and afterwards we had a great deal of talk with the men, who gave us many interesting facts regarding the condition of the people formerly, contrasting it with the improvements of the present… Slavery existed under quite lately, and the slaves were often most cruelly used. It was appalling to hear of the sufferings inflicted on them. For instance, one of the pastors told us that he had seen with his own eyes a woman and a buffalo yoked together in a plough! He also saw two women tied together with the hair on their heads and then thrashed with thorns. It was an infinite relief to find that such things would not be tolerated now; though, no doubt, there is enough oppression as it is now.” (pp. 225-26)


[On a meeting with a Nair woman in one of the villages where the struggle for the upper-cloth was conducted by the Shanar women who converted to Christianity]…. Mrs Duthie took me to one house where we were received by a bright, brisk, little woman in a sort of enclosed court, open to the sky. She would not admit us quite into the house; and I was amused to notice that she took care not to sit to the windward of us, so that all the pollution we brought would be blown straight away without touching her! Nothing must come betwixt ‘the wind and her nobility,’ as Harry Hotspur puts it. Yet she was by no means a Brahmin. … Our small hostess was gorgeously attired, and was very much in the fashion as to the torn ear. The lobe was weighted with rows of thick, massive gold and silver rings, which dragged it down, in a hideous manner, almost to the shoulder. She had plenty of gold and silver otherwise on her person, which surprised me as I knew that she was a widow; and Hindu law forbids widows to wear ornaments. A remark I made on the subject afterwards brought out some curious facts as to the customs and laws in this strange country, especially as to the laws of succession to property. It seems that she was the sister to a very rich man, who has lately died, and all his wealth has come to her son as the heir of inheritance, not to his own! (pp. 205-6)

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