Royal Contributions to Education in Travancore


Abstract: Universal adult education is given much significance from the human rights perspective. This was fully accepted in theory and practical application in Malayala Nadu of the past and as a legacy bequeathed to modern Kerala. This article examines the contributions of the erstwhile ruling royal family to education in Kerala and focuses on their active involvement in the field of education. The policies implemented have definitely helped in increasing the status of education. Kerala is the first state in India to claim cent per cent literacy. The 1991 census of the literacy rate here was a good indicator to the attainment of this coveted status. The literacy rate in Kerala was 90.6% as against an all India average of 52.2%. The female literacy in Kerala is 86.2% as compared to the all India ratio of 39.3%.

Keywords: education under Travancore’s rulership, Maharaja, Kerala education, literacy rate, evolution of education, Travancore, Thiruvananthapuram, Travancore Univeristy

Education and its expansions are of much significance in human-rights perspective. This was fully accepted in theory and practical application in Malayala Nadu of the past and was a legacy it bequeathed to modern Kerala. Thus Kerala emerged as the first state in India with a claim to cent percent literacy. The 1991 census of the literacy rate here was a good indicator to the attainment of this coveted status. The literacy rate in Kerala read as 90.6% as against an all India average of 52.2%, with female literacy here being 86.2% when compared to the all India ratio of 39.3%. However a sample survey made in 1999-2000 finds Kerala being content with the second place with 93% literacy, though efforts to remedy this situation are already on.

The high female literacy rate is indeed a matter of pride for the Keralites. However, this is no phenomenon that emerged with modernisation or liberalisation. As we turn back the pages of history, we find that groundwork was already laid by the sovereigns who ruled the land. Education, and women’s education in particular, always had the first priority in their agenda. A flashback might serve to provide a clearer picture of the evolution of education down the ages in this fair land Thiruvithancodu or Sreevazhumcodu where prosperity reigned. Here the thrust is purely on princely Venad and Thiruvithancore.

Most ancient cities are seen to have evolved around a temple or a bazaar. Thiruvananthapuram (Syanandurapuri in Sanskrit) somewhat took on the character of a twin city, growing on both sides of the Karamana river, with the Temple of Sree Padmanabha Swamy on one side and an academy of far-flung fame, the Kandalloor Sala, on the other side. This illustrious University was oft held as the Nalanda University of the South. In the past many important temples had salas or academies attached to them. For instance the Thiruvallasala for imparting Vedas which was attached to the SreeSreevallabha Temple in Thiruvalla, the Parthivapuram Salai in Kanyakumari District and the aforesaid Kandallor Sala attached to the Temple, Thiruvananthapuram. The repute of the latter academy was of such magnitude that it crossed the seas and reached Sinhala Dweepu (Sree Lanka) as well. Attention is specially invited to the astounding fact that this esteemed University of erudition which was in existence not a hundred but a thousand years back, imparted learning in sixty four different systems! such a staggering number of disciplines is not known to exist under one roof in any University even now. In Kandalloor, though much emphasis rested with warfare and martial training, the sixty four branches covered a formidable range of subjects including Lokayana of atheism and non-Vedic religions as well. The South Brahmi script was the medium of instruction. From this script emerged the Granthi script, forerunner of Malayalam which came into being in full-fledged form by the 12th Century A.D. This Sala however kept shifting with shift of the seat of the Venad royalty. The last Sala was located in today’s Valiasala where it flourished till its tragic destruction by the imperial Raja RajaChola.

However, down the ages till the recent past another pivotal centre of learning and scholarship was the Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple which soon came to enjoy high stature for Vidya Dana and became an acknowledged meeting ground of illustrious men of learning.

The most widely accepted view is that the matrilineal system or Marumakkathayam, wherein the family continuation is through the woman, came into operation with the glorious reign of Samgramadheera Ravi Varma Kulasekhara (1299-1313). His empire extended from Kollam which was his capital to Kanchipuram in today’s Tamil Nadu. His might was evident not only in martial arts but also in administration and in his ability to enforce law. Due to this capacity, the transition from the patrilineal to the matrilineal system was smooth. With it, the position of the woman in society and in family, the respect accorded to her, equality of status and educational opportunities, all took an upward curve. Women scholars both known and unknown were not uncommon in the upper class families of the land.

Education enjoyed high priority for the rulers of Travancore. UthruttathiThirunal Rani Gouri Parvathi Bayi’s reign of regency (1814-1829) was a landmark in the field of education, with succeeding rulers following her footsteps. Famous is her Proclamation of 1817 by which each Mandapathuvathukkal or district was directed to appoint one Malayalam and one Tamil teacher on equal footing. The salary of Rs 7/- per month was considered handsome. This Proclamation is now exhibited in the University college in Thiruvananthapuram. Primary Malayalam education was introduced by the state for children between the ages of five and ten with the responsibility of sending them to school resting with the parents. Kerala is still the one state which has seriously attempted to provide compulsory primary education to all children. School dropouts are proportionately much fewer in number here. During the Rani’s rule, missionaries from overseas entered the scene in a significant way. Generous help in land, money and material was made available to them to start institutions of learning throughout the kingdom, with greater concentration in places like Nagercoil, Alappuzha, Kottayam etc. A college was set up in Kottayam.

Her acclaimed nephew Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma (1829-1847) who took over from her, paid a great deal of attention not only to formal education but to certain other systems as well. Spread of English education on a large scale came about during his time. In 1834, a year before Macaulay’s Minutes of English Education came into force making English compulsorily popular in India through the Governmental machinery, the first state English school had already started to function in the capital city of Travancore. In 1835 Swathi Thirunal established five more such schools in Thuckalay, Alappuzha, Kayamkulam, Paravoor and Chirayinkeezhu. Storing and preserving ancient manuscripts were taken up and a Granthappura was made effectively operational. This was the forerunner to the Oriental Manuscripts’ Library for ancient records, serving the needs of many later scholars. Great was his contribution to astronomy in which he himself was well versed. Though many may not be aware of it, the Thiruvananthapuram observatory was set up by this Maharaja in 1836. It possessed the most sophisticated equipment available in the West at that time. It was a golden age of literature and music as well and the Maharaja’s contributions in both fields have been significant and enduring.

Sree Swathi Thirunal’s younger brother Sree Uthrom Thirunal Marthanda Varma succeeded him and ruled the land from 1847 to 1860. Even when he was the Elayaraja, he was much involved in the promotion of education. His special patronage was extended to the Free School managed by his friend Mr. J. Roberts, an Englishman. Students with first class were permitted to pay their respects to him in the palace and follow the Elayaraja during his evening drives. This gave real stimulus to the students to secure their grades and by the time he became the Maharaja, nearly all the students of the initial classes had passed out with flying colours and were all offered jobs in government service. The Maharaja’s interest did not wane after he assumed rulership and he would personally attend the examinations of the students and encourage them in many ways. Deeply interested in and knowledgeable about Western medicine, popularity was generated by him in its theory and practical application. The skeleton in ivory representing a human body was specially made to enable him to study about it. Today it is an exhibit in the Natural History Museum in the Thiruvananthapuram zoo complex.

His nephew Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma who became the next Maharaja (1860-1880) made solid contribution to education. In 1866 the Maharaja’s College, now known as the University college, was established in the capital city. Though two mission colleges were already existing in other parts of the state of Travancore, they were second grade colleges. The Maharaja’s college was not only the premier government college, it also had the distinction of being the first Grade One college in the state. Sri V. Nagam Aiya, author of the prestigious Travancore State Manual, was one among the first batch of graduates of this college. A system was already prevailing for state selection and financial support of a fixed number of deserving but poor students of Travancore to continue higher education in the Madras University.

New English and Vernacular Schools came up in scores all over the state, so also Taluk and village schools. A grant-in-aid system was introduced which was greatly helpful in spreading elementary education. Special attention was bestowed on girls’ education leading to the setting up of schools like the Zanana Mission Girls’ School. A separate Department of Vernacular Education and a Book– Committee under Kerala Varma Valiakoil Thampuran for the preparation of necessary text books deserve special mention. In 1847 a Law class was opened to prepare candidates for the B.L. Degree examination.

Maharaja Vishaghom Thirunal Rama Varma, brother of the late Maharaja Ayilyom Thirunal was a scholar of international repute and acknowledged man of letters. Though his reign was lamentably short – 1880-1885– his educational interests included extension of elementary education by the offer of grants-in-aid.

Under his nephew Maharaja MoolamThirunal Rama Varma (1885–1924), education advanced by leaps and bounds. Schools were opened all over the state and categorised, with education starting at primary level and going on to specialised colleges. Free primary education was granted to backward classes. Another step of great consequence was the introduction of free education for the fishing community. The Victoria Medical School with an attached hospital for women was put up in Kollam. A ‘Normal School’ for girls was experimentally started in 1887-’88. The Government Industrial School was thoroughly re-organised. The Sanskrit College, Ayurveda College, Maharaja’s College for women, Law College, Arts College, an Agricultural Demonstration farm and school, Survey School etc. were established. Recognition was granted to the Homoeopathic system of treatment in 1928 by the Sree Moolam Assembly. Another important act was the setting up of a Reformatory School for juvenile offenders. Many educational rules were passed and salary scales of those in the education department were revised. A number of technical scholarships for studies in European countries were instituted and technical education encouraged. With the sanction of a Chair in History and one in Physics in the Maharaja’s College, this institution was raised to nearly the highest level among the educational institutions of the Presidency.

PooradamThirunal Rani Setu Lakshmi Bayi took over the reigns of administration as Regent for a period from 1924-1931. Education continued the upward trend. This period witnessed sizable increase particularly in primary schools where a double shift system was made available, while Vernacular schools experienced considerable increase in strength. Full fledged schools including girls’ schools sprang up in many parts like Nagercoil, Alappuzha etc. A new college hostel was opened giving admission to all students irrespective of caste or creed. As a further concession, poor and deserving pupils from those oppressed classes and communities were exempted from paying examination fees on an experimental basis for five years. The provision of noonday meals to poor pupils staying far away from their homes was also sanctioned. This scheme involved generous contribution from the public too. The present site of the Maharaja’s college for Women was made available by the Regent to this college which was founded during the reign of Sree MoolamThirunal and more subjects were added. The teachers’ salaries were enhanced from time to time and grants extended to private schools. Medical inspection of college students was yet another positive step. 22.02% of the total exchequer of the state was earmarked for education. In 1925 the first University committee was constituted to submit its report for the establishment of the Travancore University.

Maharaja Sree Chithira Thirunal Rama Varma assumed full power in 1931. His momentous reign from 1931–1949 was a period which witnessed holistic development and progress. In keeping with the great traditions of his illustrious ancestors, he also played an effective role in educational development, a role which could be qualified as historic. The prestigious Travancore University took its birth in 1937. In those days a handful of princely states claimed their own Universities but the graduates were by and large recognised only within the confines of those states. Maharaja Chithira Thirunal was most particular that such a fate should not befall the graduates of his state. With this aim in view he invited the Vice Chancellors of the other Universities to Thiruvananthapuram and a comprehensive syllabus of high standard was drawn up under their directives. It may be added here that intellectual giants like Dr S. Radhakrishnan, former President of India, Lakshmanaswami Mudaliar, Amarnath Jha, Sir Fazil Hussain etc. featured among these eminent personalities. The graduates of the Travancore University won not only national but even international acceptance. That famous name is only a memory today as it has become the Kerala University. In passing it may be added that this University no longer represents the entire state of Kerala. While the Cochin University, Calicut University and Mahatma Gandhi University array themselves, the identity of the Travancore University has vanished. The University Labour Corporation was organised to inculcate the dignity of labour among the students and it was the forerunner of the present National Cadet. Medical College, Engineering College, Swathi Thirunal College of Music, Institute of Textile Technology, Central Research Institute for Research of Pure and Applied Sciences, a separate department for Marine Biology, Faculty for Oriental Studies and Fine Arts, Oriental Manuscripts’ Library, free education for the oppressed classes, hostels for students including those for Harijan students, visual education in schools, compulsory primary level education in the southern regions of Travancore, stress on women’s education, the Sthatham Committee for higher education were all memorable contributions of the young Maharaja. Protection of and encouragement to Vedic studies and Sanskrit continued. 40% of the state revenue was set apart for education.

Malayala Nadu can be justly happy at having an impressive number of names as all-India firsts among the ladies. The first lady surgeon–general of India Dr. Mrs. Ponnen Lukose, the first lady magistrate, Smt. Omana Kunjamma, the first lady high court judge Smt. Anna Chandy, the first lady chief engineer Smt. Kochu Thressia, the first lady supreme court judge (who was also one among the three lady supreme court judges in the world) Smt. Fatima Bibi, all hailed from this land. It is remembered with pride that Sri K.R.Narayanan, President of India, was a student of the Travancore University.

Literacy and education do not mean the same thing. Education should impart a widening of vision encompassing the brain, the mind and the heart. It should be constructive not destructive; it should unite not divide. With the blessings of God may it be so.


ASWATHY THIRUNAL GOURI LAKSHMI BAYI. Is the princess of the royal family of Travancore, niece of His Highness, the late Sri Chithira Tirunal Rama Varma, the last ruler of the State of Travancore. Has distinguished herself as a poetess, an inquisitive researcher and a noted speaker. Has to her credit many poems and articles in English. Her published books include Thirumulkazcha, The Dawn, Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple and Thulasi Garland.

Default image
Is the princess of the royal family of Travancore, niece of His Highness, the late Sri Chithira Tirunal Rama Varma, the last ruler of the State of Travancore. Has distinguished herself as a poetess, an inquisitive researcher and a noted speaker. Has to her credit many poems and articles in English. Her published books include Thirumulkazcha, The Dawn, Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple and Thulasi Garland

Newsletter Updates

Enter your email address below to subscribe to our newsletter

Leave a Reply

Physical Address

304 North Cardinal St.
Dorchester Center, MA 02124