In the corridor of royalty
Maharaja Features (Deccan Herald, Sept. 30, 2007)
Dhananjaya Bhat goes back into history to take a look at ‘Sethupatis’, the royal family who guarded the Rama Sethu.
Today when the description of Rama and creation of the Rama Sethu as a myth is creating a furore, it is interesting to note that for thousands of years, there was a royal family in South India with its headquarters at Ramanathapuram near Rameshwaram, known as the Sethupati Rajas or the guardians of the Sethu. Like the Maharajas of Kashi in North India, the specific task of these kings was to guard the sanctity of Rameshwaram temple and protect the Sethu – now so much under the limelight.
In fact even today, though the famous Rameshwaram temple (which technically belonged to the Sethupatis) is administered by the Government of Tamil Nadu, the head of the Sethupati dynasty, at present Rajeshwari Nachiar, is the hereditary head of the temple’s board of trustees.
Detailed information about the Sethupathis is available in the ‘Ramnad Manual’ maintained by Tamil Nadu archives. It states that, “The Sethupatis built several chattrams (dharmsalas) along the main roads of the pilgrimage to Rameshwaram. Roads were opened through the forests. Immense sums were spent on the restoration of the Rameshwaram temples, which were falling into ruins, and the splendid Chockattan Mantapam or the cloistered precincts of the temple at Rameshwaram being finally completed by the Sethupati representatives..” Although the dynasty claims that they are mentioned in the 2000-year-old sagas of Tamil literature, as the brave Marava community guarding the Sethu since the times of Rama, the first historical reference comes only in the 11th century AD, when Chola king Rajaraja made the head of Marava community as Sethupati to protect the pilgrims to Rameshwaram temple and the Rama Sethu.
The temple complex itself was built by Sethupati rulers in the 12th century, with Sethupathy Maravar beginning the construction of the grand Ramanathaswamy temple. Then again reference is made in A D1434 to the repair of the temple walls by the head of the Sethupati clan, known as Udayan Sethupati. Geologists state that till AD1480, when a tsunami damaged the present Rama Sethu, one could walk from India to Sri Lanka on the Sethu!
But only from AD 1605, we find detailed history of these chiefs, who are described as masters of Sethu and their kingdom described as Sethu Nadu (Land of Sethu). After the destruction of the Vijayanagar empire in 1565, their viceroy in South India, the the Nayak ruler of Madurai, re-appointed head of the same Marava community as the Sethupatis.
The most important of these monarchs was the Raghunatha Sethupati II alias Kilavan Sethupati (1671 AD to 1710 AD), who ensured that Sethupatis with their fiefdom over the area known as Ramnad, remained all powerful. It was during his time, that the magnificent still existing palace of Ramlingavilasam was created as the residence of the Sethupatis. No other palace in Tamil Nadu has such extensive mural paintings. As soon as you enter the Mahamandapam, you are surrounded by murals that glint like gem-encrusted jewels on the walls. Some are dull and faded, while others flash forth their brilliance, even 300 years after they were executed. In 1978, the Sethupati family, unable to maintain the palace handed it over to the Government of Tamil Nadu.
But in the18th century, the British entered the politics of South India and as a measure to reduce the importance of the Sethupatis, they were demoted as mere zamindars under the British in1803. Of all the services, this royal family has done to India, the most important was that of financing the visit of Swami Vivekananda in 1893 to Chicago, to address the World Religions Conference. Swami Vivekananda reached Ramnathapuram in 1892 and met the then scion, Bhaskara Sethupati at his palace, and stayed there as the official guest for eight days.
Initially, it was Bhaskara Setupati as the Raja of Ramnad, who had earlier decided to go to US to attend the Parliament of Religions as the representative of Hinduism. But after conversing with Swami Vivekananda, he decided that Swamiji was the right person to attend the conference.
Vivekananda decided to accept the Raja’s offer. When Vivekananda returned from USA after his grand success, as he was about to land at Rameshwaram, the overjoyed Raja was waiting with his entourage to give him a royal welcome. Because of the achievement of Swamiji and as well as the regard, the Raja had for him, he bowed his head and offered it as step for Vivekananda to get down from the boat. But, Swamiji tactfully avoided this offer, by jumping from the boat to the land. Then the Raja unyoked the bullocks from Vivekananda’s ceremonial chariot and pulled the conveyance manually with his entourage, till it reached his palace. Later he erected a victory pillar of 25 feet height with the Upanishad expression Satyameva Jayate to commemorate the success of Swami Vivekananda at Chicago.
After Indian Independence, the Sethupatis still retained their importance in the politics of Tamil Nadu. In fact Shanmuga Raja Sethupati won the elections to the Tamil Nadu Assembly and held the seat thrice from 1951 to 1967, besides being a minister in the Rajagopalachari Ministry of 1952. He was well-known in horse racing circles and had a stable of over 50 horses in Calcutta and a huge garage of cars in Madras, including Rolls Royces and a Bentley. But the abolition of zamindaries by the Government of India, removed all sources of their wealth and today, the former Sethupatis are just well-known prominent magnates of Tamil Nadu.