The King and the Dancer

Swati Tirunal, Irvivarman Thampi, Sugandhavalli ,Vadivelu, Bharatnatyam, and Mohinitattam – The fascinating connections

You may have seen a sensuous Mohiniattam by the dancer in the traditional Kerala whites and you would have seen may others in Malayalam movies and sometimes bits in a Hindi movie like dil se..but how did mohiniyattam get formulated? What has Maharaja Swati Tirunal got to do with it? What role did Violin maestro Vadivelu play in the drama and who indeed was Sugandhavalli? Those who have seen the movie Swati Tirunal would have an inkling about the tempestuous days of the young king, in fact his last happy and sad years, but let us try and take another look, for it is a story of persons, and of their simple desires in life, a story of dance, music and love and as we all know, these have a habit of coexistence, and is the formula in many a heartwarming story.

Before we get to Travancore and delve into this story, I have to start in Tanjavur, going back to a time of the renowned Dikshitar, the illustrious trio, and the musically rapturous courts of the Maratha kings. Well without getting into too much details, let me dive straight into the court rooms of the last independent Bhonsle ruler of Tanjore - Maratha Maharaja Serfoji II. The period was the late 1820’s. It was a crowning period for Carnatic music and a time when the dance form Dasiattam had finally morphed into the earliest systematic versions of a more respectable Bharatanatyam. The people who worked hard at it were the four vellalar brothers who served in Serfoji’s court, named the Tanjavur quartet comprising Chinnayya, Ponnaiyya, Shivanandam and Vadivelu. All of them had received ample training from childhood and also from the illustrious Muthuswamy Diskshitar. Chinnayya the Abhinaya guru danced himself and the first mattu pongal dances of Tamilnadu are credited to him. Sivanandam brought in the western Clarinet to the realms of Carnatic music, Vadivelu was credited (also many others like Varahapayyar and Baluswami dikshitar) with popularizing Violin in carnatic music accompaniment and Ponnayya created many famous kritis. As luck or lack thereof would have it the brothers quarreled with the King around 1830 and were promptly banished from the court due to the relationship between Serfoji and a young boy who was trained in dancing and music by Vadivelu, and due to the preference shown by the king to the boy instead of the illustrious four. It appears that the boy was felicitated during a Chittira Thiruvazha, instead of the quartet. The foursome showed their irritation by refusing to sing standing up or something of that sort. The inebriated (?) king curtailed their temple honors and that worsened the issue further, eventually resulting in their banishment.

With that, the collective creativity was destroyed and the brothers separated. They first travelled to Travancore, but Chinayya moved soon to the Mysore court of Wodeyar, Shivanandam & Ponnaiyyah returned to Tanjore after accepting Serfoji’s apologetic re-invitation, whereas Vadivelu remained in the courts of Travancore to become a friend, advisor and court musician of Swati Tirunal. With the Tanjore masters arrived a retinue of Bharatnatyam dancers and accompanying musicians plus teachers like Meruswami to enrich the carnatic music arena of Anathapuram. As history was to record, Vadivelu would remain until 1845 in the Sankara Vilasa mansion created by the king for him. His life in Travancore was mainly one of creativity and contentment though he had his fights with this king as well, but all of which ended soon due to amicable mutual respect.

What did the quartet have to do with the Bharatnatyam revival? – MKK Nayar explains - When the disintegration of the Chola, Pandya and Chera empires began, Devadasis (practicing dasiattam) were forced to seek the protection of local warlords and chieftains. As distinct from an organized society under powerful empire building kings, warlords and chieftains held sway over small principalities. Standards of law and order or morality were also totally different in the new situation. Devadasis gradually fell prey to the newly emerging carnal society and the situation deteriorated in every manner. Ultimately Dasiattam was even banned by law. It was at that time that the immortal Thanjavur quartet came like an Avatar to rescue this beautiful damsel in distress. The Tanjore Quartet organized all the basic Bharatnatyam movements of pure dance into a progressive series called Adavus. They composed new music specifically for Bharatnatyam and introduced a different sequence of items that brought out the various aspects of dance and music. adds - Vadivelu and the quartet propagated the Pandanallur style of dance (in fact, the vidwan Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai of Pandanallur is a direct descendant of the quartet!) from the traditional Sadir Natyam or Dasiattam.

The work carried out by the quartet on Bharata Natyam encouraged the young king Swati Tirunal, who now wanted Vadivelu to work on the extant but unpopular form of Mohiniattam in Kerala. Together they crafted a revival and able support was provided by two more people, Uncle Iravivarman Thampi and a lovely dusky toned dancer. I will not get into the details of Swati Tirunal and his life, but suffices to say that here was a well educated and willing student, waiting for new teachers and new ideas. The dancers knew how to convert the ideas into movements. The king however was a man in a hurry, probably he knew he had only some more years left in his life and so he wanted to experience it all, the role of a ruler, the beauty of dance and the woman’s sensuous role in it as well as the woman herself, fighting the infighting in the large royal family and keeping the colonial rulers and administrators at bay. Was there time for love in his life?

As fleeting glimpses into his life shows us, there were. Lover’s anguish, happiness and even small things like a tiff are reflected in the music and dance forms that came out of these royal courts, if you forget the arguments about authorship and other rumors for a moment. One such verse that uncle Thampi created, has this interesting backdrop and I will get to it soon, for you need to get an introduction to one more person, the centerpiece in this large real life mural, the dancer herself.

From the arid Tamil regions, the musically talented brothers who had mastered dance moved through the rough terrains in slow moving bullock carts to the fertile and coastal Chera nadu, passing the Ghats and finally arriving at Travancore. The two brothers, Vadivelu and Sivanandam, along with Nirajakshi and Satyabhama (and Mankammal – was she Neerajakshi?), and another beauty were welcomed enthusiastically by the Maharaja Swati Tirunal. The unnamed beauty, who was to become the main court dancer, would also one day, dance into the king’s heart. She was none other than the mysterious Sugandhavalli who lived in plain sight, as a royal consort, but very little is known about her even today.

I toiled hard to dredge details on her, but books and articles provide only flashing glimpses of her and her relationship with the king. Who was she? Should I make the mistake of adding flesh to the bones myself like the movie script writer of the movie Swati Tirunal did? I decided not to, for hopefully my continuing search or that of another reader will provide me more details for more complete article about her in the future, but let us try & get to know her anyway from what we have.

When somebody prohibits something, man’s interest in it is automatically roused. It could be sex, it could be alcohol, and it could be books. Well, around that time the British had decided to ban Bharatnatyam and Dasiattam, confusing the former with raunchy nautch ( the anglicized name for natch-dance) dances. Perhaps that raised the ire of Swati Tirunal, and Vadivelu after all was one of the people behind the versions of Bharatnatyam. Anyway the courts of Travancore soon marveled at the steps of the Tamil dancers and the masterly music provided by the groups that had arrived from Tanjore. It was then that the king saw her, the sensuous dancer and he thought, how it would be if she provided steps for what uncle Thampi used to talk about – the old dances of the Mohini’s, the mohiniattam (interestingly the mohinis of the Chera nadu danced only in temples, never at a patron’s home or to ones wish). Malabar had by then provided the Zamorin’s Krishanttam, the Kottayam Raja’s had popularized Kathakali, but they were serious forms, and not created to relax and sooth a person. For that you needed a Mohini and Mohiniattam, which was a form of dance the king wanted, one that was flowing, soft and sensuous. Vadivelu suggested that his young dancer would easily be able to demonstrate the steps for this based on the Sadir principles and with that the first formal years of Mohiniattam as we know it today, were created. The dancer Sugandhavalli, knew instinctively how to move to music and how she moved, for she danced straight into the young king’s heart.

What do purists say? MKK Nayar states - The origin and development of Mohiniyattam is shrouded in mystery. Though there have been legends and folklore no definite ideas are as yet available from a historian’s point of view. Some hold that it was as ancient as Chilappathikaram and Manimekala, well-known Tamil classics; a few think that it was evolved by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal in the nineteenth century. Mohiniyattam literally means the dance of the Mohini. Mohini is name of the great enchantress. By the name itself Mohiniyattam sounds seductive or erotic. As a term Mohiniyattam is found only in Kerala. Swati Tirunal and his illustrious courtiers Irayimmen Thampi and Kilimanoor Koil Thampuran (Karindran) evidently put their aesthetic heads together and produced out of the Dasiattam of the time, the refinement that is known as Mohiniyattam today. They composed many pieces for it - Swarajathis, Varnas and scores of Padas. Swathi Thirunal had the rare assistance and advice of Vadivelu of Thanjavur too. Vadivelu had just come out to Trivandrum after witnessing, and participating in the renaissance of Dasiattam into Bharatanatyam. His accounts aroused enough interest in the Maharaja to get the famous danseuse Sugandhavalli from Tanjavur. It is possible that the influence of Vadivelu and Sugandhavalli may have contributed to some movements or other in Mohiniyattam too.

Sugandhavalli – ah! The mysterious woman who enchanted the king! Who was she? The official documents certify as follows

Thanjavoor Ammachi Panapilla Amma Srimathi Sundaralakshmi Kochamma (d. 1856), née Suganda Parvathi Bayi [Sugandhavalli], a Bharatanatyam dancer who came to his court with the famous Guru Vadivelu, adopted into the Vadasseri Ammaveedu in 1843 and raised to the status of a consort or Ammachi in 1845 when the new house of Thanjavoor Ammaveedu was created for her, daughter of a mudaliyar from Tanjore.

MKK Nayar continues in the ST website - Vadivelu had come along with his sister and two other girls, one called Sugandhavally and her elder sister. Sugandhavally and her sister had their origin in south Travancore. Their ancestors had moved over to Tanjavoor a few decades earlier. There they had got Sugandhavally and her sister trained in Bharatanatyam under Vadivelu. During the presence of Vadivelu and the three girls the Maharaja got the idea of re-choreographing Mohiniyattam. A few years after the death of Sarabhi Sivanandam, Chinnayya & Ponnayya went back and Vadivelu stayed over for some more time. Nayar continues - Sugandhavally was only years old when the Maharaja took her as his second wife. She died a few years later. Vadivelu had hopes that the Maharaja would, in the re-bound, take his sister in place of Suganthavally. That was why he stayed behind. But a year later he realized that the Maharaja was no longer interested in the pleasure of the flesh. So he went back with his sister to Thanjavoor.

Author’s note - This is obviously not right as Sugandhavally outlived Swati tirunal as events were to show, a full 10-11 years.

So what was the story of Sughandavally? We glean the following from Pattom G Ramachandran Nair who wrote Thiruvanathapurathinde Ithihasam, extracts of which are reflected in Wikipedia & other books.

Sometime around 1843 Swaiti Tirunal terminated the courtship and formalized his marriage with Sundara Lakshmi Ammal, a.k.a Sugandhavalli. The Maharajah first adopted her into Vadasseri Ammaveedu, making her an Ammachi and bestowing the title of Thampi on her family members. In 1845 he constructed the Thanjavur Ammaveedu and Sugandhavalli, along with her family members resided here. The Maharajah's second wife, Thiruvattar Ammachi, whose sister was married to Uthram Thirunal as it appears did not approve of this marriage. Soon after, the Maharajah died in 1846. Legend and folklore has it that Sugandhavalli was banished from Travancore following which the Maharajah died broken hearted. However facts and records prove otherwise.

Sugandhavalli continued to live in Trivandrum at Thanjavur Ammaveedu until her own death in 1856, a full decade after the death of Swathi Thirunal, enjoying all the provisions and privileges she was entitled to as a royal consort. However soon after her death, her late husband's brother and successor, Maharajah Uthram Thirunal issued an order to attach the estate and properties that belonged to Thanjavur Ammaveedu on the ground that Sugandhavalli for whom they were made, had died. Sugandhavalli's sister Sundara Parvathi Pillai Thankachi, who had been married to Singaravelu Mudaliyar the former Alleppey District Judge, then filed a petition in Madras. The High Court of Madras in 1858 permitted the Travancore Government to attach the properties after compensating the family. Accordingly Rs. 10,000, a princely sum, was given to Sugandhavalli's family and the Thanjavur Ammaveedu taken over by the Travancore Government. The Ganapathi idol worshiped by Sugandhavalli was moved and consecrated at the Palkulangara Temple in Trivandrum. Her sister later died in 1883.

The mudaliar website adds this strange note - After Swathi Thirunal's mysterious death at an early age of 33, the Kerala Muthali community faced various threats. Then British resident, General Cullen's timely involvement helped to avert a great backlash on the community

The Thanjavur ammaveedu from the ST website- The Maharaja accepted her as a consort and the Tanjavoor Amma Veedu was constructed to house his beloved. It is a beautiful wooden building with two courtyards and elaborate wood carvings. It is believed that this house was once a place that echoed with music and dance incessantly. Sugandha Valli lured the Maharaja more and more into the world of arts and Swathi who was tired of the British dominance might have been only too glad to concentrate in his music and the dance of his beloved. But this was not acceptable to the close family members and courtesans. The forlorn Tanjavoor Amma Veedu exists even today as a store house of mysteries and stories.

Nayar continues - Although Swathi Thirunal and his courtiers made much of Mohiniyattam, it did not catch on in Kerala. That was because Swathi’s successor Uttram Thirunal was fanatically devoted to Kathakali. In his time all courtiers turned to Kathakali for gaining royal favor. At the same time in Cochin State too Kathakali had become the dominant art form. Mohiniyattam therefore travelled down to petty principalities and the dancers were forced to earn a living by disreputable means. At the end of the last century it had reached the lowest depths an art form could descend to.

Vadivelu’s story is not complete, his unhappy relatives (not his children, as he had none), by then settled in Tamil Nadu took on the legacy of the king stating that the authorship of the various krithis was actually Vadivelu’s. Some others said that many were actually done by Iryamman Thampi. I will not get into that now, it is a long and complicated subject best tackled another day.

Swati Tirunal’s short 32 year life had a sad ending. Presumably due to the pressures, the problems with the British and his Dewan, his family and so on, he had a woeful period at the end, living the life of a loner. When he died, he was virtually alone and there was no Sugandhavally to comfort him, though she was but a few miles away.

But I have to conclude by introducing another great by Thampi. So here is the legend behind and the meaning of

Prananathan Enikku nalkiya– Iraviyamman Thampi

It is a work of love with ample doses of sensuous text. As the story goes, Swati Tirunal and Sugandhavalli had a lover’s tiff, following which they did not talk to each other for some time. Sugandhavalli finally decided to ask uncle Irayivarman thanmpi for ideas to break the ice, and of course the learned man who knew his nephew very well, provided her the words below to explain her ecstasy and joy from the union between the two on an earlier occasion (to explain it in clearer words would classify this as a blog of ‘another’ sexy kind). As the story goes, she sang and danced to it and well, that broke not only the ice, but brought them together again. And as the legend goes, many more of the songs were composed by the king with her in mind like Jalaja bandhu and as it appears, the tiff with his first wife followed an insistence by the young king to have his first wife Narayani play the violin for these tunes and Sughandhavalli’s dancing. A great defense for Narayani can be read in this nice article

But back to the song (lyrics from…

പ്രാണനാഥനെനിക്കു നല്‍കിയ
പരമാനന്ദരസത്തേ പറവതിനെളുതാമോ

അങ്കത്തിലിരുത്തിയെന്‍ കൊങ്കത്തടങ്ങള്‍ കര
പങ്കജം കൊണ്ടവന്‍ തലോടി
പുഞ്ചിരിപൂണ്ടു തങ്കക്കുടമെന്നെ കൊണ്ടാടി
ഗാഢം പുണര്‍ന്നും അങ്കുരിത പുളകം കലര്‍ന്നെഴു-
മെന്‍ കപോലമതിങ്കലന്‍പൊടു
തിങ്കള്‍മുഖത്തെയണച്ചധരത്തെ നുകര്‍ന്നും
പ്രാണനാഥനെനിക്കു നല്‍കിയ
പരമാനന്ദരസത്തേ പറവതിനെളുതാമോ

കാന്തനോരോരോ രതികാന്തതന്ത്രത്തിലെന്റെ
പൂന്തുകിലഴിച്ചൊരു നേരം
തുടങ്ങിഞാനും മാന്താര്‍ശരക്കടലില്‍ പാരം
തന്നെ മറന്നും നീന്തി മദനഭ്രാന്തിനാലതി താന്തയായി
നിന്താന്തമങ്ങിനെ കാന്ത കൃതം
സുരതാണ്ഡമഹോത്സവഘോഷം പുനരെത്ര വിശേഷം!
പ്രാണനാഥനെനിക്കു നല്‍കിയ
പരമാനന്ദരസത്തേ പറവതിനെളുതാമോ

praana naadhanenikku nalkiya
paramaananda rasathe
paravathineluthaamo (praana)
angathil iruthiyen konga thadangal
kara pankajam kondavan thalodee (angathil)
punjiri poondu thanka kudamennu kondaadee
gaadam punarnnum angulitha pulakam
kalarnnezhumen kapolamathingal anpodu
thinkal mukhatheyanachadharathe
nukarnnum pala leela thudarnnoo(praana)

kaanthanororo rathi kaantha thanthrathilente
poonthukil azhichoru neram (kaantha)
thudangi njaanum maanthaasharakkadalil paaram
thanne marannum neenthi madanabhraanthinaalathi
thaanthayaayi nithaanthamangine kaantha krutham
sura thaantha maholsava ghosham punarethra vishesham

A link to the version by Madhuri

The origins of Monhiniattam – Nirmala Panikkar
The first reference to Mohiniyattam is in Vyavaharamala composed by Mayamangalam Narayanan Namboodri in 1709 A.D. It mentions rules to be observed regarding fees of artistes to be shared during a performance. Maharaja Kartika Tirunal Balarama Varma, author of Balarama Bharatam (1758-1798) said that the book had been written after a careful study of Lasya Tantra ( the style of the lasya dance). Travancore palace records reveal that even as early as 1801, the palace was incurring expenditure on Mohiniyattam. We also get an idea of the popularity of Mohiniyattam from the works of Kunchan Nambiar, who in his Ghoshayatra mentions Mohiniyattam in passing.There is also a reference to Mohini natana in the great treatise on the regional art forms of Kerala, Balarama Bharatam.

The Ammachi’s of Travancore
Samuel Mateer elaborates in his book - The ammachi is not a member of the royal household, and is in nowise associated with the royal court. She has neither official nor social position at Court, and cannot even be seen in public with the ruler whose wife she is. Her issues occupy the same position as herself, and the law of Malabar excludes them from all claims to public recognition.

In the case of the royal family, a number of splendid cloths are sent, and she is brought to the palace of her consort. But, unlike other Sudra unions, the Ammachi, having once been married to a Rajah, is required to remain single all the remainder of her days; and is shut up and guarded in her own residence. Hence it is not all parents that are willing to give their daughters on these terms. The bereaved lady is comfortably provided for by endowment during the life of the husband, and pension after his decease. Precisely similar is the custom in China, where, on the death of an emperor, his women are removed to a portion of the palace, in which they are shut up for the remainder of their lives.

Manu Pillai at Inorite adds - The status of the Ammachis was not always happy. Maharajah Swathi Thirunal married a lady from Kollam and invested her with the titles of Ammachi, Panapillai Amma etc. after adopting her into the Thiruvattar Ammaveedu. A few years later he was enamored of a Thanjavur dancer, known popularly as Sugandhavalli, and decided to marry her. Since she was not a Nair and was far from aristocratic, her adoption into the Vadasseri Ammaveedu was opposed and hence the Maharajah, defiantly, constructed a house for her and named it Thanjavur Ammaveedu. The first wife, known as Thiruvattar Ammachi, was put aside with little freedom.

For further details refer hyperlinked article by Manu

Swatitirunal Website
Yalburi afrticle - MKK Nayar

Singing the classical, voicing the modern - Amanda Weidman
Puzha article
Hindu article
Malayalasangeetham site


  1. Short and eventful life of Swati Thirunal is a mystery by itself. His love for music, dance and culture has no parallel. He was quite disappointed by the rude behaviour of the British.
    Thank you for focusing light on his contribution to Mohiniattam.

  2. Thanks YS rao
    Glad you enjoyed it

  3. Detailed write up and very informative. Just wat I was searching for. Thank you.

  4. Interesting.There was none called sugandavalli-refer R P Raja's book,New Facts On Swati Thirunal.Only Sundaralakshmi was there.I have been to the Ammaveedu after the famous vasthu expert Payyannur Kesavan Achari visited it(in 1995).Achari studied the master bed room & said that whoever built the structure would not have lived long.The bedroom had defects(Achari could not take the measurements with the Kerala muzhakol & found Nagarcoil muzhakol has to be used!).What Achari said was true:Swati Thirunal built the ammaveedu in 1845 & died in 1846.There is no great mystery about his death.Dr K Rajasekharan Nair,son of Sooranat Kunjan Pillai & famous neurosurgeon,after pathographic studies prepared a paper that said Swati Thirunal was suffering from a brain's frontal lobe syndrome.People with this disease will walk like drunkards.C J Thomas too had this disease.Swati Thirunal resorted to Prayopavesam(fast till death).

  5. I had reported about Dr Rajasekaran Nair's finding in Manorama.The Times,London reported on december 8,1846 that Holloway's ointment has been sent to Swati Thirunal.This ointment,developed by Thomas Holloway was considered panacea.But modern studies have proved that it wont cure anything.Holloway made millions.

  6. hello Ramachandran..
    as i wrote her name was Thanjavoor Ammachi Panapilla Amma Srimathi Sundaralakshmi Kochamma (d. 1856), née Suganda Parvathi Bayi [Sugandhavalli]... sugandhavalli was just another name that she went by...and since that popularized her, i used it...

  7. Hi,
    [Manu Pillai at Inorite adds - Maharajah Swathi Thirunal married a lady from Kollam and invested her with the titles of Ammachi, Panapillai Amma etc. after adopting her into the Thiruvattar Ammaveedu. A few years later he was enamored of a Thanjavur dancer, known popularly as Sugandhavalli, and decided to marry her. Since she was not a Nair and was far from aristocratic, her adoption into the Vadasseri Ammaveedu was opposed and hence the Maharajah, defiantly, constructed a house for her and named it Thanjavur Ammaveedu. The first wife, known as Thiruvattar Ammachi, was put aside with little freedom.]

    I think Lenin Rajendran's movie had convinced a lot of people that Swathi's 1st wife Narayani was opposed to the King's relation with Sugandhavalli/Sundaralakshmi. According to my readings, Swathi married Narayani, the Thiruvattar Ammachi, in 1829 and she passed away in 1839 after giving birth to all his children. He then married a lady called Neelamma (according to wiki) by adopting her into the Thiruvattar Ammaveedu, so this may be the ammachi who opposed the union and not Narayani. But according to Dr. Achyuth Shanker, (if my shaky memory is correct), she also died soon after her wedding to Swathi. He then met Sundara Lakshmi in 1841 & married her in 1843, i don't thinks the consorts even had the chance to meet each other. So Manu's writing is isn't correct regarding the relation btw the 2 consorts. But regarding other details like staying single thru out their lives & all that seem correct. I came across a picture of the Vadasseri Ammaveedu and especially the photo of an improvised Jail in it it. According to the documents related to the Ammaveedu, Sundaralakshmi, years b4 her death had become mad & to hold her that particular jail was built inside the Ammaveedu. May be the whole sheltered lifestyle was against her free spirit....

    Another craziness from our democratic govt. I wanted to scream when i read this. I saw a Travel docu on China, despite being communists they have preserved all those ancinet palaces of the Emperors...

  9. thanks JK47
    can i ask you where you saw the info and pic of the vadaseeri ammavedu? and read about the mental state of SL after Swati's death? I am very interested to know what happened to SL

  10. Maddy, this is the link :
    I had been searching for this link ever since i saw ur comment, finally found it just now.
    There isn't much there, it has a photograph of the jail inside the ammaveedu & a comment by the man who posted it.
    I have a doubt, is Vadasseri & Thanjaavur ammaveedus the same ????


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