Monday, November 17, 2008



Chalai - in the early morning - Photograph taken by the author.

You would have walked past the busy streets of Chalai a hundred times; a road leading from the East Fort gate to Killipalam, with shops on both sides of the road forms the major part of the bazaar. On the street side, you can see street vendors selling all types of household articles, vegetables and fruits. Narrow side lanes with old buildings on both sides give the bazaar a heritage look. Chalai bazaar situated in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram is a bustling trade centre since its origin. “Raja” Kesava Das, the Dewan of Travancore during the closing years of the 18th century established the crowded old “Bazaar”, the Chalai Street with its various bye-lanes and market areas.

Dharma Raja and his trusted Diwan Raja Keshava Das
During the reign of Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma (1758-1798 AD), Padmanabhapuram was the capital of Travancore, but the king preferred to live in the palace complex built near the renovated Padmanabha Swamy temple and thus gradually the capital shifted from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram. In order to make Travancore a ‘dharmarajyam'-model capital, the then Dewan Raja Kesava Das started many projects. He developed the blueprint for the chalai bazaar for the supply of utilities for the residents of Travancore.

The main road leading from the Eastern Fort gate to Karamana was repaired and widened and bazaars and shops were built on both sides of the road. He had bridges built over the rivers Killi and Karamana; the latter being opened only in AD 1853. It was through these rivers the goods were brought to the chalai bazaar. Ward & Connor (1820) recorded that the bridge over the Karamana river was of stone,” 120 feet long”, and that across the Killi, of wood. The records show that even a century back, the streets were considered overcrowded, requiring restrictions on traffic. It is also recorded that avenue trees were planted on both sides of roads – now alas! Treeless.

Karamana bridge opening in Illustrated London News, Aug 5, 1854.

Cultural impact.

Muslim and Tamil Brahmin traders were encouraged to establish commercial establishments for the wholesale dealership of goods coming from Tamil districts. Other establishments encouraged in the locality were for gold jewellery. A good number of weavers, dyers, painters etc were brought from Tirunelveli and Madura and were made to settle at Kottar, which was thus made the centre of cloth trade. Many opulent merchants very soon sprang up and even now the ‘Kottar Chetties’ are proverbial for their wealth and industry.

Main settlers of chalai include Tamilians-Pilla Chettier communities, stonemasons and goldsmiths from Vishakapattanam, Muslim traders and Nadar traders. All these communities had their own temples and other worship places. Thus, these settlers influenced the traditional culture in Travancore. Even there were linguistic influences and impacts. Thus, due to the establishment of the bazaar a varied and diverse culture slowly took roots in Travancore.

Chalai bazar, photograph taken on 1880s by Govt. Photographer D'Cruz - From the collections of Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma.


In 1908, there was a civic commotion in the area when the police beat up a cart-man bringing goods into the bazaar. Many shops were set on fire. This actually changed the architectural character of the bazaar. It is assumed that the constructions other than wood came up during this phase. In 1916, one Vembu Iyer beat up a Muslim, leading to a commotion. The then king sided with the Brahmins and the Muslims non-co-operated. The bazaar was the scene of communal tension again in 1986.

I have heard an interesting story about Sir C.P’s proposal to widen the streets of the chalai bazaar from grandfather, not so sure, whether the story is authentic or not. It is said that when Travancore treasury faced a breakdown maharaja Chithira Tirunal sought the help of his Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer. The clever dewan had an idea, he told the merchants of Chalai that the government is going to widen the streets of Chalai bazaar and that they should co-operate with the government. It is said that the next day the wealthy merchants went to ‘Bhakti Vilas’- Dewan’s residence with money, to bribe him to change his decision. As per the plan, the clever dewan accepted money and assured that their shops will be safe. The money he got from the merchants was enough to fill the royal coffers, and perhaps the Dewan’s purse too.

Note: I would like to thank Linta Joy, my classmate who helped with certain details for this article.


Anonymous said...

Thats an interesting tale of making money by the Dewan. But it could be fiction. Lol. You know there are pictures of roads here and all over India in prime city areas taken many many years ago and they are such a pretty sight. Todays congested dirty crowded roads with trees skirting the side, bullock carts instead of cars and rickshaws... very nice

Maddy said...

that was a nice article on chalai- i remember going there so many times, and virtually every major shop on the street regards sir cp - he was a canny one. He knew a lot of tricks from in and out of the book.i was just discussing with murali the trick CP tried on mountbatten in 1947.

sharat sunder rajeev said...

thank you for the comment sir, c.p was of course an interesting character, a man with many faces.
however i am not sure whether this story is authentic, my grandfather told this to me.

Sunita said...

Very interesting.
I would've never recognised that street as Chalai... I've never seen it so deserted!

sharat sunder rajeev said...

you are right, even i have seen it deserted like this only once, the day i took the photo. the photo was taken early morning