The first known ancestor of the family who clearly appears in Travancore history is Kochu Kunju Achari, better known as Anantha Padmanabhan Achari. Kochu Kunju Achari was born in Navaikulam in early 1800s; details about his parents are not known. When he grew up he became a well-known craftsman. He became a master ivory carver and later played an important role in introducing ivory carving in Travancore. Not many details are known of his personal life except that he married from Vakkom and had two sons- Neelakandan Achari and Keshavan Achari.
During Maharaja Swathi Thirunal’s reign (1829-1847), Kochu Kunju Achari was invited to the capital city by the Dewan to make a golden chariot for the king. Kochu Kunju along with his son Neelakandan Achari, Pandaram vaka Achari of Manacaud Putten Veedu and other craftsmen made the richly gilt and splendid car for the king in 1842, under the supervision of Veeraswamy Naidu. The design was influenced by the description of Arjuna’s chariot in Mahabharata. Even European engineers have expressed their surprise at the native workmanship displayed in its execution.
The following description of the chair appeared in an issue of the Scientific American:-
“Among the priceless treasures comprising the Jubilee presents of Queen Victoria, which have been sent to America by King Edward of England for exhibition at the world’s fair is a wonderful ivory chair and foot-stool. These were presented to the late Queen by the Maharajah of Travancore. The carving on the chair and foot – stool is a revelation of possibilities of art. The feet are in the form of lions’ paws, and the arms terminate in lions’ heads. The back is in the form of a shell, supported by elephants rampant. The seat is of alabaster, and the chair has a gold and silver tissue draper around the underside of the frame, finished with tassels and richly chased ormolu ornaments. The cushions are of green velvet embroidered in gold and silver thread. Every outside path of the chair is covered with delicately carved figures of men and animals.” (from P. Shangunni Menon's 'History of Travancore)
Kochu Kunju Achari and his son Neelakandan Achari played an important role for the development of Travancore School of Arts and ivory carving in Travancore. Kochu Kunju Achari settled in Petta, it was his eldest son Neelakandan Achari who established the famous Pinarammoodu family in Petta. For his services he was given the title 'Ananthapadmanabhan Achari'. Kochu Kunju Achari died in 1870’s.
Ananthapadmanabhan Achari and the Golden Chariot
One interesting story about Anantha Padmanabhan Achari is that after making the chariot in wood he was covering it with gold foil stickers brought from England. He opened the stickers using his teeth, one of the palace officials who happened to see this complained that Achari was eating the maharaja’s gold. It is said that the king went in disguise to see Kochu Kunju Achari’s workspace and watched him, realizing that he had misunderstood his master craftsman, called the officer and ordered him to give Kochu Kunju a tumbler of hot milk whenever he eats gold saying that otherwise gold will not digest easily.
Neelakandan Asari born in 1830’s in Chirayinkil was the eldest son of Kochu Kunju Achari, he had a younger brother named Keshavan Achari; details about Keshavan are not known. Neelakandan Achari and Keshavan Achari may have been trained by their father; later Neelakandan assisted his father in many of his major works. Neelakandan Achari settled in Petta. While staying there he taught drawing to Chattambi Swamy Thiruvadikal (1853-1924). Neelakandan Achari was a friend of the famed artist Raja Ravi Varma.
Newspaper report of Neelakandan Achari’s death - MALAYALA MANORAMA,1907 March 21.