Saturday, October 3, 2009

TALES FROM THE CAPITAL CITY- XVI

TAMIL VISHWAKARMA SETTLEMENTS IN THIRUVANANTHAPURAM

Vishwakarmas now living in Thiruvananthapuram are the descendents of various guilds of the craftsmen who have come and established themselves at various turning points in the history of Travancore. In the first quarter of eighteenth century thousands of Tamil Vishwakarmas were brought to the capital city, this migration had a great cultural impact on the history of Travancore.

As Vishwakarmas were considered as ‘avarnas’ they were given land outside the fort, which was the city centre that comprised of the temple complex, the ‘agraharams’ of the Brahmins and the royal palaces and the houses of land lords and nobles. Even now, we can see large Vishwakarma settlements in places like Karamana (near Killi River); there is evidence for Vishwakarma settlements in Statue, the present core of our city. A vast area of land behind General Post Office was known as ‘Asari Parambu’, which may have been occupied by the stonemasons who came and settled there for the renovation of Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. ‘Kattachal konam’ is said to be derived from the words ‘kal thacha konam’, meaning the adobe of stone masons. These craftsmen brought with them their family deities and made temples for them outside the fort, Gandhari Amman temple in Statue, Muttaramman temple near Punnan road were the temples of Tamil Vishwakarma families. Thus, Vishwakarmas played an important role in the history of Travancore from eighteenth century (I have already mentioned about the 'Thacha Kudi' in Thottom in the previous article).

Pandi Kammalan (Tamil Vishwakarma craftsman); sketch by the author - from an old painting from Kuzhi Malika.

The settlements of native craftsmen were also found at various places, especially around palaces and other noble families. Goldsmith settlements were concentrated along the fringes of the capital in places such as Kaithamukku and on the banks of Kill River.

Malabar goldsmith and female, 1830's - Yale University Collection.
Timbre which was available in plenty was the major building material used in Travancore and the Asaris of the region excelled in carving out minute details in wood. However, one major drawback of timbre was that it was always under the threat of fire and termite attacks. Temple records of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple say that the earlier structure that was made of wood had been almost destroyed many times due to fire outbreaks.

Granite was not easily available and there were only a few temples made of granite that preceded Padmanabha Swamy temple. However, during the reign of Thrikketta Tirunal Vira Ravi Varma (Vira Ravi Ravi Varma) which lasted from 1595 AD to 1608 AD, many steps were taken for renovating Padmanabha Swamy temple. In the year 1606 AD/ 781 ME he took steps for the structural repairs of the temple. The major building material, timbre was to be replaced by granite. This medium was adopted for fear of fire hazard. Renovation works were at once started and it should be assumed that skilled stone masons were bought from different parts of Pandinadu. This proves that there were settlements of Tamil Vishwakarmas in the capital city from early seventeenth century.

The village craftsmen; life in a ‘kudi’

In the case of a village community, a craftsman, belonging to what so ever trade was considered as an integral part of the society. He is in demand for making ploughs for farmers, making houses for people and artifacts for rulers. However, the rules and regulations of the guilds were less followed in the village communities. A social harmony and equality prevailed among them. Same is the case of the Vishwakarma settlements of Kadakkavoor. Cherunellil, Putten Veedu and Putten Madhom were some of the mutually related families that may have initially worked together as a village guild. However, as time passed they evolved as individual families.

A typical village craftsman - Sketch by the author.
The guilds of village craftsmen consisted of related families and a senior male member was considered as the head or ‘moothassari’, all others worked under his supervision. This was their mode of working for large projects; however, smaller works were individually undertaken. The financial condition of these ‘village craftsmen’ was low and they usually maintained a low profile in the society. Harsh caste rules also were a major hindrance for them in getting a decent position in society.
Vishwakarma women - sketch by the author.

A study on a community of these craftsmen can provide us with much valuable information on their lifestyle, customs and beliefs. The working groups or ‘Kudi’ were the settlements of these craftsmen, the Kudi may be called ‘Asari (carpenter) Kudi’, ‘Thattan (goldsmith) Kudi’, ‘Kolla (blacksmith) Kudi’ etc depending on the caste sub-divisions or trade of the occupying communities. Unlike the other warrior classes of Kerala, the male members of these communities were always present in their houses or communities. The presence of this dominant male in the family who was the bread earner of the entire family may be the reason why these communities became patriarchal.

A typical well to do Vishwakarma family had a house with a ‘poomukham’ or verandah in front, a hall room which served as the dining and resting space. There may be numerous rooms on both sides of these main rooms. A small kitchen and a working space complete the house. The number of rooms increased with the growing number of the family. The building materials varied from timbre to mud blocks or bricks as per the availability. The houses were thatched, only some prominent families, who were associated with the royal family, were given the privilege to use roofing tiles during the king’s rule.

A ‘Kudi’ usually had a small place of worship, a ‘thekkath’ dedicated to the family deity. A normal family consisted generally of a husband, his wife and children, which may come around eight to ten in number. Polyandry was practiced in old days, the brothers of a family used to share a common wife and the widow of a brother or cousin was married by another brother or cousin, however, both these practices have almost died out these days. Usually the houses had a small temporary shed ‘chaippu’, on its rear side; this was the place where the male members of the family worked. A master craftsman’s house usually had a large shed that housed his workshop and the space where he taught the younger generation. The tools used by a family were passed on to the later generation as family heirlooms and they were never passed hands. Womenfolk of these communities had their role in assisting their husband or father or brother who was engaged in the works. They are always happy to sharpen their working tools, prepare food of the family etc, but other than these minor errands they had less to do in the family and society. In old days the women used to cook outside their kitchen, in a carpenter’s house there will be lot of waste wood near the workplace and the women used these as the fuel, and a stove was setup near the working space.

These guilds were sometimes assigned larger tasks such as construction of temples and palaces by the ruling class. The work will be supervised by the head craftsman, the ‘moothassari’. Some times more than one guild was involved in the construction works. If the working site was far from home, it was natural for the entire guild to relocate themselves to a place nearer to their working place, sometimes the whole family can be seen relocated and after the work they might not return to their native lands, there are many reasons for this.

In old days these craftsmen were presented with land on the completion of their works……. “The payment of craftsmen was either a payment in kind, or a grant of land, besides perquisites on special occasions. For their customary services, the craftsmen were repaid at harvest-time, receiving a fixed proportion of sheaves of grain from the crop collected on the threshing floor, or they might be given a share of the communal land” THE INDIAN CRAFTSMAN BY ANANDA.K.COOMARASWAMY, D.SC. So it is natural that they might settle down in the new places. Another reason is that young men of the guilds may commit to marriage alliances with the local guilds and they may settle down with the relatives and thus will gradually become a member of another guild. Thus this association of two guilds can sometimes result in the merging of two different cultures.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev
September, 2009.