Tuesday, November 8, 2011

TALES FROM THE CAPITAL CITY - XX

SWARUPATHU VEEDU

Swarupathu Veedu*, now known as ‘Kaniyan Vilakam’ is an old aristocratic Nair tharavad situated in Thiruvananthapuram. The ancestral house of this family is located near the famed Mukkolakkal Devi temple in Sreevaraham, near Muttathara; to the south of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple.

There are no authentic records on the origin of the family, and going by the local lore and family traditions one can come to the conclusion that the family and its members were associated with the ancient Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple from times immemorial. There are many references of the family and the services rendered by them in the temple records, the Mathilakam Churuna, chronicling the history of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. Princess Lekshmi Bai of Travancore royal family in her book ‘Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple’ has expressed her gratitude to numerous old aristocratic families, located in the capital city that had rendered valuable service in managing the day to day activities of the temple; Swarupathu Veedu is one among them.

The poomukham of the house - Photograph taken by the author.

The family was in existence from very old days and the ancestors of the family may have been associated with the Ettarayogakar, the potty families who controlled the temple affairs. Travancore, before the period of Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma (b.1706-d.1758) was under the control of feudal lords, the Ettuveetil Pillamar, Nair chieftains who were the feudatories of the Potty families. However, later they gained prominence in the society and allied themselves with the Ettarayogam and thus became the uncrowned kings of Thiruvananthapuram. Some prominent Nair families assisted the Yogakkar in running the temple such as Mathilakam Pillamar. According to the present family members, their ancestors assumed the title ‘Mathilakam Pilla’ and supervised the day to day activities of the temple. They were also assigned the duty of taking care of the 'Pandara vaka' estates owned by the royals and the temple.

Mathilakam Pilla:

Thiruvananthapuram, the small temple town developed into a capital city during the reign of Veera Marthanda Varma and his illustrious successor Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma (Dharmaraja). Marthanda Varma shifted the capital from Kalkulam to Thiruvananthapuram and started with the renovation works of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple followed by large scale development activities. Dharmaraja, his successor followed his uncles footsteps and thus during his reign Thiruvananthapuram emerged from its status as a 'temple town' to a powerful 'capital city'. The city comprising of the temple and a small population around it transformed into a city during the latter half of eighteenth century, a fort was created which sort of defined the boundary of the settlement of the elite class and people belonging to lesser castes and profession began settling around it, they were allotted land in accordance with their social positions.

The name Mathilakam Pilla is seen in many records preceding the time of Marthanda Varma, so the mathil or wall mentioned here must be the temple wall, the prakaram which surrounded the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. There are references of a mud wall surrounding the temple in the old records. Later during the reign of Marthanda Varma orders were given for complete renovation of the temple and a new granite wall occupied the position of the old mud wall. Therefore, as the name suggests, the members of the family supervised the works inside the mathilakam, i.e., the temple.

Social position:

The title Mathilakam Pilla was a significant post that demanded much respect and the family’s alliances with other aristocratic families including the famed Chittaloor Elankom strengthened their roots in the capital city. The connection with temple administration and their loyalty to the royal family made them prosperous. The family also received vast areas of farming lands free of tax from the rulers of Travancore.

In addition to this they received mada choru, cooked rice from the temple everyday and that too in large quantities. According to the present head of the family Mr. Sreekumaran Nair, in old days the karnavar of the family made arrangements to sell this rice and to distribute the rest to the poor.

Locality:

The family is located behind Mukkolakkal Devi temple, on the outskirts of the old capital city; the surrounding regions are marshy farming areas, with many canals and culverts for irrigation. In old days this area was known by the name Thottam, meaning garden. It was common for large temples like Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple to have farming lands in its vicinity, supplying flowers, fruits, grain and other raw materials for the day to day activities of the temple. Padmanabha Swamy temple had numerous paddy fields and gardens surrounding it. Ananthapuravarnanam, a 13th century composition by an unknown poet provides us with a beautiful description of the temple town. Syanandoorapuranam, another work mentions the temples, sacred groves and numerous ponds of this town. To the southwest of the temple was a temple sacred grove known as Padinjarae Nadakkavu. The author of Ananthapuravarnanam has compared this grove to the nandavanam. According to the elders of the locality, Mukkolakkal and the nearby Thottam regions were ‘gardens’ or rather farmlands which supplied flowers, banana and coconut to the temple and the settlements around it. The members of Swarupathu family were the feudal lords who were the caretakers of these fields and it may be the reason why they settled near Thottam. A large pond by the name ‘Pookulam’ was in existence till recently next to the house, however now it has been filled and is used as a play ground.

Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple and its precincts, with the old 'garden' marked in green**.

Thottam is well known all over Travancore for its Ezhava and Vishwakarma settlements. Many prominent Ezhava families like Vellutheri, Perunelli and Perumpadsherri of the region has produced many gifted poets and scholars, many illustrious members of these families were well known physicians, and were appointed as Kottaram Vaidyanmar to the Kings of Travancore. Many Tamil Vishwakarma guilds such as Thavalodu and Thuppini were engaged in the renovation works of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple and later they also settled in Thottam.

The house:

The tharavad is made in pure traditional architectural style followed in southern parts of Travancore. Exact date of construction is not available; however, from the looks and the style of construction one can easily infer that it is not less than 250 to 200 years old. The house, in its commplete form was an ettukettu, with rooms arranged around two courtyards. However, one nalukettu constructed using laterite had fallen with time and only the portion made of timber exists today.The existing structure is a perfect example of the traditional architecture of Kerala and bears testimony to the high degree of craftsmanship attained by the traditional craftsmen. The construction of the building is in accordance with the traditional Vastu canons, facing East direction. The major building materials used are timber, for walls and furniture, doors, rafters and thatched coconut leaves for roofing. Exquisite carvings of Goddess Durga, the vyali and parrot motifs along with the lotus and other floral motifs display the expertise of local craftsmen. The walls are made of timbre planks which are interlocked. The corner rafters and pillar heads are decorated with carvings. The structure includes a poomukham used by the karnavar of the family; in old days it acted as a transition space in between the main living block and the thekkath, the place of worship. Male guests were entertained in this poomukham, which was detached from the ettukettu. The poomukham has a small sit out space with charupadi and there are rooms on both sides.

The existing nalukettu - Photograph taken by the author.
The intricate carvings - Photographs taken by the author.
The wall separating mens and womens blocks, the small kilivathil used by women can be seen on the left - Photograph taken by the author.
The existing nalukettu block also had an ara that housed the thekkath, where the deities of the family, kalaman kombu (deer antlers) and the ancestors were worshipped. The other rooms were used by the karnavar, in the front verandah there is a wooden cot used by the karnavar with storage space below it, the valuables of the family and important documents were stored there, under the strict vigil of the karnavar. The room near the thekkath served as a store room where the large vessels of the family were kept. The inner space around the courtyard was used by the occupants of the family. The adjacent nalukettu which was in ruins had been demolished years ago and according to Mr. Sreekumaran Nair, it was used by the women and children of the family. That portion housed the kitchen, dining space and bedrooms. A wall, painted red, with an opening in its centre separated the two blocks; earlier, women were not allowed to come near the block that housed the family deities. A small kilivathil can still be seen on the wall, once used by the women to communicate with the karnavar and the male members who occupied the first nalukettu.

Life in family:

The Nairs were matrilineal, with the mother’s eldest brother occupying the position of karnavar, the male head of the family who looked after the family, their land and assets. The power and property passed hands to the sons of the karnavar’s sister and never to his children. Though women had no significant role in the society, she was the fulcrum around which the family functioned, matrilineal system of inheritance ensured their safety and women were respected. The nephews were taken care of by the male head, the karnavar. During post-colonial years, the Land Reforms Ordinance of 1950s led to massive loss of land-ownership by Nair feudal lords and some Nair gentry were relegated to poverty overnight. However, Swarupathu family is financially sound and many of the members are top brass government officials who are sensitive towards their rich heritage.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev
November 2011.

Note: This article was written two years back when I was doing some research on Thiruvananthapuram and the old families there. I would like to thank Sri Sreekumaran Nair, the present head of Swarupathu Veedu, who was kind enough to spare some time with me. He took me around the old house and shared with me whatever history he knew about the house and the locality.
P. Venugopal and L. Madhavan and late. L. Jalaja (Krishnammal) were some of the elders I contacted to know more about the local history of the area.
The map used here is a cropped portion of the 'Trivandrum Guide Map' (Survey of India 1968-69).
* Alternate spelling for 'Swarupathu Veedu', is 'Swaroopathu Veedu'. In old days there were some families of 'Kaniyanmar' (traditional astrologers) who lived near the house, this was the reason why the house and its surrounding areas later came to be known as 'Kaniyan Vilakam'.
** Since I was not able to come across any proper records showing the extend of the old garden, I have conjecturally marked it in the map.