Thursday, 30 April 2020


                                        THE PRINCE, GOVERNOR AND TAPIOCA

Delicacies prepared from the starchy root of the cassava plant (tapioca) have been an integral part of the traditional Malayalee cuisine for over a century. Once debased as ‘poor man’s food,’ this tuber was introduced in the Travancore State as a popular crop by Maharajah Visakham Tirunal Rama Varma (r.1880-1885) during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Visakham, the nephew of Swathi Tirunal Rama Varma, was an ardent botanist and promoter of agricultural novelties, also credited to have introduced rubber trees in Travancore.

Seven-leafed-root - the true potato of India

How and when did the tuber, a native of Brazil, reach the Kerala coast? No one seems to have a definite answer; however, tapioca was a staple food of the indigenous tribal clans, long before it reached the platter of the Prince. In more recent times, there are references to cassava being grown in Madras Presidency in the mid-nineteenth century. Europeans residing in the Presidency often substituted tapioca for potato, “which, when prepared in a peculiar way, is totally indistinguishable from the potato.”

Around 1870s, while travelling through Madras Presidency, Lord Napier, the Governor of Madras was invited to dine at the house of a certain gentleman. At the dining table, “His Lordship was peculiarly struck at the large size and fine flavour of certain potatoes.” After complimenting the hostess for the sumptuous spread, the Governor enquired about the delicious potatoes served at the meal. To his amazement, the hostess revealed that the dish he relished the most was, in fact, tapioca balls made from tapioca root sourced from her garden (The Athenaeum, 1876).

Soon, the story of Lord Napier’s encounter with tapioca reached Visakham Tirunal. The Prince who was already informed about the benefits of the cassava plant wasted no time in sourcing some from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. Some sources mention that the first tapioca plantation in Thiruvananthapuram came up inside the Fort, in the grounds of the Vadakkae Kottaram, where Visakham Tirunal was based as the Elayarajah (Sasibhooshan. M.G., Ariyapedatha Ananthapuri, 2017).

The old-timers recall tales of Visakham Tirunal’s earnest efforts to set up tapioca farms in various parts of the State. When he assumed the gaddi, Visakham Tirunal issued a proclamation with specific instructions on cooking tapioca. It explained in great detail that after cleaning the tapioca, it had to be cooked and the water discarded and the process repeated to remove the bitter taste (Saraswathy Nagarajan, How tapioca came to Travancore, The Hindu, June 27, 2019). However, the majority of residents in the capital initially refrained from consuming the tuber. In order to instil confidence in the minds of the reluctant subjects, Visakham Tirunal ordered the cooks at the royal kitchen to include tapioca to his menu - thus elevating the humble tuber to a sought after delicacy!

Sharat Sunder Rajeev.

Sunday, 22 September 2019



The beautifully carved wooden lids from the box made by V. Narayanan Achari - private collection of the author.

I first heard about V. Narayanan Achari (b.c.1880), a grand-uncle, while recording snippets of family history on the maternal side. Narayanan, known in the family circles as ‘muchundan’ (one with a cleft lip), had not left behind many tangible effects to preserve his memory down the generations. Narayanan never married and there were no photographs or records of him either in the family collections. I gathered that he passed away sometime during the late 1920s, struck down with small-pox. These tit-bits did not help much to reveal Narayanan’s true persona and I realised that to know more, I should dig deep into the pile of family lore and anecdotes.
Being born into a family of traditional carpenters, Narayana Achari honed his skills under the elderly craftsmen of his native craft-guild. His mastery in crafting sophisticated chests and cash boxes made him popular with an elite clientele. A beautiful wooden box made by the craftsman was later inherited by his nephew – my grandfather. The story goes that one fine day Narayanan summoned his brothers to his workshop to show them a box he made. The box had a secret cavity, in which a gold coin was sealed away by means of a unique locking technique known only to the master craftsman. Narayanan challenged his brothers to locate and unlock the cavity. The one who succeeded could claim the gold coin! Unfortunate for his siblings, none succeeded and Narayanan continued as the unchallenged master of the guild. This very box was tucked away in a corner of our attic, where it remained for ages, covered in dust. An attempt to get it down from the attic resulted in an accident when the box slipped right out of my cousin’s hands, tumbling down through the narrow wooden stairs. I managed to salvage a pair of beautifully carved planks, the lid of one of the inner compartments – but the box was lost.
According to my late grandfather, his maternal uncle’s greatest accomplishment as a master craftsman was acknowledged while he was associated with the construction (1916-1924) of the Sri Ramakrishna Ashram at Nettayam. There, it is said, he carved a large hooded snake on one of the doors. The carving was so life-like that many hesitated even to go near it! It seems like the wonderful story and the awe for the master craftsman filtered down the generations but no one in the family ever took an effort to visit the ashram to find out whether Narayanan’s menacing serpent was still there.
In 2015 I visited the ashram with my wife. The members of the monastic order extended a warm welcome; they took us around and explained the history of the Ramakrishna movement in Kerala and the unique architecture of the ashram building. I was all ears to the hosts but my eyes searched for the snake. I was charged with many new historical facts, but there was no trace of the snake. So, when we were about to leave I asked the Swamiji whether they had any snake motifs on any of the doors. “Why do you ask?” Swamiji was curious. A faint smile appeared on his face as he listened to my family lore. As soon as I finished, he took my hand and said, “come with me, I have something to show you.” He took me to the main hall, there, on one end was a beautifully carved wooden door set within a niche that doubled as a shrine. To my surprise, the huge snake was there! After all, it was part of the monastic order’s crest – how foolish of me to not have figured this before! I missed out the door before as it was kept open during the worship hours, hiding the carving from view. I could very well see why people refrained from touching the snake, it was huge, striking, and when I ran the fingers down its body, a chill went down my spine – it felt just like touching an actual snake!

‘One with the cleft lip’ was indeed a master craftsman!
     The crest of Sri Ramakrishna Mission carved by Narayanan - from the door of the inner shrine,
Sri Ramakrishna Ashram, Nettayam, Thiruvananthapuram.

Wednesday, 10 April 2019



Sometime back, my research on an old book on music led me to Kilimanoor palace. There, I met C.R. Kerala Varma (Sanyāsi Thampuran), a revered scholar who introduced me to the musical heritage of Kilimanoor palace and recalled the contributions of his own guru Sri. Kilimanoor R. Madhava Warrier. A few days back, as I went through my collection of old books, I was surprised to find a small book published in 1947, which never caught my attention before. This book, titled ‘Chaitrakshetram’, was a thullal composed by Kilimanoor R. Madhava Warrier! Kilimanoor R. Madhava Warrier (b.1878-d.1960) was a renowned scholar and musician and composer associated with the Kilimanoor royal family. He was the son of Lakshmikutty Warasyar and 'Marumakan Thampuran' of the Kilimanoor royal house. Today, he is mostly remembered as the composer of songs in the movie 'Bhakta Prahalada' (probably for the Malayalam remake).

R. Madhava Warrier
Madhava Warrier was fortunate to have lived in Kilimanoor palace during its golden age, i.e., during the lifetime of the legendary artist Raja Ravi Varma. The artistic tradition of the family was preserved by Raja Raja Varma, court painter to Swathi Thirunal, and his nephews Raja Ravi Varma and C. Raja Raja Varma. Mangala Bayi, the younger sister of Ravi Varma was also an artist of talent. Alongside the artistic tradition, the Kilimanoor royals claimed a rich tradition in music. Madhava Warrier's aptitude towards music was identified by his paternal family members and they arranged R. Samba Bhagavathar, the 'Mullamoodu Bhagavathar' to teach the young lad. Young Warrier found his mentors in Goda Varma (b.1854-d.1904), younger brother of Raja Ravi Varma and his cousin Chatayamnaal Ittammar Ravi Varma Coil Thampuran (d.1850-d.1936), who were both musicians and composers of repute.

After the untimely demise of artist C. Raja Raja Varma, who was an assistant and private secretary to his elder brother, young Madhava Warrier accompanied Raja Ravi Varma on his journeys. The artist who had the habit of picking models from among his family members once asked Warrier to sit as a 'model'. Little did Warrier know that he was being cast as Sree Krishna in the 'Sree Krishna as Envoy' (1906), an important painting ever done by the artist!
'Krishna as Envoy', 1906.

When Raja Ravi Varma passed away in 1906, the members of the royal house, especially the children were inconsolable. For them, the legendary artist was a lovable Valyammavan (patriarch) whose presence in the house always called for a festive mood. To ease the pain of the children, Madhava Warrier penned the following couplet:

Based on an interview with C.R. Kerala Varma, R.K. Varma, and Kilimanoor Chandran.
Sharat Sunder Rajeev

Sunday, 29 July 2018



Do memories fade away with age? “No,” says eighty-six year old D. Sanal Kumar, who cherishes crystal clear memories of his student days in College of Engineering, Trivandrum. An alumnus of the Civil Engineering Department (1950-54 Batch), Sanal Kumar was fortunate enough to do both B.Sc. (Engg.) and M.Sc. (Engg.) course from this prestigious institution. Though he returned to his alma mater in the role of a lecturer, Sanal Kumar had to leave soon, to occupy the post of Junior Engineer in the Public Works Department. “I knew that I wouldn’t make a good teacher, but I certainly had some fine mentors here at the college,” recalls Sanal Kumar. “Dr. M.V. Kesava Rao, Prof. S. Rajaraman, Prof. M.P. Mathew, Prof. O.A. Mathew, Prof. M.G. Koshy, Prof. K.C. Chacko and Prof. J.C. Alexander are some of the names etched in my memory,” he adds.

Hailing from a middle-class Ezhava family in Oruvathilkotta, Thiruvananthapuram, Sanal Kumar had to overcome adverse conditions to attain his goals. “I am indebted to my father for providing the best education he could afford. When it was natural for boys to discontinue their school for the perusal of jobs, my father understood the value of education and made sure that his children excelled in studies.” After schooling at N.S.S. School, Palkulangara, Sanal Kumar joined for the Intermediate Course at Govt. Arts College, Thycaud, and finally landed in the College of Engineering, Trivandrum. “The college was located in P.M.G., housed in the buildings formerly used for the Office of the Chief Engineer. M.V. Kesava Rao, head of the Electrical Department was the Principal. Among the other teachers, Rajaraman sir taught Solid Geometry and J.C. Alexander sir taught History of Architecture and Graphics. Once, he asked the students to draw pictures of iconic buildings and render it with colour, the submissions were displayed on the walls of the central hall. J.C. Alexander, who took his post-graduation in Architecture from USA, was supposedly associated with the team involved in the design of the famous Empire State Building, New York City,” recalls Sanal Kumar.

In 1955 Sanal Kumar joined P.W.D. as Junior Engineer, but towards the end of 1959, he returned to C.E.T. to do M.Sc. in Hydraulics (1959-61 Batch). Among the teachers, Prof. K.C. Chacko and Prof. O.A. Mathew who handled classes for M.Sc. course left a lasting impression on him. O.A. Mathew had joined the Civil Engineering Department on deputation from the P.W.D. His thorough knowledge and practical approach to the subject made him popular with students; however, he went back to P.W.D. and was involved in the Thanneermukkam Bund Project. Sanal Kumar himself was involved in some of the ground-breaking projects undertaken by the Public Works Department. “While posted in Thiruvananthapuram, I worked with R. Velayudhan Nair, Engineer, P.W.D., who was associated with various prestigious projects like the construction of Medical College, Thiruvananthapuram. We worked together in the construction of T.B. Centre, Pulayanarkotta. At the same time, Velayudhan Nair was in charge of the construction of the main block of Govt. Ayurveda College and the Martyr’s Column in Palayam. All these buildings were inaugurated in 1958 by Dr. Rajendraprasad, the President of India.” The Martyr’s Column in Palayam was designed by J.C. Alexander. “Velayudhan Nair was perhaps the only man in the department who dared to make alterations in J.C. Alexander’s design sheets. But J.C. sir had complete trust in the engineer and said that Nair’s ‘eraser’ won’t touch his sheets unless there was some problem,” says Sanal Kumar. 

Around mid-1960s, Sanal Kumar was working on the Pampa Irrigation Project and later worked on the Kallada Dam Project (1970-71). “The Pampa irrigation project was particularly interesting,” recalls Sanal Kumar. “The engineers met with a challenge, working on a highly undulated landscape, directing the water from the Sabarigiri Hydroelectric Plant through the valleys for irrigation purpose. A detailed study of the geographic features followed and we made several tunnels cutting across the hills to facilitate uninterrupted flow of water to the farmlands.” Around the same period, he was also involved in the construction of the Engineer’s Pilgrim Centre in Sabarimala. One of his last assignments while in active service was the construction of Co-Bank Towers, an iconic building in Palayam, Thiruvananthapuram.

Sanal Kumar retired from P.W.D. in 1987, while holding the post of Chief Engineer and settled in Oruvathilkotta. “I am still connected with my old college mates, but now that age has restricted us, we don’t see each other that often. However, Sanal Kumar cherishes the celebrations organised by CETAA to mark the golden jubilee celebrations of their batch. On that day he and his batch mates made a journey to the old college building in P.M.G., retracing their steps to the past, the days of carefree student life, and the memories of their favourite teachers.

The students of 1950-54 Batch in front of 'Old CET', photographed during the occasion of their Silver Jubilee celebrations hosted by CETAA:

(Write-up based on an interview with D. Sanal Kumar, Chief Engineer, P.W.D. (Retd.), an alumnus of Civil Engineering Department (1950-1954 Batch). All pictures used in the write-up are from the private collection of D. Sanal Kumar.)


                                                     AN ARCHETYPAL SOUTH KERALA HOME

'An archetypal South Kerala home', a write-up on Thekkae kottaram in the Padmanabhapuram palace complex, The Hindu, 26-05-2018.


                                                      GATEWAY TO THE PAST

'Gateway to the past', a write-up on Padinjarae Kotta and the stories associated with it, The Hindu,       12-05-2018.


                                                           REMAINS OF THE DAY

'Remains of the day', a write-up on Thekkae Putten Veedu, Kalkkurichi, a house constructed by Raja Kesava Das, The Hindu, 28-04-2018.



'A famed abode of a former Dewan', a write-up on Kravilakathu Putten Veedu, the ancestral house of Raja Kesava Das, The Hindu, 31-03-2018.

Friday, 16 March 2018



'A gateway to stories', a write-up on Vettimuricha kotta, the fort gate on the eastern side of the historic Fort, Thiruvananthapuram, The Hindu, 17-03-2018.

Saturday, 3 March 2018


                                                  NIRAMANKARA'S PLACE IN ANNALS

'Niramankara's place in annals', a write-up on the ancient Siva temple at Niramankara, Thiruvananthapuram, The Hindu, 03-03-2018.