Friday, 29 April 2022


                                         Uma Amba Tampuratti of Kilimanur

                    Previously unseen excerpts from C. Raja Raja Varma's Diary

 Uma Amba Tampuratti, Raja Ravi Varma's mother 
 Image courtesy: RajaRavi Varma, Portrait of an Artist: Diary of C. Raja Raja Varma

For me, Raja Ravi Varma's birthday is an occasion to celebrate the artistic contributions of the members of the Kilimanur clan over the generations. Kilimanur family's tryst with art starts with two sisters, one of whom was Ravi Varma's maternal grandmother. Bharani Tirunal Rajaraja Varma (Ravi Varma's uncle), C. Raja Raja Varma and Mangala Bayi, the painter's siblings and descendants, kept the tradition alive.

Uma Amba Tampuratti, Raja Ravi Varma's mother (seen here in a reproduction of a posthumous portrait by the Varma brothers, painted around 1887) was also an artist. It is said that she taught art to the younger members of her family and possibly contributed to her own children's early artistic training.

In his diary, artist C. Raja Raja Varma says: "My mother was born under the star Makayiram in the month of Medam 1007 M.E. She was the youngest of my grandmother's eleven children. She had a very fair complexion. She was rather below medium height and was very delicately formed. She was endowed with musical and artistic tastes though she had no opportunity of cultivating them. She had an extremely kind and tender heart and could never see any suffering in others. I had seen her crying when she listened to tales and accounts of human suffering and misery. She was attacked with a  sort of eye disease from which she suffered, but she took advantage of the illness to learn Ophthalmology or the science of treating eye diseases from the various physicians who treated her and notably from a Thirumulpad of Naikunnam. She knew also to treat ordinary ailments of children. She appears to have given certain medicines to Her Highness the late Senior Ranee, C.I. The Ranee had cherished a great regard for the lady as some of the letters from the former to the latter testify. She had such self-sacrificing heart that she treated poor women and children gratis giving them medicines and clothing. She composed in Malayalam verse a Thullal called Parvathiswayambaram and several stray verses. Parvathiswayambaram has been published by my second brother Goda Varma at his expense. She was a great devotee of Siva and Parvathi, and when the disease (consumption) laid its icy hand on her about the latter part of her life, she devoted most of her time to prayers and worship. A melancholy circumstance connected with her death was that she had not her eldest son (Raja Ravi Varma) by her side when she died in the month of Makaram 1062. When her last illness took a serious turn we all gathered around her bed, but a day or two previous to her death urgent business compelled my eldest brother Ravi Varma to go to Trevandrum. From the next day she began to sink, and she used to ask, until she became unconscious, if he had returned. When we saw that she had not many hours to live, a man was sent post haste to Trevandrum to give him information of her condition and he arrived to his deep sorrow an hour or two after her death. Her obsequial ceremonies were celebrated in a grand style by my brother  Ravi Varma. When the year of mourning passed away he and myself took a pilgrimage to Benares with the urn containing her ashes which we duly consigned to the holy Ganges. So let her soul rest in peace. We regretted very much that we neither painted her portrait nor even photographed her while she lived. Her portrait was painted... From memory and yet it is a fairly accurate likeness."

 The previously unseen excerpt is taken from an article by R. Kulathu Iyer, dated 1907.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev


Sunday, 12 December 2021


 Uthram Tirunal Marthanda Varma's Ivory Skeleton

It was great fun working with the staff of the Natural History Museum, Thiruvananthapuram, for this short film on the ivory skeleton currently on display at the museum.

Saturday, 24 July 2021


Life Around the Temple - Urban Form of Trivandrum Fort | SPACES 2021

Ar Sharat Sunder R & Dr Bina Tharakan

The Kerala Architectural Festival, popularly known as SPACES, supported by the D.C. Kizhakemuri Foundation, DC School of Architecture and Design (Trivandrum & Vagamon) and co-promoted by D.C. Books, the makers of the Kerala Literature Festival commences on July 15, 2021.

The festival will be conducted online Live via YouTube & Facebook platforms due to the current pandemic restrictions. It will be held every week on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 7pm to 9pm, till 31st July, 2021.

Please go to this link to see the recorded session:

Thursday, 11 March 2021



G. Nilakantan B.A. (Retd. Asst. Excise Commissioner, Ex. MLA, Honorary Magistrate, Municipal Councilor)- my great aunt's grandfather was the first graduate from the Viswakarma community of Travancore. Nilakantan was born in 1874, in Perinadu, Kollam, but later relocated to Trivandrum on entering government service.

'Kamalavilas,' Nilakantan's palatial bungalow in Kunnukuzhi had been the venue to several crucial meetings and discussions involving top brass officials and social reformers during his lifetime. Some of the frequent visitors to the house were Ayyan Kali, 'Silparatnakara' N. Veloo Achary FRSA, Pichu Aiyar (Inspector General), Changanasherry Parameswaran Pillai, Rao Bahadur 'Rajyasevanirata' N. Kunjan Pillai, the Govt. Chief Secretary to name a few.

Even though Nilakantan commenced his career as an Inspector with the Excise Dept., the testimonials of his good conduct soon reached the ears of the Maharajah Moolam Tirunal, who summoned him to the capital and placed him under the mentorship of Van Ross, the Excise Commissioner.

In the 1930s, G. Nilakantan was identified as a prominent leader of the Viswakarma community and he became a staunch fighter for the 'Kammal Bill' in the Sree Moolam Praja Sabha, intended to regulate the social customs of the Malayalam speaking Viswakarmas. He encountered firm resistance from a faction headed by N. Veloo Achary, the mastermind behind the 'Viswakarma Bill'. Achary argued the Kammala Bill was flawed since it turned a blind eye towards the Tamil speaking Viswakarmas of southern Travancore.

The arguments by both parties continued for a long time, and eventually, the bill remained unsettled and finally got lapsed.

As for G. Nilakantan, he passed away on August 9, 1948, while attending a session of the Legislative Assembly.

Thank you MyHeritage Deep Nostalgia for giving us a feel of what our long-gone ancestors may have been like!

Sharat Sunder Rajeev


Saturday, 12 December 2020



Attoli Sree Haritripura Kulangara Devi temple, Malayamadhom, Ponganad, Kilimanoor.

temple overlooking an expansive sweep of paddy farmland is so typical a sight in rural Kerala.
 Kilimanoor, the birthplace of Raja Ravi Varmais a place where one still finds vestiges of an untouched agrarian culture. The old mansions of local chieftains, ancient temples, sacred groves, water bodies and lush paddy fields are reminiscent of a long lost lifestyle.

Sree Haritripura Kulangara Devi temple in Ponganad is a small - rather inconspicuous structure - one among the numerous temples in the region. Butit is the story of this temple that makes it special and weaves it into the plethora of oral traditions around the legendary painter and his family.

The old temple was revamped in the 1970s, by the 'AttoliNamboothiri family, its custodians. According to Attoli Govindan Namboothiri, who resides in a house adjacent to the temple, his family's association with Kilimanoor aristocracy could be traced back to the early eighteenth century. "We were originally based in Payyanur, in Kannur, but a few members of the core family had accompanied the royals of Thattari Kovilakam, in Beypore, to southern Kerala. When the royals settled in Kilimanoor, we too chose to remain here," he said.

Uma Amba Thampuratti of Kilimanoor royal house.

Attoli family shares a strong bond with the Kilimanoor royal house, and it was a 'Attoli Namboothiri,' a famed tantric, who, in the late 1840s, exorcised a 'Yakshi' from Uma Amba Thampuratti of the royal house. The Yakshiappeased through special pujas and offerings, was given an abode in the palace. The benevolent Yakshi is said to have blessed the childless Thampuratti, who gave birth to three boys and a girl, all abundantly blessed with creative talent. Uma Amba's eldest son, Raja Ravi Varma, went on to become the most renowned painter of his times. Among Ravi Varma's younger siblings C. Raja Raja Varma and Mangala Bayi too were talented artists. Goda Varma, another son of Uma Amba was a gifted musician and scholar.
As for the Attoli family, they are still the chief priests at the Yakshi shrine and remain in Ponganad, in the precincts of their family temple - not far from the Kilimanoor palace.

Sunday, 6 September 2020



Raghava Aiyer (b.1826-d.), a second-generation Mullamootu Bhagavathar (an epithet used by the Travancore court musicians) was born in Vadasherri near Nagercoil. Young Raghava Aiyer was fortunate to receive training in music from the famous Palghat Parameswara Bhagavathar, who had adorned the royal court since the days of Swathi Tirunal Rama Varma. After a brief stint at Trivandrum and Haripad, Raghava Aiyer was helped by Cherunni Koil Tampuran, the elder brother of Kerala Kālidāsa Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Tampuran, to relocate to Coimbatore. At Coimbatore, Aiyer resumed his lessons under Chidambara Nattuvan, the grandson of the renowned Vadivelu Nattuvan (one among the Tanjore Quartets of Swathi’s court).

Raghava Aiyer was introduced to Maharajah Ayilyam Tirunal Rama Varma by M. Kunjaru Raja of Mavelikkara (a talented musician and gifted player on Swarbat), during the latter’s visit to Madras. Later, the Maharajah invited Aiyer to Trivandrum, where he was appointed as a court musician. Not long after, the Maharajah developed a deep admiration for Aiyer’s singing and invited him to perform at the Sangumugham beach palace whenever the king visited the place with his close friends and advisors. 

However, around the early 1870s, a sly court musician poisoned the Maharajah’s ears with stories that would ultimately lead to Raghava Aiyer’s fall from grace. Crestfallen, he returned to his wife’s house in Haripad and led a quiet life. But by a stroke of luck, in 1874, Raghava Aiyer returned to Trivandrum on the Maharajah’s command for a musical duel at the Rangavilas palace hall. Ayilyam Tirunal was desperate to present Raghava Aiyer before Maha Vaidyanatha Aiyer, the unmatched musical virtuoso, who was invited to the capital for the Navarathri festival. The legendary duel went on for two days, by the end of which the Maharajah presented expensive shawls, pair of gold bangles and Rs.1500 to both the contestants.

Happily for Raghava Aiyer, his successful performance as a formidable Travancorean who could meet Vaidyanatha Aiyer on his own ground was enough to reinstate him back on the lofty pedestal as a royal favourite.

Sharat Sunder R, 05-09-2020.                  Based on 'My Musical Reminiscences' by T. Lakshmana Pillai B.A.

Sunday, 23 August 2020




H.H. Chatayam Tirunal Rama Varma, the Elayarajah (c.1900). Detail from a photograph by Ramen Pillai, Trivandrum.

Chatayam Tirunal Rama Varma - the Elaya Rajah of Travancore - whose life was drawn to an abrupt end on 6 June 1901, at the age of 33, was an acclaimed amateur artist and photographer. As a member of the Amateur Photographic Society of Madras, the prince never missed a chance to present his works at exhibitions conducted by the Society. In Travancore, the prince brushed shoulder with professionals like Zachariah D’Cruz (the Government Photographer) and Ramen Pillai. In 1887, the young prince set out on a journey to see important cities like Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. These explorations gave him an inclusive picture of the vast and diverse history and culture of India, and most likely these journeys transformed the prince into a travel-photographer.

In Travancore, the prince made regular expeditions to explore places of scenic beauty and tried his hand at portraiture and allegorical themes. Among the photographs exhibited in Madras were those of architectural landmarks like Vandur Teppakulam (Madurai), Tevalli Palace (Kollam) and studies such as ‘An Indian Prince’ and ‘a portrait of Mr. Charles Michie Smith’ (the eminent Scottish astronomer), presented to the Madras Society in 1895. The prince, it seems, was in love with the southern districts, for he produced several photographs documenting the scenery, landmarks and life of people, e.g. ‘Kuzhithuray Bridge’ (Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu) and ‘A view of South Travancore’ (both dated c.1897).

The ancient Jain temple at Chitaral, Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu, c.1890s. Photograph by Chatayam Tirunal Rama Varma. From the private collection of the author.

The following excerpt from a letter (dated 9th May 1898) written by the Prince sheds light on an interesting photographic expedition he made to the southern districts. 

Many years ago on one of my photographic outings in the southern districts of our picturesque country I was attracted by this interesting rock-temple (the famous Jain temple at Chitaral, Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu). Going thither one fine morning camera in hand I exposed a plate almost against the sun as the temple faces the west. The result was nothing extraordinary. Still I have the satisfaction of added to my collection of photographs one of a building of such classical interest.” 

Sadly, for someone credited to have followed photography with such passion, this bromide print of the temple at Chitaral is the only work that can be attributed to the prince without a doubt.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev, 23 August, 2020.



H.H. Aswathi Tirunal Marthanda Varma B.A., c.1899, (detail). From a private collection. 

swathi Tirunal Marthanda Varma B.A., a.k.a., ‘B.A. Prince’ (b.1871-d.1900) — nephew of Maharajah Moolam Tirunal of Travancore — is celebrated as an early amateur photographer, whose photograph of Swami Vivekananda adorns the entrance to Swami’s room at Belur Math. Prof. K. Sundararaman (Tutor to Aswathi Tirunal) records in ‘The Life of Swami Vivekananda,’… “The Prince was struck like all others who came into contact with him, with the Swami’s striking figure and attractive features; and being an amateur photographer, asked the Swami for a sitting and took a fine photograph which he skilfully developed into an impressive picture.” This photograph was later shown in an exhibition conducted at Madras Museum.

 Aswathi Tirunal's photograph of Swami Vivekananda, 1892.

The print currently housed at Belur was sourced by Swami Brahmananda, a monastic disciple of Sri Ramakrishna when he visited Travancore in 1916. While stationed in Trivandrum, Brahmananda came to know that a photograph of Swami Vivekananda was taken by the Prince of Travancore at the palace and expressed an interest to procure a print of the same. It is known that the negative of the picture was secured by P. Seshadri Aiyer from D’Cruz, the Government Photographer (Letter from Swamy Trilokyananda, R.K. Mission, Calicut, 1962). 

Sharat Sunder Rajeev, 19 August, 2020.

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.