Sunday, 30 November 2008



It is no wonder that Jawaharlal Nehru fell in love with the long slender and powerful snake-boats -‘Chundan Vallam’ of Alappuzha.

In the year 1952, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru visited the erstwhile Travancore-Cochin. The story goes that on Nehru’s way to Alappuzha from Kottayam the people of Alappuzha, escorted by the huge snake-boats, gave him a roaring reception. Having gone through the tremendous excitement of sailing in a snake-boat popularly known as Chundan, Jawaharlal Nehru donated a rolling trophy to be awarded to the winner.

The trophy is a replica of a snake boat in silver, placed on wooden abacus on which the following words of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru the first prime minister of India are inscribed above his signature."To the winner of the boat-race, which is a unique feature of community life in Travancore-Cochin". This was later named, 'Nehru Trophy'. Nehru’s visit and love for the boats proved to be a blessing for them, as later the boat race became Alappuzha’s major event.

Aaranmula boat race - Image from Wikipedia.
The above things are well known to us, but have anyone done a study on the evolution of the design of the slender boats, which can travel at a tremendous speed? However, it is interesting to know that a master craftsman Kodipunna Venkida Narayanan Achari did the very first design of the ‘Chundan Vallam’ in 1614. His name is still remembered by the people of Alappuzha. I came to know about the Venkida family from my uncle Edavankadu Neelakandan Asari, whose late wife Bhanumati was the daughter of Venkida Neelakandan Achari.

The Achari’s of the family were the vassals of the Raja of Chempakasherri, the only Brahmin king of Kerala. They were specialized in the construction of boats. In those days, boats were the major means of transportation. They were also used in battles on the backwaters of Kuttanad. The story says that the Raja of Chempakasherri once lost a battle with his enemy, the Raja of Kayamkulam. It soon dawned on the Chempakasherri Raja that the real defect was with his war boats, which were slow and cumbersome.

Venkida Narayanan Achari in Chempakasherri Raja's court - sketch by the author.
He summoned all the boat architects in the land to his court and told them of his desire to have better and faster boats for the troops. After days of hard labour, a man who was reputed to be the best boat architect in Chempakasherri, Kodipunna Venkida Narayanan Achari, came up with a specimen, which satisfied the Raja’s requirements (1614). He made a miniature model of a boat, using coconut husk and coir ropes, and explained to the Raja, its advantages. In his new design, both the stern and the nose were proportionally higher than the middle part of the boat. So those who stand at the stern could see long distances from its elevated position, which helps them to change the course of the boat or boost extra leverage with a few strokes of the sculls, which is equivalent to ten oars.

Four people could be placed in the stern position for inflicting massive power surge of 40 oars at a time. There was a provision to seat eight scullers at the nose to manoeuvre the boat easily as this part is above the water. 64 oarsmen could be seated in the middle of the boat, as they were capable of delivering a massive power surge for this lean boat that is 26.25 meters long and 80 cm wide at the centre part. Arms could be stored underneath the ‘Vedippadi’ were the elite warriors used to stand guard, waiting for their ambush. Should there arise a need for an extra boost for the oarsmen, or a sudden change in the course of the boat, the scullers at the stern strike a few massive strokes with their mighty sculls and the boat dashes like a bolt of lightning through the water with immaculate speed.

The king was flabbergasted with this design and ordered to make it immediately- which eventually led to his victory over the ruler of Kayamkulam. This was the first ‘Chundan’ boat build and over the years, there have been modifications to improvise the exclusivity. As the rule of the monarchy ended, the elite warships become recreational objects. Thus, the craftsmen of Venkida family became the official Achari of the Raja’s boats.

One story says that the defeated Raja of Kayamkulam heard of the moothassari who made these boats and ordered his servants to make arrangements to take the Achari to Kayamkulam. The Achari was taken to Kayamkulam and was forced to make boats for the Kayamkulam Raja.

The Raja of Chempakasherri came to know that his Achari had made boats for his enemy too. The Raja ordered his servants to kill the Achari, who was now a traitor in the Raja’s eyes. However, insisted that he has done no harm to his Raja. He told that while the boats he made for Chempakasherri went forward when rowed, the boats he made for the Kayamkulam Raja would go backwards and thus they will not be able to catch up with the Chempakasherri Raja’s boats. Actually, the Achari had played a trick on Kayamkulam Raja who had underestimated his dedication to the Raja and to his country. Chempakasherri Raja was happy with the Achari’s cleverness and dedication and gave him many presents.

I got another version of the story from the internet:

“…The story goes on to tell how the defeated Kayamkulam Raja sent a spy to Chempakasherri to learn the secret of the new war boat. The spy, a handsome youth, succeeded in seducing Achari’s daughter. The girl’s mother was overjoyed by the prospect of getting him as her daughter’s bridegroom and persuaded her husband to teach him the construction of the boat. Needless to say, the deceitful youth disappeared the moment he thought that he had learnt the secret. Chempakasherri Raja imprisoned Achari for treason. However, he was released and showered with many honours when the snake boats built by the Kayamkulam Raja proved to be no match for the war boats of Chempakasherri in the next battle. The subtleties of the snake boat’s design are hard to pick up and even today it requires years of apprenticeship under a master boat architect before one could independently undertake the construction of this ancient boat.”

Venkida house in Kodipunna is still a prominent family of the area. They have a family temple; Veerabadran and Badrakali are worshipped as their family deities.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev

Monday, 17 November 2008



Chalai - in the early morning - Photograph taken by the author.

You would have walked past the busy streets of Chalai a hundred times; a road leading from the East Fort gate to Killipalam, with shops on both sides of the road forms the major part of the bazaar. On the street side, you can see street vendors selling all types of household articles, vegetables and fruits. Narrow side lanes with old buildings on both sides give the bazaar a heritage look. Chalai bazaar situated in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram is a bustling trade centre since its origin. “Raja” Kesava Das, the Dewan of Travancore during the closing years of the 18th century established the crowded old “Bazaar”, the Chalai Street with its various bye-lanes and market areas.

Dharma Raja and his trusted Diwan Raja Keshava Das
During the reign of Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma (1758-1798 AD), Padmanabhapuram was the capital of Travancore, but the king preferred to live in the palace complex built near the renovated Padmanabha Swamy temple and thus gradually the capital shifted from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram. In order to make Travancore a ‘dharmarajyam'-model capital, the then Dewan Raja Kesava Das started many projects. He developed the blueprint for the chalai bazaar for the supply of utilities for the residents of Travancore.

The main road leading from the Eastern Fort gate to Karamana was repaired and widened and bazaars and shops were built on both sides of the road. He had bridges built over the rivers Killi and Karamana; the latter being opened only in AD 1853. It was through these rivers the goods were brought to the chalai bazaar. Ward & Connor (1820) recorded that the bridge over the Karamana river was of stone,” 120 feet long”, and that across the Killi, of wood. The records show that even a century back, the streets were considered overcrowded, requiring restrictions on traffic. It is also recorded that avenue trees were planted on both sides of roads – now alas! Treeless.

Karamana bridge opening in Illustrated London News, Aug 5, 1854.

Cultural impact.

Muslim and Tamil Brahmin traders were encouraged to establish commercial establishments for the wholesale dealership of goods coming from Tamil districts. Other establishments encouraged in the locality were for gold jewellery. A good number of weavers, dyers, painters etc were brought from Tirunelveli and Madura and were made to settle at Kottar, which was thus made the centre of cloth trade. Many opulent merchants very soon sprang up and even now the ‘Kottar Chetties’ are proverbial for their wealth and industry.

Main settlers of chalai include Tamilians-Pilla Chettier communities, stonemasons and goldsmiths from Vishakapattanam, Muslim traders and Nadar traders. All these communities had their own temples and other worship places. Thus, these settlers influenced the traditional culture in Travancore. Even there were linguistic influences and impacts. Thus, due to the establishment of the bazaar a varied and diverse culture slowly took roots in Travancore.

Chalai bazar, photograph taken on 1880s by Govt. Photographer D'Cruz - From the collections of Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma.


In 1908, there was a civic commotion in the area when the police beat up a cart-man bringing goods into the bazaar. Many shops were set on fire. This actually changed the architectural character of the bazaar. It is assumed that the constructions other than wood came up during this phase. In 1916, one Vembu Iyer beat up a Muslim, leading to a commotion. The then king sided with the Brahmins and the Muslims non-co-operated. The bazaar was the scene of communal tension again in 1986.

I have heard an interesting story about Sir C.P’s proposal to widen the streets of the chalai bazaar from grandfather, not so sure, whether the story is authentic or not. It is said that when Travancore treasury faced a breakdown maharaja Chithira Tirunal sought the help of his Dewan Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer. The clever dewan had an idea, he told the merchants of Chalai that the government is going to widen the streets of Chalai bazaar and that they should co-operate with the government. It is said that the next day the wealthy merchants went to ‘Bhakti Vilas’- Dewan’s residence with money, to bribe him to change his decision. As per the plan, the clever dewan accepted money and assured that their shops will be safe. The money he got from the merchants was enough to fill the royal coffers, and perhaps the Dewan’s purse too.

Note: I would like to thank Linta Joy, my classmate who helped with certain details for this article.

Saturday, 1 November 2008



Hanuman Pandaram - Sketch by the author.
“If you don’t get inside the house, the Pandaram will catch you”- you must have heard this warning a hundred times. I too have heard this as a small boy, and once thought that I was fortunate to be born in a generation when this Pandaram no more exist.

‘Pandaram’- commonly known as ‘Hanuman Pandaram’ used to visit the houses of Trivandrum until late 1950’s.

My relative T.K. Hari still remembers a lean middle-aged man wearing a black coat, with two large cloth bags on his both shoulders walking through the streets of Pettah. He used to wear a large copper plate around his neck, which he used to make sound by striking with a stick. The very sound of the copper plate was enough to scare the wits out of small children; they will be hiding behind their mother’s back at that time.

Pandaram wears a wooden mask- painted red or green, with large protruding eyes and sharp tooth. The lower jaw of the mask was movable, sufficient to scare children. Sometimes he will be invited to the houses to scare naughty children. He scares them and warns them that if they do not do their duties properly, he will take them with him in his large bags. After all this drama, with the poor child crying in their mother’s arms, the Pandaram receives some money from the father of the child.

Photograph: from the private collection of K. Hari. Photographer P. Nadaeshan Achari of Pinarammoodu Veedu, Pettah, took this photograph of Hanuman Pandaram in 1950’s.

Sunday, 26 October 2008



I have mentioned about one of my ancestor- N. Padmanabhan Achari in one of my previous blogs. Padmanabhan Achari’s father and grandfather were also gifted craftsmen who played an important role in promoting ivory carving in Travancore.

Kochu Kunju Achari a.k.a. Ananthapadmanabhan Achari

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 the 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 about his personal life except that he married from Vakkom and had two sons - Neelakandan Achari and Keshavan Achari, and several daughters.

Kochu Kunju Achari and his son Neelakandan Achari - Pictures from the private collection of K. Hari.
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.

Swathi Thirunal and his brother Uthram Thirunal.
Sree Chithira Thirunal Bala Rama Varma seated in the golden chariot.
During the reign of Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma (1847-1860), Kochu Kunju Achari and his son Neelakandan Achari made an ivory throne for the London Exhibition of 1851, which was held at the great crystal palace.

The great crystal palace.
In AD 1849, the Madras government informed the Maharajah, HH Uthram Thirunal Marthanda Varma, of the conducting of a great exhibition in London and requested His Highness’s government to make suitable contributions. The Maharajah, ordered a committee to be formed for this for which Maj.Gen Cullen, the Resident, Dr.Paterson, the Durbar Physician, Mr.Kohlhoff, a judge of appeal court, and Ramen Menon, the Dewan Peishcar, were the members. P.Shangoonny Menon was the secretary to the committee. An ivory state chair in the shape of a throne, reflecting the craftsmanship of the Travancore artisans, was already under construction for the Maharajah’s use and at this juncture, it was thought a fit present to be sent for the Great Exhibition. The Maharajah also desired that once the exhibition was over, the throne be accepted by Queen Victoria as a token of HH’s regards and esteem. This was fully appreciated by the Resident, Major General Cullen and the Madras Government. Accordingly, the beautiful throne along with many carvings reflecting the Travancore workmanship was sent to England.

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 footstool 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 in 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 Achari

Neelakandan Achari 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.

Neelakandan Achari was employed in Travancore School of Arts. Details about his wife are not known, the couple had five children. His eldest son Thanuvan Achari established Thazhasherri Veedu in Petta and his three younger sons Keshavan Achari, Padmanabhan Achari and Ramakrishnan Achari lived in Pinarammoodu Veedu. Neelakandan Achari had a daughter named Lakshmi Ammal who was good in carving; she was married to a member of Vayalil Veedu family. Neelakandan Achari died in 1907.

Newspaper report of Neelakandan Achari’s death - MALAYALA MANORAMA,1907 March 21.

Saturday, 25 October 2008



On my previous blog about Vaidyan C. Luke, I mentioned the prized possessions of the family. Mr. Kurian, who is my father’s friend was happy to show me those precious family heirlooms. I managed to take photographs of a few items.

An antique portrait of Visakam Tirunal Rama Varma, drawn by an unknown artist greets us when we enter the house. Many years back, the portrait (its lower part) suffered badly from silverfish attack. The damaged portion was removed and the painting was re-framed by Kurian’s father, Alexander Koshy Vaidyan.

Beside the portrait is a large framed photograph of C.Luke (which you can see in the previous blog), this picture is actually enlarged from an old family photo (seen below) dated 1880s.

(Above) Photograph of Luke's wife Mary (c.1930). Mary who hailed from a wealthy family owned many shops in Chalai Bazar, Thiruvananthapuram.

(Above) L.C. Koshy with his wife Elizabeth on their wedding day and L.C. Koshy in his later years.

(Above) Luke's medicine box, with small racks for carrying bottles safely and the 'chaana kallu' used for making medicines.

(Above) This circular stone block is an old clock! The markings on the surface of the stone are still visible. Now this stone is used as a step. The next piece is the map of Travancore, carved in wood.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008



Fix anything except broken hearts’- a good caption for an adhesive; broken hearts we can understand, but what about ‘broken nose’? Yes, I am telling about the most famous nose in the history of Travancore, though it doesn’t belong to Travancore by birth; that large dominant nose played an important role in rewriting the history of Travancore – Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer’s nose.

Everyone knows about the turbulent situation our small state faced just before getting independence. On one side we had the eminent Dewan with his American Model government and on the other, the freedom fighters. I am not getting into the history of C.P’s nose damaged by K.C.S. Mani (according to Dr. R. Keshavan who treated C.P, the Dewan’s nose was not injured as everybody believed, he had injuries only on his cheek, neck and fingers), but the nose of a bust of Sir C.P had a similar fate.

K.C.S. Mani's attack on Sir. C.P. - Sketch by the author (2003).
Sir C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer in his later years.
At Thampanoor, there still stands a two-storied building with the name ‘Sachivottama Sir C.P. Shashtiabdapoorthy Memorial Satram’ (opposite to the present transport bus station), built in 1940’s, the time when Sir C.P. was the Dewan of Travancore. Today the building is neglected; we hardly notice the structure hiding its facade behind hoardings and movie posters. But it did have a glorious past. In front of the lodge, there was a small mandapam which housed a bust of the Dewan. In those days, our little capital city was one of the most progressive princely states in India. The roads were neat and less crowded and public buildings were well maintained. So the Memorial was well kept.

The bust was damaged by a group of people who gathered for a party meeting near Thampanoor. The attack was done at night and it is said that the nose of the statue was broken off. The news spread like fire and in no time reached the ears of the Dewan too. Word was sent to find out a master craftsman who could repair the statue. They didn’t have to search for long, their man was just under their ‘nose’; the master craftsman who was employed in Travancore School of Arts as an ivory carver – N. Padmanabhan Achari (1881-1960)of the famous Pinarammoodu family, Pettah. Both his father and grandfather were master craftsmen who have rendered valuable services for the growth of ivory carving in Travancore. Padmanabhan Achari’s grandfather Kochu Kunju Achari was the ‘moothachari’ (head craftsman) who made the golden chariot for Swathi Tirunal in 1842. Later, he and his son Neelakandan Achari made the ivory throne for the Great London Exhibition of 1851. Kochu Kunju Achari was given the title ‘Ananthapadmanabhan Achari’ by Uthram Tirunal Marthanda Varma. Padmanabhan Achari himself was a master ivory carver specialized in making sculptures.

N. Padmanabhan Achari - From the private collection of Sathya Moorthy.
Padmanabhan Achari who was in his 60s at that time was leading a peaceful retired life in his house at Pettah. As I have said before, the period was a turbulent one with the national freedom movement gaining momentum. Clashes between freedom fighters and Travancore police commanded by the Dewan were common in all parts; Pettah was one among the most affected areas. Some of the infamous decisions of the Dewan such as the declaration for an ‘Independent Travancore’ and the installation of the ‘American Model’ government for Travancore led to widespread discontent among the people. In Pettah police charged at a gathering conducted by Congress party. Three people were killed in the firing.

When police came in search of Padmanabhan Achari, the family members panicked. They thought that the police came to question about the gruesome incidents that took place at Pettah. The present living family members still remember the horror that engulfed the house then. But in actuality, the police came to talk about repairing the bust as soon as possible. Padmanabhan had only one demand; as it was not possible to take the bust to his house, he wanted them to cover up the area around it; so that nobody can see him working. Soon, a temporary enclosure was made of thatched coconut leaves around the bust, with complete police protection. Padmanabhan Achari completed the work in a few days. He moulded the missing parts using Plaster of Paris.

Years passed by and now the building stands as the ghost of that glorious era, a silent witness to the happenings of that time. The mandapam was demolished and we don’t have any idea about the current whereabouts of the bust and nobody knows about the craftsman who repaired it.

Well, I think Padmanabhan Achari wanted it like that. Owing to the violent scenario which persisted at that time, particularly in Pettah, it was better to remain anonymous.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev.

Monday, 20 October 2008



Nowadays no one notices the small street named Luke’s lane near G.P.O, even those who know the lane doesn’t bother to know how it got the name. At the end of the street, there is an iron gate and a small board with the name ‘Kukies Holiday Inn’. Once you enter, you are inside another world, with an ambience you will never hope to find in the very heart of the bustling city. Here, time seems to have come to a halt. On the right is an old house with tiled roof, later additions have diminished its beauty and in course of time, it has lost most of its former grandeur. Once it was a fairly large ‘nalukettu’ with all traditional elements like the courtyard and ‘pattayam’. On the right side of the house is a very old sapota tree (Achras sapota) said to be around 200 years old.

This was the house of the great Vaidyan, C.Luke (b.1843-d.1894), the eye-specialist who surpassed even European doctors with his knowledge of traditional medicines, handed down from his forefathers. Luke’s ancestors were the members of Thayyil family of Thevalakkara. His ancestors were Brahmins who later embraced Christianity (Krishnan Nampoothiri and his wife Lakshmi Antharjanam (from Kothamangalam) of Thazhamangalathu Madam got attracted to the teachings of Christ and accepted Christianity. Thomman (Jr.), the only son of Krishnan (Thomman) and Lekshmi (Mariyam) learned Sanskrit and Medicine from Viratarajaguru and became a famous scholar and physician. During this period, Maharaja of Travancore invited Thomman (Jr.) to treat his mother’s eye ailment. Thomman succeeded in relieving the pain from the eye of the royal matriarch in the first attempt itself. Pleased by this, the King bestowed the title ‘Vaidyan’ to Thomman and his successors). Luke’s father was a well-known figure in Travancore. In a letter to C. Luke Vaidyan,
 Dewan Sir. T. Madhava Row says that he personally knew his father 'who was an able oculist.'

Luke and his brother came to the capital city from Kollam during the reign of Aayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma. As the practitioners of traditional medicine, they had to face many challenges as English medicine was gaining its hold in Travancore at that time. Most of the educated noble families opted for English medical treatment.

But the talented brothers with their sheer dedication managed to get the patronage of many noble families including the royal family. An important achievement in their career was their successful treatment of the Dewan’s son T. Ananda Row (b.1852-d.1919), in 1871 when the latter was preparing for B.A. examination (Ananda Rao went on to become the Dewan of the Princely State of Mysore). In a letter written by T. Madhava Row to Luke dated 28th May 1871 the Dewan expresses his gratitude to the brothers who treated his son’s eye disorder. “Two well known European members of the medical profession were successively consulted, but their treatment showed no permanent benefit…… You undertook the treatment accordingly. With apparently very simple appliances and mild treatment you were able in a very moderate time to accomplish what you had promised.” from these words of the Dewan we can get an idea of the simple treatment techniques employed by the brothers. The Dewan further expressed his gratitude by sending Luke a purse containing 150 British Rupees (a princely amount in those days), suggesting him to buy a watch or books with the money.

Luke was appointed as the palace Vaidyan by Maharaja Visakam Thirunal Rama Varma and he was bestowed with a Veerasringala. Luke was employed in Maharaja’s College (University College) as a teacher of scriptures. He played an important role in establishing the Syrian Church in Statue. Luke married Mary, the couple had three children, his eldest son L.C. Koshy was also a prominent figure, he was the curator of the Museum and was also employed in Huzur Kacherri and was the supervisor in charge of the street lighting.

The Maharajas College and the St. George’s Orthodox Syrian Cathedral, Statue.
C.Luke's tombstone at the Christ Church, Palayam, photographed c.2017 (From the family collection).

C. Luke who served three kings starting from Aayilyam Thirunal to Sree Moolam Thirunal died in 1894; he was buried in CSI Christ Church at Palayam. The old tombstone with the inscription ‘Government Oculist’ is still there in the church graveyard.

Luke’s grandson Alexander Koshy, even though not a famous Vaidyan, kept alive his family traditions, treasured the knowledge handed down to him by his ancestors. Some old palm leaf documents on traditional medicine, antique furniture, photographs, portraits and the grinding stones in various sizes are preserved by the family members. Sir.T. Madhava Row’s letter (in the Dewan's own hand) to Luke is one of the prized possessions of the family archives. Kurian, the great-grandson of C. Luke who lives in a building adjacent to the ancestral house is proud to be a member of this illustrious family.

Before you step out of the gate and merge into the busy streets of the city, take a deep breath and look back, can you still see a man with his large headgear and black coat with the medicine box and people waiting to see him?

Sharat Sunder Rajeev.

Monday, 13 October 2008



Rani Gouri Parvathy Bai who ruled Travancore from 1814 to 1829 gave permission to a Christian Missionary to start a school in Nagercoil. Later, Swathi Thirunal, the Rani's nephew who ruled from 1829 to 1847 patronized English education in Travancore. It was during the time of Uthram Thirunal 1847-1860 that English education became common and more importance was given to girl’s education in Travancore.

Rani Gouri Parvathy Bai
During the reign of Aayilyam Thirunal (r.1860-1880) the University College was set up. A school for girls was started in Palayam in front of the University College. Initially, it was a school for Christian girls; in 1864 it was opened for girls belonging to all religions. In 1890 the school was accredited by the Madras University and it became a second-grade college. In 1895 during the reign of Sree Moolam Thirunal, the name of the college was changed to Maharaja’s College for Women. In 1897 the college which started with just three Christian students had 400 students in 1909 when a high school secondary training school was also added. In 1920 it became a first-grade college, and a hostel was also established in 1921. During early 1920’s the college was shifted to Thycaud.

The building in which the college now works was actually the residence of the Civil Surgeon of Travancore, built probably during the reign of Aayilyam Thirunal. The surgeon's bungalow was built on top of a small hill known as Thycaud kunnu. According to Prof. Hridayakumari, the renowned writer and the former Principal of the college, the property in which the old building now stands once belonged to the family of Thycattil Kurups, who were the landlords of the area. This land was later taken over by the government of Travancore. In the 1920s, before the college started functioning in the present structure, Dr. Thaliyath, the government surgeon lived there.

In 1923 the Assembly Hall, the Music Department and the Mathematics Department were constructed by P.W.D, it was under the supervision of H.H. Sethu Lekshmi Bai and her Diwan D.H. Watts. Later, Watt’s sister became the Principal of the college. The semi-circular Mathematics Department had a facade which was influenced by the old Egyptian architectural style. The mastermind behind this was engineer Mallapalli Modayil Mani, the famed govt. engineer of Travancore. Mr. Watts, it is said, was particularly interested in having a separate Music Department and had it designed like a temple.

The masterminds - H.H. Sethu Lekshmi Bayi, Dewan Watts and Chief Engineer M.Mani.
Old pictures of the semicircular Mathematics Department.

A harmonious blend of European architectural features and the traditional can be spotted in the old structure. The structure responds to the local climatic needs, as generally found in the bungalow architecture. The comfort requirement in the hot humid climate prompted the European settlers to go in for buildings with large rooms, high ceiling and verandah all around. For upper floor rooms, balconies were adopted as a necessary feature, originating from the Portuguese construction. The portico, the shaded spot for passage from one building to another was added.

Corridor, Women's College, Thiruvananthapuram- Photo courtesy: Author.
The solid wooden shutter of doors and windows underwent change to ribbed elements –venetian blinds- permitting air circulation and privacy.


1817 – Rani Gouri Parvathi Bai stated that education is necessary to ensure progress of the state as a whole.
1818 – The first English school in the state was established at Nagercoil.
1834 - Maharajah Uthradam Tirunal Marthanda Varma visited a school in Nagercoil and invited the headmaster, Mr. Roberts to start a similar school in Travancore.
1859 – A girl’s school started at Palayam.
1864 – Started as “Sircar Girls’ School”
1895 – Shifted to the building opposite to The University College and upgraded to second Grade College.
1897 – Named as “Maharaja’s Girls’ college”
1909 – Permission for starting Degree courses
1920 – Upgraded to first-degree college and affiliated to Madras University.
1923 – Shifted to the present building.
1927 – Central building which houses mathematics, psychology and philosophy was constructed.
1937 – University of Travancore was founded and Women’s college was one of the first seven colleges to be affiliated to it.
1957 – University of Kerala was founded and college was affiliated to it.


1. First principal was Miss. Sarah Blunt Williams. (1895-1910)
2. Miss D.H.Watts B.A. (1910-1928)
3. Miss Louise Ouwerkerk (Established Economics Dept.)
4. First Indian principal: Miss Anna Nidhin.

Note: I thank Meenu, my classmate from B.Arch who helped in collecting and compiling the history of the College as part of our documentation project.

For more information about the Thycattil Kurups: