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.