Friday, 4 December 2009



An old doorway inside the agraharam complex, East Fort - Photograph taken by the author.
20th September 2009,

Agraharams: The name literally means "a garland of houses". It originates from the fact that the agraharams have lines of houses on either side of the road and the temple to the village god at the centre, thus resembling a garland around the temple.

Smiling faces greeted us whenever we went to agraharams for conducting case studies. Old women wearing ‘chela’ and men who busy chatting with their friends occupied the ‘thinna’. Within the crumbling agraharams we could get a glimpse of large families, trying to fit themselves into long corridor-like spaces; a lifestyle and culture evolved through the ages. Life in agraharams starts early morning, when rest of the city sleeps peacefully, the women of agraharams rises and after bathing draw ‘arippodikolam’ in front of their houses.‘Arippodikolam’- a painted prayer. It is believed that drawing a kolam in front of the house brings prosperity, moreover, it is food for the insects and birds.

Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma was the first ruler who identified the real potential of the temple town, Thiruvananthapuram. Though the capital was still Padmanabhapuram, he started the overall development of Thiruvananthapuram which finally transformed it into a celebrated capital city. After renovating of the temple, he invited Tamil and Tulu Brahmins to the capital city and made agraharams for them, the small market which functioned in the eastern side of the temple gradually flourished as more and more people started to migrate to this region. Another interesting story on the migration of Brahmins to this area was narrated by Mani Iyer of Sreenikethan (West Nada); according to his story, Ramayyan Dalawa was the brain behind Marthanda Varma’s successes. It is said that the king once offered half of his kingdom to this trusted minister, giving him regal authority. However, Ramayyan respectfully refused this offer saying that he was a Brahmin and it is the duty of Kshtriyas to rule. Instead, he asked the king to give shelter to poor Brahmins. The king accepted his minister’s advice and invited Brahmins to Thiruvananthapuram. The temple Ottupura provided them with meals, two times a day, and most of them were employed in the temple.
Ramayyan Dalawa - Picture courtesy - R. Narayana Panikker, The History of Travancore.
Mr. Krishna lyer, a ninety-year-old gentleman whom we met in Tippu Street turned out to be a treasure trove of information, for he had in store much valuable information that helped us to understand the life and culture of agraharams, in a better manner. He gave us a clear idea about the history and social conditions that existed inside the fort area, which was off limits to the lower castes till recent age. Krishna lyer was an exceptional man, with a sharp memory spanning over eight decades, he was the ‘one’ whom we were looking for. He accompanied us to ‘Azhikotta’ and on the way explained to us the history of agraharams, its evolution through the ages, current issues, and about the old settlements around the Fort area.

Krishna Iyer - Still young at 90 - screenshot from a documentary on agraharams (Agraharangal Kathaparayumbol, 2011).
According to him, the old ‘pramanam’ or documents stated that land was given for ‘Paradesi Brahmins’ and ‘Malayala Brahmins’ by the king. These Brahmins built agraharams and settled there, forming one of the oldest social caste settlements in the capital city.
Tamilsmarthabrahmin and his wife - From Yale University Collection.
Their houses were special too, all houses shared a common wall and were made of ‘Cheekkal katta’, a strong locally available building material, these blocks were cemented with lime plaster and the plinth in which the house stood was made of large granite blocks, laid in a special manner, which according to him is very efficient that the century-old houses had not been affected by the earthquakes. In olden days the roofs were thatched and the supporting pillars and mezzanine floors were made of timber. Later thatch roofs were replaced by Mangalore tiles when they were made available in Travancore. This group housing influenced their lifestyle also, privacy was not their concern. Usually, large joint families were cramped inside the long corridor-like spaces, but their lifestyle evolved around the temple and their houses that even now the younger generation can easily adapt to the old environs. However, they have made revamped the old spatial planning to facilitate comfortable living. The open ‘thinna’ were old Brahmins assembled for the ‘vedivattam’ and occasional card playing was closed with iron bars. The open courts inside the houses were also levelled, making room for a bed or a study table for the younger generation.

Agraharam - a study on spatial planning - Urban Design project done by the author at C.E.T.
According to Krishna lyer, water supply, electric connection and drainage was introduced in the Fort area and its surroundings during 1103-04 M.E., during the reign of the Regent Maharani Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, before that, assigned people came every day at 6 O'clock in the morning to collect night soil from the houses. They had special paths known as scavengers lane situated behind every stretch of streets. The waste was collected outside the Fort (southwest corner) and later taken to Pulluvila to be disposed of.

An old agraharam with open thinna - Photograph taken by the author.
Krishna lyer says that in those days the senior members of the family slept in the open thinnas. Mosquito problem was unheard of during those times, as the drains running through the front were cleaned daily. The roads were also cleaned and sprinkled with water. Before corporation water supply was made available, there were common wells, two wells at the ends of each street that provided them with water, every morning the women folk crowded around the well for collecting water for their daily use. However, with the coming of corporation water connection, the wells were neglected and they turned into breeding grounds of mosquitoes and were later sealed off.

In olden days majority of the Brahmins were employed in the temple offices and in the temple kitchen,Mukkanaiya a sub-caste of Iyers were money lenders and were appointed as accountants. Later they got employment in government offices, the ‘Huzur kacherry’ and the court that functioned in an old building that has been now occupied by Sree Moola Vilasam (S.M.V) School. With new positions, their life standard increased and now most of them have high educational qualifications and are employed as high government officials.

Brahmins being a priestly class were less familiar with farming techniques, the lack of open space and the tradition-bound lifestyle that revolved around the temple made then depend upon vegetable sellers and other street vendors who came daily to sell their wares. However, a few coconut trees can be spotted in the backyard spaces. People belonging to different castes ranging from bangle makers, the ‘Vala Chettis’, to basket makers came there to sell off their products. However, no one from outside was admitted inside the Fort after 10 pm. There were guards at each opening checking on those who enter and leave the place. The Attakulangara post office building was the soldier’s outpost, there was a well near it, where now there’s a Milma outlet.

Azhikotta and the old post office building that once served as soldiers outpost - Photograph taken by the author.
Krishna lyer still has a vivid memory of his childhood days when he used to walk to Sangumugham beach, that was three miles away, for a bath in the sea. The street lamp lighters arrived everyday evening at six with their kerosene cans and ladders. All street lamps would go out at about nine at night, but still, the road would be lighted up by the stone lamps; stone lamps were there attached to the walls of every agraharams. Theses stone lamps hold oil for a longer time, illuminating the street, thus one of the streets came to be known as ‘deepatheruvu’, meaning 'the street of lamps', but now its name has changed to Tippu Street. Every street had a story to tell, ‘Thamman Street’ was the place where a saint by the name ‘Subramanya Dharman’ lived, the word ‘Dharman’ when used by the locals changed to ‘Thamman’, likewise ‘Dikshitar street’ is named after a Dikshitar who was a Vedic scholar associated with the palace. Thekkae theruvu, the main road that runs straight from Vettimuricha kotta to Kallampally junction was renamed as ‘Chidambara Krishna Iyer Street’, in memory of Chidambara Krishna lyer who was the Mayor of the town. ‘Kottalam’ road was where the ‘kottanmar’ or construction workers lived, there were about ten families there.

However, the peaceful life in agraharams was disturbed in 1939, with the onset of ‘Hitler’s war’, the World War II, many young men from the area migrated to North India for better jobs. Krishna lyer was one among them. He went to Karachi and many other places in search of jobs. This period marked the beginning of a new phase also, more and more youngsters began to explore the world outside and with India gaining Independence and following the end of the monarchy, the privileges enjoyed by these families were cut short.

Over the years agraharams have changed, adapting to the needs of the younger generation, they sometimes lost its character. New additions and fa├žade treatments often make them seem out of place, however, they stand as the ghosts of the past, reminding us of the glorious heritage of Thiruvananthapuram, the temple town.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev


Saturday, 3 October 2009



Majority of the Vishwakarma population in Thiruvananthapuram claim to be the descendants of various guilds of the craftsmen who have come and established themselves in the capital city at various phases in the history of Travancore. In the first quarter of the eighteenth century, thousands of Tamil Vishwakarmas were brought to the capital city for the renovation work of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple; this migration had a great cultural impact on Travancore.

As Vishwakarmas were considered as ‘avarnas’ they were given land outside the Fort, which was the city centre that comprised of the temple complex, the ‘agraharams’ of the Brahmins and the royal palaces and the houses of landlords and nobles. Even now, we can see large Vishwakarma settlements in places like Karamana (near Killi River); there is evidence for Vishwakarma settlements in Statue, the present core of our city. A vast area of land behind General Post Office was known as ‘Asari Parambu’, which may have been occupied by the stonemasons who came and settled there for the renovation of Sree Padmanabhaswamy temple. ‘Kattachal konam’ (the present Kesavadasapuram) is said to be derived from the words ‘kal thacha konam’, meaning the adobe of stone masons. These craftsmen brought with them their family deities and made temples for them outside the fort, Gandhari Amman temple in Statue, Muttaramman temple near Punnan road were the temples of Tamil Vishwakarma families. Thus, Vishwakarmas played an important role in the history of Travancore from the eighteenth century (I have already mentioned about the 'Thacha Kudi' in Thottom in the previous article).

Pandi Kammalan (Tamil Vishwakarma craftsman); sketch by the author - from an old Company painting from Kuzhi Malika.

The settlements of native craftsmen were also found at various places, especially around palaces and other noble families. Goldsmith settlements were concentrated along the fringes of the capital in places such as Kaithamukku and on the banks of Kill River.

Malabar goldsmith and female, 1830's - Yale University Collection.
Timbre which was available in plenty was the major building material used in Travancore and the Asaris of the region excelled in carving out minute details in wood. However, one major drawback of timbre was that it was always under the threat of fire and termite attacks. The records in Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple say that the earlier structure that was made of wood had been almost destroyed many times due to fire outbreaks.

Granite was not easily available in Thiruvananthapuram and there were only a few temples made of granite that preceded Padmanabha Swamy temple. However, during the reign of Thrikketta Tirunal Vira Ravi Varma (Vira Ravi Ravi Varma), i.e., from 1595 AD to 1608 AD, many steps were taken for renovating Padmanabha Swamy temple. In the year 1606 AD/ 781 ME he took steps for the structural repairs of the temple. The major building material, timber was to be replaced by granite. This medium was adopted for fear of fire hazard. Renovation works were at once started and it should be assumed that skilled stonemasons were bought from different parts of Pandinadu. This proves that there were settlements of Tamil Vishwakarmas in the capital city from early seventeenth century.

The village craftsmen; life in a ‘kudi’

In the case of a village community, a craftsman, belonging to what so ever trade was considered as an integral part of the society. He is in demand for making ploughs for farmers, making houses for people and artefacts for rulers. However, the rules and regulations of the guilds were less followed in the village communities. A social harmony and equality prevailed among them. Same is the case of the Vishwakarma settlements of Kadakkavoor. Cherunellil, Putten Veedu and Putten Madhom were some of the mutually related families that may have initially worked together as a village guild. However, as time passed they evolved as individual families.

A typical village craftsman - Sketch by the author.
The guilds of village craftsmen consisted of related families and a senior male member was considered as the head or ‘moothassari’, all others worked under his supervision. This was their mode of working on large projects; however, smaller works were individually undertaken. The financial condition of these ‘village craftsmen’ was low and they usually maintained a low profile in the society. Harsh caste rules also were a major hindrance for them in getting a decent position in society.
Vishwakarma women - sketch by the author.

A study on a community of these craftsmen can provide us with much valuable information on their lifestyle, customs and beliefs. The working groups or ‘Kudi’ were the settlements of these craftsmen, the Kudi may be called ‘Asari (carpenter) Kudi’, ‘Thattan (goldsmith) Kudi’, ‘Kolla (blacksmith) Kudi’ etc depending on the caste sub-divisions or trade of the occupying communities. Unlike the other warrior classes of Kerala, the male members of these communities were always present in their houses or communities. The presence of this dominant male in the family who was the bread earner of the entire family may be the reason why these communities became patriarchal.

A typical well to do Vishwakarma family had a house with a ‘poomukham’ or verandah in front, a hall room which served as the dining and resting space. There may be numerous rooms on both sides of these main rooms. A small kitchen and a working space complete the house. The number of rooms increased with the growing number of the family. The building materials varied from timbre to mud blocks or bricks as per the availability. The houses were thatched, only some prominent families, who were associated with the royal family, were given the privilege to use roofing tiles during the king’s rule.

A ‘Kudi’ usually had a small place of worship, a ‘thekkath’ dedicated to the family deity. A normal family consisted generally of a husband, his wife and children, which may come around eight to ten in number. Polyandry was practiced in old days, the brothers of a family used to share a common wife and the widow of a brother or cousin was married by another brother or cousin, however, both these practices have almost died out these days. Usually, the houses had a small temporary shed ‘chaippu’, on its rear side; this was the place where the male members of the family worked. A master craftsman’s house usually had a large shed that housed his workshop and space where he taught the younger generation. The tools used by a family were passed on to the later generation as family heirlooms and they were never passed hands. Womenfolk of these communities had their role in assisting their husband or father or brother who was engaged in the works. They are always happy to sharpen their working tools, prepare food for the family etc, but other than these minor errands they had less to do in the family and society. In old days the women used to cook outside their kitchen, in a carpenter’s house there will be a lot of waste wood near the workplace and the women used these as the fuel, and a stove was set up near the working space.

These guilds were sometimes assigned larger tasks such as the construction of temples and palaces by the ruling class. The work will be supervised by the head craftsman, the ‘moothassari’. Sometimes more than one guild was involved in the construction works. If the working site was far from home, it was natural for the entire guild to relocate themselves to a place nearer to their working place, sometimes the whole family can be seen relocated and after the work they might not return to their native lands, there are many reasons for this.

In old days these craftsmen were presented with land on the completion of their works……. “The payment of craftsmen was either a payment in kind, or a grant of land, besides perquisites on special occasions. For their customary services, the craftsmen were repaid at harvest-time, receiving a fixed proportion of sheaves of grain from the crop collected on the threshing floor, or they might be given a share of the communal land” THE INDIAN CRAFTSMAN BY ANANDA.K.COOMARASWAMY, D.SC. So it is natural that they might settle down in the new places. Another reason is that young men of the guilds may commit to marriage alliances with the local guilds and they may settle down with the relatives and thus will gradually become a member of another guild. Thus this association of two guilds can sometimes result in the merging of two different cultures.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev
September 2009.

Monday, 14 September 2009



We, the final year architecture students of C.E.T have been visiting every nook and corner of the Fort and its surrounding regions for the last couple of weeks as a part of our urban design project- ‘Revival of the Temple Town’. With frequently emptying water bottles, we explore the city under the gaze of the scorching sun. However, for those interested in exploring the heart of the city, its culture, the Fort is like an open book with its gates wide open, inviting everyone inside, to be a part of the history or rather the mystery surrounding it. We walked past the busy streets lined by street hawkers, beggars and tourists who sometimes seem troubled by the curious eyes that follow them. Though new buildings have diminished her beauty and poisonous gases are gripping a tight hold on her neck, the capital city still continues to overwhelm us with the stories of valour, resistance, conspiracies, and perseverance.

Over the ages, many people belonging to different castes have migrated and settled down in Trivandrum. The most important and large-scale migrations happened during the period of Marthanda Varma when he invited Brahmins from all over south India to settle in the capital city. During the period of Dharmaraja also many Brahmin and other families from northern Kerala migrated to the safe hands of our capital city fearing Tippu’s attacks. Since my childhood days, I was interested in the history of Travancore and its migrant population. It may be due to the fact that I was born into a family that migrated to Travancore from Tirunelveli in 1730’s for the renovation works of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple.

The second phase of the study included the areas surrounding the fort, the different caste settlements around the fort, which helped in the growth of the town. Our group covered Manacaud, Thottam and Muttathara areas surrounding the fort. It was an interesting study as the area covered the most colourful and wide variety of caste settlements we can see in the whole of Trivandrum. In Manacaud we have the Muslim settlements, the Pathans who worked in Travancore mounted force and as the king’s chamber guards, along with them are the Rajpoot settlements. However, the most interesting part of the study came in Thottam area, a vast area with a boundary set by four stones, the ‘nalukallu’.

‘Thottam’ as the name suggests was the garden of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple, in old days the temple owned vast lands under its control as fields which provided rice for the temple, flowers and fruits were grown in ‘nandavanam’, a garden in the south-west part of the fort. Thottam near Manacaud was also a garden associated with the temple. Ezhavas and Vishwakarmas formed the majority of the population. These two communities were the major working class, Vishwakarmas of the region were engaged in construction works of the temple and the Ezhavas assisted them as manual labourers, a ‘churuna’ of Padmanabha Swamy temple records that in 1768 AD/ 943 ME, Ezhava labourers were employed for bringing to the temple, twenty-eight ‘Mandira Moorthy’ pillars, which were made in Thirumala.

What remains of Velutheri, the famous Ezhava tharavad in Thottam - Photograph taken by the author.

Perunelli and Vellutheri were the famous Ezhava families of the region; the members of the family were well-known Vaidyans and scholars. Swarupathu Veedu (Kaniyan Vilakam), a very old Nair tharavad is near Thottam. They were the ‘Mathilakam Pilla’ of the kings of Travancore and owned large areas of farming lands. It is said that the famous ‘Mukkolakkal Devi’ was the family deity of the Swarupathu family.

Swaroopathu Veedu - Photograph taken by the author.
Later, Muttathara became an abode of skilled craftsmen, patronized by the royal family of Travancore. Erumkulangara Devi temple at Thottam is an old temple, about 1000 years old, complete with a large pond and kavu surrounding it with a serene atmosphere in the heart of the city. The close association with Padmanabha Swamy temple had given this temple a significant position even from old days. Thottam was a waterlogged land; the major mode of transportation was by ‘vanchis’ (canoes). The senior generations still remember the priest’s from Padmanabha Swamy temple, the Tharananalloor Namboothiris coming to the temple for the pujas. The canoes came near the temple, the priests had a separate pond for their use in addition to the large temple pond, and thus the presence of two ponds may have been the reason for the name ‘Erumkulangara’ meaning ‘on the banks of two ponds’.

Erumkulangara Devi temple - Photograph taken by the author.
However, the very first settlement patterns of Thottam were different from what we see now, according to Venugopal and L. Madhavan, two old gentlemen whom we met at Erumkulangara Devi temple office (these gentlemen were happy to share with the younger generation their experiences and knowledge) the old name of Thottam was ‘Velan Kudi’, settlement of people belonging to Velan caste, associated with ‘Vela kali’ in Padmanabha Swamy temple. Another major settlement was ‘Thacha Kudi’, the abode of Vishwakarmas. These Vishwakarmas must have been the Tamil migrants who came to Travancore during the reign of Marthanda Varma for the works of the temple. The old Erumkulangara temple was made of granite; the sheer size of the blocks had always fascinated the locals. From where these large blocks came was a mystery. If my assumptions are right, the craftsmen employed in the renovation works of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple had carried out the construction works of this temple too. ‘Koshavanmar’, the potters also lived there in perfect harmony with Ezhavas.

Perumpadasherri Venugopal - Photograph taken by the author.

Venugopal told us an interesting story about the origin of Ezhava settlements of that area. Like many other stories we heard about the capital city, this also starts with Marthanda Varma, the father of Travancore. To be precise the story starts in 1743 when Kayamkulam war ended, the rajah was killed and it is said that the relatives of the rajah had to flee the kingdom in disguise of lower caste Ezhavas. It should be presumed that the local Ezhavas families of Kayamkulam must have helped them escape. Prominent Ezhava families such as Aalumoottil Channars were the trainers of the king’s army; it is possible that some of the late rajah’s immediate family members could have escaped the 'wiping out' by Travancore forces. Aalumoottil Channars being Ezhavas must have dressed the royals in their attire to help them escape unnoticed. The story goes on saying that the immediate family of the rajah with two young women came and settled in Thottam region with the local Ezhava population disguised as Ezhavas. However, the social system that prevailed in those days prevented them (who were now Ezhavas) from visiting the nearby Erumkulangara temple. The two young women of the family who were well aware of their Kshatriya ancestry were bold enough to visit the temple; they entered the temple dressed as local Ezhavas. Soon news reached the ears of the chief priest, a Nampoothiri of Koopakara Madhom who was furious and raised his hands to curse the women, it is said that at the same time all those who were present in the temple heard a voice from inside the shrine, the Devi herself saying that those women were her children and thereafter the temple and its properties should be given to them. And thus the power passed hands to the so-called ‘disguised Ezhavas’ or ‘Kshtriya Ezhavas’ as they called themselves. Later these women married men from Ezhava families and settled permanently in Thottam. The major governing bodies of the temple were ‘Moothillam’, Mayyanatillam’ and ‘Pallichal’ family; later they branched out and now there are twenty-five families under them. There are records of a Kayamkulam sword that was preserved in the temple until recently, this may also provide us with a clue to the temple's connection with the Kayamkulam royal family.

Thottam area in later days became famous for its guilds of craftsmen who produced quality carvings in sandalwood and ivory; it is interesting that the local Ezhavas of the area mastered the craft which was practiced by Vishwakarmas over the centuries. More on craftsmen of Thottam in next post……

Sharat Sunder Rajeev

Saturday, 11 July 2009



K. Ramakrishnan Achari (b.1888-d.1969), my father’s grandfather was a well-known artist of erstwhile Travancore Princely State. Many of his splendid portrayals still adorn the walls of palaces and many government institutions. The most famous among them are the portraits of Nehru and Gandhi, which are placed in the Durbar Hall of Secretariat. But a portrait of Sree Chitira Tirunal Bala Rama Varma, the last ruler of Travancore now kept in Sree Chitra enclave surpasses them all. It was done in the early 1930s and portrays the King sitting on his throne. This fabulous portrait which was once a favourite of the royal family had been tucked away to a dark corner of the museum godown for many years. A letter from the present king, Marthanda Varma inquiring the whereabouts of this portrait finally freed it from the storeroom and now it adorns the wall of Sree Chitra enclave.

K. Ramakrishnan Achari (1) The artist and his son with the finished portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru, 1960s (2) - Photographs from the private collection of the author.
K. Ramakrishnan’s house and studio served as a meeting place for many eminent people of the time. During the 1940s when the Indian Nationalist Movement was in its peak, Ramakrishnan had to face a serious problem…..some of his intimate friends were high palace officials staunch royalists, ‘Rajabakthar’; and others were freedom fighters and ‘Congressmen’ such as Pattom A. Thanu Pilla. Ramakrishnan himself was a supporter of the king’s rule as the king and the royal families were his major patrons. But he had to entertain both.

Once when Pattom Thanu Pilla came to the studio, Ramakrishnan was busy painting a portrait of the King, Sree Chithira Tirunal Bala Rama Varma. Through the window, he saw Thanu Pilla walking towards the studio. Ramakrishnan did not want to offend his friend who was a freedom fighter told his son Haridas to take away the portrait from the easel stand and hide it somewhere so that Thanu Pilla will not see it. However, when Thanu Pilla came to the door Haridas noticed that a portrait of the leader was lying upside down in a dusty corner of the room. Knowing that Thanu Pilla might get angry seeing his portrait in such a miserable condition, Haridas quickly cleaned the portrait and placed it in a respectable place. Thanu Pilla couldn’t be happier.

Pattom A.Thanu Pilla - Image courtesy - Wikipedia.
Many such situations arose later where Ramakrishnan had to struggle to please both of his friends; the royalists and the congressmen.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev

Tuesday, 12 May 2009



It was a hot February noon and I was sitting in my father’s studio, waiting for a phone call - a phone call that could make one of my dreams come true. A day back, my friend Uma Maheshwari, who is writing the biography of Maharaja had promised to take me with her, to Pattom palace!

Many years back, standing on the terrace of my father’s old studio, I saw an old car, with the royal insignia of the erstwhile royal family passing down the street. Then somebody told me that it was the King of Travancore, on his daily routine, on his way to the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. The next day also I waited there to see the King, but I got only a glimpse of him. On yet another day, sitting on the rear seat of my father’s scooter I even followed him to the gates of the old city. I noticed that many people on seeing the car stood up and bowed in reverence.

When I was studying in the tenth standard, on my first visit to Padmanabha Swamy temple we were told that the King was coming for his daily prayers and that we will have to wait until he has finished. I rushed to see him; this time also I did not have much luck as he passed by quickly. Through the stories told by my grandfather and other senior family members, the members of the royal family had become a household name. It was one of my dreams to meet them. Through the drawing competitions conducted by Chitrakalamandalam, I had the opportunity to meet Karthika Tirunal Thampuratti and her daughters, the princesses. However, I have not met or talked to the King.

Uthradam Thirunal Marthanda Varma, as a small boy - Picture reproduced from Temple Entry Proclamation Souvenir.
As I did not get any response from Uma, I called her. Palace secretary said that the King already had many visitors, but he asked her to come. It kind of let down my spirits, as I have heard Uma saying that sometimes she had to wait for days to see him. However, after some time she called me and said that we could meet him. The meeting was scheduled at three p.m., borrowing my mother’s Activa; I went to the University office to pick Uma.

I was feeling a little tensed as I approached the large arched gate, inside I saw an old palace with many later additions, even though in the traditional style they did not seem to match with the old structure. It was disappointing that the palace of the King was not so large or grand (compared to Kowdiar palace) as I had expected. The secretary’s office seemed to be a treasure trove of old photographs and paintings. A large painting of the long gone Aanacutcherry, a landmark of old Travancore claim a major portion of one wall, an intricate portrait of the King, by Krishnan Nair, done using coloured sand catches our attention.

The Maharaja who was born in 1922 is going to celebrate his 88th birthday this March. I was surprised that even at this old age he had to keep up with a busy schedule. There were many people waiting to see him. After waiting for some time, we were asked to go inside, Uma Maheshwari who was familiar to the staff and palace, led the way. We were led to a medium sized living room. We stood there waiting for the King. The room was decorated with many old photographs and paintings. A huge painting of Sree Moolam Tirunal, by P. Mukundan Thampi, dated 1910 adorn a wall (the portrait is clearly a copy of a similar one by Raja Ravi Varma, the great-grandfather of the Maharaja). There were old photographs of Chithira Tirunal, Amma Maharani and old photographs of the King’s late wife. Another painting, which caught my attention, was that of Chithira Tirunal wearing a green turban, Uma told me that Marthanda Varma was an expert in tying turbans and he used to make one in less than two minutes, for his ‘Annan’, the late Maharaja Chithira Tirunal Bala Rama Varma.

Marthanda Varma and his wife Sri Radha Devi.
Standing there, I could see that the next room led to an open courtyard on one side there were many idols of gods, a Brahmin was cleaning/preparing for pooja. The building, even though a royal palace, was warm and cosy like an old middle-class tharavad. It brought back the memories of my grandmother’s old tharavad.

A man came and asked Uma whether she got a calendar published by Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple trust, she said no and he went inside. After a few seconds, a small man wearing a loose white shirt and a mundu entered, his back was bend, which reminded me of Karthika Tirunal during her last years. Actually, I took some time to realize that it was the King. Uma bowed in reverence. He presented her the calendar. I folded my hands and greeted him with a ‘Namaste’.

Even though I had seen him many times before, I had expected to find a more powerful man, but to my surprise, in front of me, sitting in an old model European chair was the Maharaja of Travancore. Uma who was a frequent visitor began talking to him, by that time I was closely studying him. He wore an old-fashioned white shirt, with the royal emblem embroidered on his right chest. The simple white mundu and the paragon 'maethiyadi' chappals gave him a ‘common man’ look. Yet when he talked, he showed clear marks of his aristocratic upbringing. The only gold ornaments that he was wearing were three gold rings, one with his initials M.V., a ‘Navaratna’ ring and a ring with an emerald stone.

Uma had prepared a list of ‘things to do’ for the forthcoming release of the book. It seems that he was not satisfied with the publishers, they were very slow. Uma wanted them to release the book before the King’s birthday, which is in March. It was interesting that he cracked some jokes while talking and this made him look more casual. After talking to Uma he asked her who this new boy was, Uma introduced me and told him that I was doing some sketches for his book. He asked me whether I could do a picture of him, with Sreepadmanabha’s feet in his heart.

While talking he said that the behaviour of people has changed drastically, they have chosen the path of ‘Ravana’, the path of ‘adharma’. He seemed distressed at the state of his lost kingdom. Travancore had seen its days of glory under the rule of her famous Kings. Starting from Veera Marthanda Varma, the father of modern Travancore who was both a mastermind in uniting the kingdom and at the same time was a ruthless tyrant; and the ‘musician king’ Swathi to our beloved last ruler, the ‘Rajarishi’, Sree Chithira Tirunal Bala Rama Varma.

I had the privilege of showing him the manuscript of my family history. He was interested to know that I had written it and had made the illustrations myself. He read some parts from the book, particularly the portion that said about the great London exhibition of 1851. He told me that the ivory throne sent to the exhibition was awarded a second prize, which was a great achievement for his kingdom and for the craftsmen who made it. He seemed to like my handwriting and commented that on seeing my penmanship he is thinking of stop writing.

Marthanda Varma - sketch by the author (2009).
After some time one of his attendants came and said that he had another visitor, he was let in. A man entered the room, bowed the king and took out three silver ‘kindis’ of fine quality from his bag and placed them on a table. After inspecting the kindis Marthanda Varma gave him some instructions on how to make a box for keeping them. The man listened to him and took leave. After he had gone, the king told us that the man was an Achari specialized in making silver artefacts; he once made a silver tray for him. It was packed in a wooden box and was presented to a friend, however on opening the box, the room was filled with a sweet scent that attracted all those who were present there, and thus he became a favourite of the royal family and now makes silver artefacts for the King.

We didn't notice that time was sliding by as we were talking, soon it was time for his evening prayers and we stood up and took leave.

This article was written in February 2009.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev.

Saturday, 11 April 2009



Cheriyanad, a village in Kerala state belongs to Central Travancore Region and specifically comes under Chengannur Thaluk in Alleppey District. It is placed almost midway between Chengannur and Mavelikkara towns. Cheriyanad is a special grade panchayat. Cheriyanad Sri Balasubrahmanya Swami Temple is a famous spot in Cheriyanad.

Cheriyanad was once located on the boundary of the kingdom of the Kayamkulam Rajah and in 1746 along with the rest of the kingdom it was annexed to Travancore. Cheriyanad possesses a Padanilam or a battlefield, which is now occupied by a school. Some prominent families owned Kalari i.e. martial arts gymnasiums and private temples. Traditionally Cheriyanad consisted of nine original Karas or villages, which are Athimanchery, Edavankadu, Mandapariyaram, Thuruthimal, Moolikode, Edamuri, Mampara, Ariunnisery, and Alakode. For administrative purposes, the region was subdivided into fourteen Karas. Cheriyanad is home to an important temple, dedicated Subramanyan, 
located west of Padanilam junction, in the Mavelikara-Kozhenchery road. This temple is under the jurisdiction of the high priests of the Sabarimala temple, the Thazhamon Madhom Nampoothiri family of Chengannur. 

‘Edavankadan Achari’ is the hereditary title given to the head craftsmen of Edavankadu; they were the moothasaris of the kings of Travancore. Their ancestral tharavad is located in Alappuzha District, in a small village named Cheriyanad in Chengannur Thaluk. No details are known about the origin of the family, but it may have some connection with the construction of Subramanya temple of Cheriyanad. The family has two branches, Thundiyil Veedu, the main branch and Edavankadu Valiya Veedu, which now houses the ‘Ara’ or thekkath of the family with all their family deities including Lord Vishwakarma. Even now yearly festivals are conducted for 41 days. Thundiyil Veedu has now fallen with time, the last moothachari of the family Edavankadu Padmanabhan Achari hailed from Thundiyil Veedu.

Edavankadan Achari was the moothachari’s of many palaces built by the kings of Travancore. They were specialized in woodcarving. The members of the family had good knowledge of the Shilpa Shastra and Vedas and were given the titles like ‘Randam Brahma’. The members of the family were the head craftsmen of Subramanya temple of Harippad.

Edavankadan T.N. Padmanabhan Achari and his wife Karthyayini Ammal - Photograph from the private collection of Joseph (Babu).
I have heard from my uncle that his ancestors were the moothacharis of many of the palatial mansions of old Christian families. They perform the duties of stapatis. Once they went to build a house for a wealthy Christian landlord. One day when the moothachari was cooking food in a small hut made for him, the patriarch of the family came and asked him to give some food. The moothachari was surprised - a rich landlord asking food from him when enquired the landlord said that their Lord, Christ was the son of a carpenter.

A story is that long ago an Achari of the family presented the king of Travancore with a lotus, made of wood, so delicate that its petals fluttered with the wind. The Achari was given a horse as a reward (late nineteenth century).

The moothacharis of the family used to accompany the ‘Naduvazhi Nampoothiri’ of Cheriyanad on special occasions. It is said that the people of the village, on seeing the Achari wearing ‘Poonol’ mistook him for the Nampoothiri and bowed before him. On seeing this naduvazhi ordered the Achari to carry a ‘muzhankol’ in his hand. It is said that the moothachari made a silver muzhankol for the purpose and on seeing the silver staff the locals mistook him for the naduvazhi and showed greater respect.

Unlike ordinary Achari families, the members of the family enjoyed privileges and can be considered as ‘nobles’ among Acharis. The title of ‘Edavankadan Achari’ title was usually given to the eldest male members of the family; they usually stayed in Travancore, the capital city and had to attend in all the major functions in the family. The family was given large areas of farming land as ‘Uurhiyam’ by the king’s of Travancore; they had their own ‘Pulayan’ family to do the farming. The last patriarch of the family who was given the hereditary title was Kochu Kunju Achari, son of Neelakandan Achari of Thundiyil Veedu (Kochu Kunju had an elder brother, but due to some eye ailments he was not qualified for the title). Kochu Kunju Achari and his younger brother Padmanabhan Achari came to live in the capital city.

The fame of the brothers crossed the seas with the life-size and miniature wooden statues of Kathakali figures made by them. The royal family of Travancore who were the major patrons of the family owned many of the masterpieces made by the brothers. The life-sized Kathakali figures made by the brothers are now exhibited in Kuthira Malika and Napier museum; some of the most intricately carved statues are still in the collection of the royal family. For their services, they were given ‘Veerasringala’ by the Amma Maharani Sethu Parvathy Bai.

Edavankadan T.N. Padmanabhan Achari with the Kathakali figures - Photograph from the private collection of Joseph (Babu).
In 1958, the ‘Edavankadan’ brothers settled in Manacaud (Kuriyathy) and later shifted to a house near Attukal temple. However, in late 1950’s Kochu Kunju Achari passed away, he was a bachelor, so with his death, the title passed down to his younger brother T.N. Padmanabhan Achari. The knowledge he had on ‘silpasastra’ made the Maharaja Sree Chithira Tirunal appoint Padmanabhan Achari as the supervisor in charge of the new idol, which was being sculpted for Sabarimala by Chengannur Neelakanda Panicker. It was Padmanabhan Achari who performed the rituals of ‘opening of the eyes and mouth’ of the newly installed idol of Sabarimala temple, using a small chisel made of gold.

Receiving the first National Award for woodcarving from President Dr. Radhakrishnan,1966 Picture reproduced from Vishwakarman (magazine, 1969 edition).
In 1966 T.N. Padmanabhan Achari received the first National Award for woodcarving from President Dr. Radhakrishnan. Padmanabhan Achari married Karthyayini Ammal of Karthikapalli Veedu of Harippad. In 1985, the couple settled in Pattom. However, it is unfortunate that with the death of this master craftsman, his children did not carry on the family traditions and crafts.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev

Monday, 30 March 2009



Yesterday (29-03-2009) V. George Mathew (para-psychologist), Uma Maheshwari (freelance journalist), Anil Bhaskar (photographer- Rashtra Deepika) and I had the opportunity to visit an old palatial house belonging to a family claiming Rajput ancestry. At the house, we met Krishna Singh, the elderly patriarch. Krishna Singh, a resident of Thiruvananthapuram, claims to have Rajput ancestry, and interestingly he had an interesting story to share - a tragic story of a Rajput princess who came to Travancore.

Krishna Singh’s house is located in Manacaud, near the famed Manacaud Shasta temple. Earlier George sir had told us that Krishna Singh was a very old man, who was about 90 years old. However, later we found out that Krishna Singh was a man in his late seventies. There was a large wall, resembling a fortress, dotted with shops and small rooms surrounding the house. The huge wooden gates, painted in sky blue opened to reveal a large two-storied building, about 70 years old.

Krishna Singh - Photograph taken by the author.
According to Krishna Singh history and hearsay mentions the arrival of Rajpoots in Travancore during the reign of Rama Varma, the predecessor of Marthanda Varma. And their history is linked with the mysterious lady of Travancore, ‘Abhirami’, wife of Rama Varma. According to Krishna Singh, Abhirami’s real name is not known, it is believed (within the family circles) that her name was ‘Sandhya’- derived from ‘Syndhya’, the title of a sect of Rajput royals. He said that this girl (let us call her Sandhya) was a princess, born in Ayodhya. It is said that the child had some problems with her horoscope and the royal pundit told her father to send her for 14 years pilgrimage. It is said that one of her brothers (for her protection), some of her close relatives and attendants accompanied her.

Sandhya reached Suchindram. During that period, Thiruvithamkodu was the capital of Travancore. The king, Rama Varma on a routine visit to the temple heard Sandhya singing a bhajan and fell in love with her. He married her and promised that her sons will be the next rulers. The relatives and attendants who came with her settled in ‘Madhava layam’, near Nagercoil. ‘Layam’ means stable- Rajputs were master horse riders, they had horses with them, and so the place got that name. He said that before that also there were Rajput settlements in Travancore, so the people had no problem in finding new partners here (of their own caste).

The conflict between Marthanda Varma and Thampi’s is famous, I am not going to it, but according to Ramayyan’s plans, Marthanda Varma imprisoned Sandhya and her daughter Ummini Thanka in a palace. Sandhya died and daughter had to guard her dead body for five days. It is said that unknowingly at the same time Marthanda Varma came there with all preparations to marry Ummini Thanka. On seeing the ‘thalam’ she lost her control and kicked it, she then committed suicide, pulling out her tongue. She also cursed that Travancore family will always be short of women. According to Krishna Singh that is the reason why there are so many adoptions in the family. After conducting pujas, both mother and daughter were installed in a temple. It is said that the plot to marry Ummini Thanka was Marthanda Varma’s idea to calm down her brothers, Pappu (Padmanabhan) Thampi and Raman Thampi.

The relatives of Sandhya did not revolt against Marthanda Varma, so they were spared and brought to Trivandrum when the capital was shifted. For many years, the members of the family served as ‘Palliyara kaval’, and some in Travancore cavalry force.

Krishna Singh said that an old document of his ancestral property at Alappuzha mentions that his ancestors came from Ayodhya. He demands that his family has descended from the royal Rajput clan, and still they have customs and rituals similar to their North Indian ancestors.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev

Wednesday, 14 January 2009



Right from the time when I was a small boy, I loved power-cuts. During those days, I would wait for the power supply to go, so that I could play with the candle. Now it seems odd that I used to burn pencil lead and small bits of paper torn from my notebook in the candle fire, of course, without the knowledge of my mother. At some point, I used molten wax that fell from the candle to make small figures. All this was done during the study time.

With the coming of an inverter, and later, a generator, all these interesting ‘extracurricular’ activities ended. Moreover, from time to time the government decisions would put an end to power cuts.

The good news is that for the past few months the government has imposed a half-hour power cut and nowadays we do not use inverter and generator. The good old days are back, in the form of a large candle. Once a teacher told us that power cut times were the times when the members of her family came together, sat around a table and used to share their thoughts and experiences.

When I was a small boy, I visited my uncle’s tharavad, Pazhavoorkonathu Veedu, in a place called Channapetta, in Anchal, which is in Kollam district. It was a new experience living there as the old house was situated on top of a hill, far away from the busy and noisy city. There were small granite steps leading to the house. The house was surrounded by rubber plantations (rubber trees were first introduced at the time of Visakam Tirunal, during the 1880s, the very first tree that came to Travancore can still be seen in the gardens of Napier museum.) and nearby there was a small thekkath, which housed the family deity. There was a large ‘chempakam’ in front of the thekkath, with its numerous branches, without leaves, looked like the claws of a Yakshi guarding the thekkath. The tree was considered as the abode of ‘Yakshi Amma’, a minor deity.

The thekkath - a sketch from memory by the author (2006).
The thekkath and the 'yakshi chempakam' infront of it - Photograph taken by the author (2011).
The interesting thing was that the entire region had no electric connection until a few years back. When I first went there, the only modern gadget I found there was a tape-recorder, which worked on battery. We children, in the evening, used to gather around that tape-recorder which was given a ‘respectable’ position, in the verandah around the courtyard. There, life seemed to move at a much slower pace, everyone had lot of time to spare, during that night we gathered around grandmother (daughter of Edavankadan Padmanabhan Achari) who told us many stories of the families ancestors and about the treasure which was believed to be buried somewhere behind the house by the native kuravar tribals. Like us, the children who gathered around her to hear the stories, there were thousands of fireflies around us, who seemed to have come to hear the stories.

Years passed and on my visit to the house in 2005, for some function connected with the family temple, I found that they had electric connection and now life seemed to have a faster pace than before. Change is inevitable, maybe after a few years the entire region will be affected by the urban sprawl and will lose its identity, but that single night I stayed there, as a small boy, without electricity will be in my heart forever.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev

Saturday, 3 January 2009



Last year I had an opportunity to visit Arumana Amma Veedu, situated in Arumana, Kanyakumari District (Vellalamcodu Desam). The Amma Veedu’s of erstwhile Travancore state are famous as the houses of the wife’s of kings of Travancore. Most of these houses had humble origins; they later gained nobility through the marital alliances they made with the Travancore royal family. The royal consorts were given the title ‘Panapillai Ammachi’. If a woman from outside the Ammaveedu's were to be married by the king, she would be adopted to one of the Ammaveedus first, only after the formal adoption would she be considered eligible to wed the king. This was the case in the marriage of Maharajah Swathi Tirunal, Maharajah Aayilyam Thirunal and Maharajah Sree Moolam Thirunal.

The male offsprings born out of this wedlock, between a Kshatriya ruler and his wife were called ‘Thampi’ and women were called ‘Thankachi’ and ‘Kochamma’. The very term Thampi and Thankachi meant, in Tamil language, brother and sister respectively, which indicated the position of the members of these families as relatives of the royal house of Travancore. However, as the Travancore royal family strictly followed matriarchal succession, the offspring’s of the Panapillai Ammachis never had the fortune to sit on the royal throne.

Main facade of Arumana Amma Veedu - Photograph taken by the author.
Arumana Amma Veedu of Vellalamcodu Desam, which came under the jurisdiction of the Maharaja of Travancore, plays an important role in the history of the state. The female members of this family were the consort of many kings, starting from Dharmaraja (ME 933-973), Balarama Varma (ME 973-986) and Visakam Tirunal Rama Varma (ME1055-1060). There is an interesting story behind the shifting of the capital from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram, during the time of Dharmaraja, a decision which played an important role in the establishment of the prominent Amma Veedus in the capital city. Dharmaraja married four times, his first wife was a Thankachi named ‘Vadasseri Kali Amma Nagamani Amma’ of Vadasseri Amma Veedu. Later he also married from Arumana, Thiruvattar and Nagercoil Amma Veedu. The story goes that the king made four separate mansions for his ‘Ammachi’s’ in Thiruvananthapuram and shifted them to the new houses. According to historian Ellamkulam, though the capital was at Padmanabhapuram, the king spend a majority of his time in Thiruvananthapuram attending to his duties as the ruler (Prof. Ellamkulam Kunjan Pillai - Thiruvananthapuram Rajadhaniyakunnathinumunpu). This might be the main reason behind bringing the Ammachis to Thiruvananthapuram. Not very long after this, the capital was shifted to Thiruvananthapuram.

Later when Travancore revolted against the British rule, under the leadership of Velu Thampi, there was a noble lady from this house to help Thampi. It is said that Velu Thampi, during his revolt when he was in hiding, secured palace secrets and confidential information with the help of an Arumana Ammachi, a noblewoman of the Arumana Amma Veedu who was the wife of the then Maharaja Bala Rama Varma.

Arumana Amma Veedu has passed hands from the original owners and is now owned by the distant relatives of the former owners. The old house, probably built during the reign of Visakam Tirunal has large rooms with high ceiling, a courtyard and separate kitchen connected to the house by a corridor. However, when I recently visited Kizhakkemadhom Pratap, who is a descendant of Visakam Tirunal, he told me that the original tharavad of the family was a great ‘Ettu Kettu’, built in pure traditional style. Later it was demolished and the present building was built during Visakam Tirunal. It is said that as a prince, Visakam Tirunal spend most of his time in Arumana, the strained relationship he shared with his elder brother, the Maharaja Aayilyam Thirunal may be the reason behind this. Nearby the present Amma Veedu are the remains of a very old nalukettu, which unlike the new house, which had many evident European features, were made in pure traditional style using timbre. This old house was the Madhom used by the ‘pottys’ (priests) of the family. There is a story that Marthanda Varma murdered the last potty brothers who lived there, for their involvement in the conspiracy against him. Later, their mortal remains were found inside a secret tunnel, which connected the temple and the Madhom. The house has a small Kavu and some idols of ‘Nagas’ are worshipped there.

The old nalukettu - Photograph taken by the author.
Sarppakavu - Photograph taken by the author.
The owners took away many of the old furniture used in the house, however, the house still has a wooden cot dating back to the time of the Maharaja Visakam Thirunal and his beloved Ammachi.

The old cot - Photograph taken by the author.
The Kaelaeshwaram Shiva temple, on the banks of Arumana River, is near the Amma Veedu. According to the locals, this temple and the steep flight of steps, which led to the river, was the favourite ‘hang out’ of the Maharaja Visakam Thirunal. Every time the king visited his wife Lakshmi Pilla Kochamma, he came to this spot and used to sit there for a long time.

Kelaeshwaram Shiva temple and the steps leading to the river - Photograph taken by the author
Visakam Thirunal's favourite hangout - Photograph taken by the author.
Visakam Thirunal was a scholar, well known in Europe, for his articles in the major publications of the time. The king himself had good knowledge in astrology. It is said that he knew that he would die after being king for five years, so his proclamation started something like this, “Visakam Thirunal Rama Varma who will rule this land for five years…” He knew that he would not live for long, and true to his words, he passed away after being king for five years- 1880-1885.

The king was also very independent and courageous right from the beginning. In 1859 when he was only 22 years old he defied his uncle and married the woman he loved. His uncle, the king of Travancore, Uthram Thirunal wanted him to marry his daughter from Thiruvattar Ammaveedu. However, Visakam Thirunal refused and married Panapillai Lakshmi Pillai Kochamma of Arumana Ammaveedu on his own choice. She was also a very intelligent woman. The records of the Church of England Mission state that in 1865 she was the first lady to start English education in the royal house. She also learnt drawing etc.

Visakam Thirunal Maharaja (Picture Courtesy - Mr. Kurian (Statue, Thiruvananthapuram) and his wife (From a private collection - painting by Kizhakkaemadhom Padmanabhan Thampi, the Durbar Artist).
It is interesting to note that Sree Narayanan Thampi, son of Visakam Thirunal was the one who laid the foundation for vehicular transportation in Travancore. In 1910, he registered a company named ‘Commercial Transport Corporation’, with bus services from Trivandrum to Nagercoil and Trivandrum-Kollam routes at about 25 miles per hour. Later, he became the patriarch of the famed Kizhakkaemadhom family.

Later many prominent members of the royal family had married from this family. The old Arumana Amma Veedu in Thiruvananthapuram is a stately mansion, the three-story building still stands holding its head high, among the other Ammaveedus that line both sides of the Arattu road.