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.