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