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