Friday, 9 December 2011



Not everyone who visits East Fort would notice the granite elephant resting in the shade of a huge banyan tree on the banks of the Padmatheertham. The vendors who line the sides of the narrow street are the only friends of the elephant. Among the cluster of the hawkers who rest in the shade of the banyan tree, one finds it difficult to spot the elephant, though it hasn’t moved a bit in the last few centuries. A street hawker leans to the belly of the elephant for an afternoon nap, another man sits on top of it, and the elephant sits silently as ever; a silent witness to the many historic events of Travancore.

The 'kallana', in the shade of the banyan tree - Photograph taken by the author.
The figure of an elephant, carved in a single piece of granite and known to the locals as ‘kallana’ (meaning ‘stone elephant’ in Malayalam) has a mystery surrounding it. Like the great Sphinx who guards the Pyramids, this small elephant sits under the cover of the old tree, with his gaze fixed to the towering gopuram of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. Some are of the opinion that the elephant was installed there during the reign of Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma, the famed Dharma Raja (1724-1798) during whose reign the fame of the State spread far and wide. It was Dharma Raja who completed the renovation works of the temple which was initiated by his predecessor Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma (1729-1758). The Gopuram (temple tower), the Sheevelipura (circumambulatory path) and the famed Ottakkal and Kulashekara mandapas bear testimony to the craftsmen who have participated in the renovation works of the temple. According to popular belief, the elephant was also carved during the same time. However, the skill of the craftsmen exhibited in the intricate works of the temple fail to make its mark on the elephant. Was the work done by an unskilled apprentice, or is it the ravages of time that had rubbed away the details? No one seems to have an answer.

Sri. C.V. Raman Pillai, the author of historical novels like Marthanda Varma (1891), Dharma Raja (1913) and Rama Raja Bahadur (1918) was a person who knew every nook and corner of the capital city. The kallana finds a place in his novel Rama Raja Bahadur, where one of the characters in the novel named Azhakan Pillai hides behind the elephant. The mention of kallana in this famous novel might be the reason why most of the Travancoreans relate it with Dharma Raja, the main character.

Like any other historic object/structure inside the fort, kallana too have some intriguing stories associated with it. Uma Maheshwari, the author of the biography of the present Maharaja Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma, an expert on the history of the fort and the royal family is of the opinion that the kallana has a much longer history than we often attach to it. According to Uma, the elephant was made perhaps during the period when the foundation stone for the gopuram was laid, during the reign of Aditya Varma (741 ME-1566 AD.). But what was the association of the elephant with the construction works of the temple? Well, according to Uma there is a long-standing tradition to offer prayers to Ganapathy (the elephant-headed God) -before executing a major work, thus an elephant was installed before commencing the work for laying the foundation for the gopuram. If this version of the story is true, then the kallana is more than four centuries old.

However, there is one thing about the elephant that always perplexed me; a keen observer will surely notice that one half of the sculpture is more embellished than the other. What was the reason for it? Was it due to the wear and tear the sculpture faced in all these years? It might be possible, if one takes into account its age and condition, unlike an exhibit inside a museum, the elephant has been exposed to the elements of nature. But why one side of the elephant suffered much more than the other? Did the craftsmen who were engaged in the work leave the work in halfway?

Uma is of the opinion that the turbulent political scenario that followed the stone laying would have affected the fate of the kallana too. Records say that the construction work of the gopuram was stalled due to the conflict between the King and the madampimar, so the kallana was also rendered unfinished. Later Veera Ravi Varma Kulashekara (1592-1609 A.D.) gave orders to reconstruct the nalambalam and balikalpura using stone, however, the work that commenced in 781 M.E. (1606 A.D.)[1] ended abruptly with his death in 1609 A.D. The later rulers also carried on the construction works. Finally, the temple was reconstructed to its present form during the reigns of Marthanda Varma and his successor Dharma Raja.

Two years back while doing a project on Thiruvananthapuram I came across many local people who narrated to me a wonderful story about the kallana, linking it with the ‘evergreen’ villains of the kingdom, the Ettuveettil Pillamar. According to the elders, long back in history when the madampimar wielded more power than the royals, one of the prominent members of the madampi clan named Ramanamadham Pillai had his house constructed on the banks of Padmatheertham. In those days the sacred pond was much smaller in its spread. The powerful madampi also constructed a small shrine on the banks of the pond, dedicated to Lord Shiva, his family deity. According to the story, during the clash between the Ettuveettil Pillamar and the King, the madampimar were finally vanquished and all their property was confiscated to the royal treasury. The King, in order to fulfill his vengeance, ordered his soldiers to demolish the houses of the Pillamar and excavated ponds in their place. In the case of Ramanamadhom Pillai’s property, the house situated on the banks of the pond was demolished and instead of making a new pond, the existing Padmatheertham was expanded, however, the small temple was left untouched. The final twist to the story came when a senior member mentioned that the kallana was actually a part of the sopanam of the house. According to him the kallana had a similar counterpart and both of them adorned the two sides of the main steps leading to the palatial mansion. And to my amazement he went on saying; “Have you closely observed the elephant?” he asked. “Only one of its side is carved, the other side is left unfinished as that part would not be visible when the steps where there”. So, where is the other elephant? The old man is of the opinion that it might have been destroyed by Marthanda Varma’s soldiers.

Padmatheertham pond and the temples and mandapams around it - the small Shiva temple can be seen in the left.
The above mentioned story may answer some of my doubts, but is it a true story? Dr. S. Hemachandran Nair, Superintending Archaeologist of the State Archaeology Department rules out the story as a mere local legend associated with Marthanda Varma and the Pillamar. “In Thiruvananthapuram, everyone has a story connected to Marthanda Varma and the Pillamar”, says Hemachandran; “These stories seem to be true when we hear it for the first time, however, when we look for details there are discrepancies and lack of records to prove them”. According to Hemachandran, there are no records to prove the above mentioned story and once again the kallana pulls over the veil of mystery.

Before coming to conclusions one should go through the ‘mathilakam records’ chronicling the history and day to day activities of the temple, there we may find the true story of the kallana, until then history/stories can be made and undone in the mind of the people. Even the street vendor who now curls beside the kallana will have his own version of ‘history’!

[1] Important Mathilakam Records, Published by Ulloor S. Parameshwara Iyer, 1941, Document no. 211, Curuna 1719, Ola 34.
For more information:
Sharat Sunder Rajeev
December 2011.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011



Swarupathu Veedu*, now known as ‘Kaniyan Vilakam’ is an old aristocratic Nair tharavad situated in Thiruvananthapuram. The ancestral house of this family is located near the famed Mukkolakkal Devi temple in Sreevaraham, near Muttathara; to the south of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple.

There are no authentic records on the origin of the family, and going by the local lore and family traditions one can come to the conclusion that the family and its members were associated with the ancient Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple from times immemorial. There are many references to the family and the services rendered by them in the temple records, the Mathilakam Churuna, chronicling the history of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. Princess Lekshmi Bai of Travancore royal family in her book ‘Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple’ has expressed her gratitude to numerous old aristocratic families, located in the capital city that had rendered valuable service in managing the day to day activities of the temple; Swarupathu Veedu is one among them.

The poomukham of the house - Photograph taken by the author.

The family was in existence from very old days and the ancestors of the family may have been associated with the Ettarayogakar, the potty families who controlled the temple affairs. Travancore, before the period of Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma (b.1706-d.1758), was under the control of feudal lords, the Ettuveetil Pillamar, Nair chieftains who were the feudatories of the Potty families. However, later they gained prominence in the society and allied themselves with the Ettarayogam and thus became the uncrowned kings of Thiruvananthapuram. Some prominent Nair families assisted the Yogakkar in running the temple such as Mathilakam Pillamar. According to the present family members, their ancestors assumed the title ‘Mathilakam Pilla’ and supervised the day to day activities of the temple. They were also assigned the duty of taking care of the 'Pandara vaka' estates owned by the royals and the temple.

Mathilakam Pilla:

Thiruvananthapuram, the small temple town developed into a capital city during the reign of Veera Marthanda Varma and his illustrious successor Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma (Dharmaraja). Marthanda Varma shifted the capital from Kalkulam to Thiruvananthapuram and started with the renovation works of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple followed by large-scale development activities. Dharmaraja, his successor followed his uncle's footsteps and thus during his reign, Thiruvananthapuram emerged from its status as a 'temple town' to a powerful 'capital city'. The city comprising of the temple and a small population around it transformed into a city during the latter half of the eighteenth century, a fort was created which sort of defined the boundary of the settlement of the elite class and people belonging to lesser castes and profession began settling around it, they were allotted land in accordance with their social positions.

The name Mathilakam Pilla is seen in many records preceding the time of Marthanda Varma, so the mathil or wall mentioned here must be the temple wall, the prakaram which surrounded the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. There are references of a mud wall surrounding the temple in the old records. Later during the reign of Marthanda Varma orders were given for complete renovation of the temple and a new granite wall occupied the position of the old mud wall. Therefore, as the name suggests, the members of the family supervised the works inside the mathilakam, i.e., the temple.

Social position:

The title Mathilakam Pilla was a significant post that demanded much respect and the family’s alliances with other aristocratic families including the famed Chittaloor Elankom strengthened their roots in the capital city. The connection with temple administration and their loyalty to the royal family made them prosperous. The family also received vast areas of farming lands free of tax from the rulers of Travancore.

In addition to this, they received mada choru, cooked rice from the temple every day and that too in large quantities. According to the present head of the family Mr. Sreekumaran Nair, in old days the karnavar of the family made arrangements to sell this rice and to distribute the rest to the poor.


The family is located behind Mukkolakkal Devi temple, on the outskirts of the old capital city; the surrounding regions are marshy farming areas, with many canals and culverts for irrigation. In old days this area was known by the name Thottam, meaning garden. It was common for large temples like Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple to have farming lands in its vicinity, supplying flowers, fruits, grain and other raw materials for the day to day activities of the temple. Padmanabha Swamy temple had numerous paddy fields and gardens surrounding it. Ananthapuravarnanam, a 13th-century composition by an unknown poet provides us with a beautiful description of the temple town. Syanandoorapuranam, another work mentions the temples, sacred groves and numerous ponds of this town. To the southwest of the temple was a temple sacred grove known as Padinjarae Nadakkavu. The author of Ananthapuravarnanam has compared this grove to the nandavanam. According to the elders of the locality, Mukkolakkal and the nearby Thottam regions were ‘gardens’ or rather farmlands which supplied flowers, banana and coconut to the temple and the settlements around it. The members of Swarupathu family were the feudal lords who were the caretakers of these fields and it may be the reason why they settled near Thottam. A large pond by the name ‘Pookulam’ was in existence till recently next to the house, however, now it has been filled and is used as a playground.

Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple and its precincts, with the old 'garden' marked in green**.

Thottam is well known all over Travancore for its Ezhava and Vishwakarma settlements. Many prominent Ezhava families like Vellutheri, Perunelli and Perumpadsherri of the region has produced many gifted poets and scholars, many illustrious members of these families were well-known physicians and were appointed as Kottaram Vaidyanmar to the Kings of Travancore. Many Tamil Vishwakarma guilds such as Thavalodu and Thuppini were engaged in the renovation works of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple and later they also settled in Thottam.

The house:

The tharavad is made in pure traditional architectural style followed in southern parts of Travancore. The exact date of construction is not available; however, from the looks and the style of construction one can easily infer that it is not less than 250 to 200 years old. The house, in its complete form, was an ettukettu, with rooms arranged around two courtyards. However, one nalukettu constructed using laterite had fallen with time and only the portion made of timber exists today. The existing structure is a perfect example of the traditional architecture of Kerala and bears testimony to the high degree of craftsmanship attained by the traditional craftsmen. The construction of the building is in accordance with the traditional Vastu canons, facing East direction. The major building materials used are timber, for walls and furniture, doors, rafters and thatched coconut leaves for roofing. Exquisite carvings of Goddess Durga, the vyali and parrot motifs along with the lotus and other floral motifs display the expertise of local craftsmen. The walls are made of timber planks which are interlocked. The corner rafters and pillar heads are decorated with carvings. The structure includes a poomukham used by the karnavar of the family; in old days it acted as a transition space in between the main living block and the thekkath, the place of worship. Male guests were entertained in this poomukham, which was detached from the ettukettu. The poomukham has a small sit out space with charupadi and there are rooms on both sides.

The existing nalukettu - Photograph taken by the author.
The intricate carvings - Photographs taken by the author.
The wall separating mens and womens blocks, the small kilivathil used by women can be seen on the left - Photograph taken by the author.
The existing nalukettu block also had an ara that housed the thekkath, where the deities of the family, kalaman kombu (deer antlers) and the ancestors were worshipped. The other rooms were used by the karnavar, in the front verandah there is a wooden cot used by the karnavar with storage space below it, the valuables of the family and important documents were stored there, under the strict vigil of the karnavar. The room near the thekkath served as a storeroom where the large vessels of the family were kept. The inner space around the courtyard was used by the occupants of the family. The adjacent nalukettu which was in ruins had been demolished years ago and according to Mr. Sreekumaran Nair, it was used by the women and children of the family. That portion housed the kitchen, dining space and bedrooms. A wall, painted red, with an opening in its centre separated the two blocks; earlier, women were not allowed to come near the block that housed the family deities. A small kilivathil can still be seen on the wall, once used by the women to communicate with the karnavar and the male members who occupied the first nalukettu.

Life in the joint family:

The Nairs were matrilineal, with the mother’s eldest brother occupying the position of karnavar, the male head of the family who looked after the family, their land and assets. The power and property passed hands to the sons of the karnavar’s sister and never to his children. Though women had no significant role in the society, she was the fulcrum around which the family functioned, the matrilineal system of inheritance ensured their safety and women were respected. The nephews were taken care of by the male head, the karnavar. During post-colonial years, the Land Reforms Ordinance of the 1950s led to massive loss of land-ownership by Nair feudal lords and some Nair gentry were relegated to poverty overnight. However, Swarupathu family is financially sound and many of the members are top brass government officials who are sensitive towards their rich heritage.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev
November 2011.

Note: This article was written two years back when I was doing some research on Thiruvananthapuram and the old families there. I would like to thank Sri Sreekumaran Nair, the present head of Swarupathu Veedu, who was kind enough to spare some time with me. He took me around the old house and shared with me whatever history he knew about the house and the locality.
P. Venugopal and L. Madhavan and late. L. Jalaja (Krishnammal) were some of the elders I contacted to know more about the local history of the area.
The map used here is a cropped portion of the 'Trivandrum Guide Map' (Survey of India 1968-69).
* Alternate spelling for 'Swarupathu Veedu', is 'Swaroopathu Veedu'. In old days there were some families of 'Kaniyanmar' (traditional astrologers) who lived near the house, this was the reason why the house and its surrounding areas later came to be known as 'Kaniyan Vilakam'.
** Since I was not able to come across any proper records showing the extent of the old garden, I have conjecturally marked it in the map.

Friday, 24 June 2011



Killi Ār*, the chief tributary of Karamana River flows to the east of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. Built across this water body is the famous ‘Killipālam’. The King of Venad dynasty, Veera Marthanda Varma (b.1706-d.1758) who personally supervised the renovation works of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple ordered his workmen to find a suitable monolith hill from where he could get a chunk of granite, so big to make a monolith ‘mandapam’ in front of the main shrine at Padmanabha Swamy temple. The workers located a small granite hillock not far from the temple. Thirumala, as the place is now famous, indicating its connection with the sacred hillock, was at that time a part of Chittatinkara in ‘Anjam mada’ village (‘mada’ means drain). Anjam mada or ‘Anchamada’ - were the five madas dug for draining water to Karamana and Killi River. Kaduvetty, Maruthankuzhi, Pangode, Kundamankadavu and Vallakadavu were the five madas and these areas are still known by the names of the respective madas.

Stonemasons were employed to cut the large boulder into required size and the mathilakam records state that Nair and Ezhava labourers toiled for days to get the large boulder to the worksite near Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. A large cart with huge wooden wheels was made for the purpose of transportation and the stone was hauled by elephants. A new road was made by the labourers, connecting the granite quarry to the temple. The road running through Poojappura, Karamana, Aranoor, Chalai and connecting to Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple is still in use. A small guild of stonemasons was located near the quarry and they were assigned the task of hewing granite blocks into required size for making the pillars and roof slabs. The descendants of these masons still live there.

On top of the hillock is a small temple ‘Trichakrapuram’ Sree Krishna Swamy temple (also known as 'Parakovil') dedicated to Lord Sree Krishnan. It is said that the hillock got its name, ‘Thirumala’, meaning ‘sacred hill’, due to the presence of this ancient temple.

Trichakrapuram Sree Krishna Swamy temple, on top of the granite hill - Photograph taken by the author.
The spot from where the large boulder was cut for the 'ottakkal mandapam'
- Photograph taken by the author.
The huge granite boulder, in its journey to the work site, passed through Karamana before reaching the Killi River, in those days there were no means for transporting the huge stone to the other side. Marthanda Varma gave instructions to divert the river. The course of the river was changed and thus the boulder reached the other side of the river. There are many stories circulating amongst the local population about the King and the divine assistance he got from Sree Padmanabha Swamy to get the boulder to the other side of the river. One of the senior members of Chittatinkara guild narrated such a story that he has heard from the elders. On reaching Killi River, the labourers found it impossible to transport the boulder and their leader went to the King and told him about the situation. The King after thinking for a while took a palm leaf and the stylus and wrote something in it and handed it over to one of his ministers. In the leaf was written the number ‘six’ (6) in the Malayalam numeral and there was a cut across it. The clever minister got the point and asked the labourers to build an embankment across the river. In Malayalam the numeral six (6) is pronounced as ‘Ār’/‘Āru’, the same word for river. The line drawn across meant that an embankment was to be constructed across the river.
The Malayalam numeral 'six' (left) - Ar and the sign given by the king to build an embankment across the river (Ar).
The granite boulder being hauled to Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple - Sketch by the author.
Vettamukku Vilakathu Veedu (Shiva Bhavanam) an old Tamil Vishwakarma family of stone workers (silpins) is settled in Chittatinkara. Padmanabhan Achari (b.1850s), an early ancestor of the family owned large areas of land near Trichakrapuram Sree Krishna Swamy temple, his son Shiva Thanu Achari (d.1940s) was a well-known figure. Senior citizens say that in old days there were three Tamil silpin families in Vettamukku, associated with the renovation work of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. Thirumala and the surrounding areas like Edapazhinji and Vattiyoorkāvu had large rock boulders. The large rocky hills in Thirumala region provided enough granite for the construction of the temple and the fort walls. According to present family members, Uchudamakali Achari, son of Shiva Thanu Achari used to say that the granite panels, used as roofing for the ‘Sheevelipura’ of Padmanabha Swamy temple were made by his ancestors. Going by the popular family traditions and hearsay the ancestors of this family had settled in Thiruvananthapuram during the reign of Marthanda Varma (c.1730s). They were stone workers associated with the renovation works of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. The present descendants claim that their ancestral family was located in Dhanushkodi, near Rameshwaram. The ancestors of this family had initially settled in Karamana and Choorakattupalayam, where many of the Vishwakarma families were concentrated. In due time the region occupied by this guild came to be known as ‘kalppalayam’ - meaning abode of stone masons. The temple housing their principle deity - Goddess Amman is still there in Karamana. The renovation works of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple started by Marthanda Varma was carried forward by his illustrious successor, Karthika Tirunal Rama Varma a.k.a. 'Dharmaraja'. In 1768 AD/ 943 M.E., Ezhava labourers were employed for bringing to the temple, twenty-eight Mandira Moorthy pillars, which were made in Thirumala (Churuna 28, Olas 99 & 100, Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple, Princess Gouri Lakshmi Bayi.)

P. Shiva Thanu Achari and his wife Valli Ammal – From the private collection of Mr. Padmanabhan.
The old house, Shiva Bhavanam was made by Shiva Thanu Achari. Unlike other houses in the surroundings, we can see perfectly dressed granite blocks serving as steps and the plinth above which the house is built. Behind the house was a large pond (14.5 cents) formed as a result of cutting out of large blocks of rock from the boulder. The pond was used by the family and the locals of the region.

Later, during the latter half of 18th century, some families from Karamana settled in Chittatinkara. They were all involved in the cutting and dressing of granite for the construction works of Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. The stone blocks for building the Fort walls were also supplied from Thirumala. Trichakrapuram Sree Krishna temple was a small structure during that time and it seems that the guilds of stonemasons were involved in the construction of the temple and the associated structures in the present form. They were given land near the temple. The ancestors of this family, along with the craftsmen families like Chatharathala and Eruparathala families formed a guild of village artisans.

*Ār - means river in Malayalam.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev