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.