Sunday, 22 September 2019



The beautifully carved wooden lids from the box made by V. Narayanan Achari - private collection of the author.

I first heard about V. Narayanan Achari (b.c.1880), a grand-uncle, while recording snippets of family history on the maternal side. Narayanan, known in the family circles as ‘muchundan’ (one with a cleft lip), had not left behind many tangible effects to preserve his memory down the generations. Narayanan never married and there were no photographs or records of him either in the family collections. I gathered that he passed away sometime during the late 1920s, struck down with small-pox. These tit-bits did not help much to reveal Narayanan’s true persona and I realised that to know more, I should dig deep into the pile of family lore and anecdotes.
Being born into a family of traditional carpenters, Narayana Achari honed his skills under the elderly craftsmen of his native craft-guild. His mastery in crafting sophisticated chests and cash boxes made him popular with an elite clientele. A beautiful wooden box made by the craftsman was later inherited by his nephew – my grandfather. The story goes that one fine day Narayanan summoned his brothers to his workshop to show them a box he made. The box had a secret cavity, in which a gold coin was sealed away by means of a unique locking technique known only to the master craftsman. Narayanan challenged his brothers to locate and unlock the cavity. The one who succeeded could claim the gold coin! Unfortunate for his siblings, none succeeded and Narayanan continued as the unchallenged master of the guild. This very box was tucked away in a corner of our attic, where it remained for ages, covered in dust. An attempt to get it down from the attic resulted in an accident when the box slipped right out of my cousin’s hands, tumbling down through the narrow wooden stairs. I managed to salvage a pair of beautifully carved planks, the lid of one of the inner compartments – but the box was lost.
According to my late grandfather, his maternal uncle’s greatest accomplishment as a master craftsman was acknowledged while he was associated with the construction (1916-1924) of the Sri Ramakrishna Ashram at Nettayam. There, it is said, he carved a large hooded snake on one of the doors. The carving was so life-like that many hesitated even to go near it! It seems like the wonderful story and the awe for the master craftsman filtered down the generations but no one in the family ever took an effort to visit the ashram to find out whether Narayanan’s menacing serpent was still there.
In 2015 I visited the ashram with my wife. The members of the monastic order extended a warm welcome; they took us around and explained the history of the Ramakrishna movement in Kerala and the unique architecture of the ashram building. I was all ears to the hosts but my eyes searched for the snake. I was charged with many new historical facts, but there was no trace of the snake. So, when we were about to leave I asked the Swamiji whether they had any snake motifs on any of the doors. “Why do you ask?” Swamiji was curious. A faint smile appeared on his face as he listened to my family lore. As soon as I finished, he took my hand and said, “come with me, I have something to show you.” He took me to the main hall, there, on one end was a beautifully carved wooden door set within a niche that doubled as a shrine. To my surprise, the huge snake was there! After all, it was part of the monastic order’s crest – how foolish of me to not have figured this before! I missed out the door before as it was kept open during the worship hours, hiding the carving from view. I could very well see why people refrained from touching the snake, it was huge, striking, and when I ran the fingers down its body, a chill went down my spine – it felt just like touching an actual snake!

‘One with the cleft lip’ was indeed a master craftsman!
     The crest of Sri Ramakrishna Mission carved by Narayanan - from the door of the inner shrine,
Sri Ramakrishna Ashram, Nettayam, Thiruvananthapuram.