Saturday, 12 December 2020



Attoli Sree Haritripura Kulangara Devi temple, Malayamadhom, Ponganad, Kilimanoor.

temple overlooking an expansive sweep of paddy farmland is so typical a sight in rural Kerala.
 Kilimanoor, the birthplace of Raja Ravi Varmais a place where one still finds vestiges of an untouched agrarian culture. The old mansions of local chieftains, ancient temples, sacred groves, water bodies and lush paddy fields are reminiscent of a long lost lifestyle.

Sree Haritripura Kulangara Devi temple in Ponganad is a small - rather inconspicuous structure - one among the numerous temples in the region. Butit is the story of this temple that makes it special and weaves it into the plethora of oral traditions around the legendary painter and his family.

The old temple was revamped in the 1970s, by the 'AttoliNamboothiri family, its custodians. According to Attoli Govindan Namboothiri, who resides in a house adjacent to the temple, his family's association with Kilimanoor aristocracy could be traced back to the early eighteenth century. "We were originally based in Payyanur, in Kannur, but a few members of the core family had accompanied the royals of Thattari Kovilakam, in Beypore, to southern Kerala. When the royals settled in Kilimanoor, we too chose to remain here," he said.

Uma Amba Thampuratti of Kilimanoor royal house.

Attoli family shares a strong bond with the Kilimanoor royal house, and it was a 'Attoli Namboothiri,' a famed tantric, who, in the late 1840s, exorcised a 'Yakshi' from Uma Amba Thampuratti of the royal house. The Yakshiappeased through special pujas and offerings, was given an abode in the palace. The benevolent Yakshi is said to have blessed the childless Thampuratti, who gave birth to three boys and a girl, all abundantly blessed with creative talent. Uma Amba's eldest son, Raja Ravi Varma, went on to become the most renowned painter of his times. Among Ravi Varma's younger siblings C. Raja Raja Varma and Mangala Bayi too were talented artists. Goda Varma, another son of Uma Amba was a gifted musician and scholar.
As for the Attoli family, they are still the chief priests at the Yakshi shrine and remain in Ponganad, in the precincts of their family temple - not far from the Kilimanoor palace.

Sunday, 6 September 2020



Raghava Aiyer (b.1826-d.), a second-generation Mullamootu Bhagavathar (an epithet used by the Travancore court musicians) was born in Vadasherri near Nagercoil. Young Raghava Aiyer was fortunate to receive training in music from the famous Palghat Parameswara Bhagavathar, who had adorned the royal court since the days of Swathi Tirunal Rama Varma. After a brief stint at Trivandrum and Haripad, Raghava Aiyer was helped by Cherunni Koil Tampuran, the elder brother of Kerala Kālidāsa Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Tampuran, to relocate to Coimbatore. At Coimbatore, Aiyer resumed his lessons under Chidambara Nattuvan, the grandson of the renowned Vadivelu Nattuvan (one among the Tanjore Quartets of Swathi’s court).

Raghava Aiyer was introduced to Maharajah Ayilyam Tirunal Rama Varma by M. Kunjaru Raja of Mavelikkara (a talented musician and gifted player on Swarbat), during the latter’s visit to Madras. Later, the Maharajah invited Aiyer to Trivandrum, where he was appointed as a court musician. Not long after, the Maharajah developed a deep admiration for Aiyer’s singing and invited him to perform at the Sangumugham beach palace whenever the king visited the place with his close friends and advisors. 

However, around the early 1870s, a sly court musician poisoned the Maharajah’s ears with stories that would ultimately lead to Raghava Aiyer’s fall from grace. Crestfallen, he returned to his wife’s house in Haripad and led a quiet life. But by a stroke of luck, in 1874, Raghava Aiyer returned to Trivandrum on the Maharajah’s command for a musical duel at the Rangavilas palace hall. Ayilyam Tirunal was desperate to present Raghava Aiyer before Maha Vaidyanatha Aiyer, the unmatched musical virtuoso, who was invited to the capital for the Navarathri festival. The legendary duel went on for two days, by the end of which the Maharajah presented expensive shawls, pair of gold bangles and Rs.1500 to both the contestants.

Happily for Raghava Aiyer, his successful performance as a formidable Travancorean who could meet Vaidyanatha Aiyer on his own ground was enough to reinstate him back on the lofty pedestal as a royal favourite.

Sharat Sunder R, 05-09-2020.                  Based on 'My Musical Reminiscences' by T. Lakshmana Pillai B.A.

Sunday, 23 August 2020




H.H. Chatayam Tirunal Rama Varma, the Elayarajah (c.1900). Detail from a photograph by Ramen Pillai, Trivandrum.

Chatayam Tirunal Rama Varma - the Elaya Rajah of Travancore - whose life was drawn to an abrupt end on 6 June 1901, at the age of 33, was an acclaimed amateur artist and photographer. As a member of the Amateur Photographic Society of Madras, the prince never missed a chance to present his works at exhibitions conducted by the Society. In Travancore, the prince brushed shoulder with professionals like Zachariah D’Cruz (the Government Photographer) and Ramen Pillai. In 1887, the young prince set out on a journey to see important cities like Madras, Bombay and Calcutta. These explorations gave him an inclusive picture of the vast and diverse history and culture of India, and most likely these journeys transformed the prince into a travel-photographer.

In Travancore, the prince made regular expeditions to explore places of scenic beauty and tried his hand at portraiture and allegorical themes. Among the photographs exhibited in Madras were those of architectural landmarks like Vandur Teppakulam (Madurai), Tevalli Palace (Kollam) and studies such as ‘An Indian Prince’ and ‘a portrait of Mr. Charles Michie Smith’ (the eminent Scottish astronomer), presented to the Madras Society in 1895. The prince, it seems, was in love with the southern districts, for he produced several photographs documenting the scenery, landmarks and life of people, e.g. ‘Kuzhithuray Bridge’ (Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu) and ‘A view of South Travancore’ (both dated c.1897).

The ancient Jain temple at Chitaral, Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu, c.1890s. Photograph by Chatayam Tirunal Rama Varma. From the private collection of the author.

The following excerpt from a letter (dated 9th May 1898) written by the Prince sheds light on an interesting photographic expedition he made to the southern districts. 

Many years ago on one of my photographic outings in the southern districts of our picturesque country I was attracted by this interesting rock-temple (the famous Jain temple at Chitaral, Kanyakumari District, Tamil Nadu). Going thither one fine morning camera in hand I exposed a plate almost against the sun as the temple faces the west. The result was nothing extraordinary. Still I have the satisfaction of added to my collection of photographs one of a building of such classical interest.” 

Sadly, for someone credited to have followed photography with such passion, this bromide print of the temple at Chitaral is the only work that can be attributed to the prince without a doubt.

Sharat Sunder Rajeev, 23 August, 2020.



H.H. Aswathi Tirunal Marthanda Varma B.A., c.1899, (detail). From a private collection. 

swathi Tirunal Marthanda Varma B.A., a.k.a., ‘B.A. Prince’ (b.1871-d.1900) — nephew of Maharajah Moolam Tirunal of Travancore — is celebrated as an early amateur photographer, whose photograph of Swami Vivekananda adorns the entrance to Swami’s room at Belur Math. Prof. K. Sundararaman (Tutor to Aswathi Tirunal) records in ‘The Life of Swami Vivekananda,’… “The Prince was struck like all others who came into contact with him, with the Swami’s striking figure and attractive features; and being an amateur photographer, asked the Swami for a sitting and took a fine photograph which he skilfully developed into an impressive picture.” This photograph was later shown in an exhibition conducted at Madras Museum.

 Aswathi Tirunal's photograph of Swami Vivekananda, 1892.

The print currently housed at Belur was sourced by Swami Brahmananda, a monastic disciple of Sri Ramakrishna when he visited Travancore in 1916. While stationed in Trivandrum, Brahmananda came to know that a photograph of Swami Vivekananda was taken by the Prince of Travancore at the palace and expressed an interest to procure a print of the same. It is known that the negative of the picture was secured by P. Seshadri Aiyer from D’Cruz, the Government Photographer (Letter from Swamy Trilokyananda, R.K. Mission, Calicut, 1962). 

Sharat Sunder Rajeev, 19 August, 2020.

Thursday, 30 April 2020


                                        THE PRINCE, GOVERNOR AND TAPIOCA

Delicacies prepared from the starchy root of the cassava plant (tapioca) have been an integral part of the traditional Malayalee cuisine for over a century. Once debased as ‘poor man’s food,’ this tuber was introduced in the Travancore State as a popular crop by Maharajah Visakham Tirunal Rama Varma (r.1880-1885) during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Visakham, the nephew of Swathi Tirunal Rama Varma, was an ardent botanist and promoter of agricultural novelties, also credited to have introduced rubber trees in Travancore.

Seven-leafed-root - the true potato of India

How and when did the tuber, a native of Brazil, reach the Kerala coast? No one seems to have a definite answer; however, tapioca was a staple food of the indigenous tribal clans, long before it reached the platter of the Prince. In more recent times, there are references to cassava being grown in Madras Presidency in the mid-nineteenth century. Europeans residing in the Presidency often substituted tapioca for potato, “which, when prepared in a peculiar way, is totally indistinguishable from the potato.”

Around 1870s, while travelling through Madras Presidency, Lord Napier, the Governor of Madras was invited to dine at the house of a certain gentleman. At the dining table, “His Lordship was peculiarly struck at the large size and fine flavour of certain potatoes.” After complimenting the hostess for the sumptuous spread, the Governor enquired about the delicious potatoes served at the meal. To his amazement, the hostess revealed that the dish he relished the most was, in fact, tapioca balls made from tapioca root sourced from her garden (The Athenaeum, 1876).

Soon, the story of Lord Napier’s encounter with tapioca reached Visakham Tirunal. The Prince who was already informed about the benefits of the cassava plant wasted no time in sourcing some from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London. Some sources mention that the first tapioca plantation in Thiruvananthapuram came up inside the Fort, in the grounds of the Vadakkae Kottaram, where Visakham Tirunal was based as the Elayarajah (Sasibhooshan. M.G., Ariyapedatha Ananthapuri, 2017).

The old-timers recall tales of Visakham Tirunal’s earnest efforts to set up tapioca farms in various parts of the State. When he assumed the gaddi, Visakham Tirunal issued a proclamation with specific instructions on cooking tapioca. It explained in great detail that after cleaning the tapioca, it had to be cooked and the water discarded and the process repeated to remove the bitter taste (Saraswathy Nagarajan, How tapioca came to Travancore, The Hindu, June 27, 2019). However, the majority of residents in the capital initially refrained from consuming the tuber. In order to instil confidence in the minds of the reluctant subjects, Visakham Tirunal ordered the cooks at the royal kitchen to include tapioca to his menu - thus elevating the humble tuber to a sought after delicacy!

Sharat Sunder Rajeev.