Category Archives: Historical Links, Pre-Independence

Former freedom fighter K.E. Mammen dies aged 96

Students of Holy Angels’ Convent greeting K. E. Mammen on his 94th birthday in Thiruvananthapuram. File Photo

The Kerala native had participated in the Quit India Movement

Freedom fighter K.E. Mammen, who had participated in the Quit India Movement, passed away here on Wednesday morning. He was 96. He had been under treatment for age-related diseases at a private hospital in Neyyatinkara for the past three months.

Mr. Mammen had always followed Gandhian principles. He became active in the freedom movement as a college student. He was first jailed for taking an open stand against C.P Ramaswamy Iyer, the then Dewan of the erstwhile Travancore state. After being denied an opportunity at continued studies here, he shifted to Madras Christian College in 1940. He was ousted from there too, following his participation in the Quit India Struggle.

In recent years, Mr. Mammen had been active in anti-liquor struggles in the state.

source: / The Hindu / Home> News> States> Kerala / by Special Correspondent / Thiruvananthapuram -July 26th, 2017

Indira Bayi, scion of Travancore royal family, dead

Indira Bayi | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

She was the daughter of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, Queen Regent of erstwhile Travancore.

Indira Bayi, daughter of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who was Queen Regent of erstwhile Travancore, died in Chennai early Thursday. She was 90.

Wife of the late K.K. Varma, founder-chairman of the erstwhile India Meters Ltd, and long-time chairman of the Madras Kerala Samajam, she is survived by son Shreekumar Varma and daughter Shobhana Varma. Indira Bayi was born during the regency of her mother (1924 to 1931). Years later, she would become the first woman from the royal family to enrol for college education. Some of her short stories have appeared in a few magazines and two anthologies of her stories have been brought out.

The cremation will be held at the Besant Nagar crematorium at noon on Friday.

source: / The Hindu / Home> News> Cities> Thiruvananthapuram / by Special Correspondent / Thiruvananthapuram – Chennai / July 21st, 2017

How Gundert saved Malayalam

Herman Gundert


Some of the rare books in Malayalam language would have been lost if Herman Gundert, the German missionary, had not taken the trouble to transport them to his home town Calw. The documents preserved by Gundert, who was also a scholar credited with the first Malayalam-English dictionary, included nearly 80 manuscripts and 150 printed works. Some of the available palm leaf manuscripts run into 42,000 pages. These books have been archived in the Gundert archive of Tubingen University which has also taken steps to digitise the documents. The Thunchath Ezhuthachan Malayalam University, Tirur, established in 2012 to promote Malayalam language, has received access to the documents through an MoU signed with the Tubingen University.

Mr M. Sreenathan, professor of language at the university, told Deccan Chronicle that it all started with Dr Scaria Zacharia, a Malayalam professor who visited Germany in connection with the meeting of the World Malayali Council, visiting the archives of the university in 1986. He published books like Pazhassi Rekhakal, Payyanoor Pattu and Thalasserry Rekhakal from the university. Some of the other books that were discovered from Tubingen included Nalacharitham Manipravalam and Sheelavathy written by Mannan. The first version of the Mahabharatham Killipattu, Krishnagatha, Thulalkadha, Panchathantram and Ekadeshi were brought to the state from the archives. The copy of Meenakshi written by Chathu Nair and published in 1890 was also discovered from Tubingen, Mr Sreenathan said.

Another finding was Keralopakari, an illustrated weekly published in 1870. There has not been much reference about this weekly earlier. A copy of Krishi Pattu was also preserved at Tubingen. The specialty of the copy of Krishi Pattu, an agriculture verse popularly known as Krishi Geetha in the state, is that it was published from Kozhikode before the advent of Chandrakala in Malayalam. Another significant discovery was Kerala Natakam. This book republished by the university was released recently. Many people, including historian M.G.S. Narayanan, have said that they have seen the book. However, the book was not available anywhere in the state. It was also received from the archives of Gundert. Many literary historians, including Ulloor Parameswara Iyer, have mentioned about this work. There are differences among the historians about who wrote the book.

Some believed that this was written by Thunchath Ezhuthachan. However, Ezhuthachan had not written anything other than poetry. The book was published by Basel Mission. Ulloor had disagreed with the theory that it was written by Ezhuthachan. The book was in the handwriting of Gundert himself. The language of the book proved that it was not written by Ezhuthachan. However, it has many similarities with another work of the period named Keralolpathi. But there is one major change. This is in the chapter Kulakrama Vivaranam which in Keralolpathi was based on Sankaracharya’s Kulakrama Vivaranam. However, the Kulakrama Vivaranam chapter in Kerala Nadakam dealing with the origin of caste was more in the nature of folklore, Mr Sreenathan said.

The documents in the collection of Gundert can be classified into three: printed books; books that had been transcript by Gundert himself or using the service of a scribe; and books in Thaliyola. Many books related to subjects like Manthravatham and on Christianity, including Puthiyaniyamathile Lekhanangal and Sathyaveda Ethihasam, are at the archives. The university is the only one in Europe that teaches Malayalam as an optional. It has also set up a Gundert chair. “I visit Tubingen as a faculty of the university and Mr Scaria Zacharia goes there as an outside academic. The Malayalam and Tubingen universities also have student exchange programmes,” Mr Sreenathan said. He will visit Tubingen soon to identify the original version of the works of Ezhuthachan, including Adhyadhama Ramayanam. Mr Scaria Zacharia said that the access to Gundert archives had begun in 1986. Many books like Pazhassi Rekhakal, Payyanoor Pattu, Thacholli Pattu and Thalassery Rekhakal were published from the archives. However, it was only recently the efforts were noticed in the state, Mr Zacharia said.

Christian missionary turned linguist

Herman Gundert, who left Germany at the age of 23 for missionary work, had planned to go to Calcutta and gained working knowledge in Bengali, Hindustani and Telugu even while travelling by sea. However, he landed in Madras in 1836 instead of in Calcutta. Gundert learnt Tamil while working in Chittoor, Andhra, and Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu. During his work in Mangalore, he had a chance trip to Thiruvananthapuram where he had an audience with Swathi Thirunal, the ruler of Travancore who himself was a scholar. Gundert was attracted to Malayalam and became a scholar in the language in a short span of time.

Born in 1814, Gundert is the grandfather of 20th century Nobel prize winning novelist Hermann Hesse. Gundert had studied theology and Sanskrit in Tübingen University before completing his doctorate in theology in 1835 and joining the Bassel Mission in which he worked in Thalassery from 1938. Apart from authoring the first Malayalam-English dictionary, he translated the New Testament into Malayalam. He left India in 1859 due to illness. Most of his Malayalam books, including his Malayalam-English dictionary and hymn book, were written when he was in the south western German town of Calw.

He worked primarily from Thalassery where he compiled a Malayalam grammar book, ‘Malayalabhaasha Vyakaranam,’ published in 1859. He lived at Illikkunnu near Thalassery for 20 years spreading the gospel among the natives and writing 13 books and a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew and New Testament from Greek. He attempted a systematic grammar of the language based on non-Sanskrit-based approaches to Indic grammar as he considered Malayalam as a branch of Proto-Tamil-Malayalam, or Proto-Dravidian. It was Gundert who used punctuation marks like full stop, comma, colon and semicolon for the first time in Malayalam. In recognition of his contribution to Malayalam, a statue of Gundert has been erected at Thalassery.

source: / Deccan Chronicle / Home> Nation, In other news / by Sabloo Thomas, Deccan Chronicle / July 05th, 2017

A royal procession to Sasthamangalam

Sree Chithira Tirunal Balarama Varma starting from the Fort for the Sasthamangalam procession | Photo Credit: Sharat Sunder Rajeev

In the days of the monarchy, a royal procession used to make its way to a Siva temple in Sasthamangalam

‘Radhapura Kunnu Lane’, a nondescript signage near Sasthamangalam junction may have caught your attention as you travel along Vellayambalam-Sasthamangalam road. However, if you are planning to explore the lane hoping to find the ‘Radhapura’ or at least the remains of an old chariot house, you will be disappointed. The lane now leads to a well-laid out residential area with no trace of any built structure to substantiate the name of the lane.

Radhapura Lane was in olden times known as Radhapura Kunnu, a hill that gradually descends to the banks of the Killi River. Senior citizens from Vellayambalam and Sasthamangalam regions still remember vivid images of a state procession that linked the region with a royal past. When the city cherishes the Arattu procession and related rituals, of the area recall the state processions that once came to Sasthamangalam.

Sasthamangalam Ezhunnalathu, a regal procession to Sasthamangalam, culminated at the ancient Sasthamangalam Mahadeva temple, where the sovereigns offered prayers and rested in the ‘palace’, a double-storied structure located near the western gateway of the temple. According to popular history, it was customary of the Travancore rulers to visit Sasthamangalathu Madhom’, the abode of Koopakkara Pottis, and the Siva temple soon after the Tirunal (royal birthday) celebrations. Even though the origin of this practice remains unknown to this day, some historians are of the opinion that the practice could be dated to the eighteenth century, to the turbulent days of Anizham Tirunal Marthanda Varma.

It is said that the Koopakkara Potti had helped the King on one occasion and in gratitude the King and, later his successors, made it a custom to pay their respect, once in a year, to the Koopakkara family at their residence.

V Narasimhan Thampi presents a vivid portrayal of the procession to Sasthamangalam: “… the Maharaja rides to Sasthamangalam in his golden chariot, drawn by six white horses and behind him follow a train of horse drawn carriages of the royals and the various officials. The Elayarajas, Koil Thampurans, and the Chief Justice can be seen riding in carriages drawn by two horses, whereas the other officers ride in simple carriages. The state procession starts from the Fort at four in the evening and proceeds to Sasthamangalam via Pazhavangadi, Puttenchandai, Palayam, and Vazhuthacaud. At Sasthamangalam, the King worships at the temple and visits the Potti at his residence and returns to the Fort by six O’clock.”

On the way to Sasthamangalam, the procession first halted at Vellayambalam, from where the King went to the temple with a few select attendants and high officials. The royal chariot was stationed at Radhapura Kunnu and the royal party walked down to Pipinmoodu to the temple premises.

The temple, located between Sasthamangalam hill and the nearby elevated Oolampara region, claims antique origins. Old records mention ‘Thiru-chatta-mangalam’ (later Sasthamangalam) and the temple there. Old timers believe that the temple has its origins from a small sacred grove on the banks of the Killi River. A small fragment of the grove can still be seen right in front of the eastern gateway to the temple.

With the end of monarchy, the age-old custom of the Sasthamangalam procession passed into the annals of history, but the temple remains popular among the city dwellers.

(The writer is a conservation architect and history buff)

source: / The Hindu / Home> Society> History & Culture / by Sharat Sunder Rajeev  / Thiruvananthapuram – May 05th, 2017

Bungalows on the beach

Summer Ville, the western façade facing sea. | Photo Credit: Sharat Sunder Rajeev

In 1927, V Krishnan Thampi, an erudite Sanskrit scholar and writer, made a statement by constructing his house near the beach

The historic fort area of Thiruvananthapuram was initially concentrated around the fort walls that enclosed Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple, the agraharams and the royal abodes within. During the early nineteenth century, the town stretched from the banks of Karamana river to the east, Thiruvallam to the south, Kannammoola towards the north and Shanghumughom in the west. Distribution of settlements strictly followed a sectorial pattern based on caste system.

While families connected to the royal family and the temple resided in the Fort and its immediate precincts, less-privileged communities resided in places away from the religious core.

The coastline was chiefly inhabited by fishermen, whose hamlets were segregated from the Fort area by a vast strip of farmlands and coconut groves and further to the west, by sand dunes. The ancient Devi temple at Shanghumughom and the Arattu ceremony were the major attractions in the otherwise uninhabited Shanghumughom coast.

It was only in the later half of the nineteenth century that some families and persons constructed their houses beyond Eenchakkal, towards Shanghumughom. Easwara Vilasam, a sprawling courtyard house at Vallakadavu, belonged to Punnakkal Easwara Pillai Vicharippukar, a Kathakali maestro and steward to Uthram Tirunal Marthanda Varma. Rohininal Thampuran, a member of Mavelikkara royal house, had constructed Rohini Vilasam, a multi-storied mansion along the Arattu way, west of Eenchakkal.

In 1927, V Krishnan Thampi, an erudite Sanskrit scholar and writer, set up his abode in Shanghumughom, close to the Shanghumughom Devi temple. The house, constructed in the colonial style, has traces of conventional design in the form of a courtyard. According to his biographer, Thampi was advised to settle on the beach by Dr K Raman Thampi. The sea breeze, according to the doctor, could offer relief to Thampi who suffered from arthritis. ‘Beach Bungalow’, the mansion on Shanghumughom beach, soon became a beehive of activities. Kathakali performers, writers, and scholars from across the State visited the house. “The hall was designed with huge louvered doors on east and west elevations, facilitating easy flow of cool sea breeze in the interiors,” says S Radhakrishnan, grandson of Krishnan Thampi. The southern façade of the house has two huge windows with a view of the nearby temple. “Grandfather, when he designed the house, had planned to erect a huge loft on the first floor, facing south. In olden days, one could clearly see the Arattu procession and the breathtaking sunset from the balcony,” recalls Radhakrishnan.

“I cherish my childhood days at Beach Bungalow,” recalls Uma Thampuran, granddaughter of Thampi. “Every morning we would race to the nearby Devi temple before leaving for school,” she adds. Uma also recalls the evening she and her cousins spent by the sea shore. “The sea shore was just an extension of our yard and often we had distinguished visitors like former president VV Giri and his family, who came to enjoy the sea breeze.”

The credit of developing Shanghumughom beach into a sought-after residential zone goes to Krishnan Thampi. N Balakrishnan Nair writes, ‘V. Krishnan Thampi was instrumental in developing Sangumugham into a respectable residential colony. Following Thampi’s footsteps, his friends and other members of the prominent families started to construct houses in the beach area’. Sanguchakram, Summer Ville and Sea Shell were some other houses located near Beach Bungalow. Dr KL Moudgil, a friend of Thampi, also set up his residence in Shanghumughom.

source: / The Hindu / Home> Society> Hidden Histories – History & Culture / by Sharat Sunder Rajeev / Thiruvananthapuram – April 21st, 2017

Fleeting canvas of vibrant artistry

The finished Kalam of Bhadrakali | Photo Credit: Aswin V N

Kalamezhuthu Pattu artist Manikandan Kallat talks about the art form that is unique to Kerala

Squatting on the floor, Manikandan Kallat draws the outline of the image of goddess Bhadrakali using finely-ground rice flour. He takes a handful of flour and using his thumb and index finger creates fine, curved white lines with ease. This is a routine for the veteran Kalamezhuthu artist who single-handedly finished a 1,800 sq.ft kalam of Bhadrakali with 64 hands in 14-and-a-half hours in May 2016, at the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi in Thrissur, in a bid to set a Guinness record for the biggest powder drawing by a single person.

Kalamezhuthu is for Kalamezhuthu Pattu, a ritualistic art form. The present one is at a family temple in Thrissur district. The art form is believed to have its roots in ancient tribal and Dravidian traditions. Kalamezhuthu, which involves drawing elaborate figures of Bhadrakali, Vettakorumakan, Ayyappa, Gandharvas and Serpent gods, is native to the state.

Manikandan, one of the top Kalamezhuthu artists in Kerala, is a Kallat Kurup, one of the communities traditionally practising Kalamezhuthu Pattu. “Communities such as Mannaan, Malayan , Theeyadi Nambiar, Theyampadi Nambiar and Theeyattunni also practise this art form. But there are only a few people who are into this full time today,” he says.

On the day of the ritual, the drawing of the Kalam begins after an initial round of puja and pattu (songs) – narrating the tales of gods or goddesses being drawn in the Kalam. Manikandan finishes the outline (Kalam Kurikkal) in less than an hour. Then his team joins in with colours.

“The five colours, denoting the Pancha Bhoothas, are made of natural ingredients. White powder is rice flour, black is ground charcoal, green is powdered Manchadi or Vaka leaves, yellow is turmeric powder and red is turmeric-quick lime mixture,” explains Manikandan.

To teach and popularise the art form, Manikandan opened a Kalamezhuthu Pattu school at his house at Kattakampal, near Kunnamkulam, three years ago.“As of now, I only take in students from the Kallat Kurup community. But I do give talks and demonstrations for art researchers and tourists who often visit our place. School and colleges invite me once in a while to give a demo to the students,” he says.

Manikandan and five artists work on the Kalam for three more hours. By 5 p.m. the Kalam is almost ready. The furious, red-eyed Bhadrakali holds a blood-stained sword in one of her hands, the head of demon Dharika in the other and things like the Trishool, a serpent and a shield in her other six hands. The flowing attire, jewels and crown showcase intricate designs. “Although the basic figure of the image and weapons are done in the traditional manner, the artist can innovate with the design of the dress, jewels, crown and the Prabhamandalam (elaborate frame of the Kalam),” says Manikandan.

Later in the evening, rituals resume. The event concludes late at night with Manikandan arriving as the oracle (Velichapaadu), performing a ritualistic dance as the Bhadrakali and finally erasing the Kalam. Although a part of the ritual, it is hard to watch hours of painstaking artistry turned into dust. Talking about it after the performance, Manikandan says, “I don’t think about it when I am performing. But it is sad, especially in the case of big Kalams that takes a long time to complete like the 64-hand Bhadrakali that I did at the Sangeetha Nataka Academy.” Often for special shows, like the one he helped create for an expo of contemporary arts in France in 2000, the Kalam was preserved for some time so that people could see and photograph it.

Although Kalamezhuthu season is for six months, he gets to do more than 100 Kalams in a season. “This used to be restricted to temples, palaces and wealthy households. Now we do it in small households and as a performing art. It is recognised as an art form and we are considered as artists,” he adds.

Manikandan and his group have also performed outside Kerala as well – courtesy of Malayali associations, small temples and other communities in cities like Bangalore and Mumbai.

Learning the art form

The art form itself is time consuming, to learn as well as to practise. It takes years for a student to master the powder drawing and colouring techniques employed in the Kalamezhuthu. Manikandan himself took more than three years to learn the different facets of the art. “I was trained at Guruvayur Kshetra Kalanilayam, a performing art school run by Dewaswom Board. They offered a Kalamezhuthu course from 1986 onwards. But they had to stop it in 1992 as there weren’t enough students,” recalls Manikandan. The studies usually start with Kalam Kurrikal. It gives the student a general idea about the proportion of the Kalam. Only after mastering it are the students taught to colour or prepare the face of the image of the god and goddesses, which is the most difficult part of the art apart from the outline.

source: / The Hindu / Home> Society> History & Culture / by Aswin V N / Thiruvananthapuram – February 23rd, 2017

Tracking the roots of a legacy in art

Going back in timeConservation architect and history buff Sharat Sunder Rajeev is the author of The King’s Craftsmen , which follows the footsteps of his ancestors / Special arrangement

Conservation architect Sharat Sunder Rajeev pieces together the history of his ancestors, legendary ivory carvers of Thiruvananthapuram, in his book The King’s Craftsmen

They came to the city in a large boat that halts at Vallakadavu. From Vallakadavu, they got into bullock carts to make the rest of the journey to my home…. Just behind the cart occupied by the patriarch was the cart that carried the wooden cradle made for the newborn Prince of Travancore…” narrated Sharada Ammal, then in her nineties, as a group of little children listened in wide-eyed wonder.

Grandmas have always told stories to children, tales that snuggled inside their imagination and nestled there for years together. That was how women kept alive oral history, especially about those that did not belong to upper echelons of society and so did not have the luxury of having their stories written by scholars and historians.

So it was with young Sharat Sunder Rajeev when he heard his grandaunts Sharada Ammal and Kamalam narrate stories about princes and princesses who came all the way from a place up on the Malabar coast and fabulous craftsmen who accompanied them to build palaces and temples for the royal family.

Little did Rajeev realise that the tales his grandaunts told the children were about their ancestors. By the time Rajeev became a teenager, the stories awoke in him an abiding curiosity to know more about his legendary ancestors; ingenious craftsmen who built many of the fabled temples in erstwhile Travancore and later became world famous as ivory carvers of Travancore.

“ Right from my school days, I began interacting with elders in my family to learn about the great craftsmen who had done our families proud with their breathtaking craftsmanship,” says Rajeev, a conservation architect and author of a book on ivory craftsmen of Thiruvananthapuram, The King’s Craftsmen .

The book tracks the footprints of his ancestors who came down from places around Kannur with two princesses who were adopted into the royal family of Travacore and settled in Attingal.

“Most of the earlier period had to be oral history as there is little written evidence. But their work has been mentioned in documents and temple records. So my book is a combination of oral history that has been passed down in our family and early records of some of the incidents that were written down by one of two of my ancestors. For instance, it has been documented that one of my ancestors Thottathil Moothu Asari was associated with the construction of the eastern gopurams of Padmanabhaswamy temple built around the 16th century,” says Rajeev.

Gathering stories

He has been working on the book for more than 10 years and travelled extensively to meet people and collect tales and material evidence of the craftsmen, who initially settled in Attingal, Kadakavoor and Navaikulam.

“Once the capital city began to grow under the monarchy of Marthanda Varma, these guilds began settling in Palkulangara, Pettah and Manacaud. I began the book when I was a student of the College of Engineering, Trivandrum and so there were limitations on how much time I could spend on the book. But I followed all the clues I got and met many of the descendants of the artisans who had once worked closely with the ruling families in Travancore and as Durbar artists,” says Sharat.

Completed five years ago, the book was published recently by the Kerala Council of Historical Research. Sharat’s book is at once a portrait of his illustrious ancestors and a thumbnail sketch of Kerala’s society in different periods of time. It is a piece of untold history that is told from the view of craftsmen and their legacy and how their body of work was shaped by influential princes.

He talks about how the legendary craftsmen of wood gradually began working in ivory as per the monarch’s orders, most likely during the time of Swathi Thirunal and how, over time, they became the best in the field of ivory carving and became famous as the Travancore school of ivory carving.

“Records show that Swathi was presented with a musical instrument Swarbath that was made in ivory by Kochu Kunju Asari on January 4, 1836. The best known is of course the ivory throne that was made for the Great Exhibition held in London. It won a prestigious prize at the exhibition and established Travancore as a centre of the finest ivory craftsmen,” explains Sharat.

To ensure that their craft was passed on to a new generation, the School of Arts was established around 1860 in Thiruvananthapuram and this eventually became the first fine arts college in Travancore and Kerala. Sharat got lucky as one of his relatives was able to give him a kind of log book that was once used in the college. That gave Sharat details about classes, teachers and students.

Turning artists

“Once ivory carving became illegal in the seventies, many of the craftsmen began to exchange the chisel for the brush and became well-known artists. Many of the early portraits of the royalty and feudal families were painted by them. Some of them went to Madras [Chennai] and got work as artists for posters and backdrops for plays and movies,” he says.

He points out how K. Madhavan, who printed some of the early posters of films in South India, was famous in those days for his posters for Tamil films.

That is not all. As Rajeev points out the book neatly documents the now extinct art of ivory carving with detailed diagrams and technical explanations. “The craft guilds had experts who could come up with exquisite works of art. They made everything from figurines and inlay work to cuff links, combs and bangles. Each had to be worked in a different way and since ivory was very hard, one wrong chip could spoil an expensive piece of ivory. So the carvers were perfectionists and disciplinarians,” he says with a smile.

Rajeev adds that the book also explains the reasons for the current socio-political place of the craftsmen’s descendants.

Even as his book opens a new chapter on the history of Thiruvananthapuram, Rajeev is busy at work on his next one.

The craft guilds had experts who could come up with exquisite works of art

Avid collector

Sharat Sunder Rajeev is a collector of antiques. On February 18, a day after the new redesigned The Hindu reached readers, Rajeev shared an image of The Hindu dated April 1, Friday, 1892 on his Facebook page, along with an explanation of how he had found it

source: / The Hindu / Home> Features> MetroPlus / by Saraswathy Nagarajan / February 24th, 2017

The woman who cut off her breasts

The legend of Nangeli was birthed in blood and injustice. | Photo Credit: Illustration: Satwik Gade

The real story of how one woman’s rebellion against oppressive feudalism has been hijacked and repurposed by the patriarchy

Her name was Nangeli and she lived in Cherthala, a watery alcove on the Kerala coast. We do not know when she was born or who sired her. But we know she died in 1803, her spirit cast in a hundred moulds in the two hundred summers that followed. Today, Nangeli has champions on the Internet, her story is told by men and women seeking inspiration and courage on this side of time. And they too have recast her sacrifice, celebrating a tale that would have been alien to the protagonist. Nangeli has been reduced from a woman who thrust a dagger into the heart of society to one who died to preserve those artful shackles that many of us know as ‘honour’.

The contours of the tale are well known. Nangeli and her man, Chirukandan, were Ezhavas — toddy tappers — who laboured in that awkward gap that society fashions for those who are low but not the lowest. They had a little hut where they lived, and they had no children. Life for Nangeli and Chirukandan was as hard as it was for their neighbours. They toiled hand to mouth, toeing lines drawn by caste, and bowing before the pretensions of their superiors. Nothing about them was remarkable till Nangeli stood up. They will proclaim that she stood up to preserve her dignity, but that is because they are afraid to admit that she stood up to them. Nangeli was a rebel, but like many rebels, in death her memory became the possession of those she opposed. She threw off one tyrant, and found her legacy in the grasp of another.

The Kerala that Nangeli and Chirukandan knew was not the Kerala celebrated today for its healthy children, emancipated grandmothers, and literate masses. It was a hard, difficult landscape, and Cherthala was a speck on the map of Travancore, a state with a ruler of its own to whom was owed allegiance — and tax money. Land tax was low, but the Rajahs made up for this ancestral blunder through other levies. If you were a landless fisherman, you had a tax on your fishing net. If you were a man sporting a moustache, your facial hair fell within the mandate of the revenue inspector. If you owned slaves, you most certainly had to pay tax on these bleeding units of muscle. Nangeli and her husband acquiesced like loyal subjects, but they will tell you that she stood up to the one abhorrent tax that touched upon her honour; that when it came to her rights as a respectable woman, she declared: ‘No more.’

Cleaved her place

They came one morning, the story goes, to tax her breasts, leering at its shape and dimensions to calculate the figure owed. It was called mulakkaram — the breast tax — and women who were not high-born were surveyed as soon as they advanced from girlhood to adolescence. Nangeli was probably taxed for years, but in 1803 when the villains of the tale came to her hovel, she was prepared for the act that would cleave for her a place in history and lore. She went inside calmly while they waited by the threshold, it is said, and returned with the tax offering on a plantain leaf. Since they had come for the breast tax, that is what they got: Nangeli’s breasts, severed by her own hand and placed in a bleeding lump. She collapsed in a heap and died in agony, her corpse cradled by Chirukandan who returned to find his home turned into the scene of one of history’s great tragedies. Some say he jumped into the pyre as Nangeli burned and perished in flames of grief — for him too there was sacrifice.

The legend of Nangeli was birthed in blood and injustice. Women of low caste, they will tell you, couldn’t cover their bodies if they didn’t pay the breast tax. They silently wept and lamented their fate, shame building upon shame under the gaze of lewd old men for whom the right to dignity came with a price. But Nangeli was a woman of virtue — she would not barter money for honour. And so she chose death.

Embarrassed and horrified by the tyranny of their ways, the Rajahs abandoned the tax on breasts. Nangeli became a heroine. Womanhood prevailed.

This is the tale they will tell you of Nangeli. As it happens, it is all a travesty.


For a society as open as Kerala once was, breasts came to provoke a grave panic in the Victorian age. This was the land where Portuguese merchants in the 16th century beheld bare-breasted princesses, negotiating treaties of trade and leading bare-chested troops in battle. It was here that a 17th century Italian found himself in the court of a prince, packed with royal women covered only around the waist — two young nieces of the ruler wondered with amusement why on earth he was so covered up in the tropical heat. This was also the land where women enjoyed physical and sexual autonomy, where widowhood was no calamity and one husband could always be replaced with another. The coast was rich with the tales of great women — from Unniarcha of the Northern Ballad of Malabar, an accomplished warrior from Nangeli’s caste, to Umayamma of Attingal, a princess who reigned over kings. These were brave women of towering personality. But in the 19th century, Kerala’s moral conscience grappled not with their achievements as much as the conundrum that their unabashed bare-breastedness presented.

Virtue, as we recognise it today in its patriarchal definition, was not a concept that existed in Kerala. And till our colonial masters — and fellow Indians from patriarchal backgrounds — sat in judgement over the matrilineal streak heavily infused among the dominant groups here, women, their bare torsos, and their sexual freedoms did not in the least attract attention or opprobrium. Where elsewhere polygamy was a practice available to men, in Kerala there was polyandry on offer, because women were not unequal to their brothers (or, to be more exact, they were less unequal). They owned property and controlled resources, living fuller lives than the domesticated child-rearing destinies granted to their sisters elsewhere. But this was, of course, the case of women of privilege. For women like Nangeli there was no question of living a life of heroic glamour with armies or ballads; she had to earn her way through every day of uncertainty. It was in death that the songs followed, and so worrying were they, that they focussed not on Nangeli’s message but a perversion of it that was more palatable to changing social mores.

The advent of the British meant more than just political rule; they brought to Kerala a new sense of morality, reinforced by missionaries who had the ear of these foreign masters. Polyandrous marriage was deemed ‘very revolting’ — women were told that they ought to be virtuous, which meant deference to one husband, one master. They had to cultivate modesty, and toplessness was not a step in that direction. The sexual gaze of the patriarchal Victorian was turned towards the breast in Kerala, till then not a cause of concern. When men and women entered temples, they both took off their top cloth. Today only the men are obliged to do this. As late as the 1920s and 1930s, when Namboothiri Brahmin women for the first time acquired the blouse to cover themselves, purists excommunicated them for breaching custom — modesty and true moral superiority lay, they argued, in not covering up. As Aubrey Menen remarked of his grandmother’s attitude to his Irish mother, it was thought that ‘married women who wore blouses were Jezebels’ and ‘a wife who dressed herself could only be aiming at adultery’. To cover breasts because men demanded it, was regressive to elders as it meant succumbing to objectification. But these elders were a minority in the face of young, ‘progressive’ men bent on making their women ‘virtuous’.

What morality?

Across the coast, the torso — male and female — was not something that was covered. Higher castes sported shawls, but not for reasons of modesty or because they had notions of virtue more consistent with those of a patriarchal society, but because the shawl was a mark of honour. When Christian converts from lower castes covered themselves in the 1850s, riots broke out after violent upper-caste attacks on them. The bone of contention was not that the converted women wanted to cover themselves — it was that they had covered themselves with the shawl permitted only to the high-born. Peace was restored when the converts invented a blouse; the covering was not the issue in the first place. The tale of Nangeli that they will tell you today has her fighting to preserve her honour, where honour is construed as her right to cover the breast. But in Nangeli’s time, the honour of a woman was hardly linked to the area above the waist. As F. Fawcett remarked, dress was ‘a conventional affair, and it will be a matter of regret should false ideas of shame supplant those of natural dignity such as one sees expressed in the carriage and bearing of the well-bred… lady’.

But the import of Victorian patriarchy also imported shame, and women were told that a bare body was a mark of disgrace. Dignity lay in accepting male objectification; honour was in docility. Men, studying in colleges in big cities, received jibes about their topless mothers who may have had more than one husband. Could they ever be sure about who their fathers were? These men dragged into Kerala the masculinity of their patriarchal interlocutors, and women too, exposed to the West and a new conception of femininity, succumbed. ‘We will publish nothing related to politics,’ declared one of the region’s earliest women’s magazines in 1892, adding that ‘writings that energise the moral conscience’ — tips on cooking, stories of ‘ideal women’ — and ‘other such enlightening topics’ alone would be covered. A lady’s job was in the home as a mother, as a loyal wife, and as a housekeeper, not outside as a topless harlot who exercised her customary right to divorce. ‘As women,’ another declaration went, ‘our god-ordained duty is the care of the home and service towards our husbands.’

Roles recast

New icons needed to be found. Women who fit the bill of the new order rather than those who were emblems of a now disgusting bare-bosomed past. And where such women were in short supply, existing women were reincarnated, as J. Devika has shown. Umayamma of Attingal, the topless queen whom the Dutch noted for her ‘noble and manly conduct’, who was ‘feared and respected by everyone’, and who was a ‘young Amazon’, became in S. Parameswara Iyer’s poetry, a melodramatic damsel in distress, a helpless mother (when, in fact, she had no children) pleading for a male protector. Where the English found that the ‘handsomest young men about the country’ formed her seraglio and ‘whom and as many [men] as she pleases to the honour of her bed’ could be had by her, now she became a loyal, patriarchal icon of womanly virtue. The women of the past were turned into ciphers for the present, filled with doses of honour and draped in garbs tailored by men. The wheels of time had turned and this is what was needed in Kerala.


Nangeli too was recast. When Nangeli offered her breasts on a plantain leaf to the Rajah’s men, she demanded not the right to cover her breasts, for she would not have cared about this ‘right’ that meant nothing in her day. Indeed, the mulakkaram had little to do with breasts other than the tenuous connection of nomenclature. It was a poll tax charged from low-caste communities, as well as other minorities. Capitation due from men was the talakkaram — head tax — and to distinguish female payees in a household, their tax was the mulakkaram — breast tax. The tax was not based on the size of the breast or its attractiveness, as Nangeli’s storytellers will claim, but was one standard rate charged from women as a certainly oppressive but very general tax.

When Nangeli stood up, squeezed to the extremes of poverty by a regressive tax system, it was a statement made in great anguish about the injustice of the social order itself. Her call was not to celebrate modesty and honour; it was a siren call against caste and the rotting feudalism that victimised those in its underbelly who could not challenge it. She was a heroine of all who were poor and weak, not the archetype of middle-class womanly honour she has today become. But they could not admit that Nangeli’s sacrifice was an ultimatum to the order, so they remodelled her as a virtuous goddess, one who sought to cover her breasts rather than one who issued a challenge to power. The spirit of her rebellion was buried in favour of its letter, and Nangeli reduced to the sum of her breasts.

The writer, who authored the award-winning The Ivory Throne, when not writing is busy trying to make a mean meen pollichathu.

source: / The Hindu / Home> Society> History & Culture / by Manu S. Pillai

The transformation of a historic church

Window to past The Koonan Kurishu Church that was renovated by avoiding conventional building materials.

Church commemorates the January 1653 vow taken by Malankara Nazranis

The Koonan Kurishu Church (Church of the Leaning Cross) in Mattancherry has undergone a transformation worthy of its remarkable place in history.

The church, built in 1751, commemorates the January 1653 vow taken by the Malankara Nazranis or Christians against Portuguese and Roman Catholic Church attempts to dominate their spiritual and ritual affairs.

The 1751 church underwent major renovation in 1974. Now, it has been renovated by retaining the original structure except in places where it had deteriorated badly. The church has been rebuilt, mostly avoiding conventional materials such as cement and steel, and using compressed, stabilised mud blocks.

The renovated church provides a brief glimpse into the past with its earthy shade, domes, vaults and arches that rise up as symbols of early eastern Christianity. The Marthoma Cross (St. Thomas Cross) crowns it and the altar is blessed by a cross formed by light beams, says NRI businessman and philanthropist John Samuel Kuruvilla who oversaw the renovation works.

He said architect Vinu Daniel designed the structure. The masons were provided training in the use of earth blocks, employing the ancient Nubian technology of arch and vault-building without extensive shuttering, said Mr. Kuruvilla.

The Koonankurisu Church, under the Malankara Indian Orthodox Church, will be reconsecrated on February 24 and 25. A religious amity meet will be organised as part of the reconsecration of the church. The all-religion meet will celebrate its lineage steeped in an era when different communities lived in harmony.

The spot where the church is located is where thousands of the Nazranis, restive over the Portuguese efforts to dominate, gathered to pledge their allegiance to their long-standing traditions. But the gathering was so large that hundreds were unable to touch the cross directly. They drew a rope from the cross, and touching it, publicly denounced the Portuguese. The story is that the cross bent under pressure and hence the name ‘Koonan Kurisu’. The event is described as ‘Koonan Kurishu Sathyam’ or the oath before the bent cross.

source: / The Hindu / Home> News> Cities> Kochi / by Special Correspondent / Kochi – February 22nd, 2017

Protecting their hallowed ground

The renovated Jewish cemetery  K Shijith

Kochi :

On November 23, 2016, Josephai Abraham (Sam) stood inside the 1.5 acre Jewish cemetery on the Kathrakadavu-Pullepady road, Kochi. It was the burial of his mother-in-law Miriam Joshua, aged 89. “When I looked around, I suddenly realised that the cemetery was in bad shape,” he says. Many tombs could not be seen because of the high grass.

There were more problems. “At one corner, neighbours had thrown their garbage, in plastic packets,” says Sam, the president of the Association of Kerala Jews. “Some inhabitants had pushed their water pipes under the wall, so that all the waste water would flow into the property.”

The shield of david and the menorah on the
compound wall. (Above)
An earlier picture of the cemetery

So Sam decided to do something, with the backing of six families of the association. Workers were hired, grass and weeds were chopped off, and, at one side, where there was a marshy pond, several layers of building waste was put in, to smoothen the surface. “Thereafter, interlocking tiles had been put,” says Sam.

“At least now, we can park our cars inside. Otherwise, we had to do so on the narrow road and it created problems for the other motorists.” The walls have been painted white and many tombs, which were broken, have been repaired and repainted.

And, on the wall, at the opposite end to the entrance, a Shield of David have been etched, along with the seven candles of the Menorah.

The Menorah has been a symbol of Judaism, from ancient times, and is now part of the emblem of the state of Israel.
However, it has not been smooth sailing. One neighbour approached Sam and told him he could not do any renovation, as all construction has been frozen. On being asked how, the neighbour said there are expansion plans for the road and the cemetery will be taken over. “I said no such decision has been taken,” says Sam.

Then, in mid-January, Gracy Joseph, Chairperson, Standing Committee for Development of the Cochin Corporation, came to inquire. “I had received complaints from the local residents that some construction was going on,” she says. “But the members of the Jewish community told me that they were only renovating the place.”
Clearly, the cemetery is under threat. “The Cochin Corporation has plans to broaden the road,” says Association secretary Dr Susy Elias.

But Soumini Jain, the Mayor of the Corporation says that the stretch in front of the cemetery has been handed over to the Public Works Department of the State government. “It is they who will do the road expansion works,” she says.

“There are suggestions of building an overbridge in front of the cemetery. But whether the government has the funds for that, I am not sure.”
Meanwhile, according to Jewish religious law, once a person is buried, the grave cannot be disturbed. It can only be removed if a relative gives permission. But the local Jews have no idea where they are, since many have emigrated to Israel. So, the Jews are anxious about whether the authorities will insist that they will have to give up a part of their cemetery. “Many tombs will be disturbed,” says Sam.
Sometime ago, the association got in touch with Israeli ambassador Daniel Carmon. Thereafter, last month, the Bangalore-based Israeli Counsel General Yael Hashavit met Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and appraised him of the situation. “The CM said that he was aware of it,” says Mordokkayi Shafeer, the treasurer of the association.
Meanwhile, despite these tensions, the Jews come once a month to light candles and to pray at the graves. “We also come on death anniversaries and during the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) festival,” says Shafeer. “Life has to go on.”

source: / The New Indian Express / Home> Cities> Kochi / by Shevlin Sebastian / Express News Service / February 20th, 2017