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Back to the beginning

Two women trace history in the charms of Kollam,a town on the fringe of Kerala’s backwaters

Written by Radhika Oberoi |
May 23, 2010 3:04:28 pm

Two women trace history in the charms of Kollam,a town on the fringe of Kerala’s backwaters
Memory lanes are sometimes shy of renown,unfurling a silent course to places not on glossy brochures. Archana Ravi was on her way home,determinedly ignoring the beaches and backwaters in God’s Own Country,to arrive in reticent Mayyanad village,ten kilometres south of Kollam. I was with her on this journey,a city-bred co-traveller armed with guidebook,camera and bottle of mineral water.

The route was not devoid of self-indulgence. Upon landing in Thiruvanthapuram,Archana hovered over the grave of her beloved Madhavikutty – writer Kamala Das,whose poetry quivers with the most popular of all passions,unrequited love. Her autobiography My Story (Ente Katha),first published in 1973,is a scorching account of all that decent Malayali girls are presumed to be innocent of — desire and its spasms of thrill and heartache.

Kamala,who died on May 31 2009,was buried at the graveyard of the Palayam Juma Masjid two days later. The mosque was the first in the state to open its doors to women worshippers. An apt resting place for a writer who,in her lifetime,grappled with the loneliness of being left out in the cold.
There was one other female deity we sought —Geetha Miss,who had taught Archana English in class eight. She,the admirer of first poems and clandestine giver of homemade wine,lived in Thangasseri,a seaside village five kilometers away from Kollam town. But before her shrine of cushioned sofas,we headed for a more hallowed destination.

Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple,one of the 108 holiest abodes of Lord Vishnu,glistened with the sweat of bare-chested priests. We slithered along the temple’s corridor,with its 365 and one- quarter intricately carved granite pillars,for a glimpse of Lord Vishnu reclining in the Anananthasayanam posture (eternal sleep). Since we’d bought tickets,we laid our claim to a scarce second and stood before the sleeping god,asking for fate-altering gifts. The ticketless were elbowed out.

Outside the temple,Lord Vishnu,freed of red tape,mingled with his devotees. For the people of the erstwhile princely state of Travancore still believed he ruled the state. The old state emerged from the ancient Kingdom of Venad,in the southwest region of the Indian peninsula. Its royal seat was at Kollam. Travancore was merely a small kingdom comprising Nanchinadu in the south and Idava in the north. During the reign of Maharaja Marthanda Varma (1729-1758 AD),Travancore grew to include smaller kingdoms like Kayamkulam,Thekkumkoor and Vadakkumkoor. The king dedicated his new empire to his tutelary deity,Sri Padmanabha,in 1750 AD.

Mayyanad,whose population of grand aunts,grand nephews and grand cousins awaited us,was located in the middle of the erstwhile Venad kingdom. The Gundert Dictionary describes “maayam” as middle. Aptly christened,for we found ourselves in the midst of the arterial network of family. Appachis and ammachis forked into bloodlines frail and blurry,but significant nonetheless. Even the unrelated were not unknown; Archana waved at an old man gliding on a bicycle,who she claimed forgot to wear his shirt once a year. This annual show of partial nudity lifted him from anonymity to the stuff of folklore.

Mayyanad,in a perpetual Anananthasayanam posture on the banks of the Paravur Lake,is also the birthplace of CV Kunjuraman,the founder-editor of Kerala Kamudi. He was also part of the movement that led to the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936 that abolished the ban on lower-caste people from entering Hindu temples in Travancore.

Reform coursed through the corpuscles of this seemingly timid land. Sree Narayana Guru,visionary 19th century social reformer who belonged to the Ezhava community,first alerted his people to the poisonous schisms created by the caste system. In 1888,he arrived in Aruvippuram and built a humble altar of coconut and mango leaves,on the face of a rock peeping out of a rivulet. On this,he installed an idol of Lord Shiva,challenging the belief that only a Brahmin could consecrate an idol. The makeshift temple became one of the first that was indifferent to the caste of worshippers. Seated on a wooden bench in Avittom restaurant opposite her alma mater,Sree Narayana College for Women,Archana explained that she owed her education to the defiance of one ascetic.

She then replenished her lecture-giving energies with an egg roll. “Back then,we thought they mixed drugs in the food here,” she revealed,devouring her snack and ordering another,as though apologising for old misconceptions with a sudden appetite for egg rolls.
Standing on the ramparts of a mouldy Portuguese fort in Thangasseri,we took in the implicit Christian influence on Kollam. Formerly known as Quilon this region became a hub of missionary expeditions in the latter half of the 12th century. The Portuguese,who established a trading centre in Thangasseri in 1502,built the St. Thomas Fort here.

Geetha Miss,round and bursting with stories,met us at the Quilon Lighthouse that had been commissioned in 1902. Its geographical range of 18 miles suddenly became a sepia bioscope of Archana the schoolgirl,as teacher-pupil scrutinised the events of Class VIII. Later,we drank the secret wine of Franciscan friars. “It’s the blood of Christ,” said Archana learnedly. It was also the ruby-red insignia of a shared history.

Kollam District is located 71 km to the north of Thiruvanthapuram.
Where to go
Mayyanad (10 km south of Kollam town): Noted for its nine temples,especially the Subramanya Temple at Umayanallor.
Thangasseri (5 km from Kollam town): It was colonised by the Portuguese,the Dutch and the English. Its three-kilometre long beach has a lighthouse,commissioned in 1902.
Sasthamkotta (29 km from Kollam): This is a pilgrim centre,and has the largest fresh water lake surrounded by hills on three sides.
Ochira (34 km north of Kollam): Famed for its Ochira Kali festival in mid June and the 12 day Panthrandu Vilakku (twelve lamp festival) in December. Ochira Kali is a splendid display of marital arts—mock fights enacted between groups of men dressed as warriors on the padanilam (battle field).
Thenmala: (66 km east of Kollam): Home to India’s first planned eco-tourism project and selected by the World Tourism Organisation as one of the world’s best eco-friendly projects.
Palaruvi waterfalls: (75 km from Kollam town): Palaruvi literally means stream of milk. The water cascades down from a height of 300 feet.
Rameshwara temple: It has inscriptions in Tamil dating from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
Backwater tours: ATDC and DTPC operate Kollam-Alappuzha boat cruises. Fare: Rs 150 per person. DTPC backwater village cruise on country boat. Fare: Rs. 300 per person.
Houseboat operators: Tour India,Thiruvanthapuram. Ph: 0471-2331507 DTPC,Kollam. Telefax: 750170.

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