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Feb 10, 2014

Life in the Agraharams

Art & Architecture / Sharat Sunder Rajeev
image Agraharams: The name literally means "a garland of houses". It originates from the fact that the agraharams have lines of houses on either side of the road and the temple to the village god at the centre, thus resembling a garland around the temple.

Smiling faces greeted us whenever we went to agraharams for conducting case studies. Old women wearing ‘chela’ and men who busy chatting with their friends occupied the ‘thinna’. Within the crumbling agraharams we could get a glimpse of large families, trying to fit themselves into long corridor like spaces; a life style and culture evolved through the ages. Life in agraharams starts early morning, when rest of the city sleeps peacefully, the women of agraharams rises and after bathing draw ‘arippodikolam’ in front of their houses.‘Arippodikolam’- a painted prayer. It is believed that drawing a kolam in front of the house brings prosperity. Moreover, they provide food for insects and birds.

An old doorway inside the agraharam complex, East Fort - Photograph taken by the author.

Marthanda Varma was the first ruler who identified the potential of the temple town, Thiruvananthapuram. Though the capital was still Padmanabhapuram, he started the overall development of Thiruvananthapuram which finally made it a capital city. After renovation of the temple, he invited Tamil and Tulu Brahmins to the capital city and made agraharams for them, the small market which functioned in the eastern side of the temple gradually flourished as more and more people started to migrate to this region. Another interesting story on migration of Brahmins to this area was narrated by Mani Iyer of Sreenikaethan (west nada); according to his story Ramayyan Dalawa was the brain behind Marthanda Varma’s successes. It is said that the king once offered half of his kingdom to this trusted minister, making him a king. However, Ramayyan respectfully refused this offer saying that he was a Brahmin and it’s the duty of Kshtriyas to rule. He asked the king to give shelter to poor Brahmins; the king accepted his minister’s advice and invited Brahmins to Thiruvananthapuram. The temple provided them with means of livelihood.

Ramayyan Dalawa - Picture courtesy - R. Narayana Panikker, The History of Travancore.

Mr. Krishna lyer, a ninety year old gentleman whom we met in Tippu Street turned out to be a treasure trove of information, for he had in store much new information that helped us to understand the life and culture of agraharams, in a better manner. He gave us a clear idea about the history and social conditions that existed inside the fort area, which was off limits to the lower castes till recent age. Krishna lyer was an exceptional man, with a sharp memory spaning over eight decades, he was the ‘one’ whom we were looking for. He accompanied us to ‘Azhikotta’ and on the way explained to us the history of agraharams, its evolution through the ages, current issues and about the old settlements around the fort area.

Krishna Iyer -  screenshot from a documentary on agraharams (Agraharangal Kathaparayumbol).

According to him the old ‘pramanam’ or documents stated that land was given for ‘Paradesi Brahmins’ and ‘Malayala Brahmins’ by the king. These Brahmins built agraharams and settled there, forming one of the oldest social caste settlements inside the capital city.

Tamilsmarthabrahmin and his wife - From Yale University Collection.

Their houses were special too, all houses shared a common wall and were made of ‘Cheekkal katta’, a strong locally available building material, these blocks were cemented with lime plaster and the plinth in which the house stood was made of large granite blocks, which were laid in a special manner, which according to the him is very efficient that the centuries old houses had not been affected by the earthquakes. In old days the roofs were thatched and the supporting pillars and mezzanine floors were made of timbre. Later thatch roofs were replaced by Mangalore tiles when they were made available in Travancore. This group housing influenced their life style also, privacy was not their concern. Usually large joint families were cramped inside the long corridor like spaces, but their lifestyle evolved around the temple and their houses that even now the younger generation finds no fault living in these houses. However, they have made many additions for their comfortable living. The open ‘thinna’ were old Brahmins assembled for the ‘vedivattam’ and occasional card playing were closed with iron bars. The open courts inside the houses were also leveled making room for a bed or a study table for the younger generation.

According to Krishna lyer, water supply, electric connection and drainage came inside fort during M.E. 1103-04, during the reign of the Regent Maharani Sethu Lekshmi Bai, before that assigned people came at 6O’clock in morning everyday to collect night soil from every houses. They had special paths known as scavengers lane made behind every stretch of streets. The wastes were collected outside the fort (southwest corner) and later taken to far off places to be disposed.

An old agraharam with open thinna - Photograph by the author.

Krishna lyer says that in those days the senior members of the family slept in the open thinnas, there were no mosquito problems as the drains running through the front were cleaned daily. The roads were also cleaned and sprinkled with water daily. Before corporation water supply was made available, there were common wells, two wells for each street that provided them with water, every morning the women folk crowded around the well for collecting water for their daily use. However, with the coming of corporation water connection the wells were neglected and they turned into breeding grounds of mosquitoes and were later sealed off.

In old days majority of the Brahmins were employed in the temple as staffs and in the temple kitchen, mukkanaiya a sub caste of Iyers were money lenders and were appointed as accountants. Later they got admitted in government offices, the ‘Huzur kacherry’ and the court that functioned in an old building that has been now occupied by Sree Moola Vilasam (S.M.V) School. With new positions their life standard increased and now most of them have high educational qualifications and are employed as high government officials.

Brahmins being a priestly class were less familiar with farming techniques, the lack of open spaces and the life style that revolved around the temple made then depend on vegetable sellers and other street vendors who came daily to sell their wares. However, few coconut trees can be spotted in the backyard spaces. People belonging to different castes ranging from bangle makers, the ‘Vala Chettis’, to basket makers came there to sell off their products. However, no one from outside was admitted inside the fort after 10pm. There were guards at each opening checking on those who enter and leave the place. The Attakulangara post office building was the soldier’s outpost, there was a well near it, where now there’s a milma booth.

Azhikotta and the old post office building that once served as soldiers outpost - Photograph by the author.
Krishna lyer still has a vivid memory of his childhood days when he used to walk to Sangumugham beach that was three miles away for a bath in the sea. The streetlamp lighters arrived every day evening at six with their kerosene cans and ladders. All street lamps would go out at about nine at night, but still the road would be lighted up by the stone lamps; stone lamps were there attached to the walls of every agraharams. Theses stone lamps hold oil for a longer time illuminating the street, thus the street came to be known as ‘deepatheruvu’, the street of lamps, but now its name have changed to Tippu Street. Every street had a story to tell, ‘Thamman Street’ was the place where a saint by the name ‘Subramanya Dharman’ lived, the word ‘Dharman’ when used by the locals changed to ‘Thamman’, like wise ‘Dikshidar street’ is named after a Dikshidar who was a high official at the palace. Thekkae theruvu, the main road that runs straight from Vettimuricha kotta to Kallampally junction was renamed as ‘Chidambara Krishna Iyer Street’, in memory of Chidambara Krishna lyer who was the mayor of the town. ‘Kottalam’ road was where the ‘kottanmar’ or construction workers lived, there were about ten families there.

However, the peaceful life in agraharams was disturbed in 1939, when ‘Hitler’s war’, the World War II started, many young men from the area migrated to North India for better jobs. Krishna lyer was one among them. He went to Karachi and many other places in search of jobs. This period marked the beginning of a new phase also, more and more youngsters began to explore the world outside and with India gaining independence and will the disposal of the king’s rule, the privileges enjoyed by these families were cut short.

Over the years agraharams have changed, adapting to the needs of the younger generation, they sometimes lost its character. New additions and façade treatments often make them seem out of place, however, they stand as the ghosts of the past, reminding us the glorious heritage of Thiruvananthapuram, the temple town.

(Sharat Sunder Rajeev is an Assistant Professor at Mc Gans Ooty School of Architecture. He has a keen interest in the unique architechture of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the erstwhile Kingdom of Travancore and stories on this city. He  graduated in Architecture from College of Engineering, Trivandrum and studied Architectureal conversation from School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. He is an immensely talented artist and an ardent blogger. )