Monday, November 19, 2018

The German-born Prem Manasvi P lives in a 200-year-old house surrounded by a forest that he has nurtured for over two decades

Photos by Albin Mathew

By Shevlin Sebastian

As Prem Manasvi P opens his eyes in his bedroom of a 200-year-old house in the village of Cherpu (80 kms from Kochi), on a recent morning, he hears familiar sounds: the twitter of birds, the occasional crowing of a rooster, followed by the mooing of a cow. A little later, the 77-year-old steps out and heads towards his 2000 sq. ft. pond. 

Entering a traditional structure with a tiled roof, he has to take several steps downwards before he reaches the pond’s edge. Then he uses a sieve to clear the leaves and algae off the surface. “I collect more than one hundred litres,” he says. “I do this twice, in the morning and the late afternoon during the monsoon season.” Then Prem sets out on his swim, comprising freestyle and backstroke movements. Because the pond has a depth of 21 feet, there are more than two million litres of water.

As a result, there is plenty of groundwater and the six wells on his three acres are full throughout the year. “The pond, which I consider to be the crown jewel of the property, has helped in the recharge of groundwater. This is of important public significance, more so at a time when climate change and construction activities have made this area drought-prone during the summer months.”

Meanwhile, an hour later, Prem has finished his swim. A bath and breakfast follow. Then Prem goes for a stroll. It is an amazing place: there are numerous trees, shrubs, plants and flowers. “This is the result of 23 years of work,” he says, as he points at a banyan tree. “I must thank my friend Shelly P, who lives nearby and did all the work of planting and nurturing this forest. In fact, you will be surprised to know that when I bought the property it was mostly bare, with just a few jackfruit and coconut trees, and banana plants.”

In total, there are 32 different types of trees, like the Red Beed, Blackboard, and the Indian Berry, apart from 45 different species of plants and flowers. 

So how did the Kassel-born German (original name: Heinz J Paul) land up in Kerala? Answer: Osho. Prem was a devotee. And it was at the Osho International Meditation Resort at Pune in 1991 that he met Shelly who worked as a photographer while Prem was a Coordinator in the Press Office. “Shelly invited me to accompany him on a visit to his native place, Cherpu, where his parents lived,” says Prem. 

When Prem arrived at Cherpu he quickly fell in love with the place. “I was fascinated by the sight of elephants, the greenery, paddy fields, and bullock carts,” he says. “On later visits, I was drawn to the rich cultural heritage of the state, especially the Kathakali, Koodiyattom and Tolpava (puppetry) art forms.” 

And thus, one day, a desire arose in Prem to own a traditional house. With the help of Shelly, he inspected more than one hundred spots before he zoomed in on the house where he is living in now. Prem acquired it on May 2, 1995. 

But he has not had an easy time maintaining the house. “We are finding it difficult to find carpenters and masons who know how to work in such an old house, without damaging it,” he says. “It is important that renovation should be done properly.” 

The house is a traditional naluketu -- there are four halls, in the north, south, east and west that face a courtyard which is open to the sky. Inside, there are rooms which had been used as a granary, a kitchen with a fireplace, sleeping quarters, puja room, a room to store large vessels, a ‘pampu kavu’, which is a space dedicated for snake worship, while another room was used by women who were going through their menstrual periods and had to remain isolated. 

Prem has a look of pride when he shows the visitor around his house. So, it is not surprising that he is worried about the direction Kerala is going. 

“Too many traditional houses are being torn down,” he says. “As a result, you are losing an important part of your cultural identity. In its place, concrete monstrosities are coming up. In the West, the preservation of heritage is a pillar of development. New structures are harmoniously integrated with old ones. I am hoping that the devastation caused by the recent floods will make the politicians, administrators, leaders of civil society and ordinary people have a re-think of what is happening in the name of development. That is the only way Kerala can regain its title of ‘God’s Own Country’.”

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