Tuesday, February 19, 2019

The wonder that is Cochin

City historian Balagopal CK, in association with Sahapedia, an encyclopedia on Indian arts and culture, organised a Heritage Walk about the coastal city to make people aware of its cultural legacy

Photos: Balagopal CK; the Abdicated Highness King Rama Varma XV

By Shevlin Sebastian

City historian Balagopal CK stood in front of the Durbar Hall in Kochi on a recent afternoon accompanied by a group of people, which included architects, writers, students and hoteliers. Balagopal, in association with Sahapedia, an encyclopedia on Indian arts and culture, was organising a Heritage Walk titled, ‘Tracing the Journey of Ernakulam Town in Modern Times’. The walk highlights the period from the early 1800s to the time of Independence.

For a long while, the Darbar Hall was the administrative centre of ‘Cochin’, as it was known then,” says Balagopal. “And how it happened is an interesting story by itself.”

In 1808, the Dewan of Travancore, Velu Thampi, and the Chief Minister of Cochin, Paliyath Achan Govinda Menon hatched a plan to kill the British Resident Colin Campbell Macaulay (1760-1836), who was staying at the Bolgatty Palace island. Both felt that the British control of India was coming to an end. So they thought it would be the right time to kill Macaulay. The King of Cochin, in whose territory the attempt was made, remained a mute spectator.    

The attack was led by Chempil Arayan, who was the Admiral of the fleet of the Travancore King Balarama Varma,” says Balagopal. “The latter had also fallen out with Macaulay.”  

The attackers arrived in boats, at night. More than 300 muskets were fired. But Macaulay fled through an underground tunnel and escaped on a boat. Soon after, the British were able to arrest Chempil. Thereafter, they moved the administrative seat from Mattancherry to the Durbar Hall in Cochin and appointed new people in positions of power. They were called the Diwans. The Kings became constitutional heads.

Then Balagopal moved a few hundred metres away, towards a temple, and says, “This is the Ernakulathappan Siva Temple, which is part of the Durbar Hall grounds.” Ernakulathappan is the Lord Of Ernakulam (older name of Kochi). It was believed to have been built under the patronage of a local chieftain called Cheranellur Kartha but it was renovated and raised to the level of a royal temple by Diwan Sri Edakkunni Sankara Warrier in 1846.  

At the General Hospital, Balagopal says, “This hospital provided very good health care. In 1898, King Rama Varma XV (1852-1932) imported an X-ray machine from Britain to treat his mother. However, the British Medical Officer said it was too much of a luxury for the people and refused to pay for it. In the end, the King had to foot the bill himself.”

Rama Varma XV was also known as the Abdicated Highness. That’s because he abdicated the throne in 1914. “He had his disagreements with the Resident,” says Balagopal. “He was shaking up the system. The British establishment was not happy.”

However, the seeds of modern Cochin were sowed during his reign, as he introduced the Shoranur-Cochin railway line, a distance of 96 km, established the Sanskrit College at Tripunithura, and brought in a village panchayat bill and the Tenancy Act. “In fact, when the Viceroy Lord Curzon came to Cochin on a visit, he called it the most progressive state in India,” says Balagopal.   

At the Maharaja’s College, Balagopal says, “The college was started by the Cochin government as an English-medium school in 1875. The first principal was a British gentleman called A F Sealy. It was rechristened as Maharaja’s College in the 1920s. It did have the patronage of the Maharajas. The princes of Cochin and Kodungallur studied here. However, they sat at one side, away from the commoners. In a way it was elitist.”

Very few people had access to education. “In the 1900s, the literacy rate was 14 per cent for men and 4 per cent for women, which is abysmal by today’s standards,” says Balagopal. “However, in those times, it was the highest in South India, after the Madras district, and way above the national average.”
Some of the other places he showed include the TDM Hall, the Cochin Corporation, and the Harbour.

Finally, Balagopal took the group to the Mahatma Gandhi statue on Foreshore Road, near the Harbour. “Cochin was the first Princely state, of the 565 states, to join the Indian Union in 1946,” says Balagopal. “When the first Constituent Assembly met in 1946, Cochin was the only princely state to sent elected representatives. It was a precursor to democracy.”  
Interestingly, Balagopal was a Mysuru-based engineer. But he relocated to Kochi in 2016 and saw, to his dismay, many large historical buildings being torn down. “It was disheartening,” he says. “There was so much of heritage that was being destroyed. So I wanted to start a conversation about our history and create an ethos of conservation. In a way, I am trying to do my bit to preserve our cultural riches.”


A statue for a king
At the Subhash Park, Kochi, there is a statue of Rama Varma XV. The Diwan of Cochin AR Banerjee saw the statue of Ganga Singh, the Maharaja of Bikaner and wanted to make a similar statue in the name of Rama Varma XV. “But by this time World War 1 broke out,” says Balagopal. “Metal became very dear. If you wanted to use metal for anything, apart from armaments, you needed special permission. So, nothing happened. It was later made at 1300 pounds, way above the original estimate of 500 pounds. But by then, the King had abdicated.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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