References to 'Charithra Maalika' (Historical Mansion) can certainly be found if one were to explore the history of Travancore. Culturally and historically significant articles from the 'Nanchi' region of Travancore of the Kerala maps of yore have been collected and preserved in more or less their original forms by a youngster named Abhilash in his innovatively thought out 'Charithra Maalika' (Historical Mansion). Abhilash is keen to showcase the historical importance of these articles to all those who are interested in the history and also to children. This is how ‘Charithra Maalika’ is different from conventional museums. About 4800 associated articles and 32 major installations have been collected and displayed here. When we complete the journey around these, we get a feeling of having travelled back into the centuries.
The measuring scale challenge
First we are guided by Abhilash through a noisy lot of schoolchildren to the entrance hall (Poomukham) of ‘Charithra Maalika’. This entrance hall is called ‘Atma-mukham’ meaning ‘The face of self’. The roof of this entrance hall is supported by 14 main rafters signifying 14 worlds as mentioned in the Indian mythology. In the joiner pieces of this lattice of rafters, a key measuring scale is placed. This is a challenge. A person is considered capable of constructing a building of similar measure or of making alterations to this only when that person is able to take out the measuring scale without breaking the rafters and the joiner pieces.
Next in the collection are palm leaves and iron styluses which were the paper and pen of yore. Both long Palm leaves and shorter scrolls which can fit inside a knotted fist are on display here. The books of those times are bound in leather or in silk cloths and covered at the top and bottom of the racks by palm fronds. The writing metal styluses are of mainly two varieties. Some are bland iron styluses sharpened at the end while others are more ornate and made of bronze.
In the adjacent structure called the 'Padimeda' (literally a Gatehouse, a drawing room), there is a round table upon which stands the wooden statuette of an elephant calf. This statuette is supposed to announce the economic status of the house. If this statuette of the elephant calf, which can be turned around on its fixture is facing outward, it meant that the house had plenty of paddy in its in-house granary whereas if it was facing inward, it meant the household has financial difficulties.
The pillar bank
Alongside this statuette of the elephant calf, there is a 'pillar bank'. It is basically a pillar in which the family’s savings were held. Money (coins) are inserted into the hollow pillar using a wooden key which can open a small slot at the top of the pillar. The coin falls into the hollow of the pillar when the key is turned to lock the slot. Once the hollow space is filled with coins, each time a coin is inserted into the pillar using the wooden key thereafter, some of the coins inside move through the beam of the roof connecting to the pillar and fall inside a wooden vault (Pathaayam). This beam is called 'pattutharam'. If there are circumstances wherein the family had to take the coins out before the pillar is filled, only the chief carpenter (architect) who designed and constructed the house can help.
On the steps leading out from the entrance hall to the courtyard, wooden catch-doors are fitted with handles. You may assume these are hidden treasure chests. In one way, they are. These are tiny water reservoirs. The size of the reservoir is such that one could dip his palm inside. The water from these are used in summer seasons.
In a chest made of metal alloy kept over the doorframe leading to the interior of ‘padimeda’, replicas of the sun, moon, lizards etc. can be seen. The door has an ornamental lock.
Inner courtyard and the 'kalari'
Going inside from the ‘Padimeda’ one reaches the inner courtyard. However, this inner courtyard is not like the traditional inner courtyards (‘Naalukettu’). This area houses a training centre or a gymnasium (‘Kalari’) below the ground level. With a periphery of 41 units, this training area has space for 27 trainees. Though this area is below the ground level, light and air can enter it through the open courtyard. Drainage for rainwater is arranged through a system of scuppers and drain pipes which prevent the water from entering the training area. The training area can be accessed from the outer edge of the courtyard.
On the eastern end of the training area, there is a window with wooden grillwork. This window opens to the darkness beyond. But from the drawing room above there is an entrance to a secret room, spacious enough for a man to lie down and stand up, outside the window. One can stealthily watch the goings on in the training area through the window (called ‘Kannarajaalakam’) by hiding in this room.
In those times, the trainers secretly watched the progress of the training and the behaviour of the disciples from this room. The disciples always felt the presence of the trainer (Guru) and had a perpetual feel of being under surveillance. The training area is in use even today. In a corner of the training area, there is a lamp with eternal flame. Also kept here are the accessories and footwear used by a great Guru of a bygone era, along with the astrological chart of the training area.
Through the underground tunnel to the 'thai maalika'
The interconnecting of the underground structures was some sort of an engineering marvel of that era. From the room where the lamp is kept, there is a dark tunnel of about 3 feet height leading to the labour room. In those times, the women delivered babies within the households. The women underwent a rejuvenation therapy in these labour rooms after the delivery. Bowls for keeping massaging oil and other unguents and cots made of red sandalwood etc. are arranged here.
From the labour room, there is access upwards into the chamber inside the 'thai maalika' (literally, mother's house). Thai Maalika is built entirely in solid Jack tree wood. When the entrance and exit doors to this chamber are opened, they make the sound of a trumpeting elephant. Behind the thai maalika there is a set of hearths and enormous metal cauldrons and urns. Preparation of feasts and making of medicines are done here. There are arrangements here for steam bath and other rejuvenation therapies.
Next to this room is a drug store beyond which a tunnel leads to the distillation units for medicines and herbs. Huge mortars, pestles and grinding stones are arranged here. A level below this is the therapy room. The full-body therapy done here are intended for maintaining youth and vigour. Various balsams, oils and unguents are kept here in specially made containers. There is an access upward from here to the entrance hall ‘Atmamukham’.
Outside in the courtyard, there is another building with a gigantic gateway above which are a room and a spacious verandah divided into two sections. This building called 'Vaasaanthya maalika’ was where chess and other intellectually stimulating games were played in the evenings.
There are countless other details on the ‘Charithra Maalika’. There are various types of lamps and lanterns used in those times. The display of household items in black granite, bronze and brass take us through the stone and metal ages. There are also different kinds of weighing and measuring scales. The bullock cart used by Mahatma Gandhi when he visited Kanyakumari and another bullock cart used by Janaki Ramachandran are on display. Other curious items here include the oil-press, the load rest and a Belgian Tortoise Bell.
The ‘Charithra Maalika’ is built in a 36 cent plot and is spread over an area of 22,000 square feet. As much area is covered underground too. The reconstruction of the 400 year old mansion began during Abhilash’s grandfather’s time. This was interrupted in the 1960s. Abhilash took the initiative to resume the reconstruction and brought it to the present stage.
The mansion was reconstructed using workers from Thiruchendur. Further, Abhilash collected historically significant artefacts and implements from the region for preservation. He is not doing it for monetary gains. Abhilash does not consider these items as mere exhibits. These are emblems of a rich heritage that needs to be preserved for posterity. It is not surprising then that students get priority here.
From above the ‘Vaasaanthya Maalika’ one gets an aerial view of the ‘Charithra Maalika’. This comprises of three tiled buildings of typical Kerala design. The front-yard is shared by these three buildings. The antique pieces are displayed in the drawing rooms of each building. There is a lot of hard work and determination behind the collection and preservation of these heritage pieces. Such an effort needs to be rewarded at least in the form of our efforts to preserve whatever we had inherited from the past. Think before you discard something and think of retrieving what you had discarded as old and useless. This is the message Abhilash wants to convey to the visitors.
How to reach
Charithra-Maalika is located at Amaravila near Neyyatinkara on the Thiruvananthapuram-Kanyakumari highway. The visit is allowed only for student and research groups of not less than 25 members.
Students of Upper Primary level and below are charged Rs 25 as entrance fee while those above are charged Rs 40. The college and research students are charged Rs 100. It is advisable to book on telephone in advance.
Phone numbers: 9349838961, 9495939797