Remains of Kottayam's glorious past

kottayam's past
Illustration: Jayan
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Kottayam town has been witness to an eventful history but some major landmarks have been wiped out leaving no trace or have been replaced by newer buildings. One fine example is the fort at Thaliyil from where the kings of Thekkumkoor dynasty ruled the area. After the Thekkumkoor kingdom was annexed by Travancore, every single stone of the fort was dismantled, carted away, and used for other purposes.

The present town of Kottayam, in fact, took shape only around 250 years ago after the Travancore king Marthanda Varma attacked 'Kottayakam' (interior of the fort), the capital of Thekkumkoor and defeated the rulers in the year AD 1749. Kottayam had originated as a trading outpost based at Thazhathangady on the banks of the Meenachil river. Over the years, a new settlement was formed with Thirunakkara at its centre.

Before the conquest by Travancore, a thriving and prosperous marketplace existed on the Kottayam-Kumarakom route beyond the present-day CMS College. The 'cheriya palli' (small church) stands here now. There was a 'Chetty Theruvu' (Chetty Street) in the area earlier and its residents were traders belonging to the Chetty community. Now, Chetty Theruvu is the headquarters of the CSI Church and no relics of Chetty Theruvi remain.

Thazhathangadi Mosque
The Thazhathangady Juma Masjid is an architectural marvel and is considered to be the most beautiful mosque built in Kerala's traditional style.

Beyond here is Chalukunnu. In this area lived people belonging to the Chaliyar community who were weavers. The 'kunnu' (hill) where Chaliyars lived soon became Chalukunnu. Currently, there is no trace of Chaliyars.

Still further along the road lies Arathootti bridge, beyond which is the old market. In the past, a stone bridge existed here. The old market, known as 'Thaliyanthanapuram,' was set up in AD 1445. After the conquest by Travancore, the market was shifted to near Kacherikadavu under the directives of the Diwan Sir T Rama Rao, who took over in AD 1879. At the spot where the old market existed stands the St Thomas Marthoma Church now.

A little ahead on the left stands a house flaunting the name 'Dhanavil.' In Persian, 'Dhanav' refers to jail. In fact, the prison of the Thekkumkoor kings stood here. But there are no other remains of the jail to be found now.

Cheriya Palli

cheriya palli
The church also flaunts striking mural art on its interiors. Thought paintings are in European style, the technique used is that of artists from Kerala.

Built in Portuguese - Baroque - Keralite style, the Cheriya Palli is the second church to come up in Kottayam town. It was built on land donated tax-free by the Thekkumkoor king Kotha Varma to the Marthoma Nasrani Christians who split from the 'Valiya Palli' (big church) at Kottayam.

Two noted priests are buried in the holy sanctuary (madhaba) of the church. They are Mar Gabriel Methran and Punnathra Mar Divanios Metropolitan, who laid the foundation for English education in Kottayam. The church also flaunts striking mural art on its interiors. Thought the paintings are in European style, the technique used is that of artists from Kerala. These paintings depict the last moments of Jesus Christ and are renowned around the world. Interestingly, the clothes worn by the people in the paintings are also European in style.

A stately building stands on the premises of the church. Several important events in the Malankara Syrian church had taken place here. More tempera paintings are kept in this building. The Cheriya Palli is now controlled by the Malankara Orthodox Church.

The Old Fort

Towards the south side of the Cheriya Palli lies the road to the old fort at Thaliyil. This road was once the royal path and the eastern gate of the Thaliyil temple can be noticed. However, there is no sign of the fort at present. Diwan Rama Rao had the fort demolished and most of the laterite stones were used to build the ponds in Kottayam town and the foundation of court buildings. The remaining stones were auctioned off. The crumbled stones were used to fill the moats around the fort, turning them into roads.

It was in the 15th century that the Thekkumkoor kings built palaces and the fort near the Thaliyil temple and shifted their capital here. Before that, Vennimala, Manikandapuram, and Changanassery served as their capitals. Changanassery later developed into another major town.

The fort was located at Thaliyil hills considering the commercial benefits and it had walls as high as 12 ft. A deep moat with crocodiles surrounded the fort. Outside the eastern gate of the fort was 'Palayam,' the army camp. A family of noted traditional physicians also lived near Palayam. Straight ahead of the old fort was the eastern gate of Thaliyil Temple, which stands till the present day.

Thaliyil Mahadeva Temple

The temple still exists and is on the topmost part of the hill. The Thali temple at Kottayam is one among the '18-and-a-half' thali shrines in Kerala. The deity at Thali temple is Lord Shiva and in the past these temples hosted assemblies by learned Brahmins who advised the king.

The architecture of the temple is striking and it has many mural paintings, too, in the 'Vembanadu' style. It is believed that this style of art originated in the temple. However, some of the paintings have faded owing to lack of proper maintenance. Interestingly, one painting shows a Muslim noble man on a camel and another art work the Buddha on an elephant.

There is also place where the Koothu art form was performed and a musical drum (mizhavu) kept here has an inscription saying that it was donated by a king named Kotha Varma in AD 1661. It is believed that the great poet Kunjan Nambiar too had played on this 'mizhavu.'

A pond just outside the temple once had a secret tunnel which led to all four directions of the hill. The pond is in a dilapidated condition now and the entrance to the tunnel was sealed four decades ago.

Another shrine on the temple premises has Cheruvallykkavu Bhagavathy, the family goddess of the Thekkumkoor dynasty, as the deity.

Banks of the Meenachil

Velliya Palli
Along the banks of Meenachil River, the road heads to the 'Velliya Pally' (big church).

A path leads downhill from the western gate of the temple to the banks of the Meenachil river. This area now called Thazhathangady once flaunted the western entrance of the fort built by Thekkumkoor kings. The moat that was converted into a road can be seen here even today.

The banks of the Meenachil, which was called 'Gauna' in the ancient past, had a prosperous trading centre dealing with spices. Arabs and Persians thronged the place during its heyday. The produce was brought from eastern hills by water channels and stored in large warehouses in Thazhathangady (market downhill). From here, the items were taken to Purakkad port for export to foreign lands.

After a deal was struck between the Thekkumkoor kings and the Dutch, it was the Europeans who controlled the trade here till the attack by Travancore. When Travancore conquered Kottayam, the trading centres lost their relevance and warehouses gave way to houses over time.

On the banks of the river are stunning traditional houses, some even 300 years old. One among them belongs to Thazhathu Tharakans, who supervised the trade on the orders of the Thekkumkoor dynasty. Most of the houses reflect Syrian-Portuguese-Keralite architecture.

A centuries-old Holy Cross stands near the houses and a little further is the Thazhathangady Juma Masjid. On the straight stretch of the river here the Kottayam boat race is held.

The Juma Masjid is an architectural marvel and is considered to be the most beautiful mosque built in Kerala's traditional style. The curious items kept at the mosque include a shadow clock, a finely chiselled pulpit, a sword gifted by the Thekkumkoor kings and a 'magical lock.'

On the upper floor, the building is designed to let in a breeze all the time.

From the masjid, the path leads to 'Valiyangady' (big market). Straight ahead is the Edaykkad Forane Church established by the Knanaya Christians who were influenced by Catholic philosophy in the early 19th century.

kottayam-cross

Along the banks of the river, the road heads to the 'Velliya Pally' (big church). The steps leading to the church are on the right. The shrine is the first church to come up in Kottayam and was built on land given tax-free by the Thekkumkoor ruler Athicha Varma in AD 1550.

A church became necessary as the population of Knanaya Christians who settled in the area from Kaduthuruthy grew. These people were known as 'Thekkumbhagakkar.'

Initially constructed with wood, the church was rebuilt in the present condition by the Portuguese architect Anthony 'Mistery' in 1570. The 'madhaba' of the church is adorned with amazing pieces of art.

Two centuries-old crosses can be seen in the church; they are the earliest examples of Marthoma style. Near the base of the crosses some inscriptions in Pahlavi script can be seen. However, Pahlavi, which was used by Sasanian rulers as their official script, is in no longer in use and the inscription is yet to be deciphered.

Outside the Big Church on the right side is the Valiyangadi street. In the past, prosperous traders of the Knanaya community lived here and their houses can still be seen. The 'big market' was set up in the 16th century, much after Thazhathangady. Now it is solely a residential area. A walk along this road leads a traveller back to the Cheriya Pally.

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