For anyone interested in the socio-cultural history of Kerala, a visit to Charitra Malika at Amaravila in Neyyattinkara, Thiruvananthapuram, will be immensely insightful. Abhilash Kumar, a young history enthusiast hailing from Neyyattinkara, has single handedly orchestrated a reconstruction of Nanchinad's architectural grandeur with a building complex consisting three sprawling structures arranged aesthetically around an open courtyard. He has curated a collection of 4800 antique pieces and 32 signature architectural elements in this massive exhibit.
Complex constructions in wood are a hallmark of Charitra Malika. They are living testaments to the skill and sophistication that architecture had achieved in this part of the world, says Abhilash. He adds that precious little of the rich tradition survives. Younger generations might not be able to appreciate the glory of their inheritance if we do not make an effort to preserve it, he says. He hopes that Charitra Malika will be taken up by the government in the future, as it requires huge funds and expertise to preserve the exhibits.
Atmamukham, the portion of the complex that greets visitors, offers a befitting introduction to the tour. The 14 rafters (kazhukkol) that holds up the roof - representative of the 14 worlds in mythology - have a precisely carved vent through which the measuring rod (muzhakkol) is inserted. It was a challenge of sorts thrown to skilled carpenters since the feat required extreme mathematical precision, says Abhilash. Carpenters were often asked to pull the measuring rod out without damaging the roof and the sliding vent as a test before they were assigned with any extension or alteration to the building.
The building also houses an extensive collection of 'thaliyola' (palm leaf documents) and 'ezhuthani' (stylus/writing instrument). Thaliyola grantha or books made by tying several palm leaves together are also among the collection. These are made by stringing the leaves together on wooden rods and wrapping them in leather or silk. Some of them meant to be artistic curios such as the carved stylus and the tiny thaliyolas that fit inside your palm.
Baby elephant and pillar bank
The next building, called 'Padimeda,' has the wooden sculpture of a baby elephant at the entrance. In the olden days, the position of the elephant announced the financial status of the family. If the elephant faced the main door of the house, it meant that the granary of the house had enough and more to feed visitors. If the elephant stood with its back to the door, it meant that the house was short on food reserves. The elephant which is poised on a wooden disc stands looking inside these days, says Abhilash.
Another architectural marvel which proves the craftsmanship of yesteryear carpenters is the pillar bank. Used as a secret vault for saving money, the pillar has a key at the top which can be opened to drop coins into the hollow inside. When the pillar fills up with coins, they will start sliding through the roof into a vault attached at the other end. If the money inside the pillar had to be taken out before it was full, the house owner would need to take the help of the carpenter.
On the way to the courtyard, one would come cross a large wooden lid with steps leading to it. There is a small well underneath which is so full of water that it doesn’t need a pully to draw water. Known as 'nazhi kinar,' you can draw water from it as you would from a large bucket.
Nadumuttam and Kalari
The open courtyard, 'nadumuttom,' is a common feature of Kerala's traditional houses. But the courtyard adjacent to 'Padimeda' is far from an ordinary one. It houses a subterranean kalari – a space dedicated to the teaching of the traditional martial art of Kerala. The kalari is large enough for 27 students to practice at the same time. Though housed underground, it is hardly the dingy space you would imagine it to be since the 'nadumuttam' infuses the kalari with sunlight.
On the eastern side of the kalari, you will notice a window-like structure with closely packed wooden bars across it. Viewed from the kalari, it looks dark on the other side of the window. But it turns out that the window has a secret vault on the other side which has just enough space for an adult to stand or lie flat. The vault was used by the master to observe the students secretly and assess their dedication.
The kalari is still active and regular practice is held here. In one corner is preserved the 'kedavilakku' – a lamp that is never allowed to burn out. The wooden slippers of a guru who lived and died several centuries ago, his tools and weapons, the written horoscope of the kalari etc are also preserved here.
The subterranean path to Thaimalika
The three main structures of the complex are connected through subterranean tunnels – a typical feature of old architecture. The underground tunnel, barely 3 ft high, starts from the room where a permanently-lit oil lamp is preserved. Almost pitch dark inside, one has to feel the way to the other end to the 'soothika griham.' A room reserved for post-natal care for women, soothika grikam is equipped with enna thoni – a shallow tub used for oil massage, 'amma thoni' and a cot made of red sandalwood which is believed to have medicinal properties.
From this subterranean chamber, the path leads up to one of the main structures – Thaimalika. Constructed entirely using jackfruit wood, the structure also has architectural marvels like the 'naada kavadam' – a door that makes a sound similar to the trumpet of an elephant. A long room which has large cooking vessels on display is the replica of an old time cooking and dining hall. Known as 'adichoottu pura,' it was used for large scale cooking during special occasions and brewing of ayurvedic medicines. The room also had an 'oshadha thoni' used for steam bath.
Next to the 'adichoottu pura' is a facility to store medicinal extracts from herbs. A small trip down an underground tunnel will lead you to a full-fledged facility where medicines were brewed. Past huge stone grinders, the path takes you to the ayurveda treatment room equipped with tools and furnishings required for 'kayakalpa chikitsa' or full body treatments. The materials required for 'dhara,' 'nasyam' etc and a shallow wooden tub used for oil massage called 'enna thoni' are among the artefacts on display.
As you step out, a huge fort-like structure on the outer end of the courtyard grabs your attention. Above the fort is a structure with a room and a large veranda split into two halves. This airy and spacious mansion is called the 'Vasanthya malika,' a replica of the structure used for recreational purposes in the olden days. The space was used for cerebral games like 'chaturangam,' 'edakaoodam' etc.
Other antique pieces on display include the various types of lanterns used in Kerala like the 'mayil vilakku,' 'sastha vilakku' and 'kavilakku;' vessels and tools from the Stone Age and the Iron Age; different kinds of weights and measures; a tortoise-shaped bell made in Blegium; oil-mill and so on. The bullock cart in which Mahatma Gandhi travelled when he visited Tamil Nadu and another one used by former chief minister Janaki Ramachandran are also among the curios.
Work of a lifetime
Sprawled over 36 cents, the complex is 22,200 sq ft wide. The floor space below ground is also nearly as wide. Abhilash's grandfather had initiated the process of recreating the 400-year-old mansion after the structure was partially relocated to its present premises during the 1960s. The process was stalled in the 1990s for want of resources. Abhilash gave the mansion a new lease of life when he restarted the restoration work. Masons from Tiruchendur who were traditionally employed as palace builders were brought in to complete the gargantuan task. Much of the artefacts on display at the mansion have been collected meticulously by Abhilash over the years.
"These are not merely show pieces, but a slice of history. Giving the younger generations an experience of what life was like in the past is important for preserving the connection with our roots," says Abhilash.
The Vasanthya malika offers an aerial view of the complex – a time warp fashioned in the traditional architectural style of Kerala. The neatly swept courtyard gleams in the centre of the three enormous structures. The scant earnings from the visitors’ fee will not be enough to maintain such an enormous and ageing structure, but then money was never the motivating factor for Abhilash. He believes that the efforts will be fruitful if the model can recreate a vivid picture of the past in young minds.
Things to know
Visitors are allowed in groups of 25 or more; educational institutions are given preference. Since Abhilash conducts the guided tour of the complex by himself, visits have to scheduled beforehand. Fees for upper primary students – Rs 25 each; for high school students – Rs 40 each; for college students – Rs 100 each. Bookings can be made by calling – 9343898461/9495939797