The Kerala Agraharams, colonies of the Brahmins of Tamil origin, are of a unique style. Many of the houses are being sold now and the new houses which come up, have no resemblance to the old ones, constructed under different circumstances, long ago. The Kerala Govt has declared the Kalpathy agraharam as the first heritage village in the State and we have to wait and watch how long the identity will be maintained.
Security, understandably, was the main concern when the agraharams were built by the migrants. The houses are adjacent to each other with common walls on left and right and arranged in parallel lines facing each other, so that in case of burglary or attack from an outsider, the entire village could be awaken by shouting, as the primitives used to do. There was no better instrument to collect crowd than yelling, in the absence of powerful lights or other communication system like telephones. Every one knew who lived in the other houses unlike the occupants of the present flats where the next door neighbor remains a stranger.The arrangement was so ‘open’ that no guest could come and go without the knowledge of the entire agraharam. In an ‘open’ society, it helped socialization, mutual dependance, which were essential.They had plenty of time at their disposal unlike the present generation and they needed each others help. The whole agraharam was like a big single house, having separate kitchens.
The slope-roofed and duct-tiled tops of the houses facilitated speedy drainage of rain waters .The absence of windows opening outside, on the side walls, to a great extent, was made good by providing an opening to the sky in the central roof, through which sunlight could enter the house. The rain water pouring through this opening was collected in a big square pit, called ‘kottathalam’, granite slabs on the sides and bottom, insulating the dampness and a provision made to drain the water through an underground canal to the backyard.. A big brass vessel filled with water used to be kept near that, for washing hands and legs and a basket with viboothy would be hanging from a raft on the side, as the holy ash was required for smearing on the body thrice a day and for some, even before going to bed. There was hardly any furniture, except an easy chair for the elderly or a book rack. Chairs were luxury and even cots, unless unavoidable again for the comfort of the elders. The floors were extremely smooth and shining and it was a pleasure to lie flat on them during summer or on a grass mat, during the summer. In the absence of electrical fans, palm- leaf fans were kept handy along with palm- leaf umbrellas, for protection from the sun and the rains. The main doorway was not very wide or tall and one has to submissively bend his head while entering the house. ‘Aam’, house, was an ‘Aalayam’, shrine for them. Even the agraharam was respectable and those wear sandals for long walk, which was necessity and habit, used to remove them while entering the village. The memory of my father removing the sandals at the entry point of the first village in the series, is still vivid in my memory. He was not ashamed, to hold the feet -protectors, to cover the distance of three agraharams, before entering ours, the last one. ‘These have been shouldering my weight throughout; why don’t I carry them for a short distance ?”, was his comment.
There was no platform in the kitchen and the cooking was done in fire-wood stoves, ‘aduppus’, sitting on the floor. There was no chimney for throwing out the smoke which was allowed to exit through big windows facing the back yard. The toilets were away, in the backyard and for old people it was a task to get down the steps and approach the toilets especially during night hours, an inconvenience tolerated without a murmur.
The frontage of the house had a raised platform, called ‘thinnai’, the floor nicely polished . Thinnais used to open to the street . That was an area for receiving the guests, for relaxation, children’s studies and holding meeting with friends and co-villagers, where issues of common interests were discussed and decision taken. Big gatherings used to be held in the temple premises. Two vertical small platforms, projected from the thinnai, towards the main street, where women used to sit and enjoy the evening sun and breeze and keeping an eye on those moving on the street or entering or exiting from any house. If you enter the Kalpathy heritage village, these thinnais, uniformly laid, will be the first catch of your eyes and they add beauty . The frontage of every house was decorated with fresh ‘kolam’ every morning, artistically drawn in geographical and mathematical patterns with rice powder during special occasions or ‘kola podi’ powdered sand lime, on other days, after cleaning the area with water and occasionally cow-dung, believed to have anti-septic properties and hence provides a literal threshold of protection for the home. The rice powder provides food for ants and other small insects and birds. Apart from the decorative and insect-helping purposes, Kolam serves as a welcome board, for visitors including the most-welcome woman, the goddess of wealth.
The village ‘kovils’ ( temples ) which our forbears constructed as a part of their colony, nay, as a crown of it, was the main center for individual and collective worship, though every house had a small shrine of its own. Weddings and other auspicious social activities too took place under its roof or in its premises. My first sister’s wedding was conducted some fifty years ago in our temple and the scene of women folk preparing snacks like murukku, sitting on the thinnai of Pakku mama’s house, opposite to the temple, appears vividly in my mind. The women sat around a clean white sheet spread on the floor of the ‘thinnai’ and with amazing dexterity of fingers, they rolled and twisted the carefully prepared dough and in no time appeared several uniformly twisted circles surrounding a short cone made of the same dough with a pottu, kukum dot, to represent the god Ganapathy, remover of obstacles. Chuppani mama and other villages prepared food in a corner of the temple, using huge vessels. When the food was ready, we had to go to each house and invite the inmates to come for food, though a formal personal invitation was made on the previous evening. But every one used to happily participate actively, as if it was his family wedding. I don’t remember the invitees presenting any cash as git, to the newly-wed.The cash-starved brahmins, naturally avoided, gifts other than their blessings, which alone was fondly sought for.
Agraharams , other than on the river banks, like Kalpathy, have at least one pond, which was the main source for bathing and washing clothes in the old days. There used to be a common well near the pond, as the one we have in the Perinkulam pond. My other used to collect water from that well and carry the pot through the village street everyday, like other women . As a child, I had observed the womenfolk carrying big bundles of clothes for washing to the pond and their men walking happily going to the pond for their body wash, with a ‘thothumunu’, small cloth on their shoulder. It is unfortunate that many of these ponds, constructed with great care and dedication, which served the society so well, are now neglected. Ponds, add beauty to the agraharams even now and are still useful. These water bodies must be protected.
It appears that while the migrants gathered to construct agraharams, they chose mostly their own sub groups, like Ashtasahasram, vadamal etc, which had prominence those days. Marriages used to be only among the members of the same subgroup and it is surprising that even now, some parents insists on ‘vadamal only’ as in the case in my Pitchumani story. But such out- of- date conditions are peeling off now as it has become difficult to find matches even from the same caste.
The annual car festivals were imported from the land of their origin, another unique practice of the migrants. The villagers settled far, too enthusiastically participate in the ‘ther’ in their village, as I try to do.
Kerala Brahmins, also worship in ‘kavus’, the shrines of Goddess Parvathy, who s the ‘kula deivam’ for many families. The ‘kavus do not have chariots and their annual celebration is called ‘vela’ or ‘pooram’ . Chariots are unique for the agraharam kovils, following the tradition in Tamil Nadu, from where the Brahmins migrated. In fact the chariots are perhaps the only link remaining now between the migrants and their earlier place of dwelling. They have left ‘kootu kari’ and switched over to ‘ molakoottal, kalan, olan’ but continue to hold on, happily to ratholsavams and kalyana sampradayam, wedding style of their Tamil days.
When they arrived at a new place for settlement , it is natural that our ancestors had to seek Divine intervention and blessings for their new life . They found the Bagavathy shrines in the forests, ideal place for the purpose. If not the Divine Mother, who else would help those hapless families? They surrendered to Bagavathies of those little shrines and behaved as if she was their mistress and as a token of their subservience to the Goddess, they placed a small amount as ‘padipanam’ just as the small kings used to pay ‘kappam to the emperor. I had carried a small gold coin as an offering to our kuladeivam, Cherunetturi Bagavathy which wanted to place on the steps of her shrine. The priest asked me to get it receipted in the dewaswam office, before placing before the deity. The office manager told me that now a days, devotees are offering big amount as ‘padipanam’ and sometime, it doesn’t reach the temple treasury. Obviously the Goddess do not collect them! No doubt that the kavus are shining better now with liberal contributions mostly from the non-Brahmin community.
The Cherunattori Bagavathy holds a sword in her hand. The immigrants needed the support of that, as they themselves were not equipped with any weapons.
I was elated that my youngest son, Srikanth, who got married in July last, attended the car festival along with his wife Hamsadwany. They both took active part in the festival. Later I took them to our Kuladeivam. My younger brother whose eye sight has been eroded by cataract and feet have become unsteady due to high blood sugar also could participate in the celebration and worship in Kavu. I was also happy to meet a few net friends, who recognized me .
Here below, is a link for some pictures shot on her mobile by my daughter in law. Hope you like the pictures.