Of Asans and pallikkoodams

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  • Abdul Aziz, octogenarian alumni of Kudi pallikkoodam at Pettah
    Special Arrangement Abdul Aziz, octogenarian alumni of Kudi pallikkoodam at Pettah
  • Paulinos Pathiri who documented the life of Pallikkoodams in late 18th century
    Special Arrangement Paulinos Pathiri who documented the life of Pallikkoodams in late 18th century
  • Punishments in Asan pallikkoodams, photographed by I. Hacker, circa 1912.
    Special Arrangement Punishments in Asan pallikkoodams, photographed by I. Hacker, circa 1912.
  • An instance of pallikkoodams reaching out to modern schools – Pettah Raman Pillai Asan’s textbook for government schools
    Special Arrangement An instance of pallikkoodams reaching out to modern schools – Pettah Raman Pillai Asan’s textbook for government schools

Save Our Schools: After the disappearance of Kanthalloor Shala a 1,000 years ago, Asan pallikkoodams thrived in the city as elsewhere in Kerala

After the Kanthalloor Shala disappeared a 1,000 years ago, arguably coinciding with Chola invasion of Thiruvananthapuram, no detailed information on the educational system in Kerala is available to us for the next 600 years.
In 1665, The Travels Of Sig Pietro Della Valle, A Noble Roman, Into The East-India And Arabia Deserta was published in London, which gives us graphic details about “learning in the Malabar”. On November 22, 1623, Della Velle wrote: I entertained myself in the porch of the Temple, beholding little boys learning arithmetic after a strange manner. They were four, one of them singing musically with a certain continued tone (which has the force of making a deep impression in the memory) recited part of the lesson; as for example, ‘one by itself makes one’, and whilst he was thus speaking, he writes down the same, not with any kind of pen, nor in paper, but with his finger on the ground, the pavement being for that purpose strewed all over with fine sand. This is a reference to the ‘Asan pallikkoodams’ that survived into the early 20th century.
Della Valle also observed use of palm leaves. In Malabar it is still to be seen as the earliest mode of writing. The leaf of a particular palm is selected and dried until it can bear the impression of the stylus. These leaves strung or tied together are formed into books. They are enclosed in a wooden cover, sometimes gilded and lacquered, so as to make neat and handsome appearance. A blank space is left at the end like our margin, through this a hole is made which admits a string or cord generally of silk, and this drawn tight, or ties round them keeps the whole secure. The leaves are opened and folded by the natives with the same facility as we do those at our books.
Our next source of information is from Paulinos Pathiri (Paulinus of St.Bartholomew), an Austrian Carmelite missionary who travelled in Kerala extensively during 1776-1789. He was very well-versed in many languages, including Malayalam. He wrote an account of his travels, Voyage aux Index Orientales, which got published in various languages, between 1796 and 1880. In his writings on ‘Birth and Education of Children’, we find lots of details on what an Asan pallikkoodam was like, a good 250 years ago.
He writes: The children assemble half-naked under the shade of coconut tree; place themselves in rows on the ground, and trace out on the sand, with the forefinger of the right hand, the elements of their alphabet, and then smooth it with the left when they wish to trace out other characters. The writing-master, called Eluttacien [Ezhuthachan] who stations himself opposite to his pupils, examines what they have done; points out their faults, and shows them how to correct them. At first, he attends them standing but when the young people have acquired some readiness in writing, he places himself cross-legged on a tiger’s or deer’s skin, or even on a mat made of the leaves of the coconut-tree, or wild pandanas, which is called Kaitha, plaited together. This method of teaching writings was introduced into India two hundred years before the birth of Christ, according to the testimony of Magasthenes, and still continues to be practiced.
A Schoolmaster in Malabar receives every two months, from each of his pupils, Panams. Some do not pay in money, but give him a certain quantity of rice. When the pupils have made tolerable progress in writing, they are admitted into certain schools, called Elutupalli where they begin to write on palm leaves (Pana), which, when several of them are stitched together, and fastened between two boards, form a Grantha, that is, an Indian book. If such a book be written upon with an iron style, it is called Granthavari. There are two statues, placed before the entrance of the school. One of them represents Ganesha, and the other the Sarasvadi, the goddess of eloquence and history.
The chief branches taught by the Guru are principles of writing, the Samscred grammar (in Malabar it is called Sidharuba), syntax, or the book Vyagarana and the Amarakosa. To render the construction of the Samscred language and its emphatic mode of expression, the Guru employs short sentences which are called Shloga: These verses serve not only as example of the manner in which the words must be combined with each other but contain at the same time most excellent moral maxims.
The other sciences and branches of learning taught to the Indian youth are: Poetry, Fencing, Botany and medicine (Vaydyassastra or Bheszagiashastra), navigation, the use of the spear, the art of playing at ball (Padacali), Chess (Chadurangam), Tennis (Goladi), Logic (Tarkashastra), Astrology (Giodisha), Law (Svadhyaya and, Silence (Mauna).
Silence is, of course, not a taught as a subject anymore, but, it is amusing to note that many school classes may even now begin with the teacher beating the cane on the desk and uttering the cry “silence, silence”!
The Ezhuthupalli schools obviously were Brahmanical schools, as Bartholomew mentions about other castes thus: The Vayshya instruct youth in agriculture, the Kshetria in the science of Government and the military arts, the Shudra, in mechanics, the Mucaver, in fishing, Ciana, in gardening; and the Banyen, in commerce.
I. Hacker, another missionary who documented what he saw with sketches and photographs in 1912 in Kerala the land of palms not only tells us that the Pallikkoodams and Asans were thriving, but without much change and with some cruelty.
When the boy is between five and six years of age he is taken to the village school. Here is a little canal, running from a reservoir, through a village. On the bank of this canal stands a little building, about twenty feet long by fifteen feet broad. The framework consists of four rough palmyra posts. The thatch is of coconut leaves and a mud wall about five feet high runs between the same palmyra pillars. The floor is swept clean and washed well with cow-dung and water. In one corner of this building is a heap of sand, and hanging from the roof are bundles of palm leaves which the children write upon. Those who are learning first write with their fore-fingers in the sand, making the letters. Those who have learned their letters, write upon palm leaves with an iron pen, which they call a writing nail [Narayam]. Those who are advanced students are learning by heart Tamil and Sanskrit verses.
The old schoolmaster looks very drowsy and lazy, and he does not interfere with his scholars much. Then they have an arithmetic lesson; it is a learning of the multiplication table. One boy says “Eight times nine, seventy-two”, and all the rest shout this at the top of their voices, and in this way they go on until they reach twelve times twelve, and the din and noise make you wonder how it is possible to a boy can learn at all.
Hacker then details the case of a boy who pelted stones at a mango tree. He was given a rather cruel punishment called ‘Kothandam’.
In the words of the unfortunate boy: “There was a short rope hanging from across beam in the middle of the school. Sand was heaped just below this rope, and all the available iron pens were planted in that sand with the sharp points upwards. My waist cloth was tucked up to the waist, so that the blows might fall upon the bare skin, and three of my fellow scholars lifted me up bodily, and made me take hold and cling to the rope with both my hands. I was advised to hold firm, for if I dropped down my feet would be pierced by the points of the iron pens below. Then that merciless brute of a teacher flogged me furiously with his cane. After the ninth blow I dropped down and fainted away, with my left foot pierced”. Hacker adds: “I am glad to say these brutal punishments are now passing away”.
About games that students play, Hacker says: The boys are very fond of all sorts of games, and it is a very strange thing that many of the games are similar to those in Western lands. Marbles they are very fond of and a game something like our stag and hounds, a rude kind of football, and a kind of mimic fighting with staves. The game of marbles, surprisingly survives to the current times. In the 19th century and early 20th century Pallikkoodams co-existed with modern schools in Thiruvananthapuram.
In addition to some Missionary Schools, by 1834, a Government-run school came into existence in the city, and the Pallikkoodams began to decline. It is almost impossible to trace the remains of any of them.
By around 1950, the social milieu had transformed completely making Asans and their pallikkoodams obsolete and they are confined to passing references in local history.
A ‘Kudi pallikkoodam’, perhaps a lower school compared to Asan pallikkoodam, which once functioned at Mathalamkulam in Chakka has an alumni in octogenarian Abdul Aziz, who runs a corner shop at Puthen road junction on Mathrubhumi Road. He recalls being initiated into the world of letters by writing ‘Hari Sree Ganapathaye Nama’ on sand. He says the location of the school was adjacent to the present Government School at Chakka, where the Corporation maintains an office.
In the vicinity of the Kanjiravilakam temple in Pettah, was the famous traditional school established in 1865 by Pettah Raman Pillai Asan (1842 -1938), of Eezhavilakathu Veedu, Pettah. He was a traditional scholar not unexposed to modern education. A sopana sangeetham singer, poet and a textbook writer, he ran a discussion forum by the name ‘Jana Prajagara Sangam’ from 1876 onwards. It was attended by Chattambi Swami and Manomaniam P. Sundaram Pillai, among others. No trace of the school is left, but a textbook that Asan wrote for the Government schools and printed in the ‘Basha Bhooshanam’ press run by him at Pettah, still survives. In 1875, he wrote five copy books for Government Schools, which were in use till 1908, and Kerala Sahithya Charithram says phrases such as ‘Engum Kalalayam Erumarakanam’, ‘Omal Sakhakhale Sathyam vandhikkanam’ remained popular. He also was editor of Malayali Magazine from 1886 onwards. He also lectured at the Trivandrum Public Lecture Committee on women’s education, Kerala’s diffidence to industry, and so on. The attakatha Harichanda Charitham (1880) is his main literary work. His ‘Katha Vaadini’ brought out Malayalam translations of books such as the Arabian Tales.