January 10, 2014
SARASWATHY NAGARAJAN travels to the home of the legendary Velu Thampi Dalawa – the Dewan of Travancore who revolted against the British over two hundred years ago – only to find it in desperate need for restoration
January 11 marks the 205th anniversary of the Kundara Vilambaram, when Velu Thampi Dalawa, the then Dewan of erstwhile Travancore, raised the flag of revolt against the British. Although the Dalawa was defeated by intrigues and betrayals, his call for freedom is venerated as a glorious chapter in the struggle for freedom from the British. A memorial at Kundara in Kollam, his personal sword at Napier’s Museum in the city and his statue in front of the Secretariat pay homage to the Dalawa. However a visit to his ancestral home, far away from the centres of power, reveals a different picture.
No signposts guide curious time travellers to the Thalakulam Valiyaveedu, near Thucklay in Kanyakumari district, the place where the Dalawa was born on May 6, 1765. Friendly villagers help you reach the place situated in the middle of a picturesque village. An arch indicates in Tamil that this is the home of Velu Thampi Dalawa. And yes, after traversing km of unknown roads, the familiar statue of the Dalawa comes as a relief.
The sculpture depicts a proud warrior surveying the green countryside and his crumbling home. A paved barren area around the statue and the house do not have much to guide or inform visitors.
A multi-coloured residential building bang outside the heritage structure hastily brings back time travellers to the present. Inside the gracious structure of timber and lime, there is little to indicate that this was once the home of a warrior who threatened the British rule in Kerala. A poster with a picture of the Dalawa, printed in bright Sivakasi colours, and a plaque outside says ‘Chitrakalamandalam Historical Museum, Thalakkulam Valiyaveedu’. However the museum is conspicuous by its absence.
As you enter the house through a beautiful poomugham, a wooden thengapura (used to store coconuts) catches your attention. Even the blanket of dust and heap of rubbish cannot hide the workmanship. In the meantime, Lekshmi, an elderly woman cleaning the temple on the premises, spots you. She says that the temple is closed after early morning pooja but agrees to get the keys to enter the main structure while I explore the surroundings. The British had the house razed to the ground after the Dalawa’s death in 1809.
The present structure was rebuilt. Intricately carved, each beam and pillar is a work of art in the structure that is estimated to be more than 200 hundred years old. Even the antique locks are a tribute to the aesthetics of the workmen of a different era. The locked rooms tell a story of neglect. Plantain cultivation has robbed the pond of its charm, the undergrowth and thick foliage make it impossible to explore the house.
One of the rooms is said to hold the entrance to an underground tunnel that connect the Valiyaveedu to Padmanabhapuram, which used to be the capital of Travancore. The tunnel has now been filled, says Lekshmi in her Tamil-accented Malayalam. Next to it is another room that used to have a painting of the Dalawa in all his regalia. “A lamp was lit on Thrikarthika and Pathaam Udayam. No longer,” she says mournfully.
Three inner courtyards are accessible. Some of the rooms require you to wade through darkness, dust and cobwebs to explore the rooms. Bahuleyan Nair, the caretaker, who has a pair of keys to the house says he has been taking care of the place for 30 years now. But he is reticent to talk about the present. Thalakulam Valiyaveedu did have a proud past but only time will tell whether its future will be perfect.
At present, the house is caught in a war of claims between the descendants of the Dalawa and members of the Chitrakalamandalam Trust. Both accuse the other of not doing enough to preserve the house for posterity.
The house was given to the Chitrakalamandalam by Vijayalakshmi Pillai Kochamma, one of the descendants of the Dalawa. However K. Sulekha, Vijayalakshmi’s daughter, alleges that the Chitrakalamandalam has done precious little to conserve the building and its surroundings. She says that members of her family are planning to resort to legal measures to ensure that the building and the premises are not destroyed or encroached upon. “We would be happy if the Government of Kerala takes over the building and the property before the structure falls to pieces,” she says. “My grandparents used to stay in the house till they became too old to be staying on their own. My mother tells me that there were six varieties of indigenous mangoes on that compound. However, all the trees but one were cut down,” she says.
Sudarsan Karthikaparambil, secretary of Chitrakalamandalam, says: “Under a fund from the Central Government, we cleaned the surroundings, paved the area and erected a statue. In six months time, we hope to unveil the statue and get things moving. The house has been repaired to prevent leaks but we need expert help to preserve it from termites and the elements,” he says. He adds that the district panchayat is responsible for putting up the arches to promote tourism.