PALAKKADFields of goldBy Sheila Kumar with inputs from Deepa A, KG Kumar and V GangadharThe coronation is just a week away, but the king is missing. He has left no trail, he has no close family members to fret about his whereabouts, and perhaps he has wandered for years with no memories of his kingdom or subjects. When they trace him, he’s washing dishes in a hotel in Andhra Pradesh.
Like a forgotten feather, the story gently floats above the streets of Palakkad, nudging a solitary memory on a rain-washed afternoon, lodging itself in a grandfather’s fond, once-upon-a-time narrative. Sometimes, when the power disappears with the sun on a summer evening, the story glows in the candlelight, its brightness overshadowing the debates on the weepy TV soaps, if only for a moment.
It’s difficult to place these stories, to give them a date or year, in a town where the lines between the past and the present are inexplicably blurred. Even the Palghat Gazetteer was overwhelmed enough to be brutally honest. "It is with great pleasure and no small relief that I bring out the gazetteer," the editor sighed in the preface of the tome. "Certain circumstances caused to render the compiling of the gazetteer a time-consuming task."
There is a sneaking suspicion that Palakkad enjoys being difficult. No label fits, no description is precise. Like a town that had rather be a village, it makes way for chariots during festivals, and beams gloriously when the sunlight falls on its golden paddy fields. Like a village that wants to be a town, it adores air-conditioned restaurants and faux amusement parks, and is immensely proud of the local cable channels which cover everything from school sports to dirty streets.
There is the enticing aroma of a cuisine that’s unique to Palakkad, dishes that skillfully and flavourfully blend the ingredients of Kerala with those just across the border in Tamil Nadu. There is also the tandoori chicken and the gobi manchurian that are sometimes as popular, the colas that many drink but never endorse, not if the companies are slurping water anyway. There are the mesmerising beats of the panchavadyam, sharing sound waves with film songs that are alternatively soulful or blissfully joyous.
Palakkad revels in defying descriptions. Even the king who went missing clearly wasn’t keen on a title. A few days after the crowning, he couldn’t be found, yet again.
A way of life in Palakadu
With eyes closed, my mind races 40 years back to my days at Chokkanathapuram Village, Palakadu. I stand under the huge banyan tree in front of our ancient family home, the biggest in the village. In front of me, facing each other, are rows of small, tiled houses standing cheek by jowl. On either side of the village are two temples, one for Lord Shiva and the other for Lord Krishna. As dawn arrives, women come out to draw a kolam (rangoli) in front of their homes. Other women, with their long hair tied in buns, walk to the river for their daily bath. On auspicious days, the strains of nadaswaram music float out of the temples.
These are scenes to remember from the agraharams of the Palakadu villages, from the largest at Kalpathy to the smaller ones such as Lakshminarayanapuram, Kumarapuram, Sekharipuram, Noorani and Tarakad. The agraharams are Brahmin colonies, their name originating in the words ‘Agaro harascha harischa’ (temple on either side).
Agraharams are found across all the southern states, but are particularly concentrated in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. They can be traced to the 15th and 16th centuries, when Brahmins in Vijayanagara came further south to escape persecution from Muslim invaders. Their numbers were swelled by another Brahmin exodus from the Muslim-dominated Kanjeevaram, Madurai and Tanjore. The local rulers and zamindars gave the new arrivals land to build homes. In the course of time, the settlers became priests, made a living by veda parayanam (vedic chanting) and gradually became land owners. Though they are also seen in Kollam, Thrissur, and Trivandrum, Palakadu is home to around 108 agraharams.
The agraharams associated themselves with divinity. Kalpathy in Palakadu was considered as Kasipathi and the River Bharatapuzha was believed to be a tributary of the sacred Ganga. Each new agraharam acquired a rath (chariot) and the Kalpathi annual car festival became a major event, attracting more than a lakh devotees.
The Brahmin residents of Palakadu agraharams were remarkable people noted for their intellect. They provided the Indian Civil Service, and its successor, the Indian Administrative Service, with several stalwarts whose education had begun from small, local schools. The agraharams also produced outstanding Carnatic musicians — Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagawathar, MD Ramanathan, Palakadu Mani Iyer, Palakadu Raghu, Kalpathi Ramanathan, Subba Iyer, Rama Bhagawathar and several others. Carnatic music, being highly bhakti-oriented, had something to do with the numerous temples in the agraharams. The elaborate pujas on every festival day, the annual car festival, the sparkling santhana kaapu (sandal paste applied to the idols of goddesses) on Fridays and the fragrance of incense and flowers, added to the unique atmosphere. The region also became famous for its typical Brahmin cuisine, famed all over the south.
Even now, the agraharam shops have their own flavour and bear the names of the original owners who have died or sold their business and moved away. Seshu Kadai (shop) in Chokkanathapuram is still known by its old name though the original owner is now in Nagpur. So is the case with the Kittan Kadai, the well known Kalpathi grocery shop. Though Ambi Saar, who started the Chokkanathapuram primary school, is long dead, the institution is still known by the same name. Perhaps, this is how agraharams honour their pioneers.
Though the agraharams retain much of their original character, they have changed with time. Originally, they housed only Brahmins, but today, some of the Brahmin settlers have shifted elsewhere, after selling their homes to non-Brahmins, mostly Nairs, who have adapted to the traditions of the agraharams. For instance, they do not cook meat at home.
The Kerala government has declared the agraharams as heritage sites and major architectural changes or rebuilding are banned. Toilets are still not inside the main house, but located in the randam kettu (second section). But the patthayam, the room used to store grains, has gradually disappeared. Cowsheds too have been relocated so that, unlike the past, the cows do not have to stumble through drawing rooms!
But some traditions continue. The Chokkanathapuram Krishnan Temple, always short of funds, is now managed by the residents themselves while the temple of Lord Shiva still receives funds from the former rajas of Palakadu. During an earlier visit, I was surprised to see TV antennas from the roofs of the Kalpathi homes, but the sight of girls drawing the intricate kolam and the nadaswaram music wafting over the village from the temple was reassuring.