Travel: Palakkad`s agraharams
A Way of Life in Palakkad
Huge banyan and peepal trees, rows of close-set, small, tiled houses, a pair of temples on either side of the village, women drawing kolams (rangolis) in front of their houses at dawn, the strains of nadaswaram music from the temples – these are sights and sounds particular to the agraharams of Palakkad, villages, which still hold onto a traditional way of life, common all across Palakkad, from the largest village at Kalpathi to smaller ones like Ramanathapuram, Lakshminarayanapuram, Kumarapuram, Sekharipuram, Noorani and Tarakad.
Agraharams are Brahmin colonies, their name originating from the phrase ‘agaro harascha harischa’, which literally means ‘temple on either side.’ These colonies are structurally similar: all villages have two temples on either side of the village; the houses follow a similar style, with small artistically carved doors, 6–7-ft long latches on them, and thick wooden vasapadis (thresholds).
The back story
Although agraharams are found across all the southern states, there is a larger number in Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, when the Brahmins of Vijayanagara ventured further south to escape persecution from Muslim invaders, agraharams grew in number following the Brahmin exodus from the Muslim-dominated states of Kanjeevaram, Madurai and Tanjore.
At Palakkad and other smaller polities across south India, local rulers and zamindars offered them land to build homes. These new settlers became priests, making a living by veda parayanam (Vedic chanting), and over the course of time also became landowners.
In Kerala, while agraharams are to be found in Kollam, Thrissur, and Trivandrum, too, Palakkad is home to around over one hundred agraharams.
Legends trace the setting up of Palakkad’s agraharams to a romantic story. It is said that a prince of the royal dynasty of Kochi fell in love with a tribal girl, and was ostracised for his relationship with an outcast. The prince decided to leave his family and settled down in the area to set up the royal dynasty of Palakkad.
The Namboodiri Brahmins in the region, who wanted no part in officiating the ceremonies of an ex-communicated prince, left the area. The Palakkad Kings sought the help of Brahmins living on the other side of the Palakkad Gap, who graciously agreed. As a result, Tamil Brahmins settled down in Palakkad. The areas where they settled grew into gramams or agraharams.
The divine connect
Along the banks of the Kalpathi river lie the agraharams of Kumarapuram, Ambikapuram and Chokkanathapura. Ramanathapuram (the abode of Ramanathan or Shiva) has three shrines, dedicated to Vishnu, Shiva and Ganesh. Around 35 families who still live here have preserved their way of life in the face of much change around them.
Agraharams became associated with divinity. Kalpathi, in Palakkad town, grew to be compared with Kashi in north India, and was sometimes called ‘Kasipathi,’ while the River Bharatapuzha was thought to be a tributary of the sacred Ganga. Each new agraharam acquired a rath (chariot), leading to important festivals such as the Kalpathi annual car festival, which attracts over one lakh devotees.
The residents of the Palakkad agraharams have been noted for their intellectual accomplishments. Education is also an integral part of many agraharams; the primary school in villages such as Chokkanathapuram date back 120 years. Many of these students made their way to the prestigious Government Victoria College, which was the main recruiting ground for clerks during the British Raj. Several stalwarts of the Indian Administrative Service come from these agraharams, achieving much with their modest beginnings and local schooling.
Eminences from the gramam
The agraharams have also produced outstanding Carnatic musicians such as Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagawathar, MD Ramanathan, Palakadu Mani Iyer, Palakadu Raghu, Kalpathi Ramanathan, Subba Iyer and Rama Bhagawathar. Perhaps the numerous temples of the agraharams provide an inspirational setting for the highly Bhakti-oriented Carnatic music, the elaborate poojas at each festival, the annual car festival, the sparkling santhana kaapu (sandal paste applied to the idols of goddesses) every Friday and the fragrance of incense and flowers, adding to the unique atmosphere. The region is also known for the typical Brahmin cuisine, famed all over the south.
The agraharams honour their pioneers by retaining the original names and characteristics of their institutions. As do the shops named after owners who have passed away or moved to different cities For example, the Seshu Kadai shop in Chokkanathapuram is known by its old name, even though the original owner is now in Nagpur. Similarly, Kittan Kadai, the well-known Kalpathi grocery shop, and the Ambi Saar Primary School at Chokkanathapuram, are named after the Brahmins who set it up.
Yet, while the agraharams retain much of their original character, they have changed with the times. Originally, they housed only Brahmins but most Brahmin settlers have shifted elsewhere, having sold their homes to non-Brahmins, mostly Nairs. Even so, new settlers have adapted to the traditions of the agraharams. For instance, most families here do not cook meat in their homes.
The agraharams have been declared as heritage sites by the Government of Kerala, and major architectural changes and rebuilding is prohibited. As a result, most houses do not have toilets within the main home space; they are located in the randam kettu, second section. Some changes have occurred, of course. Patthayams, rooms used to store grains, have gradually disappeared from the buildings, and the cowsheds have been relocated so that, unlike in the past, the cows do not come traipsing in through drawing rooms. TV antennae have started to sprout from the roofs of the homes in Kalpathi. The Chokkanathapuram Krishna Temple, always short of funds, is now managed by the residents themselves, while the Shiva Temple receives funds from the erstwhile rajas of Palakkad.
The Vedas and shastras are orally passed down from one generation to the other. Lovingly prepared delicacies here include murukkus, cheeda, kozhukattas, devi payasams, sukhiyan, ela ada and chamanthi.
But most traditions continue unchanged, and there is the distinct air of preservation and tradition in most of these villages. The mornings are still full of nadaswaram wafting from the temples and young women etching kolams outside their homes.
This excerpt was written by by me in pre-digital days for OUTLOOK TRAVELLER`s GETAWAYS book on Heritage Getaways, and has also appeared as a standalone article titled Palakkad: Fields of Gold in OUTLOOK TRAVELLER magazine of May 2017, additional inputs by Manasi Saxena.