Tripunithara, now, is just another suburb of Kerala’s boomtown, Kochi.
Like other parts of the sprawling city, here too the skyline is dotted with high rises that have permanently effaced the old landmarks. But, unlike the other marsh lands that have turned into glittering cities of steel and cement, here is the lost capital of a kingdom that is fast fading from memory. In fact, the life of the head of the former ruling family of Kochi is an uncanny metaphor for the changing landscape of Tripunithara. Centenarian Rama Varma Kochaniyan Thampuran lives in a regular house near the South Railway station in Kochi.
The house on the Kalathiparambu Road was built on the land his wife, Sarada Mani, inherited from her grandfather, a former king of Kochi. That is all that materially links him to the feudal past that was swept away by the surge of modernity, which this family seems to have welcomed wholeheartedly giving everything away to the new rulers of the people.
Kochaniyan Thampuran spent most of his working life in Thiruvananthapuram and retired as a financial assistant to the Director of Health Services. The commoner came to head the former ruling family only in 2004, when he was well into his Nineties.
Better known as a hard-hitting batsman within his family and among the old Tripunithara cricket fans, this ‘Sixer Thampuran’ stays far away from the public gaze. Many among his over 2,000 family members spread across the world may not even know who their present head is.
The prime reason for this anonymity is that unlike the Travancore family, Kochi’s former rulers gave up the iconic Hill Palace and the right to lead the annual Athachamayam public procession or run the family’s temple. While the Travancore family still fights for the Padmanabhaswamy temple wealth in the courts, the Kochi family proudly reminds people that it had long ago spent Poornathrayesa’s wealth to build the railway line from Shornur to Ernakulam.
Unlike other feudal families who retain titles, at least, within their families, the title of Maharaja was never used in Kochi after Parikshith Thampuran in 1964. The eldest male member of the family is known as Valiya Thampuran and the female member as Valiamma Thampuran. All the family is left with now are a few old living quarters, traditionally called palaces. They are all owned by individuals and in many cases about 20 to 25 family members have a share each on these old structures. When each floor is divided among cousins, the only exit option for those in need of money is to bring the structure down and sell off the land.
In one interesting case, when the court found demolition as the only option to settle the legal battle, the municipality and even the District Collector came down to enquire how they could protect the “heritage building”.
This could be the last gasp of Tripunithara’s heritage. Octogenarian Raman Namboothiri agrees that after 25 years there won’t be any heritage structure left in Tripunithara. A former archaeologist, who lives in one of the oldest buildings in Tripunithura, the Bungalow Palace that his wife inherited, Namboothiri is one of those who would like to keep the structures in tact.
Nirmala Thampuran, secretary of the Valiya Thampuran Kovilakam (VTK) Trust, that takes care of the upkeep of the common properties of the family says that there is always a sense of loss when one of the palaces comes down.
But a solution still evades Tripunithara because these structures are all that many family members have in times of need. And the family has no faith left in the government. Many beautiful structures handed over to the government by the family just don’t exist now.
That being the level of apathy, the family refuses to even accept the government’s charity to retain their personal property, lest the government should try to grab it, they fear.
The family members, who did not want to be named, point their accusing fingers at the Old Railway Station where the first train chugged into Ernakulam. It is crying to be protected as a heritage structure. They are resigned to the fact that there is nothing that they can do to alter the fate of these buildings. They think that the houses should be left to the owners.
A tag of heritage may not allow them to sell or modify their houses. The tag of history may just alienate their property and is not welcome, said most members of the family.