The British purposely damaged structures in Kanyakumari district in their time. The current state and local administration seem to be continuing the same policy, with neglect added.
A few weeks ago, I suffered the agony of reporting how a thousand-year-old temple was dismantled by the state agencies, both the state archaeological department as well as the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowment Board (HR & CE). Once again, I have a similar story to share. This time, it is in my own home district, Kanyakumari.
When one thinks of Kanyakumari, the images that come to mind include the Goddess, the Vivekananda rock, and now the Thiruvalluvar statue. Many people will also include in their pilgrimage itinerary the Suchindrum temple near Kanyakumari, and the famous Sri Nagaraja temple – a Jain-Hindu temple dedicated to the serpent deity from which the name of my home town Nagarkovil is derived. Then there may be a lot of people who may well remember the famous Padmanabhapuram palace – a palace of Travancore kings which is well maintained by the Kerala state archaeology department with professionally trained guides.
But Kanyakumari is also home to some more interesting places, unfortunately left to rot and vulnerable to destruction. And destructed they will get, by the sheer will power of the state agencies to damage the cultural capital of the district. This is not unique to this district alone, however. It is a state wide phenomenon as the previous article showed.
The monument in question is a centuries-old palatial building in a small quasi-village called Iraniel, near the famous Padmanabhapuram palace. The original name of Iraniel in old records is Hiranya Simha Nalloor. The palatial building with excellent artistic assets has been allowed to get progressively ruined over the decades with a neglect that is hard to match. The tragedy is further accentuated by the fact that the Padmanabhapuram palace, just a few kilometres away, is wonderfully preserved and promoted.
In 2005, as part of a junior fellowship in cultural economics, this writer started documenting the neglected cultural capital of the district. At that time too, the palace was in ruins. Some very unscientific and amateurish efforts had been taken then to promote the palace in a garish manner with inappropriate colour paints poured over exquisite wooden sculptures.
As you stand alone in the solitary ruins, on an almost hauntingly silent afternoon, you wonder what stories they say: long lost battles, court room scenes, royal romances, ... of whom? The details of the attire of the period are frozen in the weathering wooden sculptures... stop here, shed a tear for what we do and then as the poet said, gently pass. Our future generations are not going to be proud of us.
Why has this palace been left in ruins? None is sure. Interestingly, just a few kilometres from the ruined palace is another neglected monument. At the village Thalakulam, a few kilometres away from the Iraniel ruined palace, is an old mansion associated in the local memory and traditions with the valiant Veluthampi Dalawai (1765-1809).
Veluthampi was a Diwan who fought against both local corruption, proselytising and the increasing control of the British East India Company over the Travancore state. Some of the corrupt officials of Travancore state colluded with the British. The British, who were extracting a protection levy of six lakh rupees from Travancore state had increased it to eight lakh rupees. Further, the British officer interfered in the local administration, ordering the release of the confiscated properties of the corrupt officials. All these infuriated Veluthampi and he raised the banner of rebellion against the British.
The Travancore navy had already won a spectacular victory over the Dutch in 1741. The British were a different game. They had already established vast reserves in Madras. Yet, in the initial confrontation Veluthampi won a brilliant victory against the them on 18 December 1808. Colonel Macaulay (not to be confused with the notorious Thomas Babington Macaulay), who was then the Resident of the East India Company in Travancore, had to flee saving his life. Soon however, the tide of the war changed with reinforcements from Madras arriving. At the same time, reinforcements from Cochin, which Veluthampi was expecting, never arrived. Defeat after defeat ensued. The king of Travancore was forced to surrender to the British. Veluthampi took his own life instead of being captured by the British. Yet, the British dishonored the mortal body of the martyr by hanging it in public.
The British East India Company then started the systematic dismantling of every potential military infrastructure in south Travancore. In fact, throughout Kanyakumari district, one can see ruined watch towers and a few forts – all stripped off their military potential. However, this ruin seems to be one of our own making. The British had valid reasons to destroy our forts and watch towers but what possible reason can we give our posterity for the wanton destruction of our heritage structures?
I had visited the Iraniel ruins in 2005 and I visited them again a few weeks before. What I saw shocked me, though it should have been expected. Even the garishly painted wooden structure that was standing twelve years ago had collapsed. Most of the sculptures had either been removed systematically or had been allowed to get destroyed by the weather. All sorts of anti-social activities had been going on. The present government had handed over the structure to the HR & CE board, which had installed a board and then had resorted to miniscule activity, if any. The main roof has now collapsed. The ruins are becoming more ruinous if one can think of that as being possible.
A few kilometres from the ruined palace, a mansion which was gifted to the one lone survivor of the Veluthampi rebellion, after one generation of martyrs had passed way (so as not to invite British wrath) stands. When I visited the house in 2005, it was open and there was some activity. There was a portrait of Veluthampi Dalwai. And a beautiful decorated Dasavatara panel which was a sort of shield of honour. In 2008-2009, there were again some non-professional, amateurish, and perhaps commission-oriented attempts to give a facelift to the house which was turned into a memorial. Even a statue of Veluthampi was installed. However, the statue stands today as a prisoner and witness to our callous neglect. There is an increasing growth of shrubs which are taking over the mansion which remains closed almost always.
With the vibrant Padmanabhapuram palace and the Iraniel ruins, Veluthampi memorial, and the umpteen ruined watch towers, as well as the Mandapams, if the state tourism or even the central ministry for tourism and culture is to intervene in a proactive manner, a great historical tourist circuit can be created in the Kanyakumari district.
World over, scholars and governments converge to take steps to preserve what is called the cultural capital (in the context of cultural economics). Cultural capital is the sum total of the tangible and intangible cultural assets of particular community or region. Economist and one of the pioneers of cultural economics David Throsby points out that ‘a neglect of cultural capital by allowing heritage to deteriorate,’ can have ‘consequent loss of welfare and economic output.’ Unfortunately and shamefully for us, particularly Tamils, the Padmanabhapuram palace and the Iraniel ruins provide a classical textbook case study for this. The amount of economic wealth that can be generated through tourism, memorabilia sales etc. – what in the West are called the ‘tourist traps’ – are today very much needed for the revival and utilisation of such fast disappearing cultural capital.
If the state of Tamil Nadu and people’s representatives of Kanyakumari district, irrespective of party affiliation, do not have the ability to scientifically manage and nurture cultural capital and transform it into local asset and increase the welfare of the people, then they should step aside forming a committee of experts with well-defined sustainable targets to revive these historical heritage assets and make them nodal points for knowledge and cultural tourism.