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Quaint charm

The agraharams are a striking feature of the city.

THERE WAS a time, when Brahmin agraharams enhanced the quaint charm of the old city of Thiruvananthapuram. The streets where the Tamil Brahmins resided had kolams drawn in front of the houses. Most such agraharams were located in areas such as Karamana, Valiasala, Sreevarahom, Kottayakom and Thycaud.

The alternating, decorative bands of ochre and white seen on the front walls of their homes as well as the temples were yet another feature of these agraharams. These colours had a symbolic significance--the ochre and white, perhaps, were symbolic of blood and milk. This probably signified the individual's self. The walls painted in these colours signify the surrender of the self to the paramatma.

These Brahmins belong to the ancient Tamizhakom and had initially settled down along the banks of the Makarakra river (the present Karamana river). Theirs was a close-knit community. The agraharams were constructed in such a way that each home shared a wall with the other. It was a kind of linear conglomeration of the agraharams. The word agraharam has various etymological meanings. It indicates the conglomeration (haram) of the first among the four varnas (castes). Agraharam also indicates a cluster of houses with a temple of Shiva on the agram (extreme tip) of the street.

The agraharams were constructed according to its own principles of architecture. Each house opened out into the street and each had a vasal-thinnai, which led to the ul-thinnai, rezhi, thazhvaram, adukkalai and kottil. Many of the agraharams had small inner courtyards, which provided adequate daylight to the rooms.

Karamana was the oldest Brahmin quarters of the city and it, perhaps, had the largest number of such streets numbering around 18. These agraharams have seen the rise of illustrious personalities like Neelakanta Sivan, Nagam Aiya and S. Sankhu Iyer to name a few.

At present, the Karamana locality's only claim to fame is Prof. M. H. Sastrikal, who has been residing here for well over 40 years.

Dr. Asko Parpola, a Finnish scholar from the Helsinki University, was in the city recently looking for an old street. His researches on the Samaveda and its practitioners, Samavedis, had taken Dr. Parpola to Tentiruperai near Alvar Tirunagari in Tirunelveli, last year.

Many centuries ago, a group of Samavedi Brahmins, who belonged to the Jaimeneya sect, had migrated from the Kaveri basin to this region. Some of these emigrants decided to move further west. A few of them settled down in Azhakiya Pandyapuram, near Nagercoil, while the rest came to Thiruananthapuram. Dr. Parpola wanted to see the kuzhaikathan street, where the Tirunelveli Samavedis had built their agraharams and discover something to substantiate his scholastic interests.

At first, his queries drew a blank. Nobody had ever heard of such a name. But, the scholar's persistent enquiries yielded results when a resident of the S.S. Street in Karamana, remembered that it had once been called the kozhakka theruvu. This must have been the name of kuzhai kathan Street that Dr. Parpola had come in search of.

Dr. Parpola is an expert on the Indus valley civilisation and has spent a lifetime studying the migration routes that the Aryans had chosen as well as decoding their script. It was his study of the old manuscripts of Kerala that brought to light certain interesting facts.

Dr. Parpola found that the names of two namboodiri scholars, Bhavathrathan and Mathrudathan, recurred during various centuries in the manuscripts. The 7th century Sanskrit poet and literary critic, Dandin, mentions about his acquaintance with this father and son duo, who were Jaimeneeya Samavedis and whose ancestry could be traced to the genealogical tree extending from ancient Ahichatra in modern Ramput of Haryana from where the Jaimeneeya Samavedis had travelled south.

The Samavedis of Tentiruperai or Tentirupati originally came from Kancheepuram. Out of the 108 who had set out for Tirunelveli, only 107 reached there. The story goes thus--the next morning there were 108 people again. The Brahmins realised it was lord Vishnu who had appeared as the missing figure. An idol of Vishnu was installed in the village and worshipped as kuzhaikathan meaning the one who wears makara kundals (ear ornaments) shaped like a mythological fish.

Kuzhaikathan is a synonym for Lord Vishnu in Tamil. In the course of time, many of the Samavedis living on the banks of the Karamana were permitted to move inside the Fort area. The old name of the street gradually sank into oblivion.

Today, the street is known by two names-- the S. S. Street or Sankara Subramoni Iyer Street (after the name of a judge of the Kerala High Court) and Eratta (twin) street. The bard of Avon may have his own reasons for musing over the question-- `What's in a name?' But a change of name, especially in the case of streets can completely efface its historic and geographical significance. After all, there's so much in a name.


Photo: S. Gopakumar

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