The way we were: Our Tharavad and the Old Banyan Tree
The century-old majestic banyan tree is no longer there. However, the house is. It is our ancestral home, our tharavad. We always admire her and very fondly call her home.
As I stand at the main gate and reminisce, I picture my grandfather sitting in the portico and enjoying neighborhood youngsters play ball in the courtyard. I hear the loud commotion, and smell the dust in the mid-summer heat, as they push, shove, and run after the ball. I see my grandmother cautiously watching over them while minding household chores. I see myself as a young boy hanging on to my grandfather’s fingers as he walks around, his usual after supper walk, in the dimly lit courtyard. I see the dark, light and the creepy looking shadows of the tall trees and the bushes and hear the many scary nocturnal noises from the Kavu. However, the presence of my grandfather soothes my anxieties. I know the child sleeping on the floor on a straw mat next to my grandfather's bed.
My grandfather came back to the village to retire. He recovered some of the ancestral properties, built the house, and spent his time in the quaint village enjoying life with his children and grandchildren. He was a revered village elder, amiable, pious, and well respected by all. We lived with our grandparents until I was about 6 years old, then our grandfather built a house next door for us so that we all could live in one compound. His vision was to have all his children nearby and accordingly apportioned the property. Of the four children, my mother and a brother stayed in the village. The oldest daughter lived not too far away in another village, and the youngest son settled down in the Americas after becoming the first medical doctor from the village.
The house is a testament to the good and sad times. It stands as a symbol of family solidarity and a gateway from the old traditions to the new norms. The house represents the twilight days of the Ranny Kartha clans. As times changed, the unique Kartha names also gradually disappeared. Names such as Kunjunni, Cherunni, Kochunni, Pappunni, Kunjukochu, Kochukunju, Kunjukunju, Itti, Kochitti, Kunjitti, or any combinations of the above names transformed to represent a changed society. Along with the names, title such as Sakhthi Vikramar bestowed by the Maharaja of Travancore to the Karthas also disappeared.
Built in the early part of 1940 the house has a few modern touches. It sits in the middle of about two acres of lush land. It was built with Laterite red bricks, lime mortar, concrete, solid teak, and other indigenous hardwood woods. It has a red-clay tiled roof with a portico facing east. Portico connects to the main room where my grandfather had a big wooden desk with many books, a calendar, large desktop notepad, ink bottles, few fountain pens, and a fancy kerosene lantern with a long chimney with a big frosted glass shade. There was a small cabinet to the left, and a bed to the other side. That was his domain, from where he could see the courtyard, driveway and even the main road. There were two big bedrooms to the sides of the main room, a small dining room, a kitchen with a few wood burning stoves. Kitchen connects to the slightly lower edathalem that opens to the water well by a half-door.
The outhouse with no roof was a bit away close to the creek that runs alongside the property. The small concrete tank inside was replenished with water frequently.
The chaavadi alongside the house where the family lived during the construction is longer there. The small room to the left of the portico had many residents: a few of the grandchildren while in college occupied that room. I was the last one, during my pre-degree years, to stay in the room. Looking out into the courtyard through the small window staring at the changing seasons, during many nights and days, I weaved a whole lot of dreams about my future.
The state road linking many interior places and Sabarimala was just a gravel road at that time. Electricity and asphalt reached our village in the early 1960s.
The long driveway from the main road leads to the large sandy courtyard. Many varieties of variegated croton plants lined both sides of the driveway. The property with her fertile soil had an amazing variety of trees, including mango, jackfruit, tamarind, teak, coconut, aanjili, breadfruit, betelnut, cashew, Casuarina and flowering bushes, and curry leaf plants. Tapioca, different varieties of yams, bananas, and plantains were abundant. The grand old banyan tree on to the right of the driveway halfway from the main road was massive. Its branches and aerial roots spread over a large area and stood there majestically for at least few hundred years. Its understorey sustained varieties of creatures, plants, and shrubs.
The Kavu was a sacred place once located on the southwest corner toward the back of the house. The Kavu was a tiny, dense forest with mature trees and shrubs. The thicket also was a sanctuary for birds and small animals. There were many stone idols on a small grassy altar representing our ancestors. My grandmother called them Adavi Appoppan, Vettimaricha Appoppan, Keezhilkazhinjavar. On auspicious evenings, she lit oil lamps and prayed to all Kaavil param para deities. Sarpa Kavu was common in many of the ancestral homes in Kerala at that time. I remember partaking in an annual Sarppampattu puja at our grandmother’s ancestral home in Melukara. The house had a small shrine in the front courtyard on the banks of River Pampa. All night bhajans and pujas were offered to deities Nashamoni Amma, and Palan Pulayan. I still remember the long walk with my grandmother and others from the nearest town to the ancestral home; I was about 8 years old.
Playtimes were fun times, no-worry times, and innocent times. Young siblings, cousins, and neighborhood friends gathered at our house, after school, and played together. During the Monsoon days, rainwater from the roof rushed through the troughs like a siphon onto the courtyard. Whenever there was a chance, we jumped into the rain and frolicked under the waterspout in spite of repeated rebukes from my grandmother. Again, we got into trouble for playing in the laterite quarries after the rainfall. In the shades of the huge tamarind tree, we found refuge during the hot mid-summer days. A mouth-watering concoction made from ripe tamarind fruit stuffed with few pieces of rock salt, a small shallot, and a kanthari mulaku was an irresistible treat and its taste still lingers on. We improvised toys by using sticks, stones, old cans, old bicycle tires, and wheels and bottles. We played sat, and kallanum polisum as we hid under the kachi thuru, and behind huge trees, and in the bushes, but stayed away from the thickets of the Kavu. Later as we grew older, we moved on to thalappanthu, kudu-kudu, kabaddi, thattu panthu, etc.
Hot summers gave way to Monsoon rains, Vishu, Onam, Diwali, temple festivals as our lives turned on new leaves. Young friends became big, and tall and moved on to different walks of life, and to various parts of the globe. However, our house still stands there as a memorial to the changed times. It once represented a simple, uncomplicated, an old-fashioned conservative value system. However, the days of joint family, marumakkathayam, rights of sambandhams, and untouchability, all slowly faded away into history: old norms gave way to a modern, liberal, and inclusive home.
Now, most of the trees, including the century-old banyan tree, and the sacred piece of land vanished paving way for rubber trees and other crops. In addition, a generation has disappeared as my uncle, youngest of my mother’s siblings, passed on. As each leaf fell, the gaping hole in the fabric that bonded us as a family has further widened. The remoteness between the remaining leaves becoming more apparent. However, a new plot of land has risen where my grandparents and their children found a final resting place in the property. Troubling question about the continued existence house and the property always linger in my mind of late. Who will be the keeper of the legacies of my grandfather, and the house he built. The new generation youngsters shy away from villages where they born and opt for employment-rich IT towns, and cities. Going home, back to the villages, is not an option for many of them.
These days, a visit to my village is not that exciting as the previous ones. Only a few of my family still live in the village. Many of my contemporaries who left the village never came back to resettle. For the new generation, I am a stranger. A few baby boomer folks usually stop by and ask, “ennu vannu” followed by the next question, “ennu pokum,” and then they slowly walk away.
Change is the constant in our lives. However, certain basic values we learn early in the childhood years stay with us forever. Over the years, my life at our house has shaped my outlook in many positive ways. Like the bees, birds, and other creatures that once found refuge in and around the banyan tree, the children and the grandchildren also moved on and established new habitats far and wide and across the oceans. However, our home stays to me as a symbol of a bygone era representing a good and an innocent time and an uncomplicated life. During moments of anxiety, thoughts of my grandparents and parents put me at ease and help me navigate the trials and tribulations of daily life.
(The author, a technology professional, resides in Toronto, Canada with his family)