There is something about Thiruvananthapuram!
I know this city for a long time since my first visit to Thiruvananthapuram with my parents as a youngster many years ago. Later, lived there during my Mar Ivanios College days. Those were the formative years that indeed influenced me later in many ways. The three unforgettable years had a certain zest: full of youthful exuberance, studiousness, excitement, and camaraderie.
The city with her glorious past, quirks, and deficiencies has been one of my favourite places. Trivandrum appealed to me from the very first visit. She has the yin and yang: an eclectic mix of grandeur, mysticism, old-world charm coupled with the modern-day realities of life. Her rich heritage evolved over centuries through various dynasties of maharajas. The pomp and glory of yesteryears, tree-lined regal boulevards, heritage redbrick buildings, and crowded bazaars, hustle, and bustle of a capital city with a distinct drawl and the heterogeneous population gave her a unique character.
As a village youngster, I admired the city with wonderment. It became more intriguing as I started learning her history and cultural heritage. Her glorious past, according to historians, goes back to 11 century BC. Her rich political and cultural prominence started to appear with the Ays and Venad rulers. The opulence of the golden era of Travancore maharajas is still enviably alive here.
During one of our class excursions, we visited the famed Padmanabhapuram Palace. It was an awesome feeling walking down the regal halls of power, appreciating the memorabilia and paraphernalia, and the murals and paintings on the palace walls by exemplary artisans. It was a window into the historical background of the old capital and the dynasties. Marthanda Varma Maharaja relocated the capital of Travancore to Thiruvananthapuram during 1754.
I learned more about the Travancore Maharajas’ connection to Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple. Travancore Maharajas were ardent devotees of Sree Padmanabha, thus the title Sree Padmanabha Dasa. Anizham Thirunal Maharaja surrendered (Thrippadi-danam) the kingdom of Travancore to Lord Padmanabha in the early 1700s.
Later during the regimes of Swathi Thirunal and Ayilyam Thirunal, Thiruvananthapuram was turned out into an intellectual and artistic center. Many institutions of higher learning were established (such as University College, Sanskrit College, Ayurvedic College, Law College, etc.) during that era. The University of Travancore was instituted in 1937, which later in 1949 became the Kerala University. During the Travancore-Cochin Union, Chitra Thirunal Bala Rama Varma became the first Rajapramukh. The State of Kerala was carved out of the Union in 1956. It flourished as the capital and as a political power centre since then.
On many evenings, after the classes, we took the green local buses to the city centre. We leisurely strolled from Thampanoor or East Fort enjoying the evening ambience. We walked past the Overbridge, Ayurvedic College, GPO, and Statue Junction while relentlessly talking, and people watching. We knew far and wide corners of the city as we took leisurely city bus rides via Muttada, Mankulam, Kazhakkoottam, Kovalam, Peroorkkada, and Pappanamkode other locales just to get to know the city. Each locale had its flavour and identity.
The commotions of city life still reverberate in my mind. The evening air was always, except for heavy Monsoon days, filled with sweet and pleasant aromas of fresh-cut flowers from the many flower shops en route. It was complemented by the fragrance from the lit incenses from temples, and stores, and aromas from the many restaurants’ kitchens and roadside coffee and tea stalls. Smells of dry summer heat and the musty monsoon invigorated us. The sights and sounds, noises of the Chalai Market, the burgeoning crowd, devotional music, temple bells, congested East Fort alleyways, and the roaring transport busses emitting plumes of smoke contributed to the evening ambience.
Usually, we ended our leisurely walk at the Coffee House or the University Canteen (affectionately known as Kulc). They were centrally located near Spencer Junction, next to University College, AG's office, Secretariat, American, and German cultural centres, and a host of other important offices and stores. After four o’clock, the place was crowded with students from various campuses. We usually sat around at the corner table and chitchatted about nothingness. The ubiquitous hot ghee roast, steaming soft hot idlis, and spicy vadas, with coconut chutney, sambar, and the famous coffee were affordable and delicious. Some evenings we enjoyed our supper at the small Gujarati Dhaba on MG Road near Pazhavangadi. They cooked fresh pooris right in front of us and supplied aloo-masala subji, chilli pickles, and tea for a very nominal price.
Nothing deterred us from our city escapades neither heat nor the torrential monsoon rains or Principal Panicker Achan's menacing look. The airwaves were filled with romantic music from the movie Nadhi, the romantic lyrics by the great maestro Vayalar transported the young and invincible ones to a magical land of unbridled and pure feelings of adoration.
Second shows at Pattom Palace movie theatre were essential for many of us; it was cheap entertainment, and a risky venture negating the 10 pm hostel curfew. At the hostel, we had a 9 PM curfew: beyond that, it was study time. To circumvent the curfew hours and to sneak out of the room, we invented a small ingenious device, a rubber band, to lock the door from outside! Sree Kumar Theatre was another favourite hangout for English movies. I specifically remember “The Naked Runner” starring Frank Sinatra: the title was a deception for many young men and their vulnerable minds!
For the people from the nearby villages, the city was the hotbed of activities. They converged into the city during the day for buying and selling, sightseeing, working, hospital visits, and run other errands. This capital city was the centre of attraction and a hotbed for politics, activism, and business dealings. As the sun went down beyond the Shankumugham beach, and as the dimly lit streetlights started flickering, the crowd started dissipating. The red and beige ordinary and fast passengers, double-deckers, and the green city service buses spewing diesel smoke snaked along the crowded roadways transporting the masses back to various home destinations.
As night fell, we retreated to Nalanchira to get back to our hostels and lodges. Like many junctions, Nalanchira was a busy intersection due to the proximity of the college. For everyone in the village -people returning from work, people shopping for provisions, and devotees returning from temples and churches, office workers, students, and farmers, it was the hub, a meeting place. It was in place to get the news of the day or to partake in a heated political discussion. Street vendors, food, and tea stalls, toddy shop, and knickknack stores opened for an evening of brisk business. Oil and kerosene lamps, Petromax, and electric bulbs barely lit up the place.
The ambience of the junction was loaded with music, newscasts, and shouts of vendors marketing their wares, noisy loudspeaker announcements, political rallies, spontaneous meetings, and the roar of the diesel engines. There was always some action or other happenings at the junction: political and labour union meetings, street circus, magic shows, fortune-tellers, and quacks offering one-shot cure-all to magic potions and snake oils. People simply congregate at the junction to absorb the hustle and bustle of the evening.
Of many short trips, certain ones to Kuttalam, Suchindram, Thakkala salt fields, and Kanyakumari are still fresh in my mind. Suchindrum has the famous Thanumalayan (Siva, Vishnu, and Brahman in one-form) temple. This 17th-century temple is an architectural marvel with its tall gopuram and imposing façade.
Our study tour took us to Madras and Bangalore: explored many historic and tourist sites including, St Thomas Mount, few temples, and churches. We visited (in)famous Moore Market that was built in 1898 by Sir George Moore. Shopping at the congested Moore Market was an experience. It was a market where hawkers and hagglers thrived, and duplicates of anything under the sun available. A bottle of Old Spice cologne bought from the market was just water. We travelled on the famed Vrindavan Express to Bangalore. We browsed through local markets and shopping areas in the city, watched a movie in the only 75mm Cinerama theatre. Then, moved to Mysore to visit Mysore Palace, Chamundi Hills, Nandi statue, and Vrindavan Gardens. We meandered through the Gardens appreciating the plants, blossoms, and natural beauty.
Occasionally, a few black and white images faded but still very identifiable, flash in front of me. One such image, particularly of a young man, crosses my mind frequently. Balan helped us with our food and ran errands for us. From his stories, I learned that he was the only breadwinner of his poor family. He did not get a chance to attend a school or move out of the vicious cycle of menial jobs and impoverishment. Perhaps, there are many millions like him in this world: abandoned by family, orphaned due to many reasons, struck by ill fate, abused by their kith and kin, struggling to garner a meal, hungry and poor, or trying to find a meal for the family, desolate, and with no shelter or protection from anything. Often, conveniently, we ignore their plights.
Those were three memorable years of fun, friendship, freedom, and a simpler life. Nowadays, I visit Thiruvananthapuram while in Kerala. I find the Mascot Hotel as a little green oasis in the bustling city. The city has changed a lot over the years; new office buildings, hotels, stores, industries, and businesses have sprouted across the town. The main road is exponentially busier than it was then. Traffic is incredibly heavy and congested. Light smog from diesel smoke, dust, and other pollutants envelope the city. Population, pollution, and traffic have their downside.
Despite deficiencies, the city has a magical touch, an irresistible charm that delights me all the time. The friendships formed in Ananthapuri linger on in living colour with much significance despite long gaps in time and places.