I am surprised how clean Thrissur is for a large city. One of my colleagues in Bangalore, hails from Thrissur. He claims this to be the cultural capital of Kerala. Unlike Bangalore, there are no open garbage dumps. There are no stray dogs or cows wandering the streets. There are no open drains or pedestrian pathways with holes gaping into the clogged gutters. The fact is that Thrissur has grown at a manageable pace, something which cannot be said of Bangalore. The municipality has had time to change things and set them right.
I arrive late into Thrissur from Guruvayur. I have been travelling quickly and I feel the need to slow things down. With much to see at Thrissur, I think I am going to stay here for a couple of nights. Moreover, tomorrow is Krishna Janmashtami. There should be something interesting going on in town.
I take a metered auto-rickshaw to the museum. I specifically tell the guy that I wish to visit the Archaeological Museum at the old palace. He drops me at the entrance to the zoo. Inside the zoo is the State Art Museum. This is very much like in Lucknow where the local museum is clubbed with the local zoo. Otherwise, no one would visit a museum whose collection is moderate and unimpressive.
But I am too quick to dismiss this museum without even a glance. When I visit it, I find that it has many wonderful exhibits. There is a wonderful metal sculpture of a dwarapalak, obviously salvaged from some temple of the region. The intricate details of the jewellery on this dwarapalak are admirable. There are many beautiful woodcrafted standing figures – Narada, Rama, Lakshmana, Mahishasuramardini, to name a few. Wood is heavy but the carvings bring it lightness through fluid lines. The pleats of dresses fall naturally. Above the doorways in this gallery of wooden sculptures are two sculpted panels – one depicting Krishna playing the flute and surrounded by gopis; the other depicting Gajalakshmi flanked by her two elephants. The reliefs of these panels are beautiful and the scenes are expressive. At one time, the panels may have been painted.
Then there is a unique eight-piece tea set made completely of cloves. The cloves are closely arranged and tied together with thin black threads to make a tray, tea cups and saucers, a sugar bowl with a lid and a milk pot. It is true that the Malabar Coast is world renowned for its spices but who would have thought of making something like this.
The pride of this museum is perhaps its excellent collection of artefacts in bell-metal, an alloy of copper and tin. Most of them are lamps used in temples. There are hanging lamps attached with intricate chains. There are standing lamps with multi-tiered cups for placing oil and wick. Entire temples are crafted in miniatures on some of these lamps. A peacock design on one lamp is eye-catching. The superb craftsmenship of Keralan artists so often seen in wood can also be seen in this collection of bell-metal lamps.
The zoo itself is pathetic. Birds are cooped in claustrophobic spaces with no chance of a flight. Dozens of primates are locked together in cages too small for their numbers. There is no natural setting for the lone tiger, the emaciated lion, the black panthers and clouded leopards, all of which are kept in small bare cells. Looking directly into the orange eyes of a tiger is quite unsettling even with the bars of the cage in between.
Not far from here, bonnet-headed macaques are creating quite a racket. A Himalayan black bear, so used to cool climates, doesn’t appear to be in great shape. From behind iron grills it looks longingly at the world outside. Lion-tailed macaques stretch out their palms for handouts. A couple of crocodiles try in vain to cool off in a dry moat. A hog deer rubs it forehead and antlers in mud. A Mottled Wood Owl stands superbly camouflaged on a dead branch. Its feathery coat looks as much as the peeling barks of the branch. Mithun, the tame version of the Indian bison, found in North-Eastern India, grazes in one corner of its enclosure. The feathers of a pelican catch the evening light as the bird watches me intently. A White Stork stands still by a pool. An Adjutant Stork marches to prove why its worth the name. From their cages, Brahminy Kites and Pariah Kites search for the open sky.
There is still time for sunset and I walk from the zoo to the Lourdes Cathedral. I pass through little streets lined with nice houses. These streets are not all that well-maintained as the main roads of Thrissur. When I arrive at the Cathedral, I service is underway. There has been no rain today either at Guruvayur or at Thrissur. The weather in the south seems to have turned for the better. The rainwashed days of Goa and Calicut have been left behind. I am happy for it. Patches of clouds in the sky filter the evening light to a subtle glow in which the cathedral stands beautifully. With its long nave and outspread transepts, it is laid out in the typical Christian cross. A tall octogonal spire stands over the entrance to the nave. It is crowned high by a cross. Higher still, and perhaps as an incongruous spectacle, stands a modern lamp. Over the crossing, is a ribbed dome with a cupola over it. Perpendicular windows, minor buttresses, neat pinnacles and transparent aracaded parapets bring uniformity and grace to this wonderful building.
Lighting is everything. The setting sun adds a wonderful glow to the building. The swaying palms all around the Cathedral cast their sharp shadows on the high walls. Looking up, I see them framing the building from many angles. The interiors are not that impressive except for the dome at the crossing. Arched windows at its octogonal base let in light. Although the interiors may not be ornate or showy, they create the right mood for prayer. The mood is light and open. The whitewashed walls are simple. There is nothing more to them than sky blue lines that emphasize arches, spandrels, ribs and piers. It is Cathedral easy to like.
On the return to my hotel near the railway station, I pass Our Lady of Dolores. There is a service underway here too. Like at the Cathedral, this too is packed with people. I am surprised to see so many people attending service on a busy weekday. It is past sunset and too dark to admire the architecture. I’ll have to come back to this church tomorrow morning. I have hot chappatis for dinner at Vasantha Vihar, where service is quick. The vegetaable kurma is excellent.
The next morning I first visit the Chalden Syrian Church. The interiors are modern. Chandeliers hang from a low ceiling. These chandeliers are of an old design with glass cups originally meant to contain oil. A flame burns steadily on a four-foot brass standing lamp. It is the same sort of lamp used in Keralan temples except that in this case a cross adorns it at the top. This is perhaps an old church and the only thing that betrays its age is the facade. Three semi-circular arches frame three doorways. There are classical and formal. Simple round columns give form to the facade. The gable above stands in graceful curves and whorls.
Next I walk to Our Lady of Dolores, a church I had partly seen yesterday. At the western end are two large towers topped with spires. Arches and pinnacles decorate the spires. The church exhibits some nice window tracery. A smaller spire stands at the crossing. Behind the altar rises the Bell Tower, a structure that seems to outdo the rest of the church in its loftiness. The entire church and its accompanying Bell Tower are whitewashed. There is not a spot of colour for emphasis. If not for the bright morning and a clear blue sky for background, the whole thing might have looked boring.
On the inside, the nave and transepts have side aisles. Above a mezzanin level runs all throughout. The blind aisles of the transepts have idols installed in niches. The vaulting is simple but richly painted with Christian themes. The image of Mary holding fallen Christ is repetitive. One particular statue of Christ is garlanded with marigolds and jasmines. A lamp is burning nearby, just like the ones in temples. There are some practices that have more to do with local customs than those handed down from the Vatican. Behind the altar, is a enclosed space where a golden star is worshipped in absolute silence.
The heart of Thrissur is a place called the Round. It is basically a large open space of green cover. Four roads go around this park and they are aptly named Round North, South, East and West. At the center of the Round is the famous Vaddukanatha Temple. I enter it by Round East but possibly there are four such entrances to the temple. The entrance gateway is elaborate, with tiled roofs and straight facing gables. The outer walls at this gateway contain architectural mouldings typical to Kerala. These are interesting on their own but when I compare them against temples elsewhere in India, they are quite boring.
The temple courtyard is spacious. Walking paths are stone paved. Lawns are mowed properly and lined neatly with bricks. Sand has been spread out around the temple. There are three main shrines here. The first is of Vaddukanatha, who I understand is a form of Shiva. This is a circular building who roof stands are a tiled cone. In the same building, at the back is the shrine dedicated to Parvati. The second building is dedicated to Sankaranarayanan, more generally called Harihara, a union of Shiva and Vishnu. This building is more interesting. It is also circular but it is two-tiered. The third building is in more common pagoda style and is dedicated to Sree Rama. All three shrines have a mandapa facing them. These madapas are beautiful timbered constructions. In all of them are rich carved details on pillars, rafters and ceilings. In particular, are four superbly sculpted pillars facing the Vaddukanatha shrine.
Some of the cloisters contain faded murals. Anantasheyana and Shiva tandava are a couple of notable scenes here. It is a pity that more care have not been taken to preserve them. All is not lost. The outer wall of the Sankaranarayanan shrine contains some splendid murals. There are scenes of battle with arrows drawn to release, spears at the point of throw, swords and shields clashing. It is often difficult to decide if these are any more dangerous than the piercing eyes and their expressions. Busty females fill the canvases with wonderful jewels. Shiva dances his tandava. The colours may have faded a little but the wall-canvas is still full of energy.
The most wonderful building in this temple complex is the kootambalam. From the outside, it is an impressive towering structure. The roof slants many feet from its pinnacle to a few feet from ground level. I begin to wonder how on earth it is supported on the inside. The place is locked but I peer through the latticed woodwork to look at the interiors in filtered beams of light. From stone bases rise wooden pillars, often complete tree trunks. Near the sides, these pillars directly support the roof via wooden rafters. At higher levels, a network of wooden rafters on multi-levels stand over wooden pillars to support the high roof. The pillars are sculpted with traditional motifs but there is nothing rich to their appearance. There is an elevated platform within. It is covered and supported by smooth lathe-turned pillars. The pillars appear to be lacquered. They are definitely more beautiful than the rest of the pillars. They define a special place, sort of a stage where temple performances are to be held. The kootambalam is really a place of performance, not so much to entertain people as to dedicate in dance what the gods desire.
Being Krishna Janmastami, the temple is busy with devotees. A special ceremony is underway in the lawns. Under a makeshift shed a few cows and their calves have been tied to poles. The bovine creatures submit to decorations of vermillion and garlands. Priests perform artis them, give them offerings of juicy grass and bananas. The ceremony goes on for many minutes and does not seem to come to a close. I don’t know who invents all these elaborate rituals.
I leave the temple and walk to the Shaktan Thampuran Palace which also houses the Archaeological Museum. At the entrance, I am waylaid by Sukumaran, the palace security guard. He punches my ten rupee ticket and greets me in good English. We start chatting. He is quite a chatterbox. I end up standing at the entrance for twenty minutes listening to his entire life history.
‘I used to be a journalist. I have M.A. in literature,’ he says proudly.
‘Why are you doing this job?’ I ask him.
‘My wife wanted this. She got me this job through connections,’ he replies. After a long pause, he continues, ‘At first I hated it. Then I learnt about the palace and the history of Shaktan Thampuran. I got interested in the place. Now I enjoy it. I quite like meeting people from all over the world.’
‘Your wife didn’t like your being a journalist?’ I ask.
‘There is a risk,’ replies Sukumaran. ‘Government job is always good.’
Sukumaran has had quite a career. He was first a school teacher. He had a brief stint within political circles as part of the RSS. He then moved on to embrace Marxism. It was at this point that he became a reporter and rose in the rungs of journalism to become a sub-editor. Finally, he has landed up here as a guard to a crumbling palace of a dead king. Yes, for some people nothing it better than a government job.
‘Kingdom of Cochin and Kingdom of Travancore were always outside British control,’ he says proudly of the palace he guards. ‘The British controlled only the Malabar.’
‘Malabar was with Tamil Nadu I guess,’ I add.
‘Yes. Tamil Nadu gave Malabar to Kerala in 1956 and Kerala gave Kanyakumari in return,’ he confirms. That’s history for you from a local man who understands it well.
I am just about to take my leave and head into the palace when he stops me one last time.
‘I want to read you a poem,’ he says and disappears into his cabin. He appears a little later with a sheet of paper scribbled with lines penned in Malayalam.
‘One of my friends in the CPI(M) has died. I have written this poem in his honour. It will be published in the local newspaper,’ he says. He begins reading the poem.
‘I don’t know Malayalam,’ I interrupt.
‘I will translate, line by line,’ he replies. He reads the first two lines and follows it up with a translation, ‘My soldier, My comrade…’
The translation is poor and the poem is boring but I hate to tell him that. Perhaps the original sounds better. Poetry has evolved quite a bit in the last couple of decades. Old structured forms don’t hold any appeal any more. Forced rhymes are boring. Predictable imagery is downright out of favour. One thing is certain. His poem is overflowing with Marxist pride.
It turns out that the best thing about this not-so-old palace is Sukumaran himself. The palace as a building is boring. It is nothing more than an old colonial building with large airy rooms, high ceilings, classical columns and large verandahs. An enclosed open courtyard within is surrounded by pillared corridors under the eaves of sloping roofs. The architecture is somewhat interesting but I simply can’t call it a palace. The exhibits in the galleries are a little more interesting. There is beautiful four-poster bed with carved banisters at both ends. Painted wooden models of Kathakali characters are displayed in one of the upper galleries. Among the characters are Subadhra, Surpanaki and Bhimasen; and the one I really like is Nala. These Kathakali dolls have been collected from Kochi. A huge treasury box fills an entire room. Even if it were empty, it would be quite a job moving it. The gardens that surround the palace have lovely flowers and butterflies. The gardens are also a magnet for youthful lovers.
I wait around at the Round. Someone tells me that the procession for Krishna Janmastami will begin at half three. I wonder why would anyone begin a procession during the hottest part of the day. At four, I am walking at the Round waiting for something to happen. The action starts only at half five. Little children dressed as Krishnas and Gopis fill the streets that are by now closed to all vehicular traffic. Parents put the last touches of makeup to their children. Two girls open the celebration with a devotional song. The procession begins soon after. By six, the crowds are thick on both sides of the road. I am sure this is not even a pinch of what one can expect at Puri. There are groups singing bhajans. Their energy is contagious. There are others dancing along. One child Krishna sits on a vanquished demon elephant. Two boys enact the scene of Krishna washing his friend Sudhama’s feet. Another Krishna poses as if lifting Mount Govardhan. I had expected something of a professional show on the streets of Thrissur. It turns out to be more humble and enjoyable.