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Restoring Kozhikode’s Zamorin past with gentle retouches

P Anima | Updated on August 29, 2021

Tree cover: The restoration project capitalises on natural assets such as the towering banyan trees   -  IMAGES: P ANIMA

The spruced up Tali temple pond complex serves as a portrait to the culture and history of the erstwhile rulers of Malabar

* Palaces that have survived are in the outskirts — in Mankavu and Thiruvannur. Popularly known as the kovilakams, they remain decrepit reminders to a powerful past

* The relief murals depict the Zamorin’s coronation and the royal procession soon after, as well as cultural events such as the Mamangam, and the Revathi Pattathanam

* “I did not want to do anything new, instead preserve and highlight what already existed”

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If grand palaces and immaculately preserved residences are a yardstick for historical splendour, Kozhikode, a city steeped in the past — both medieval and colonial — has little to show. Unlike their royal counterparts in Travancore and Kochi in Kerala, little in modern-day Kozhikode reflects the flourish of the Zamorin era.

Zamorins, erstwhile rulers of the Malabar for 500-odd years — 12th-century onwards, had presided over an era of economic prosperity — a time when Kozhikode grew to be a prized port in the medieval trade route.

Among the few monumental remnants of the Zamorin era to survive in the city centre of Kozhikode today are the Tali temple complex, the 14th-century water tank of Mananchira, and the Mishkal Mosque in Kuttichira. “In 1766 when [Mysore ruler] Hyder Ali captured Kozhikode, the then Zamorin, Manavikraman Raja, killed himself inside the palace, burning down the complex with him. Ali, apparently, tried to salvage the palace, but could not; it was adjacent to the north-western part of the Tali temple,” points out VV Haridas, head of the department of history at Calicut University. Palaces that have survived are in the outskirts — in Mankavu and Thiruvannur. Popularly known as the kovilakams, they remain decrepit reminders to a powerful past.

Vantage point: A wide walking path dotted with relief murals that illustrate life in the Zamorin era

Showpiece: The relief murals capture scenes of political, social and cultural significance in the Zamorian era

Probably why restorative measures in the remaining Zamorin-era structures effortlessly evolve into heritage preservation. A recent restoration project, jointly realised by the district tourism promotion council (DTPC) and the local MLA fund, resulted in the sprucing up of the Tali temple pond complex. The pond, adjacent to the temple, is now flanked by restored bathing ghats, pavilions and a wide walking path dotted with relief murals that illustrate life in the Zamorin era.

Single window: The bathing ghat is restricted to a one site

 

Heritage and tourism

“The project aims to leverage the heritage of Kozhikode to further tourism,” says Beena Madhusoodanan, secretary, DTPC. Executed with a budget of ₹2 crore, it is part of a larger project that firmly focuses on Kozhikode’s heritage structures. “Similar restoration work is underway at Kuttichira,” adds Madhusoodanan. Kuttichira, a settlement not far from Tali, is a living testament to the Zamorin’s patronage of the Muslim inhabitants of Kozhikode.

“At Tali, we have aimed to bring forth a portrait of Zamorin culture and history,” says Madhusoodanan. It is largely realised through eight works of relief murals depicting scenes of political, social and cultural importance. Created by artists Nibin Raj and Shijeesh Atholi, they depict the Zamorin’s coronation and the royal procession soon after, as well as cultural events such as the Mamangam — a trade fair held every 12 years, and the Revathi Pattathanam — the seven-day competition among Vedic scholars. The Zamorins were patrons of culture, and the murals done on cement, portray performances of Krishnanattam and the Thyagaraja music festival held within the precincts of the Tali temple. A hat-tip to the administrative systems of the Zamorin era is a mural on the Mangattachan, the traditional prime ministers in court. “The Zamorin traditionally visited the Tali temple following his coronation. The Revathi Pattathanam was one of the highlights at Tali, scholars such as the medieval poet Uddanda Shastri had taken part in the contest,” says Haridas.

The early part of the Zamorin history is shrouded in mystery, observes the historian. “What we have are legends. According to a legend in the text Keralolpathi, the Tali temple had existed even when the Zamorin captured Kozhikode. It makes the temple older than the Zamorins in the city,” says Haridas, adding that the rulers had established Kozhikode around AD 1200.

Recreating the past

For artists Raj and Atholi, recreating the long history posed ample challenges. Raj went about the creative process by interacting with historians and the extended Zamorin family for clues. “An elder from the Zamorin family shared images from a coronation in the 1940s. Unlike other royalty, the Zamorin does not wear expensive clothes or a crown, but a white dhoti and a cloth headgear. But they are distinguished by their jewels — long neckpieces, bangles and anklets,” says Raj. The artists made sketches from texts and images and unearthed quirky tidbits in the bargain. For instance, among the gifts presented to the competitors of the Revathi Pattathanam is a handful of thumba [Ceylon slitwort] flowers, given along with betel leaves, arecanuts, coins, and clothes. “We incorporated that detail in the mural,” says Raj.

Kasthurba AK, professor and head, department of architecture at National Institute of Technology, Kozhikode, designed the restoration project abiding by a simple principle: “I did not want to do anything new, instead preserve and highlight what already existed.” In the process, she retained the traditional character of the place. In keeping with the tone of the tiled-roof buildings around the temple pond — the Zamorin’s Higher Secondary School, houses flanking the pond, and the temple itself — additional structures too were roofed with terracotta tiles. She had natural assets in the towering banyan trees in the locality. “These trees are in cardinal positions and one of them is over a century old — a witness to history. The forest department had honoured it with a stone tablet bearing the title ‘Mara Muthassi’ [the grandmother tree]. One cannot forget environmental restoration at these historical sites,” observes Kasthurba.

The architect largely used laterite and granite for construction and gently altered arrangements to make the site more visitor friendly. The bathing ghat was restricted to a single site, while the rest was cordoned off and rearranged as a seating area allowing visitors to soak in the calm. Prior to the restoration, the long bathing ghat had been a messy conundrum, even doubling up as a parking lot. The temple pond was another story altogether. “People bathing in it often discarded used clothes in the waters. We cleaned the pond to a large extent, and two truckloads of old clothes were removed from it,” says Kasthurba.

The temple pond is at the city centre, merely 500 m away from the bustling Palayam market, and a mile away from the railway station. Its geographical location makes it susceptible to commercial encroachment, and the project executioners had to deal with niggling issues on that count. Restoration is now complete, and the site opened to selfie hunters as well as the odd meditative visitor seeking a minute’s quiet. A project’s success, says Kasthurba, is measured by the people’s acceptance of it. “What makes a city rich?” she asks, before answering it herself: “It is its past. Its historic structures give it character.” With every gentle retouch, Kozhikode is reclaiming its past — stone by stone, brick by brick.

Published on August 29, 2021

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