Books

A unique community

Chitra Narayanan | Updated on October 28, 2018

Title: The Saga of Kalpathy: The story of Palghat Iyers Author: MK Das Pages: 228 Price: ₹599

A peek into the history of Kerala’s Palghat Iyers

One of the most memorable characters played by Kamal Haasan is that of the cook Kameshwaran in the cult comedy film Michael Madana Kama Rajan. There is a scene in the film that brings the house down everytime mainly because of the brilliant way the actor reprises the peculiar accent, mannerisms and intonation of a Palghat Iyer.

That film was some 28 years ago. Today, over WhatsApp, the Palakkad Iyer audio series featuring Vangudu mama is a riot, especially the one where he is discussing Palakkad chamayal (cooking) and the menu for a wedding.

The Iyers of Palakkad in Kerala are a unique community — be it their dialect, cooking, mannerisms, or style of living. As historian MGS Narayanan says, “They are in Kerala, but not of Kerala in the full sense.” Like the indomitable Gaul village holding off the Romans, the Palghat Iyers are a small, strange community full of quirks and enterprise. And wherever they have gone, they stand out a mile apart.

How did this unique community come to be formed? How have they managed to retain their culture centuries after migration? How did they transform into a progressive community that made a mark in civil services, literature, music and business? More important, why were there no clashes between the Tamil Brahmin migrants to Kerala and the local Malayali community but a live and let live attitude — except perhaps for the supercilious attitude of the Namboodiris towards them?

Kochi-based journalist MK Das lovingly traces the history and origins of the Palghat Iyers in this important sociological book on a unique community.

As somebody who visits Kavassery, a little village in Palghat every year and comes away delighted by the agraharams (houses bunched around a temple with a common area) and the life around it — you will still see women drying vadams and vettals and gossiping in the sun — this book is an eye-opener. At one time, Das’ book says there were 96 agraharams in the region. Today, these have dwindled..

Das starts his story not with the Tamil migration but sets the context of Kerala from the Muziris era. He also sets the context of the exodus of the Brahmins from Tamil Nadu and their migration through a gap in the Western ghats into Palghat. There are several conflicting theories. One story goes that the Raja of Palghat invited them. Another goes that a group of settlers from Madurai came to conduct pujas at Kalpathy. But the main provocation for the Tamil migration to Kerala, according to Das, was the socio-politico churn — the collapse of the Cholas and fading of the Pallava empire and also natural calamities like famines.

The book is not just about history and culture, but also of the people, the challenges, the crisis, the interactions with other communities and current realities. Many of these Tamil Brahmin strongholds have today become villages of the old, with the next generation all settled abroad. How do you preserve the heritage of places like Kalpathy, where the old houses are being pulled down? Also Das makes it interesting by drawing parallels between this community and the Jews.

There is considerable wealth of literature that Das has gone through in the producing of this book — such as Englishmen’s accounts of the community. All these go into the making of a delightful book. EP Unny’s illustrations are the icing on the cake.

Published on October 28, 2018

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