Bina Thomas Tharakan is a pathfinder. She is all too happy to lead the history buffs through the heritage of Thiruvananthapuram, the city of royalty.
An archaeologist by profession, Tharakan is a familiar face in Kerala’s capital city. Her heritage walks through the alleys and lanes of the city reveal a world of wonder to the uninitiated.
“Many in the young generation in Thiruvananthapuram are unaware of the historical monuments in their city. They do not know who built them and which period they are from. Yet, the archaeology department has all the information about their history and milestones. The heritage walk is designed to channel that information to the common man,” she said.
So who are her fellow-walkers? “The people who walk with me are mostly those who want to learn about history and those who want to share the knowledge to the next generation.”
Tharakan does not rely on heavy-duty marketing to publicize her walks. Her clients are drawn by a small newspaper ad about the place to be visited that particular week. “That’s all I do. Each group would have 20 to 30 people, including students and bureaucrats.”
The chronicler of Thiruvananthapuram is a recent entrant to the city though. The Baroda-born Thrissur-native reached Thiruvananthapuram in 2010 after marrying John Samuel, the CEO of the Geneva-based Forum Asia International Organization. Now the city is home to her children, Vineeth and Anugraha.
“I loved stories as a child. Then I started investigating about the places where those stories were set. After completing post-graduation in archaeology, I researched in Indus Valley civilization in the Pune University. After I was appointed as a special officer in the archaeology department, I could pursue my interests more freely. Wherever I go, I dig up the history of the place. That is my job too.”
She said she was drawn to Thiruvananthapuram in the course of her work. “The Unesco selected two places from Kerala to its World Heritage list – the Padmanabhapuram Palace and the Edakkal cave. They had to be extensively analyzed before adding to the list. All historical documents had to be studied. Their importance had to be underlined. During those studies, I happened to learn more about Thiruvananthapuram. The sights in Thiruvananthapuram were not to be hidden in historical documents. That thought led me to the idea of a heritage walk.”
In the shade of Padmanabha
The famed Padmanabha Swami Temple hogged all limelight in Thiruvananthapuram. “The temple was the most historical monument for ages. The temple was a major factor that prompted Anizham Thirunal Marthanda Varma to shift his capital to Thiruvananthapuram from Padmanabhapuram. A transformation followed. The fort came up. Markets and other buildings were constructed. The royal family and the people inhabited the land of the Padmanabhan. This is Thiruvananthapuram’s history in a nutshell. Every district and every village has such fascinating story if we are prepared to walk the path of history.
"The hospitals, schools and all other buildings in Ananthapuri were thatched earlier. We have records of the king ordering to pave these buildings with tiles. There are legends associated with all these developments. I have two friends capable of telling all these stories associating with heritage walks - Achutshankar Nair, who is researching on Swati Tirunal and Malayinkeezhu Gopalakrishnan who is a senior journalist. They are the best possible fellow travelers for a history enthusiast like me who has migrated to this city. We organized the first heritage walk in Thiruvananthapuram on October 20, 2013."
The growth of a village
In olden days, the merchants who came to the city through the sea anchored their vessels off Vallakkadavu and took their commodities to Pettah to pay taxes. Only Hindus were allowed to enter the city.
That explains why the places of worship in Pettah become historical. The churches along the coast offer a glimpse into the past. “That’s where we went on our first heritage walk. That was a closely knit group. The strength of the group increased gradually. We included new places and new information”.
Heritage is not just about old temples and churches, said Tharakan. “That is a misconception. Heritage is the process of a village’s transformation to a city. Heritage walks are based on the idea to go to a place and understand how it transformed to the present stage. This is not just appreciation but also information gathering.
“Old buildings built with sand and laterite and timber are slowly withering away. The tile-paved buildings are hardly 150 years old. We used to thatch houses with palm fronds before that. Many of them have been lost to rain and the sun. If we were to protect the remaining structures, society has to realize their importance. That is what I aim at when I lead people through roads flanked with legendary towers,” Tharakan said.