The land of my father’s youth, Palakkad, is about as common and generic as the rest of India. If you were to alight at “Palakkad Junction” in the suburb of Olavakot, you’ll drive through auto-rickshaw stands, taxi stands, produce markets, seafood stalls, mom-and-pop stops selling fried foods and betel leaf mouth fresheners, dilapidated historic buildings and seedy lodges.
You’ll zip past familiar rows of vendors peddling fritters, fruits, flowers, shirts, sandals, cell-phone chargers, handkerchiefs, green coconuts, underpants and belts.
But if, instead, you hop into an auto and drive to the town’s old Hanuman temple to see the deity’s form carved into the face of a rock, in just about ten minutes, you’ll enter another Palakkad that dates back to Paleolithic times. Here, you’ll hear the whispers of kings.
You’ll behold Palakkad Fort, the brooding, sand brown edifice built in 1766 by Hyder Ali, the ruler of the Deccan. Ten feet wide in some parts, its massive stone walls soar into the sky. Mini red hibiscus blossoms preen against the old wall. A breeze blows in from the mountains. Tiny waves stipple the green waters of the moat. This Palakkad evokes a time of scabbards and treaties and kings of every stripe and every time. For centuries the Palakkad region has remained a jewel in the crown of many a raja who ruled India.
Derived from the Sanskrit term rajan, meaning “king,” the word raja was also used as a mark of respect for humbler dignitaries, petty chiefs and large landholders. Today, the title raja inspires images of palaces, forts, cavalries and conquests.
The life of the raja was rife in intrigue and conflict in strategic passages like Palakkad. Everyone wanted control of this prime property. Called the Palakkad Gap, this tract of land through the mountains was the main conduit for goods and people from the lands around South India into the kingdoms of Malabar, Cochin and Travancore and also onto international waters. Traders and soldiers approaching the Ghats were often ambushed by archers hiding by the edge of the dense forest. I could see the area’s vitality even in the present day as our family trundled into Kerala from Tamil Nadu, past miles of somnolent goods trucks inching, bumper-to-bumper, towards the state border.
On my trip, I discovered how India’s tumultuous history affected my father’s village of Lakshminarayanapuram in the middle of the 18th century when Raja Hyder Ali wanted to wrest control of the eastern ports then controlled by the French, Dutch and English trading companies. Later, his son Tipu Sultan continued the invasion of Kerala until his death in 1799 in Srirangapatnam at the hands of the British army.
During Tipu’s invasion, Hindus in the Brahmin villages of Palakkad feared for their safety and for the sanctity of idols in the temples dotting the villages. The residents of the villages hid the idols of their temples in the well of one of the homes. When Tipu Sultan withdrew his forces, the idols were retrieved for reinstallation in the temples of the villages. The elders of the villages of Lakshminarayanapuram and Sekharipuram agreed that the idol first retrieved from the well would be installed and consecrated for worship at Lakshminarayanapuram temple and the second at Sekharipuram. The first to be pulled out, strangely enough, was the idol of Lord Gopalakrishna. It was installed at the Lakshminarayanapuram temple. The second, an idol of Lakshminarayana, was taken to the Sekharipuram temple.
Tales like this circumambulate every temple in Palakkad. The 600-year-old Kasi Viswanathaswamy temple at the village of Kalpathy houses a shiva lingam idol from Varanasi. Behind it, the Nila river flows gently, adding to a dramatic landscape of mountain, river, field and home. People wash and bathe daily in the river’s waters; it’s a living and breathing entity meandering through people’s lives, just like the Ganges. An ancient stone inscription in front of this temple narrates the specifics of a gift—in gold, silver and copper coins and utensils—for the upkeep of the precincts by Prince Ilttikombi Achan in the presence of several witnesses.
On the last day of my stay in Palakkad, I discovered another story—an event not involving royalty but one far more significant to my life—when I happened upon two sheets of paper in my second cousin Babu’s home. A few minutes after I turned up at his home, he fished out two yellowing postcards from a drawer. He believed they would be of interest to me because of my curiosity about the village and my heritage.
One was a letter typed up in 1928 by my grandfather to his brother. Another was a letter written by my father’s father to his brother in 1932. In my grandfather’s letter he discussed the cost of two cartloads of rice that he sold (Rupees 60) and the rent he was offered (a rupee and eight annas, that is, a rupee and a half) for one of his properties. My father was just five years old at the time.
Both the letters threw light on specific information I had been looking for related to a writing project. Each postcard was a revelation about mutual respect, responsibility and consideration between siblings and the extent of economic hardship at the time. These letters gave me an insight into the great value placed then on penmanship, simplicity and clarity.
Between the spaces of an old date, a dull seal and a fading address, I’d chanced upon the extraordinary daily battles and victories of commoners like my great grandfather, my grandfather and my own father. In two ordinary postcards, I had found a treasure far more precious than a Raja’s pearl.