Nita Sathyendran learns a few lessons in history at Anchuthengu
Driving through the quaint coastal hamlet of Anchuthengu – or Anjengo as the British called it – you would not imagine the wealth of history that lies hidden amid the plentiful coconut trees, peaceful backwaters, the beach, and the colourfully painted dwellings of the fishermen community. Nor would you figure it for a place where — in the words of travel writer Emily Gilchriest Hatch, in her 1933-published Travancore: A Guide Book For the Visitor — “great scenes of heroism, tragedy, treachery, and intrigue were enacted.”
Anchuthengu, which in Malayalam literally means ‘five coconut palms', is situated in Thiruvananthapuram district, some 10 km north-west of Attingal town. This bustling fishing village is, in fact, the site of one of the earliest trade settlements of the East India Company in India and their very first in Kerala. Today though, the vestiges of colonial rule are not much in evidence — save for the Anchuthengu fort, a church built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, a handful of other structures such as the a homestead called Doves Cottage (circa 1904) and St. Joseph's Higher Secondary School (circa1893).
The Anchuthengu fort was raised in 1695 by the East India Company after a royal decree from the Rani of Attingal. The company wanted to break Dutch monopoly over pepper and coir; some of Travancore's major ports — Colachel, Vizhinjam, and Edava — were subordinate to Anchuthengu. The fort served as a first signalling station for ships arriving from England; and during the Anglo-Mysore war, Anchuthengu was used as a major military depot. It was also one of the main sites of the Attingal Rebellion of 1721, when local people attacked a convoy of 140 British overlords.
Today the fort is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. Structure-wise, it is rather modest, roughly square in alignment with four bastions, tucked away in a corner of the village, and surrounded by a jungle of modest thatched houses of fishermen on two of its sides. In fact, it is so modest that only till we literally reach its entrance can we make out that it's a fort in front of us!
Inside, the only remnants of the Company's days appear to be the remains of a flagstaff and a couple of tomb stones, and a sort of a cavern in its Western corner.
Up the flight of steps on each corner of the fort and you get amazing views of the cerulean sea. However, from this vantage point even the untrained eye can make out how the beautiful laterite of the fort's original structure — evident in only a few places — has been gradually replaced with concrete, all in the name of conservation.
On the right side of the fort are two tombstones — one of a Deborah Brabourne and another of John Torlepe — to access which you need to jump over a fence. Get one of the fisherwomen who gather for a leisurely bath at the water pump beside the fort to talk about the epitaphs on the tombstones and they'll parrot: “Here lies Deborah, the wife of John Brabourne, Esquire, commodore of Anjengo. She was born on November 4, 1676, married September 25, 1695, and died September 2, 1704...We all know it by heart.” The women also tell us that their village was the birthplace of the legendary Eliza Draper. Sorry, who? “The young woman immortalised in English literature by her lover, novelist Laurence Sterne (of Tristram Shandy fame) in his Journal to Eliza,” they say, much to our delight.
Apart from the fort, the adjacent old lighthouse (open from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m.) is also worth a visit, if not, only for the spectacular 360 degree view of the village and its surrounding slice of green paradise. Then of course, there is the beach, yet unspoilt, which is literally a hop, skip, and a jump away from anywhere in Anchuthengu.