Dutch Palace and the adjacent Paradesi Synagogue are examples of the magnanimity of the Cochin maharajas
The more things change the more they remain the same stands true of the landscape of Jew Town and the Dutch Palace. The history rich areas have seen a sea change in social demography but structurally they remain unchanged. Ironically time has elapsed and yet it stands still.
Standing contiguous to the ‘Paradesi’ Synagogue in Jew Street is the distinctive clock tower. It has patiently marked time, through its three ‘clock faces’, for over 500 years. To its south it has seen the slow evaporation of a robust lifestyle of the white Jews and its replacement by commercial tourism. The Synagogue too has witnessed a decline in traditional prayer services and an increase in footfalls of curious travellers. On the northern side, and separated by a common wall, is the premises of the historic Dutch Palace, an area of over five acres. Here too time has witnessed little change. Three temples, three ponds and the present Dutch Palace museum stand royally in the premises that once belonged to the Maharajah of Cochin.
Perhaps the only change and the most striking one in this hallowed precinct has been in the Azhithrikovil Mahavishnu temple that stands midway between the Dutch Palace and the neighbouring Synagogue and clock tower.
Two holy places of different faiths standing beside each other in close proximity and in harmony for centuries is one of the most outstanding features of this heritage site. “The Maharajah’s benevolence towards other communities who came to these shores is well-known,” says 84-year-old Puroshottam Mallaya, a history enthusiast who lives in the neighbourhood.
He talks about the architectural uniqueness of the temple, which underwent new construction and re-consecration in the early nineties.
“The temple is circular in shape with a copper plated conical roof that ends in a ‘shikha’. This is an admixture of two styles of temple architecture- the Dravida (circular) and the Nagara (conical) - called the Vesara style.”
President of the present temple committee, Jayachandran Menon offers the reason for the changes made to the temple. He believes that when the Dutch rebuilt the palace, which was originally built by the Portuguese, they demolished the outer part of the temple, a mandatory feature of Kerala temples. Hence, he says, there was a general wish to reconstruct the peripheral structure, the chutambalam and the boundary wall.
As with any structural changes done to a temple, a devaprasanam or divine astrological intervention was undertaken in 1992. It sought for the remaining half of the temple to be built.
M.K. Kuttappan Menon, former president of the local temple advisory committee and who headed the construction recalls the temple’s valiambalam to be in a dilapidated condition.
“This temple is very ancient, far older than the other structures in or around the premises. Its name - Azhithrikovil- means a temple near a harbour. This entire area must be an open sandy bank near the backwater. Over the years, due to natural and artificial silting the temple foundation, the padukam, was embedded nearly two feet below ground level. The temple was reconstructed under the direction of the priests of Vezhaparambu Mana from North Paravur. To arrive at the specifications for the chutambalam they required to know the dimensions of the foundation. We had to dig almost two feet to reach the granite foundation.”
Jayachandran has lived near the temple all his life. He remembers how as a young boy he could touch the circular roof by just raising his hand. “That proves the depth to which the temple foundation had sunk.”
“The Dutch Palace and its premises are one of the most important examples of the magnanimity of the Cochin rulers,” says historian M.G. Sasibhooshan. “According to historians there is an underground passage from the Palace to the Synagogue, an escape route for the women. In contemporary times Amrita Shergill is supposed to have lived in the palace.”
Currently the top portion of the Dutch Palace, now a museum, belongs to the ASI (Archaeological Survey of India). The ground portion with the temples and the adjacent areas belong to the Cochin Dewasom Board.
A handed-down story about how Gujaratis gained access to the temple goes thus. It is said that the traders who came to Mattancherry informed the Raja of not having their own temple. It is said that not only did he give them land to settle down and build their temple but also allowed them entry into this temple from Ashtamirohini day, the birthday of Lord Krishna. Even today Gujaratis, from the area, flock to the temple on this given day.
Another festivity that takes place annually in the open ground in front of the western side, the deity facing side, of the temple, is a week-long cultural festival of the nearby ‘Paliyarakavu’ temple.
Except for this few and far between bursts of colour and crowd the quiet expanse of the Dutch Palace premises remain open to the public. There is always a trickle of wonder-eyed travellers and of devotees. Others who come here daily, either for work or worship, have just one thing to say – It’s been like this not only in our living memory but also of our forefathers, possibly ever since.
AlterPoint is a monthly column that looks at famous Kochi landmarks, as they were then and as they are now.