Gandhi Round has always been a hub of activity
When history unspools through people’s memories, a jagged narrative begins to emerge. Rummage through the jumble of names, dates and places and the past shows up, grand and pragmatic at the same time. The story of the Gandhi Round at the Northern end of Foreshore Road is one such, culled from recollections of old-timers, who witnessed its history as it unfurled.
A meeting point of DH Road, Foreshore Road and Park Avenue Road, the junction was a traffic island, which got its name in the late nineties after the Cochin Corporation installed a statue of the Mahatma. The story is much like its topography, a junction where several pasts converge. “What is today’s Foreshore Road was an expanse of grey waters,” says V.N. Venugopal, a historian, who retired as the head of Premier Tyres, Ernakulam. He remembers the reclamation works that went on till the late 1940s. “By 1950, Foreshore Road came into being. Large swathes of land in the area, where the Bharat Tourist Home (BTH) and the office of the Indian Airlines now stand, belonged to the family of the Paliath Achan. During the Second World War, the British Army, too, is believed to have stayed in the guest houses of the family,” he adds.
Much before the Greater Cochin Development Authority (GCDA) designed the Rajendra Maidan, which borders the backwaters, the place was popularly known as the Huzur Jetty, where the boats to ferry government officials plied. “In front of the Huzur Jetty, there was a platform, which was called the Salem Mount,” Venugopal recounts. “Salem, who was one of the prominent Jews in Kochi, used the place for his protests. He used to sit there and give speeches against the government. Soon, the place began to be known by his name. The Salem Mount was like Kochi’s Hyde Park,” he says.
Everybody knew Abraham Barak Salem, who fought against discrimination and was perhaps the only Jewish attorney from Kochi at the time. His fame was linked to his use of the ‘satyagraha’ mode of protest.
The picture is not complete without the BTH, one of the oldest hotels in the city. B. Govinda Rao, one of the most prominent hoteliers of the time, bought the land from the members of the Paliath family in the 1960s to build the hotel.
“It was one of the prominent hangouts for the politicians at the time,” says Gopinathan Govinda Rao, managing partner of BTH, and son of Govinda Rao. “The place was a hub of activity, I have heard. At the Southern end of the Huzur Jetty is another statue of Sri Rama Varma, the Maharaja of Cochin. It is not maintained in good condition and not many people are aware of its existence,” he says. The statue of the Maharaja, erected by Public Subscription, was unveiled by Lord Linlithgow, the then Viceroy of India, on January 8, 1939.
Another tale surfaces. Before BTH bought the land, the Fine Arts Society set up a shack to host cultural programmes. And for a brief while before the Fine Arts Society used the land, African Amercian boxer Gunboat Jack used to host adrenalin-pumping boxing matches here. “It was quite a phenomenon those days. I remember having gone to see some of those matches,” says Venugopal.
The Kerala State Electricity Board office was formerly a private electricity company called the Cochin State Power and Light Corporation. East of the Gandhi statue, which is now the sprawling Ernakulathappan Grounds, was Krishna Vilas Palace, where the Maharajas used to stay. It was later demolished, Venugopal says.
It was in the nineties that the Cochin Corporation decided to erect a statue of the Mahatma at this junction and commissioned artist MRD Dathan who sculpted it in concrete. “If you have noticed, Gandhi sits with his eyes shut,” says Dathan’s brother M. Dilip Kumar. “Perhaps Dathan meant that Gandhiji couldn’t bear to see what was happening around him.” The steps towards the statue have been provided at the side and not in front, so that those who wish to garland the statue will not cover its face, he says.
The statue is currently maintained by an advertising company. “When I requested the Corporation to let me take care of it, they gave me the contract for three years,” says M. Venkiteshwara Kamath, the owner of the company. “It is the now the seventh year since we started maintaining it,” he adds.