Vazhiyambalams of Kerala are in for a resurrection

Simple in structure, grand in function. Decrepit wayside points, repositories of rich history. It is time for redemption for them.

Vazhiyambalams of Kerala were not inns in the classic sense of the term. Yet, weary travellers looked forward to the inviting sight of one to unburden themselves of weight and worries. Comfort and rest were what they signified. Cool shade and water and a prop for goods were what they offered.

Vazhiyambalams, set up by the kings or landlords and wealthy families, meant more than mere resting places in those days. Through them news spread as travellers sat inside and shot the breeze. Landmarks, rendezvous points … they fulfilled many roles. Classic examples of the stone architecture of those days, they, however, fell by the wayside as time went by.

Comprising a small roofed structure, a Chumadathangi made of three stones to hold goods with one placed horizontally over two vertically planted ones and a well for drinking water, several of these Vazhiyambalams had to make way when roads were widened and huge concrete structures came pushing for space.

Spare a thought

The connoisseurs of heritage and history in the State, while fighting for the preservation of palaces, forts and other sprawling remnants of yore, seem to have not done enough for these “stones.”

Now, the State Archaeology Directorate is embarking on a mission to trace and conserve Vazhiyambalams, which it believes could be examples of the public welfare measures initiated by the erstwhile kings.

G. Prem Kumar, Director of Archaeology, says a proposal on the mission has been submitted to the government. One approval comes, a survey to trace the remaining Vazhiyambalams and Chumaduthangis will be launched, primarily in Thiruvananthapuram and Kollam, where these are most in number. Once tracing and identification is done, the spot will have to be declared a “protected” spot and steps to preserve these pieces of history, either through chemical conservation or whatever measures required, will be initiated.

The property will have to be classified, whether situated on public or private land. The idea is to get local bodies, mostly panchayats, involved in the project. The exact number of Vazhiyambalams is not known, meaning the exercise will be mammoth. Many are in good condition and require minimal protective measures.

Brilliance

Mr. Prem Kumar led a team to a Vazhiyambalam at Balaramapuram in Thiruvananthapuram recently and found the basic structure intact, revealing the brilliance of the architecture used to keep the heavy stones together in an interlocked manner, “without allowing even a single drop of water to seep in.” However, over the years, these had been painted, defaced by graffiti and posters and not maintained in any manner even while being turned into a waiting shed.

In some areas, only the Chumaduthangi remains, while in others, all three — Vazhiyambalam, Chumaduthangi and well — remain. In Thiruvananthapuram, polished stones have been used mostly, while towards Kollam, the stones are rough in nature.

Many have designs and engravings on them, with some showcasing ancient alphabetic systems such as Vattezhuthu and Kolezhuthu, officials say.

“The speed at which these are vanishing, with the property on which many are situated being blatantly encroached upon, indicates that we have to move urgently. Or else, Vazhiyambalams and similar structures will become mere memories even when we have a chance to revive and protect hundreds of them,” Mr. Prem Kumar says.

However, even while preparing to launch the conservation project, the department is facing a challenge that has been hampering its activities for some time now. An acute shortage of staff and personnel trained in preservation is a challenge bigger than the actual job on hand. No new posts have been created for the department after 1980, though the jurisdiction and scope of its work has expanded in a major way.

The State has over 160 protected monuments, but the department has few representatives at the district level to ensure their protection.

Efforts are on to create a team of skilled personnel to help in the conservation of Vazhiyambalams and other artefacts across the State that the department plans to get declared as protected monuments and to initiate preservation measures, Mr. Prem Kumar says.

After Vazhiyambalams, bridges over 100 years old will be located, those constructed by the British and the kings of yore, some of iron and some the first huge concrete structures in the State. Drafts are being prepared for some iron bridges in the State, officials say.