The Durbar Hall ground at dawn looks like a bedraggled traveller. The previous evening has left its baggage—scraps of paper, plastic bags, bits of food and a stale warm air. The busy walkers are impervious to it, dodging litter expertly. For the flock of pigeons that descend in a loud grey tumble, it is a feast. They nudge and peck at each other and on the ground. Amid their guttural gurgles and hectic feeding, the morning establishes itself silently.

The air soon begins to smell of sunshine and the bells from the nearby Ernakulam Siva Temple burst out in short intervals of frenzied ringing. The Durbar Hall ground, which has grand episodes of history locked away in its heart, lives through the present with grace, offering a place for anyone who cares to stop by. The recent beautification project gave it a spanking new circular walkway with shiny smooth tiles and lush lawns. Undertaken by the district administration and the District Tourism Promotion Council to give a facelift to one the city’s oldest public spaces, the project also included a renovated stage at the northern end of the ground and some fancy greenery. The work, which went on till mid- 2012, guaranteed an “international” appearance, complete with daily cultural events and a provision to screen films.

By 7.00 a.m., some of the regular walkers have found spots on the granite benches to read or meditate. The circular granite parapets that serve as benches were part of the renovation project. Visitors to the temple increase in number. They arrive on foot, in cars and on two-wheelers, dressed suitably, wet hair glistening in the sun. By the time they return with folded green banana leaves in their hands and sombre sandal spots on their foreheads, activity on the ground has picked up. A gentleman drives his scooter up to the walker’s pathway and alights, carrying a plastic bag. He makes his way to the edge of the ground and dips his hand into the bag. As if out of a Bergman movie, the pigeons rise and clamour around the man, as he sprays grain in quick flashes. Prabhakaran, the security guard, entrusted with duty on the ground, appears too, with a similar bag. “I have been feeding these birds every day for the last three months, ever since I was posted here. I spend about Rs. 50 on grain a week,” he says.

Afternoon has emptied out the ground, except for a few students lounging in the shade and wedding parties trickling out of TDM Hall. It has been swept and cleaned. “Two women clean out the grounds every morning at 8.30 a.m.,” Prabhakaran informs. The parking slots provided are packed to capacity. When it was owned by the Maharaja of Cochin, the two-acre ground was the main venue for football and cricket matches. It is also known to have held military parades and exhibitions.

At sunset, the ground looks dressed for the evening. A kathaprasangam troupe has occupied the stage and the loudspeakers blare in unison. A few people have occupied the plastic chairs arranged in front of the stage. Families appear in clusters at first, surrounded in a cloud of perfume and talcum powder. Soon, they make themselves at home, ferrying in chaat from the vendor outside, opposite Ramavarma Club, and ice cream from the shop within the compound. The air is laden with smells of roasted peanuts and masala chaat.

By 7 p.m., the lights on the stage and around flood the ground. The night sky is suddenly dotted with tiny iridescent balls. “Light balls” as they are called, is a rage among the children. Parents haggle with the North Indian vendors who sell them for Rs. 20 each. The battery-run balls are the most popular toy second only to wrist bands that glow.

The Durbar Hall Art Centre bears mute witness to the happenings in and around it. “The cultural programmes are all very well. But I think it sort of disrupts the peace of the environment. The programmes start only after the gallery closes, but I feel there has to be an air of calm around the gallery,” says Bindhi Rajagopal, an artist.

By 9 p.m., the moon looks like a toenail in the inky blue sky.

The kathaprasangam has reached a melodramatic crescendo. And as one leaves, slightly miffed at the din of traffic and noise from the speakers, the ground prepares for another tired night.

Changed Times

Then

*The ground got its name because the Maharajah of Cochin held his durbar here (which is now the Durbar Hall Art Centre).

*The administrative reforms (January 4, 1938), the new constitution of the Cochin State (June 17, 1938), and the formation of the Cochin State Central War Committee (June 28, 1940), were made at the Durbar Hall Ground.

*During World War II, a war exhibition, considered one of the finest spectacles of the time, was organised here.

*The Swantons Cricket Club functioned out of this ground for a long time.

Now

*Today, the Durbar Hall Ground is owned by the Revenue Department.

*It is expected to host an international film festival this year.

*The pay and park facility in the walkway, has a capacity to park 120 cars and 80 two-wheelers.

(Source: The Hindu archives)

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