Mahatma Gandhi’s statue commemorates his visit to Tripunithura in 1934

1930s. Mahatma Gandhi’s homespun self-reliance and his non-violent freedom movement had spread like wildfire across the nation. Public enthusiasm was at boiling point with youngsters joining the movement in droves. Colleges became a hot bed of political and social activity.

This was also the period of awakening, when new thoughts were propagated, knowledge and literacy considered priorities. A group of youngsters in Tripunithura, then the seat of the Cochin Royal Family, inspired by the Mahatma’s teachings, fuelled by the freedom movement, founded the Mahatma Library and Reading Room on January 18, 1933.

This library and reading room became the hub of literary discussions and handwritten magazines were brought out. It provided a platform for the youngsters to express and involve, even if in a small way, in the struggle for independence that was spearheaded by Gandhiji.

A year later, on January 14, 1934, the first anniversary celebrations of the library was presided over by the Mahatma. This was his first and perhaps only visit to Tripunithura.

“When it was announced that Mahatma Gandhi was coming to Ernakulam the then office bearers of the library sent him a letter inviting him to preside over the first anniversary. He accepted the invitation. We had to find a vast open space for the function. That’s how we chanced upon the ground before the Peoples Urban Cooperative Bank (PUCB) and its building. This then was decided to be the venue for our first anniversary and Gandhiji’s speech,” informs P. Surendran, secretary, Mahatma Library.

Archival records reveal that Gandhiji arrived by train at Ernakulam from where he was received by the library members and driven in a car to Tripunithura. “Crowds flocked the sides of the road leading up to the venue. The ground was also packed. I have heard Dr. N.K. Kumaran, the then president; say that women sang Gandhiji’s favourite Vaishnava janato…’ He was presented with a citation which he auctioned there itself to raise funds for Harijan welfare. Gandhiji spoke on the freedom struggle and on Harijan welfare activities,” remembers K.P. Achyuthan, former president of the library and chairman of the bank.

The ground and the bank building graced by Gandhiji, an important landmark in Tripunithura, went into a state of neglect for a few long years. There was nothing there to indicate this event.

“For more than three decades the bank building was leased out to the Post and Telegraph department. The telephone exchange also functioned from this premises. So, there were restrictions for the public, which in a way prevented anyone from turning this place into a memorial. When I took charge of the Peoples Urban Cooperative Bank, through negotiations and court cases we managed to persuade the P&T to leave the premises. We also had plans to construct a new building here. The engineer entrusted with the design suggested the pulling down of the 1917 building and utilising the land behind. I adamantly opposed this plan,” informs E.P. Sreekumar, general manager, PUCB.

The heritage building was maintained and preserved exactly like it was when Gandhiji visited it. “When our new building was constructed (1983) and complete we decided to erect a Gandhi statue here. The small bust-sized statue was inaugurated by the then Governor of Kerala, P. Ramachandran along with the new building. The statue was placed in front of the heritage building which was repaired and spruced up to make it look as grand as it once was,” says Sreekumar.

Gandhi Jayanti celebrations of Mahatma Library were held here. “We used to gather around the statue, the place where Gandhiji sat and lectured, placed flowers and on some occasions distributed rice to the needy. Sadly, this has not been a regular activity,” says Surendran.

Some of the anniversaries of the library, like the 20th and 25th, were held at the same venue, remembers Achyuthan. Inspired by the Mahatma’s words, the library began Hindi classes for students in 1934. This was an integral part of the freedom struggle. Later, it was with the assistance of the Subhadra Venkiteswara Memorial Vidyalaya. “These classes are conducted even today with the help of the Hindi Prachar Sabha,” informs Surendran.

A few years ago PUCB commissioned Artist Selvan to sculpt a new Gandhi statue. “This time we wanted it to be in that exact sitting pose that we have seen in the 1934 photograph. The pillar on which it had to be placed was found from a ditch near Poonithura. We carted this to our premises, the statue was ready and this was placed inside a small, manicured lawn,” adds Sreekumar.

Today, this hallowed patch of land where Mahatma Gandhi gave his darshan and spoke to the people of this town is largely unknown. The old bank building is hemmed in by new constructions. But the Mahatma statue stands there thanks to the efforts of the PUCB. But this landmark certainly deserves much more attention, much more care.

AlterPoint is a monthly column that looks at famous Kochi landmarks, as they were then and as they are now.

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