Tracing the life and times of oculist C. Luke who enjoyed the patronage of Travancore rulers

Not many people are aware of the existence of a small street named ‘Luke’s Lane’ near GPO in the city or how the place got its name.

At the end of the street, there is an iron gate and a board with the name ‘Cookies Holiday Inn’. Once you enter, you are in another world. Here time seems to have come to a halt. Inside the gate, there is an old house, the Nenmanasheri Bungalow, set in the midst of a beautifully kept orchid garden. The old house has seen better days in the past. Once, it was a large nalukettu with a courtyard and pathayappura, built in accordance with the traditional architectural fashion widely followed in Kerala. On the right side of the house is a very old sapota tree (Achras sapota) said to be more than 100 years old.

This was the house of the great Vaidyan, C. Luke (1843 – 1894), an eye-specialist who is said to have surpassed even European doctors with his knowledge of traditional medicine. Luke’s ancestors were the members of Thayyil family of Thevalakkara. One of the early ancestors, Thomman (Jr.), the only son of Thomman (Sr.) and Mariyam learned Sanskrit and traditional medicinal. Once, the King of Travancore invited Thomman (Jr.) to treat his mother’s eye ailment. In the first attempt itself, Thomman succeeded in curing the King’s mother. Pleased with Thomman’s proficiency, the King honoured him with the title ‘Vaidyan’. C. Luke’s family traces its ancestry back to this Thomman Vaidyan.

According to family records, Luke was born on June 30, 1843 in Thevalakkara as the son of Koshy Kochu Koshy and Kunjaanda. Koshy Kochu Koshy was a famous oculist who was in great demand among the royals and the nobles of erstwhile Travancore. Dewan T. Madhava Rao in a letter to C. Luke mentions that he personally knew his father who was an able oculist.

Luke and his brother came to the capital city from Kollam during the reign of Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma. An important achievement in their career was the successful treatment of the Dewan’s son T. Ananda Rao(1852-1919) in 1871, when the latter was preparing for his B.A. examination.

In a letter by T. Madhava Rao to Luke, dated May 28, 1871, the Dewan expresses his gratitude to the brothers.

Luke was appointed as the palace Vaidyan by Maharaja Visakam Thirunal Rama Varma and he was bestowed with a Veerasringala. He also was employed in Maharaja’s College (University College) as a teacher of scriptures. Luke married Mary, the couple had three children. His eldest son, L.C. Koshy, also a prominent figure, was employed in Huzur Kacherri and was the supervisor in charge of the street lighting.

C. Luke, who served three kings starting from Ayilyam Thirunal to Sree Moolam Thirunal, died in 1894; he was buried in CSI Christ Church at Palayam. The old tombstone with the inscription ‘Government Oculist’ is still there in the church graveyard.

Luke’s grandson Alexander Koshy kept alive his family tradition. Some old palm leaf documents on traditional medicine, antique furniture, photographs, portraits and the grinding stones in various sizes are preserved by the family members. A true copy of Madhava Rao’s letter to Luke is one of their priced possessions.

Kurian, the great-grandson of C. Luke who lives there in a small house built by his father is proud to be a member of this illustrious family.

(The author is an architect and history buff. This is an excerpt from his blog Tales of Travancore)