The Arakkal palace was once the seat of power and splendour of Kerala's only Muslim royal family. Ravaged by the passage of time, its traditions and conventions are being kept alive by a 75-year-old caretaker who is not even paid for what he does.

Mice and other vermin hold court where once the voices of the only Muslim royal family in the history of Kerala reverberated off the walls. The untended grounds around the palace are now a playground for children.

The crumbling regal mansion is looked after by 75-year-old Hamsakka, a homeless destitute who found refuge here when he was 14.

Arakkal kettu (Arakkal palace), in Azhikkal, two km from Kannur city, is now shorn of the vestiges of title and power. Built on 2.11 hectares of land, it was once the dwelling of rulers who shaped the history of Cannanore (now Kannur).

Tradition has it that the oldest member of the Arakkal family, irrespective of gender, becomes the ruler. That position now belongs to Sulthan Arakkal Adiraja Zainaba Aysha Beebi (beevi), who assumed the title in 2006. Now about 80 years old, she is bed-ridden after a paralytic stroke in the home of her only daughter, in Thalaserry, near Kannur. Her three sons have settled abroad.

The duty of upholding the tradition and conventions in the kettu is now borne by the veteran Hamsakka, who lights the traditional lamp (Thampuratti Vilakku) every day and looking after the bell tower and the nearby premises. Beebi's secretary Mayankutty says as far as he can remember, he does this under no one's authorisation — no one is paying him anything for it either.

The Durbar Hall, once the official gathering place of the king and nobles, has now been renovated by the Kannur Royal Arakkal Family Trust and converted into a museum. Among the buildings that have managed to preserve their integrity amidst changing times is the 400-year-old Arakkal Pudiya Palli (mosque). In the north-eastern corner, the dilapidated bell tower is a mute witness to the glorious past of this erstwhile Muslim principality.

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