Trucks whiz along the Vallarpadam Container Terminal Road day and night, carrying goods that arrive at Kochi’s shores every day. On the roadside, at Marapparambu in Cheranallore, is a house that has been standing there for close to 600 years, perhaps even before the first European ships arrived in the State.
Akathoottu Mathappadam in Cheranallore is the home of the Cheranallore Karthas, who administered parts of Ernakulam for many years. They collected tax for the rulers of the erstwhile Kingdom of Cochin from before the 17 century to the 1940s, when the Cochin and Travancore kingdoms were merged. Sarada Kunjamma, the eldest surviving female member of the Cheranallore Swaroopam, as the family is called, now lives at Akathoottu Matham with her husband Ramachandran Kartha. “We didn’t realise how old the house was. But the workers who came to repair the tiles of the ceiling a few years ago told us that the work was from 600 years ago. Tiles made at the time had signs of the date of construction,” says the 81-year-old Sarada Kunjamma.
Stories of the Karthas are part of legends in Malayalam and their lives are a slice of the history of Kochi city.
The Cheranallore Karthas were part of the ‘Anju Kaimal’, a group of five Kaimal families that ruled parts of Ernakulam and surrounding lands. The Cheranallore Swaroopam governed lands that now come under Cheranallore, Elamkulam, Kadamakkudy, and Kochi. “Huge quantities of grain were brought to our house after every harvest,” says Sarada. “A part of the grain would be sealed off for storage. The rest was divided among the family – a portion for the children, another for the servants, and some for those who married into the family” she says.
Grain was stored in the many rooms of the large Akathoottu Mathappadam. “One store room contained 12,000 para (a traditional measure equal to around 6 kg) of grain. We had four such rooms,” she says.
The design of the house itself is a document of history. A portion of the main house, which used to be a “pandrandu kettu” with three courtyards, has now fallen off. The remaining structure is in excellent shape. “Most of the old structure survives as it is. We’ve done very little maintenance work,” says Satheeshan, one of Sarada Kunjamma’s five children.
The main house, where the women lived, has around 10 bedrooms, three halls, a dining hall (‘oottupura’), a room where women gave birth, a space to bathe infants, a kitchen, and store rooms for grain. The hall at the entrance is called the thekkini. Concealed behind a flower design on the wooden beam of the thekkini is a large draw. “The draw was used to store swords and other weapons. The design is such that you cannot spot it unless you know it’s there,” says Sarada Kunjamma.
The main courtyard of the house, called the akathalam, is next to the thekkini. “All the weddings in the family were conducted here. The men would gather along the corridor where the wedding took place and the women watched from the first floor. Weddings were held at night back then,” says the matriarch. The men of the family lived in a building adjacent to the Akathoottu Matham. Another house called the Adimatham was later added in the eight-acre complex to accommodate the growing family. All structures have been preserved well by the family. The floor of some of the rooms on the first floor still retains the original construction – a mix of cow dung and graphite. The strength of the building is due to the quality of the traditional construction, says Sarada Kunjamma. “It took months for workers to break down a part of the wall that had fallen off. It was stuck fast with a special kind of glue.”
The building was threatened a few years ago by the construction of the Container Terminal Road, which was first supposed to come through its grounds. The road now runs adjacent to the compound, over a ground where the Karthas used to cremate their dead.
Some of the woodwork of the house has now begun to decay. But Sarada Kunjamma does not intend to let her ancestral home fade away. “It’s not easy maintaining a house like this. But I will take care of it till the day I die. After that, I don’t know what will happen,” she says.