The river Karamana, once the lifeline of the city, is today a dump yard. MetroPlus traces the fortunes of the river, which has borne the brunt of changes that have completely transformed the face of the capital city and her suburbs

Many cities the world over have romances with rivers. Thames in London, Adayar in Chennai, Hoogly in Kolkota and Yamuna in Delhi… Lovers of these cities cannot imagine the city without rejoicing (or worrying) about the rivers.

Our city is different in this respect! It is very unlikely that the city is today remembered as a city by the riverside. A river that stood at the centre of people’s life, a river that even now quenches the thirst of residents and, until a couple of decades ago, was the source of sand and bricks for construction purposes in the city. It also has been receiving the mortal remains of a majority of people who lived here. But now,this river remains forgotten, tucked away from sight by the modern cityscape and abused in no small measure by the modern city lifestyle. The river, which was once the front yard of the city, is now not only the backyard but also the dump yard of the city.

Anyone who has travelled out of the city of Thiruvananthapuram towards the south would have crossed a bridge over a river by the name Karamana. The fleeting traffic that oozes out of the city does not give us more than a passing glimpse of a river that once was a pristine landmark of this city. As our vehicles glide over the newly built bridge, we can see a flow of traffic on the old bridge, which, till a few years ago, carried both traffic moving into and outside the city. Not many amongst the younger generation would know of the history of the bridge, the romance of the river and about the little village by the river. More painful is the apathy towards the river!

Karamana village stands at the eastern end of the city, on the road to Kanyakumari, marked by the Karamana river, a 150-year-old bridge and a unique temple. ‘Karamana’ is possibly a reference to a Namboothiri residence (‘mana’) on the banks (‘kara’) of the river.

The nearby Niramankara gramam is one of the 64 gramams of Kerala Namboothiris. (The story of ‘Khara’, a figure from mythology, founding the temple at Karamana must be a belief justified by the rhyming of ‘Kara’ in Karamana with ‘Khara’). At present the village is populated mostly by Tamil Brahmins. It is said that they were invited from Thirunelveli and Thanjavur districts in Tamil Nadu about three centuries ago by the kings of erstwhile Travancore to settle here to attend to rituals in the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple. The village is still full of row houses that make up the ‘theruvu’ (streets). Theruvus are many in Karamana – Sivan kovil theruvu, Kinattumkara theruvu, Keezhe theruvu, Aattinkara theruvu, Kollmettu theruvu, Deekshan Bhagavathar theruvu, Iratta theruvu, Krishnan Kovil theruvu…

Karamana also received a migration from Kancheepuram almost 250 years ago. S. Venkiteswara Iyer who compiled a short history of the village points out that: “During the reign of the great Marthanda Varma, when the renovation work of the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple was in progress, a very large number of Silpa Acharies were brought down from Kancheepuram to attend to the various items of temple work. These artisans came by foot and originally settled down at a place very near the present Karamana river bridge. They installed the deities of Madan and Isakki Amman at the foot of a huge banyan tree and worshipped them. This place came to be known as Kancheepuram Thope and the settlement was also known as ‘Kalpalayam’ (stone yard). Their place extended from the present Andiyirakkam Junction to Deekshan Bhagavathar Street and was known as the Old Bridge Street. In due course, the settlers built a temple of Devi Muthu Mari Amman and Muthambala Vanar as the principal deities".

At the centre of the village is a temple that is more ancient – the Sathyavageeswara temple. It is principally dedicated to Siva (as Sathyavageeswara) and Devi (as Gomathy). The consecration of Devi in the temple was done some 200 years ago. The temple, though small, seems to have been quite famous. Sir Mirza Ismail, when he was Dewan of Mysore, is said to have presented two Jaipur bells to this temple (believed to be for favours he received from the deity in recovering from his ill health during one of his visits to Thiruvananthapuram).

M. Sambasivan, famed neurosurgeon and senior citizen, is a person associated with the village and the temple as its Tantri. It was his great grandfather who consecrated the Devi idol brought from Madurai. The temple has a padavu (steps) of its own leading to the Karamana river. Dr. Sambasivan remembers that this was re-built during his younger days. The stairs leading to the temple still has a ‘kalvilakku’ (short stone lamp post) which once served as a street light.

(We begin a weekly series on the Karamana river written by Achuthsankar S. Nair, head of the Department of Bioinformatics and a music and history enthusiast men and women who make Chennai what it is)