The new boat jetty at Vaikom is adjacent to the old one. People mill around it awaiting their boats to nearby islands while the old one, with an overpowering smell of engine fuel, is more a work shed for boat crew and technicians. But this jetty is of historical significance. On March 9, 1925, Mahatma Gandhi disembarked here, when he came to participate in the Vaikom Satyagraha (1924-25). A few metres away, across the road, is the recently inaugurated (January 21) Vaikom Satyagraha Memorial Gandhi Museum, built to commemorate the event, and outside which is a bronze statue of Gandhi.
Vaikom Satyagraha started as a regional, localised protest against untouchability. It, however, grew in significance, and is considered a pivotal event in the history of Kerala by historians, even leading to the Temple Entry Proclamation of 1936. The heart of this protest was at the Vaikom Mahadeva Temple, where the upper caste was permitted to use a public road around it but the others were not.
Boards were placed cautioning against the use of the road by people deemed to be of a lower caste. The replica of one such board is placed inside the museum as a reminder of the oppressive socio-political climate of the time.
Unlike conventional museums, there are no historical artefacts or exhibits. “Those are considered the life of a museum. For this movement, exhibits are non-existent. If it was a war, there would have been weapons. This was a peaceful Gandhian protest. The absence [of exhibits] was a challenge on how to curate the museum,” says R Chandran Pillai of Keralam Museum, which executed the project. The documentation and archival material compensates for what the project lacks in terms of exhibits.
- The Interactive Museum of Cultural History of Kerala also known as ‘Keralam Museum’ was established in 2011, by the Kerala Government as an autonomous body under the Cultural Affairs Ministry; it will showcase various aspects of the culture and heritage of the State.
- Keralam Museum has refurbished, using modern techniques, archaeological museums at Koyikkal Palace (Nedumangad), Hill Palace (Tripunithura), and Pazhassi Raja Museum (Kozhikode). It has played an important role in setting up district heritage museums — District Heritage Museum, Thiruvananthapuram at Sreepadam Palace, Ernakulam District Heritage Museum at Bastion Bungalow, Wayanad District Heritage Museum in Pazhassikudeeram, Pathanamthitta District Heritage Museum, Konni and Thrissur District Heritage Museum, Kollencode Palace.
The story of the protest, which lasted 604 days from March 30, 1924 to November 23, 1925, is told through illustrative narrations: pictures, documents and interactive audio visual content. “We have a huge collection of original records and documents pertaining to Vaikom Satyagraha which proved to be a valuable source of information for the museum. Since there are no artefacts, the story was developed based on the facts that we have in our records,” says J Rejikumar, Director, State Archives.
The visual narration, in text form and illustrations, is through the eyes of a boy who would have faced discrimination based on caste. The visitor is first introduced to untouchability; its practice and imposition is a rude awakening to those unaware of its full extent. A miniature replica of the Vaikom temple shows the temple and the roads around it.
The introductory gallery lists the prescribed distance each caste was to keep from the other. To reinforce how untouchability was imposed are life-size statutes of three men — the first to defy the rule — protesting outside a picket fence and a board that forbids them from using the road.
The museum is divided into five sections, and includes a gallery for Gandhi, other leaders of the Satyagraha and a theatre for an audio-visual show. “In order to narrate the story of the Satyagraha, we want the audience as partners in the narration. We have kept it interactive to arouse curiosity,” says Chandran Pillai.
The museum sheds light on lesser known aspects of how the ban came to be, especially since the Maharaja of Travancore, Ayilyam Thirunal, had, in 1865, issued a proclamation, stating that public roads in Travancore were accessible to all; on when the first board, prohibiting access, was put up in 1905, and of those who led the struggle irrespective of faith or caste.
- In February 1924, the Anti-Untouchability Committee held a public meeting in Vaikom, where it was decided that the rule barring temple roads to low castes would be defied by a group of satyagrahis. On March 30 volunteers from different parts of Travancore arrived in Vaikom. A message from Mahatama Gandhi was read out after which three men from different castes marched towards the prohibited road. Stopped by the police, they refused to turn back and squatted on the road. Three more followed, breaking the law for which they were arrested. Leaders courted arrest, the roads barricaded by the police, the protestors sat on the road in front of the barricades at the temple’s four entrances.
It is during the satyagraha that Mahatma Gandhi met Sree Narayana Guru for the first time. The information is precise and detailed.
What makes the museum interesting is that it is focussed on one event and shows every important detail connected to it.
The Interactive Museum of Cultural History of Kerala, also known as the Keralam Museum, implemented the project for the Archives Department. A part of the funding for the projects came from the Gandhi Heritage and Sites Mission, which is under the Ministry of Culture and the rest from the State Government.
The museum is closed on Mondays. Entry is free and timings are from 10am-5pm.