History & Culture

And quiet flows the Karamana: Bridging past and present

Possible remains of the  200-year-old stone bridge found near Niramankara temple. Photo: S. Achuthsankar Nair

Possible remains of the 200-year-old stone bridge found near Niramankara temple. Photo: S. Achuthsankar Nair

Mathilakam records of 1748-1771 refer to the bridges across the Karamana river. Mention of the Karamana bridge collapsing (1748), wooden bridge being dilapidated (1768), and construction of a stone bridge across the river (1767) are some of them. It is also said that a rudimentary stone bridge across the Karamana river was built during the reputed administrator Raja Kesavadasa’s (1745-1799) time. We cannot confirm if all these refer to the same spot.

A stone bridge in Karamana is referred to by Ward and Connor in their famous survey reminiscences (1827) as: “The high Southern road crosses the Kurramanay river over a stone bridge 120 feet long supported on granite pillars, the banks of the river near it are lined with stone steps, it then passes through the village, Kurramunnay, a street of houses with an agarum and a Vishnoo temple to the South”. This is possibly a bridge near the present spot as the reference to the south road indicates.

It was in the 1830s that modernisation received a boost during the reign of the composer King Swati Tirunal(1830-1846).

He set up a public works department for overseeing construction work of offices, reservoirs and bridges. He personally laid the foundation stone for the Karamana bridge in 1840s, as pointed out by Sankunni Menon in his History of Travancore . In 1843, Rs. 22,568 was expended for the construction of the new bridge and the next year, close to Rs. 3,000 was spent for purchasing granite stones. Swati Tirunal, however, did not live to see its completion.

It was Lt. Horsely who built the bridge. Horsley was the first civil engineer of the erstwhile state of Travancore who led the construction of the Trivandrum Observatory in 1838, and also an Anaicut at Nanjinad, in addition to the bridge. A special kind of stone known as “Narikallu” has been used for the bridge. The old bridge still stands on the Narikallu foundation. If one walks down the steps adjacent to the bridge to the foundation of the bridge, we can see strange old-style identification marks on the foundation stones.

The bridge, a major land mark of the area, was in the news more than 150 years ago. The old bridge at Amaravila across the Neyyar, a few km south of Karamana, seems to be made with the same foundations stones and in the same style of construction.

A sketch of the colourful inaugural ceremony of the bridge appeared in the Illustrated London Times on December 17, 1854. It read as follows. “Travancore …presents the most picturesque and undulating views of southern India. It is bordered on the east by the precipitous Ghats and on the west, by the sea. Between these the eyes loses itself everywhere in trying to follow the labyrinth of hills of all forms and sizes; some covered with fantastic granite boulders, or, perhaps by an antique pagoda – others by luxuriant forests. The valleys which separate them, winding like rivers, are chequered by green rice fields, bordered by coconut topes. The old bridge over the Karamany River, is situated near Trivandrum, the seat of Government; and, at a short distance from it, a new bridge, more suited to the requirements of the times, has been built, and was opened in great style by his Highness the Rajah, on the 17th December, 1853. … the Rajah’s magnificent state car [the chariot that is now in the Napier Museum in the capital city] … followed by Princes, courtiers and native officials in carriages and palaquins … and a number of elephants in their court costumes.

“Below, on the bed of the river, were a troop of elephants that joined with the cannon and the multitudes abound in proclaiming their loud rejoicings … the rest of the procession is lost in the grove of coconut trees, and behind the pavilion where Lieut. General Cullen, the British Resident, and other Europeans, shared in the ceremony… The Bridge, though not large, is an earnest of that progress so necessary in India for the development of its resources”. The news report appeared along with the news of opening of the Ganges Canal [The Canal was opened, with impressive ceremony, at half-past 6 a.m. on the 8th of April.] Both are seen touted as developments in British India.

The bridge got a touch of modernity in 1900s when it received a concrete upper part, with the foundation remaining intact. In the last decade, a new concrete bridge has been constructed by the Government of Kerala, parallel to the historic bridge, relieving it of the out-bound traffic from the city.

The Karamana river has bridges across it at Thiruvallom, Thrikkannapuram, Mangattu Kadavu, Kundamon Kadavu, Aruvikkara (this bridge is a part of the dam built in 1933), Maruthoor Kadavu and Aryanad.

There is a fable associated with the construction of the Karamana bridge. Famous poet O.N.V. Kurup has adopted it as a theme for one of his beautiful poems. Seven brothers who were granite masons at work on the Karamana bridge faced problems in placing the foundation of the bridge. According to a superstition, a human sacrifice was necessary to set the foundation right and the young and beautiful sister of the seven masons was sacrificed and her blood poured over the foundation. Some of the old timers claim that they were scared to cross the bridge at night as it was rumoured that they could hear the eerie wail of an apparition, allegedly that of the sacrificed woman. Those who know the current state of the river may be tempted to believe that any such wail, if at all, possibly comes from the river itself.

The Karamana river used to be the silver lining that adorned the city and was the front yard of the city for visitors from further south. The beauty of the river that winds through the forests earned it the name Vanamala, the garland of the forest, in Sanskrit. Kuvalayamaal a, a 8th century literary work in Prakrit, attributed to the Jain saint Udyodana Suri (translated to Sanskrit by Prabha Suri, another Jain saint), refers to the Karamana river as ‘Makaraakara’ river (according to K. Maheswaran Nair, who headed the Archaeology Department of Kerala).

( Continuing the weekly series on the Karamana river, written by Dr. Achuthsankar S. Nair, head of the Department of Computational Biology and Bioinformatics,University of Kerala. He is a music and history buff.)

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Printable version | May 18, 2022 1:18:31 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/and-quiet-flows-the-karamana-bridging-past-and-present/article3892830.ece