‘Everything begins with a story.’ A quote by famous mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell is relevant in the case of India, a land where every historical event is entwined with countless variations of local lore and traditions. The history of Konnakode family, an aristocratic house in erstwhile southern Travancore, offers a perfect blend of documented history and rich oral traditions.
Around 30 years ago, members of the Konnakode family near Colachel came across a document that would change their understanding of family history. A small notebook, yellowed with age, was found amongst the private possessions of one of the deceased matriarchs. The family members pondered over its contents written in a hybrid language – a combination of old Malayalam, Tamil, and Sanskrit. A preliminary review revealed that the content was indeed related to the history of the family and its connection with the well-known Mandaikadu Devi temple, a renowned pilgrim centre in Kalkulam Taluk, Tamil Nadu.
“We handed over the manuscript to N.P. Unni, former vice-chancellor, Kalady Sree Sankaracharya University, and a versatile scholar. It was then that the book began to disclose its precious contents,” says Major (retd) P. Balakrishnan Nair, who discovered the manuscript. The verses composed by an unknown author starts with the description of old Mandaikadu region originally known as ‘ Mantai-kadu ’, a thicket where goats grazed. After narrating the legend behind the temple, the author tries to bring in a historical perspective when he mentions that the temple was established in 788 M.E. (1613 A.D.), on land belonging to the Konnakode family.
The history of the origin of the Konnakode family is lost in time. According to some sources, the family hailed from Mavelikara and later shifted to the Venad when the royals were based in Thiruvithamcode. The early patriarchs were gifted physicians who were revered by the locals. The temple was established during the time of a powerful patriarch named Kumara Pillai. After Kumara Pillai, his nephew Kesava Pillai became the head of the family and the Devi temple remained with the family. The history of the family and the temple enters a decisive phase in 978 M.E. (1803 A.D.), during the time of Velu Thampi, the Dalawa (Prime Minister). By then the Konnakode family had prospered and was well known all over Travancore. Once, the Dewan sent to Konnakode, a messenger with a note asking the patriarch for a huge amount of money.
“There are many versions of what happened afterwards. Some maintain that the request was turned down and as soon as Thampi came to know of this, he dispatched soldiers to arrest the patriarch,” says Balakrishnan Nair. The patriarch, after he placed his descendants under the protection of the powerful Pattara Thampi family, committed suicide. “Instead of dying under torture in the hands of the Dalawa, poison offered a better end to our ancestor,” adds Nair.
The Konnakode family witnessed the darkest chapter in their history in the early decades of the 19th century, when the family assets and the Mandaikadu temple were taken over by the government (April 24, 1803).
The Konnakode family rose from the ash and gained prominence in later years. However, they lost their most valuable possession – the Mandaikadu Devi temple – forever.
The author is a conservation architect and history buff