History & Culture

How a small pox epidemic launched Kochi’s Pulavanibham market

The centuries-old Pulavanibham in Kochi began because of a small pox epidemic. Look back on how the city has faced and survived maladies that have struck over the years

Pulavanibham springs up every January near Azhakiyakavu Bhagwathy temple in Palluruthy. This over 100-year-old market has its origin in a smallpox epidemic that flared up in the outskirts of Kochi city, towards Cherthala. In those times, when medical advances were few, the virus was unknown and virulent.

The worst affected were the malnourished and underprivileged farm hands, as well as artisans from socially disadvantaged communities. With a mounting number of deaths and no cure in sight, the people took to praying to the the Goddess at the Azhakiyakavu temple that’s believed to be nearly 800 years old. At that time, prevailing custom prevented many of them from entering the temple, however the Raja of Cochin, believed to be Shaktan Thampuran, Rama Varma 1X (1751-1805) , in a humanitarian gesture, allowed them entry. That was a significant milestone in the social history of Kerala.

The families of the sick began coming in hordes to worship the goddess, camping around the temple for weeks. Slowly a small market sprung up that sold essentials as well products — terracotta ware, coir and palm leaf items —made by the commune that assembled. Today’s pulavanibham market, a colourful bazaar of indigenous handmade items, is a result of that epidemic a century ago.

Unfortunately, that was not the only epidemic to hit the state, says former mayor KJ Sohan. He cites the outbreak of plague and smallpox “during British times, post World War II.” The Mattancherry Ayurveda Hospital in Veli, Fort Kochi was then an isolation hospital. “It was called dheenapura (isolation). The adjacent crematorium was also part of it,” he says adding, “Bodies of the dead were laid out on banana leaves; there were very few people who agreed to bury them. In those days toddy drinking was a pastime: when men got drunk they would agree to feed the sick and bury the dead. ”

Sohan adds that the Fort Kochi Hospital founded by the Portuguese, is perhaps one of the first “modern” hospitals in India, as the Portuguese were the first colonial power in India.

Bussinessman and author Thomas Burleigh, whose family has lived in Fort Kochi for generations, recalls compulsory vaccination against small pox at Kunnumpuram during the British times. “It was forced on everybody,” he says, adding that parts of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, had low lying areas, below sea level, like Thamaraparambu, where slums existed and the disease raged in these areas.

Local historian VN Venugopal speaks of another small pox epidemic and an outbreak of cholera in the 1940s, in which many families, “even the middle class”, were affected. He recalls his mother pointing out the Vasoori Kolam to him whenever they travelled by train to Thrissur. “It was an isolation hospital, a stone’s throw from the Ernakulam South Railways Station. “It seemed so desolate and far away from everywhere,” he remembers.

Sujith Vasudevan, a doctor for 41 years in Kochi, tells of the plague when his father, N Vasudevan, had to battle when he practised medicine in the 1940s. “There was an outbreak of plague in Fort Kochi, Mattancherry, around the time he joined work. My father had to go and stay at a camp to attend to the sick. He used to go by boat.” He shares a poignant memory of his father bidding farewell. No one knew if his return was certain, as he would be exposed to the deadly disease.”

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Printable version | Apr 2, 2020 7:00:36 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/centuries-old-pulavanibham-in-kochi-began-because-of-a-small-pox-epidemic/article31170552.ece

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