Palace In Peril

Kerala villagers rally together to protect an ancient legacy
WHEN commerce triumphs over tradition then the brave embodiments of ancient societies can collapse under the bulldozer of profit. The Kollengode Kovillagam (palace), in Pallakad district in Kerala, stands framed against the hillside, centuries-old red tiles gleaming against emerald forest, solid teak and rosewood beams supporting a 400-year-old structure. Tipu Sultan stopped here, Lord Wellesley visited its precincts, Radha-krishnan and Nehru came to marvel at old India. The enlightened rulers of the Venganad family brought the railways here, set up schools and established the postal system. The revival and promotion of Kathakali in Kerala began in the schools run by the Venganad family. Young girls danced on the palace steps and from all over the surrounding areas, devotees bent in prayer to the Srimurthi Bhagvathi deity housed inside. Yet today, the ancient palace of Kollengode is faced with the prospect of destruction. Its intricate carvings and solid teak furniture may be reduced to rubble, its progressive legacy and place in the hearts of the community are about to be erased from history.

When the last ruler of the Venganad family, Vasudeva Ravi Varma Valia Raja, made his will, he laid down that the palace was not to be alienated or destroyed in any way. But through the matriarchal system, the property passed to the Raja's sister's son who effected a partition which was never ratified by law. Now the daughter of this errant son, Gayatri Mehta, has sold the property to a timber merchant, C.T. Chacko, on the basis of the partition. Chacko is determined to destroy the palace; indeed the back verandah has already been demolished, in contravention of the fact that Mehta had no right to sell the property since according to matriarchal laws she cannot inherit what belongs to her father.

 But so strong are the ties between the palace and the surrounding villages that a Kollengode Kovillagam Samrakhshana Samiti was formed to protect the palace. From taxi drivers' associations, to teachers' groups to local MLAs, townspeople gathered to maintain a vigil. The protracted legal battle that the Samiti started has not yet resulted in justice. With the change of government, the site is now under police protection.

Although the Kerala High Court ordered a stay, the timber merchant was able to have it vacated. Strangely enough, when the Samiti rushed to the Supreme Court, Judge N.P. Singh dismissed the case. Rajas and maharajas are now on the streets and are free to do what they want with their property, held the judge. Now it is only popular action that protects the palace.

Thorotill Sridhara Menon, leader of the Samiti, has sold his own lands to raise money to fight the case. "This is the rajvansha of the area. The people worship in temples maintained by the family. They bathe in the palace ponds. What will we tell our future generations if this palace ceases to exist?" he exclaims.

 Jnanpith award winner M.T. Vasudevan Nair has demanded that the palace be saved, as has environmentalist Sugatha Kumari. The BJP and CPI have held huge rallies, processions have been addressed, Doordarshan has made a telefilm and there have been all night vigils and fasts.

 The fate of the palace is now in the hands of Jaya Jaitly, descendant of the Raja and Samata Party member, who has already written to the Archaeological Survey of India to protect the structure. "I am not being feudal or religious in fighting to preserve the palace. So much can be done with it. It can be used as a Sanskrit university, as a centre for arts, the tourism department can take over it, why destroy it?" she asks. The ASI had recommended that the palace be visited, yet the judge ignored its findings. "In the Coca-Cola culture which we live in, we are trying to preserve our legacy. Will future generations have only empty museums as reminders of their heritage?" asks Jaitly. Maybe, if something is not done soon. 

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