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A Small Town in Kerala

As a young boy studying at the CMS College High School in the Northwest part of the Kottayam town, I and my school friends would go on long walks to explore that part of the town on Saturday afternoons after school. We would end up in strange places and would have to ask people for directions to go back to where we started. Even now at the ripe age of 82, after returning to Kottayam after a lifetime spent in strange shores, I still have the passion to wander, which is easily accomplished in the company of my wife in my Volkswagen Polo. But where have all the old routes for walkabouts vanished?

Kottayam’s geography is strange. The town is stretched along two roads, the north-south Main Central Road (MC Road) and the east-west Kottayam Kumali Road (KK Road) which intersect on a hill. Being confined to both sides of these roads on a hill, the town has not expanded over the years. The town is situated by the Meenachil River where it joins the Vembanad lake in Kumarakom.

Kottayam’s history dates back to the 15th century, when the Thekkumkoor kings had their palaces and a fort near the Thaliyil temple in Thazhathangady. The name Kottayam is considered to have come from Kotta, meaning a fort and akam meaning inside. In the mid-18th century, Marthanda Varma of Travancore attacked Thekkumkur, destroying the Thaliyil fort and annexing the region into Travancore. In the early 19th century, the kingdom was made a princely state of the British Empire.

Kottayam has had a role in major political agitations at the time of the fight for independence. The ‘Malayali Memorial‘ agitation of 1891 demanded better representation for educated persons from Travancore in the civil service. The Memorial, prepared at a meeting held in the Kottayam Public Library, was presented to the Maharaja Sri Moolam Thirunal. Kottayam also became the planning point for the Vaikom Satyagraha (1924–25); the historic struggle against untouchability.

The presiding temple of Kottayam is Thirunakkara Mahadevar Shiva temple at the centre of the town. The Devi temples at Pallipurathu and Kumaranalloor, Shiva temples at Nagampadom and Thaliyil are famous Hindu temples.

The Christian tradition is strong. The Thazhathangady Valia Pally was built in the year 1550 AD by the descendants of the Knanaya Christians who migrated to India in 345 A.D. under the leadership of Kanai Thoma. The migrants represented seventy-two families from seven clans. This church is also famous for its two granite crosses known as Persian crosses. Pazhaya (Old) seminary, the Orthodox Theological Seminary at Puthenangady is more than 200 years old and have witnessed the struggles to preserve the Orthodox identity. St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, built in 1579 and commonly known as Cheriyapally (“small church”) is one of the oldest churches in Kerala. It has a European architectural sensibility with galleries, pillars, cornices and pediments. Holy Trinity Cathedral of the CSI Church, built in 1842 still preserves its architectural elegance. Thazhathangady Juma Masjid is a famous Muslim religious place of Kottayam.

Maharani Gouri Lakshmi Bai of the Travancore Royal family granted land, for the construction of a college in Kottayam (1). In 1817, Rev. Benjamin Bailey of the Church Mission Society became the first Principal of The College. Rev. Bailey’s genius is that he ensured that the academic programme at The College was as rigorous as that at the Cambridge University.

Realizing that the students entering th college were weak in English, Mathematics, and Physics, Rev. Joseph Fenn, who succeeded Rev. Bailey in 1818, started a Grammar School, which evolved into the CMS College High School. The Saga of Baker Memorial Girls’ Higher Secondary School goes back to 1816, when Amelia Dorothea Baker, wife of Henry Baker Sr, realizing that a whole society can be developed if its women were educated, started it.

In 1821, Bailey established the CMS Press. He cut the types and constructed a wooden printing press with the help of local silversmiths from descriptions learnt from an encyclopaedia. B. Bailey, who moulded the round and curvy Malayalam types with high legibility and economy is thus the first Malayalam typographer.

In 1867 two papers started publication from Kottayam. Santishtavadi was in Malayalam and the Travancore Herald, was in English, both printed at the C.M.S. Press. The first was outspoken in its criticism of the powers that be, and soon fell foul of the Travancore Government which forced its closure. The second oldest newspaper in Malayalm, the Deepika was launched from Kottayam in 1887 under the banner Nasrani Deepika. It emerged in 1938 as a full-fledged daily and was the forerunner of the present Deepika. The Malayala Manorama started publication in 1890, initially as a literary magazine and evolved into newspaper and a daily in 1928.. The paper was floated by a joint stock company, perhaps for the first time in India.

The Powradhwani was yet another Kottayam-based paper. Started in 1939 by K.M. Chacko this daily was always in the thick of the struggle for responsible government and commanded considerable readership. The Powradhwani stopped publication in 1955. The Keralabhushanam, launched in 1944 by K.K.Kuruvilla closed down in late 60s.

Kottayam hosts several Malayalam book publishers like D. C. Books, Vidyarthi Mithram, and Current Books. Three fourth of books published in Kerala are from Kottayam. A unique Travancore institution that started in Kottayam in 1945 is the ‘Sahithya Pravarthaka Sahakarana Sangham,’ Writer’s Cooperative, which published books and gave financial security and social status to writers.

Syrian Christian wealth made Kottayam a financial hub. Travancore Forward Bank was established in 1929. After losing viability, it was merged with the State Bank of Travancore in 1961. Other Kottayam-based banks like the Kottayam Orient Bank, and the Bank of New India were also merged with SBT at that time.

The major manufacturing facility in Kottayam is the Travancore Cements, established in 1949. in 1959, TCL ventured into White Cement manufacturing, using Lime shell, lying unexploited under the bottom of Vembanad lake. The raw material for the company‟s white cement is “Lime Shell”, which is purest source of calcium carbonate available for cement manufacturer.

Kottayam is a centre of rubber products manufacturing, initiated by a Dutchman Mr. Helen and Mr. K.C.Chandy from Pala who set up a rubber products factory in Kottayam. The Pallivathuckal family of Kanjirapally took the unit on lease in 1944 and ran it under the name of Aero Rubber Works. They started National Tyre and Rubber Company which, in 1951 tied up with the Goodyear of America to manufacture latex foam rubber under the brand name Pliofoam. This was the first rubber foam factory in India. Mr. P.C. Sebastian, of Pallivathuckal started Koolfoam Pvt. Ltd. and was the first to manufacture the popular Hawaii chappals in India in 1959.

MRF tyres set up a modern plant in 1969 at Vadavathoor near Kottayam to manufacture tyre-related products. The management also decided to start tyre production in Kottayam unit attracted by the various incentives on tax and power announced though a new industrial policy. The present turnover of finished goods (automotive tyres, tubes, tread rubber etc.) is Rs. 350 crores per annum.. The annual boat race in Meenachil River dates back to 1887. This glorious water regatta sees the participation of majestic snake boats, churulans, oadis and irrutukuthies. In the 50s through my father’s generosity, our ‘kara’ would be the proud sponsor of a boat. Occasionally, the children would be allowed to climb onto the boats.

Theoretical physicist Ennakattil George (ECG) Sudarshan from Kottayam has made notable contributions to Physics including the Sudarshan-Glauber quantum representation of light, for which the Nobel was scandalously given to Glauber only. He received the Dirac Medal in 2010. The novelist Arundhati Roy comes from Kottayam. Her Booker Prize-winning novel, The God of Small Things, contains her childhood memories of Aymanam, Kottayam.

Kottayam became the first town in India to achieve 100% literacy in 1989. Mahatma Gandhi University, several colleges and 14 engineering colleges make Kottayam an education centre. Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Technology, Kottayam is located in Pampady, a Kottayam suburb. The Manorama School of Communication (MASCOM) has established itself as a premier journalism training centre in the country.

Kottayam is called the ‘Land of Legends’ due to its association with Kottarathil Sankunni (1855–1937), the author of Aithihyamala, a collection of legends about Kerala. He was one of the founders of Bhashaposhini Sabha founded by Kandathil Varghese Mappillai and was also involved with Bharata Vilasam Sabha, another literary movement. He worked as the editor of the poetry section of Malayala Manorama.


2. I thank Mr Alexander Sebastian of the Pallivathukal family for his personal recollections, which helped me write about the Rubber industry in Kottayam.

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