Saturday, March 25, 2017

At Anjengo Fort, the First British Settlement in Travancore: The Journey 23

Two kilometers towards south of Kaikkara, the birth place of Kumaran Asan, around two hundred meters away from the Arabian Sea coast, there stands this fort which is called Anjengo Fort which has a lot of historical significance in the colonial history of India for it was the first sea coast fort that the English East India Company constructed in Kerala in order to consolidate their trade plans in Kerala. Though Anjengo is hardly four kilometers from my home, my memory of visiting this historical site is very faint but in that memory what remains strongly is the fear that the fort had induced in me at that time. I was hardly seven or eight years old when I visited this fort along with some senior cousin sisters. I stood frozen at the rampart of the fort which was in ruins. What scared me most was the sight of the sea, the threatening winds that could blow me off from the parapet, the sand dunes down there on the square court yard and above all two tunnels on the coastal ends of the fort. The mouths of those tunnels were closed with heavy wooden doors and across the wooden panels there were iron straps nailed in. One of the cousin sisters, with a clear intention to scare away the remaining ghost of life from me, pointing at those doors said that so many cows, dogs and children had gone into those tunnels and had never come back. That was the reason why they closed the doors forever. I fluttered like a dry leaf and the very thought of it rendered me sleepless for many years to come. It was one reason that I never visited Anjego again even if it was in cycling distance. I had a similar experience in childhood at the State Water Works, an establishment in Trivandrum which had steps over glass channels with water gushing through them. I thought I would slip and fall into them. Since then, even when I pass by that establishment in Trivandrum, I experience the same feeling of dizziness. Childhood memories are indelible, especially when they are scary.

 This time, as I have been writing this travelogue and gaining an natural momentum in and around the local history and the life and times of Sree Narayana Guru and Kumaran Asan, I think of visiting Anjengo once again for I have heard that Guru had visited some of the temples in this village where main inhabitants are the fisher folk that speak a language which is a strange mixture of Tamil and Malayalam. They speak in a singsong tone and I think this language must have come along with early fishermen from the southern sea cost stretching up to Kanyakumari. In our childhood we used to think that these people were very rude. Occasionally I saw them at the sea shore where we played during the Asan Memorial celebrations. They were mostly involved in their daily jobs of mending the nets or oiling the boats. Engine fitted boats were not seen anywhere there. They used to go to the sea by evening and by day break they come back with a boat full of fish. After sitting and watching theatre works and dances at the Asan Memorial auditorium before heading back home, we used to go to the sea shore to see the boats coming back. Also in the shallow water fishing, they used to pull the net. It was a very interesting scene to watch in the early mornings when a group of men pulled the net out of the sea in unison, singing songs, quarreling or sharing jokes, while women with their bamboo baskets (now they are replaced by Aluminium vessels). We also used to join in the pulling of the nets and if we did it diligently, they used to give some small fish as remuneration. Though I had never got a fish as remuneration, most of my smart friends used to go to the sea shore with this particular purpose of getting some fish against the manual labor they did for the fisher men.

 Anjengo always gave me a surreal picture. If I speak geographically these four places namely, Vakkom, Kadkkaavoor, Anjengo or Anchuthengu and Kaikkara are the four corners of an imaginary square. As a young boy I used to go to Kadakkavoor and Kaikkara but always skipped Anjengo. The buses that plied to Sivagiri SN College came from Kadakkavoor via Anjengo. We waited for the buses at Asan Nagar in Kaikkara. The bend in the road to the south side almost hid the surreal land of Anjengo from my vision. When the face of the bus appeared at that turning and it headed fiercely towards us, I used to think that it was coming out of fairyland with full of strange creatures inside it as it was coming from Anjengo. The surreal feeling of Anjengo was developed in me for, obviously the reason that I have said earlier, several reasons; of which the first one was their religion. They were all Christians. In our village we never had Christian families though we still have a good number of Muslims here. Even if my name was Johny (I found other two Johnies at Vakkom later on) nobody believed that I was a Christian because there was no Christian presence in our village. When I went to college in Trivandrum, for the first few months I wore a small silver cross on a thread around my neck in order to avoid questions regarding my real religion. Sooner than later I threw that away because by that time I had thrown all the religions including Hinduism aside, doubting anything and everything related to religions. That was the part of growing.

 The second reason why I developed an aversion to Anjego was the foolish belief that all the people there were drunkards and quarrelsome. We used to get the stories of local wars happening in Anjengo between the fisher folk via village grapevine. I, with my feverish imagination made monsters out of the people in the village. The third reason for this particular fear for Anjengo was that I believed there were a lot of murders happening regularly there. I used to imagine that dead bodies were washed ashore every morning. This happened after reading a novel, Chemeen by Thakazhi Shivasankara Pillai. Made into a film by the same name by Ramu Karyatt, this film had bagged the President’s award then. In Chemmeen, there is a tragic death of the hero who is a fisherman. The novel ends with a sentence about the dead bodies of a huge fish and the hero being washed ashore at the Purakkad beach. I thought in Anjengo too there used to be incidents like that. When I was in the eighth standard in the village school, the first single screen theatre came up in our village. Almost at the same time, we came to know that another theatre came up in Anjengo. The name of the theatre was ‘Jesus’. What made me further curious was the announcement of the movies that they exhibited there. Most of the films were Tamil or related to Christianity. There was clear cut cultural difference there; either the people their chose it like to be that or the people on this side like us thought that was very strange. Today, I think that there was a mutual exclusion of and by the people of Anjengo and those from elsewhere.

So finally I make a decision to go to Anjengo and see whether I am still afraid of the place. I go there with Dr.Amritjude Vijayan. Though he is busy in his clinic, he makes himself free to come with me. Amritjude likes to visit places repeatedly. He says that he would like to visit certain places with me and the whole idea of visiting a place with a person whom you respect makes all the difference. I take a pillion ride with him and reach Anjengo in a few minutes from Kaikkara. The first impression that comes to my mind as we enter the Anjengo village is this; I have seen this elsewhere. Yes, I have seen it because it looks like a film set. A narrow street with more or less identical houses and shops; there is an auto stand where young rickshaw drivers hang out as there are not enough passengers to ferry around. An Enfield Bullet always catches the attraction of the young guys. They curiously look at us and admire the new motor bike. The feeling has a Déjà vu effect. The air smells of drying fish. There is an ice factor on the left side of the road. There is a huge Church on the left side as we move towards the fort. This is St. Peter’s Forane Church and there are full of people in it. On a Friday afternoon some special service is in progress. I would see sea side congregations later as we go the newly built bridge near Perumathura. I understand St.Peter. St.Peter was one of the first apostles who held the key of Christian believes as he was the one who went to the sea shores to tell the fisher folk to go with him so that he could help them to catch the human souls. So it was natural in a place where the Portuguese and Dutch had an initial presence and later consolidated by the English East India Company with the establishment of the fort.

Anjengo Fort is quite unimposing. What comes to the ken of vision is the towering lighthouse to direct the nightly ship and boat movements. The presence of the fort becomes stronger as you see the darkening surface of the huge walls. Ones who have seen forts in Rajasthan, Delhi, Agra and any other place in India, this Anjengo Fort would not look much impressive. This is a moderate fort built in 1696-98 when the English East India Company came to the southern coast and sought permission to build a fort in this place from the Queen of Attingal (this is the nearest town located nine kilometers from my village towards South East). The English East Indian Company wanted a sea fort in order to regulate their maritime activities in the Arabian sea, to store their arms, ammunition and trade goods. Though it was not a garrison, there was strong presence of the British soldiers and their women here. The Queen of Attingal, finding an opportunity to do trade with the new power in India, decided to give them a land which got its name from the five coconut trees that it had in it. Anchuthengu, which became Anjengo in the British parlance, literally means Five Coconut Trees. The inability of the British people to pronounce the Indian names and place names was the reason for the several changes in the names of places and streets. Anjengo, towards the end of the 17th century became an important British settlement in Kerala, which was not formed as Kerala yet, but Travancore, the Southern Kingdom after Malabar in the North and Kochi in the middle. Trading in pepper and coir products was the main business here for the British.

The Queen of Attingal was egalitarian in her approach that’s why she gave place to the British company. But the Company did not take it in the same spirit. They were clever and were planning to create schism between the Queen and the local chieftains in order to create instability and develop a monopoly in the trade. To please the Queen, the Brits used to send precious annual presents via the Chieftains who did the business transactions. But in 1721, the Brits decided to challenge the authority of the chieftains by adopting a new policy in presenting the Queen with gifts. In this year, a contingent of 140 British soldiers took the gifts for the Queen and marched towards the Attingal Palace (the remnants of which are still there. The temple pond is now dried up. A portion of the palace was used as marriage halls and dining room, and another portion was used as a private hospital. Now the palace is in disuse though the temples in its premises are still active. I used to spend a lot time in these areas as a school boy as my grandmother lived nearby the palace. Also the Sree Krishna Swamy temple with murals that are extensively studied by senior artist A.Ramachandran is also in the same area. I have written a bit more about the Attingal Palace in the ‘To My Children Series’ and in some other articles). They were stopped and attacked by the Chieftains. The people who were not in favor of the British for lowering the price of their pepper produce, also joined the fight and killed all 140 soldiers in a fierce fight. The people marched to the Anjengo fort and seized from the British. But within six months, the British refurbished their armament and soldiers from Talasseri fort and Britain, and pushed the locals out of the fort and brought the Queen of Attingal to sign a new treaty with them so that the Company’s power could be more established. The revolt of the Attingal people in 1721 which is known as the Attingal Outbreak in history is considered to be the first revolt against the British in South India. The East India Company used this premises for storing arms and ammunitions during the first Anglo-Mysore ware in 1767.

 The Anjengo fort has four corners and is square in shape. The architecture of it helps us to think that the internal storing and living structures were not done using permanent materials. They must have been make shift arrangement as in tents and shamianas. The fort is now under the protection of National Heritage Monuments. There is a steel plaque just at the entrance of the fort. Some descriptions about the fort are given in three different languages. One person approaches and asks us to read the plaque before we enter. The moment we cross the threshold of the fort, he says that he is not a guide however, he expects ‘something’ as we come out. We go inside and the National Heritage Monument authorities have developed a clean and neatly cut lawn inside the fort. I remember the beach sand inside the fort and the lawn looks completely unnatural here. There are two sets of steps to go to the ramparts and we climb from the left side. Once we are up there, all those old fears come back in me. That is intensified when Amritjude tells me that we may be blown off by the sea wind. There is a three feet parapet that runs along the stretch of the fort and due to some strange logic the Brits had not made any protective railings. As we go further and reach the western side that face the sea and the houses that have come up between the fort and the beach (daring all the possible threats that the sea could cause to the inhabitants there. Their faith in the sea seems to be unshaken) the rampart becomes one and half feet wide. I push my back close to the high wall and move like a snail to cross that particular area. I dare not to look down on the lawn for the fear of falling off. On the western part on the right corner there is a tall but leaning slightly to the right there stands a pillar which looks like a fossilized structure thanks to weather. Amritjude tells me that this was the pole on which the local offenders were killed and hung, or stripped and whipped. As a memorial to colonial atrocities the pole stands there. A crow perches on it and I click a photograph. We climb down and we see a few Indian tourists walking in. The guide aspirant is still around but I do not give him any money. Just in front of the fort a group of boys and girls have just arrived by scooties. They are in a very jovial mood and as they speak in Hindi I understand that they are from North India. Also I assume that they have come to Varkala which is officially a tourist spot and have come here by hired bikes. If the government really works on it, Anjengo will be one of the hottest tourist spots in Kerala.

Even if the government is not working the tourist potential of this area has been identified by the local entrepreneurs, it seems. As we go inside the protected premises of the light house, two young men approach us with a brochure; it is a tourism package. They will take around us for half an hour to two to three hours depending on our ability to pay, in a house boat. I look at the brochure and feel a lot of happiness because all these places are around my home and I have visited almost all the places. The boys speak to us in English but I tell them that Malayalam will do as we are local people. But they have all the enthusiasm of the new entrepreneurs; they push on further and tell us that we should once experience the package which I say we would definitely. Then for the sake of asking I ask whether they have staying facilities; “yes sir, we have a five star hotel tie up next to the Perumathura Bridge,” one of them answers promptly. I am surprised; in a small village like ours has now two five star hotels (one Vakkom Palazzo at Panayil Kadavu and this one these guys have mentioned). I understand the fact that this area has started understanding the tourism potential. But soon came the thought of an environmentalist in my mind; the places will lose their innocence once the tourism is in place. I tell Amritjude that when tourism comes, even the fisher women would talk to us in English and sell us small fish in big prices. That is the one outcome of local tourism; while those people who are attached to tourism industry including the small time businessmen benefit out of it, the local who are not inside the tourism activities would suffer considerably for the unification of markets according to the tourism demands. The prices of the local produces would go high almost choking the locals out of breath. But something has to suffer if something else has to come up. Can’t we find a fine balance between these two?

Here is the 130 feet tower of a light house. You have to take Rs.20/- for going inside, literally for climbing up. Rs.10/- is the entry fee and the other ten is for your mobile phone camera. We purchase the ticket and go to the light house. There is an instruction to keep the footwear outside. We do that. Sooner than later we come to know why the particular instruction; the lighthouse is like a vertical tunnel with winding stairs all the way going up. If you look up you will feel dizziness, and after climbing half way if you look down, still you will feel dizziness. Both us keep ourselves close to the wall and climb. We take around ten minutes to reach the top. In between there are windows through which you could see and the backwater and the coconut groves, mobile phone towers, boats and so on alternatively. Finally we reach the top landing and to get into the cabin where the huge revolving flood light is kept you have to take a vertical iron stairs. You go up like a straight line and get into the cabin. Already a few guys are there taking selfies in that crammed space. There is a small door, around three feet tall, and it is through which you could come out to the narrow balcony. I come out followed by Amritjude. Both of us do not dare to look down but we finally look down and it is 130 feet down. There is a tall railing and there is no possibility of falling down unless you want it to happen; still we feel this strange feeling of vertigo and an itch to jump down. Amritjude show me the places that he could identify from this height. Our village is not seen at all. It has gone hiding within the coconut groves and foliages. We see the sea on our left glistening like a sheet of glass. We climb down the steps and finally we emerge from the tunnel. We feel as if we got a new lease of life. I look back at the tunnel once again and walk out.

 It is time to wind up our journey for the day. But Amritjude wants to extend the feeling of the travel a little more as we drives me along the coastal road to Perumathura, a few kilometers away from Anjengo and it is here the backwaters join the Arabian sea. There is a wide strip of water that leads to the sea. A sold pathway has been made till the end of this strip so that people could walk into the place where the backwaters join the sea. I had gone there earlier with Amritjude himself. So this time we avoid going there. We stand there and look at the boats that venture out into the sea one after another for night fishing. All the boats are named after Christian saints. They are all engine fitted boats. Each boat has two to three people in them. The fiber glass boats, almost empty moves like speed boats than fishing boats. At the edge of the water two people sit and do angling. One has an aluminium fishing line fitted with all the modern contraptions. He catches fish and puts in a small basket. Though he is not successful in getting big fish, he has got a few small ones. Another person does not have any modern equipment. He throws the lines into the water and waits for the fish to bite it; once the weight is felt he starts pulling thread. As the sun goes down the landscape changes its color. The green becomes darker and the water becomes cool. The breeze is soothing. A state transport bus goes by the bridge above. In the almost empty bus one lonely traveler throws a smile into the water down there. It falls there floats there for a while and sinks. More people come to the area to spend some time away from the crowds. Such people have created a new crowd here now. Something has bitten the line; the man with no fishing line pulls his thread. He has got a big one. The fish gasps for air while the rest of the world takes the same air without any difficulty. We walk back to the bike and behind us a crane belts out a cry and swoops down for the fish. Amritjude’s white Enfield Bullet takes off from there to a darkening world.

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