Articles- THE HINDU


Kovalam today is a desolate sleepy town lying a little off the coastal highway between Madras and Mahabalipuram. In the eighteenth century, however, this non-descript looking town was a bustling port and a major trading centre of Thondaimandalam region. The British estimated the annual revenue from customs and other duties from this town to be of the order of 1500 gold pagodas, which converted into current prices amounts to around 12 lakh rupees. There were 59 trading households operating in the town, and there were as many as 12 shroffs and goldsmiths.

Today there is no sign of any of this great trading activity in Kovalam. The town is known more for the luxury hotel, which one of the major hoteliers have built on the ruins of the old fort, overlooking the deep cove that formed a natural harbour for the boats and ships that visited the port. The ramparts of the fort now form the boundary wall of the new hotel, and in an attempt at conservation, some of the walls of the fort have been incorporated into the interior decor of the hotel. One big piece of the old wall in fact stands in the middle of the hotel gardens as a sort of sculptural novelty.

The hotel, with its exclusive access to the vast sandy beach along the cove, is a favourite week-end resort for the wealthier people of Madras, and it also probably attracts a number of tourists from far off places. But the activity in this hotel has little to do with the life and people of Kovalam. For them all this is so far off and inaccessible, that the children and adolescent boys of Kovalam can often be seen hanging around the boundary walls of the hotel, trying to get a glimpse of the goings-on inside.

Incidentally, the hotel is also often the site of grand gatherings of great academics and intellectuals, who come here to deliberate on the poverty, misery and apathy of the people of India. One such recent gathering here in fact discussed the ways of ‘reaching the unreached’. This seemed an ironically apt topic to be discussed in the surroundings of this hotel, with the ‘unreached’ of Kovalam standing outside the walls trying to fathom the ‘unreachable’ inside. The processes that made the affluent port and trading town of Kovalam, that used to reach out to the world far and wide till less than two centuries ago, into a poor, isolated and almost dead place, however, probably need to be understood before something can be done about rejuvenating life in India.

The fort on the ruins of which the hotel is built was perhaps never a part of the life in Kovalam. The 1770 palm-leaf records mention the spot merely as the site of two dilapidated forts. The Chengalpattu district manual, written around late nineteenth century, explains that the older of these forts was built by the Ostend Company, which had also established a factory here. The fort and factory were however abandoned; and later Nawab Anwaruddin of Arcot erected a new fort, which was called Sadat Bandar. In 1750, the French captured this fort from the Nawab’s officers, through low subterfuge, if the district manual is to be believed. Clive then won it from the French in 1752 after what the manual describes as a great and adventurous battle. After 1752, the fort was also probably used as a staging point for launching the various campaigns that Clive undertook, particularly against the Palayakkarar of the region, to accomplish his assignment of ‘reducing to obedience’ the territory north of the Palar.

Such campaigns of ‘reduction’, carried out initially through military means and later through a variety of administrative and revenue measures, perhaps hold the key to an understanding of the processes that transformed Kovalam from a bustling port and trading centre to its present state. It seems an odd historical chance that a grand structure of the new developing India stands on the same spot from which the colonial drive to break the spirit of the people of Kovalam and end their era of prosperity was launched, and yet the fort remains as inaccessible to the people as it was during the colonial times. Sitting in the hotel, and knowing of the young boys of Kovalam standing outside and looking wistfully over the boundary wall, one gets the queer feeling as if this hotel too is a staging point for some new sort of colonialism that we are practicing on our own people.

Another point of some lively activity in Kovalam today is the Tamilman Ansari Dargah which stands near the shore on the southern end of the town. The building of this dargah is of obviously recent construction. But the spot has probably been held sacred for quite some time. In the eighteenth century records almost 6 acres of land is assigned to the cemetry and gardens of the dargah, though there is no mention of any buildings at this spot. According to the legend told at the dargah, Tamilman Ansari was a pious man who lived and died in some far-off town of north India. On his death bed he advised his people that his body should be encased in a wooden coffin and thrown into the sea, and decreed that the place where the coffin landed would become a holy spot. It is said that the coffin kept floating around the sea near Kovalam for many months, defying all attempts of the boatmen to pull it to the shore, till it finally landed on its own at the present spot of the dargah.

Like the tourists in the hotel on the other end of the town, the pilgrims to the dargah also come from far and wide. And, many of them stay here for a few days, cooking and sleeping in the vast sandy grounds attached to the dargah. This stretch of the beach is probably as pleasurable and grand as that near the hotel. Unlike the visitors to the hotel, however, the pilgrims come from all levels of society. There are those who come in their big and small cars, dressed in expensive and often shining clothes, and those who come almost bare-foot and bare-bodied. The former, however, quickly leave after paying their respects to Tamilman Ansari. It is the latter who stay on for a while. It is they who provide some custom to the few ramshackle shops around the dargah, and thus add a little to the economy of Kovalam, which is more than what the hotel and its tourists can do. It is also these indigent pilgrims who make the dargah such a lively place. One such pilgrim we met had come all the way from Ajmer in Rajasthan, and he was loudly and in great detail telling the tale of his woe-begotten life to Tamilman Ansari, calling upon him to intervene and somehow make his life somewhat more bearable.

The church complex on the north across the road from the hotel is the third place in Kovalam that seems alive and healthy. The church in the 1770’s had already got as much as 35 acres of land, and there were as many as 20 huts within the church complex, besides the cathedral, the garden and the open grounds. The church today houses a school, an orphanage, and an old-age home. The cathedral itself built sometimes in the nineteenth century is an impressive structure standing in the middle of a complex that looks rather large and lively compared to Kovalam of today. And, the whole place, including the vast open grounds, is kept immaculately clean. The difference in the level of cleanliness inside and outside the gates of this complex is in fact too striking to go unnoticed.

Besides the hotel, the dargah and the church, Kovalam today seems to have nothing else. The two streets of the town proper seem to have no life of their own, and there is no sign of the grand bazaar with its 41 shops that are mentioned in the palm-leaf records. The gates of Kailasanathar Swami Kovil, the main temple of eighteenth century Kovalam, seem to be almost permanently locked. This is an ancient temple. There is an inscriptions on the south wall that can be dated back to 13th century. The courtyard of the temple now is covered with wild thorny growth. And, the idols inside seem neglected. The intricate structures of the temple, however, still stand in testimony to the more affluent days of Kovalam. The town mosque on the street parallel to the temple street, which in eighteenth century had more than 3 acres of land, seems only slightly less deserted than the temple. With the destruction of the trading economy of Kovalam the town has lost its life. What survives today is all that is external to the town, that draws its sustenance from elsewhere. Kovalam of the eighteenth century exists no more.

J. K. Bajaj and T. M. Mukundan
Centre for Policy Studies
February 1992

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