THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: The top floor of the Central Archives building in West Fort holds more than a crore palm leaf manuscripts of medieval records dating back to the 15th century, all of them rolled into 10,000-odd bundles and kept alive by grass oil. Ironically, there is not a single perfumed parchment that can offer even an oblique hint about the history of the building.
But local lore has it that the two-storeyed building, constructed in the style of an ancient Roman courtyard house with four building blocks forming a rectangle to entrap a courtyard nearly three-quarters of a football field, was Travancore’s first jail. It is said that the legendary thief, Kayamkulam Kochunni, spent his last days here.
The belief that the building was Travancore’s first jail has been fuelled by three leftovers of medieval life. On the northwestern corner of the Central Archives premises, surrounded by overgrown weeds, is a lone rock pillar, nearly five feet high, that looks like a stone deity in a sacred grove. It was on such stones that prisoners were tied up and flogged during medieval times, up until the 19th century.
Further, at a middle point on the western fringe of the premises is a deep pit, now almost fully engulfed by weeds. It was once a ‘water well’ but silted and dried up now. And nearby is an open stone tank, which too is now covered by the wild overgrowth. Together they form a community bath arrangement, the kind seen in medieval prisons.
The most persuasive argument for the jail is the presence of a ‘madan kovil’ right at the centre of the building’s courtyard where weekly pujas are still being conducted. “Madan is the presiding deity of the ‘arachar’ (hangman) community,” said historian Malayankeezh Gopalakrishnan. “It was common in those days to construct prisons near the temples of the hangman community,” he added. The location was also ideal for a prison as it was a desolate area with only the royal cremation ground (now called Palliyadakkam Mukku) nearby.
Historian M G Sashibhooshan, too, is convinced that the building was the first Travancore jail. He said it was first used by the then British resident Col. Munro in 1809 to put under house arrest Kerala Varma, an alleged pretender to the Travancore throne and a supporter of Velu Thampi Dalawa. After Kerala Varma was transferred to the Thalassery Jail, the building became a regular prison. Mr Gopalakrishnan said that the first Travancore survey conducted by lieutenants Ward and Corner in 1819 had spoken about a jail in the southwestern part of the Fort.
If the building was indeed the first Travancore jail, then the chances of Kayamkulam Kochunni spending his last days here are high. It is a known fact that Kochnunni had died in prison in Travancore but the common belief is that he breathed his last in the Poojappura Jail. But the construction of Poojappura jail began only in 1862 while Kochunni died in 1859....