Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Krishna Row Agraharam

Historic sign at the entrance
The pillars are quiet now yet leaning against them is like meeting a thousand memories. The floors are now ripe with age yet one can feel the soft rumble of a thousand feet from before. The walls have swallowed sunshine and rain yet seem to be forever smeared with voices from a century ago. A mere stroll through #1 Krishna Rao Agraharam – a palatial mansion in the heart of old Kumbakonam – has the potency of bringing back powerful images from another era. Sitting first in a row of several homes built in a similar style this mansion is the highlight of a larger collection that form the part of the legacy of Mr. Gopal Rao – the current descendant and caretaker of a story that began more than two centuries ago. Looking into this house’s generously laid out living spaces, examining the rusted bars sealed between its pleasant blue window frames, taking in the air that envelopes this fine moment in time revealed several stories that span across so many eventful decades.

Portrait of Ranganatha Rao
But the real story of this place begins elsewhere. In those days a man named Narahari Rao is said to have acquired property amounting to over 6000 acres through means that I am told qualify to fill up several interesting volumes. An employee of the then Nayak kings, Rao was said to have changed allegiance to join the East India Company at Tirucherai, a beautiful village nestled on the banks of Cauvery, once the British began establishing domain in the region. Subsequently around 150 years ago his descendants then shifted base to Kumbakonam which was the cultural and literary hub of the time. It was through this move that the person after whom this cocoon of homes is named – Krishna Rao – ended up being a descendant of this huge family.

Living spaces in the ground floor
Though part of an adopted lineage Krishna Rao managed to acquire several urban properties and one of which became the Agraharam. The word “Rao” was spelt “Row” at the time and this can be seen imprinted firmly at the entrance of the street to this day. The word “Private” in the engraving further solidifies his desire to create this spacious haven for all his kith and kin. After Krishna Rao’s time the house continued onto several hands. Amongst first of those were children of Krishna Rao’s two wives (daughters of Reddy Rao, a former Dewan of Travencore). It was his son Ranganatha Rao who built the home located at # 1 in its current state. A fire incident is said to have destroyed what was formerly a smaller establishment.

Pillars in the main area
Built in the naatukottai style the current version of the house is 90 years old. Attached to this generous edifice are several other homes of which # 4 is used by Mr. Gopal Rao whenever he visits Kumbakonam. Homes that follow the fourth house were given away as gifts to Vedic scholars and other employees of the family. A Vittala temple was also constructed as part of this Agraharam while the entire stretch of area opposite to this street was housed by orchards, stables and flowering gardens. Today unfortunately these spaces have been replaced by less attractive and more intrusive concrete blocks where other folks live.

Living area on entering the house
With passing time Krishna Rao’s legacy began taking various forms. Both of Ranganatha Rao’s sons were childless and so children of his three daughters and their families began living in the homes. At one point, and I was shown a fabulous black and white family photograph as evidence, there were more than 150 people living in this house! Just imagining such a crowd walking in and out of its spaces day in day out made me reflect in wonder at the sheer energy of this corner. Of the collection of homes the first two were a place where everyone
Well ventilated spaces on entrance
lived the most. Armed with an attached kitchen the whole place must have felt like a never ending wedding ceremony with hot meals being dished out each hour of the day! Together with the first floor sections the entire collection of four houses in the Agraharam comprise a whopping 22000 square feet in area!
Apart from being one of the largest homes of its time this Agraharam was a pioneer for various things. It was the first residential house to have electricity, running water, a custom built rice hulling mill and a battalion of support staff that included accountants, cart and car drivers, milk men, sweepers, cooks, servers and watchmen. A continuous stream of life forms would enter and exit this activity-heavy entity
Rooms on the first floor
throughout the year. It is said that whenever a celebration of any kind would take place (and you can only imagine the unending crescendo of voices and events at such a time) the entire area including the adjoining streets would be cordoned off to disallow public entry. Rows of cars would be lined up awaiting service at any moment. Adding to this colossal list of amenities was a separate bathing ghat inside the Vittala temple exclusively for the women in the household.

First floor view of the house
As I stood there watching the stories unfold and tales from a bygone era spill forth like velvety dreams my mind filled up with voices and apparitions. I could see men in traditional attire crisscrossing the floor spaces, their faces busy with intent for the day. I could see children wailing on young women’s arms as the elderly ladies sat in corners and dispensed invaluable advice on proper child care. I could smell the heavenly aroma of a dozen dishes emanating from the culinary corners as people – young, old, tall, short, fat, thin, sleepy, awake, known, unknown – sat in dedicated rows indulging in all the delicacies served up on fresh green banana leaves. I smiled at the realization that such a scene perhaps was now a lost glimpse in history’s infinitely growing painting.

The action packed kitchen area
Over the years a trust fund (currently in the name of Satyatma Teertha of Uttaradi Mutt) has been established to help maintain it as best as possible. There are over 30 claimants from the family who sort of own the entire Agraharam. Currently Mrs. Shyamala Rao (Mr. Gopal Rao’s first cousin Ranga Rao’s bereaved septuagenarian wife) lives at the palatial mansion mostly by herself. People who have known the family for literally centuries visit the place often and help out in more ways than one. During our first visit to the house the chronic power blackout that plagues the region had struck. Despite the pitch darkness a certain Geeta aunty – a family friend – prepared a wonderful dinner just for J and I at Mr. Gopal Rao’s request. Watching her serve up that excellent meal with an earnest smile was truly a humbling experience. It helped me learn some more of the cordial relationships that Mr. Gopal Rao has maintained with the families in the neighborhood to this day. Little wonder then that such sincerely helpful people are part of his very diverse network.

Terrace area on the second floor
On our second visit to the Agraharam a larger banquet had been arranged where, due to the water shortage problems at the Vijayendra Swamy mutt nearby, about 30 odd people (mostly strangers) had been invited over for a festive lunch at Mr. Gopal Rao’s residence. We found it fascinating that such a diverse and mutually unknown group was sitting down with us and enjoying the delicious Tanjavur Marathi cuisine coming out of the kitchen. It felt like the ideal way to continue such a beloved family tradition. Some heavenly “emergency halwa” and the quintessential Mandi Sambar Bhath were consumed while observing the dedication that had gone into both preparing and serving up the luncheon.

J spent the next hour and a half of our visit to the palatial house speaking to Mrs. Shyamala Rao. I walked around snapping whatever my limited understanding of such grandeur could surmise. She later told me about the eventful life Mrs. Rao had led in that house since the day she had walked into this gargantuan family as a teenaged bride. Coming from a less traditional background she had spoken of the culture shock she had to put up with in a home that was pretty high on Brahmin orthodoxy. Since it was a time when strict regulations were in place for the women of the house Mrs. Rao had faced an uphill task in getting used to her prescribed chores. Being from a liberal family she had found it challenging to adhere to special feminine restrictions levied upon her during certain times of the month. She, amusingly, shared her grief about having to use a less sophisticated toilet facility which she also admitted had become modernized with time.

View from the first floor
Being a fiercely Brahmin household the concept of soula (“madi” in Kannada and in a lighter tone: also defined as “an exaggerated, sometimes misguided, religious explanation of basic hygiene”) was in full swing. To help maintain this purity of things Mrs. Rao spoke of the different rooms in the Agraharam that had designated functions. One of the rooms in Mr. Gopal Rao’s residence (where I switched over to a traditional South Indian panche/veshtee/waist cloth for the mega festive luncheon) was assigned only for child births. A record number of sixty children are said to have been born there. It was funny, and a little scary, to imagine all the sixty kids wailing in that little room at the same time.

Divine presence on the walls
There remains a strong presence of divine adherence in the family. Hence, the Agraharam has played host to many a swamiji from various Brahmin sects when they spent several days performing prayers and blessing the household. Grainy photographs exist of their attendance to this day acting as a friendly reminder of better days. The pooja room on the ground floor and the large main living area’s walls are sprayed with dozens of photographs of various Hindu gods. I even spotted a couple of authentic Tanjavur paintings in that collection – a family heirloom of sorts – which have been preserved quite well.

Row of rooms on the first floor
Given such an unending stream of social and religious fares the kitchen was always open. In fact Mrs. Rao told us of a traditional wooden stove that was used exclusively only for the Jahangir sweet! Since that sweetmeat was considered “non-Brahmin” (it was from Persia and hence labeled a foreign entity) a special stove was dedicated only to it. The idea of designing something so exclusive to indulge in it whilst maintaining disdain for its origins made us all laugh with empathy at the familiarity of it all. The entire area around the kitchen was used to store large quantities of fresh fruit, vegetables and grains for the endless torrent of people entering and exiting the premises.

The grinding stone
Our meeting with this wonderfully chatty and refreshingly open lady came to an end where, with a sigh, she told us of the changed times. She spoke of her loneliness in that huge mansion after the passing away of her husband. She did mention that loyal helpers (some second or even third generation) of the family dropped by and gave her company but the visible grandeur and majesty of the place was no longer there. Fragmented family structures and shifting priorities had driven everyone away from that cocoon of fellowship. The entire family is now scattered in different parts of the world although some of them do make the long trip back to this house to relive old memories. Mr. Gopal Rao and his family remain one such group.

Though the house is almost a century old it’s condition is still quite robust. Mr. Rao explained to us how the wood for the roof’s insides had to be specially ordered and designed since they were no longer used. All the homes now boast of all the modern facilities but a sad side effect has been the slight compromising of the old world feel. As we discussed the issue we all agreed that too much restoration could have a detrimental effect on the authentic feel of the place and the need to preserve what is left of an era that shall never return.

We stepped back out into the afternoon sun having experienced the warmth and affection of Mr. Gopal Rao, Geetha aunty, Mrs. Shyamala Rao and many other acquaintances of the family. Our trip to this region had been to investigate, understand and appreciate the historic vein that runs through it.  “Krishna Row Agraharam” only amplified that objective by showcasing to us with its silent grace several pleasant echoes from over two centuries ago. For this J and I will be eternally thankful to Mr. Gopal Rao for giving us such a warm invitation to visit his past. Through him we got a chance to meet and be won over by so many humble, transparent and well-meaning individuals. These were people who had lived a life so full of meaning, pride and most importantly so in touch with fellow human beings – an attribute that seems to be quickly vanishing from our chaotic lives. We had gone to the Agraharam to see something from the olden days of life but instead returned with a lot of new perspectives on humanity itself.


Some more beautiful frames from this historic place:

Artifacts around the house
Special stove for making coffee

Stairs to the terrace area
View from the center of the house

Authentic Tanjore paintings
View of roof from the terrace

J with Mrs. Shyamala in living area
Doors to the past are locked


The Pooja Room
Doors leading to inner areas

1 reflections:

Amrutha Shreedar said...

In this house my grand parents sadhabishekam held in the year 1995 when i was 12 years old... unforgetable moments and sweet memories... thank u for posting this mam.....