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Archaeology

Could a 12th-century well in Kerala be the clue to a kingdom long lost?

Print edition : Sep 03, 2022 T+T-

Could a 12th-century well in Kerala be the clue to a kingdom long lost?

The restored ‘big well’ with a diameter of 8.5 metres. Its historical importance went unnoticed until a realtor tried to clear the land in 2005.

The restored ‘big well’ with a diameter of 8.5 metres. Its historical importance went unnoticed until a realtor tried to clear the land in 2005. | Photo Credit: Kerala Archaeology Department

Oral tradition says the big well in Malappuram existed in the kingdom of the Cochin royals.

When the Portuguese explorer Don Francisco D’Almeida set sail for India in 1505, he carried with him a crown encrusted with gold and diamond jewels. It was a gift from King Manuel of Portugal to his docile ally, the Raja of Cochin, a prosperous port city on Kerala’s Malabar coast.

Lisbon amassed enormous wealth for itself and consolidated power in the East thanks to the Raja’s submission to its plans. So, if D’Almeida had expected the Raja to be ecstatic about the gift, he was disappointed. The Raja told him that he, like his predecessors for centuries, never wore a crown.

The strange tradition has its roots in a centuries-old tale of threat and exile. Cochin was a small principality in Perumpadappu in what is today’s Malappuram district in the 12th century. It was known as Perumpadappu Swaroopam. The name ‘Swaroopam’, which translates to “self-formed” in Malayalam, was given to the territory that a chieftain had control over.

The last Chera king, Rama Varma Kulashekhara, ruled most of Kerala until then. Legend has it that he had a dream in which he saw the moon split in half, and he took it as a divine message to convert to Islam and left for Mecca. Before leaving, the king divided his kingdom among his sons and nephews. A small principality fell into the hands of one of his sisters in Perumpadappu Swaroopam, who adopted a Kshatriya son to inherit the throne.

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The Perumpadappu Swaroopam was troubled by a series of humiliations at the hands of the Zamorins of Calicut, its northern neighbour. The prosperous and wealthy Zamorins controlled one of the most important ports of the time, but they wanted to expand their territory into the pristine farmlands of Perumpadappu. The bitter dispute preyed incessantly on the lives of the Perumpadappu royals, who after a final invasion went into exile and eventually established their kingdom further south in Cochin.

The Rajas of Cochin vowed never to wear a crown until the Zamorins were defeated. In the Portuguese adventurers, they thought they had an ally. Little did they know what was in store for them. Just a year after D’Almeida’s visit, Cochin would become the first European settlement on Indian soil.

Buried in the sands of time

According to archaeologists, there is no physical evidence for the Swaroopam’s existence other than oral history and religious rituals that border on fiction. For instance, the erstwhile royal family still retains the right to perform certain rituals in temples in Malappuram. This is seen as establishing a link between the two geographies.

All sorts of waste had to be cleared first—sacks full of plastic, hair waste from salons, and so on.
All sorts of waste had to be cleared first—sacks full of plastic, hair waste from salons, and so on. | Photo Credit: Kerala Archaeology Department

The only material evidence to prove the existence of Perumpadappu Swaroopam and the early Kerala history surrounding it is a well discovered in Perumpadappu in 2005. It is said to be the only surviving relic of the Swaroopam’s ancestral house. The State’s Archaeology Department recently completed its excavation and restoration in what was one of its most challenging tasks so far.

Local people called it the ‘Valiya Kinar’ (big well). It was a part of everyday life in the village before every house had piped water. Old-timers claim to have drunk water from the well at least once and are still awestruck by its enormous mouth—with a diameter of 8.5 metres and no wall surrounding it.

Despite all the attention it received, its historical importance and need for conservation went unnoticed until a realtor tried to clear the land in 2005. The villagers protested against the perceived desecration, and people from all walks of life united in the cause of preserving the heritage.

As machines would have damaged the structure, workers used an ‘etham’, a traditional device used to irrigate fields, to lift the dirt.
As machines would have damaged the structure, workers used an ‘etham’, a traditional device used to irrigate fields, to lift the dirt. | Photo Credit: Kerala Archaeology Department

Muhammed, a septuagenarian Congress politician whose family has lived in Perumpadappu for at least five generations, was one of those who spoke up in favour of the well’s restoration. “I was a member of the panchayat at that time,” said Muhammed. “A local businessman who bought the land next to the Valiya Kinar tried to fill it up with uprooted trees, plastic and other waste material. He might have wanted to encroach on the three cents of land on which the well stood [one cent is 40.46 square metre]. But everyone knew it was government property,” he said.

Muhammed got together with a few others like CPI(M) member Sunil and BJP activist Babu to seek the government’s intervention in restoring the well. Babu said that for the next couple of days, someone, perhaps the realtor’s goons, threw stones at Muhammed’s house at night. Muhammed admitted that he was worried but said it was only “a small price to pay”.

Many people have an emotional attachment to the well. A member of a Dalit family that lived close to the well for decades expressed strong sentiments about it. It was, after all, their only source of water at a time when piped water was only a dream for many underprivileged families.

“We extended all the support from the panchayat’s side,” said Sunil, a member of the ruling coalition in Perumpadappu panchayat. “Such was the public pressure that the realtor also later expressed support for its restoration. The well is a part of our cultural heritage. We grew up listening to stories about it. One tall tale was about how a gymnast jumped over it, but it gave us kids an impression of the well.”

In 2008, the government approved the excavation work. The Kerala State Archaeology Department entrusted the task to K. Krishnaraj, an archaeologist with a track record of undertaking such difficult projects in Malabar.

In an interview, he recalled that it did not have an idea of what the job was like until he visited the site. “The work essentially involved rebuilding a 12th century well from the beginning,” he said. “Its interior was filled with garbage. The well had to be excavated first and then restored, while preserving its original construction as much as possible.”

The Valiya Kinar was entirely made up of uniquely shaped red laterite stones. Stone wells are a part of Kerala’s heritage, but the paving on the well no longer existed. As in other parts of India, stone paving is a skill handed down from generation to generation. No one has codified the technique or archived its history.

Excavation at a sensitive site as this was tedious as it had to be done manually. There was not enough manpower for that. “We approached several skilled workers in and around Kerala who were into the construction of wells. They would flee the moment they came to the site and saw the enormity of the task,” said Krishnaraj.

The stones used to build the well were of a specific size, measuring an average of 18x18x5 cm. The restoration work required enough stones to fill 20 rings.
The stones used to build the well were of a specific size, measuring an average of 18x18x5 cm. The restoration work required enough stones to fill 20 rings. | Photo Credit: Kerala Archaeology Department

Finally, after a search for about two months they found a person who was up to the task—Natarajan, a traditional construction worker from Dindigul in Tamil Nadu who had made Kerala his second home. He went back to his home town and returned with about 25 people.

The work was physically demanding. Said Krishnaraj: “It was done in layers. Once a layer was excavated, it was documented with videos and photos for its heritage value before we moved on to the next. All sorts of waste had to be cleared first—sacks full of plastic, hair waste from salons, and so on. There were even big trees that had to be cut from inside the well.”

Machines would have damaged the structure. So Natarajan and his workers used an ‘etham’, a traditional device used to irrigate fields, to lift the dirt. Etham is essentially a pole-and-pulley system with a weight at one end of the pole and a scoop or bucket at the other end. The weight helps pull the bucket with dirt from the well.

The new stones had to be chipped manually on all sides to fit precisely.
The new stones had to be chipped manually on all sides to fit precisely. | Photo Credit: Kerala Archaeology Department

After the recent deposits were removed, the workers began to see water at a depth of about 8 metres. Upon further digging, they found the ‘nellipalaka’, a ring of gooseberry wood immersed at the bottommost part of traditional wells. The wood acts as a water purifier. By the time all this was completed it was March 2018.

Restoration work

With the well now excavated and cleared, the next step was to rebuild it the way it was. That was easier said than done.

The stones used to build the well were of a specific size, measuring an average of 18x18x5 cm, or roughly the size of a small, square wall clock. These stones are significantly smaller than the ones you get from a quarry today. The smaller the stones, the harder it was to find them and complete the work. Additionally, the restoration work needed enough stones to fill 20 rings, or about 8 metres.

The laying method was also vastly different from that of today. Cement was not available in the 12th century, and surprisingly, no mortar, such as lime or mud, was used in this one. So the well had to be built with perfectly cut stones that just stuck tight when laid next to each other. “We needed about 3,500 such stones,” said Krishnaraj. “I visited almost every quarry in Kerala. We couldn’t find a single one that would deliver the stones we needed.” By that time two more years had passed and then came COVID-19.

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After the pandemic, Krishnaraj and his team resumed their search for stones, but this time for reusable stones from old houses that had been demolished. “We found some 2,000 stones of 18 x 9 x 4 cm from an old ‘tharavad’ [an ancestral homestead] that was being demolished in the suburbs of Kozhikode. It made us look at the possibility of joining two of those stones to achieve the size we wanted. We zeroed in on a micro concrete grout to press such stones into place,” he said.

But now there was another challenge. The stones had to be chipped manually on all sides for them to fit precisely. Traditional workers who did such work were either too old or had moved on to other jobs in this age of machine-cut finished stones. The younger generation had no idea how to go about it. “We had to persuade conventional workers who had found work in other sectors to help us out. Eventually, we managed to get some workers who were skilled and willing,” said Krishnaraj.

They ran out of stones again, but this time they found another ‘tharavad’ being dismantled. But this took time as smaller stones were used only on the walls of the house, which were taken apart only after the ceiling, the doors and everything else had been removed. Krishnaraj and his team would rush to Perumpadappu with those stones as soon as they finished one wall.

According to Krishnaraj, the efforts paid off. Valiya Kinar now remains a portal to Perumpadappu’s past, and the larger history of medieval Kerala. “Many did not believe it could be done. Many questioned why it should be done. I myself was on the verge of giving up several times,” said Krishnaraj. “But in the end, it taught us a lot of things: what was the kind of workmanship we had, where we came from.... Shouldn’t we have some answers to these questions for our future generations?”