Monday, October 26, 2009

Memories: A lakeside Travellers’ Bungalow

Vaikom is a small town, but one of the oldest in South India. It is situated on the eastern bank of the Vembanad Lake in Kerala. The Siva Temple there is considered to be the Southern Kashi and the ‘Vaikom Ashatami’ is a very famous festival.

The place is also prominent in history for the Vaikom Satyagraha (1924-25) led personally by Mahatma Gandhi. The objective of the agitation was to secure the right of passage for all sections of people along the roads around the temple. At that time the lower castes were not permitted on those paths.

For me personally, the importance of Vaikom was the old travelers’ bungalow by the lakeside. It had two large bedrooms with attached dressing rooms and bathrooms and a veranda with a porch in front. The building, set among some rain trees, had a high, tiled roof.

Decades back there were hardly any hotels except in major towns. But a string of Government-run travellers’ bungalows (TBs) provided people with clean and safe places to rest during journeys. Though the rates were very cheap, only upper class folks used the facility in those days.

Before a road was laid to my place, Olavipe, our journeys were mostly by scheduled boat service. Boats plying between Cochin and Alleppey stopped at Poochakkal, the boat jetty near us. To go to my mother’s house (Kerala Architecture: The house where I was born) near Palai, Kottayam, and the High Ranges where my uncles were living, we had to cross the lake to Vaikom by the boats going from Cochin to Alleppey, and proceed from there by road.

I mentioned scheduled boat services, but the vessels did not keep to the prescribed timings. Arrivals and departures were subject to tide and wind (though the crafts were motorized) and other factors. But for us, onward journeys did not pose a problem except for some waiting at Poochakkal.

While coming back it was different. After reaching Vaikom sometimes one had to wait for hours for the boat from Alleppey to arrive. And the place to while away the time was the TB. The front porch had one or two planter’s easy chairs and other seats. Lean back and relax. Enjoy the lovely breeze that blew in from the lake and the beautiful scenery.

Very rarely have I come across other travelers at the TB. Not many people used that route. Every now and then the ‘watcher’ (that was what the TB keepers were always called) would come around to see if the guest needed anything.

The view from the TB was something like this:

Click to enlarge.

Photo by Rahuldb. Wikimedia Commons, under

GNU Free Documentation License

The lake used to have many types of valloms (country crafts) and motor boats in those days, more than what is seen in the photograph. Some of them are not very much in use in the area now. For instance, privately-owned passenger valloms with cabins. Those were once status symbols, owned by the rich. With the opening up of roads in almost every village, the picture has changed.

Two fascinating sights in the lake during thr bygone days were fully-laden oil tankers carrying petroleum products from Cochin Port to towns in the interior and large cargo barges stringed together and pulled by powerful tugs. Now this traffic is entirely road bound.

One could also see the boat station and the single pier which were about a hundred yards away from the TB. It was interesting to watch the activities there, particularly when a liner going in the opposite direction berthed. People rushed to board even though the boat would spend ample time before departing. Probably the hurry was to occupy vantage seats, if any were left.

Every half hour or so one looked southward to see if the boat from Alleppey was coming. It was very difficult to make out. Initially it would be a speck far away and that came nearer with agonizing slowness. At the appropriate time the watcher would make his appearance to announce that the boat would berth soon. He shouldn’t be forgotten, of course.

As one started for the pier, the watcher’s smile seemed to say, ‘Till the next trip, then.”

Related post: Memories: The boatmen of Olavipe Lake


perumalythoma said...

Lovely little piece, this.
My father (very unlike him, though) used to let me drive at a very young age.
I could barely reach the pedals, but I could drive all day.
Practically every weekend, we would drive to Kottayam from Alleppey via Thaneermukkom.
I used to love that stretch around Vaikom.
Narrow, shaded, snaking roads. Tiny bridges and culverts. The stink of husk rotting in the canal. Fresh fish on the roadside.
Now of course, one zooms down to Changanacherry.
Though I still remember the two 'changadams' they used to have at Pallathuruthy and Nedumudi.
[And my dad flooring the gas pedal to get there before they pulled up the ramps.]
After reading this post, will take that Vaikom route again. For old times' sake. thanks a ton.

Abraham Tharakan said...

perumalythoma, you have described the Vaikom side of the Thanneermukkam Bund aptly.

Incidentally, the Alleppey-Changanacherry Road originally had three ferries, one at Kidangara also.

Nebu said...

After reading your latest post on (TBs) Travelers Bungalows, my mind raced back to the innumerable days I stayed with my maternal grandfather at Kottayam TB (their duck roast was his favorite dish). I can’t forget the caretaker Daniel who also ran the cafeteria / dining hall there? Since he knew almost all the family members he was a veritable logbook of who all had passed through Kottayam.

I remember grandfather telling me that there was a time when he used to have account or credit facility in all the Government owned TBs from Kottayam to Payyannur when he purchased land and shifted to Cherupuzha (Kannur Dist.) after disposing off his properties in Peruvanthanam (Idukki Dist.) because of his special rapport with the watchers / custodians. I have stayed with him at Thiruvalla,Kottayam,Vaikom, Aleppey,Ernakulam,and Kottackal TBs.

perumalythoma said...

So I have been told.
But even the two mentioned are a little faint in my memory.

Of course, we do tend to glorify nostalgia intentionally to emerge smelling good.
But I love roads. [Not, not, not six-lane highways.]
The destination, I really don't give a damn about.
But I just love to drive / ride (ouch!) on a winding, quiet road.
And I do think that the weekend peregrinations of my childhood have much to do with it.

[Can't bank it.
But that's what my dad left me.]

Abraham Tharakan said...

Nebu, Kottayam TB food was very good though the range was limited - usually Karimeen Moilee, Duck Roat and Apricot & Cream, for dinner. Rice & curry for lunch of course.

In my memory, initially the staff were Unnunni, Koshy and Kochappu. Then came Daniel & John. I think Daniel was Unnunni's son or nephew.

Some of the TBs collected payment subsequently from the well known people (the 'muthalalis'). One did not even sign the bill. Once a month or so one of those chaps would come to collect payment. Of course he would get a fat tip as well.

Abraham Tharakan said...

perumalythoma, driving on a road one loves is a real pleasure.

Kariyachan said...

Wonderful post. The Vaikom Boat Jetty and the TB building beside it brings a lot of child hood memories to my mind, of the numerous trips made to my mothers home in Manappuram via that route.

Though I never visited the TB building,lately myself and friends were regulars mostly on week-ends at the vicinity, courtesy KTDC... Will hop that way this December again..!

Abraham Tharakan said...

Kariyachan, you are one person who can understand the beauty of the place. You have passed that way so many times.
The KTDC set up seems to be okay. I have been there once.

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