REMEMBERING THE PORT TOWN OF ALAPPUZHA
Alappuzha -The land between the sea and the lake woven together with man-made canals, the master piece of Raja Kesavadas, and the proud port town of Travancore designed to compete with the Dutch and Portuguese ports in Kerala, which took shape in 1700s, is now a plaintive town.
Occupations and functions of the town evolved out of international trade and port dealings. Gujaratis, Rajasthanis, Tamilians, etc. were brought here to do trade. Spices, coir, copra and timber were brought to the port to be exported. Vestiges of the past glory can still be seen in the form of canals, sea pier, railway tracks, warehouses, etc.
Later, when the Cochin port emerged, Alappuzha port lost its importance. Port buildings, sea pier, railway tracks were left abandoned. Many of the warehouses and godowns got converted into coir and copra factories. Much later labour problems led to the collapse of factories as well.
This unique town which originated as a port town, evolved into an industrial centre, has now culminated to be a standstill, almost dying, museum of international maritime trade and coir industry. Very few coir factories remain. Whatever remains is at the verge of being closed down. Port buildings and sea pier lie abandoned with no human habitation.
The remaining few elderly people from the glorious times of Alappuzha has faded memories of the buzzing town. Soon, within a nick of time, all the remnants of this glorious town will ebb away into a distant past if not for the preservation and rejuvenation of whatever is remaining.
As an architectural conservation trainee I got the opportunity to study the heritage of Alappuzha under Dr. Benny Kuriakose who is a reputed conservation consultant. We spent ten days in the historic core of Alappuzha doing a brief survey and heritage mapping.
As we traced the remnants of the past we could still hear the faded heartbeats of the historic town. At every turn of the street, along the canals, along the seashore or along the railway tracks we found heritage structures awaiting to be remembered. Bungalows, scattered everywhere are little remembered. Factories lie along the canals, some closed, some on the verge of being closed, some taken over by new entrepreneurs and some reused as restaurants. Most of the heritage is threatened by dangers from neglect and demolition. Each building and each person we met had a story to tell about the town. Some spoke out of agony, at the way heritage has been treated, many spoke with dreams of how the glorious town can be revived with new functions and few spoke with lost hopes about how the town has been damaged beyond repair. Men remember the busy port and women remember the goods that were unloaded along the canals at their doorsteps from country boats. The same canals have now turned into mere drains and the port, a tribute to the past. Many migrated to other parts of Kerala and more than half of the present population is alien to the hidden heritage of the town.
Before going to the site we did a study on the history and culture of Alappuzha since this is important in understanding the context. On site, we did a townscape appraisal method which looks at the potentials, negatives and positives of every part of the study area. Key focus was on understanding the local distinctiveness. An extensive assessment was made over selected areas. Mapping of character areas were done. The elements of the town which have to be conserved were identified. The character and identity of the place was studied and documented. Detailed photo documentation was also carried out. Different communities and their settlements could be traced. Underutilized heritage buildings were identified. All this gave us tremendous information about the potentials of the area.
By the end of our study a base material for the heritage of Alappuzha was created which can be used for further development. Intensive documentations are yet to be done for specific interventions. This ‘Mini India’ as academician Kalleli Raghavan Pillai Sir calls Alappuzha, has to be protected. Future generations should be able to experience and discover their connections to this place.
Architectural and building styles change, evolve and survive in a most charming way, to give each town its own vernacular character. In modern times the historic vernacular landmarks are taken for granted or overlooked to give way for the so called modern concrete hideousness. Conservation never hinders development; rather it gives an approach on how to develop without destroying the town’s heritage. Waysides are changing and charms of the old market squares are being lost. It is now the people of Alappuzha who should decide how Alappuzha has to change. Conservation personnel can only guide the people. It is for the people of Alappuzha to be proud of their own unique heritage and take ardent efforts in protecting it. It is for them to decide what their children should experience and see.