Remembering the Port Town of Alappuzha
Alappuzha- The land stitched together by man-made canals between the sea and the lake, the masterpiece of Raja Kesavadas, and the magnificent port town of Travancore built to combat the Dutch and Portuguese ports in Kerala, which emerged in the 1700s, is now a gloomy town.
The Present State of Alappuzha
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 lumber were shipped out of the port. Canals, sea piers, railway tracks, warehouses, and other remnants of the previous greatness can still be seen. Vestiges of the past glory can still be seen in the form of canals, sea piers, railway tracks, warehouses, etc.
Later, when the Cochin port emerged, Alleppey port lost its importance. The port buildings, sea pier, railway tracks were left abandoned. Many of the warehouses and godowns got converted into coir factories and copra factories. Much later labour problems led to the collapse of these factories as well. This unique place which originated as a port town, and evolved into an industrial centre, has now come to a standstill and is almost dying. It is now a museum of the international maritime trade and coir industry of Kerala. Very few coir factories remain. Whatever's left is on the point of being shut down. The abandoned port buildings and sea pier are devoid of human settlement.
The remaining few elderly people from the glorious times of Alleppey have faded memories of the buzzing town. Soon, 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 under the Alappuzha Heritage Project.
The Lost Heritage of the Old Port Town of Alappuzha
As an architectural conservation trainee, I got the opportunity to study the heritage of Alappuzha under Dr Benny Kuriakose, a reputed conservation consultant. We spent ten days in the historic town doing a brief site survey and heritage mapping. As we traced the remains of the past we could still hear the faded heartbeats of the historic town. At every turn of the streets, along the canals, along the seashore or along the railway tracks we found heritage structures, awaiting to be remembered. Bungalows that are scattered everywhere have been ignored. Factories that lie along the canals are either closed or on the verge of being closed.
Some are taken over by new entrepreneurs while others are reused as restaurants. Most of the heritage buildings are threatened by dangers from neglect and demolition. Each building and each person we met have 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 celebrated town can be revived with new functions and few others 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 from the country boats at their doorsteps. 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.
Alleppey Site Survey
Before going to the site we did a study on the history and culture of Alappuzha since that is important in understanding the context of the site. On-site, we did a townscape appraisal method which looked at the potentials, negatives and positives of every part of the study area. The key focus was on understanding the local distinctiveness of the town of Alappuzha. An extensive assessment was made over selected areas. Mapping of the character areas was done. The elements of the town which need to be conserved were identified. The character and identity of the place were studied and documented. Detailed photo documentation was also carried out. Different communities and their settlements were traced. Underutilized heritage buildings were identified as well. All this gave us tremendous information about the potential of the area.
By the end of our study, a base material about the heritage of Alappuzha was created which can be used for further development. Intensive documentation is 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 visit this location and ascertain their ties to it. 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 make ardent efforts in protecting it. It is for them to decide what their children should experience and see.
-Rakhi Mariam Johnson
For more information on the Alappuzha heritage project: