Monday, 17 December 2007

Pallikunnu House

Pallikunnu House from the southern side.

In my excitement at finding the house, at which I had arrived during that first deliciously cool hour following a perfect Malabar dawn, filled with bird song, but otherwise peaceful, in the absence of traffic noise, I did not feel that I could with decency turn up on their front door whilst they were still probably eating their breakfast.

As the house looked very grand, and I had previously been told by the owners of my hotel that it was the home of a very important official, possibly the Collector. I was in some trepidation over what sort of reception I might get when I introduced myself.

Returning with my son at an altogether more social hour, we approached the house, and as we entered the porch, a man came to the door. We explained that we were hoping to be able to look at the house, which we believed had been built by my great great great great uncle.

Would this be possible?

He said, please wait here, leading us into the first formal room, before going off to find his master.

Durbar Room

Waiting in this room, I was immediately fascinated by its design. It was quite unlike any early 19th century room I had ever seen before, but its function seemed immediately to be clear to me. It appeared to be a room designed to be accessible not just to European visitors, but to have been designed to also be comfortable and suitable for Indian visitors.

At the time Thomas Baber was building this house, he was both a magistrate and Third Judge. In 1815 the court buildings in the town centre of Tellicherry had not been built. Magistrates would hold court wherever they happened to be. They would receive petitions, hold court, or transact business wherever they happened to be, and often this was when they were in their houses.

The size of this reception room, that could clearly hold many people at a time, was also significant, as were the stout doors leading into the rest of the private part of the house.

As spiral staircase, of relatively modest proportions led to the upper floors where the family had lived. Perhaps these details had been carefully designed with descrete security in mind, in the event of trouble in the reception room.

It was becoming clear already that Thomas Baber had applied a great deal of thought to the construction of the building, and that in many ways this was a unique attempt to build a building functional in India, rather than trying to build a facsimile of a European building in India.

Unlike the formal court room in the East Hill complex at Calicut built at about the same time, or perhaps two or three years earlier, on a European model, derived from a Roman villa.

This room was built so that the Indian's could cluster around the Magistrate in a circle, just as people do on such occasions to this day in India, at events held in the open air.

Much like the East Hill building, it had a central room, surrounded by a columned wall, separating an outer passage or area. East Hill is square, but Pallikunnu is circular.

This central space is in turn was surrounded by wooden doors that could be opened to allow ventilation, or so that people outside the room could look into the central part of the building, where no doubt Thomas and his assistants would have been attending to the business of the day.

Waiting as I was, a total stranger, for an audience possibly with the Collector, I could easily imagine what it must have been like for a nervous Indian having arrived at this house, desperate to advance his cause, or to present his petition to the Magistrate., accompanied by his friends and family.

Here was an attempt to develop a court room suitable for holding meetings where Indian's would feel at home.

We know that Thomas and his wife invited Indian's to visit and stay in the house, because members of the Travancore Royal family are recorded as having stayed in the house in 1818.

Moments later the butler returned, and said "follow me.. "

As he led us up the stairs onto the first floor, I was expecting to find our host in the first room.

I was clearly in a house lived in by a Muslim, and yet it had many surviving features from British times. As we went further and further into the house, I was getting more and more nervous, and surprised, because we were going deeper and deeper into the private part of the house.

As we turned right into a small study packed with books and papers, the owner of the house was sat behind his desk.

"I have been expecting you for three years..." he said.

Introducing himself as Mr. Haris, this dignified gentleman explained that his teenaged niece had previously found postings that I had made on the web about Thomas Baber.

He had in fact tried to contact me.

Soon we were swapping stories and information.

Mr. Haris went on to explain that his family had acquired the property in the middle of the 19th Century from an elderly bachelor Englishman who had in turn bought the property from Thomas Baber in the 1840's. Apparently the bachelor had agreed with Thomas Baber that he would pass the house on to the most appropriate Indian family he could find, and that had been Mr. Haris forebears.

Englishmen had offered higher bids for the property, but the bachelor had determined to sell the house on to Mr. Haris family for a lesser sum, in order to meet Thomas Baber's express wish.

The house had been build on top of Pallikunnu hill in the centre of a large area of ground that extended north to the river and for perhaps a mile along the river. It had a 10 acre experimental garden, and a saw mill with a workers village attached to it. The school I had passed on my way to the house had also been built in the original estate grounds.

It appeared that the original site of the house had been used as one of the outlying bastions, fortified against the besieging army under Sirdar Khan sent by Hyder Ali against the town from 1st November 1779 until January 24th 1782. These lines had been strengthened again in 1788, in fear of Tipu's army during Tipu's invasion of the Malabar Coast.

Indeed, the high walls and terraces in the grounds of the house, might have been designed to aid any future defence of the house in the event of the town being attacked.

Mr. Haris was kind enough to show us around the inside of the house. Much of the house is still as it was when Thomas built it. However the front entrance porch is a later addition, as is the second floor room over the Durbar Room. This was added by Mr. Haris family many years ago to keep the driving rain out during the monsoons when it penetrated the veranda that Thomas Baber had designed.

This newer bit can clearly be seen to have a tin roof, and the remains of the previous roof in tiles can be seen retained as a fringe over the veranda in the first photo at the top of this article.

In the roof was a very curious bit of floor let down, in level below the rest of the floor. The beautiful smoothly planed tropical hardwood floors which are used throughout the house have been chipped with an adze in this small section of floor. On either side of the passage there are large wooden cupboards of no obvious purpose. Mr. Haris asked if I had any idea of their purpose. At the time, I was at a loss to suggest any purpose at all, but in a future blog, I will bring forward an idea.

We were shown a very heavy hardwood spear that had been kept in the house. This spear which was very carefully balanced must have been a formidable weapon in the hands of an experienced Nair.

Thomas Baber had collected or confiscated many hundreds, if not thousands of weapons from Indian's during the course of the suppression of the rebellions between 1795 and 1805 and in 1812.

It appears that he had kept many of these at the house. Mr. Haris explained that during a disturbance in the region in the early twentieth century, perhaps in 1925, his grandfather fearing that his house might be attacked to enable the insurgents to get at these weapons, took the rest of these arms and threw them in a nearby river, to put them out of harm's way.

Our host had to visit his saw mill business, and was kind enough to take us down to the mills located near the river. These and some large logging ponds had all been built by Thomas Baber, to harvest hardwood in the interior and to bring it down to the coast for sawing.

He appears to have been trying to develop sustainable forestry because in the grounds of his house he had built an arboretum or trial garden that he had filled with plants and trees.

These had included Mulberry trees, but sadly they had to be cut down during Mr. Haris childhood due to a disease that was killing Mulberry trees in the district.

In a future article I will look at the contents of this garden, and at Thomas Baber's views on conservation and forests. We think that concerns about deforestation are modern ideas.

This is not the case, forward thinking people recognised the impoverishing effect of forest clearance as far back as the 1820's.

At Palikunnu Thomas Baber, was trying to set an example of what could be done to right many of the mistakes that had been made inland of Calicut and Beypore, and that would inevitably spread north into the Wayanad and districts inland of Tellicherry.

Pallikunnu House today is a private property, lived in by a very private man. I would ask that you would respect this house and man's privacy. It is not open to the public.

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