Column | Rare account of Thrissur in 1900s by a British traveller

Henry Bruce
A rare account of Thrissur city in the 1900s exists thanks to British author and traveller Henry Bruce, who wrote a book titled Letters from Malabar and On the Way. Image courtesy: Amazon

With the extravagant Thrissur Pooram and institutions like the Kerala Lalithakala Akademi, Kerala Sahitya Akademi and Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi, Thrissur deserves the tag of cultural capital of Kerala. Most Malayalis are charmed by the unique Malayalam accent that is associated with the city, which still feels relaxed despite the rapid spread of apartment buildings that are cropping up at a fast pace. As celebrated as the city is for its culture and history, it has not been well chronicled by travellers when compared to places like Kozhikode, Kochi or Thiruvananthapuram.

A rare account of the city in the 1900s exists thanks to British author and traveller Henry Bruce, who wrote a book titled Letters from Malabar and On the Way. Little is known about Bruce except for the fact that he wrote a novel which had two titles: The Native Wife or Indian Love and Anarchism. From his writings it is abundantly clear that Bruce belonged to a high enough stratum of English society to be able to afford personal servants on his journeys.

When he did reach Thrissur (or Trichur as the British called it at that time), he faced his first inconvenience. A servant he had hired from Bangalore named Bob Antony did not get off the train. “If there is anything I despise, it is the having to travel, especially in a strange country, without a servant to take care of me,” Bruce wrote at the beginning of his chapter titled Trichur. He sounded irritated about carrying his own belongings into a one-horse cart that he referred to as a “jutka,” which he noted was “very neat, though rather small.”

Thrissur over San Francisco

Bruce seemed to be genuinely impressed with the common people in Thrissur, who he said evidently led a good life and were “by no means uncivilised.” The praise of the town seemed sincere and genuine. “I had proof that day of how far Malayalam civilisation may surpass the vaunted product of America,” Bruce wrote. The optimism for Kerala came from his experience with a locksmith. Since Antony had the keys to Bruce’s trunk, there was no way of opening it. The writer then describes his encounter with the locksmith:

“An ordinary looking native was brought in, half naked. He was the blacksmith and shoesmith, making 30 or 35 rupees a month. In a trice, he had opened the padlock, which was easy enough. But he took it away with him, and in a few hours sent back an excellent neat new key, better than the old one. The charge, which I was ashamed to pay, was 4 annas!

“Contrast this with Kipling’s experience, who landed at San Francisco about 1890 with some trifling thing wrong with the lock of his trunk. It took half a pound to have this mended; and the point is that it could not be done without the characteristic incivility of the West.”

Vadakkunnathan Temple
Image of main entrance of Vadakkunnathan Temple seen from Swaraj Round from Illustrated Guide to the South Indian Railway printed by Hoe and Coat the 'Premier Press', Madras, 1913. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Comfort and cleanliness

Bruce was a keen observer of all the places he visited. He liked his accommodation - the Traveller’s Bungalow, which he described as “a clean-flagged building, in a shaded courtyard.” He also noticed how the best houses in the town did not have any glass windows, adding that this was desirable in the monsoons.

The writer fell in love with the landscape surrounding Thrissur, which he said was equally unique and as lovely as Baramulla in Kashmir. Describing a late-afternoon, early-evening walk, Bruce said the town seemed to be “an accretion of villages.” He seemed overwhelmed: “I know not how to express in a paragraph, which is all that is at my disposal, the impression of comfort, cleanliness, aesthetic life and surroundings which I received.”

Someone told Bruce that the people of Malabar were not as nice as they initially seemed, but he took an instant liking for them comparing them to people in other parts of India. He wrote: “But what a contrast to Kashmiris, particularly in their attitude towards Europeans! How much less cringing and suspicious! How much less basely ‘on the make’! I noticed none of those sights of offence, common in Kashmir and in most Indian lands. Even the pariah dogs were few. The beautifully made roads, of reddish soil, were swept to the last inch, and so were the courtyards.”

The first known map of Thrissur City with Vadakkunnathan Temple prepared by John Gould in 1816. Courtesy: Wikipedia

Observations through the eyeglasses of colonialism

Language that seems deeply offensive in 2022 may have been acceptable at the time the book was published (1909). Bruce apparently expected the Malayalis to be darker than they were. His observations were reflective of the prevailing British mindset of that time:

“This is no land of black people. Not a touch of negritic, so far. The people at Trichur average quite as fair as those in a Maratha town, perhaps more so. They are a light, rather than a dark brown. I saw three or four women’s faces of extraordinary and unexpected beauty, delicately refined. There was breeding there. The people are said to have a Dravidian basis, with a much larger Brahmanic admixture than is admitted. ‘Well they fault was not they folly!’”

The British writer was also impressed with the prosperity of Thrissur. “Such pretty little houses, ‘coquettish’ as the French say,” Bruce wrote, adding, “They may be insanitary, like the houses of European peasants; but how much it is to be able to make the comparison.”

He commented that even the poorest people in Thrissur lived in “more than tolerable human habitations” and added that the houses built of reddish stone were lit by lamps made in Germany.

Bruce also wrote that the rich of the town lived in bungalows that were better than he would ever live in. “Now, hardly any pleaders or rich natives live on that scale, with that neatness, on the Bombay side of India,” he wrote.

Among the few things that seemed to bother the traveller was the crowds in the town. Bruce also did not seem too thrilled about not being allowed in the city’s famous temples, but he blamed it on the caste system.

His servant Bob Antony eventually turned up, making some wild excuse for not getting off the train and taking a while to get to Thrissur.

Reading the British traveller’s writings, it is clear that even in the beginning of the 20th century, Kerala had much higher living standards and much lower visible poverty than the rest of India. This writer found Bruce’s book in the collection of the Asiatic Society of Mumbai. It would be great to find and read more old accounts of Kerala’s cultural capital and know what visitors thought of the town that is so dear to the heart of most Malayalis.

(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)

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