The “heritage village” of Kalpathy in Palakkad district is known for its Viswanatha Swamy Temple, annual chariot festival and its highly successful global diaspora. The village has also had its share of notoriety in the past for caste-based discrimination.
A few decades after Swami Vivekananda called the parts of India that make up Kerala today a lunatic asylum thanks to its society that was polarised on caste lines, a noble lawyer and academician became an agent for change at Kalpathy.
So-called purity rituals were a part and parcel of the Brahmin community in Kerala in 1890 when T R Krishnaswamy Iyer was born. By the time of his death in 1935, the young man was known and appreciated as a champion of social justice and education by the very people who helped Indian become independent.
From a very young age, Krishnaswamy began to challenge the prevalent norms of the society he was born into. Born near Thrissur and educated at the Government Victoria College in Palakkad, he attained a law degree in Madras before practising at Chavakkad. He became a full-time political activist in 1920.
“He courageously started displaying his social responsibility by educating and initiating Dalits (untouchables) into Brahminhood much to the fury of the elders in the community,” his great-grandson Govind Mohandas wrote for the Indian Memory Project website. “When he showed no signs of listening to their advice, Krishna was ostracised from his community. It was a huge deal, but Krishna was undeterred.”
What infuriated the orthodoxy of Kalpathy the most was a “misrabhojanam” a feast where people from all castes dined together. “The event occurred on the second day of a Congress meeting hosted by Sarojini Naidu in Palakkad in May, 1924, which was attended by freedom fighters from all communities,” Viju B writes in Flood and Fury: Ecological devastation in the Western Ghats.
“After being prohibited from entering his village, an undeterred Krishnaswamy and his wife Iswari founded the Sabari Ashram and the first public school in the country that offered education to children from all castes.” The ashram opened on October 2, 1923, in honour of Mahatma Gandhi.
This initiative was lauded by none other than Gandhi who visited the ashram thrice and even stayed there. “Mahatma Gandhi knew and adored Krishna and always paid him a visit during each of his tours to southern India,” Govind Mohandas added in his article.
These initiatives were taken at a time when the Iyers of Kalpathy did not allow Dalits and Ezhavas to pass through their village for the chariot festival.
Dubbed the “untouchable Brahmin,” Krishnaswamy became an inspiration for many unsung heroes among the Brahmin community in the Palakkad and Thrissur districts. The C A Higher Secondary School in the village of Kuzhalmannam in Palakkad district was started by a visionary educationist - C Ramachandran. While his story does not exactly echo that of Krishnawamy Iyer, Ramachandran studied at the Madras Christian College and instead of pursuing a lucrative career in government service or in an Indian metro, chose to come back to his village and set up a school from scratch. It is now known as one of the best schools in the district and boasts of alumni that have succeeded in far corners of the world.
Heroes like Ramachandran and Krishnswami Iyer remain unsung in modern India. The Sabari Ashram at Kalpathy is still functional and takes cares of children from all communities, but its Facebook page has not been updated in four years. The only other visible reminder of the greatness of Krishnaswami Iyer is a statue with a broken nose in Palakkad. His selfless service to India’s downtrodden played a part in Kerala partially breaking the shackles of the caste system.
He may have even played a bigger role than he’s credited for in the Indian freedom struggle. There are a few anecdotes online about how Krishnaswami Iyer saved Gandhi’s life during a communal riot. He apparently stopped a train that the leader was travelling in and escorted Gandhi to a safe place before the train reached a violence-ridden area. There, however, seems to be no official surviving record of this incident.