The Gods are taken out of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple for a ritual bath in the sea ('aaratt') twice a year. There is a traditional westward route followed by the 'aaratt' procession carrying the idols of Sree Padmanabha, Narasimhamoorthy and Krishna; out through the west entrance of the Temple and then further west through the runway of the Trivandrum International Airport to the Shanghumugham beach.
The westward route is so sacrosanct that no flights are allowed to touch down or take off when the Gods are on their way to the sea and back; the only airport in the world to stand still for a few hours to allow the gods to have a dip in the sea.
However, a major reconstruction work on the Vallakkadavu Bridge half way along the 'aaratt path' could have prevented the Gods from reaching the sea, at least till the work was completed. But the dominant Muslim community in Vallakkadavu, once a bustling commercial port, has made sure that the work on the bridge would begin only after a temporary path has been created.
The temporary bridge, constructed parallel to the existing one and at a cost of Rs 1.25 crore, will be inaugurated in a week's time.
Threat of a 'stop' sign
“This talk of widening the Vallakkadavu Bridge had started way back in 1996, when Antony Raju (now a minister) was the MLA of what was then the Thiruvananthapuram West constituency. Even then our major concern was that it would block the progress of the 'aaratt'. Asking the Lord to halt was unthinkable,” said Saifudeen Haji, the president of Vallakkadavu Muslim Jamaath, one of the biggest Muslim congregations in Kerala with over 20,000 members.
It was at the insistence of the Vallakkadavu Jamaath that both the temple authorities and the erstwhile royal family requested the government for an alternative path. Though talk of reconstruction began in 1996, things turned serious only in 2011. Then, a letter from the palace to the then PWD minister M Vijayakumar, dated February 24, 2011, had only a modest request: Hold the demolition work till the 'aaratt' on April 17, 2011.
PWD's lethargic ways
“But we knew that once the work started, it could get delayed. The 'aaratt' happens twice a year (during 'aipasi' - March/April and 'painguni' October/November). Even if the first 'aaratt' of the year could proceed smoothly, we were sure the bridge would not be ready within six months when the second 'aaratt' begins,” Saifudeen Haji said.
The Vallakkadavu Jamaath continued opposing the reconstruction, insisted on a temporary path before work began. Vallakkadavu is a Muslim dominated area and the reconstruction work got stymied. The annual 'aaratt' processions went on unhindered.
Gradually, the palace, too, realised the peril of reconstruction without an alternative path. In a letter written to V K Ebrahim Kunju, the PWD minister in 2013, the office of the then head of the erstwhile royal family said: “As known to you, Vallakkadavu Bridge is on the customary procession path of the 'Aaratt' which takes place twice in a year at a gap of six months. PWD is very often not able to undertake any work with a deadline. So timely completion of work cannot be expected. It has been suggested by His Highness (Sree Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma) that before demolition of the bridge, a temporary bridge structure may be provided for the easy passage of the 'aaratt' procession during the reconstruction of the Vallakkadavu bridge.”
Struggle for hurdle-free 'aaratt'
The Vallakkadavu Muslim Jamaath then scaled up the fight for an alternative path. It used the Vallakkadavu-Vayyamoola Joint Action Council, a highly influential people's collective originally formed to counter the alleged excesses of land acquisition for airport development, to demand a temporary path before reconstruction. Saifudeen Haji himself was the chairman of the Council.
Finally, in 2019, the LDF government sanctioned Rs 69.98 lakh for constructing a temporary bridge parallel to the existing one. Haji, as chairman of the Council, wrote a letter of thanks to the then PWD minister, G Sudhakaran, on December 2, 2019. “In the name of the Vallakkadavu Muslim Jamaath and the people of the area, I thank you for sanctioning Rs 70 lakh for constructing a temporary bridge before starting the widening work on the existing one,” the letter said.
Aaratt-friendly bridge design
The Jamaath had also forced the PWD to redesign the new bridge. The 20-metre bridge passes over Parvathy Puthanar, an 18th century man-made waterway connecting major water bodies from Vallakkadavu to Varkala. Since Parvathy Puthanar is now part of the National Waterways Project, the new bridge over it should be constructed at least five to six feet higher than it now is.
Under the original plan, the slope of the proposed arch-shaped bridge touches road level far ahead of the spot where the 'aaratt' takes a slight right turn towards the airport and the beach.
“This would mean that the procession would have to take a U-turn into the service road and then turn left to take the road to Shanghumugham. This is against tradition. The Gods cannot be asked to take a deviation,” Saifudeen Haji said.
After much persuasion, the slope was shifted slightly right, towards the path of the procession. The Gods, therefore, will not have to take a U-turn.
Lure of the holy bath
For Muslims in Vallakkadavu, the 'aaratt' procession is the source of their sweetest nostalgia.
“It was the time we met our relatives. They perhaps might miss the death of a close relative but never an 'aaratt' procession,” said 65-year-old Hamza who runs a bunk shop in the area. “They will be coming from faraway places, from other districts and Tamil Nadu, and they will be here two days in advance. They will also be carrying food with them, and it was the time we got a feel of some of the tastiest foods that we had savoured,” Hamza said.
As a child, Saifudeen Haji had lived in another part of Thiruvananthapuram. “But twice a year during 'aaratt', without fail, my parents would bring me here to Vallakkadavu where my uncles and aunts used to live. We will be here for a week. This was our celebration,” he said.
'Aaratt' is still festival time for the kids in the Yatheemkhana (orphanage) run by the Jamaath. Yatheemkhana children, in their pink uniforms, stand with folded hands along the road side as the 'aarattu' led by the sabre-wielding head of the former royals moves along. "During the time of Chithira Thirunal (the last Travancore king who died in 1991), he would bow back," Haji said. "After the 'aaratt', a car full of sweets will arrive from the palace for our kids. It is also usual for the palace to invite our kids over at least once a year," Haji said.
A queen's commercial vision
According to noted historian M G Sasibhooshan, it was the creation of Parvathy Puthanar in 1824 that drew Muslims to Vallakkadavu. “Gowri Parvathy Bayi was the Regent of Travancore then. Vallakkadavu, which was the start of the artificial river ('puthanar') named after the regent, suddenly became the new port of call of Travancore kingdom. Large barges carrying coir and rice and salt and dried fish from places as far as Alappuzha and Kochi anchored in Vallakkadavu. Most of the small traders were in the Muslim community and they were lured to the new commercial hub,” Sashibhooshan said.
The half-walled structures where trade took place doubled up as the resting place for the members of the 'aaratt' procession. They were, therefore, also called 'ezhunnallathu pura' (procession house). These structures, which were to the right of the Vallakkadavu Bridge, have been consumed by time.
Where once they stood now grass and garbage grow wild.