How a Muslim headmaster saved little Ganesha from bird droppings and oblivion

Abdul Hameed, former principal who constructed the Balaganapathi temple inside SMV Government Model Higher Secondary School
Abdul Hameed, former principal who constructed the Balaganapathi temple inside SMV Government Model Higher Secondary School

There are striking monuments to Kerala's celebrated communal harmony in the heart of Thiruvananthapuram city; notably at Palayam where a Ganapathy temple and Juma Masjid share a wall and, right across the road from them, is St Joseph's Cathedral, and the three together creating an iconography that denotes a model way of life.

There is another shining monument to secularism in the capital city. This one lies largely hidden in the backyard of SMV (Sree Moola Vilasam) Government Model Higher Secondary School, one of the oldest public schools in Kerala.

Under the shadow of a large grandmother banyan tree at the back of the sprawling SMV School campus stands a small sloping roof structure, a temple dedicated to 'Balaganapathy', child Ganapathy. It is a simple structure with an open space in front for devotees to get a glimpse of the deity, and the sanctum sanctorum.

Ayyappan's Vavar, Ganesha's Hameed

No one really knows when the Balaganapathy figurine was discovered in the area, or who placed it under the banyan tree.

The little one was there long before 1943, the year the school started functioning from the premises. It was there even before it was the Police Commissioner's office during British rule.

Perhaps, like God, it was always there. But a temple was constructed for the little one in 1999 by Abdul Hameed, the first Muslim principal of the school.

Till then, the Balaganapathy deity was in the open, under the shade of the banyan tree. The spot was deified as a sacred grove, even if Ganesha was not associated with indigenous worship systems.

“My father used to tell me that he prayed before the Balaganapathy idol before he entered the classroom every day,” said Deepak, the priest of this Balaganapathy temple, whose father was a student of the school.

When Abdul Hameed was appointed as the 19th principal of the school after Kerala was formed in 1957, he was the first Muslim to occupy the chair once graced by literary giants like the poet M P Appan.

Phone challenge

“One day, even before I had joined, I got an anonymous call. The man abused me badly. His problem was that a Muslim like me would have no respect for the Ganesha shrine in the school,” Hameed, now 70, told Onmanorama.

But when I saw the deity at the back of the school, I was shocked. “It was left to the elements. It was covered in bird droppings and dog shit was all around it. No one had even bothered to sweep the area,” Hameed said.

But when I saw the deity at the back of the school, I was shocked. It was left to the elements. It was covered in bird droppings and dog shit was all around it.

Abdul Hameed, the first Muslim principal at SMV school

The year was 1999, when an LDF Government under E K Nayanar was in power. It was time to show results under the People's Plan Campaign. Government schools were being renovated and SMV School was sanctioned an 18-room three-storey building.

V Sivankutty, now the general education minister, was then the Thiruvananthapuram Mayor. He called Hameed and asked whether he could complete the building quickly, before the Ministry's term ended.

Muslim-Christian combo

He took up the challenge and completed the building within a year. While the construction was on, he asked his Christian contractor a favour. “Please build a temple for my Balaganapathy, I told him,” he said.

The contractor readily agreed. He even provided the labour free of cost. “I just had to find the materials like cement and sand and gravel,” Hameed said.

For this, he met an old student Kumar, a scion of Merryland Studios and the owner of the Sreekumar and Sree Visaskh twin theatres that were diagonally across from the school. “I told him the sorry plight of Balaganapathy and he was only happy to help. He called up friends of his and together they collected the money for the construction materials,” Hameed said.

The school building was hurriedly constructed to beat the deadline. The temple, which was completed soon after, is now part of the school's culture as much as the huge England-made Gillett and Johnston school bell that hangs atop the school pond teeming with fishes and a lone tortoise.

“Every year, the hall tickets and pens of all students who are writing major examinations are first placed before the deity,” said Rani Vidhyadhara, the headmistress of the High School. “Nearly half the students here are Muslim,” she said.

Pujas are held every Friday, and the Revenue Department pays a honorarium of Rs 2000 a month to Deepak, the pujari of the temple for the last five years. “If we require any additional puja on any other days, the school will have to pay the pujari Rs 750,” the headmistress said.

Balaganapathi temple inside SMV Government Model Higher Secondary School. Photo: Special arrangement
Balaganapathi temple inside SMV Government Model Higher Secondary School. Photo: Onmanorama

Ghost and the sacred grove

It is still a mystery how this universally revered deity emerged at this spot, or how the sacred grove came to be. There are only conjectures.

Some say the Ganesha was placed there by the Travancore's Nair guards ('Nair pattalam') to ward off ghosts. It is said that the area where the school now stands was once part of one of Sree Padmanabha Swamy Temple's enormous gardens ('nandavanam'). These gardens, from where leaves and flowers are picked for daily pujas, were guarded by the 'Nair Pattalam'.

“In those times people believed that the fragrance of flowers like jasmine would lure ghosts. Though brave men, the royal guards were not sure how to deal with invisible beings. They believed that a divine idol could keep these blood-thirsty things out of bounds,” said Avaneeswaram Prabhakaran, a historian of sacred groves.

“This could be why we have the unlikely presence of Ganesha, the lord who removes all hurdles, in a setting that seems similar to a sacred grove,” he said.

God-fearing criminals

Others say the idol was placed there by the Hindu policemen who were part of the Police Commissioner's office that functioned in the premises.

The position of the banyan tree offers another likelihood. It was right in front of the undertrial cells that were part of the Commissioner's office.

Petty thieves and those accused of minor crimes were kept in these cells. The cells now function as the zoology lab and a store room at the northeastern corner of the school; the iron bars of the cells are still retained.

The speculation is that the Balaganapathy idol was used as a means to extract truth from undertrials. The accused were brought before the idol and made to do the ritual penitential squats with crossed hands holding the ear lobes of the opposite sides.

In those simpler times, it was felt that these methods of self-torment imbued with spiritual meanings was enough for the accused to blurt the truth out.

However, when the Commissioner's Office shifted three kilometres west to Thycaud, the deity was left under the banyan tree. That's how the little one became the school's sole property.

In fact, for more than five years, the Commissioner's Office and the SMV school functioned from the same premises.

Sir CP's retribution

The school was originally at Vanchiyoor; the English-style buildings that were originally constructed for the school now function as the Thiruvananthapuram District Court. The only English part of the school that came to the new location was the Gillett and Johnston school bell.

It was to teach the students of SMV School, Vanchiyoor, a lesson that the then Travancore dewan C P Ramaswamy Iyer in 1943 shifted the school to Overbridge, its present location.

Iyer found that it was not just the communists who were baying for his blood. Students, especially from SMV school, were also making noises against him. One day he was especially stung. A hail of stones crashed upon his car from inside the school. No one could be caught as the perpetrators merged with the school crowd.

Iyer then thought it wise to have the school right under the nose of the Police Commissioner. Instead, the school came under the spell of an elephant-headed deity.

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