(M)Apping Digital Archives: The safarnama Digital Heritage project

Deborah Sutton




Digital Innovations and Archival Materials 

Digitisation and digital platforms offer transformational potential for the ways in which archival materials are disseminated. This blogpost will describe a recent digital heritage project – safarnama – an app that allows smartphone users to explore three curated collections of archival material relating to urban heritage in Delhi and Karachi.

It will consider the relationship between digital web and app platforms that incorporate digitised materials from existing archival repositories and explore the implications of curating and displaying archival materials in this way. What are the challenges associated with access, curation and sustainability?

Safarnama Heritage Project: using geolocational technology to displace the archive

The Safarnama app (available from the Google Play Store) is a freely downloadable app for android-platform smartphones. The app allows users to download three digital heritage experiences, themed collections of material that app users can explore on their phones. All content is downloaded onto the users phone and each contains between 50 and 70 geolocated ‘points of interest’ with which media are associated (see image 1).


‘Partition City, Delhi’, (created in collaboration with INTACH (Delhi), the Centre for Community Knowledge (AUD) and 1947 Partition Archive), maps materials relating to Delhi’s transformation between 1947 and the end of the 1950s, when the refugees were evicted from the settlement in Purana Qila. 


‘Partition City, Karachi’ was created in collaboration with Pakistan Chowk Community Centre, Karachi, maps materials from the PCCC’s rich archive from 1947 until the end of the 1950s. 

Points of interest from ‘Gadhr se Azaadi’ around Old City


‘Gadhr se Azaadi’  was a collaboration with Seechange that contains media relating to the history of Delhi from the great revolt of 1847 to independence in 1947.

If app users are near a point of interest in Delhi or Karachi, they receive a push notification on their phone, alerting them to a nearby point of interest and digital content (see images 2 & 3). In this way, smart phone users can encounter ‘ambient’ heritage in small bursts, and in several languages, as they travel across these cities. The archival materials incorporated into the experiences are brief, based on the assumption that users will give information about the history of their location no more than a couple of minutes of their time before their phone offers them something more inviting. 

Media relating to announcement of boundary award, geolocated at Central Vista.


media content geolocated at Wavell Canteen, a refugee kitchen adjacent to the Old Delhi Railway Station.

The content of each experience consists of a range of archival materials in a variety of digital formats (text files, jpeg, pdfs, mp3, mp4). All materials incorporated are either in the public realm or were made available under a private licensing agreement.

Materials in the public realm included materials from: National Archives of India, Delhi State Archives, 1947 archive (text files), Bibliothèque Nationale de FranceGetty’s Open Content ProgrammeMetropolitan Museum of ArtFamilies in British India Society, Wikipedia, the internet archiveLibrary of Congress (Prints and Photographs), the RijksmuseumHindustan Times and the Times of India.

Special permission was sought and licenses obtained for materials from Life Magazine, Centre for Community Knowledge (AUD), 1947 Archive (audio recordings), the Ministry for Information and Broadcasting (Photograph Division) and the All India Congress Committee papers (Nehru Memorial Library and Archive).

The safarnama project demonstrates the potential of digitally mapped heritage to ‘decentre’ heritage conventions and to map new narratives of the past that depart from familiar and linear. The safarnama project is an attempt to use handheld devices and geolocational technologies to put digitised archival ‘back’ into living landscapes.

Instead of being sequestered within archives and arranged according to institutional conventions of archival arrangement, safarnama uses a google map layer and push notifications to allow app users to encounter archival materials on their phones as they move around Delhi or Karachi.  Geolocational technology allows place to become the key index of the past, bringing archival materials out of repositories and placing them into conversation with the landscapes to which they relate. 

Digital platform formats also present unprecedented opportunities to combine archival materials in new ways. Safarnama points of interest combine archival materials to bring together a range of disparate materials out of archives: photographs, paintings, maps, textual materials, literary accounts and oral testimonies.

This unique ability allows app users to explore a variety of iterations, and even alternate and contentious, accounts of a place’s past. Conversely, materials brought out from these repositories and placed into urban landscapes can potentially serve as digital ‘breadcrumbs’ that can make app users aware of the collections held by nearby, but underused, repositories. 


Historians as a species

The safarnama project raised a number of unexpected and significant questions about the role of academics and curators in identifying, editing and assembling information for these platforms. We are accustomed to quietly exercising our disciplinary expertise in archival research and then publishing articles and books which synthesise archival materials as evidence for our arguments.

However, safarnama presented materials in a fairly raw form with clear acknowledgement of provenance and only minimal, or no, interpretative text. During the safarnama project, invitations to historians to contribute materials tended to be met with enormous, initial enthusiasm followed by discrete backtracking.

The project has tended to confirm that historians tend to implicitly regard the archival materials we collect perhaps not as our own property, then certainly the produce of significant energy. We retrieve materials from archives in order to create, and evidence, presentable and publishable outputs.

As a species, we tend to be reluctant to share archival information in which we have invested significant time and energy; instead we prefer to hold our materials as private archives from which we draw to publish our own narratives and arguments. Before and beyond publication, we tend to be circumspect about sharing our raw materials or details of their archival provenance.

Digitised Archival Materials

Safarnama allows us to compile and share archival materials in a new way to new audiences but the format also changes the terms of our archival and authorial pre-eminence. 

This project is one of several digital heritage initiatives that have innovated in collecting ad curating native digital content.AugtravellerIndia Lost and Found with Amit Pasricha, Sahapedia’s Cultural Mapping projects at Fort Kochi and in Pune are among several projects that, like safarnama, use digital platforms to assemble and disseminate historic information. Some of the data used by these platforms is archival, some is crowd sourced and others commissioned. These initiatives raise a host of questions about the relationship between public and proprietorial materials. Each of these projects raises important questions about the proprietary rights and commercial uses, of archival mateirals. The potential commercialisation of crowd-sourced digital materials or materials taken from archival collections raises a host of important questions for how the transformations effected by digitisation should be shaped by Historians.

The creation of Safarnama was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, UK, and Lancaster University. Being publicly-funded, it has an a priori commitment to being free of charge. The software used is open access, the provenance of all archival materials is acknowledged and neither its materials nor the platform will be commercialised.  

Digitisation and digital archives are a sphere of entrepreneurial activity. Indeed, the creation of  proprietary data, whether derived from the migration of material from archival digitisation projects or through the creation of native digital content, is defended as the only sustainable model for digital initiatives that exist outside state-funded archival digitisation projects. These projects require  content to be placed behind a paywall in order to fund software development, marketing and database maintenance. Digitisation brings democratisation of access only if the planning and placement of materials is placed at the forefront of project design. 

Archival historians must be vigilant of the transformations effected by digitisation and digital platforms as previously public (if not particularly accessible) archival collections are transformed into proprietary and commercial collections. 




Image 1: ‘Pictorial tour around India…’, John Murdoch, 1894, Christian Literature Society, Courtesy, British Library on Flickr

Image 2: “A Gazetteer of the Province of Sindh, etc” 1876, Hughes, A. W., Courtesy British Library on Flickr

Deborah Sutton is Senior Lecturer in Modern South Asian History, at the University of Lancaster, where she teaches courses on, Histories of Violence: How Imperialism Made the Modern World, and ‘These Beastly Obscenities’: Monuments, Images and Antiquities in Imperial India. Her publications include, Gordon Sanderson’s ‘Grand Programme’: Architecture, Bureaucracy and Race in the Making of New Delhi, 1910-1915, in South Asian Studies, ‘So called caste’: S. N. Balagangadhara, the Ghent School and the Politics of grievance, in Contemporary South Asia, and Other Landscapes: Colonialism and the Predicament of Authority in Nineteenth-Century South India, 2009.

Visiting Manipur State Archives

My Experiences in Manipur and the Naga Hills, Sir James Johnstone, 1896

Deepak Naorem

My tryst with the state archives in Manipur began in 2011. I was following a trail of official correspondences regarding war compensation for damages in the state during World War II at the National Archives, New Delhi. Manipur became a dependent frontier state with the establishment of a Political Agency in the State after the first Anglo-Burmese War.

However, the establishment of a proper colonial archive began in the record room of the Political Agency Office of the State Secretariat building in Imphal in 1893, where the documents produced by the state were kept. The documents were initially handwritten or typed by an army of clerks. Later, with the introduction of the state printing press in 1910, copies of the documents and government reports were printed and circulated.

The durbar in Manipur produced several types of documents such as maps, letters, political and religious treatises, genealogies and other types of records. The establishment of the Political Agency in 1835 led to the proliferation of correspondences, reports and letters between the durbar, office of the Political Agency and British administration in Shillong and Calcutta. 

Those records were kept in the record room of the old Secretariat building until March 1982, when the Manipur State Archives was established under the Directorate of Social Welfare, Art and Culture. With the bifurcation of the department, it is now under the jurisdiction of the Directorate of Art and Culture.

In the heart of Imphal city

Manipur state archives is located in the heart of Imphal city, near the Keishampat junction, and is easily accessible by both public and private means of transportation.

It is within five minutes walking distance from the Paona international market and the Kangla fort.

The main building looks quite dilapidated as if it has not been repaired or maintained for several years, and it shares the building with the State Central library.

The record room is located in the first floor of the building. Earlier, the record room was located in the right wing of the building, while others amenities such as the microfilm department and digitisation room were located in the left wing.

They had a small dusty reading room with few rickety chairs and a single table, just outside the record room for the visiting scholars.

However, the building does not have any facility for providing drinking water and food to the visiting scholars.

However, in the last few years, significant changes have been made in the layout of the archives. The record room has been moved to the left wing of the building. They have also constructed a much larger and safer study room for the visiting scholars with better furniture.

There are a few small tea-stalls, just outside the gate of the building where scholars can take small chai breaks with local savouries like pakoras(fritters) and singju (spicy vegetable salad).

Otherwise, one of the major markets in the city is at a walking distance, and there are plenty of options for food in the market. Imphal city also has a large number of cafes where scholars can continue to work after the archive hours, over cups of coffee or local tea.

The Records – 1891 onwards

                  A large number of files were transferred from the record room in the old secretariat building to the new archive building in 1982. However, many files are still retained in the library of the old Secretariat building.

Any visit to the record room of Manipur state archives should be followed by a visit to the library in the old secretariat building. The record room has a huge collection of files, especially from 1891 onwards when the state administration was taken over by the colonial state. 

The records are divided into four categories— public records, private records, manuscripts and rare books. It also has microfilms of early newspapers and journals from the early 20th century.

These records are very useful for studying the history of the former princely state of Manipur, and it holds most of the major records such as Manipur State Administrative Reports (1869-1962), Diaries of Political Agents of Manipur (1886-1947), Proceedings of Manipur State Durbar (1907-1947), Manipur state Gazettes (1932-1975), land revenue records and judicial records. These records are informative on questions regarding the frontier policies of the colonial state. 

Private papers

It also has a huge collection of private papers donated by many well-known scholars and public figures of the state. Besides colonial documents, it has a huge collection of pre-colonial manuscripts (locally known as Puyas) written in old Meetei script or in Bangla/Assamese script. This rich corpus of manuscripts has yet to be researched by scholars. Another interesting collection are the large volumes of photocopies and microfilms of files and correspondences related to the former princely state (1826-1950) collected from archives outside the state such as the British Library and archives in Delhi, Kolkata and Guwahati etc. Most of the documents are in English, or in Manipuri, in either the old Meetei script or Bangla/Assamese script.

Accessing the Record room

There are several issues while accessing the record room in the Manipur State Archives. Firstly, the catalogue is in a fragile condition, and visiting scholars are often given a list of handwritten catalogues, from which they make selections and requests for requisitioning.

Secondly, this catalogue is far from being exhaustive, and only lists a fraction of the files inside the record room. Hence, it becomes extremely difficult to access some significant files such as Hill Administration records (1891-1972), Electricity and Power records (1891-1947) and Manipur Jail records (1891-1977), etc. Perhaps the remaining records will be catalogued and digitised in the future.

Thirdly, the opening timings of the record room can be uneven. Scholars and students might have to be prepared to wait beyond 9 AM for the opening of the record room. However, some of the junior archivists earnestly help any visiting scholar to navigate through the catalogue and the records in the archive. Over the years, I learnt the importance of their enthusiastic support in successfully gaining access to the rare manuscripts and uncatalogued files in the record room. With their permission, scholars are also allowed to take photographs of some of the documents.


“Bring your institutional credentials”

The administrative office of the archives maintains a strict record of visiting scholars, and they insist on producing an identification document and a supporting letter from the university or research institution. Foreign scholars are expected to produce a copy of their passport and visa.

Imphal city is located in the oval shaped valley in the middle of the state, and is surrounded by lush green mountains which make the weather pleasant throughout the year for visiting scholars.

However, scholars should avoid visiting the state for archival work during the major local festivals such as Yaoshang, Ningol Chakouba and Christmas, as it is unlikely to find the employees of the archive in the record room or anywhere in the office during these festivals.

Deepak Naorem is an Assistant Professor at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi, New Delhi. His research interests include History of Colonial Northeast India and the Trans-Himalayan Region, History of literary cultures in Southeast Asia and History of Second World War in Southeast India.

Some of his publications are ‘Japanese invasion, war preparation, relief, rehabilitation, compensation and ‘state-making’ in an imperial frontier (1939–1955)’ in Asian Ethnicity, ‘A Contested Line- Implementation of Inner Line Permit in Manipur’, in Kafila on September 15, 2015, ‘Myth Making and imagining a Brahmanical Manipur since 18th century CE’, and ‘Remembering Japan Laan: Struggle for Relief, Rehabilitation and Compensation’, in NE Scholar Journal (July 2018)

The Missionary Archive

Material traces for interdisciplinary research


Manual of the South Arcot District. British Library, Flickr collection

 by Hephzibah Israel

I’ve worked with archives associated with Christian missionary movements in South Asia for nearly twenty years. Each presents us with its own set of idiosyncrasies, some better organised than others, a few easier to access and more welcoming of the researcher armed with pencils, laptops and digital cameras or smartphones. I have over the years reflected on the collections, speculating on missing items, annoyed many a time with that careless archivist who hadn’t bothered to preserve a document that I think will have been of great importance to my research. But it is only over the past year or so that I have started writing a critical reflection on the missionary archive after working with a few new collections to pull together information on autobiographical conversion accounts for the research project ‘Conversion, Translation and the Language of Autobiography’.

Missionary archive as a conceptual category

Although I use the term ‘missionary archives’ as if this were a distinct, self-evident category, I should say at the outset that much of the materials associated with mission societies are currently housed alongside various other collections which have little to do with the Christian missionary movement.

I use ‘missionary archive’ as a conceptual category that comprises a motley range of materials: unpublished documents written by missionaries (letters, diaries, reports, translations, photographs etc.); printed materials authored by missionaries; print materials on any topic and not authored by missionaries but published by a mission press. These were initially collected and housed by each mission society during much of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century but eventually handed over to either national or university libraries in Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century. (There are a few exceptions: for instance, the Leipzig Mission Society’s Archive is still located, curated and directed by the Leipzig Mission.)

The sheer range and geographical spread of missionary archives globally is impressive.   The collections represent most parts of Asia, Africa and the Americas, as well as European attitudes to a variety of social, cultural and political issues at ‘home’ and ‘abroad.’ They reveal the travel of ideas in both directions, key changes in administrative policies, agreements and dissonance with imperial ideologies and colonial governance.

By and large, missionary archives are located in European and American cities as well as in the countries that nineteenth-century Christian missions functioned in. I list archives associated with South Asia, since my research focuses largely on South Asia:

Amongst archives of the Protestant missions working in South Asia alone, there are in the UK

Researchers based in India may not often realise that almost all the archives listed above give free access to catalogue searches, so it is possible to prepare lists of documents available at each repository before getting there. However, several archives also have a further, more detailed paper catalogues, that have not yet been digitised.

A useful centralised online portal for a comprehensive list of missionary archives is available through the Mundus Gateway [http://www.mundus.ac.uk/]. The database is fully searchable and is available free to the general public, and better still, researchers are not required to first register and login before getting access to this database.

In Germany, the Evangelische Lutheran Mission’s archives are located mainly at the Franckesche Stiftungen, Halle and Archive of the Evangelical Lutheran Mission Society Leipzig, Leipzig. The Franckesche Archives hold a unique collection of Tamil and German palmleaf and paper manuscripts from the early eighteenth century, and with the more recent addition of online catalogues and digital collections, it has become far more accessible than when I first spent three months researching there in 2001. In Switzerland, the Basel Mission Archives have a good collection of photographs and paper manuscripts pertaining to the Deccan regions;  and in the US, archives at the universities of Columbia, Yale, and California have collections from the American Baptist Society, which worked across South Asia.

South Asia

In comparison, mission archives located in South Asia are fewer but often contain rare materials: the archive at United Theological College, Bangalore is a good example of a place with a collection of paper and palm leaf manuscripts in several Indian languages that cannot be found elsewhere. Although not listed clearly on the UTC College library website, the small archive in the basement of the library is a hidden gem that is well worth a visit. The Bible Society of India (BSI) offices in Bangalore held a somewhat haphazard collection of materials relating to Bible translation in most Indian languages until the late 90s/early 2000s but I haven’t visited them since, so can’t vouch for their continued interest in archiving materials. I recall one of the officers gleefully telling me that sacks of letters of protest against the latest Tamil Bible (Tiruvivilium) that had been received by BSI had been destroyed to make room for more worthwhile materials!

I have only named archives with substantial Protestant mission collections so far and this list would be longer by far if I were to include smaller collections located at other institutions. For Catholic archives relating to South Asia, there are archives in Goa, Pondicherry, France, Portugal, and the Vatican Library in Rome but I will not elaborate on these as it is best other scholars who have worked with these specific archives add to this information, perhaps in a separate blog dedicated to these.

My purpose in writing this blog is partly to draw attention to the mission archives spread globally but also to point out that these materials don’t merely offer information specific to research on ‘Indian Christianity’ or Christian missions in South Asia. The collections have potential to contribute to historical research in a range of areas across the humanities—comparative religions, social and cultural history, caste, gender, tribal societies, languages and literatures, translation, South Asian print and book history, photography, modern systems of education, colonial medical history in South Asia, colonial history and imperial policies, architecture, urban planning and many more. And yet, missionary archives are routinely ignored by researchers working in these areas!

Of course, researchers would need to engage critically with the missionary archive as with any other. There will be the unexplained silences, gaps in materials, haphazard recording, ideological biases and constraints, the exciting and the mundane but again this is no different from other kinds of archives. So why ignore these as the exclusive stamping ground of mission historians? There is much to be exploited at missionary archives by researchers not working on Christianity or Christian history. Equally, missionary archives have much to gain from such an opening up of its materials to the scrutiny of scholars interested in historical perspectives from across a wide spectrum of disciplines.

Attitudes to language and translation

My own recent interest in the missionary archive focused on attitudes to translation displayed in the missionary archive. Any historian working with archives is well aware of the fragmentary and unreliable nature of collections of past or present objects. The missing pieces frustrate attempts to re-construct stories but also provide clues to the networks that tie the collection of (random?) information to the control of knowledge.

Examining the value placed on translation by missionary archivists and archives allows me to probe one set of mechanisms by which specific forms of knowledge and representation are constructed as “evidence” of past events or experiences despite or through the very act of destroying material evidence of translation.

While some components of translation projects are carefully preserved and interpreted, others are discarded; but importantly, both seemingly contradictory acts work together to control and fix one set of interpretations as valid. Paying attention to translation and engaging it as a tool of critical interpretation is one way to answer Burton’s call (in ‘Introduction: Archive Fever, Archive Stories,’ in Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions and the Writing of History, 2008: 8) to ‘denaturalize’ the production and boundaries of archives and historicize the production of archival collections.

Translation traces

Drawing on Foucault’s critique of ‘the archive’ and his argument for an ‘archaeological’ engagement with archives, Matthias, my co-author and I examine how to treat what we term ‘translation traces’ in the documents we uncovered: bilingual texts, translated extracts, fragments, and evidence of repeated relay translations.

An ‘archaeological’ engagement with the missionary archive raised a set of new questions regarding the relationship between ephemeral religious experiences such as conversion and the material presence of ‘evidence’ of such experiences in archival acts. What role does translation, invisibilized as it is, play in the documentation of lives?

Could we think of the archive as a ‘contact zone’ where languages, texts, and collective memory intersect through translation? While archives of the past inevitably shape our study and understanding of the material presence and function of translation in specific historical periods, we argue that highlighting the role of translation also opens up new ways of conceptualising and working with missionary archives.

The article, ‘Translation Traces in the Archive: Unfixing Documents, Destabilising Evidence,’ is published in a special issue of The Translator (forthcoming, 2020). To read full article, click here.

Hephzibah Israel is Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies, School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures, University of Edinburgh. Her book, Religious Transactions in Colonial South India: Language, Translation and the Making of Protestant Identity (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) explores the translation history of the Tamil Bible.

She recently led an AHRC-funded collaborative research project under their ‘Translating Cultures’ theme which focused on the role of translation in the movement of religious concepts across languages and the ways in which this impacted autobiographical writing about conversion experiences.

Two postcards

Who is Phond Sawant?

I must have posted a query to the Goanet list in 1998 as I researched a rebellion against the British on the border between Goa and Sawantwadi. It was the first time I had used an archive and encountered the archaic Anglicised spellings that British officials used for names unfamiliar to them. What was Tuppeh Banda? What was Munneree? Did anyone else know of Phond Sawant and his seven sons, who aquired legendary proportions in my mind as I traced their story. I may have sent out a general query, and to my delight, received two postcards.


One, dated November 10, 1998, answered all the questions I vaguely remember posting.






‘Phond Sawant was a very shrewd Raja of Sawantwadi in the late 17th century.’ An explanatory list responding to my queries followed: Pednah was Pernem, in Goa. Malapem was Malpem, Saturdeh was Satarda Taluka, Sanklee was Sanquelim and Tuppeh Banda was Sindhudurg. There was another entry on Tuppeh – the distance travelled on horseback in half a day.

M. N. Sirdeshpande of Panjim had filled out two postcards and mailed them to my hostel room in JNU.

The second one was puzzling.


It began with rhetorical questions, whose direction was not quite clear to me. ‘Who were these people? Diogo Rodrigues, Miguel Vaz, Estevam Rodrigues, 15 July 1583? What happened on that fateful day?’

I was new to the history of Goa and the events that were impassioned and problematic touchpoints in the popular imagination.

‘1654 Rev. Don Braz do Castro, Lakhem Sawant, 1666, Keshav Naik Desai, Raulu Shenvi Desai, Chanda Rane Desai, 1667., 17th December 1531, 23rd May 1536 – 1560 to 1774 Inquisition, Rewade, Manode, Piln, Satroji Rane. 1741, Parode, Melay, Talwade, Desai’s Revolt, 20th September 1772, Kodal Taluka…Govind Sinai Borkar, Gulele Desai, Rayajee Naik Borkar’

…Should you need to know more about the history of Goa, please write to me..’


I don’t know if I ever wrote back to thank M. N. SirDeshpande and I still don’t know the import of all the names, though some have become familiar over time. I was delighted, however, to get a response from someone I didn’t know and to have communication from another person interested in the field I had just discovered, appear in my mailbox. It is another matter that the rigours of academic writing meant that most of what I would write would remain alien and distant from the people I most desired as readers. A combination of fascination with older books and fear of people meant that I never looked up M. N. SirDeshpande on my research trips, though the postcards were stored among my papers and carried wherever I went.

Storytime​ in Kerala

by Rubin DCruz

Another view of Puthenthope

On a warm evening in 1972, when I was five years old and living in a village by the sea—Puthenthope in Thiruvananthapuram—I accompanied my cousin to our village library. The librarian gave me a nice smile and took me to the old wooden shelves where the children’s books were stacked. As I quickly glanced through them, my eyes rested on an oddly shaped book— Vaalameen Chirikkunnu (The Vaala Fish Laughs). The book was the Malayalam translation of a Soviet folktale, fabulously illustrated and produced. It was the first book I ever read.


I don’t recall the story of Vaalameen Chirikkunnu now, but even after all this time I remember the front cover and the horizontal shape of the book which had amused me then. The early ’70s were very tough years. (I later learned that the world had gone into an oil shock, India was at war against Pakistan in Bangladesh, and there was a famine in some parts of the country). During summer vacations I organised plays on a temporary stage built in the space where my house opened out to the beach. Every evening in those days, kanji (rice gruel) would be served to everyone in the village, and there would be a long queue of people for that. But my friends and I were not worried about the famine at all.

We were busy reading books every evening in Jaihind Vayanasala, the village library. The names of almost all village libraries in Kerala are prefixed with words like ‘Jaihind’, ‘Jaibharat’, ‘Bappuji’, ‘Noorul Islam’, ‘Vishwabharati’, ‘Sree Narayana’ etc., because they were all founded in the early 1940s, as part of the freedom movement. In the ’70s, these libraries were full of wonderful books—translations of world classics; Malayalam novels by Vaikom Muhammad Basheer and Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai; and poetry by Kumaran Asan, Vallathol and Sankara Kurup.

There were three kinds of books available for children: books by Malayalam publishers (demy ¼, black and white, with no illustrations), Soviet books with lots of colourful pictures, and the books by National Book Trust, India. The first NBT book I read was Let us do a Play by Uma Anand. I hoped it would help me create a play for my playground theatre. Other NBT books I remember repeatedly reading were: Rohintra and Nandriya, Bapu, Tales for All Times and The Prince of Ayodhya. When I read Rohantra and Nandriya, I realised that Buddha was not a boy who listened to his parents. Same was the case with Rama in Prince of Ayodhya. By then I already knew that Jesus was not a goody-goody boy who stayed in the good books of parents and teachers. The grip of NBT books on me made my mother complain to the Malayalam teacher that her son would not listen to her. But I had a ready answer. Neither the Prince of Ayodhya, nor Jesus, nor Buddha, was ever in the good boys’ league. Then why should I be, I asked. The Malayalam teacher was helpless!


The village libraries would get their annual grant by March every year to buy books. The annual exams would be over by then and I would slip into a routine of going to the library every evening. It would have a few hundred new books to read—fresh from the store, and not yet sent into the wooden almirahs. Just waiting for me on the table! The librarian would issue only two books at a time. If no one else was around, he would give me three, or even four books. The library opened at 4 pm, and I would wait for the librarian in the library’s hall, reading the newspapers over and over. On the previous day itself, I would have decided the books I would borrow on that day, which I would quickly grab and start walking towards my house, passing by my friends who would be engaged in an energetic football match. I would walk in the direction of the cool breeze coming from the beach, sit there, and, by the time the sun had set on the horizon, finish reading both the books.

Another view of Puthenthope

Puthenthope beach

When there was nothing left to read, I would read the cover page, the back cover and the imprint page again. I discovered that some books were published in Kottayam. Nice.

Some were published by Progress Publishers in Moscow. This was not a surprise—Moscow was not far from Keralam in those days. (There were references like this in the newspapers too. One writer asked, Moscovil mazha peyyunnathinu mannarkkattu kuda pidikkano? – ‘Should we hold an umbrella in Mannarkkad if it rains in Moscow?’ Another poet wrote, Soviet ennoru nadundathre pokuvan kashinjenkil ethra bhagyam! ‘There is a country called Soviet. I’d be lucky to go there!’)


Bearded giants must be sitting at a machine 

But, where on this whole planet was “A-5 Green Park, New Delhi 110016” (NBT’s address)? Was it a town on a beach? Must be, I would tell myself. Bearded giants must be sitting at a machine there and churning out such wonderful storybooks for children. I would imagine that their heads must touch the ceiling when they sat in their sea-facing room.

I remember a book on animal husbandry (Valarthumrigangal) published by NBT, in the library. On the cover was a photo of a cow against a yellow and brown background. That book didn’t have any takers in the library. On many occasions, I borrowed the book simply because there was no new book for me to read.

Then there were some books by writers like M. Mukundan, Kakkanadan and Pamman, which the librarian would not give me. “They are not good for children.” The children’s books in Malayalam that I loved were Kunjikkoonan (The Little Hunchback), and Kunjayante Kusritikal (Naughty Kunjayan). The Sahitya Pravarthaka Cooperative Society (SPCS), which is a cooperative society of writers, published a set of 12 books called Samanapetti (‘gift box’) in 1962. Another Samanapetti was published during the International Year of Children in 1970. My friends and I read all of them. But there were not too many of this kind.

Soviet Nadu and the smell of Lenin’s hand

So it was back to the Soviet books like Chukkum Gekkum, Kattile Koottukar and Bhouthika Kouthukam. Misha and Soviet Nadu were our favourite magazines. Soviet Nadu (Soviet Land) was the first magazine I subscribed to, and it came from Moscow—by post! I felt so proud. The smell of Lenin’s land, touched by great Soviet people! Photos of children with chubby cheeks, starry-eyed and with blond hair—how happy the revolution made them. Kunjunni’s haiku-like poems were great fun and a big hit.

Then we read the adaptations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana by Mali Madhavan Nair. Later, DC Books published Panchatantram, translated by Sumangala. By the time we reached high school, it was very difficult to get books for our age. But many encyclopaedia and science books were available. I loved them. History books from Prabhat Book House, the distributors of Soviet books, were also good reading, especially those by P.T. Bhaskara Panikker.

My achan (father) would bring home books from Chinta Publishers. But they were too tough for me to grasp—National Question in Kerala and Keralam Malayalikalude Mathrubhumi by E.M.S. Namboodiripad, History of the Communist International by M.S. Devadas, and translations of Bengali novels (Kolkata, city of my dreams. . .). Achan wanted his son to read the autobiographies of E.M.S. and A.K. Gopalan. At that time children in Kerala were reading translations of books like Les Misérables and War and Peace, published by SPCS. Some books were heavy for a 10-year-old to carry.

The Idiot, Emergency and Amina book stall

I remember carrying home a two-volume translation of The Idiot when the parish priest met me on the street and asked me which book it was. I replied, ‘Idiot’. The priest was taken aback for a moment. Then, when he had a glimpse of the nicely bound book’s title page, he asked, ‘Will you be able to read this?’ I was sure. Yes! But I could not go beyond a page of that voluminous tome. I was elected school leader of the church school when I was 10. My duties included reading from the newspaper at the morning assembly every day. At home, we only subscribed to Deshabhimani, the Malayalam newspaper of the CPI(M). On a fine morning, I innocently read out in the assembly, ‘Indira Declared Emergency. India under Semi Fascist Rule. All Opposition Leaders are under Arrest. Press censorship is on!’ There was dead silence. The teachers looked visibly unhappy. I could not understand what went wrong, but news-reading at the morning assembly was stopped from that day.

There was some underground reading done too—of cheap detective novels printed on low-quality paper, which the library would not keep on the racks. I got these books from a chechi (an older girl) living nearby. She was poor in her studies, but could somehow manage to lay her hands on all these detective novels. They were published by obscure publishers like Amina Book Stall etc. Kottayam Puspanath, who must have written more than a hundred detective novels, was their bestselling author. I hid these books inside my textbooks and read them, but my mother, a better detective, would find them. The books would immediately be thrown into the kitchen hearth. Girls would read the popular romance novels by Kanam E.J. and Muttathu Varkey; both must have written a hundred novels each. However, boys never read them.

Many magazines were available for children. I was a regular reader of Poompatta, Muthassi, Balayugam, Thaliru and Ampili Ammavan. Writers like Sippy Pallippuram wrote for these magazines. Sugathakumari was the editor of Thaliru. I always knew the date of the next issue of each magazine and would make sure that my father bought the new issue on the day it hit the stands at the main bus stand. But we couldn’t get Eureka magazine (S. Sivadas was one of the main writers), which was published by Kerala Sasthra Sahitya Parishath (KSSP; People’s Science Movement of Kerala). Ours was a Christian village and the church school didn’t promote the magazine and books published by KSSP.

The nuns who taught us wanted us to read Snehasena, a Catholic publication with Bible stories for children. Even that was an interesting read, though many of us boys became committed atheists later.

But KSSP’s books started becoming available by the time we reached high school. Aayiram Quiz (1000 Quizzes) was the first KSSP book I read, followed by Paddatha Pakshikal by M.K. Prasad, which was an adaptation of Rachel Carson’s seminal book, Silent Spring. I read Piramidinte Nattil by M.P. Parameswaran, and then Vaayichalum Vaayichalum Theeratha Pusthakam (The Unending Story of Nature) by S. Sivadas, and books by several others.

The KSSP books were not available at bookshops; its members from the nearby village would come door-to-door every year to sell them. They would always come to our house because they knew that my father would buy their books. Achan would skip his lunch at the canteen to save money to buy magazines for his son.

He would remain hungry until 4 pm when he would reach home and eat fish curry and rice. While he ate lunch, I would eagerly begin reading the magazine achan brought home.


Later, I would go to Sulekha Book Stall near Kaniyapuram Railway Station, walking through the paddy fields and crossing the canals that connected the backwaters at the periphery of our village. I would walk back reading the magazine I bought there, not getting distracted by the big snails crawling at the edges of the fields, or the fish swimming in the canals. The sun would have set by the time I reached home.


The library movement – the 1930s to the 1960s

The growth of children’s literature in Kerala From the 1930s until the ’60s, Kerala saw radical political changes and social transformations led by agricultural and industrial workers. Political and cultural debates were a major activity during this process, creating a demand for accessible reading material. K. Damodaran, a communist leader and an office bearer of Kerala Pradesh Congress Committee, initiated the organised library movement in 1937. Today there are around 12,000 functioning village public libraries in Kerala.

Children’s books in Kerala began taking shape in a major way when the progressive left movement generated interest in reading. Many hands were at work. One of them was Mathew M. Kuzhively’s, who was the first to start a publishing house just for children, in 1948. His Balan Monthly and Balan Publications were to be among the earliest such initiatives in India. He was first to publish retellings of Greek, Roman and other myths for children, apart from his other innovations. The retellings of fairy tales like those by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm then appeared on the scene. Under the leadership of D.C. Kizhakemuri, a writers’ cooperative, Sahitya Pravarthaka Cooperative Society, was formed in 1945. It followed the Progressive Writers Association established in 1937, which had laid the groundwork for new writing. SPCS launched a grand flow of translations of world classics into Malayalam. In 1960s and ’70s, the cooperative ushered in modern writing for children in Malayalam with its Samanapetti collection.

The 1960s to the 1980s

From 1960s to the ’80s there was a boom in wonderful translated books coming from the Soviet Union. Many of us are quite nostalgic about Chuck and Gek, Animals and Friends, and many other books that were read and loved as Malayalam originals. STEPS and Prabhat Book House started publishing children’s books in a big way in the ’70s. Later, children’s book publishing was turned into a people’s movement by the Kerala Sasthra Sahithya Parishath. An association of science writers which launched in 1962, the KSSP took hundreds of popular science books to Kerala’s villages through a network of school teachers. Their books were published in very large print runs, and many titles sold lakhs of copies. Eureka, their children’s science magazine, is still popular. The Government of Kerala established the Kerala State Balasahitya Institute (Kerala State Institute of Children’s Literature) in 1981. Since it was set up the Balasahitya Institute has published over 1,000 titles for children. The prestigious children’s magazine Thaliru is also published by them. Popular magazines for children like Balarama and Balabhumi circulate in lakhs, but they are populist. All major publishers of Kerala have a children’s books list today. The state’s biggest publisher, DC Books, has a separate imprint for children’s books called Mampazham (mango). It also publishes English titles under the Mango imprint. Other publishers, like Mathrubhumi, Chintha, Poorna etc., are also involved in publishing books for children.

Rubin DCruz’ school in Puthenthope

Rubin DCruz was Director, Kerala State Balasahitya Institute. He currently works with the National Book Trust, India.

O Bombaense – Semanario histórico literário e noticioso

(This continues the series of research notes on early Konkani newspapers in Goa and Bombay)
1901-1903, Rs. 3 a year in India, Semanario histórico literário e noticioso. A trilingual paper predominantly in Concanim and Portuguese with some English.

30th November 1901, Bombaim

Recita em Concani – Goa National Dramatic Club at the Gaiety Theatre, a tragi-comedy in two acts, ‘O Bebado‘ by João Agostinho Fernandes.

Concanim Pustocam:

F. X. Fernandes at No. 43 Cavel, sells:

  1. Bail Vortouta Bunhad Dadosponnanchi – hem pustoc boroilam concnaim bassen moriadicheam chalim – ritim voir, jem vortouta chodda upegachem amcheam bailanc titilem daddleanc ancuaranc legun. 2 annas, 2 1/2 annas
  2. Theodosius anim Constancia – two love stories. discourse on friendship as well as songs and poems. 3 annas
  3. Concanim bass, Tachi Contha anim Borounchi Rit
  4. Nachachem Pustoc – J. I. Campos – 2 annas

The issue had several articles on the education of women in Concani, and on Indiechi bail: Hinduanche sumurti pormonnem Colvontac xicop dilea uprant boream bailanc diunc nozo aslem, punn Suami Jesu Christache sumurtin anim Europachea civilizasavan uzvadaili mot, Hinduanchi anim te ditat atam aplam chedduanc borem xicop. 


O Goano

image: A detail from O Goano, 1916, Central Library collection, Panjim, Goa

O Goano – defensor dos interesses dos Goanos

Bilingual weekly in Konkani and Portuguese, Rs. 3 in India Ingleza e Portugueza, # 24, Anno 1, edited by Francisco Pascoal Fernandes

6)O goano 1916-2 - Version 2

Jan 11, 1908

This issue had 3 pages in Portuguese and 9 in Konkani. The first page edit covered A emigração Goana, the Sociedade de N. Senhora da Piedade de Dabul, Associação Christa Indiana. The paper offered reasons for readers to join the Goan Union. The column Ailem anim Poilem listed distinguished visitors. Amchea Ostorienchea adavac was a serialised story by F. F. Balistor. Entre Nous commented on the social life of the city. Other columns included Goenchi bugol, Pai ani put, a short moral account by Miss. M. A., Goenchi Khobor, Mumboichi Khobor, Indiechi khobor, Pordessanchi khobor.

The serialised novel Siegfried and Genoveva was advertised. There were five pages of advertisements.

Jan 18, 1908

A column discussed Parlamento Colonial de Goa. A poem by R., Amche Goencar Covi, Assolnecho colo was about Dr. R. Ubaldo Paes and potra by Sonsar Sodica

An advertisement for Bolaikechi Vatt by Jose Salvador Rodrigues for 8 annas appeared. The ad was inserted by A. B. Saldanha. News items included, ‘Amche Goencar coni’, and ‘Xinn o Goanacho Goa Xara thaim’.

Feb 8, 1908

A poem, ‘Portugalchea Patxaia anim techea mucutt putachem morn’, by J. I. Campos

On page 9 of this issue, the Empire Cinematographer at Dhobi Talao advertised  Jivac Bhogta Tosslo Program, free for women, soncraracho dis.

June 13, 1908

This issue of O Goano had about three and a half pages in Konkani and carried obituaries, prices of mangoes and comments on taxes in India Portugueza. It had news from Goa, or, ‘Goenchi Khobor‘, ‘Pordessanchi Khobor‘ and religious news. ‘Goencho ostoreo Mumboint‘ by Deolalichem Correspondens expressed shock at seeing Goan women playing cards. The Temperance Society, the Carpenters’ Society and the Goan Cooperative Society were publicised.

The Bandra Review, another journal, mentions the Bandra art circle, Little Flower literary circle, the Jassamine, and the publication of the young women’s sodality of Karachi.


There were advertisements for restaurants by L. M. Soares, for the goldsmith Pandarinath Narayen of Rivoncar and Co., and for the confectioner Pereira: ‘Marine Lines stesssona codde anim Grant Road stessonacodde. Meuta chotta hajri, jevon, aiscrimm, cold drinks, chea, cofi, côcô…kekam‘. The Goan drapery stores in Girgaum, advertised themselves as ‘Hi Goencar bhavanci Compani, jennim aplea bitor Rs. 40,000 bandvol punzaum hem voddlem loz caddlam, anim soglo vepar Europac than haddun victat.’ J. C. Fernandes and Co., engravers, and Peter John Braganza, Undertakers and builders of altars also advertised.

Pereira’s Hotel in # 318, Horta Baixa, advertised itself, ‘Hem puzad ugoddlear zalim ogllim don vorsam. Zaite iscoliche burgue, empregad, vattsur, khoxec bounnar anim baileam ganvche yete vete vepari, ravon gueleat anim rautat. kiteac?

Suat chodd bori, vareachi anim saudic faideachi, jevonn borem nitoll anim ruchichem anga meuta decun. Ec pautt eun poilloiat anim maguir sodancal yeteleat. Vincharat.’ João Pereira

Books sold by Furtado’s

Gorjechi and Ufegachim Pustocam‘ were sold at Furtado and in Mapusa, Panjim, and Assagao. The Grammatica Musical, for instance, was available for 6 annas. Furtado’s advertised Catholic devotional texts and school books. Sixteen books were priced between 4 and 8 annas.

Diccionar Concani-Portuguez by Ignacio Xavier de Souza Rodrigues was sold for Rs. 1 and 8 annas.

Jinsanvar Kontha Nazuc Tosso Budivont by P. A. Colaço.

Christa Purann,  Padre Thomas Estevaumchem, ‘tench jem Goeant cholta.’ ‘Akhem, novean xaplam, sabar xecdde vorsam uprant – bhas porni Marathi‘.

The issue of August 22 advertisted Cathecismo em Concani, Tufan zolm anim Morn – cannim cunvor Pericles hechi, and bori dekchi khobor, for 2 annas each

The issue of October 17 advertised the following books:

Concanim Comic Cantarancho Album

Bandar Sucachem

Boli Conanim baxen for 6 paise

Duddvancho sambal for 3 annas

These were books by Sebastião J. Dias advertised in this issue:

History of St. Francis Xavier

Emperor Carlos Magno

Khoxalponnacho Ghorabo

Dog Iscoliche Burgue

Berthold anim Techi Ojapanchi Choturai

Moral e Civilidade

Concanim Poilem Pustoc

June 20, 1908

This issue contained articles in favour of preserving the comunidades in Goa.

Indieche khobor‘ carried the announcement that the Indian government had passed a law that those accused of sedition and conspiracy would not be easily released.

Other news stated that among Hindus of India remarriage among widows was permitted.

June 27, 1908

The União Goana had begun a fund for education and declared that there was a need for a Caixa Escolar, a schooling fund for the poor.

August 22

Other issues carried news on the state of agriculture, on the spread of beri-beri

The English college in Arporá in the current year had 550 students, 50 of them interns.

A club of Hindu goldmsiths was formed in Margao, called Dayaradna, intended to promote reading amongst members.

August 29

Papal jubilee. House for Goan Women. A collection started by Goan women in Bombay to send a congratulatory address to the Pope yielded so much money that they decided to  found a home for widows and young women who came to the city to make a living.

A Reunion of goan women – the first reunion, was promoted by the Goan Union (União Goana) which had a presence in 46 different place with d. Amelia Viegas as President and d. Albertina Pinto e Paes.

October 17, 1908

The Real Instituto Luso-Indiano staged a tiatr in Kalbadevi’s Princess Theatre, Elephanta building. On the same day, Carlos Magnacho tiatr was performed by Douglas Comic Opera in the Gaiety theatre.

November 21, 1908

Rajput Hamlet anim Bapaichem Bhutt. Hi ec ruchic nattkantli canni assa. Bhau bhavac vi ghalun marta anim tache baile codde cazar zata. Hamletacho bapai voilo mog. Mel’lo bapui bhut zaun puta codde uloita. Pixeponnachem focann! Nattkaiancho tiatr…

Bacaulechem Ful –  Four and a half annas

Advertisements for medicines Zhadd Paleachim Goenchim Voctam

Goan tooth powder was sold for 4 annas (Dr. V. L. Corganvcar’s Goan Tooth Powder for 4 annas, is enough for two months), as well as Goan Ball amrut, Goan fever pills, and Goan strengthening pills.

This issue recommended Goan sarsaparilla for disrupted sleep: ‘Hem vocot sogott nitoll jem piddear zalam caim vaitt piddem anim vaitt rogot bolaik piddear corta.’

On November 17, the Goan Union Dramatic Club, Dom Carlos Dramatic Club came together and performed Conde de Camerino at the Gaiety Theatre.

Jan 7, 1910

An ad for the novel Battcara

Puta! Lahananchea sangata boum-naca

Hem vortouta ec pustoc, theatrachem, jem dacoita coxe porim Goenche battcar ditat te duc aplea munncareac. Cone porim battcarache put pauta to Bombaim. Papa-mamanchi addchor, choleac Bombaim. doddunc anim tachi zabsal, vachtoleac pott bor ansoita. Battcara xekim putac lagon Bombaim pauta anim castam soddunc cabul zata Gaon Uniaum-an bhitor soron. 

Goan Union (União Goana) in Karachi, Ahmedabad, Bombay. A notice on how the union offers all manner of assistance.

Concanim bhas boroitanam, sabar boroupi ap-aple riti pormonnem ocxeram zoddtat, anim bhaxecho soglo gondon cortat vachteleanc. Hea passot Unianvan, team boroupeanc uttaim corun eke riter Concanim boroup caddlam anim somestac magta te riti pormonnem borouncheac.

Uniantche fantte assat 46 zago:

Kharagpur, twelve places in Amravati, Igatpuri, Dhond, Ratlam, Godhra, 4 places in Sholapur, Bhusawal, Bhopal, Abu Road, Aden, Ahmedabad, Nagar, Akalkot, Allahabad, Alwar, Amritsar, Baroda, Bandilwi Barsi Road, Beira, Deolali, Ghaziabad, Khandwa, Lahore, Meerut, Mhow, Nagpur, Rampur, Narmada, Shimla, Lucknow, Thana.


A catalogue of Konkani publications


Image courtesy Goenkarancho Daiz, Margao



With the reopening of the printing press in 1821 in Goa, after its initial introduction in 1556, the proliferation of print was restricted in the first few decades of the century to publications in Portuguese. Marathi and Konkani publications appeared later. By the beginning of the 1860s Konkani publications produced by and directed at a readership quite distinct from the Goan elite emerged. The print market of Bombay allowed groups other than the Goan elite access to print.

o concanim

image courtesy the Central Library, Panjim


Of the large numbers of blue and white-collar migrants who had begun to shift out of rural Goa, substantial numbers began to secure white-collar jobs as they had a rudimentary education in parish schools in Goa. If the Goan elite had secured a foothold in the academic and professional circles of Bombay, they were outnumbered by the massive migration of Goans largely from the Old Conquests of Goa. The distinct and separate forms of print generated by the Goan elite and the Goan working class in Bombay were shaped by the institutional structures of British colonial governance in that city. Simultaneously, print in the Kannada script began to circulate and eventually developed a wider readership than that for the Roman script.

The linked catalogue was an attempt to collate available information on this phase of Konkani print. Anyone able to convert this into searchable text and one that can be edited with more information about authors and printing presses, please do so or write to rochellepinto@yahoo.com

Catalog of late nineteenth century Konkani publications


The Mural at Paliakara

The Western entrance of the Paliakara Church with the Kalkurisu

III Paliakara

Along the Kayamkullam-Thiruvalla Highway from Thiruvalla town, about a kilometer and a half after the Cross Junction, to your right, lies the Paliakara St. George Orthodox Church. It was an early April evening, as Kurian and I arrived at its gates. The evening prayers had just concluded and the laity dispersed into the church grounds. Kurian rushed to the trustee’s office to ask for the acolyte as we needed to catch him just as he finished his prayers.

It had rained that afternoon and though that was not uncharacteristic at this time of the year, the sky was a persistent gray. From the gates of the church that evening, one could see a gray cumulonimbus that hung heavily, cloaking the town of Thiruvalla. I had spent the early half of the day in Kottayam scanning the records at the Orthodox Theological Seminary, checking for details of churches. Kurian was downstairs talking to one of the Rambans[1], updating himself on the many, less than theological, affairs of the seminary.

I decided to stroll about the seminary campus but the April showers made a leisurely walk impossible, so I walked through the narrow wooden corridors to the museum at the far end of the seminary complex. The Meenachal river curved from the east, cutting into the tall grass, to create a horseshoe route for itself. Even as the rains came down, I men sawed into an old teak damaged by the previous night’s thundershower.

The museum

The room I walked into had suggestions of a museum without quite being one. Sure enough, it had collections of old books, sacred beads and Syriac bibles which were at least a couple of centuries old, ancient urns and photographs of churches and of the many Metropolitans that guided the Eastern Churches of the Malabar. The museum is a rectangular room, with a low roof and uneven wooden flooring. My guide, a student of the seminary looked bored and on occasion ill-informed about the objects. He didn’t seem to mind that I wanted to touch some of the artefacts. Though the presence of antique objects and the dusty interiors suggested something of the nature of its past, the room lacked a salient feature of a museum — the disciplining of space. More than a collection, a museum ought to be a curation of the past, a carving out of that which was, from that which is.

It was my guide’s generosity, however, that led me to a photograph stowed away in the eastern wall of the museum. It is that photograph, discovered in an unkempt museum, that rushed us to Thiruvalla


Steel umbrella

I was distracted by the kalkurisu in front of the western door of the church[2]. A woman in a pale brown saree stood lighting the oil wicks at the base of the stone cross, but what drew my attention was what seemed like a steel framed umbrella erected above the kalkurisu. There was a slight shower and the woman and the burning wicks were protected from the rain.

As you walk through the poomukham of the western entrance, a vague and yet pungent smell of burnt wicks overtakes your senses. On either side, people crowd around oil lamps. The passage through the poomukham ushers you into the Bishop’s quarters in the southern wing of the hykala. Through the dwarfed door, you notice a neatly prepared bed decorated with consecrated fabric and next to it, the familiar portrait of Parumala Thirumeni[3], one of the most identifiable faces of the Eastern Orthodox tradition in the Syrian Malabar tradition. I saw an old man kneel in front of the portrait, and stepped back into the hykala.

Kurian was waiting for me in the centre of the hykala next to the thookuvilakku. Next to him was the acolyte, a frail old man, with a pronounced moustache. To my right, on the north-west corner, a wooden stair led to what I expected to be the balcony. The low wooden western ceiling constituted the base of the balcony. The rest of the roof was the familiar combination of thick wooden beams supporting a lattice-like network of sloping wooden planks.

A view of the wooden balcony

the wooden balcony

Perhaps the acolyte noticed the direction of my eye, and even before I asked, he informed us that the balcony was sealed. I asked if we could see the Madbaha. He acolyte walked up to the kestroma and vanished behind the Madbahaviri. Kurian and I stood expectantly as the Madbaha was unveiled.      

The Mural

the mural

The mural – blues and reds

The first thing you notice about the magnificent mural of the Madbaha is that the whole composition is constituted by three colours – blue, red and white. The narrative potential of the mural seems to hinge on the combinatory potential of the blues and the reds on a white surface. The narrative is a catalogue of the important episodes of Christ’s life as outlined in the Gospels. Implied in the organization of colours is a hierarchization of the characters in the narrative. In the entire layout, only Christ and Mary (and on one occasion God) are robed in red.

Blue, when used, is often a cloak used to embellish the red robe. In the portions that represent the resurrected Christ, we see him in a white loincloth wrapped in a red cloak. Only on two other occasions, the Baptism and Crucifixion, do we notice a Christ in a white loincloth, devoid of any colour. In contrast, many of the other principal characters, such as the disciples, the patron saint of the Church, St. George, or St. John and Mary of Clopas (in the Crucifixion scene) all appear to be attired in blue robes wrapped in red cloaks. Though the whole visual structure hints at creative conservatism, the reversal of the colours appears to be a deliberation on their narrative potential. The visual narrative is itself arranged around the central iconography of St. George slaying the dragon. This very central image makes it possible for us to distinguish two parts to the mural.

The base of the mural

The base seems to be a rectangular arrangement whose length and breadth is balanced by the central icon of St. George. The base is itself two-tiered, with its upper left portion depicting two important episodes of the Virgin Mary’s life – the Annunciation and the sisterhood of Elizabeth and Mary. The upper sections in the right are constituted by two significant miracles from the Gospels – the resurrection of Lazarus, and the allaying of St. Thomas’ doubt by the resurrected Christ. Here only Thomas is bestowed with a halo. Is it to suggest the linearity of Thomas’s journey from doubt to faith, I wonder. Perhaps it is a reassertion of the role of St. Thomas in the indigenous imagination; to the indigenous mind, St. Thomas’ journey towards faith was crucial enough to be highlighted in the larger narrative scheme.

The characteisation of St. Thomas as unique amongst the disciples

the characterisation of St. Thomas as unique among the apostles

The mural base is also characterized by an attempt at narrative continuity: there appears to be a parallel drawn between St. Thomas’ skepticism and Mary’s skepticism[1]; the news of Mary’s conception is adjacent to the news of John’s conception by the elderly Elizabeth. The base of the mural also prepares the viewer to appreciate the narrative as it continues into its upper tiers.

The upper section

The upper section is divided into two layers. The lower layer is organized around the central episode of the Crucifixion. To the left of the Crucifixion are the crucial episodes of the Nativity and the Adoration of the Magi. To the right are two episodes centered around John’s life. First is the episode of John’s birth: Mary and Joseph praying as Zachariah holds the infant and adjacent to that is the Baptism of Jesus by John. The upper layer is organised around the episode of Mary’s Assumption. The Assumption is flanked by the two stages of Christ’s own journey towards death: the Cross bearing Christ at Golgotha and the Resurrected Christ.

The whole upper section of the mural is an elongated semicircle resting on the rectangular mural base. The episodes were delineated by neat floral frames. This visual demarcation of the episodes does not, however, break the continuity of the larger visual narrative. In many ways, the very fabric of the visual arrangement seemed to be a study of the concomitant inevitabilities of birth and death. Even the circular interplay of the different specimens of reds and blues only appear to re-enforce this point.

Perception is thus a function of proximity. Seen from a distance the mural could very well be treated as a deliberation on the arrangement of reds and blues on a white canvas. Seen as such the iconography may be a mere appendage to the artist’s imagination. The truth is there is really no way of substantiating the logic of the arrangement.

However, as we stand at the kestroma we see that the mural on the Madbaha offers the only bit of colour in the interiority of the church’s structure. Even within the Madbaha, only the eastern wall, which housed the mural exhibited any colour. It appeared as though the mural was the focal point of the imagination that engineered the Paliakara Church.


As I had walked through the western doors of the church an hour earlier, I had set my eyes on: the old Bishops’ quarter, robust stone pillars, an elegant thookuvilakku organizing the interior dimensions of the church; and yet amidst all those aspects the Madbaha remains the most majestic.


I stood at the door of the church.  The late afternoon shower had ceased and the overwhelming gray had dissipated. The church grounds were deserted. The lone lit wick in the kalkurisu was extinguished by a breeze. A beautiful lavender made its way from the horizon and bled into the fading twilight blue.













[1]One of the ranks in the Theological hierarchy just below the Bishop.

[2]The primary entrance of this church.

[3]Translates as the Bishop from Parumala. It is a reference to Geevarghese Mar Gregorious from Parumala, one of the most famous bishop-saints of the Malankara Syrian Church.

[4]Though comparison between Doubting Thomas and the young anxiety of the Virgin Mary is not obvious it reveals the significance of skeptical thought in the larger rubric of Christian mythography. Just as Thomas was skeptical about the news of Christ’s resurrection so was Mary skeptical of Christ’s conception in spite of being a Virgin.

All photographs and text are by Jonathan Varghese, and cannot be reproduced elsewhere. (jonathan.varghese@gmail.com)

Jonathan Varghese is affiliated with the Department English, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. This is a part of a larger research project on the murals, structure and oral sources for the history of the Nazranis


Karthikapally: Art and Faith

II Architecture, Research, and Narrative

by Jonathan Varghese

Finding St. Thomas Orthodox Cathedral, Karthikappally, isn’t very difficult if you know what you are looking for. Often the church is identified with the place itself; Karthikappally, a small village in the Alappuzha district of Kerala. The church is in close proximity to the Valiyakulangara Kshethram¹ and Valiyaveedu Sreebhagavathy Kshethram and as such this geographical proximity is nothing peculiar; it is, in fact, a larger symptom of the intersectional quality of faiths in and around this region. The rhythms of the church bells, with the kshethra keerthana² diffusing, impregnating the air forming an invisible canopy of faith at dawn every day.

A view of the Church from the Northern Gates

                                 A view of the church from the northern gate

I, however, reached here on a wet summer evening, when the clouds cloaked the skies just enough to make your shirt stick to the skin and pray for respite. There were no church bells or keerthanas now. It may have been twilight but there was no way of knowing; my watch read half past six.

On that June evening as I walked in through the northern gate of the church³it took me a few minutes to grasp the shape of its structure. The place looked deceptively similar to the structure of a Kshethram, but I was certain that there were going to be a few surprises for me here. When I walked in through the gates, there were a few things I could claim to be certain of: from the archives of the Orthodox Theological Seminary I knew that before it assumed its present shape, the original building had thatched roofs, which eventually came to be replaced by mud tiles. These records also showed me that the original northern and southern walls were as high as conventional church walls.

Standing in front of the real thing though, one realizes how insufficient “records” are. I wondered how could one truly archive the vision and experience of this church.

After the addition of the poomukkam (traditional portico) with an entrance on either side of the church, the walls of the church appeared to be only a few feet high from the ground, giving the impression that the walls are supporting not a church but a magnificently elaborate roofing system.

It is an illusion, of course, engineered by the intricately tiled roofs of the northern and southern portico. In order to truly appreciate the uniqueness of the structure, we need to walk over to the (now sealed) western entrances [4] of the church.

View of the Church from the South-West

Standing there at the western corner it would be impossible not to appreciate this marvelous feat of engineering: the edges of the central roof effortlessly folding underneath the roofs of the northern and southern portico giving the western facade of the church the impression of a singularly colossal triangular arrangement. The plastered texture of the western facade is decorated with three wooden doors and a wooden balcony window placed just above the central door. There are three crucifixes plastered into its surface around the balcony window. The edges of the tiled roofs are decorated by neat wooden carvings, whose shadows add more depth to its surface. To an attentive viewer, the aesthetics of the exterior of the structure, like the western facade, would be an appropriate metaphor for the intersectional nature of the building plan.

As I walked back to the northern entrance, I noticed a flicker of light hovering around six feet above the ground, just outside the northern poomukham. As I approached it, I was surprised to see an oil wick that had survived the lazy monsoon drizzle — but more so to see the source of the oil wick: a kal vilakku[5] placed outside the northern entrance[6]. I looked for clues until I found a stone cross surmounting the vilakku. It retained the morphology of any kshethra vilakku, surviving (I thought) the many attempts at purifying Christianity; the last resilient vestiges of a faith in transition, cloistered from the outside world by a looming dampness.  This lonely lit wickpersuaded me into the yellow-lit insides of the church.

Kal vilakku in front of the Northern poomukham

kal vilakku in front of the northern poomukkam

The northern entrance (the only one open to the public that evening) lead me through the poomukkam to what appeared to be a long corridor which comprised the aisle. It is not too wide and seems to have been designed to lead us into a room, adjacent to the Madbaha[7], that houses the relics of St. Thomas. The room is only a few feet high and its ceiling is a complex network of wood carvings. On its eastern wall is a painting of St. Thomas.

At the foot of the painting, within a glass cubicle case is the relic. However, in spite of its apparent significance of the relic to the church and its legend, the most noticeable thing about the room was also its least likely object. On the southern wall of this room, on the edge where the wooden wall and roof converge was the head of a wild boar. The presence of a wood-carved wild beast in the room that held the relic of the Apostle was quite astonishing.

The room that houses the Relic with the Wild Boar in the South-East corner


Nila Vilakku

Nila vilakku

The hykala[8] of the church is organised according to a code that is recurrent in the Nasrani tradition: there is a red carpet that stretches from the Kestroma[9] to the end of the western corner of the church, that divides the floor into the northern and the southern halves. In the centre of the red carpet, equidistant from the northern and the southern walls of the building is the nila vilakku (floor oil lamp). The lamp is an apparent incongruity and like the architecture of the church, it is borrowed from Hindu traditions. With my back to the nila vilakku, I look at the now revealed [10] Madbaha. Unlike the famous St. Mary’s Orthodox Syrian Church, Kottayam or the St. Mary’s Knanaya Church (Kottayam Valiyapally), the altar is bereft of any murals. The Masthaba (high altar) is defined by the characteristic gold and red wooden ornamentation and the carvings on it are as diverse as angel busts and fruits and flowers, in the centre of which, was placed a wooden crucifixion. The whole arrangement seemed to be a study in irony;  standing there in front of the altar I couldn’t comprehend why the crucifixion, the most important feature of the altar, should have looked out of place; as if it were an after-thought, an apologetic addition mitigating an unbridled artisanal imagination.

The Madbaha

The Masthaba in the Madbaha

The Masthaba in the Madbaha

If one were to bear in mind that within the visual and the spiritual aesthetic of the church, the Madbaha is conceived as the principle centre, the one in Karthikapally church is a real oddity.

One notices a dissonance, as though it withheld from complying with the rules of composition. The Madbaha did not seem to replicate the elaborate narrative potential of the rest of the church’s architecture. Looking away from it, we are struck by the complex lattice-like network of wooden beams that supports the tiled roof. At the western end, suspended between the nave and the roof is a wooden balcony which houses the old and (now) dilapidated Bishop’s quarters.

I ascend the wooden stairs in the north-western corner.  About five feet from the landing of a dimly lit square corridor there is a door sealed with the fabled manichitrathazhu.[11] The Bishop’s quarter. The whole place smelled like a wet cloth; the smell of fungus I thought. At the edge of the balcony, which covered almost a third of the nave’s aerial space, an eerie smiling wooden figurine overlooked the nave.

Six animals

Wood Carvings of Animals (4)





The most striking aspect of the balcony was its underside or the roof of the western corner of the nave. At the intersections of the wall and the wooden roof, I discovered a peculiar combination of animal wood carvings that embellished the base of the balcony’s structure —  the six animals represented included an elephant, a tiger, a bull, a horse and a house cat nursing its kitten. Wood Carvings of Animals (5)

Seen in isolation these wooden carvings seem to have no place in the interior narrative of the church. However, in the larger context of the building, these carvings, particularly their incongruous quality, typified the essence of the church’s structure. The animals, wild and domesticated, were perhaps suggestive of the indigenous imagination coming to terms with something alien; the machinations of the artisanal lineage absorbing Christianity into the shores of Alappuzha.

Wood Carvings of Animals (3)

Wood Carvings of Animals (1)


Wood Carvings of Animals (2)

The seated bishop


The Karthikapally church is most famous, I was assured, for the discovery of a seated corpse buried near its foundation on the April of 2007. All the pamphlets available in the Trustee’s office spoke of this: a corpse and all the fanfare surrounding such a serendipitous discovery. The seated position suggested that the person buried may have been a Bishop and so after special prayers, the corpse was reburied.





The Discovery of the Bishop's corpse

The oil lamp marking the Bishop’s burial site

A dead Bishop should be allowed to rest, everyone agreed. The whole thing was a miracle everyone said. A vilakku (oil lamp) placed on the floor of the southern aisle, marked the celebrated grave of this unknown Bishop. I thought it would have been interesting to know the identity of the Bishop. There was something miserable about the whole affair, I thought; anonymity in death.

The air was still humid as I walked out. I had seen many remarkable things. A church that looks like a temple, the relic of St. Thomas, a fortuitously discovered grave of an anonymous Bishop, kal vilakku, a beautiful brass nilavilakku and, the most remarkable thing about the church, and perhaps its most dubious feature, the wooden animals. As I was leaving the premises of the church I had to admit to myself that the animals of Karthikapally intrigued me.  


All photographs and text are by Jonathan Varghese, and cannot be reproduced elsewhere. (jonathan.varghese@gmail.com)

Jonathan Varghese is affiliated with the Department English, Lady Shri Ram College, University of Delhi. This is a part of a larger research project on the murals, structure and oral sources for the history of the Nazranis


[1]Temple (usually Hindu) in Malayalam.

[2]Devotional songs from the premises of the temple.

[3]The gate opens into the road and is, therefore, the only way to the church premises.

[4]The Church had three doorways but every one of them except the northern entrance was sealed to the public.

[5]Oil lamps carved in stone, usually found in the premises of a Hindu temple.

[6]I subsequently noticed them in front of all the remaining entrances.

[7] The sanctuary, the Altar.

[8] The nave of the church

[9]Where the Vicar conducts the main part of the service. The Kestroma represents the link between the world of the laity (hykala) and the Sanctuary (Madbaha).

[10]The Madbaha (Altar) in the Orthodox Syrian tradition is veiled using a Madbahaviri on all occasions except during service.

[11]A complex locking mechanism that produced a characteristic metallic ring when opened. The use of the lock was often a sign of social status, in this case, it was used on the door of the Bishop’s cabin.