Upholding rich legacy

A photo of many smiling children against a lovely house was my first introduction to Melaseval, a village an hour away from Tirunelveli.

A few correspondences with the family members got me an invitation to the residence of Ramalingam Pillai, the pannaiyar of Melaseval.

The home and the old couple were everything that is best of the hospitality of the Tirunelveli region.

From the road, the house looked simple, the only curious feature being that the ground floor had just one window onto the street while the first floor had several.

We passed the sturdy entrance across a wide thinnai , meant for two watchmen to sleep in the old days, and then into the house on the left and a grand durbar hall at least 20 ft high on the right side and beyond that after a banana grove a canal that linked to the Tamiraparani river.

The durbar hall was a simple but elegant construction with arches spanning all sides and plenty of light from the windows and the skylights inset with tinted glass. At the head of the hall was a stone bed sculpted in 1911.

Ramalingam Pillai is a soft-spoken and genial soul. He knows his family history well and I got a glimpse of a Tirunelveli land owning gentry's life in the 19 {+t} {+h} and 20 {+t} {+h} century. Most of the names he dropped were unknown to me but his warmth and pleasant narration was a joy to listen to!

The family fortunes were founded by T. Subramania Pillai, an honorary assistant engineer, with the PWD. He earned a princely Rs.17 per month. He lived in Thanjavur and retained a meagre amount of seven rupees for himself and sent the rest to his brother-in-law who seemed to have had a knack of real estate investment. At a point the family owned several hundred acres of fertile land.

The Sanad, carefully framed, dated February 16, 1887, granted him the Rao Bahadur title. Close by were old photos of two bridges he had built – the famous Kallanai across the Cauveri, another bridge in Tiruchi. He is also supposed to have joined together two broken bridges across the Tamiraparani.

Passion for arches

He seems to have been very fond of arches. In many places, where there were arches, were small alcoves for a lamp to be placed. The main home had a beautifully carved wooden front where the reapers ended in mangoes. All the rooms had stout wooden beams and excellent cross ventilation.

Evidently the engineer took much care in building his own home. The narrow staircase took us upstairs with a series of long rooms, airy and comfortable. Sadly not many paintings, photographs or furniture from the 19 {+t} {+h} century remain but the proportions of the rooms themselves have an elegant look.

Lunch was as generous as the size of the rooms. The community speciality was a lip-smacking sodhi , made of coconut milk, vegetables and a dash of lemon with hot rice from the family's fields. “You must eat it with the ginger chutney that balances the coconut milk,” I was advised.

The plantain curry and the sweet were also worthy of mention. We did a quick tour of the farm and then set off for the two temples, which will be discussed later.


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