Palghat, as Palakkad was called in the colonial era, had mentions in English and American newspapers for a variety of reasons in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There were stories of financial scams (even then!), railway news and advertisements for the sale or lease of estates for potential western investors. But, few villages surrounding the town ever made it to the news, with one of the exceptions being Tattamangalam.
Not many people outside of Palakkad would have even heard of Tattamangalam. But for those with roots in this small and beautiful village, which is now part of a small town called Tattamangalam-Chittur, the mere mention of the name evokes nostalgia and memories - both real and imagined.
This writer, whose maternal roots are in Tattamangalam, has vivid childhood recollections from the mid-1980s of seeing the village’s lush green paddy fields and the Western Ghats in the distance, of going for summer evening swims in the Chittur Puzha (River) and of being amazed with how lightning could brighten the darkest of nights. Some of us were fortunate enough to be in a place where the sky was clear enough to spot the Haley’s Comet in 1986!
The Tattamangalam diaspora is spread out far and wide across the world, but before the phenomenon of Malayali migration, it was almost impossible for an outsider to even know of the existence of this pristine village that could inspire a Malayalam poem. An unusual set of circumstances led to Tattamangalam being featured in foreign newspapers in the late 19th century.
This is the story of an ascetic who became some kind of an international star in small towns in the West.
In 1898 a correspondent of the Kerala Sanchari wrote about an unnamed yogi who buried himself alive and asked not to be disturbed for the next couple of weeks. The news was picked by the Amrita Bazar Patrika and then travelled around the world, appearing in several English language newspapers.
“He gave instructions that the grave should be properly closed and not opened until the lapse of a fortnight,” the report said. “On the sixth day after the interment, a magistrate heard of the extraordinary burial and forthwith went and had the grave opened, when lo and behold! the yogi was found lying within alive and well.”
This yogi had taken three plantains with him to the grave and did not take any other food or even water with him.
According to the report, the authorities were satisfied with what they saw and allowed him to go back into his grave, to complete his two-week stay.
“We have not heard the subsequent history of the wonderful yogi,” the report said. No one knows what happened to this yogi and it’s hard to verify the authenticity of the report in the Kerala Sanchari. We are too far separated from this incident to have anyone alive to remember it.
This yogi featured in the press in small town America for a few years. The report first appeared in August, 1898, in Savannah, Georgia, and did the rounds in different papers in states like Virginia, Maine and California. It then travelled further northwest to Skagway, Alaska, and was published by the Daily Alaskan in August, 1900.
The inhabitants of Tattamangalam probably had no clue that their village was featured in newspapers in the other end of the world. If they had known, the story of this yogi might have been better preserved and even become a part of popular local legend.
Coming across this report in the archives has motivated this writer to visit the Palakkad district and seek out some of the elderly people who are still with us. It was, after all, from a village in Palakkad that the great novelist O V Vijayan brought us characters like Appu Kili.
Chittur-Tattamangalam, which has been a cultural melting pot as a result of it being on the way from the Palakkad Gap to the Kerala Coast, has many a forgotten story that is waiting to be told. In the meanwhile, international newspaper archives probably have their fair share of unusual news from Kerala, and would be a great place to find some real gems.
(Ajay Kamalakaran is a multilingual writer, primarily based in Mumbai)