The Mystery of the Fort of Corpses

(Author: B. Jeyamohan Translation: Remitha Satheesh)

(Original Story: சவக்கோட்டை மர்மம்)

Thuckalay is a town on the Nagercoil – Thiruvananthapuram highway. You have probably seen the Padmanabhapuram Palace and fort in Tamil movies. On the road that leads from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvattar, is a village called Kumarapuram. On a hill nearby, you can see another fort and the ruins of an utterly dilapidated palace. This is called Savakkottai or the Fort of Corpses. It stands deep within rubber groves, steeped in silence. This fort is mentioned in the disjointed records maintained by Pundit Achu Moothathu from a time when there was little distinction between history and legend.. 

Before the reign of Maharaja Marthandavarma (1729), many parts of Travancore were under independent feudal lords called Madambis who declared themselves as kings and ruled for long. Kumarapuram Karaimadambi Paraikkal Udhayan Thampi (who called himself Avittam Thirunaal Balaramavarma Maharaja) is believed to have built this palace. It once boasted of a beautiful entranceway, portico, assembly hall, and playhouse. The palace was heavily embellished with wondrous sculptures intricately carved from pure white teak, ebony, and sandalwood. It was built over a period of twelve years, overseen by the head Asari (Architect) Kochu Chathan of Ponnumangalam.

It was called Kumarapuram Amma Veedu back then. Folktales handed down orally claim that Balaramavarma Maharaja set up residence in this palace along with the two maidens accorded to him by the Southern Household of Ponmanai. It is possible that this happened about three hundred years before Maharaja Marthandavarma. The systematization of time came later. Back then, time was stagnant.

Legends state that the Maharaja, slumbering with his two queens, woke up alarmed by the sound of a strange voice trying to speak to him. We have come to know that the queens screamed terrified by the voice, leading to a pervasive panic. The voice at times rose as an emotional shriek, sometimes sounded like a wail, and at other times, a hushed chant. It was neither male nor female. It was stated beyond all doubt, that in no way was it a voice that rose from a human throat. Ananthanarayanan Potti who studied the signs discovered the presence of malevolent spirits in the palace. 

Astrologers claimed that this hill had been the site of oblations offered to the spirits of the Pulaya folk who died working in the fields, and that the voice was that of the now disappointed spirits that had come to receive those oblations. Elaborate yagas and Tantric poojas were conducted. There were also poojas offered to the ancestors, family deities, for the annihilation of foes, and even to minor demonic spirits. But the voice continued to be heard in the royal sleeping chambers. Kochu Chathan was sent for and interrogated. He was found to be at fault for not being more diligent about choosing the site for the palace. It was deduced that an astral pathway frequented by some power -either divine or evil- had been interrupted by the building of the palace. There were reminiscences about something similar that had happened to a king near Kayamkulam and how his entire lineage was destroyed by this action. Kochu Chathan now in chains after being sentenced to be impaled to death, pleaded for a day’s grace. He promised to find the flaw and fix it by then. Since there was no one else who knew the nuances of construction, he was granted this request.

Kochu Chathan, who had wandered the halls of the palace all night, discovered the subtle flaw at dawn and let out a shriek. The notes and calculations he wrote down in palm leaf manuscripts much later tell us about what had actually happened. (These notes were later compiled into a Sanskrit book titled Padmanabha Silpa Ratnavali, by one of his descendents Ananthan Moothasari  and can still be seen in the Sree Swathy Museum in Thiruvananthapuram.)

Kumarapuram Hill was surrounded by about twenty villages, fields, markets, and hovels. The noises that rose from here echoed repeatedly off the boulders and walls of the fort, rallied in the courtyard of the citadel and then reverberated in the royal bedchamber. Since the chamber’s roof was curved, the top of it was bowl shaped. The sound waves converged in this bowl and at times got converted into something that sounded like human speech. The Maharaja immediately ordered that this be fixed and Chathan came up with a plan. Accordingly, the path into the palace was curved in two places and a wall raised along these curves. The noises stopped and the Maharaja honoured Chathan with the title of ‘Thachu Moothathu’ and also bestowed upon him the Silk of Warriors and the Bracelet of Honor. 

However, a few days later, as the Maharaja sat lost in the Shringara Rasam of the Nala Damayanthi Kathakali being staged in the playhouse, he heard again the same old sound that had now woven its way into the Kathakali song and splintered the music. Agonised, he sent for Chathan yet again and decreed that the noise be stopped. The palace and fort were reconstructed. This made entering and exiting the palace quite difficult, often causing people to lose their way. The ministers and Brahmin pundits complained about this, but no one made an attempt to let the Maharaja know about it. And the Maharaja who never stepped outside the palace for safety reasons was blissfully unaware of the fact.

Whether it was the peculiar lay of the land or the oddity of the construction, the sinister noise continued to be heard from random locations in the palace. The citadel was renovated 888 times. (There is no denying the fact that this number is just a simplistic exaggeration as is wont in folklore.  The number 888 is also typically considered an inauspicious number in Indian folklore.) Thus the entryway into the palace became a confusing maze, an unsolvable puzzle. Entering and exiting it became a matter of sheer luck. And to make things worse, the Moothasari had completely lost it and now went about reconstructing the walls at will, laughing all the while by himself.

It was too late before the Maharaja came to the realization that his palace staff were also losing their wits wandering aimlessly, laughing and crying for no reason. Only when he tried to leave the palace in panic, did he realize what a big mess it had all become. Oddly, that disturbing noise emanating from the surrounding villages had now become the only thing from the outside world that could guide him out of the fort. But since the Moothasari had haphazardly fragmented it with his constructions and reconstructions, it had become impossible to follow it to get out of the maze. If you took its lead and followed it, you would wander for several days, and when you finally fell, exhausted, you would start hearing it from the opposite direction.

Other than running into one of his ministers or palace attendees similarly wandering, driven half mad along the corridors and alleys designed to facilitate the flowing wind, the wandering just continued, taking him nowhere. Heirs and commanders came in search of the Maharaja. They too got trapped. Eventually, the Maharaja died, but his bones could not be retrieved for the final rites, because no one who went in search of his remains returned. Therefore, his funeral rites were never performed to provide him passage into the world of his ancestors. And since according to custom, an heir could not ascend the throne without these rites, chaos reigned in the kingdom for long.

Eventually, based on the decision made by the council of Brahmins, the entire Kumarapuram Ammaveedu was considered as a symbolic urn of ashes and final rites were completed. With that, the fort came to be recognized as a sacred emblem of the family and it became a tradition that the Kumarapuram kings had to breathe their last within the fort. Legends grew around it and soon it came to be believed that the essence of the four Purusharthas of life – (Artha (economic values), Kama (pleasure), Dharma (righteousness), and Moksha (liberation) – dwelled in the center of the fort. It was prescribed that the rulers had to enter this fort, travel along the pathways of the maze within, and finally reach its center to attain Moksha, just like their ancestors did.

Generations of rulers belonging to this family passed on the throne to their heirs, took up Vanaprastha and disappeared into this massive ‘urn’. It is said that several generations later, a Maharaja who was approaching the center, strong of heart and filled with determination, met someone identical, trying to find his way out. After introducing themselves, both fell into an uncontrollable bout of rib cracking laughter. This is recorded in the verses of notable Angadha poet, Maani Narayana Chakyar. 

According to Achu Moothathu, in 1750, when Marthanda Varma Kulasekhara Perumal Maharaja brought all of  Travancore under one flag, he did away with the Kumarapuram Madambi dynasty completely, destroyed the fort and put an end to things altogether. It is not known how the current name of Savakkottai came about. It probably originated from the mounds of skeletons found within the ruins of the fortress. 


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