This project was conceived by the Goethe-Zentrum Trivandrum and executed by Nora Bibel. It is a tribute to the hundreds of people and places inside a heritage called Chalai.
Contrasting the picturesque Kerala with mountains, backwaters and serene coastal belts, the Chalai market gives you a very different identity. Though the experience is equally magical, this historic market place offers a steady hive of activity in unrest. Chalai Market, the oldest and busiest street market place that lies at the heart of the Thiruvananthapuram city, personifies the cultural diversity of the state in a resplendently candid manner. The narrow, crowded road starts from the East gate and ends at Killipalam. The Diwan of Travancore “Raja” Kesava Das established this ever-vibrant market during the closing years of the 18th century. During the rule of Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma (1758-1798 AD), Padmanabhapuram was the capital of Travancore. The king, who wanted to spend his life near the renovated Padmanabha Swamy temple, shifted the capital from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram. Kesava Das realized the importance of developing a market for the supply of goods in the capital city, which led to the genesis of the Chalai market. Gradually, the ancient temple town of Thiruvananthapuram developed into a magnificent capital city and this prompted several families, trade and craft guilds to relocate to Thiruvananthapuram. Tamilians, Pilla Chettier communities, stonemasons and goldsmiths from Vishakapattanam, Muslim traders and Nadar vendors all started to settle here. The name ‘Chalai’ originated from the community of traders, the “chaliyas" as they started to influence the cultural and linguistic tradition of the city. A new unique and significant culture progressively took roots in the city. Chalai Market is a nostalgic emotion that has been passed from generations to generations and that passion confines the old flavors of the city unscathed.
Thanking all those who made it an indelible part of Thiruvananthapuram, we present this project as a tribute to our cultural heritage.
The bustling market, where the vendors throng in the alleyways to sell anything from vegetables to gold, is an ideal destination for an enterprising shopper. The energy and vigor are infectious, making you to desire and discover more and more. Apart from the busy crowd, the streets are noisy with bikes and trucks honking at full volume, finding their way through the seamless alleys. Though, we can see trucks, cars and people hurriedly marching in and out of the market, the roads appear simple and straightforward from the entrance itself. Colorful kolams and the vibrant atmosphere welcome you with an irretrievable vigour.
At the Chalai bazaar you will come across a wide range of simple, but most delicious lip smacking delicacies. The dishes prepared in coconut and various spices provide a scrumptious flavor satisfying local and foreign gourmands in equal measure. The vibrant colors of freshly crushed juice create an incredible palette of hues. The different shaded juices bring a smoothening, true-fruit taste sensation in every sip. The hungry will ramble into Azad, started in 1940s, for the flavorful mutton biriyani, prepared in an aromatic blend of Indian spices, served with boiled egg and pappadam. Another restaurant, the Kethal’s Chicken, still maintains the traditional and authentic taste of the olden times since decades. The food here is good enough to satisfy a real epicurean. The strong smell of coffee from the coffee roaster makes the hallways of the busy lanes zestful. The place is a dulcet concoction of both southern and northern cuisines.
Here you find tens of varieties of fruits and vegetables arriving from various places across the world. Like raw dates presumably imported from the Arabian countries, apples from New Zealand, not-yet ripe guavas from the nearby households; several varieties of apples and grapes and so on. You will see vendors selling vegetables, spices and fruits sitting under umbrellas. Chalai offers its visitor a vast array of farm products at reasonable price; and everything delivered with a broad smile that originates genuinely from the heart.
In one of the corners of the Chalai bazaar, you will see old women making garlands of jasmine and other flowers sitting under the dusky and golden sky. Flowers flaunt their colors and fragrances, captivating the buyers who weave their way out of the streets. Chalai proudly presents one of the biggest flower markets in Kerala as the rich scents of blossoms beckon the buyers for a closer sniff. Among the vast carpet of gaily blossoms, jasmine - the white beauty of fragrant gardenias - dominates the show. The white floral garlands are used commonly to adorn the idols in the hundreds of temples in the city and also decorate the lush, black hair girls and ladies. The lotus flowers mostly come from the nearby lake at Vellayani and no temple or a marriage in the city can afford to miss it on any day. The rest of the flowers usually come from Thovala and Sankaran Kovil in Tamil Nadu.
Chalai bazaar is one of the most important places for the traditional as well as the contemporary cloth weaving culture of Kerala. It is considered to be the largest market hub in the city for handlooms and cloth trading. The distinctive craftsmanship of the artisans empowers them to unweave a different story each time with their hands. Their creativity energizes them to translate their imagination into sole patterns and designs. The goldsmith and gold workers conquered the streets of Chalai centuries before. As you travel from Killipalam to Arysala, you will see numerous goldsmiths engaged in their work, oblivious to the whole noisy happenings on the streets. In the olden times, the goldsmiths used to blow the outer surface of burning gold with the help of a special instrument and many persons used to search for these sand particles and extract gold from these, in their struggle to earn some money for a living.
The native shops, open almost everyday from morning to night, proffer all types of articles from vegetables to hardware, artifacts to handloom products, from fish to fresh vegetables. The jewelries in Chalai offer a generous selection of ornaments made in various styles and patterns. They brilliantly exhibit a wide range of collections from meticulously crafted classical style to bespoken novel designs. Next to these shops, you will find shoes stores jammed with a wide range of different types of shoes. Buyers wander from one shop to the other, heading out on a shopping spree.
The old busy market was once the nerve center of wholesale trade in Thiruvananthapuram. The market, laced with a number of wholesale shops, supply almost anything you can think of on affordable rates. The traders are honest and the items prove excellent value for money. The bustling market areas provide a wide range of hardware and home furnishings, groceries, cloth and shoe shops, vegetables, fruits, clothes, footwear, stationary, home appliances, flowers, vessels, items for the traditional poojas at home or in temples. It gives amiable shopping opportunities for the locals as well as for the tourists.
Most commonly known as ‘Coolis’, the headload workers are considered to be one of the binding spirits in the trading history of the market. Though they are thought to be belligerent people, who demand inflated wages even for carrying small loads, we cannot disparage their efforts to earn a decent living. During the earlier times, they have been the most influential factors in the political and social hemispheres. Today, the trading community and the headload workers sustain a harmonious relationship in the market. It is impossible to imagine Chalai bazaar without these very significant group of persons, who toil day and night to keep the market ticking.
The streets of Chalai vividly inculcate the street vendors, shopkeepers and other hard-working classes, accentuating the versatility of the antique market place. The market is home to different castes, tribes and religions. They co-exist congruously without any discrimination in racial classifications, age, gender, religion and philosophical discrepancies. Each in their struggle to survive, to look after their families, to fulfill their loved one’s dreams, never forgetting to hold their neighbors and friends close to their hearts. Chalai market indoctrinates an overwhelming fable of tolerance, humility and universal love.
When the Maharaja of Travancore shifted the capital from Padmanabhapuram to Thiruvananthapuram city, many traders relocated and settled near Padmanabha Swamy temple. Muslims, Nadars and Tamilians came to the place and developed a diverse culture and tradition. Each community even today has its own gods and places of worships. Muslims from Thiruvithankode built a mosque named Karuppattikada Juma Masjid, one of the oldest mosques in the streets. Each street has a number of temples built in the Tamil Nadu style and their festivals resemble the Tamil tradition. The world-famous Padmanabhaswamy Temple dates back to 8th century and its deity Lord Vishnu residing in the “Anantha Shayanam” (eternal yogic sleep) posture, overlook the Chalai bazaar, radiating an incessant aura of divine glory over the bazaar and its people, whereas the magnificent minaret of the mosque inside the bazaar appears to stand in unique religious harmony towards the majority faith.