Let’s start off with a few well-known details in the legend of Perumthachan. Most of what we now know about Perumthachan is either from Kottarathil Sankunni’s Aithihyamala or word of the mouth. The master craftsman was also immortalised in G Sankarakurup’s poem Perumthachan and Ajayan’s 1990 movie of the same name. In the latter, actor Thilakan, who was truly a Perumthachan himself in his field, morphed into the master architect so much that the legend is now inseparably associated with him.
According to most myths, Perumthachan was one of twelve children of Vararuchi, a saint at Vikramaditya’s court and his parayi wife, Panchami. Varuruchi, who can give Marvel’s Odin a run for his money in the competition to claim the title of worst father, had Panchami abandon all her children at birth with an excuse “va keeriya daivam athinolla vazhiyum kandittond”. Perumthachan landed in Uliyannoor and was raised by Achari parents who trained him in the art of carpentry and vastushastram.
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Here on, Perumthachan’s story as a master craftsman starts.
The Title Perumthachan
The true name of Perumthachan according to stories was Raman. He is said to have been unusually intelligent, like all his other biological siblings. He learnt carpentry and the science of architecture, that is, Vastushastra from his foster parents, who were carpenters by caste. His prowess in the field of Vastushastram was unparalleled, hence he gained the name, ‘Perumthachan’.
Perumthachan and his family
Perumthachan’s status as the Brahmin sage Vararuchi’s son from the Parayi may not have been discovered during his lifetime, yet there are some stories that connect him with his eldest brother, the parayi’s firstborn, Agnihotri. In one such story, Agnihotri who was raised as a Brahmin asks Perumthachan to build an altar for him. Perumthachan obliges. Then to the chagrin of his fellow Brahmins, Agihotri also asks Perumthachan to dedicate the altar as well, reaffirming their bond despite being from two different castes. In another story involving Agnohotri, Perumthachan is the one that schools Agnihotri on why caste-based separation is illogical.
It is claimed that Perumthachan was a part of the Perumbadana family of Uliyannoor, a family that still exists there. The Perumbadanna family consists of traditional artisans. The eldest carpenter or Mootasari in the family is given the title Perum Tachan.
The most recent Perum Tachan Perumbadanna Narayanan passed in September 2019. There is a shrine dedicated to Raman Perumthachan at the Perumbadanna family household. There are even people that argue that Perumthachan’s heritage as the son of the Brahmin Varuruci was made up later by hegemonic Brahmin scholars. The Uliyannoor Sree Mahadeva Temple with its 68 wooden beams converging in a dome is believed to have been the handiwork of Perumthachan. Apparently, the doorway to the temple is one of Perumthachan’s marvels, if you walk up to it gives the illusion that you may hit your head on the top of the doorway, but in reality, you won’t unless you specifically try to avoid it. Until the construction of a metal covered concrete kodimaram, the Perumbadanna family members had traditional rights in this temple.
Perumthachan and the Paankulam
This one of the stories from the thachan’s life that would make you marvel at the man’s incredible knowledge. Perumthachan was once tasked with building a kulam, i.e. a temple pond. However, a dispute arose among the people. Some of them wanted the temple pond to be circular like traditional temple ponds were. A few wanted it to be in the shape of a square. There were others who wanted it to be octagonal.
To solve this stalemate, Perumthachan agreed to build a pond that would be everything they demanded. The people wondered how it could be possible, how can an object have three shapes at once? A reasonable question, but Perumthachan probably never revealed how and even if he did, it did not survive.
When Perumthachan was done with the pond, it was a circle at one particular point, a square at another and an octagon elsewhere, satisfying all the arguers and impressing generations to come. Why should this impossible legend not be dismissed as a fairy tale? In Parayipetta Panthirukulam: Aithihyavum Charithravum, a work that examines the history behind the story of the parayi and her twelve children, author Rajan Chungath connected with the story of the Paankulam, a communication between Scott Brothers and Company, regarding the setting up of the proposed Shoranur-Ernakulam railway line dated September 1864. It mentioned the presence of a special pond on the banks of the Aluva river that needed to be filled in order to facilitate the project. As a fan of the Perumthachan legends, I’d like to assume that the Britishers meant the Paankulam. Do you agree?
Perumthachan and his son
Ever heard of the Perumthachan complex? According to some legends, Perumthachan was only a little better than Varuruchi at being a father. Why so? Perumthachan was rumoured to have held a fit of deep professional jealousy against his son. As he got older, people started preferring his son over him. The son was said to be quite arrogant too and openly challenged Perumthachan in several matters.
There are accounts that Perumthachan once built a bridge with a wooden doll that taunted people. Apparently, the thachan was infuriated by the fact that his son got prestigious architectural projects while all he got commissioned to do was a bridge. Yet, he displayed his genius by making a wooden doll that spat water on people who crossed the bridge, much to the delight of the villagers. In an unnecessary show of skill spurred on by nosy villagers and insensitive comments, Perumthachan’s son made a counter doll that slapped the water away from Perumthachan’s wooden doll before it could spray people. Talk about guruthvadosham.
Here is a recreation of Perumthachan’s doll:
One day, during the construction of the Uliyannoor Temple, the son suddenly died when an uli, i.e. a chisel, fell from Perumthachan’s hand onto his neck. Still, it is too extreme to just assume that he’d murder his only kid for sassing him and it is quite possible to leave Perumthachan in reasonable doubt. Let’s jump to the nicest conclusion and say that the poor man must’ve lost his grip on the ill-fated uli by accident.
Or maybe he knew what he was doing. What do you think?
There is an interesting story surrounding Perumthachan’s uli. Once, villagers of Panniyoor, a village near Bharathapuzha decided to make a temple far superior to anything ever built. Naturally, the best of the best, Raman Perumthachan was assigned the project. It is said that Indra, the King of Devas got jealous that the Panniyoor Ambalam might overshadow his own realm and decided to confuse them by changing measurements to an imperceptible amount. Havoc ensued, Perumthachan and co. found it really hard to finish the temple. In a last-ditch attempt to at least save the reputation of the other carpenters, Perumthachan took the blame for the incomplete work. He stuck an uli into the building and left, claiming that he was going to be a nomadic architect.
Panniyoor Temple Source: theblueyonder.com
Perumthachan’s uli can still be seen on the walls of Panniyoor Temple. There are other versions to this legend that suggest that it was Perumthachan himself who confused the carpenters in Panniyoor for disrespecting him. What do you think might’ve happened?