As the mandiram turns a hundred years old, an exhibition reveals the long struggle behind setting it up and carrying the legacy forward.

Remembering Keralas Chinnamma who opened states first home for destitute womenChinnamma
news History Wednesday, January 08, 2020 - 19:05

In a room inside the hundred-year-old building, written in large Malayalam letters on scores of white papers, is the history of the Hindu Mahila Mandiram, a home for destitute women and girls in Poojappura, Thiruvananthapuram. A hundred years ago, the mandiram was registered after the very many efforts of a woman called Chinnamma.

It is not anymore an exclusive place for Hindu women and girls though. “People of all religions are part of the mandiram. It’s been that way for so long,” says Sheela, a Hindi teacher teaching at the mandiram-run school. Sheela grew up in the mandiram’s orphanage, went to school and college, and got her teacher job 25 years ago.

“We didn’t have a lot of clothes or scrumptious meals, but there was a lot of love. It’s not entirely orphans who come here. I've a mother and six siblings but my dad passed away early. I call the secretary and the president Amma. When I grew up, I became Sheela chechi to kids younger than I was,” Sheela says.

The conditions have changed a lot now, Sheela says. “I could see the mandiram grow through the years. There is a small government grant but there is also a lot of sponsorship.”

It had to change with the times. “In the early days, the girls and women were given vocational training in tailoring and weaving and so on. That continues. But now, there is computer education,” says M Sreekumari, the current secretary of the mandiram.


A few residents; Courtesy: mahilamandiram.net

There is now a new block just for the higher secondary classes, two children’s homes, an old age home and so on. A part of these facilities is in a land in Vellanad. “Future plans include organic agriculture and reaching out to children outside of the mandiram, by providing care at their own home,” Sreekumari adds.

It has been a very, very difficult journey, you will learn, reading the history of the mandiram.

History

On January 5, the office bearers had a small centenary celebration in the campus, attended by the old and new residents of the mandiram. On the 6th, they opened a room exhibiting the history written on white papers stuck on the walls. A large portrait of K Chinnamma, the founder, is at the centre of the room.  

K Chinnamma was posted as school inspector at the Kottayam division in Travancore in 1908. She used to visit Christian schools run by nuns as part of her job. There would be orphanages associated with the schools for Christian children. Chinnamma observed the functioning of the orphanages and the discipline they followed. That’s when she wondered why there couldn't be a home for orphans and widows of the Hindu community.

In 1916, Chinnamma spoke about her idea at a gathering of women, on the occasion of the 60th birthday celebrations of the then King of Travancore, Sreemoolam Thirunal, who has always promoted the education of girls. But then, no one supported her idea at the meeting.

The Maharaja’s birthday came and women too took part in the celebrations. Mrs P Raman Thambi who ran the Sthree Samajam organised a ‘Shashtipoorthi Maholsavam’ (60th birthday festival) and Chinnamma was put in charge of it. After the celebrations, there was a surplus amount of Rs 200 in her hands. When the women had another gathering to discuss what to do with the money, Chinnamma once again pushed for a home for destitute women. There was strong opposition again, but then Mrs Raman Thambi backed her. Chinnamma made a strong speech, the gist of which is, “Most of us gathered here have food to eat and clothes to wear. But then there are so many women who don’t have any of this and end up begging for it. Many of you may not have seen it. But if we have a heart, we should surely help these destitute women. At least in honour of the King who has done so much for women’s education.”

The speech worked. There was more support for building a home for destitute women. Chinnamma proceeded with the building. She met Diwan (Prime Minister of Travancore) Krishnan Nair, who tried to dissuade her. Chinnamma retorted that she’d even collect from the poor if it was required but would not run the place with the government’s help. With a lot of effort, she opened the home for 12 orphan girls in 1918 in Poojappura, Thiruvananthapuram, and called it ‘Raja Sreemoolam Thirunal Shashtyabda Poorthi Smaraka Hindu Mahila Mandiram’.

One woman’s fight for the destitute: Chinnamma

Despite the opposition in the beginning, the situation changed when the shelter home opened and a lot of people began coming to the mandiram. It was temporarily opened in a building that Chinnamma took on lease. The household items were donated (mostly by Mrs Thambi) or lent and a few were bought.  

Mahila Mandiram became registered as a company. They prepared a bye-law. Three types of members would be in the general council: lifetime, regular and associate. A managing committee of 10 to 15 members would be elected from the general council. The first president was Mrs Raman Thambi and Chinnamma became secretary.

In the initial stages, the Mahila Mandiram had an orphanage, a prayer hall and a primary school for children staying at the mandiram and also kids who came from outside.

The mandiram followed strict discipline. The girls had to wake up early, sing a keerthanam and greet each other in the morning. They had to keep their respective beds and surrounding clean, water the garden. Bath, food and studies followed.

But as the days passed, several people who had initially stood with Chinnamma, began backing out. Only Mrs Thambi was left. All the responsibility of running the mandiram fell on Chinnamma, who also had a day job to go to and a family to run. She had begun the mandiram at the time of World War I. Everything was expensive. She spent all her salary on the mandiram and sold her jewellery too. By then, there were 45 people staying at the mandiram. Yearly expenditure came to Rs 4,800, a big amount back then.

Initially there was a list of people who were willing to contribute a fixed amount towards the running of the mandiram every month. They gradually stopped contributing, citing flimsy excuses. But somehow, Chinnamma got the girls what they needed, sometimes on credit. She requested people to remember the kids in the mandiram when there was a wedding or some other function. When she had free time, she’d approach people for funds. Some of them donated, some others insulted her.

There rose a rumour that Chinnamma used her powers to make teachers campaign for the mandiram and she was removed from her post as school inspector. She was made the headmistress of the Pettah Higher Secondary school. But then, this came as a blessing for Chinnamma who now had a lot more free time to work for the mandiram.

Mandiram gets a permanent place

Somehow or the other, the mandiram completed a year and Chinnamma celebrated the occasion. Young men from the nearby military camp in Pangode decorated the place voluntarily. Diwan Krishnan Nair who once dissuaded Chinnamma from opening the mandiram, inaugurated the celebrations. Chinnama sang a welcome song she'd composed. The girls performed too.

Days passed. The girls were given vocational training in weaving, stitching, painting and music.

But the building was still on leased land. So, Chinnamma found another piece of land in Poojappura owned by the government (it is where the mandiram still stands). She made the request but Diwan Krishnan Nair said the government had another purpose for the land. However, during this time, there was a change of governance and a new Diwan – Raghavaiah – took charge. He was extremely pleased with the disciplined ways of the mandiram when he visited it with his wife one day. Going back to his office, he immediately sanctioned the land that Chinnamma had requested for.

Chinnamma began her work for the new building. She approached people in different levels of administration to get all the support she could. With the help of her husband Kumara Pillai, she prepared a plan and estimate for the building and presented it to the municipality. The orphanage and associated buildings would need an amount of Rs 60,000. Chinnamma applied for leave for a year and began work on fund collection. Women contributed more than men.

In 1923, she moved to the new building with the girls and women of the mandiram. They had wheat porridge that day.

Chinnamma ignored the rules of untouchability practised in those days and got girls belonging to the lower castes to go to school.

Thankamma, an able successor

Her successor Thankamma had been a close associate and worked with Chinnamma for the mandiram for long. She was a young widow with three kids who became friends with Chinnamma akka, her neighbour in Thiruvananthapuram. When Chinnamma passed away at the age of 47, Thankamma took over the mandiram as secretary. She was 34 then.


Thankamma

The people who had been well-wishers and contributors of the mandiram were initially skeptical, but Thankamma soon proved herself resourceful. She added more vocations for the girls and women at the mandiram. A printing press, honeybee nurturing, weaving of mats, were all added. The residents of Mahila Mandiram took part in exhibitions and began winning awards. In those years, national leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru and Annie Besant visited the mandiram.

In another wall, you see the jottings they left behind: “It has been a pleasure to visit the institution. We wish it all success,” – Nehru, 1931.

It grew to be a place of repute in the 1940s and '50s. The first Kerala Social Welfare Advisory Board was started in the Mandiram, with Thankamma as its head. The first social welfare centre was started in Thankamma’s 25 cents of land in Azhoor, which she donated to the state.

When Mahila Mandiram celebrated its 50th anniversary, a new building was added: a working women’s hostel. A dispensary run by the mandiram was converted into a hospital by the Thiruvananthapuram Rotary Club. When the club approached the mandiram to lease the 27 cents of land, it was agreed that that the girls in the mandiram would get free treatment at the hospital and the older ones would get job opportunities.

Ammukutty and others who followed

After Chinnamma’s death, Ammukutty Amma or Mrs Changanasseri as she preferred to be known as, had taken charge as president, while Thankamma became secretary. The two women, both young widows, became very close. During this time, the mandiram school became a high school, the hostel got renovated, new buildings were built. She served the mandiram for nearly five decades.


Ammukutty Amma

Bhagavathy Lakshmiyammal, Omanakunjamma, Prof Hridayakumari, Prof V Pushpa, Dr PB Shanthadevi, Vijaya Nair, Prof A Rajalekshmy and KY Radhalekshmy are the presidents who joined after Mrs Changanasseri.

After Thankamma, the secretaries who took charge are Rajam Menon, Sethu Ramachandran Nair, Prof L Bhagavathy Amma and now, M Sreekumari.

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