Chalai, Kerala’s Oldest Market, Thriving Even After Centuries
Located in Thiruvananthapuram, the market is believed to have existed since the 14th century.
As you step into Thiruvananthapuram’s Chalai market, there is a perceptible excitement in the air. A dazzling variety of shops in the myriad little streets and pocket roads welcome and lure shoppers. The oldest market in Kerala, Chalai still thrives as the biggest shopping hub in Thiruvananthapuram, commendably surpassing the modern shops and grand shopping malls that have sprung up in the city.
Chalai market can be called the nerve centre of Kerala’s capital. Located opposite the famous Sree Padmanabha Temple, on one side of the entrance is Gandhi Park, a public space for gatherings and protests, while on the other is the Pazhavangadi Ganapathi temple. One exit leads to the Sree Padmanabha movie theatre and the other to Killippalam. The market is flanked by two rivers, Karamana and Killiyar.
Where You Get Everything
No other market in the city can compete with the versatility of Chalai. Sprawled over a 1-km radius, Chalai is not a single market but a hub of many. One road has a wholesale vegetable market while another is full of furniture shops. The other end of the furniture market opens into a world of utensil shops, at the entrance to which are plenty of flower merchants who greet one with a multitude of flowers. There are separate wholesale markets for vegetables and fruits, groceries, furniture, grains and fish.
“The wholesale market is the core of Chalai. Retailers from other parts of the district make their purchases here, which makes the wholesale market very vibrant. There was a time when people from Kollam (neighbouring district) used to come to buy grains from Chalai,” Vypari Vyavasayi Ekopana Samithi Thiruvananthapuram President Peringamala Ramachandran tells TNM.
The multiple markets in Chalai are run with a lot of connectivity with other states. “There’s a saying that people go to Chalai even to buy a paper clip. We purchase vegetables from Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Fruits we import from Punjab and Shimla while furniture is made locally as well as imported from abroad,” Rafeeq, President of the Vyapari Vyvasayi Ekopana Samithi Chalai Main Market, tells TNM.
The old market is holding its own even after the latest shopping mall in the city – Mall of Travancore – opened in 2018 just a kilometre away. This is because the traders in Chalai quickly adapt to the latest trends. For example, home appliance shops stock tea sets in the latest aesthetic styles and furniture shops sell fashionable almirahs that you see in the mall.
“I was astonished to see the kind of things available at the market,” Dr Chaithanya Unni tells TNM. Originally from Kozhikode, the physician now lives and works in Queensland, Australia. He visited the Chalai market in 2018 to buy accessories for a dance performance in the city.
“Actor-dancer Vineeth suggested Chalai to me and once I reached the place, I realised that there’s nothing one can’t get there. The shop was a mess, there were too many customers. The staff used a ladder inside the shop to get things from a storage space in the ceiling. Customer service was not what I was used to. But all customers got whatever they wanted, so no complaints,” she recalls chuckling.
The availability of everything in one place has made Chalai the only shopping spot for home chef Rani Asokan, who runs a catering business.
“We get a variety of things from various states and they are also pocket-friendly for everyone. The price difference is huge when you compare to malls. The customer service too is not the artificial kind but personal, which makes me come back here again and again,” Rani tells TNM.
Chalai is also a haven for those looking for rare or specific items. “Here we sell vetiver, cinnamon, kaladali (a medicinal plant) and a variety of things used to perform puja at temples and homes. We also stock ingredients used to make herbal medicines,” Binu, who runs a small shop that sells many uncommon items, tells TNM.
The only downside is negotiating the narrow streets and finding the right shop, which can be a hassle sometimes. Added to this is the lack of parking space and traffic on the congested roads.
Businesses Run Over Generations
Most of the businesses in Chalai are handed down through generations, starting with grandfathers or great-grandfathers and passed on to the next generation.
Binu’s shop was started by his grandfather and later run by his father and uncle. “I took over from my uncle after completing my education,” he says.
About half the shops are run by natives of Tamil Nadu who have settled in the city for many decades.
Muthuraman runs a stationery shop that was started by his grandfather 45 years ago. Though his family is originally from Pazhani in Tamil Nadu, he says now his native place is Thiruvananthapuram.
Apart from shops, there are numerous street vendors too, who sell everything from clothes to vegetables and fruits.
Sixty-five-year-old Shyamala has been a street fruit vendor in the market for the past 45 years. “Initially I used to sell only lemons, now I sell different kinds of fruits,” she says. She hardly takes a day off from the business. She says she didn’t work for 3 days during her wedding, three months each when she delivered her two daughters but her biggest break was during the pandemic induced lockdown.
“Business has been dull after that, but overall it’s been enough to keep life moving,” she says.
A Long and Rich History
Chalai, according to available records, existed even in the 14th century. Going by that, Chalai is the oldest market in the state.
“In approximately 1579, a theft happened at the Padmanabha Swamy temple. The Mathilakam Rekha (temple chronicles) states that the vessels stolen from the temple were sold off at Chalai market. This implies that the market existed even in the 16th century,” veteran journalist and historian Malayinkeezh Gopalakrishnan tells TNM.
Chalai also finds mention in another book named Ananthapura Varnanam (description of Ananthapuram), which was written in the 14th century. In the past, Thiruvananthapuram was known as Ananthapuram, the land of Ananthan or Ananthapadmanabhan, the deity at the Padmanabha temple.
“Thiruvananthapuram is written about in detail in Ananthapura Varnanam. The book also talks about a big market and trade centre, which foreigners who came by ship used to visit. The ships might have arrived near Sanghumukham, which is 4-5 km from Chalai. The book also refers to Pazhavangadi (pazhaya angadi meaning old market),” he adds.
Pazhavangadi, located near one of the entrances to Chalai market, is now more known for the Ganapathi temple situated there.
MG Sasibhooshan, a noted academic and historian, also asserts that Chalai existed in the 14th century. According to him, there was a market in the north-east part of the present-day Fort locality (East Fort and West Fort regions, between which the Padmanabha temple is located), but that wasn’t Chalai market.
“Chalai is how the Kanthalloor University was reborn after it was totally devastated in the 11th century Chola invasion,” he says. Kanthalloor Sala is a university that existed in Thiruvananthapuram 1,000 years ago, when the Chola invasion of southern Kerala led by Raja Raja Chola happened. In Ananthapura Varnanam, the location of Kanthalloor Sala is referred to as Valiyasala, the road parallel to the current Chalai market. It’s believed that the name Chalai evolved from the word ‘Sala’. Valiyasala and Aryasala are located very close to Chalai. He adds, "At the time Ananthapura Varnanam was written, Kanthalloor Sala and its surroundings were known simply as Sala. Later, different parts came to be known as Aryasala, Valiyasala and Chinnasala. The present Chalai market is the continuation of the old Chinnasala."
The market evolved and grew with the visits of kings who ruled Travancore to Ananthapuram. “There was no permanent capital for kings… the capital was the place where the king used to live at a particular time. During Chathurmasam (four months in a year), the king of Venad would visit Thiruvananthapuram. The market would flourish during his visit, which happened during the Malayalam months of Karkkidakom and Chingam,” Sasibhooshan says.
Venad was an erstwhile state comprising the current Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam, and Kayamkulam in Alappuzha.
“At that time, Chalai was the market first for black pepper, second for rice, third for jaggery and dark sugar, fourth for textiles, fifth for herbal medicines and sixth for knives, needles and those kinds of things. These things were made in various places and transported to Thiruvananthapuram by boat through Killiyar. The ferries were at Thamalam and Vellayani, just kilometres from Chalai. This continued till the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century,” he adds.
Both Malayinkeezh and Sasibhooshan say that Mathilakam Rekha mentions that purchases were made for the Padmanabha temple from the Chalai market.
“The records also mention that when money was needed to buy things for the temple, for example ghee, items from the temple were pledged in the Chalai market. Also, if there was a theft, the police would first search Chalai to find out if the stolen things were sold off in the market,” Sasibhooshan says.
In 1786, King Karthika Thirunal Rama Varma permanently shifted to Thiruvananthapuram from Padmanabhapuram in Tamil Nadu. This helped Chalai flourish.
By the end of the 19th century, goods began to be transported in bullock carts from Kottar (in present-day Nagercoil). Slowly, traders, mainly belonging to the Chetti, Brahmin and Muslim communities, also started moving here from Tamil Nadu.
There several Amman kovils (temples) that are believed to have been established with the arrival the Tamil people. There are mosques too inside the market. Chalai Government High School functions here with Tamil as the medium of instruction.
“Around Chalai also evolved the business of moneylending. The vegetable sellers in Chalai would sell off their daily stock of vegetables by 7 pm so that they can pay the daily instalment to the moneylenders. And there are traders who wait till 7 pm so that they can buy a huge quantity of vegetables for a lower price. They would then clean the vegetables and sell them at their own shops located in other parts of the city. Chalai has become synonymous with the people of Thiruvananthapuram,” Sasibhooshan concludes.
(Published in an arrangement with The News Minute.)
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