How the market was shaped by a visible hand – Raja Kesava Das – the dewan of the region:
Colin Paterson, the physician to Swathi Tirunal Rama Varma, the ruler of ertswhile Travancore, records in his ‘Medical Report of Travancore’ (1842), the existence of a ‘Shala Bazar’, “an extensive street of Native Shops” located to the East of the Fort. Like Colin, several other Europeans have left written records of the crowded native market, the oldest commercial establishment with an undeniable connection to the origin and growth of urban Thiruvananthapuram.
A quest for the foundation of Chala market will positively lead us to the late eighteenth century, to the reign of Karthika Tirunal Rama Varma, a.k.a., Dharmaraja, in whose time the quaint temple town of Thiruvananthapuram was evolving into a sprawling capital city. Raja Kesava Das, the celebrated Dewan, was the architect of the Chala market that we see today. The large scale revamp of the Padmanabha Swamy temple and the increasing significance of Thiruvananthapuram as a royal abode had resulted in the relocation of several families, trade and craft guilds to Thiruvananthapuram. Kesava Das, an able administrator and visionary, instantly recognised the prospective of developing a market, which was integral for the sustenance of the budding settlement. It was under his instructions that the land belonging to ‘Karuvakulam Potti’ (Karuva Madhom Potti, a member of the Ettarayogam, the traditional trustees of Padmanabha Swamy temple) was purchased by the government in order to construct a set of shops. The area acquired by the government to establish the market was then known as ‘Chalayil Ananthapurathu Petta’. Now, it becomes clear that the true history of Chala predates the reign of Karthika Tirunal.
One of the earliest reference to Padmanabha Swamy temple and its immediate environs comes from Ananthapuravarnanam, a thirteenth century composition by an unknown poet. The poet, when he illustrates the numerous shrines and sacred water bodies scattered around Padmanabha Swamy temple, lavishes words on the description of a busy market located somewhere in the precincts of the temple. Though it is hard to pinpoint the exact location of the market, according to prominent historians, it may the prototype of the modern Chala market. The wide range of goods and the fact that the author of Ananthapuravarnanam mentions several foreigners and people from neighbouring kingdoms in the market may hint to the status of Padmanabha Swamy temple as a focal pilgrim centre in South India. Further, some medieval folk songs from Southern Travancore hint at weavers from Padmanabhapuram regularly visiting the market to sell their products.
It is a pity that we hardly have any mention of these historic market places in our textbooks. We are made to believe that markets did not exist till economists invented them. The functioning of a market or a bazaar has been there for such a long time..