Sunday, May 25, 2008

Not halcyon days any more

The Oxford English Dictionary traces the etymology of the word `halcyon' to a bird, usually identified with a species of kingfisher, which the wise elders in the ancient West believed to have bred about the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea. The ancients thought that it charmed the wind and waves so that the sea was calm during the period.

By extension, the term `halcyon days' refers to 14 days of calm weather, believed to occur about the winter solstice when the halcyon was brooding.

From those fabled roots come the contemporary usage of `halcyon' to allude to a calm, quiet, peaceful and undisturbed period or time.

The need for such an atmosphere must have been the lure behind the move of Regent Maharani Sethulakshmi Bhai to construct in 1930 an imposing palace atop a hill overlooking the Kovalam bay near Thiruvananthapuram as a summer leisure retreat for the family members of the Travancore royalty.

That beautiful piece of property is now in the midst of a controversy over ownership. The Oman-based M Far Hotels of the M Far group, which purchased the Kovalam Ashok Hotel from the public-sector India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) for Rs 44 crore in July 2002, insists that the Halcyon Castle forms an integral part of the hotel complex.

However, local activists, egged on by leaders of the Opposition front, dispute the claim and maintain that it belongs to the State Government. Tourism Secretary T. Balakrishnan was quoted as saying that there were no records to show that the Halcyon Castle belonged to the State Government.

It is easy to see why the grand sea-facing granite castle has suddenly become everybody's interest. For the hotel industry, it is a rare property that will attract dozens of pricey customers. Already, the 188-room Le Meridien Kovalam Beach Resort & Spa, which is what the erstwhile Kovalam Ashok is now called, boasts that its "four royal suites in the castle are in the category of the most luxurious accommodation available in the handful of five-star hotels in the entire State." And their tariff ranges from $350 to $500 a day.

For politicians, it is an opportunity to shine in the limelight. For the Government, it is an embarrassment, another sign of ineffectiveness in policing prime property.

However, every one of these interested parties seems to be barking up the wrong tree. The government, while it does have a moral obligation to protect and preserve architectural and cultural monuments, has often failed to do so, not for want of intent but for sheer inefficiency and ineptness.

One has to only look at the dilapidated condition of most of Kerala's architectural heritage to realize this. Recently, the government looked on as a portion of the historic West Fort in the capital was destroyed.

It is not as if the government cannot be a good caretaker of heritage. Consider the impeccable and elegant manner in which the Department of Archaeology has maintained the Padmanabhapuram Palace, near Thuckalay in neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Perhaps the fact that it is in another State - and thus not so attractive to the local media - prevents government officialdom and sundry politicians from interfering in its functioning.

The fact is that private entrepreneurs can - and are often encouraged to - maintain heritage property in a responsible manner, especially today when the well-heeled traveller is in search of authentic historical and cultural experiences. Consider the many heritage hotels run by the Taj group, especially in Rajasthan.

The Halycon Castle deserves a caring and benevolent guardian. But whether that ought to be the State Government alone is a moot point.

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