The shifting legacy of the Kerala High Court - Part I

In this article, we take a walk down memory lane from the time of the Rajas to the establishment of the Kerala High Court at the building it now occupies in the heart of Kochi city.
Kerala High Court
Kerala High Court

The smallness of the State - less than 15,000 square miles - need not prove a deterrent. It is refreshing to remember that small States can be crucibles for great experiments and that in the retrospect of history, democracy itself is a contribution of States which were not too large.

These were the words of PS Rau, the first Governor of the State of Kerala, at the inauguration of the Kerala High Court.

The Kerala High Court came into being on the same day that this small State was born - November 1, 1956 - a day that is now celebrated as Kerala Piravi Dinam.

However, it did not come into existence in a vacuum; its roots go back to the Maharajas of erstwhile kingdoms, to the early 19th century Hukum-namas, and to the High Courts of Cochin, Travancore, Travancore-Cochin, and Madras.

The seat of the High Court in the State that is now Kerala has also moved from place to place. But somehow, every structure it has occupied over the ages continues to be inextricably linked to the judicial system.

Kerala High Court, old (L) and new (R)
Kerala High Court, old (L) and new (R)

In this article, we take a walk down memory lane from the time of the Rajas to the establishment of the Kerala High Court at the building it now occupies in the heart of Kochi city.

During the days of the freedom struggle in the early 20th century, the sliver of the Indian peninsula that Kerala now occupies was made up of the two princely states of Thiruvithamkoor (or Travancore) and Cochin, as well as the Malabar region in the north, which was then a part of the Madras Presidency of British India. 

Before this period, the judicial system in the two kingdoms had seen much overhaul which is usually attributed to the efforts of Colonel John Munro and several hukum-namas (royal decrees) issued in the 19th century that established graded courts called Zilla courts and Huzur Courts (courts of appeal).

The latter was then replaced by the Sadar court in Thiruvithamkoor and the Rajah’s Court of Appeal in Cochin. These two courts practically possessed all the powers now exercised by the High Court, in their respective kingdoms. 

In 1887, the High Court of Travancore was established and its first Chief Justice was Ramachandra Iyer, who was only 35 years old then.

In Cochin, the Raja's Court of Appeal was first reconstituted as the Chief Court of Appeal in 1900. It was then reconstituted as the High Court of Cochin and its first Chief Justice, VD Ouseph Vellanikkaran, was appointed in 1938. 

The High Court of Cochin functioned from the building which currently houses the Ernakulam District Court.

Inauguration of High Court of Cochin
Inauguration of High Court of CochinScan from photo

The Malabar region came under the jurisdiction of the Madras High Court, which is now the highest court in the State of Tamil Nadu. 

Two years after India won her independence, the two princely states were united to form the State of Thiru-Kochi (Travancore-Cochin) in 1949 and the High Court of Thiru-Kochi was created, with its seat in Ernakulam district’s Cochin, now known as Kochi. 

The building of High Court of Cochin became the High Court of Thiru-Kochi.

Previously Cochin High Court, then Thiru-Kochi High Court, now Ernakulam District Court
Previously Cochin High Court, then Thiru-Kochi High Court, now Ernakulam District CourtScan from photo

The inauguration of this High Court was held in Cochin with several esteemed guests in attendance, including its first Chief Justice, Puthuppally S Krishna Pillai.

Though the building once housed the High Court of Cochin, the establishment of a new High Court for the new kingdom was not done without grandeur.

Inauguration of Thiru-Kochi High Court
Inauguration of Thiru-Kochi High CourtHigh Court golden jubilee souvenir

Even though the High Court of Thiru-Kochi no longer exists, the building it once occupied continues to exist and now houses the Ernakulam District Court.

Ernakulam District Court now
Ernakulam District Court now

A bench of the Thiru-Kochi High Court was also established in Thiruvananthapuram’s Vanchiyoor in an impressive gothic building constructed by His Highness Sree Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma.

The building was where the erstwhile Travancore High Court existed and it is still firmly in use for justice dispensation as it now houses the District Courts and other subordinate courts in Thiruvananthapuram district. 

High Court of Travancore
High Court of TravancoreHigh Court golden jubilee souvenir

On November 1, 1956, the State of Kerala was created by merging the State of Thiru-Kochi with the estwhile Malabar district (part of Madras presidency).

This marked the establishment of High Court of Kerala.

On November 5, 1956, the Kerala High Court was inaugurated at Kochi at Ram Mohan Palace, a two-storied building that was built in the mid 1930s overlooking the State’s famous backwater.

When the High Court of Kerala was inaugurated at Ram Mohan Palace, the last Chief Justice of the High Court of Thiru-Kochi and the first Chief Justice of Kerala, Justice KT Koshi said,

"It may well be that during these seven odd years the Travancore-Cochin High Court has been functioning here, the Bench and the Bar might not always have been able to see eye to eye on some common questions affecting both; but I think I can say without fear of contradiction that each has in its own way contributed its best towards the attainment of the ideals placed before them on the day of the inauguration."

Five other puisine judges were appointed to the High Court - Justices K Sankaran, G Kumara Pillai, MS Menon, TK Joseph and N Varadaraja lyengar.

Ram Mohan Palace then
Ram Mohan Palace thenHigh Court silver jubilee souvenir

Ram Mohan Palace was a building constructed to honour of the visit of Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow, by the then Diwan, Shanmugham Chetty. During World War II, the building had accommodated a Military Hospital. When the war was over, the palace functioned as the State Secretariat until the States were re-integrated and the Kerala High Court was born. 

Ram Mohan Palace with High Court of Kerala board
Ram Mohan Palace with High Court of Kerala board

Once a building with a private boat jetty, the palace now faces a busy road as over time, the backwaters have been pushed back by reclamation of land and high rises have been built on the surrounding land.

Ram Mohan Palace now
Ram Mohan Palace now

But on any given weekday, members of the public can roam the passages of the building, framed by satisfying symmetrical pillars and windows. Even though, in the 21st century, it might seem to be an unassuming and rather forlorn structure, it has an air of forgone significance. Indeed, the faded "High Court of Kerala" board that is still displayed proudly on the building's facade, serves as an excellent reminder.

Inside Ram Mohan Palace
Inside Ram Mohan Palace

At present, the almost 9-decade-old building houses the offices of the Judicial Academy, Alternative Dispute Resolution Centre and the Vigilance Registrar and is adjacent to the office of the Advocate General of Kerala.

This is perhaps what sets the Kerala High Court apart from its counterparts in some other states.

In Maharashtra, the building that once used to be occupied by the Bombay High Court, was turned into the Great Western Hotel and later, was divided up for renting out to residential and commercial tenants.

However, it is almost as if every iteration of a High Court that has existed on Kerala soil firmly planted its roots there and left such an indelible imprint that the people of Kerala seemingly cannot fathom using the structures it once occupied for anything else but the judicial system.

At the Kerala High Court's Silver Jubilee Souvenir Book, Justice MS Menon, one of the first judges of the Court and later its Chief Justice, talked about how the High Court never lost touch with its previous iterations.

The judge pointed out that the table at which the advocates sat in the Chief Justices' Court at Ram Mohan Palace came from the High Court of Cochin. The panel behind the judges in that Court came from the High Court of Travancore. The maces that were carried before the judges were patterned on those of the High Court of Madras.

And for 50 years, the High Court of Kerala sat at Ram Mohan Palace, until it was moved to its current home in 2006.

Interestingly, from a courtyard in the middle of Ram Mohan palace, one can see the brick red and white structure where the Kerala High Court now sits.

Current Kerala High Court building viewed from inside Ram Mohan Palace
Current Kerala High Court building viewed from inside Ram Mohan Palace

The new building was expected to be the High Court's home for many decades but recent developments have put that to doubt.

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