From Mangalore Street you go forward. You take the first turn to Madurai Street; or, go further, you can turn to Lucknow Street. If you drive on, you can get to Cashmere Street if you want to. Or drive down till you reach Mooltan Street, from where you take a left and then right, and you are now on Baroda Street, which runs parallel to Mangalore Street connecting Madurai, Lucknow and Cashmere.
No, you're not in any Indian city, negotiating a maze of alleys. You are at Travancore in Australia — one of Melbourne’s 'best-kept suburban secrets.'
You can't escape 'Travancore' when you are in this bucolic suburb in the City of Moonee Valley, five kilometers north-west of Melbourne's central business district. You can walk your dog at the Travancore Park or look for an apartment in Travancore-on-the-park or have a drink and a bite at the Travancore Cafe.
Though not many of its residents have visited the 'original Travancore' in another continent altogether, the name Travancore has become a part of the socio-cultural history of the suburb.
Sometimes, it is so strange how linguistic and cultural connections evolve. The Australians have never been colonizers. On the other hand, the Indians for many generations had been serially colonized and been hard-working indentured laborers in many continents who have contributed to the local cultural milieu and economy in many ways.
With the trade winds come the seeds of socio-cultural change. Cultural exchange is part of trade relationships, especially in the past centuries when the world was neither flat nor global.
Malayalees as a people and Malayalam as a language have imbibed many customs, forms and names from the colonizers. Be it our sartorial additions like trousers and suits and shirts or loanwords like mesha, kasera, kakkoos, etc., we still bear the proof of cultural and linguistic interaction.
Names are often the best memorials, as they evoke fond memories and keep them alive. And, that's perhaps why Henry Madden had decided to name his new buy, the impressive Flemington House, after Travancore, the leafy princely state at the southern tip of India where he exported Australian horses for the British Army in the second half of the 19th century.
A couple of centuries ago, trading horses to different parts of the world had brought wealth and name to Australia. One legacy was the influence of culture with places of trade. Australian horse traders to exotic lands brought back art, books, furnishings, music, clothing, culinary tastes, fine tea and words, especially the names of place they admired.
There are houses, properties, streets, roads, suburbs and whole towns in Australia which were named after places in India, Africa and Indonesia they had traded horses with. Ships too were named after the places they had been built to trade to. Horses and races especially got names from India, like the suburb of Travancore and Travancore Steeplechase at Moonee Valley.
According to brokeragesdaytrading.com, "One suburb of Melbourne is named because of the India trade —Travancore. This was where Richard McKenna and his wife Emily owned their house Emilyville (they probably built it) — he had paddocks there and great stables, as he trained racehorses, in Ascot Vale Road. It was not far from Flemington and Moonee Valley racecourses. McKenna got into India horse trading and started making a fortune— it became more important to him than his beloved racing. He'd sold racehorses to India, which is how his interest was sparked. He was respected in India as he sold them the best horses he could find. He was at Emilyville in 1884, and still there after 1910. Hugh Glass bought the original Flemington House in the area, and sold it to horse buyer Henry Madden in 1906 who re-named it Travancore for the area in India he traded horses to. When the original mansion was pulled down in 1940 and the paddocks made into a suburb, it kept the name Travancore. Streets there also got Indian names—Bengal Street, Lucknow Street, Cashemere Street, Mangalore Street."
In 1926, the State Government purchased the mansion and transformed it into a residential special school and outpatients' clinic for intellectually disabled children.
Though the princely state from where the suburb got its name doesn’t exist, the 1700-strong residents of Travancore hold the name close to their heart. They had put up a stiff resistance way back in 2000 when the municipal authorities planned to rename the suburb. During that time a local newspaper, Moonee Valley Gazette, had run a story of Travancore residents' resistance to the proposed scrapping of the suburb. A report under the byline of Tom Laurie said: "Lorna Draper says Travancore has been her postal address for the past 49 years and there is no way she will change her address if the suburb is scrapped."
"The 78-year-old says a proposal to abolish the suburb being considered by Moonee Valley Council is change for change's sake and should be widely condemned by Travancore residents. 'We're all pretty proud of this suburb and I for one will ignore any decision to get rid of it,' she said."
The suburb of Travancore is a lasting proof of Travancore’s trade connections. Manu S. Pillai, whose recent book, The Ivory Throne, tells the story of the House of Travancore, says: "Cannanore, which was under the rule of the Kolathiri Rajahs, was one of the most important ports before the colonial age for the import of Persian horses into Kerala and then Vijayanagar. The Travancore family descended from these Kolathiri Rajahs. They were also one of the two princely states that had a coastline (the other being Cochin), which meant trade of all goods was important in the state and allowed it to earn revenues far superior to its physical size. Naturally Travancore tea, coffee, coir, etc., reached markets as wide and distant as the United States and Europe."
However, most of the new generation members of the Travancore family don’t know much about the 'connection Down Under.' Venugopal Varma, great grandson of Sethu Lakshmi Bayi, who lives in Sydney, says he isn't familiar with the Melbourne suburb named after his family dynasty. But adds that his aunts have spoken of the place and visited the suburb.
Similarly, most residents of the suburb of Travancore, who are passionate about the name like Mrs. Draper, know only sketchy details of the origin of the name.
Henry Madden may have made his fortune from his horse trading to the British Army in the erstwhile Travancore, but he was good enough to name his newly-bought mansion after the verdant sliver of land thousands of miles away.
We may rewrite or overwrite history in a time of 'patriotic activism,' but we should doff our topi to Henry Madden for keeping the memories of Travancore alive.