God’s own country!
God’s own country! It is a place in which Arundhati Roy pays tribute and curses “Gods of the small things”. Days pass slowly there, traditions are caught in fishing nets and Gods laugh from the heights of Ghats Mountains. The legend has it that Parasurama, one of the reincarnations of God Vishnu, threw his axe into the Arabian sea from Ghats, and where the sea retreated, Kerala was born. Salty sea was mixed with over forty freshwater rivers rising in Ghats Mountains and created a dense network of canals, lakes and dams linking the labyrinth of 1,500 kilometers of waterways called "backwaters".
FORT COCHIN AND MATTANCHERRY
There aren’t many places in the world, to which monsoon winds and the smell of spices brought more sea trading ships than to the Fort Cochin port and its part Mattancherry in Kerala! In one melting pot, old Hindu cults worshiped by Brahmins from different parts of India were mixed. In the 6th century, Arab merchants built the oldest Muslim mosque in India here. The oldest Jewish community in India settled here. The original Christian values preached by St. Thomas, not influenced by the Bible, which was brought here by Portuguese sailors only in the 15th century, remained here. Sailors such as Vasco da Gama, Saint Francis Xavier or traveler Niccolo de' Conti, who already in the 15th century said that "China is a great place to make money and Cochin to spend it!” found their home here for a short time. Three major European powers, Portuguese, Dutch and English, captured Kochi and fourth, the French came pretty close to it. And only few people know that in Kerala in 1958, the first communist government was democratically elected and is still in power.
BREAKFAST IN THE TAM BRAM STYLE!
AGRAHARAMS - A COLONY OF TAMIL BRAHMINS
Dim light of oil lamps, the smell of sandalwood sticks in the room, coconut oil and fresh white jasmine in the hair, red sindhoor rubbed in the hair parting - a sign of a married woman, bindi - a dot on the forehead and a tilak of sandal paste between the brows, in the place, where the inner eye opens. Vidya, a middle-aged Tamil woman, corrects her sari and puts jewelry and bangles on her hands. Each jewel has its place, connecting body chakras and directing the flow of energy, when moving. She puts her hand to her heart and indicates that she has finished her morning ceremony and we can go out. It is shortly after dawn, we are leaving a small dark room in front of the house. There is a temple dedicated to God Vishnu at the end of the street lined by houses on both sides. Women, who have already performed the morning pooja(a ritual ceremony), are passing by. Vidya tilts her head to Ananya and says something to her in low voice, so that Sudhith and Janko with Martin cannot hear it. Ananya answers: “No!” and looks at me, embarrassed, not knowing how to ask about “it”. I understand and answer, shaking my head: “No!” Ananya is visibly relieved that she doesn’t have to explain “it”. She doesn’t have to; I have seen many inscriptions on temples warning women not to enter temples during their period, otherwise may suffer. We enter a small temple, in which sacred images of Krishna, imported from Thanjavur in Tamil Nadu, are stored. Priests are wearing white dhoti wrapped around their waists, a sacred thread over their shoulders and the sign of God Vishnu on their foreheads. The air smells of sandalwood incense, the priest strikes a bell and holds a lit candlestick out. We ritually cleanse with hand movement in its glow. The second priest draws ‘tilak’, a vertical line on the forehead, with sandal paste and pours Amrita, sweet water into the hand, a symbol of the immortality, drink that Goddess Lakshmi roses out of the ocean of milk. He chants mantras, some of which are birdsongs passed for millennia, come from the times, when any language formed into words didn’t exist. There is still a powerful language of symbols and images here. We are returning to the front of the house. Vidya folds hands in front of her chest and greets Gods. She slowly sprinkle white rice powder on cleanly scrubbed floor, forming complex geometric shapes in front of the door, creating a “kolam” - ornamental drawing for protection from evil spirits and attract Goddesses into the house. She says that Saraswati, the Goddess of wisdom, comes first. She brings knowledge, arts and rituals, which, if regularly observed by the family, will attract the Goddess of luck and prosperity, Lakshmi. She likes sweets, so there is something sweet in every Hindu kitchen, so that luck and prosperity stay for long. Vidya hangs a bunch of green chilly peppers and lemons above the door. These are for Lakshmi’s sister Alakshmi, who brings bad luck to the house. Alakshmi loves spicy and sour food, which is always outside the house and she doesn’t have to enter into the house. We enter the house again. Vidya begins to prepare breakfast and Ananya explains the differences between the various rice and cereal flatbreads - idli, pongal, dosa, aval, puttu, idiyappam, appam, chapathi, sevai, vadai and various kinds of chutney and vegetable sambar. Just when I start to be confused, Vidya puts Masala Dosa, a thin crispy rice-flour flatbread filled with boiled potatoes with onion and pepper mixture, on the table. As she is spreading other thin flatbreads on the hob, she takes out metal cups to prepare the iconic “filter-coffee”, and explains that she has the coffee beans from her friends living in Nilgris, a mountain area. It does not take long and she pours the strong coffee from one cup to another, so the coffee is fluffy. We are having breakfast, and I watch the guys to blissfully sip the strong sweet foamy coffee. Vidya explains that her husband's father together with other Brahmin families moved here from Tamil Nadu more than a hundred years ago. The house they live in belongs to the community. The rent is only 150 rupees, very cheap also for India. Other Brahmin colonies from other parts of India are nearby. A few streets further, there is a Brahmin community from the Konkan area, today’s Goa. Most of them escaped Portuguese inquisition. Originally, their house was actually a kitchen belonging to a local maharaja's palace, currently one of the biggest tourist attractions of Mattancherry, with beautiful preserved mural paintings that we are going to see after breakfast. Each meal for the maharaja had to be prepared in accordance with strict religious practices in order to satisfy all gods. But there are over three hundred and thirty three million gods! And each has a different taste! Therefore, more than 60 kinds of curry - salty, sour, bitter, pungent and finally sweet one - are served at the majority of Hindu celebrations. People can eat only when gods are fed. Each meal is a ceremony. We will return and spend one day with Vidya, cooking food of Gods...
TEA ON THE SYNAGOGUE STAIRS
In its best time, the Jewish quarter in Mattancherry was flourishing with trade, culture and prayers. It was the heart of the oldest Jewish community in India, whose roots date back to the dynasty of King Solomon. It is said that they settled here after fleeing from persecution at the end of the 12th century. Over 6000 people had lived in the Jewish quarter before independence of India was declared. Today, they can be counted on the fingers of both hands and all are older than 75, and if they want to read the Torah in the oldest synagogue in the former Commonwealth, they must ask for a rabbi from Israel. The street leading to the synagogue has changed its face. Sarah Cohen, 90 year old lady, often sitting in front of their house, has become its symbol in recent years. She is wearing a long dress in soft colors and a traditional head cap - kippa, which she recently sewed and sold in her shop, which is also her house. Today, her little shop is managed only by her Muslim assistant, Thaha Ibrahim. He says that once a journalist asked him in an interview, if it was not strange that a Muslim took care of a Jewess: “So I told him that Mrs. Sarah's husband had always been very kind to me and helped me many times, because he had given me a job. Madam (Sarah Cohen) then snapped, that they had fought ‘there’ and we had been ‘here’!” A six-branch lamp stands on a solid wooden cabinet and the walls are covered with mostly black and white photographs, timidly reminding of the time when the local Jewish community was divided into black and white. They tell old stories of the time, when women still wore the latest fashion and a butcher sold kosher meat to prepare traditional meals during Jewish celebrations. Thaha is browsing through old books - weddings, Hanukkah, Passover, Yom Kippur and the Jewish New Year. He shows photos capturing Sarah Cohen in her best years. A tea vendor passes by the house. He is shouting: “Tsaia, Tsaia!” An iron pot of masala tea is fastened to the back seat of the bicycle and there is samosa and crispy vadai wrapped in newspaper in a bag. The tea with spices and milk is too sweet, vadai is too greasy and samosa too spicy, but together they taste amazing! We finish eating. We say goodbye to Thaha and leave. Sarah Cohen has meanwhile fallen asleep on the couch in the next room.
LUNCH ON A SILVER PLATE
GUJARATI ROAD - A COMMERCIAL ARTERY OF MATTANCHERRY - HINDUS, JAINS, MUSLIMS
Just a few meters from the Jewish quarter and the maharaja's palace, one of the longest streets, Gujarati Road, crosses Mattancherry from north to south. One of the most tested communities in India lives here. Gujarat - “the pearl of the west”, a state in northwest India, for centuries had to resist armies from Persia and the Ottoman Empire, whose paths led through the Arabian Peninsula, present-day Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Muslim conquerors got to India through Gujarat and locals, mostly Hindus or Jains, fled to south. Military, commercial and religious paths have always intersected. On the one hand, escape from the enemy, on the other, new beginnings. Today, this community has about 4,000 members, more than half of which are entrepreneurs. We are walking through the market on Gujarati Road and Sudhith with Ananya say that even local temples are financed from the fruit trade. We stop at the most known stand - its rear wall is decorated with copies of local newspapers in which is Chetan, the fruit vendor, photographed with exotic fruits, which he imports to Mattancherry. Chetan explains that stands prosper because buyers know that the profit goes to the temple and their community is supported in this way. His ancestors together with the first immigrants from Gujarat came to present-day Kochi on wooden boats after the first Muslim invasions of Mahmud of Ghazni razed to the ground one of the most sacred temples, Somnath, in 1025. “We are Hindus, belonging mostly to the cult of Shiva. There is a Jain temple in the next street - there are not many such temples left here,” he adds, “but,” he points to end of the street,“ that Muslim family came here from Rann of Kutch only after the great earthquake in 1819. The Kutchi community includes also the family of owners of Abad Hotels (one of the largest hotel chain in south India). But in the beginning, they also traded dried shrimps here in the Mattanchery port.” Fish, spices, fruits, flower oils - Gujarati Road could be easily mistaken for any street in Gujarat - Gujarati Chamber of Commerce, Gujarati cultural institution, Gujarati school with over 1,200 students, in front of which we meet our host, who shouts at students running out of the building. We enter the house next to the school and I ask, if he still speaks the Gujarati language. "Most of us speak Gujarati, Malayalam, Hindi and English. I was born and grew up here, but I, as my parents, observe all Gujarati customs and rituals!” It's not too difficult, because there are eight temples along the street within one kilometer. “We celebrate Diwali, Holi, as well as Navaratri. We dance circular dance ‘garba' or Krishna's dance 'dandiyaraas'.” As he is speaking, he seats us to a Persian carpet on the floor, and his daughter brings traditional Gujarati thali after a short conversation. Ten small circular bowls filled with various curries are lying on a metal silver platter. "This is 'dhal' from lentils," she shows the first bowl. “There are various curries in other bowls – okra (lady fingers), yellow pumpkin, beans and potatoes with cauliflower. The white meal is curd - buffalo yogurt, there is mango chutney and spicy-sour pickle in another bowl. And in the last one, there is a piece of the sweet 'sukhdi', which is cereal flour mixed with jaggery - coconut caramel and ghee (roasted butter).” As she is putting a spoonful of rice to the middle of a plate, she continues: "On the right side, there is little crispy flatbread 'papad' and small thin pancake made of wheat flour, 'chappati'. Rice is usually not consumed in the north of India, but in Kerala this habit is being adopted." We sit with our legs crossed, with the thali in front of us, and we start eating. According to the Indian custom, food tastes best, when mixed and eaten with hands. Only in this way tastes of individual curry sauces are mixed best. Only the right hand with fingers squeezed firmly together is used, into which the food is scooped a moved to the mouth with the thumb. It takes a while we manage it, but only in this way can be the alchemy of curry sauces mixing curry best understood. Our host meanwhile says that besides thali, his favorite meal is Gujarati meal 'Undhiyu' - variety of vegetables is cooked in a clay pot, set in the ground, upside down, with flame on the top. “However, in Kerala, it is almost impossible to find 'Undhiyu' in restaurants; even in Gujarat it is prepared mostly in the winter." After the meal, the daughter brings a bowl of water with lemon juice to rinse hands and offers to demonstrate mehendi to me and Ananya, which is drawing with henna on hands, practiced mainly during holidays and weddings, while we are drinking black tea. We don’t have much time, but we accept. His daughter sits down next to me and with quick and experienced movements applies ornaments with henna to my hands.
FOOD OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS
GUJARATI ROAD – JAINS
In the meantime I ask about the Jain community, which also came from Gujarat and is one of the groups following the religious diet most strictly. "They are strict vegetarians. Food is a part of spiritual enlightenment and they therefore eat only parts growing above the ground - this food is called 'sattvic' - containing light, goodness and happiness. 'Tamasic' are underground crops - onions, garlic, as well as potatoes and everything growing underground - these are crops of darkness, stupor and lethargy. No meat or eggs are consumed, because it is not in accordance with one of the main Jain principles - 'ahimsa’ – doing no harm. Strict asceticism and moderation. It is difficult to observe these rules in the modern world. When Jains travel, they usually take a cook with them." After a short pause he adds, “On the way to Bazaar Road go past the Jain temple! Monks feed over two thousand pigeons in the afternoon there!" We part and pass by the Jain temple. We come arrive at the time when thousands of pigeons circle in a flock above the temple. Their cooing and silent prayers of monks are mystical.
BAZZAR ROAD - MUSLIM SPICE MARKET
After about a half-hour walk through narrow streets we get to the Bazzar Road, which lines the east coast of the island and connects Mattancherry with Fort Cochin. There are many colorful shops on both sides. They look like tiny stalls, but even today, international spice trade at the highest level takes place there! We enter the courtyard through a small wooden gate. We stopped by Sudhith’s family friend. Sacks with sample spices are stacked in one small room. There's everything from pepper called black gold, ruby-red saffron, curcuma giving curry the yellow color, fresh green coriander with a slight citrus aroma, juicy and slightly spicy ginger, bitterish dried caraway seed, fruits of tamarind trees and fragrant vanilla, thin cinnamon bark, golden cardamom, Christmas cloves, oblong bay leaves and many others whose names we don’t know. As we are examining the bags, an assistant brings a tray with steaming masala tea and the owner belonging to Gujarati, but Muslim community, says: "This tea is also spiced in Gujarati style with cloves, ginger and cardamon." He turns to the assistant and tells him something, and the assistant is back with a package in a moment. "These are sweets from Shantilals Sweet Shop - katli, monthal and kalakand - these are the best cookies from cashew nuts in Kochi! Go to visit it next time, queues stand there during Diwali and they double the number or employees in order to manage to produce the cookies in time." "Many Hindu Holidays are associated with spices." says Ananya. "For example, the most famous holiday of Holi, during which people throw powder paint at each other, was originally a celebration of the arrival of monsoons and people threw spices at each other in order to strengthen immunity through inhalation. It is also a part of Ayurveda - the traditional medicine. One of the most known herbalists, Narendranath, has a shop near here, but we will visit him next time." "A sweet and fragrant visit," I tell to the owner, we thank him and continue.
COMMUNISTS AND SYRIAN CRISTIANS NASRANI
FORT CHOCHIN WITHOUT A FORT, BUT WITH IMPREGNABLE SPIRIT
It is late afternoon and the sun begins to color Mattancherry streets golden. Offices are slowly closing and officials stop at ‘kada’ (small wooden stalls) to buy masala tea and snacks on their way home. There is usually a room next to them, with a large portrait of Che Guevara, newspapers to read and a lot of red flags - Communists. Few people know that in Kerala in 1958, the first communist government was democratically elected and is still in power. Basically in front of each temple, no matter whether Christian, Hindu, Muslim or Jain, there are a few large red communist flags and a hammer and a sickle are drawn with chalk on a sidewalk in front of the entrance. I call it a modern ‘kolam‘. “Do you know that you would be put behind bars for this in former Czechoslovakia?!" I say to the young leader, who ran from a ‘kade' to learn where we are from. Ironically, they were communists, who played a crucial role in equalization of castes in Kerala. In the past, not only Hindu temples but also Christian churches were divided into castes. Before arrival of the Portuguese, native Christians didn’t even have Bible and followed early Christian principles dating back to the time, when St. Thomas, one of Jesus’ disciples, came to India. Equality in the notion of Kerala communists means that anyone can enter any temple regardless of the caste or religion. The strongest and most influential Christian group is Syrian Christians. They are called 'Nasrani’ in the local language, which amused me initially (‘nasrani’ means ‘annoyed’ in the Slovak language), but I tactfully avoided linguistic comments during the meeting with the local Christian elite, who gathers in Fort Cochin. But it also isn’t unified. History is full of stories and fights between Catholics and Protestants. The irony is that there is no fort in Fort Cochin nowadays, because after 160 years the Dutch demolished the original Portuguese fort built in 1503 and built a new fort with seven towers, but after another hundred years the British almost razed it to the ground. Basilica of Santa Cruz, the oldest in India, built by the Portuguese in the 16th century, destroyed by the British and rebuilt in the 19th century, has the same fate. “Three European countries occupied Fort Cochin - Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain - and France also almost seized it. But the history of Fort Cochin and its part Mattancherry is built not only of bricks, mortar and stones, but here masters of words wrote one most of the most available historical records about India, located in the world's archives,” says an employee of a coffee bar in David Hall Gallery, where also famous Hortus Malabaricus was written, which is the largest botanical encyclopedia of Asia, whose creation was supported by the Dutch governor Hendrik van Rheede in the years 1678 - 1693. A challenging day and almost slushy sunset. We are sitting in the garden of the historic hotel Brunton Boatyard overlooking the ferry to the neighboring island and Chinese nets, symbol of the Fort Cochin. A gastronomic festival offering 29 meals inspired by cuisines of local communities takes place here. Three menus are offered - vegetarian, meat and fish. “The vegetarian menu is inspired by Tamil Brahmins - tamarind rice or 'pulliyothere' and Gujarati cheese with spinach 'palakpaneer’. Christians enriched the local cuisine especially with non-vegetarian, meat dishes - fish, lamb, duck and chicken meat. Well-known braised chicken with onion, potatoes and cream sauce with a mixture of spices - pepper, cinnamon, cloves, green chilli, lemon juice, shallots and coconut milk is served,” explains chef Ajeeth Janardhnan. We note that “in today's India, meat eating is considered not only religious but also a political act!"
PAPAYA CAFE, ROUTE COCHIN, CELEBRATE KERALAM AND THE OTHERS
Mosaic of cultures in Mattancherry and Fort Cochin. Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Christians, and many sub-groups - over 150 of them were counted in surveys! The old mixes with the new ... we are taking an evening ferry, sailing by a cargo ship harbor to the new part of Cochin - Ernakulam. Evening Concert at Papaya Cafe ... but that's another story, see the video!