The great melting pot of Kerala
By Shevlin Sebastian
16th June 2012 11:16 PM
On the stage of the Town Hall, Kochi, the Imam recites verses from the Quran. The bridegroom, Shahran Sait, is resplendent in a brown sherwani, with a red turban and a violet stole placed across his shoulders. After fifteen minutes of prayers, Shahran signs the nikaah document and the marriage is over.
Then the bride, Zeba Abdul Kader, is brought to the stage. She is wearing a lehenga, her arms and hands covered in mehendi. Her face is covered by a dupatta. Then after a bit of teasing, the bride’s face is revealed. Zeba then reaches out and takes Shahran’s hand and places it over her right and left eye and to her lips, as an act of taking a blessing. And thus a Kutchi Memon wedding is concluded with hugs and kisses all around.
The Kutchi Memons came to Mattancherry island, near Kochi, in 1815 because of a severe drought in Kutch, Gujarat. “They began their lives in Kerala as businessmen,” says Abdul Azeez, the former joint chief manager of the Bank of India. “Many of them exported dry prawns to countries like Burma. They would also bring back clothes, dates, and sugar.”
Often, the local people called them Saits or Sethu (owners). In 1875, the Memons constructed a Kutchi Hanafi mosque, which still exists. Today, there are 700 families comprising 3,000 members, and they identify themselves as Hanafi Muslims. “We believe that there is one Allah and Prophet Mohammed is his messenger,” says A S Abdul Latheef, a managing committee member of the Kutchi Memon Jamaat.
The most well-known dish of the Kutchi Memon is Muttiya. “These are dumplings, set in meat and vegetable broth,” says homemaker Raziya Yacoob. “We also enjoy Gundh Ka Laddoo, which comprises gond (gum crystals), semolina, and dry fruits.”
Mattancherry also boasts of a sizeable Konkani population. Throwing light on the community’s history, N Purushothma Mallaya, the foremost proponent of the Konkani language says, “The first batch of Konkanis came in 1294, when Allauddin Khilji had attacked Goa. Later, during the Portuguese Inquisition in 1568 AD, the Konkanis were given the option: convert to Christianity or leave. A few thousand Gowda Saraswat Brahmin families left the region. They were accompanied by the Kundumbis (who do field work), Vaniyars (traders), and Sonars (who do the goldsmith work).”
The Konkanis went all over South India. A group arrived at Calicut, but the Zamorin King asked them to leave. “The Konkanis came to Cochin and met the Raja at the Mattancherry Palace,” says Mallaya. “Behind the palace, there was a filthy area called the Cherlai. The king donated the land and the Konkanis prospered and made it a commercial city. The Raja was happy.” In 1627, through an inscription on a copper plate, the Raja gave them permission to build houses of brick and stone.
Later, the Konkanis constructed the Thirumala Devaswom temple, in which Sree Venkateshwara is the presiding deity. Eventually, the community built 16 temples. Today, there are 30,000 Konkanis in Mattancherry. Most of them are businessmen.
The land of Gujjus
When you step into the Gujarati Road at Mattancherry, you will mistake it to be a part of Gujarat. There is a large Gujarati school, which has more than 1200 students. Near it, there is a sweetmeat shop, which sells jalebis and gulab jamun. There are wayside shops where the language spoken loudly is Gujarati. And in a ground-floor apartment lives Mulraj N Ved, 83, the patriarch of his clan. “I was born and brought up here,” he says. “But we have retained our Gujarati customs and religious rituals.” It is easy to do that because there are eight temples within a one-kilometre radius. “We celebrate Diwali, Holi, and Navaratri,” he says. “During the festivals, we also do the garba and the dandiya raas dances.”
Mulraj has been a businessman all his life. As he talks, Mulraj’s daughter-in-law, Rashmi Tushar, brings steaming cups of tea made in the Gujarati way: with masala powder, cloves, ginger, and cardamom. The community has retained their food habits. So they eat chappatis, puris, bajra, and lots of vegetables, as well as sweets. “But we also have Kerala-style idlis, masala dosas, and sambhar,” says Rashmi.
Today, there are 4000 Gujaratis in Mattancherry. “Nearly half are businessmen,” says Chetan Shah, the secretary of the Sri Cochin Gujarati Mahajan. “There are also people who work in banks, insurance, and in other jobs in the private sector.”
Like the Konkanis, the Gujaratis moved out their state when Mahmud Ghazni attacked the Somnath Temple in 1025 A.D. “We came to Mattancherry by country boats,” says Chetan.
Going, going... gone
There are only nine Jews left in Mattancherry. “We range in age from 40 to 90,” says Yael Hallegua, 40, the warden of the Pardesi Synagogue in Jew Town. “Our population has been declining for years, so I am not surprised that we are only so few now.”
The white-skinned Jews came to Mattancherry from Spain during the Spanish Inquisition of 1478, when the Jews were persecuted during the reign of Queen Isabella.
On Jew Street, the most prominent structure is the Pardesi synagogue. It is more than 450 years old and was built on land given by the Raja of Cochin. In fact, the synagogue and the Mattancherry palace share a wall.
Inside, there are glass chandeliers and a brass pulpit. The floor comprises Chinese-make porcelain tiles. There is also a carpet donated by Haile Selassie, the last king of Ethiopia. “We use it only during important functions,” says Yael.
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