The Rich History and Diversity of Kerala

By Issac Thomas Joy & Supratim Barman

fort kochi

Let me take you through to the annals of Indian history to something that lays forgotten in the lands of Sub-Continental India as it happened centuries ago which has laid the foundations of the Modern Era as to what we perceive of today and that tale will be explored today as I share this with you …

A small town in central Kerala, India; in the city of Kochi bears witness to a history of what was perhaps the First Indian Struggle for Independence against European Colonial Powers, which, in essence was a Declaration of Independence against them at the time, or as it is more commonly referred to as “The Leaning Cross Oath” (Coonan Kurishu Satyam).

By the Father, Son and Holy Ghost that henceforth we would not adhere to the Franks, nor accept the faith of the Pope of Rome, nor any foreign rule.” – From the Event of the Leaning Cross Oath of AD.1653.

Mattancherry and Fortkochi are two towns within the city of Kochi in Kerala, India, where various civilizations of the world have created significant impact, which, in turn; has led to a unique synthesis of both cultural and religious importance. The Portuguese followed by the Dutch and, later on the British, ruled these areas as their trading hubs until the Independence of India.

These towns were always thriving commercial centers as well as major religious centers where various groups strived to establish their administrative supremacy; which is why these areas are home to many ancient Temples, Churches, Mosques, Synagogues and other historical monuments that showcase this rich past.

In Mattancherry stands the St. George Orthodox Church, being itself, centuries old and having been renovated in the past few decades; as one of the oldest Churches in India and this particular Church holds a paramount position amongst Orthodox Churches as it is home to the holy remains of St. George. These holy remains were accidently discovered beneath a hidden chamber under the Altar of the Church by the Priest in charge of the renovation work. St. George, a Saint who is highly revered in Eastern Europe, lived his life and left his legacy in the regions surrounding what is the nation of Turkey today.

This Church has a distinct style with catenary vaults, arches and a dome (13 vaults and a dome; which is the largest catenary structure in Southern India) and it evokes the past in a way that has never been seen before and is reminiscent of the early symbols of Eastern Christianity.

The current Priest; a man of saintly demeanor with a smile that lightens up your day, loves to impress visitors and tourists alike through his captivating Holy Mass and the songs of the ancient hymns of Eastern Christianity; and to those lucky ones, to whom he reads from the Hebrew Bible.

Nearby is situated the The Lady of Life Church, which is a Catholic Church of high prominence with worshipers who congregate from all religions; be it Hindus, Muslims or Jains from near and afar, all flocking to light candles and offer prayers every day. Being a very old Church which was initially built by the Portuguese; today, having been renovated, it is a marvelous sight to behold, both inside and outside for visitors and tourists.

Both these Churches are Pilgrim Centers with their historical importance deeply linked to the Leaning Cross Oath of January, 3rd, 1653.

Christians of India have over 1600 years of unbroken Christian tradition and heritage, which upon being questioned by foreign powers, led to the Event of the Leaning Cross Oath whereby tens of thousands of Christians gathered in protest and, in a pledge, tied ropes onto the Cross (which was then subsequently destroyed by the Portuguese) in order to maintain contact amongst themselves all who had gathered. This resulted in the Cross bending under the immense pressure, which, in turn, subsequently gave it its name.

Some find it surprising that Christians have existed in India for 2000 years, long before it kicked off in Europe, but then again, many are not aware that Jews have been travelling as traders to these cities since 1000 B.C., in fact, during the times of King Solomon, when they were known as Cochin or Malabar Jews.

The Paradesi Synagogue is just 10 minutes walk away from these Churches and is the most splendid and well maintained among the 9 Synagogues that existed in the region. Though most of the Jews have migrated to Israel, Mrs. Sarah Cohen was the oldest that still called the place her home along with her Muslim caretaker, whom, just like his father and generations before him were the assigned caretakers for the Jewish community and read the Torah to her daily until she passed away a few years ago. There also exists a Jewish Cemetery nearby as well. Indians do not know Anti-Semitism and thousands of years of history seems to prove that they cannot even understand it. This Synagogue was renovated with contributions which included those from her Jewish neighbours who were Hindus, Muslims and Christians; amongst other patrons.

While on your walk towards the Synagogue it would be highly unlikely that you would not pass by the Dutch Palace which was designed as a fusion of both, Portuguese and Kerala architectural styles. This was a gift given to the erstwhile King by the Portuguese for granting them the rights for trading and for other privileges, after their arrival. The Palace’s Main Hall has an amazing collection of mural paintings and antique Royal regalia.

The famed Spice Market and the Spice Board which controls 75% of the world’s spices are a stone’s throw away from the Palace, which you have to reach by passing through Jew Street that sells antiques of splendid variety and rarity. Most of the Jewish Community lived here and that is how the street got its name.

This small town of Mattancherry, which is hardly the size of a few city blocks, holds such vast diversity which I have not even attempted to show you beyond the tip of the ice berg.

I will highlight the true cosmopolitan nature of this town as there are 39 different communities, all having come at different points in time, in chase of a dream but staying on for a collective reality. Each little pocket of space here is home to a different community indistinguishable even to the locals who see them all without any prejudice.

There lives a few families from Yemen who travelled by sea in the year 1115 AD, still upholding their unique cultures and traditions in their homes. They have records of all those that had travelled in the past. A family tree of adventurers from the deserts of Yemen to a promised land.

The Tamil Brahmin singers and musicians having arrived 300 odd years ago were famed performers who travelled all over India and pleased the Kings, Queens and nobility at their Royal Halls.

Gujarathis came about 500 years ago, even before the Portuguese. The Dekhnis enjoying their Urdu ghazals having come from Hyderabad 250 years ago, the goldsmith community of Tamil Vishwakarnas and Goan sonars who settled here centuries ago and are known for their skill in making intricate gold ornaments, Agarwals from Rajasthan having arrived 100 years ago speaking their own distinct dialects. The Jains having been here for over 200 years. Saraswat Brahmins having traded here for 500 years. The Kutchi Memons having made their journey from Sindh 100s of years ago and all of them having their own places of worship and their own gods to please; all packed into this patch of land.

The numerous monuments of various communities; be it of Hindus, Jains, Muslims, Christians, Jews, all borrowed the skilled craftsmanship of the Christian artisans, whom were the sole builders who granted beauty to all that can be seen here today.

This town of Mattancherry is a whole world of itself, where your own imagination will refuse to believe your eyes and ears as you walk by its streets.

Here you will find people having migrated all those years ago from as far and wide as Bengal to Kashmir to Baghdad and to some who themselves having arrived just some 50 years ago.

The town of Mattancherry leads you to the adjacent town of Fortkochi; about a 5 minutes drive away which too has its own history blended with that of the colonial rulers of its past. With cafes, pubs and heritage hotels with their own unique share of history dotting the streets and centuries old huge rain trees supposedly planted first by the Portuguese dominating the skies and shading you from the sun wherever you go, it is also where you will find most of the Anglo-Indian community and the ancient Chinese fishing nets operated together by workers from different religions.

Every new year the Anglo-Indians burn Santa Claus effigys, whom locals call “Papanji”, a tradition taken from the Portuguese symbolizing the burning of all evil of the past year and welcoming a new beginning and they enjoy their Christmas dance at the Parade Ground near the beach. The Parade Ground is where the British held their parades and hence the name whilst the beach with its outdoor parks is more of a beautiful walkway by the sea as the sands have been reclaimed back by the ocean and it is no longer what it used to be.

Here they hold the annual Kochi Carnival with a series of uniquely themed and creative tableaus, with people dressed up in costumes highlighting the social issues and reflections of the public of the region and of the world, sometimes in a comedic and enjoyable manner, during the time of the New Year.

The Portuguese, as history has it, where the first to arrive in India and the last to leave. The sea route to India from Europe was discovered by the famous Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama who was himself initially buried at the St. Francis Church. It was originally built in 1503 and has huge historical significance within the context of the Colonial struggles that followed (whilst itself remining a mute witness), that owes its origins to the Portuguese Franciscan Friars. The Dutch built a Dutch Cemetery neighbouring the Church when they had control over the Church and this happens to be the oldest Church in India built by Europeans. The Church still retains its Old World charm and its magnificence is visible wherever you look.

It is said and highly plausible that Vasco Da Gama, having arrived at the tip of South Africa in what was the largest ship that Europe ever built, was lost as he tried to find a route towards India hugging the African coast line and was later guided by one of the many traders from India who were plying back and forth along the well established trade route between India and Africa as, they had been for millennia. These merchant vessels were much larger in size and more refined in build quality as compared to the finest ships Europe could offer at the time.

You can wander the streets of Fortkochi, cross by Princess Street where it is said that it was the first path to be paved with black tar in Kerala to please the visiting British Princess back in the 1800s by importing the material from England onlythen, to come across the St. Mary’s Basilica with its magnificent Indo-European and Gothic architecture of immense grandeur showcasing outstanding use of colours in its intricate design and paintings.

This Church was built by the Portuguese over 500 years ago and had suffered repeated attacks by the Dutch and the British in later periods. In 1887 Bishop D. Joao Gomas Ferreira initiated and completed the reconstruction work and by 1984, Pope John Paul II raised the status of the Cathedral to that of a Basilica.

To add another chapter to the fascinating facets of History of Islam in India is to mention the Cheraman Juma Masjid, believed to have been built in 629 AD by the erstwhile King of South India as a place of worship for Arab traders as the King had sent his advisors, whom, having met the Prophet, reported back much impressed; which thus led the King, upon having heard great things of Prophet Mohammed, to built a mosque within and during the lifetime of the Prophet yet in a place so far removed from Arabia, at a time when the so called Muslim nations of today did not even exist as Islamic entities. This mosque is an hour’s drive away from the city of Kochi and still maintains its initial modest existence with reconstruction done only to maintain the structure’s integrity but with the unique style of Kerala’s Islamic architecture, which in themselves, borrowed from the traditional styles of Hindu temples and designs and thus added a layer of uniqueness that can be experienced by visitors themselves today.

By now you would have taken a glimpse into two small towns of Kochi withholding so much history to those that search for it and which is an amalgamation of diverse cultures, traditions, costumes, languages, religions and heritage of communities as if trying to showcase a mosaic of India on a single frame, that it is no surprise that the true nature of colonialism that the nation of India was later on to endure could only have been foreseen in this cosmopolitan city, which reaffirms the importance of self reliance, independence and freedom to people and is a message to Indians and the World of the meaning of true secularism and pluralism combined with its nature, not, of tolerance but of acceptance and respect.

The Leaning Cross Oath is set in history as a reminder of our past for the generations that have inherited the land that is India; for only then can we truly appreciate the future that we are headed towards.

Issac Thomas Joy, born and brought up in Kerala with a deep curiosity for its culture and vast history. Currently for the past 8 years he has been working in the GCC within the Consumer Retail industry.


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