Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Guide to the Calicut City: Letters to a Visiting Friend

Dr Bina Thomas, a historian and archeologist, was visiting the city of Calicut, for the first time. As her host in the city, I kept worrying what could be of interest to her and what not; and hence I ended up writing a series of mails to her trying to introduce this city and its surrounds to her. Now that her visit has been successfully concluded, I suppose I could release these mails to my readers who might wish to visit our city:

Hi, I am glad finally you have taken the plunge and decided to visit Calicut. I am hopeful your visit could result in some good and perceptive notes on the city and its life for your travel series.

I do believe that this city has quite a lot to offer a visitor, though often visitors may fail to see even a fraction of it. I have lived here for many decades and even today I know there are many things which I have not explored.

Its history and its long and complex relationship with the external world-- Arab, Greek, Roman and modern colonial powers, is well known. But what is so fantastic about this city is that even at this moment it is in a constant flux and keeps on changing and its changing facets are visible to people who take a stroll around the city and its living quarters.

Go to the beach any evening and you see this for a fact. It is a mix of all kinds of people, colourful and complex: Young women in jeans to those in total veil are around and all of them seem to live in their own special world though without causing friction or irritation to the others. I have never seen another city which has taken this new-found fixation for full veil without much bother as I see here these days. It seems just another season for fashion shifts.

This contrast between perceptions of bigotry and religious fundamentalism ad the reality gets much more pronounced as one goes to a textile shop, where new fashions are eagerly examined, or a hotel where spicy hot biriyani is served and witness how voraciously people take to the pleasures of life from behind the veil. It is a celebration of life I see here.

As a woman traveller you might get a much better and closer view to their life behind the front door. Try to visit a Muslim family house and take a look at their Ara, or the inner room where their Puyyaplahs-- even a man married for decades to the family is still a puyyaplah here!-- are feted.


From Varakkal beach in the north to the South Beach road at the southern end, where the road turns east leading to the old city of Arab influence-- Kuttichria, Idiyangara, Kundungal and Kallai-- one comes across quite a lot of historical facets. Of course not in a chronological order, not in a clean vertical or horizontal perspective; but with plenty of criss-crosses and inter-junctions. But this confusion of street names, histories and connotations and historical connections illustrate the symbiotic relationship of these various groups of people who came and got entangled in its long history.

Varakkal is part of the ancient past, the place of Varakkal Nambi, vassal of Zamorin, and a sacred place for Hindus who pay obeisance to their ancestors. As one reaches Vellayil beach, Customs Road and Lions Park, one enters the nerve centre of civil life in colonial times as most of the civilian habitations in the British period were located here. You still see remnants of it, at the Kerala Soaps & Oils premises near Gandhi Road, which used to be a famous factory of sandalwood soap that was exported even to London, for the Crown's use, and the brand then was known as the Imperial Soap. Watch those old buildings and you see the influence of colonial patterns, as in the old Corporation building and the Beach Hospital nearby.

Towards the South beach, it is a wonderful mix of all kinds of racial and cultural heritages and traditions ranging from Arab, Jain, Gujarati, Marathi, etc. You see the pandikasalas or trading houses in plenty, on the Beach Road as well as the Big Bazar nearby, and the Gujarati Street and the Silk Street with living quarters of most of these ethnic groups tucked inside. There are mosques (the oldest dating back to 14th century, called Miskal Mosque), temples and a Jain temple besides a Gujarati school in this small area, and I am told there used to be a China town also somewhere there in the past.

This particular street reminds me of how history has been such a wonderful and unceasing process, with many people coming and going, getting closely interlinked and generating new energies and of course animosities in the process.

I do feel this particular street and its past is something that strongly revolts against the concept of uni-dimensional and exclusivist painting of history that is being attempted in our times. The very atmosphere, the very smell of these places do transport you to something quite different, something more cosmopolitan. I think Romila Thapar's book, Somanatha: Many Strands of a History, captures such an image of a place up north, but somebody should write about this street and its environs down south which is much more evocative in its assertive cosmopolitanism.

Well, I have other parts of this city to describe but I think before one embarks on a walk down there, the best thing one can do is to go to Google Maps and examine this part of the city to see how history has been made in such a small stretch of land.


Those who visit the city today will surely feel the Mananchira Square is the centre of the city. It indeed is, but only a decade ago the landscape in this region was completely different.

N M Namboodiri, the historian of Zamorin's city, has described the city and its main points as per the Calicut Granthavaries, the records of the local rulers, and it appears the main palace-- burnt down in 18th century as the last Zamorin committed suicide setting fire to the palace-- was somewhere on the eastern side of Palayam (where the bus stand is), the main market even today. Palayam is something like Chandni Chowk to the Red Fort in Mughal Delhi.

As a Hindu ruler, Zamorin had traditional architectural or Vastu patterns to follow. His immediate surroundings were set apart for his closest people, according to their ranks and castes. Thus, to the south east of Palayam, we have the Tali temple, the Zamorin's main deity of Shiva, and then next to it the Tamil Brahmin settlement. (The Namboodiri Brahmins stuck to their illams and settlements and never uprooted themselves for the convenience of even the king. Thus the tantris of Tali and Valayanad temples lived in their illams many miles away, somewhere in Nediyirippu, in the present day Malappuram district.)

The main vassals and chieftains also lived here, in Tali, Chalappuram and Panniyankara areas. These are Eradies and Nairs, mainly.

On the northern side of this area is a goshala, which used to give milk to the palace and today, if you take a trek to the interiors of Palayam you will see narrow lanes with old houses still keeping cows and buffaloes.

On the north-western side, we have the major centres of power and administration: the Mananchira tank, the Muslim mosque for military men, Kottapparamba (camp for armed forces), and city’s own the raj path that leads to Palayam. On the right side of the junction, just opposite the old palace, you have the Moideen Palli, the mosque (remember Zamorin's offer to Muslim chief Shah Bandar Koya that he would occupy the right-hand position at Mamankam), and on the left side, the Mariyamman Kovil (which almost shares a wall with another mosque) and then a number of other temples besides the famous Tali Shiva temple.

What is unique about this few kilometre-radius of land, is the seamless array of various sites that speak of the history through many centuries: The temples speak of the king and his vassals, the mosques of Arabs and their flourishing trade, the churches (the German style CSI Church is the most prominent in the heart of the city) of its dalliance with the west and the military mosque about the arrival of the Mysore powers to Kozhikode, which ultimately led to the suicide of Zamorin and at the far corner of SM Street the Parsi place of worship, and then a bit to the west on the beach, the Jain temple...

3 comments:

JS Adoor said...

This is an informed, useful and readable introduction. Thanks Chekutty. JS

http://www.theverdictindia.com said...

An excellent update on Kozhikode.

babu said...

Dear Chekutty Sahib, Your Kozikode article, i fully enjoyed and its make me littile "think" about my beautiful city. Further Its make me to remember some article written by M.T. Vasudevan Nair's "Calicut articles" which is published in Mathrubhoomi.

 
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