Monday, October 22, 2012

Culture and History? Go to Trash Heap...

Here is a note submitted to the Cultural Affairs department of Kerala  government with regard to restoration of some 16th-17th  century Portuguese gravestones, now dumped in a government museum  in Trissur. It was submitted to Mr K C Joseph,  Cultural  Minister, on April 17, 2012 and so far no action has been taken, though the government  had promised to do so.

WE the undersigned, Dr John Cantwell Roberts of New York and N P Chekkutty, Calicut, have been working on a project for the proper recording and analysis of the European gravestones and cemeteries in the erstwhile British Malabar and Nilgiri districts for the past two years.  Dr John C Roberts is a retired social anthropologist who has served in various centers of learning including the universities of Oxford  and  Columbia and is the author of scholarly  articles and books like the Early Cantwells in Ireland, a major work on medieval European prosopography. N P Chekkutty has worked in India for almost three decades as a journalist. Two books —Malabar:  The Christian Burials and Memorials in Kannur,Thalassery & Mahe 1723-1950 and The Nilgiris: Christian Burials and Memorials in Gudalur, Ootacamund, Wellington, Coonoor & Kotagiri 1822-2000, will be published by the British Association for Cemeteries  in South Asia (BACSA), London, later this year, as part of our work.  We are now working on the European burials in the rest of old Malabar, comprising areas from Calicut to Angengo in the south.

The present work has academic as well as economic aspects:  As we try to restore the genealogy of the families and individuals buried here, we are also providing a handbook for potential tourists who are looking for details on the final resting place of their ancestors who died in India in the centuries past.   There are tens of thousands of such people buried in the Malabar coast, who came from all parts of Europe, dating back to early 16th century. Some of these monuments are of great historical value and ought to be preserved for the benefit of future studies.

In this connection, we would like to bring your attention to half a dozen gravestones of Portuguese origin, removed by the authorities from an old graveyard near Kodungallur and now stored in the Government Murals Museum, at Chembukakvu, Trichur.  We are sorry t o say that most of these gravestones of some historical significance are dumped one over the other in the courtyard of the museum and are handled in a most deplorable manner. Of the six gravestones we could identify with the help of Prof. Rafael Moreira of the New University of Lisbon, Portugal, only one is in a good condition while all others are broken into pieces, covered with mud and slime making them quite illegible, thanks to insensitive and rough handling as they were transported from place to place after being pulled out of their original resting place. 

Of the six gravestones, we could properly identify the one that belonged to Felipe Perestrelo, who was vicar and school teacher in the region in late 16th century.  His life and family connections are most exciting and evoke historical memories of the period, as he came from a noble Italian family that was related to the Portuguese crown as well as to Christopher Columbus, the great navigator who charted a new route to the Americas in 1492 opening up a new chapter in world history. Other interesting finds in this collection, though broken, include the coat of arms of the Costa family, the burial stone of a navigator who sports the intriguing insignia of the skull and cross bones, a late 17th century symbol that denoted sea pirates.  This must be one of the earliest such symbols ever used and hence of great value in the study of the history of navigation and piracy.

We earnestly call upon the Government of Kerala to take notice of the manner in which these historical relics are handled making them almost inaccessible to scholars and visitors. These stones need to be properly cleaned and mounted, using concrete base fixed with iron bars which will hold the broken pieces  in a proper shape so that visitors and scholars can inspect them at their leisure. You can see that it would cost next to nothing to the exchequer while it would attract large numbers of new visitors to the state.

We do hope the government will take steps for their proper upkeep and we assure every help from scholarly community in India and outside for the restoration of these gravestones.

With sincere thanks,
Dr John Cantwell Roberts, New York
N P Chekkutty, Calicut

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bab-al Bahrain

THE ships came unannounced
dancing on the waves big and small;
laden with wares rich and rare
they entered the souk
through the arched gateway;
beneath its high dome
a world rich and glamorous.

He was weird and with a beard,
she laughed at him for his looks;
she hid beyond the Venetian blinds
of Awal; around him shops
glittered, and bright windows
glowed with gold and pearls.

In the desert and the scorching sun
love struck him like a thunderbolt;
a lonely wanderer all his life
it struck him mad; it made him blind.

Where did I hear the playful laughter
that cuts like a razor sharp?
Where did I hear the distant sigh
that moves the mountains high?
From Jishanmal's narrow streets
to the wide expanse of golden
sand on the way to the Tree of Life
he prays for a fleeting glimpse
of the divine form, etched in soul.

At the high-domed grand mosque
a prayer goes up in heavens,
Ya Allah, show me the way
to the divine presence.
To the one who prayed on her
knees, for the beloved
who wandered far and wide.

For whom the battles raged
in mystic Dilmun days?
For whom the pearls longed
in their sleepy oyster homes?
For whom the Barbar temple
offered beasts and birds?

She remains hidden in the shrouds
of history; her golden neck unadorned,
her lovely limbs un-massaged;
her lazy locks unfastened;
the sheets in her bed longing for
the day her man will come with
a sweet and mesmerizing smile.

Wafa Manama, 03.10.2012.

(Dedicated to Dr Maria Bernadette Gomes, who told me about the romantic charm of Bahrain past, opening my eyes to a life beyond the malls and marts in the deserts.)