On Mattancherry island, off Kochi, the Kutchi Muslims, Konkanis, Gujaratis, and the Jews, apart from locals, have lived next to each other for centuries
Photo: The wedding of Shahran Sait and Zeba Abdul Kader
By Shevlin Sebastian
On the stage of the Town Hall, Kochi, the Imam leads prayers from the Koran. The bridegroom, Shahran Sait, is resplendent in a brown sherwani, with a red turban and a violet stole placed across his shoulders. Family members sit on the stage and observe closely. After fifteen minutes of prayers, Shahran signs the nikaah document and the marriage is over.
Then the girl, Zeba Abdul Kader, is brought to the stage. She is wearing a lehenga, her arms and hands covered in mehendi, apart from a gold necklace and earrings. Her face is covered by a dupatta. Then after a bit of teasing, where the groom's family has to shell out money, 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 from the spouse. And thus a Kutchi Memon wedding was 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. It is a traditional type house with wooden windows and a sloping red-tiled roof. In 1895, the Memons set up the Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry as well as the Coronation Club. It was built in an area which was gifted by Rama Varma, the Maharaja of Cochin. The name was given in honour of the Coronation Durbar held in Delhi in 1911, to celebrate the ascension of King George V.
Today, there are 700 families comprising 3000 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 families are close-knit and loyal. At home, they stick to traditional foods. The most well-known dish 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.”
Most of the Memons continue to be businessmen. “The Abad group is the biggest,” says businessman Gaffar Essa. “They run several hotels, are sea-food exporters, and into real estate.”
But there are a few who are poor. To help them, the Kutchi Memon Association has been formed. “It looks after the medical and educational needs of these people,” says Dr. Sadith Sait.
On a hot sweltering day, educationist and author N. Purushothma Mallaya is sitting under a fan in his home at Kotuval Lane. The foremost proponent of the Konkani language, his desk is filled with papers, files and several books.
“The first batch of Konkanis came in 1294, when Allauddin Khilji had attacked Goa,” says Mallaya. “Later, during the Portuguese Inquisition in 1568 A.D., 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. “In those days, homes of that kind were allowed only for the native Brahmins,” says Mallaya. “He also gave us the right to do business in foreign countries.”
Later, the Konkanis constructed the Thirumala Devaswom temple, in which Sree Venkateshwara is the presiding deity. Eventually, the community built 16 temples.
Incidentally, Mallaya’s mother N.M. Saraswathibai was the first woman teacher in Kerala.
She taught Marathi at the Thirumala Devasom Balikadharmam Patshala in 1908. “People called her ‘Missy,’” says Mallaya. “I was the ‘son of missy. ’”
Today, there are 30,000 Konkanis in Mattancherry. Most of them are businessmen. “People said business is supposed to be done by the Vaishyas [traders], so why are Brahmins doing it?” says Mallaya. “But at that time who would give us jobs? And according to Manusmriti, Brahmins can do business when necessity arises.” So the Konkanis did trade in rice, ran hardware and provision stores, and were dealers in Ayurveda medicines. They also became prominent because of their papadam-making skills, as well as the jewellery business.
One of the most prominent jewellery shops is the Geeri Pai showroom in Kochi, which belongs to the Pai family. “My great-grandfather M. Madhav Pai landed up at Pallipuram from Goa during the Portuguese Inquisition and later moved to Mattancherry,” says Ramesh Pai, a member of the current generation. “Initially, Madhav Pai began dealing in Ayurveda medicines, before branching out into gems, stones, and gold jewellery. He used to supply jewellery to the Royal family at Tripunithara and other members of the elite.” Today, the thriving business is more than 100 years old.
The land of Gujjus
When you step into Gujarati Road, it seems that you are back in the state that Chief Minister Narendra Modi presides over. 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. For more than 50 years he has dealt in stationery, agency work and the export of coir yarn. It helped that Mattancherry has an all-weather port, so trade could be done throughout the year. Now his three sons have followed in his wake. Interestingly, all of them have married girls from their caste, but two are from Mumbai, while one is from Vidarbha in Maharashtra. “My sons had arranged marriages,” says Mulraj. “But nowadays, inter-caste weddings also take place.”
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. “First, we went to Calicut, Alleppey and then to Kochi and Mattancherry. The Kings of Cochin, Calicut, and Travancore accepted us because they were educated, cultured, and broad-minded.”
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.
On the street there are other houses where Jews live. One in which Queenie, the wife of the late warden of the synagogue, Sammy Hallegua, lives, is more than 100 years old.
To run services in the synagogue, you need a minimum of ten male Jews, over 13 years of age. “So the Malabari Jews from Kochi, who number about 45, help to fill the quorum,” says Yael.
(The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)