The Mattancherry Palace

There are many things about the Mattancherry palace of Kochi which one can write about: the integration of European proportions into a traditional Kerala architectural style, the beautifully worked materials used, such as the wood, flooring, and roof tiles, or the artifacts collected in the museum it now is. But every such description is incomplete because the main attraction cannot be shown; you are not allowed to take photos of the glorious murals on the walls. It is a loss in the description, but an opportunity to visit the palace and be surprised. When I stepped over the threshold of the entrance into the long rectangular anteroom, the first detail that I noticed was the intricately carved rosewood ceiling, and, through an arch at one end, the golden glow of the murals depicting the Ramayana that cover the entire wall of the king’s bedchamber

The palace was built by the Portuguese as a reparation to the king of Kochi in the mid 16th century CE, after they previous palace was looted and burnt. The overall style of architecture is traditional, the whole palace being built around a central enclosed courtyard. Visitors can look down at this from a covered verandah that runs around the inside of the upper floor. The materials used are also traditional: dark polished rosewood and fired clay roof tiles. The polished floor is specially remarkable, since it is not stone but a traditional composite material blended from charcoal, burnt coconut shell, egg white, and other ingredients. The arched doors and windows, the elongated rooms, and the external finish of the masonry is European.

The palace museum contains a gallery of several interesting artifacts including European-style portraits of the kings of Kerala. I was specially drawn to the palanquins on display. The alternation of carved and polished plain panels of the covered palanquin, and the ornate brass end-piece to the carrying-pole, were enough to tell us that this was for royals. The seal of the royal house confirms this guess. In contrast, the open palanquin lined with silk cushions would have seated a functionary. We wandered into the coronation room where the murals were being restored. Seeing us spend an abnormally long time examining the paintings, a gentleman from the archaeological survey interrupted his work and gave us a wonderful tour of the paintings in the room. We learnt from him how this room had been whitewashed in the 20th century, and how the underlying paintings are slowly being brought to light again. I can’t wait for the work to be finished so that I can visit this place again.

Paradesi Synagogue

Many years ago at the other end of the world, I met an Indian expatriate preparing a shabbat meal in a house that I’d been invited to. As the long evening began to draw to an end, just before she left for her own family shabbat, we exchanged a few words. She was a Cochin Jew. The northern lights in the sky that night that evening were no more exotic to me than my first meeting with a piece of India’s past. There is a tradition that Judaism arrived in Malabar after the scattering of Jews following the destruction of the second Judaic temple in Jerusalem by Romans in the 1st century CE. The first European Jewish travelers visited India in the 12th centuries and were surprised by the pre-existing Judaic tradition. After the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Iberia in the 15th century, some came and settled in Kerala, and became known as the Paradesi Yehudi (foreign Jews). When their first temple in Kochi was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, they were given protection by the king of Kochi, and land next to the palace to build what is known today as the Paradesi Synagogue.

One morning we joined a stream of tourists walking down a narrow lane to visit this synagogue. After most of the local Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 60s, this remains the only synagogue in the region which is in regular use. The clock tower that you see in this photo stands at the end of the lane and dates from the 18th century. I would guess that the clock is more recent, perhaps only a hundred years old. We bought entry tickets at a window next to the entrance. I did not realize that the lady who sold us our tickets was one of the last people in this community. It is strange to realize that old customs are coming to an end in front of our eyes, and we are often oblivious to them.

Opposite the entrance to the synagogue was this old gate embellished with stars of David and symbols of the menorah. Perhaps the garden behind the gate also belongs to the synagogue. In any case, it was out of bounds for tourists. At the entrance lobby we were directed to first see a little gallery which gave the history of the destruction of the first synagogue and the establishment of this one under the protection of the king of Kochi. Only after we’d seen this display were we allowed to take off our shoes and proceed to the main synagogue.

Meanwhile The Family had found a famous plaque (featured photo) from the first synagogue to be built in Kochi. Oral traditions say that this was founded three years after the ancient port of Muziris was swept away in a massive flood of the Periyar river. Interestingly, during the colonial period a clear distinction was made between European Jews and others. Cochin Jews were allowed to worship at this synagogue, but not allowed to be members. Descendants of black slaves brought by the Europeans were allowed to sit outside the synagogue during prayers. It was only in the 20th century that these barriers were finally removed.

No photography is allowed inside the synagogue. The floor was tiled with blue and white Chinese hand painted tiles, and a pulpit with brass railings dominated the center. A very large number of chandeliers were suspended from the wood paneled ceiling. A steep staricase, almost a ladder, led up to a wooden upper gallery at the eastern end of the room. The way up was barred. Polished wooden slabs, dark with age, provided benches at the windows. We were glad to sit for a while. The sky was overcast and the air was extremely humid, so the little breeze from the window was welcome. Back outside I took a couple of photos of the simple white-washed building.

The marriage hall

Most major temples in the Vijayanagara kingdom have a pavilion outside the main temple which was used for the ritual marriage of the deity and the consort. This kalyana mandapam in the Vitthala temple is quite as impressive as the main temple. When you climb a set of stairs to the east, you see a wonderful open pavilion with 32 pillars. As outer set of 20 make up a square with six pillars to a side (including the corner), and there is an inner square with 12 pillars, 4 to a side, including the corners. These are beautifully decorated.

The Vitthala temple was built in the first half of the 15th century CE during the reign of Devaraya II, with many additions made during the reign of Krishna Devaraya in the early 16th century. I don’t know which period this kalyana mandapam comes from. The Family and I spent a long time here, examining the pillars in detail. The gallery above contains a selection. Many of the sculptures represent couples from the Ramayana, or stories from the 12th century poem about Krishna and his affairs with gopis. Others depict musicians and dancers, and the festivities surrounding a wedding. Several still have traces of paint; I saw a green pigment for the first time in the featured photo. Imagine, if you can, all these sculptures bright with mineral and vegetable paint, lit with oil lamps at twilight. It would have been a sight.

The Vitthala Temple

The Vitthala temple was built by Devaraya II who ruled over the Vijayanagar kingdom in the first half of the 15th century CE. By his time the elements of the kingdom’s temple architecture were all in place, and they can all be seen in these ruins. The main area of the temple, the maha mandapa, stands on a plinth which is about one and a half meters in height. The outer pillars are made of single blocks of granite carved to resemble a group of more slender pillars. You can see a few examples of these in the featured photo.

The plinth is highly decorated. There are lines of horses (Vijayanagara was a major center of horse trade, you may recall from some of my earlier posts, with merchants bringing horses all the way from Arabia), of ducks (the hansa, with its multiplicity of meanings), and of the avatars of Vishnu. I spotted Balarama, Narasimha, and, of course, Krishna in many aspects (as the youngster stealing cream in the photo in the gallery).

From inside the mandapa I could get a closer view of the fired brick superstructures which make up all the shikhara in Vijayanagara. The bricks I saw here looked like they had a long square base, with a height which was about 2/7 of the sides of the square. That’s quite a different shape from the bricks that we use today. It would have been interesting to look more closely at more than a couple of the bricks to check whether these were standardized dimensions, and whether the dimensions changed over the centuries. I’m sure some historian of art and architecture has written about this, and I just need to dig a little deeper to find more about medieval Deccan’s brick-making.

The sanctum itself contains nothing any longer, but you can descend into a dark corridor that circles it. Above and around it are the more interesting things. The boxy pillars of the Vijayanagara style were designed to carry relief sculptures. We saw again the typical examples of Vijayanagara art- the studies of animals (the monkey was special), gods and goddesses, and purely decorative elements. The profusion of images takes time to absorb. I had begun to get the familiar numbness of mind that comes on you when you walk through a museum: too many beautiful things to see in too short a time. I walked out and sat on a bench at the entrance to the mandapa.


The doorway I’d just come out of was beautifully carved, with traces of paint still lingering on it after nearly six centuries of exposure to the weather. I got up to admire the sculpture around it. The door was topped by a wonderful relief of Gajalakshmi, Lakshmi flanked by two elephants. A cool breeze blew through this porch. I leant back on the stone backrest of the bench. It was an engineering marvel! The granite back had been carved just so, and was a relief to lean back on. This granite bench was unbelievably comfortable. Why is there no mention of this marvel in guidebooks?

A gnarly champa

I sat on an extremely comfortable stone bench on the porch of Hampi’s Vitthala temple. It was just past noon, and the day had got really warm. But a cool breeze blew through the porch. I didn’t feel like getting up. In the courtyard in front of me a gnarly champa tree had been planted too close to the temple, and had grown out at an angle before reaching out for sunlight. The almost bare tree made a pretty picture in the afternoon, and I craned to catch the tree and its shadow together.

This was the Plumeria obtusa, once a native of the Caribbean, but now so well established in Asia that you will surprise most people if you tell them that it is not native to this continent. This particular tree was probably very young; they grow fast. But I wondered whether the Vijayanagara kingdom ever saw the Champa. It could not have come here before Europeans landed in the Caribbeans. But who brought it to India? The history of southern India is so much more complex, gnarly, and branched than that of the north. It could have come from the west, carried by the Portuguese, or even before them by the Arabs. Or it could have come from the East, carried to China first and then diffusing through the continent. In the months after I took these photos I’ve searched on and off for the answer, without finding any. If you have some snippets of information it’ll be great if you leave a comment.

Entering the temple of Vitthala

We reached the ruins of the Vitthala temple in the late morning. The day was building up to be hot, and I was very happy that there were golf carts which would take you along the long, dusty, and shadeless road from the parking lot to the entrance of the old temple complex. The entrance did not give you immediate confidence in the declaration on the information board which said “The Vitthala temple is the highest watermark of the Vijayanagara style of art and architecture.”

The massive gopuram, the gateway, was in the usual south Indian style- intricately carved stone pillars and a stone lintel above it holding up a towering shikhara of terra cotta, decorated with stories from the life of Krishna. Most of the temples in this vanished city were dedicated to aspects of Vishnu. I looked at the shikhara and tried to imagine it painted and colourful as it must have been in the early 16th century CE when it was added to the complex during the reign of Krishna Devaraya. It would not have been painted in modern colours, and until I found more about the pigments that were used, it would be hard to imagine.

There were handy guides to other customs of the era. On the flagstones at the gate were carved signs which told you where to stand and genuflect. There seemed to have been separate lanes for families and single people visiting. I was struck again by the coincidences which determined the technology of the kingdom. The abundance of granite in this area meant that it would always have been used for construction, no matter what tools the civilization developed. The coincidence of diamond mines being discovered and worked meant that tools could be developed to carve granite. Without this combination Vijayanagara’s art would have taken a different form.

The first thing that you see in the immense forecourt inside the walls is the iconic stone chariot of Garuda. This is apparently a reproduction in stone of an older wooden processional chariot. Images of this chariot appear in the fluorescent blue currency note for fifty rupees which was released in 2017. The image on the note does not do justice to the actual chariot. It was amazing that this had been carved out of granite. This single object could well represent the “highest watermark” of the kingdom’s art.

If you look closely at the details, you realize that the chariot would have been brightly painted when the temple was in use. The red mineral pigment still clings to surfaces which are not protected from rain. If I hadn’t bent to take the photo you see above, I would have missed the line of warriors carved into the sides of the slab of stone on which the whole chariot rests.

The whole thing is enormously decorative of course, and you can spend a long time looking at it. But once I bent down, I realized that it was also a good idea to bend, kneel or sit near the chariot. The lower part was as exuberantly decorated as the rest of it, and also retained some of the original pigments. I suppose that as usual the colours that were used would have been white, black, red, yellow, and green. The lower surface retains red, some of the yellow, and traces of green.

There is a recess in the chariot on the side which faces the main temple, and I looked inside. An image of the Garuda, Vishnu’s vahana, is carved into this recess; hands folded in prayer to the reigning diety of the temple outside which the vahana waits. Colours have lasted much better in this niche, and you can see the predominant red and yellow natural dyes. The dark patches seemed to be either a moss or a fungus. We had this chariot to ourselves for a while now, but more people were coming to look at it. It was time to move on.

Where the first anti-colonial revolt happened

We had our first sight of this interesting Syrian Christian church when we walked into Kayees for a biryani for our first lunch in Kochi. We passed the St. George church of Mattancherry several times during the next few days. Finally, one morning The Family stopped at this place and led me in. Even then, we did not realize how important this site is in the history of anti-European protests in the world. It is a lovely modern structure, open to the air like so many of the traditional churches of Kerala. It was only later, when I started reading about it, that I realized that this place should be in every guidebook.

Bear with me for a moment while I paint in a background history which is not part of anyone’s textbooks. Christianity took root in the Deccan in the 1st century CE, the tradition being that it was brought by St. Thomas, who was one of the twelve disciples of Christ. The church of India was represented at the Synod of Nicea in 325 CE, which was the first gathering of Christian churches across the then-known world. Jesuit priests arrived in India with the Portuguese and began to Latinize the Malabar church, starting with the foundation of a diocese in Kochi in 1558. The revolt called the Coonan Cross Oath (Koonan Kurishu Sathyam), refers to a public oath taken by the Malabar Christian community in 1653 that they would resist the Latinization of the church, and would not recognize the authority of the Pope.

While I was still fussing about the coconut trees and the framing of the featured photo, The Family had discovered a cross at one side of the forecourt which seemed to be special. In retrospect I wonder whether this was the famous cross which was the famous leaning cross in front of which about 200,000 Christians took the oath of revolt against the Portuguese priest. I had discovered a dedication in another part of the forecourt which said that the foundation stone of the new structure was laid on 29th October 2005, and the church was consecrated on 3rd January 2006, to commemorate the 353rd anniversary of the oath.

I walked into a chapel with a large cross at its center, presumably the historic Coonan cross. A medallion at the center of the glass window behind it held a representation of the Turkish-Roman soldier who is today called St. George. This church holds some relics of the saint, and therefore could be considered to be among the most important churches dedicated to him. It is interesting that the stories of St. George had wide currency in the east, and even entered into Islamic theology as a prophet, but was carried to western Europe only after the crusades. This church overturned many of my assumptions about Indian, and the wider Asian, culture and history. I do wish that more people stop by here to see this site of the first Indian rebellion against European colonialism.

Vasco was here

On Christmas Eve we reached Kochi’s St. Francis church a little late. The church is a historic monument, being the oldest church built by Europeans in India. and not in use, and it was closed by the time we reached. The Portuguese style facade looked interesting, and we wondered whether it would be open the next day.

The church was not only open when we went back in the morning of Christmas day, but it was crowded. As we walked in through the open gate I realized that this was a pretty international crowd from the old world. Europeans on holiday spoke languages from the east, west, north and south of the continent, and there were Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai and Chinese tourists too. I hadn’t expected that Kochi would be such a widely appreciated destination.

The door was wider than it was high, not something I’ve seen before. Even if you include the height of the arch above it into the opening, it was still an unusually wide doorway. The current facade is certainly not older than 1506 CE, when the Portuguese were allowed to convert the wooden St. Bartolomew’s church, which had been built here in 1503, into a masonry and stone structure with a tiled roof. The facade and doorway probably dates from that rebuilding by the Franciscans in 1516, although the door looked modern.

The clock in the facade did not look very old either; I guessed early 20th century. It turns out to have been installed in 1923 in memory of a former managing director of the 56 year old Aspinwall and Company, which by then had begun to dominate trade in the Malabar region. The church, by then Anglican, was declared a heritage structure later the same year.

But this story is running ahead of itself. The Family had walked into the church while I was still gazing at the door. I followed her and noticed the worn flagstones just inside. Benches were helpfully placed here so that you could sit while you removed your shoes. If I’d seen the wood paneling of ceiling in Portugal I would certainly have said that this was in the Mudejar style. Here it was difficult to guess when this paneling was installed. The plain pillars which supported the ceiling gave an impression of great simplicity.

I moved into the main church and looked up at the upper story beyond the lobby area. This large balcony would probably have seated dignitaries in the days when the church still attracted them. The church was pretty bare inside. Was it always so bare, or had the Dutch occupation after 1663 responsible for its current looks? It seems that an altar and a gilded screen was removed after the Dutch occupation. A plaque at the entrance commemorates a renovation by the Dutch in 1779. The church was handed over to Anglican in 1804, and renamed St. Francis’ church.

The church, and the Dutch cemetery behind, is an epigraphist’s delight. I’m not one but I walked along the walls peering at the commemoration stones behind which various then-famous people are buried. A lot of them are from the late 17th century CE, and hence likely to be Dutch. Vasco da Gama was buried in this church exactly 495 years, to the day, before we visited. His body remained there for 14 years, until, in 1538, it was moved to Lisbon. His body is now in the Geronimos monastery outside Lisbon. A small railing surrounding a bare stone flag on the floor marks the spot where he was first buried.

In spite of the crowds, tourists here had been so orderly that I’d managed to take all the photos I wanted without having unwanted body parts in the frame. Now, as I left, I noticed the tiles on the floor and took a photos. These tiles were definitely installed by the Anglicans, because I found them elsewhere in Anglican buildings in Kochi. For the first time I noticed that a disembodied toe had entered the frame. Good, I thought, one way to tell that the place wasn’t empty.

Anegundi

Across the river Tungabhadra from the archaeological digs of Hampi is Anegundi, the oldest capital of the Vijayanagara kingdom. Harihara the first of the Sangama kings had his base here as he carved his kingdom out of the disintegrating Hoysala empire in the early 14th century CE. His successor Bukka Raya moved the capital to the more easily defended south bank of the river in the 1360s. We crossed the river in the northwards to see something of the remains of the early years of the kingdom.

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There is little that remains. Part of an aqueduct is all that is visible of the hydraulic engineering of the kingdom. A few temples remain as places of pilgrimage: the Anjaneya temple which perches on top of a cliff (featured photo), is the biggest draw, followed by Pampa Sarovar and the Durga temple. One of the spots worth visiting is an iron age remnant, some dolmens and cave paintings. Unfortunately the road was not driveable, and the afternoon had got pretty hot. The rest of the capital city has disappeared, and the area has reverted to modern village life. We found a little place to stop and have a chai, drove past ripening fields, crept at a petty pace behind a large flock of goats, marvelled at stacks of bananas left on the roadside to be picked up by a delivery truck. As The Family looked at some local jewellery being hawked to tourists next to the Pampa Sarovar, I took some photos of the lady who was both modelling and selling them.

Who goes there?

The Virupaksha temple in Hampi is said to predate the Vijayanagara kingdom whose capital eventually surrounded it. The Archaeological Survey puts the earliest dating of the temple to about four centuries before the beginning of the kingdom, but says that most of the structures were built by the Vijayanagara kings. There are two east facing gopura, the outer one having been built in the time of Deva Raya II, in the mid 15th century CE, the inner during the reign of Krishnadeva Raya, in the early 16th century. Armed with a quick reading of the Survey’s booklet on Hampi, I inspected the pavilion on the right of the outer gopuram; it is supposed to predate the Vijayanagara kingdom. I am no expert, so I tried to educate myself by examining the pillars whose style is evidence of its earlier age. If you are confused about which of the pavilions is older, just ask for the one called the new pavilion. That’s so obvious, isn’t it?

The outer gopuram is quite impressive. I noticed beautiful Vijayanagara style relief on its base. The lovely panel with a horse caught my eye, as did one with an elephant. The small blackstone triple Nandi just inside the gate caught my eye. It was the night of the new moon in November, and a minor festival was on. The inner courtyard was lit with diyas, and was really crowded. It was a good time for people watching.

Some people had settled down for the evening and had begun on dinner. Others were clearly here for a short time, and would go back home soon. The visitors spanned a large income range, if one was to judge people by their clothes. There were priests and pilgrims; the latter being men in black dhotis. I had opportunity for much ambush photography. Take a look at the variety of people I saw.