Onam again

Mumbai’s underground culinary culture withered away before it could be discovered and commodified. I’m not talking about the street food, easily visible to every tourist. This hidden world catered to the many young men (always men) who came to the city in the period before the 1990s from small towns across the country. They came to the big city alone, discovered others who spoke the same language and grew up with the same food. No one sent them their lunches through dabbawalas. Instead there were tiny eateries bursting at the seams with office-goers who came for a quick lunch. Businesslike places these: no time for a conversation, you ate and left. If the food did not perfectly reproduce the taste of home you found another.

Just a few survive now. The ruthless culling of decades means that the food is likely to be very good. Last weekend we went for Onam’s special lunch to one of these survivors in a little lane in Fort: Mumbai’s financial heart before land prices and WFH stilled it. We joined a dozen families waiting for a table. I eat this food at best once a year, so I can’t recognize most of it. Waiters don’t explain the food as they serve it, but I asked anyway.

You wipe the banana leaf which is placed as a plate in front of you. Fried jackfruit and plantain, three kinds of pickles and preserves, and papad are placed on the left. A range of vegetables is put across the top. I had to taste each to figure out the principal ingredients. The one on the extreme right was made with pineapples. There seemed to be banana flowers is one, possibly unripe jackfruit in another. There was a starchy root which I could not identify. I mistook the one with a long cut bean for avial and was corrected as the avial was poured over the rice. The onam sadhya also came with rasam and sambar, buttermilk and a payasam. We walked out in a daze.

Who’s bothered by closed gates?

Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) flowers every twelve years. In 2018 we set off for Munnar in the middle of a terrible monsoon to see its flowering. The slopes where they grow were battered by rain, and although we did see a few flowering bushes, we never got the magnificent views of purple-covered mountains that the media was showing. I think all that footage came from the previous flowering in 2006. In the evening we retreated to a tea estate and the next day we walked around the nearest village to admire feral plants.

Kerala is an amazing place in the monsoon. Every garden runs uncontrollably wild. Bushes and vines cannot be kept inside closed gates and orderly gardens; they spill into roads and the countryside. The yellow flower above is certainly a garden flower (can someone help me with its name?) but it was growing in a jungle of bushes along the road outside the purple gate.

Any gate which was shut could no longer be opened because of the growth around and over it. A good thing that some of the gates were merely ornamental, standing free of fences. You could just go around it if you wanted. We kept to the meandering and narrow. It was a Sunday, and most people were at the bazaar or church. Very few were at home to wave at us as we strolled through the village.

Blue morning glory (Ipomoea indica)

On a previous visit to Munnar I’d noticed that the blue morning glory (Ipomoea indica) has become a pest, over-running trees and taking over forests. In this village it had competition, but there were still many of its spectacular flowers to be seen. The pistil projects quite a way from the disk of its petals, as you can gauge from the focus in this photo.

Scarlet morning glory (Ipomoea hederifolia)

Its main competitor seemed to be the scarlet morning glory (Ipomoea hederifolia), another import from South America or the Caribbean. It is hard to be more precise about the original range of most morning glories because they spread very easily as human activity opens up dense forests. The long slender goblets of nectar in both of these trumpet shaped flowers evolved to take advantage of the long beaks of hummingbirds. I wonder what their pollinators are in this far land. Clearly there must be some. How would they spread so far and wide otherwise?

Polka dot plant (Hypoestes phyllostachya)

Another of the plants which I cannot name is the one you see above. The dark green elliptical leaves with pink dots and the two-lipped flowers with the very long pistil are familiar. I’ve seen them in garden even as a child, and I think I have a memory of these plants in my mother’s garden. But I’ve completely forgotten what they are called. Can someone help? (Thanks Deb for identifying it as the polka dot plant, Hypoestes phyllostachya)

Bengal clock vine (Thunbergia grandiflora)

Another plant which runs wild easily is the Bengal clock vine (Thunbergia grandiflora). The name comes from the fact that the creeper winds clockwise around any support. I was curious why this property would enter into its name. Apparently 92% of vines from around the world twine anti-clockwise, so the sense in which this plant winds does make it very special. You seldom get such a clear explanation of names of plants.

Curios and curioser

I stood in front of a door with the intricately carved hardwood lintel which you see in the featured photo. The figure is possibly a variant of Gajalakshmi, the goddess of wealth in her most royal aspect. In the usual iconography she would have four hands, two in the mudras of abhaya and varada, and two holding lotuses. Here only the pairof hands with the lotuses is seen. The dark wood had certainly been carved more than a century ago, perhaps some time in the middle of the 19th century CE. Once this kind of door lintel was common across Kerala. There was a master carver who served a small group of villages. The large number of master carvers puzzled me. In a pre-consumer economy, you would not expect door lintels to be such hot items. It turns out that the reason has to do with a churn in the Kerala agricultural economy in the 19th century.

At the beginning of the 19th century the economy of Kerala had come to depend heavily on the export of pepper. It was originally grown only in two districts, but the possibility of trade made pepper the primary crop across the Malabar region. Then, in the first decades of the 19th century, the pepper market crashed and the local economy shifted first to byproducts of coconut, and then to coffee. Land belonged to a few, and was worked by a larger number of tenants who would bid for the right to cultivate. In this speculative agrarian economy there was a quick turnover of tenants, and at each turnover the newly prosperous tenants built their own family home. This required extensive woodwork and metalwork (see the ornate handle and lock in the door above).

In the Kochi area you’ll find shops full of old bric-a-brac hiding a few gems. The wooden carvings that you see in this photo also come from that time. It is interesting to see that about eight centuries of cross-ocean trade had already made Kerala a very cosmopolitan place. Local artists drew not only on old Hindu traditions, but also the deep historical connections with the west, the Levant and Arabia, the far west, Europe, and the east, Java, Vietnam, and, mostly at a remove, China. As an amateur I find it interesting to try to trace artistic influences in these everyday decorations from a century ago. I’m sure art historians have been over this territory in great detail.

The box arrives

Onam, one of the big festivals of Kerala, was yesterday. This is a harvest festival, and involves a wonderful onam sadhya, onam lunch. For the last couple of years The Family has located restaurants nearby for such a lunch. It was out of question this year. I’d not paid much attention to the calls to our favourite restaurant, and the fact that she’d ordered onam sadhya from them for us. After all, this restaurant is known for its innovative take on Indian food; how traditional could it be? Very, it turned out.

The box, when it arrived, was amazing. I made a video of the unboxing of the food. It took us half an hour to prepare the “plates”. Happy Onam to you. Enjoy!

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.

Instagram food

We had some memorable meals in Kochi: Malabar biryani, a Dutch bread, and wonderful sea food. On our last night in Kochi we could go back to the place which we’d liked most till then, or explore a new place. We opted to explore something new which had good ratings. The reviews on various restaurant sites were good, and the photos of the dishes also looked good. It was only when our order came to the table that we realized that the chef spends all his energy on making the food instagrammable. The seared octopus that you see in the featured photo looked wonderful, and I took a photo before digging in. There was no seasoning at all. The dark grains were carbon. The crisp black and white wafer was sago granules in carbon. Talk of food turning to ashes in your mouth! The rest of dinner proceeded along the same line.

To the adage “Never judge a book by its cover” we must add “Never judge food by its photo”.

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.