India Chronicles 2 – The Malabar Coast

 

Leaving Mantra Surf Club in Mulki at 5 am was just one of many early starts on this passage through South India. Travelling by public transport through India is gruelling but rewarding. It requires time and patience.

 

The still spicy early mornings are thick with the sound of morning prayers that drift on the tropical air. Devotees are called to worship from various Mosques and Temples dedicated to followers of Jain, Krishna and Hindu. Along the Kerala coastline large communities of Christians live in harmony with other religious followers. These are mostly Syrian Christians and Catholics. India is truly a country of religious hodgepodge. It is a spiritual country with immense substance.

 

Our next great train journey snaked along the lush West Coast between Mangalore and Ernakulum. The iron snake crossed several formidable rivers, hugged great expanses of sandy beaches, snugged close to lagoons and stopped at many halts along the way. Each station presented its own form of daily life. Stray dogs, holy cows, ladies in colourful saris, shirtless men wearing lungi’s, food stalls packed to the rafters with beautifully crafted sweet meats, chai sellers and deformed beggars and contortionists.

 

 

 

After a 9 hours journey we disembarked at Ernakulum on the mainland and the closest railway station to Fort Kochin. It then took a further auto-rickshaw and ferry trip to reach the old city. It was dark by the time we had managed to navigate our way through the dark maze like streets littered with all forms of obstacles. We secured a home-stay room in a beautiful heritage building owned by an established Indian-Catholic family. I was intrigued by the family’s ability to combine both Christianity and Hinduism. The family shrine was dedicated to Mother Mary, with Devali oil lamps, incense and a small statue of Ganesh ensuring all bases are covered.

 

Kochin and the Malabar Coast has attracted traders and fortune seekers for well over 600 years. Legend has it that Jesus the Nazarene once set foot on this part of India. Kochin is a screen shot of giant fishing nets introduced by Portuguese Casado settlers from Macau, a 400-year old synagogue, Portuguese houses, a Dutch Fort, the faded glamour of the British Raj and Syrian Christian culture pre-dating the arrival of Vasco de Gama. This is possibly the most unique mix in all of India.

 

South Africa has several Genealogical links with South East Asia. One of them is based on two slave women Helena van Malabar & Catharina van Bengale. These two woman are the ancestral grandmothers to the South African Pretorius clan. Daar het jy dit nou!

 

The Jewish Heritage of Kerala is perhaps the most fascinating. An Independent Jewish Kingdom ruled by their own prince existed from the 5th to 15th century in Cranganore. The port primarily served as a centre of trade and also haven for refugees to avoid prosecution from their oppressors. It was said that the first of the Jews who arrived in Kerala were in King Solomon’s merchant fleet. During the Portuguese occupation many Jews were persecuted. It was the Dutch who later allowed the Jewish community to flourish. After the creation of the State of Israel during the mid 1940’s, most Malabar Jews immigrated from India. Today less than 50 Jews remain in Fort Kochin. However their reach, influence and heritage is beautifully captured in Mattancherry’s Jew Town and the Pardesi Synagogue which dates to 1568.

 

 

It is advisable to linger for a couple of days in Kochin. It lies at the heart of the Malabar Coast and her soul is ancient as it is exotic. Several heritage hotels, good museums and excellent cuisine ensures Kochin remains an obvious base to explore the Hill Stations to the East and the Backwaters to the South. Kerala fame for excellent cuisine is perhaps eclipsed by Kalarippayat (ancient martial arts) and Kathakali performances (exotic theatre shows with elaborate costume and make-up design).

 

During the train journey to Ernakulum I finished reading “The God of Small Things” the 1997 Booker Prize-winning novel written by Arundhati Roy. This book inspired me to engineer an itinerary detour to visit the village of Aymanam, the home town of the author. In the book Arundhati vividly sketches life as a Christian-Indian growing up in the Backwaters of Kerala.

 

With the assistance of our home-stay hosts an auto-rickshaw was commission to take us on an exploration of Aymanam. It is a beautiful village surrounded by fresh water waterways and tall coconut palm trees dancing in the wind. Taking centre stage in the village is the Sree Narasimha Swamy temple and the crisp white and beautifully detailed St George Jacobite Syrian Christian Church.

 

 

The Backwaters of Kerala is the perfect antidote for travellers fatigue. Several house boats ply these waters and watching the setting sun over India’s largest fresh water lake – Lake Vembanaatu, is simply sublime.

 

Kerala has several signature fish curry dishes. However, a dish which caught my attention is fish wrapped and steamed in banana leaves – which is utterly delicious. It has a distinctive Portuguese influence and it is served with a variety of vegetables steamed in coconut milk and mopped up with freshly made roti. Using your right hand of course.

 

Kottayam lies at the heart of the Backwaters. It is also on the busy rail route between Thiruvananthapuram and Ernakulum. It is here that we joined masses of Hindu devotees returning from the world’s largest annual pilgrimage. An estimated 100 million devotees visit Sabarimala every year and the temple complex is only open for 2 weeks of the year.

 

Sabarimala is believed to be the place where the Hindu God Ayyappan meditated after killing the powerful demoness, Mahishi. Ayyappan’s temple is situated here amidst 18 hills at an altitude of 468m above sea level, and is surrounded by mountains and forests. Sabarimala pilgrims are easily identified by their black for blue lungi’s and they smear sandalwood paste on their foreheads. Pilgrims wear no shoes or shirts and they do not shave until the completion of their pilgrimage. They carry no possessions except of a few Rupees and cell phone. Women between the ages of 10 and 50 are not allowed to enter the temple compound.

 

 

I was overwhelmed by the warm and kind nature of the devotees. Although it was difficult to communicate most of the time we were made to feel comfortable and cosy as we sat shoulder to knee in a jam packed train. Hot masala tea is always a good conversation starter. Indians have great fondness for South Africans and a quick reference check based on the following is always in order:

• Home town in South Africa – tick
• Cricket (1.Cronje, 2.Amla & 3.Kirsten) – tick
• Mahatma Ghandi – tick
• Nelson Mandela – tick

 

Once the above had been established the next round of innocuous probing may follow;

• Marriage status (being single brings on disapproving gawps)
• Profession
• Position at work
• Income (after tax)
• Qualifications
• Father and Mother’s names
• Religion

 

Slowly some of the pilgrims started nodding off and a melancholic quietness settled on the train. The stillness was punctuated by the clickety clack of the Kanyakumari Express rolling south under a sultry sky, through a landscape that can only be described as Nirvana. We chased the setting sun past towns such as Perunguzhi, Murukkumpuzha, Kazhakoottam, Thiruvananthapuram, Nagercoil and finally Kanyakumari.

 

We had arrived at the southernmost tip of India and the end of the great Indian Railway network line. At the other end of the line lies Jammu Tawi at a distance of 3715km’s. It takes 70 hours to crawl along the spine of India. It is the longest single train ride in India and it is operated by the weekly Himsagar Express. This is the great grandfather of Thomas the Tank Engine.