Kannur and Thrissur: religions, origins and culture of Kerala

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April 11th 2009
Published: April 11th 2009
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Kannur and Thrissur

There was such a huge difference in vegetation as soon as I got into Kerala. the forests were so green, and of course, there were coconut trees everywhere (Kerala = land of the coconuts).
I took the overnight train from Goa (Thivim) to Kannur on March 21. I got off at Kannapuram as my host was in Taliparamba. His family is Christian (he has a wife and 2 daughters) and they took me to church on Sunday morning. Except for the fact that everything was in Malayalam (the language of Kerala), the mass was pretty much like any other mass in a catholic church. the church had all the stained glass and ornaments but everyone sat on the floor as there were no seats.
In Kerala, there are 57% hindus, 20% Christians and 23% muslims. There are mainly 2 types of Christians in Kerala. The original Christians converted by St. Thomas, one of the original disciples of Christ, who came to Kerala around 52 AD and converted many Brahmins. They were, in the beginning, associated with the Christian churches in Syria so are known as Syrian Christians. When the Portuguese came in the 16th century, they converted mainly the fishermen along the coasts of Kerala, and those Christians are called latin Christians. So the Syrian Christians are of the upper caste (as they were originally Brahmins) and the latin Christians are of the lower caste (fishermen are shudras). The muslims also have castes among themselves so everybody has a caste no matter what. Even if you're Buddhist and don't have a caste yourself, society here will give you one--they have to discriminate you based on your background/economic situation. People don't know what to do with you unless you belong to a specific stratum in society.
My host is a Syrian Christian. His house is right next to Chiravakka, the temple pond, which is a huge man made pond for the temple Rajarajeswares (further down the street). Traditionally, the priests would wash at the pond before going to the temple, now it's just used by anybody. The water in the pond looked green but there were always people washing in the pond. We could not go into the temple because Ben is a Christian and everybody in the neighbourhood knows him. only Hindus are allowed in the temples. This temple is 500 years old but apparently, the original shivalingam that was naturally there in the rock is over 15,000 years old (but if it was already there as a rock, wouldn't it be millions of years old? I guess maybe they meant that, that piece of rock has been worshipped as a shivalingam for over 15,000 years). there was a fire Theyyam (you have to youtube this, it's awesome) scheduled but when we got there, it was cancelled as there was a death in the family that was sponsoring the Theyyam. We went to another Theyyam but got there a bit too late, the dancing just ended (so we just sat through the blessing). the next day, I went to see the Akayyal Kettu museum (palace of the Sultana of Kannur) but that was closed for the day. wow! what incredible bad luck in Kannur! (and this was to continue in Thrissur). I wondered around Kannur city for a bit and came across the best internet place in India. The connection was fast, there were headphones and webcam with skype, etc. everything for only 20 Rs/hr. I went to an agricultural co-op and saw various fruit trees and tasted most of them. There were gooseberry (amla), ganboge, nutmeg, west Indian cherry (a bush with berries), chikoo, jackfruit, cashews, carambola, starfruit, breadfruit, Malayan apples, and mangoes of all types. (too bad the mangoes weren't quite ripe yet)
I ate only homemade food in Kannur and it was awesome. since there are coconut trees in abundance, everything has coconut in it. cooking is done with coconut oil, shredded coconut or coconut milk is in most foods, coconut oil is also used to light lamps. there's simply the smell of coconut everywhere. Since the family was Christian, they normally eat meat but when I got there, it was the first day of the 40 days of Lent when they eat only vegetarian foods so it was perfect.
I was in Kannur for 3 days and I have to say the best part was the family I stayed with, the people were so nice. I had a great time talking to everyone in the family, even the 12 year old. my host was a homeopathy doctor and was extremely knowledgeable.
Early on the 24th of March, I made my way to Thrissur from Taliparamba. I had to take a bus first to Kannur city, then another bus which dropped me off at Kunnakulam where I had to catch another bus to Thrissur. The entire thing took 5.5 hours.
My host was a family consisting of a father, a mother, an 18-year old son and the grandfather. They also had 2 full-time staff and several part-time staff that did all the cooking, cleaning, gardening, looking after the cow and her calf, milling the grains and spices (they had a mill that was open to the public) and a whole bunch of other things. The family is fairly well off but quite typical in Kerala. They have a modern house with a huge yard that provides them with certain fruits and vegetables.
What a huge difference between the behaviour of people here and that of people in Maharashtra. The servants here are treated like family. In Maharashtra, domestic workers or anyone in the lower caste or economic position are treated with very bad attitudes by the upper castes. In Maharashtra, people are so uptight about their position in society (see my blog on tribals), they would never associate with anyone lower lest they themselves be regarded as lower, therefore, when one associates with a lower, one has to show that the other is lower so as to maintain one's higher status. this also means a lot of ass-kissing of people in a higher position, especially white foreigners which was so hard to stomach. (as a side note, sorry to digress a bit, but it’s interesting how an Indian who has a really good job/high position overseas is more admired (gets more ass-kissing) than a white foreigner because a foreigner is still a foreigner, “not one of us”, where as an Indian is one of us and at the same time has the status of a white man and is therefore much more valuable!)
Here in Kerala, people are so relaxed about status (well, at least the ones I've seen). they don't behave differently toward each other no matter what the caste or position in society. and it's not just the caste thing. I saw one guy with make-up on, his eyebrows beautifully done and his hair well coiffured. I asked my host if that guy is gay and he said that he could be. My host said that there are gays and lesbians here but they are not accepted in society, but at the same time, nobody bothers much with them. This guy with make-up, etc. going around in public like that could never happen in Maharashtra, he'd get lynched in a few seconds!
There's much discussion about why Kerala is so different from the rest of India. It's one of the 2 states in India that are communist (the other being West Bengal). Kerala has a matriarchal tradition among one of its castes (the Nair caste, but no longer practiced today). For all Keralites, a daughter is very much valued and treasured so there’s no gender bias. Because Kerala is surrounded by mountains with very difficult passes, it has never been ruled by foreign invaders like the rest of India, e.g., the Moghuls. Various local kings have ruled throughout history until Independence. The last king gave up his throne in 1948. Kerala has a 91% literacy rate. This means that everybody reads the news and knows what's going on. Everybody knows their rights so in Kerala, no matter what menial job you hold, there's a union for it, which also explains why the communist party was elected to power (which also means the people in higher positions can't push the lower ones around, hence everyone tends to behave equally toward each other).
(as a side note, the domestic workers in Pen, where I lived in Maharashtra, were trying to get a union together. they make as low as 300 Rupees per month, or $7.50 Cdn per month. Since only the poor of the poor work as domestic workers, they have very low status and therefore abuse by employers is the norm. having a union will help them standardize their monthly pay to 500 Rs/m as well as secure other rights for them)
To return to the subject. Yes, but why does Kerala have such a high literacy rate? One person told me that this is attributed to the original kings of Kerala before Independence. The kings were very benevolent and looked after the people really well, and had promoted education among the masses. My personal opinion of why Kerala is so much more progressive than the rest of India is that they were never ruled by foreigner invaders. Having a local king ruling his own people is very different from a foreign ruler who usually oppresses the people he has conquered.
Another reason that may have contributed to making Kerala different from the rest of India is Sree Narayanaguru who, in the early 1900's revived Hinduism in Kerala. Keralites used to be class conscious and traditionally, only higher castes are allowed into temples. This holy man came along and promoted "one religion, one caste, one god" and thereafter, all people were allowed to worship in hindu temples (well, as long as you're hindu. non-hindus are still not allowed in).
Other explanations of why Kerala is different are, Keralites are in general, wealthier than people in other states (many people work in the Gulf area such as the UAE). there are so many mansions and beautiful houses and one doesn't see slums like in northern India. (I did see a slum but it was really well-kept and clean.) there is less population here than in other states. Everything is so much more organized and efficient. The buses run on time and only stop at bus stops. Rules and regulations are much more followed here. It’s so much cleaner than elsewhere I’ve been but that may be because it’s less populated. But I see people here sweeping and cleaning all the time which I didn’t see elsewhere. One Keralite told me how when he visited Mumbai, he couldn’t believe how dirty it was.
Maybe Keralites are different because of their ethnic origin. The earliest people of Kerala are the ting Negrito who are now living in the mountains, then came the proto-Australoids (related to the Australian Aboriginals) who introduced snake worship (that’s why the snake god Nagaraja is always there as a minor god in all the temples, and there are many temples here where Nagaraja is the main deity. The biggest snake temple is also is Kerala). Then came the Dravidians who worshipped the Mother Goddess in various forms. Dravidians are Mediterranean from Nubia, Upper Egypt, who came to Kerala around 1000 BC. Then came the Aryans (Indo-Iranians). (Damn the Aryans who brought the caste system and the oppression of women to everywhere in India. I guess the high regard for women of the Dravidians prevailed in Kerala since girls are valued here, as mentioned before.) There were Jewish and Arab traders from as early as 1000 BC. Kerala was known as the Malabar Coast which was famous for its spices and perfumed oils. Kochi was a main port for traders from Mediterranean cities as well as for Phoenicians, Romans, Jews, Egyptians, etc. Because of the mountains surrounding Kerala, this area has always had, more so than rest of India, a connection with those coming from the sea, as opposed to those coming from over the mountains. Such a rich and cosmopolitan history may also explain why Keralites are so much more advanced than the rest of India. (see my Kochi blog about Jewish history in Kerala)
My host took me to his neighbour's house. It was a new house built in the traditional Kerala style with a Nalukettu--an opening in the middle of the house for the rain to come in (rainy season in kerala lasts 6 months). The architecture was entirely traditional using teak wood (traditionally used for houses) with some mahogany. Teak has a very high oil content so is very resistant to rotting from the rain but it's very soft and easy to carve at the same time. I would love to come during the rainy season to see the rain come in the house. Sorry to digress again. When you open the shell of the cashew nut, you get this liquid that is extremely acidic and will burn your skin right off so it must be opened with specific tools. The liquid turns black and can stain whatever it touches for weeks. The cashew nut shell liquid (CNSL) is used as a wood preservative and once painted on wood, even cheap wood can last a very long time (and therefore cost more).
I visited a few museums, etc., nothing to note except the traditional mural paintings found in temples (see blog on Kochi). My host's family has their own temple, a very small one open to the public and I went there with them for one evening service. The priest is also a family member. The family had an astrology reading done and the astrologer told them that the deity for their temple should be Kali. behind the main deity were other minor gods like Ganesha, Nagaraja, etc., and there was one slightly different in shape and further back, it's the god that brings all bad things, even he/she must be worshipped so that he/she doesn't bring calamity to your household. there is a really big and ancient temple in the middle of Thrissur. On the day we all got prepared to go there (everyone takes a bath before going to the temple and they were all wearing the traditional kasavu mundu), but when we got there, it just closed--and it was only that day that it closed early for renovations--my bad luck again! we then went to a smaller temple and my host told the temple people I was buddhist so they allowed me to go in, but then said I can't because I was wearing pants, but then they said they have dhotis and if I change into a dhoti, I can go in, so I did. Actually, nobody was really watching and if I were wearing a sari, I could have just walked right in.
I also went to the Elephant sanctuary in Guruvayor. The sanctuary belongs to the Guruvayor Temple. Most of the elephants were in heat so could not be approached, even by its keeper. the ones that were not in heat were rented out to festivals. I tried looking at one elephant directly in the face (from far away) and he threw a palm branch at me! Elephants from Kerala have the most beautiful form but nowadays, most elephants are from Bihar or Assam. all elephants at the sanctuary are donated by people to the Guruvayor temple and are used for festivals (which revolve around a temple). When a temple nearby is having a festival, they will book the elephants in advance. The elephants walk to the festival from the sanctuary and can go as far as a temple in Kochi which is a 2-3 day walk for the elephant.
(when I took an auto-rickshaw to the elephant sanctuary from the bus station, the driver said it's 35 Rs. after he started driving, he asked me where I was from and I said Canada. he thought about it and then said the sanctuary is actually 65 Rs. I ignored him. when we got there, I gave him a 50 Rs bill and waited for change. He muttered to himself and then finally gave me 15 Rs in change.)
During my stay in Thrissur (6 days), I went to so many people's houses, (someone was visiting relatives and I tagged along) and everywhere we went, we got fed so I ate a lot. my favourite was the mango chutney made with little green mangoes freshly fallen from the mango tree (really ripe). I got to eat the mangoes in the chutney which were sweet, sour and salty. I also loved the boiled tapioca with tumeric and onions. Btw, drinking water is usually pink in Kerala because they boil the water with the wood of the pathimukam tree which turns the water pink. It is an anti-oxidant with diuretic, thirst-quenching, anti-bacterial qualities used in ayurvedic medicine.
I also visited Sneha Theeram beach and Cherai beach. I couldn't believe how warm the water was, verging on hot. The beaches were like the ones in Goa--I don't know why people go to Goa, Kerala's beaches are so much better. less crowded, no foreigners, everything is catered to locals, etc. (I guess maybe some people like to hang out with other tourists, who knows.)
almost all men in Kerala wear a mustache (a Dravidian influence?).
Keralites are crazy about gold. there are jewelry stores everywhere selling mostly gold. Kerala has the highest consumption of gold in India. Diamonds are also becoming popular. For any wedding, the groom's family usually expects the dowry in gold (the bride's jewelry worn during the wedding) and an average family will spend a minimum 50,000 Rs on jewelry (dowry). for the wealthy, the bride should be covered with gold necklaces from her neck to her crotch (not exaggerating), not to mention with a ring on every finger, and a gold jewelry around her waist. it's really crazy! A very rich guy may spend a few million US on jewelry for his daughter's wedding. I went jewelry shopping with my host and his wife. They brought some gold along (old pendants) to sell to the jewelry store. On the day that we went, all the stores were selling gold at 1410 Rs/g and buying gold at 1380 Rs/g. When my host’s wife found the necklace she wanted, they sold the gold they brought to the store so in the end only paid about 1/3 of the price for the new necklace.
I saw a festival with tons of oracles (google images of kerala festival oracles), which remind me so much of tribals. in fact, the Theyyam and Kathakali dance are all really tribal, that is, of the indigenous people of Kerala. All the tribals I saw in Maharashtra and Goa also had the same kind of colourful clothes with red as the dominant colour and in the same type of elaborate designs. They also wear heavy jewelry and ornaments (mostly silver and beads), especially in their hair. I also saw the famous Kerala drumming (Chenda—please youtube this) on the street. It’s so cool that tribal traditions have survived and become part of hinduism and mainstream culture.


7th September 2009

wow superb articles on kerala from canada's Bimae
wow super articles including from history to this modern days of kerala's outlook life of kearala, and in deep various different castes, different religions of peoples of kerala..which touched me very well,
15th April 2010

Recently in Munambam near kodungallur beach some gundas attacked some photo graphers. If some foreigners coming to munabam beach any safety avilable?

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