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Heirlooms – On Memory Trail

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Concluding instalment of the two-part serial: Heirlooms – Old Habits Die Hard

Whenever we travel to countries where we have consolidated friendships, we often get the wonderful chance to attend parties. To be honest, when I am away from home, I would rather be a guest there than a host.

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Some fifteen years ago, attending a dinner party in the house of a Singapore businessman I know in a professional capacity, I had the opportunity to see some fine examples of old walnut, and mahogany cabinets of his Indonesian ancestors, dating back to the 18th century.

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Whenever I popped over to Singapore, a country of gentle memories for me, we would set aside business interests and shared wonderful dinner time when he would bring his personal histories up to date. A sparkling personality, whenever he spoke, he had that confident reassuring voice you feel when an aircraft pilot speaks before the take-off.

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Once, I got so engrossed in the history of Dutch Batavia and romance of each cabinet (couple of them were in marquetry) explained by my friend that our earlier conversation about Australian Aboriginal breast-plates was completely overridden in his talk. It was real pleasure to closely see those lovely “conversation pieces” and perceive how his narrations about family possessions developed as an acute reminder of the joys and fascinations of collecting.

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Romance and antique collecting go hand in hand. Speaking about Fort Cochin in our local grounds, an area which had experienced Portuguese/Dutch/English settlement since 1500s, old reputed (especially Anglo-Indian) families of Fort Cochin once had many valuable possessions reminiscent of that era.

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These heirlooms had pride of place in their living room as something that is functional and to enhance the home and status. Many early family heirlooms such as old furniture, Christian figures, wall carvings, photo frames, porcelain, books, bric-a-brac, have, over the years, been lost due to negligence, lack of proper antique restorers, shifting of residence or on the open market – some of which can still be found in those local don’t-touch-or-we’ll-make-you-pay sort of places in Jew Town. However, for most of such families, besides the traditional recipes from that bygone era, a Bible or framed photos of ancestors, family photo albums or a wedding dress or similar has always retained their charm as heirlooms.

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8Having recognised the value of their possessions in context with the settlements, I believe there are still those few who had refrained from throwing out a potential pot of gold. They have retained them for their descendants in perpetuity.

In the future, those items must become worth more for sheer rarity, apart from its association with our past. Who knows what things scorned today will be tomorrow’s highly prized?

The possessions in our home which we consider precious could not all be of great monetary value but nevertheless remain priceless to us. One of the near recent additions is an early 19th century Bible, quite bulky and slightly soiled, which we acquired from an antique seller in Portobello Road near Notting Hill Gate in London.

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Even though we had to pay through the nose to acquire it, that was less worrying compared to the effort it took to bring it home to Cochin since, during that trip, we had to traverse in a pre-scheduled journey by Eurotrain to Paris, and to Milan, to Padua, to Florence, to Rome and home via Dubai. Having brought home under the stewardship of our daughter Bianca, its arrival here was met with such greater happiness that all those hardships seemed insignificant.

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For ages, the Bible, the world’s most famous book, has not only earned its place as an important family heirloom, but has gained an accretion of ceremonial use. The last time we saw the images of couple of Bibles together was on the television when beautiful Melania Trump’s hands held two Bibles upon which her husband, President-elect Donald John Trump took the ceremonial oath of office as the 45th President of the United States of America, on January 20, 2017.

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I understand that the bigger Bible, an 1853 King James version bound in burgundy velvet with metal trim, which rested directly on soon-to-be First Lady Melania’s right palm belonged to President Abraham Lincoln upon which he was sworn in for his first inauguration in 1861. The smaller one on the top belonged to President Trump, gifted to him by his beloved mother on June 12, 1955.

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If that smaller Bible has not already been regarded as a family heirloom, the occasion of that swearing-in ceremony has no doubt catapulted its transition into one. Maybe, that Bible would eventually be passed over to one of President Trump’s children – probably to his youngest son.

5The strength of a nation lies in the individual. And the people are progressive. Who can predict now the chance that, probably many years into the future, on a January 20th, that son himself may stand tall at the same spot where his father had stood at the west front of the Capitol in last January, with his left palm resting on his heirloom Bible.

Predictions are difficult. Going forward, only God knows who has more than a walk-on-part in history. So this is faith. Until next time, Jo

PS: Dear reader, this article about family heirlooms is definitely apolitical.

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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The Ballad of JEANETTE and MICHEL

Poor little foal of an oppressed race!

I love the languid patience of thy face:

And oft with gentle hand I give thee bread,

And clap thy ragged coat, and pat thy head.” – Coleridge

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The German TV channel Deutsche Welle (DW) currently hosts weekly episodes of Tierisch Kölsch (Zoogeschichten/Zoo stories). Each episode features moments from the lives of many animals, reptiles, birds, and amphibians of Kölner Zoo (Cologne Zoo) in Germany – and is highly rated for being quite interesting, educational and inspiring. Amongst the inhabitants in that controlled environment are a couple of hairy Poitou donkeys (Poitou-Esel in German) tenderly looked after by the Tierpfleger (animal-carers) of the Kölner Zoo.

s2The Poitou donkeys (Poitou ass/Poitevin donkey/Baudet du Poitou), the breed from the Poitou region of France are notable for a number of unique characteristics. The two tenderfoots were brought to the Kölner Zoo: the female and smaller Jeanette, born in 2007, originated from the Heidelberg Zoo; the stallion Michel was brought over from Wilhelma (Der Zoologische-Botanische Garten) Stuttgart where he was born in 2013. Contrary to our know-how, the way by which Jeanette and Michel responded to the kindness, words, strokes and reassurances of the Tierpfleger specialized in equine behaviour was amazing.

Here we live in a place where animals of that species cannot be easily seen. Looking back I could remember having first seen them a long, long time ago when one of the Circus shows came to our city. But then, the couple of weak donkeys that the Circus paraded with colourful ribands tied to the stump of their tails were unexciting elements to cast a spell over our attention amidst a group of more fascinating animals attached to that Circus.

That was a time when traveling entertainers could be found on the pavements of Cochin: sword swallowers, acrobats, singing groups, snake charmers, … Bar a few, all seem to have disappeared like most of the birds that flew over Cochin before the city set on the path of development. Once upon a time, you could see huge light-coloured oxen with enormous horns pulling covered carts through the streets, bringing in heavy loads of trade ware for merchants at the Broadway. You could find them resting in an area behind the back wall of the Police camp near the market bridge leading to the Broadway.

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You could see cows, goats, cats, dogs, hen, duck, frogs everywhere while pigeons, sparrows, crows, butterflies, etc, flew around freely. How wonderful it felt to hear the chirping of the swallows and the song of the lark; to look up and see the eagles soaring in circles overhead, not far away. Now, most of them have relocated to the ecologically sensitive area of Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary or away to the hilly areas in the suburbs – with no chance to restore them to their old habitats. The stray dogs seem to have taken over to atone for their absence. Occasionally one could even see the odd elephants being taken somewhere. As for us, fortunately, we have a couple of purple-rumped Sunbirds (Leptocoma zeylonica) nesting by the air-ducts near the window-sunshade outside our dining room – their incessant happy chirping would gather momentum whenever our presence is known to them – joyous as though some little breeze had made their hearts light.

s4 Donkey, the animal that was once part of the drawing periods of our beginners’ classes at school together with rabbit, elephant, cow, birds, swan, etc and always present in the illustration books of alphabets to represent “D” is also known under the scientific name of Equus Asinus. If names are anything to go by, they are also called a moke, a burro, a cuddy. Always part of many legends and jokes, like many animals, the donkey was even regarded by the ancient Egyptians both as a god and a devil.

s5As an avid traveller, I have seen them labouring in the agriculture and laundry sectors, and pulling carts in various parts of India. Browsing the web, I had seen them on building sites or at brick kilns of some countries where they are engaged to work long hours to transport heavy load of bricks to and from the firing ovens.

In different cities of Yemen, there are quite a few of them used as pack animals, but not quite as much as I have seen in different parts of Europe where you could find them in all shapes, sizes, colours and coat texture.

The smaller types with woollier coats I saw in the London Zoo (reputedly the donkeys came to England with the Romans during their invasion of Britain under Emperor Claudius in 43 AD) is believed to have ancestors who were exported to the United States (along with mules) by settlers who would later venture to improve the situation in the U S with good quality Spanish and Maltese stock.

The ancestors of donkey stock in Europe owe their settlement in Europe to the Romans while some might have entered through the close accessibility of Spain to Northern Africa. Crete, where Europe, North Africa and Middle East intersect in sea communication, could have had some linkage to the Europe-bound Roman cargos which also included donkeys. But, whatever the reason could be, the island of Chrysi of Crete is known as Gaidouronisi (Donkey) Island”.

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No sooner they were put to use as pack-asses or harnessed four-abreast to draw wagons, they spread throughout the Mediterranean islands where wine was produced, owing to their reliability, narrowness and delicacy of surefooted steps to till the land between the rows of vines on steeply terraced hillsides. While many of them found usage as working animals in French vineyards in the harvest of grapes, in Spain, they also became popular in tourism, festivals, pilgrimages and agriculture.

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Patient, sure-footed and persistent, not only the army found them useful, they are used for riding, for carrying passengers and luggage, to work in agriculture and farms, to carry water, maize, construction materials, crush sugarcane, pull giant hamster wheel to draw water from a well, recyclable rubbish materials, trekking, etc.. Beginning from a time when the ancients had only their own muscle power and that of their donkeys and oxen, the efforts of donkeys can be traced through the construction sites of the great pyramids, Basilica di San Pietro, Taj Mahal, Suez Canal, Panama Canal, etc.

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Some also developed an appetite for donkey meat which was one of the reasons they were initially domesticated by mankind counting also the facts that they are easy to control, eat less than a horse and live longer to about 40 years. I remember an old story about a couple of successful/unsuccessful Iberians engaged in the manufacture of chicken sausages. When the impoverished manufacturer was baffled about how the prosperous one sold his chicken sausages cheap and still made profit, he was secretly advised by the prosperous one to add donkey meat to chicken at 50-50 ratio as dead donkey meat came cheap. Yet, the impoverished one was appalled that he could not generate profit even after mixing the meat half-and-half with the chicken. He had done precisely as he was advised and certainly, their sausages were of same length and thickness. The mystery is soon unravelled. Well, the prosperous one did not mean to mix the meats half-and-half. He meant 50-50 – one donkey to one chicken. The penny has dropped.s9

Save for turning up on dinner plates and in salami, donkey milk, in which Egyptian Queen Cleopatra reputedly bathed, was also used as an infant feed replacement and supposedly good for premature babies, delicate children, people with asthma, eczema and psoriasis.

According to recent reports, the donkey population in India has suffered the highest downfall among all livestock during the last many years. Proper donkey care education, creating specialists in equine behavioural problems, availability of barns and bales of haylage, proper usage of their manure to produce compost, are major aspects for the welfare improvements of these gentle-natured creatures. Equally vital are the conservation of indigenous breeds of donkeys by perfecting artificial insemination and embryo transfer technology and ensure their genetic purity. Simultaneously, to learn patience to cope with their stubbornness and stupidity that can also be interpreted as part of donkey’s intelligent and naturally cautious attitude for not being pushed into situations of danger.

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Of some of the other common problems of donkeys I have heard of are the long hours they are made to work in soaring temperatures without adequate food, water and rest; the poor quality of saddles and bridles ignoring safety guidelines which could risk the rider as well; deficiency of support to donkey sanctuaries and donkey owners; lack of adoption opportunities; dietary issues; bad breath; skin problems; eye infections; blindness; and abandonment.

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Abandonment is a misfortune always facing pets. Many years ago I had come across donkeys, some stray, amidst the throngs of people in the dusty streets of the valley town before one heads through the magnificent groves of tall slender areca nut palms for the Ghat road in Tamil Nadu which twists and climbs through the fertile valleys and tree-cladded mountains and slopes of the Nilgiris to Ooty (Ootacumund/Udhagamandalam), the Queen of the Blue Mountains. I am not particularly sentimental about places just because they are familiar, but Ooty is a place of many memories. Stray or not – those donkeys  occasionally found luck with food from the hand outs of locals or by their owners, but are generally left alone to find a living on their own. I have not seen anyone brutalize or abuse these dear creatures although there were stories of how they frequently suffered from the hasty temper of their masters. At any rate, I had seen them resting by the road side, or standing in the middle of the intersection or even right in the middle of the road, deaf as a post – from time to time shaking their ears or tail – sometimes looking almost divine but mostly with a brooding look on their face. Very rarely have I found them nickering for joy.

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For the locals in the vicinity, these less sociable animals than horses are just a regular sight (1), their braying adding a steady undertone of sound though, at times, they are subjected to a good bray which they find a misfortune to hear at close range. But for the travellers and tourists passing through the valley, uninterested in the sights of the street cows, the sight of donkeys kindled curiosity, prompting some to convulse with laughter: “Oh, a donkey!” which often drew their accompanying kids to curiously gaze at them through the windows of their vehicles for a fine pastime.

The locals normally ignored with disgust anyone who mocked the donkeys. That is something old-fashioned they have learned from the donkey’s modesty to shut out the flattering comments which occasionally reached its over-sized ears. Probably being mocked at is a cross of misfortune they are always bound to carry – indeed, like the cross on their shoulders. (Continued in my next post) Jo

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Notes:

  1. The last time I passed through that valley by sunset, none of the donkeys were there.
  2. The pictures of Jeanette and Michel are courtesy of Mr. Bernd Marcordes, Kurator, Aktiengesellschaft Zoologischer Garten Köln, Germany
  3. Many thanks to Ms. Pippa Hockin of The Donkey Sanctuary, Devon, England for sharing the picture “Grazing” featured in this post.

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(© Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

Flutter by, Melodic Butterflies

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There’s a song in the air !

        There’s a star in the sky !

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I have always found music delightful for relaxation. Lately I had been listening to music either streamed or downloaded from the web where we could find any kind of music we wish for. Unlike the effort to flip through our musical collections of vinyl albums, CDs, cassettes and videos for enjoying music in the conventional way, one needs only to flick some icons on the web, and the music comes pouring into the room. But how can I resist from admitting that I like music on physical formats, especially the tangible experience of holding a vinyl album and admiring the big cover art while it plays with the pops and cracks and imperfections of an old gramophone record.

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A week ago we were sorting out the Christmas albums in the storage shelf where they were waiting for the right time to arrive when we would let them play their joyful melodies – to experience the pleasure they would bring us.

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Waiting for Christmas! The instance reminded me of an old adage which relates that “a test for true love is a rose which has been picked on Midsummers’ Day and put away until Christmas. If it is found still fresh at Christmas, the love of the girl who plucked it and her beau will run true and flourish.” – the kind of love where the boy will kneel down and tell her that she is the sweetest, most charming and ravishing girl in the world and that he would be unable to live one more second without her! I personally know of instances like this.

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But vis-à-vis our present subject, the fact remains that listening to greater part of carols and Christmas songs surely create an effect we aspire to in our house.

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Christmas time is a warm and nostalgic time of a year – and Christmas, winter’s merriest tale, is all about the birth of Jesus Christ and cannot be rightly told without music. As it happens, throughout the festive season and often beyond – while we set up the Christmas tree and the Christmas crib, or hang up the stockings and decorations, or prepare the feast, or merry-make in the festive gathering, we play them as background music just for the warmth and joy of those seasonal melodies.

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Those are classical instrumentations by Tchaikovsky, Vivaldi, Bach, Handel, Beethoven, etc, or sung by choirs, or carol singers or by Earl Grant, Ray Conniff, Harry Belafonte, Nat King Cole, Brenda Lee, Nina Simone, Pierino Ronald “Perry” Como, Frank Sinatra, Judy Collins, Tom Jones, Fernand Gignac, Nana Mouskouri, Celine Dion, Muriel J, Jose Feliciano, Ajejandro Sanz, Andrea Bocelli, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Rod Stewart, Boney M and many others.

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Behind those songs were the lyrical and musical talents of folk singers, monks, the clergy, literary and musical luminaries.

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In the movies “The Alamo” (1960), “To Kill a Mocking Bird” (1962), “In the Heat of the Night” (1967), the viewer might have noticed a versatile actor named Jester Hairston who was also a songwriter/composer/conductor and singer. In 1956, Hairston wrote fresh lyrics for an earlier song he had written titled “He Pone and Chocolate Tea” and attuned in calypso rhythm but was never recorded in that form.

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The song with the new lyrics, later characterised as a Christmas carol, was titled “Mary’s Boy Child” and the world first heard of it when Harry Belafonte released it through his album “An Evening with Belafonte” (1956).

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The song was subsequently recorded by music artists such as Jim Reeves, Tom Jones, Andy Williams, Anne Murray, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, including a version in 1978 by Boney M which is still popular like most of the Boney M songs released when they were in the prime of their time.

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Christmas carols lend an air to this festive season and over the years have spawned a variety of classics to make good cheer. In England of the olden days, groups went on “Wassailing” for “luck-visits” from house to house at Christmas time – singing carols and sharing the contents of their wassail bowls for which they expected to be rewarded with gifts, food and drinks.

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15They were considered to be the forerunners of modern day carol singers. This practise later evolved into modified versions. Then again, what is true in England is also true in Italy and in our Cochin, or everywhere.

And so, wassailing was enacted in our Cochin also when numerous groups dressed in character of Santa Claus and shepherds and shepherdesses in knee-length, floating skirts as dancers, together with their entourage of singers and musicians. They visited houses, predominantly in Fort Cochin and the coastal belt, to entertain during Christmas time.

Although this practise is slowly dying down, few groups are still active during the Christmas season. The songs which maintain great popularity in their street collection lists are “Jingle Bells”, and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” which tells of the approach of Santa Claus and his pack of reindeers.

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These songs are nice accompaniments to dancing and rather similar to renditions such as “Rudolph The Red-nosed Reindeer”, “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm”, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, etc.

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20Interspersed in their collection are popular songs from movies or simultaneously, versions in local language which some enlightened ones find not ‘hip’ and very un-English without some English terms peppered in it. But if there is one carol that is generally heard here throughout the Christmas time is the English version of “Silent Night” (Stille Nacht), a reverential rendition written in German in 1816 by Friar Joseph Mohr of Austria with music added to it by Franz Xaver Gruber in 1818.

This is said to be one of the main songs (and also ‘Adeste Fideles’) the German and the English soldiers jointly sung on the first Christmas of the First World War, in 1914 when, in a spontaneous and unofficial Christmas truce, their guns fell silent for a brief period and they emerged out of their trenches into no-man’s land in a number of places along the Western Front: to exchange gifts, cigarettes and joyously sing carols and songs to commemorate the birth of baby Jesus. They knew that the war was going to last a long time and many would not live through for another Christmas Day or even see their wives back home knitting socks for the soldiers at the Front.

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This chivalry between enemies in the military air to uphold the Christmas spirit is depicted in the films: “Joyeux Noël” (Merry Christmas – 2005/French); Oh, What a Lovely War (1969/UK) (1)

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Many a Christmas carols and songs have played at the chords of the human heart with its angelic fingers: “The Twelve Days of Christmas” covers the 12 days starting with Christmas Day till 6th January (Epiphany); “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”; “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; “In The Bleak Mid-winter”; “Joy to the World”; “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, “Away in a Manger”; “Ding Dong! Merrily on High”; “Adeste Fideles/O Come All Ye Faithful”; “In Excelsis Gloria”, and many many more. Some of these titles are highlighted here.

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The most ancient carols known to us date from the Middle Ages. Historians contend that the word “Carol” passed from French into the English language in about 1300 and was associated with words, music and dance. Books of carols were cried about the streets of Paris as early as the thirteenth century.

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These carols shadow forth the true spirit of miracle plays, religious spectacles, and old religious legends. In most cases, they were by and large in Latin which was the medium for prayers and chants in the churches in those days. Latin being unversed to most common men of Italy, San Francesco di Assisi presented the carols in his native language – supported by theatrics.

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From there it gathered popularity, and despite occasional hindrances (such as the temporary abolition of Christmas in England in the 17th century), it survived through transitory periods spanning the medieval, the renaissance (rise of music printing and of vocal music performed with instruments), the baroque (invention of opera), the rococo (rise of comic opera and the symphony), the classicism (flowering of instrumental music), the romanticism (rise of the conductor and the golden age of the piano), the post-romanticism (dominance of mammoth orchestra), up to our time. In 1918, carols received the biggest boost when the “Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols”, a Christmas Eve service which includes carols and readings from the Bible, were adopted by King’s College Cambridge.

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People vary greatly in their way of responding to music. Tastes have altered. Then again, there is great proliferation of Christmas carols and songs, owing to the creative flair of many contemporary musicians who retain its originality.

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As for us, we treasure each Christmas of our years gone past – its virtues of humility, generosity and love. We admire the splendour of its true traditions: the birth of baby Jesus, the Christmas tree, the Christmas crib, the star, the old decorations of rosemary and bays, the holly and the ivy, the poinsettias (Flores de Noche Buena/Flowers of the Holy Night), the Mistletoe, the greeting cards, exchange of gifts, the banquet which includes plum pottage, minced pies, roast beef, Christmas ale, and of course, Santa Claus, dancing and singing….

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Although the Christmas festive season will come only once a year, our steadfast delight in the Christmas carols and songs ensure that those cherished melodies flutter around in our house, like butterflies, whatever the season may be. Enjoy your Christmas holidays! Ho! Ho! Ho!! Jo

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Notes:

  • Christmas Truce: In books: Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub; Truce: The Day the Soldiers Stopped Fighting by Jim Murphy, etc. It is also the theme of Sainsbury’s official Christmas 2014 Advertisement
  • DVD/Blu-ray of the movies referred above is available with main dealers of movies.
  • This is dedicated to Pope-emeritus Benedict XVI who received Doctorates honoris causa on 04 July 2015 for five contributions to knowledge and culture – which includes his great respect for the musical tradition of the Church and his remarkable sensitivity to the music of faith. May he enjoy blessings of good health.

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 (©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

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SURVIVING WITH DIGNITY

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The joy of Christmas is nearer, drawing in a beehive of activities allied to it. The Christian Churches here, as in all parts of the world, are livened up for the yearly holy event marking the birth of baby Jesus, followed by the close of another year. Most educational institutions are on preparatory mode for holding mid-term exams prior to the culmination of the vacation season.

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Plans are being made for annual vacations, or joyous activities, or gourmet feasts, or family get-togethers. Banking on the commercial value of the holiday season, the hospitality industry and other retailing sectors including big Malls are once again out with window decorations, dangling fantasies and other crowd-tickler marketing gimmicks through the media, web and signposts.

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One is baffled and bewildered by the choice of innovative merchandize, latest tech trends, etc, available.  “Happy Shopping Holidays” – three charming words dominate this period to augment the marketing campaigns.

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A special event at all times to me, Christmas, like Easter, has a considerable period of preparation. The Gospel of St. Matthew relates so briefly about preparations that had taken place some 2020 years ago when, three wise men, proficient in astronomy and astrology, turned their heads up to gaze at a brilliant star that would set them on a journey. Theirs was a spiritual desire to find and adore a new-born child – to lay their gifts contained in caskets of odoriferous wood at the child’s tiny feet – gifts of pure gold (asserting the kingship of Christ), frankincense (Christ’s divinity) and myrrh (that He was man, and doomed to death).

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Their long and perilous journey through “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star” culminated in success when they found the new-born Jesus not in the stable, as usually depicted in the scene by artists, but in a roofed house where the three holy ones were temporarily lodged. These three wise men (or kings) would be the first to acknowledge Christ.

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These wise men, assumed to be three given that three gifts were given in homage of Christ’s birth, are identified by various names, but generally known as Balthazar, Melchior and C(G)aspar since the ninth century (1). Believed to be Babylonian names, according to an old valuable book about Virgin Mary, they probably hail from the city of Séleucide which was the abode of the most celebrated astronomers of antiquity (2).

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The Bible also relates to another journey during that period, taken place hundreds of miles away from the path the Magi would travel. Carpenter Joseph of Nazareth in Galilee accompanied by his wife Mary was on their way to Bethlehem of Judea, to register their names and pay tribute-money owing to the Roman Census of population and landed possessions.

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Besides his beloved pregnant wife riding on a donkey, Joseph, humble, modest and retiring, was devoid of possession of anything of great value except for few clothes and the usual provisions for their painful journey of possibly five days. Their basket made of palm leaves could have included dates, figs, raisins, thin cakes of barley meal, earthen vessel to hold water, and the most precious swaddling-bands Mary’s hands had prepared to envelop her child. The census, made in the late autumn or early winter when agricultural work had ceased, might have attracted great concourse of people to the region that accommodation in cells of caravansaries in Bethlehem were unavailable.

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Whatever the reason, upon their arrival at Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary sought shelter in a stable in the interior of a little cavern located in the suburbs which served as a stable and sometimes as refuge for the shepherds in cold and stormy nights. In there, after a good lengthy time following the hour of the Nativity, the new-born infant was adored by the shepherds as the Christkindl lay in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

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12The adoration of the shepherds and the Magi is depicted in several movies. One of the realistic among them appears in the initial scenes of director William Wyler’s cinematic triumph, Ben-Hur (1959), its devotional ambiance enhanced by the Academy Award winning music score of Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995). Watching Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” is an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Its grandeur and spectacle, colourful characters, richness of its screenplay, excellent direction, fantastic production values, the realistic action sequence of the chariot race, the many visual symbolic threads woven into the story such as water accentuated as an agent of renewal, the dramatic effect emphasized without showing Christ’s face, the transition from full orchestra to organ during the sequences in which Christ appears, and most importantly, its story about a rich man passing through the eye of the needle, had caught up my imagination that “Ben-Hur” rates the highest number of times I have seen a movie.

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The little figurines of the Magi from the story of the Adoration of the Biblical Magi, part of the ensemble of the Christmas crib-set in our house, were objects of marvel in my childhood. Their crowned figures clad in embroidered robes featured all the paraphernalia and pomp of royalty; their camels decked with ornamental bridles and saddles, the mysterious gifts in their hands, were all sprigs of fascination. Their images got better and fine-looking as we purchased better crib-sets over the years – from Austria, Italy and Bangkok.

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The custom of exchanging gifts could date back to the three wise men. As some stories go: in olden times on Christmas Eve, children used to place shoes filled with oats outside their huts for the camels of the Magi which they hoped would be miraculously replaced with gifts.

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The closest I got to the physical entity of the three wise men was when we stood before the gilded and decorated triple Sarcophagus traditionally believed to contain the relics of the Magi at the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings (Dreikönigsschrein) behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral (Der Kölner Dom) in Germany.

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Those relics were transferred from the church of St. Eustorgius in Milan on 23rd July 1164 by the powerful imperial chancellor, Rainald von Dassel (later Archbishop of Cologne) (3) having received them from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa).

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Sometime after her arrival in the Holy Land around December 326/January 327 A.D., Helena (Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta/St. Helena – 248/9-329?), the mother of Emperor Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross, had discovered the bones of the Magi while searching for relics and building churches in honour of the life of Jesus. Chroniclers contend that she transferred the relics to Constantinople and later, Bishop Eustorgius, a native of Constantinople, was allowed by Emperor Constans (Flavius Iulius Constans Augustus – from 337 to 350) to transfer them to Milan in 343/44. The relics eventually became the most remarkable medieval cults to royalty.

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The magi, a popular subject of tapestry, are patrons of travellers and pilgrims. In addition to the above three places, I have visited other centres where Christian reliquaries are kept, but a visit to one in Greece connected to the Magi remains yet to be realised. The Holy Monastery of Agiou Pavlou (Saint Paul’s) in Mount Athos houses, among many other relics, some cases containing gold, frankincense and myrrh, believed to be the gifts the Magi brought to baby Jesus. The authenticity of some of the relics could be doubtful but such vestiges play an important role as catalysts in connecting us to the history and legends of our illustrious past.

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21Christmas, celebrated everywhere, is particularly enjoyable at some places where it exudes a whole lot of charm to enjoy it the most. We have spent Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in different countries. Those special days made good memories for us – just like some days bearing special names are auspicious for many: Thanksgiving Day, Republic Day, Independence Day, May Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Valentine’s Day, Friendship Day, Day of Tiger, of Elephant, etc….. All this is very well.

Then again, woven into the fabric of the year are ill-fated days from history lesson: 9/11 (World Trade Center attack), 26/11 (Mumbai attack), 13/11 (Paris attack), ……. – named after disastrous events that have spawned sadness in us and bruised our pride, occasioned by malicious minds hell-bent on executing everything violent in excess. The world witnessed outpour of grief when innocent and helpless people lost their lives recently owing to brutal violence.

Even so, pain nourishes courage. The global goodwill resonated in displays of solidarity, judiciousness and calm wisdom when the Eiffel Tower, Paris; San Francisco City Hall; Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, Wembley Stadium in London; Brandenbourg Gate in Berlin; Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro; the CN Tower in Toronto; Burj Khalifa in Dubai; Tokyo Tower; Sydney Opera House; etc, showcased colours of blue, white and red. Vive la France!

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Naturally, we bank on a sense of order and peace around us and we wish our lives to measure up to our hopes. There is nothing so precious and nothing more important than peace, though throughout history it has often been taken for granted until it’s too late. The past high degree of violence and unpredictability, offensive to our good spirits, had markedly dampened this holiday cheer. Recently there was news about tourists being selective on places to go for a safe and peaceful vacation.

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26As for us raring to go, despite the weather, we could opt for Christmas time in Italy even though we would be doing only a repeat of what we have done there many times over the years. There would be the traditional outdoor Christmas markets in Florence, Verona, Venice, Rome, …. On Christmas Eve, we could attend the Papal Mass by Papa Francesco at the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and admire the huge Christmas tree and the life-sized Nativity scene in Piazza San Pietro; or at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo di Firenze); or at Basilica di San Marco, Venezia and watch the gondola arrive with Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) to distribute goodies, before sitting down for dinner and Bellini at Cipriani’s Harry’s Bar; or at Basilica di Sant’Antonio di Padova where we have wonderful friends amongst the Franciscan friars of the Basilica, etc.

Besides England, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, all wonderful places where we have enjoyed the local culture, Madrid (Spain) would garner our priority due to the wonderful ensemble of jolly good friends we have there. Alternatively, should we look at the East, we could always opt for Thailand, Singapore – or within good old India.

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Now with the three wise women  in my life, my wife and two daughters, here – it’s ample reason to take the pleasure of this season in the comfort of our sweet home. There won’t be snow here. But, never mind – the carollers and Santa Claus will come, maybe even Santa Mama.  Peaceful Cochin and Fort Cochin will be decked with lights and stars – with the brightest most cheerful displays. Impersonations of the three wise men may appear in the yearly Carnival on the first of the New Year. Listen closely and we may hear Santa Claus cracking up with laughter in helplessness – at the seasonal hike in retail prices. I think there was never a sad Christmas time in Fort Cochin except maybe in 1524 when a period of mourning was observed owing to the death of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at Fort Cochin on Christmas Eve.

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Out of the many boxes resting in our storeroom for the past eleven months would spring beautiful stars, lights and ornaments to deck up our Christmas tree and adorn strategic places in our house. A beautiful floral table centrepiece will be made. My wife, very skilful with dazzling décor ideas, characteristic of her German origin, will once again ensure that all is done.

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31As for the creation of the Christmas crib, I believe I still have the inspiration from the creative astute shown by San Francesco di Assisi when he, with the permission of Pope Honorius III, recreated the Nativity scene (Presepio) for “the babe of Bethlehem” at the village of Greccio in Provincia di Rieti, Italy during the Christmas of 1223. Then again, the most inspiring of all this would be the message of Christmas – summarized in three magical words: “Kindness, Love, Peace”.

Not outdated or irrelevant, those sweet meditations of a mature faith appear relevant, especially in these times of adversity, to “survive with dignity”. Jo

Notes:

  • In art, so far as is known, the name of the three wise men appears for the first time in a relief sculpture on the lintel of the central portal above the main door at Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, the oldest surviving church in Pistoia, Tuscany. Created by Magister Gruamonte and his brother Adeodatus, it dates to 1166 – about 29 years prior to the birth of St. Anthony of Padova.
  • The three wise men were said to have come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba – three of the many places proposed as their countries of origin.
  • In “The War of Frederick I. against the Communes of Lombardy”, Rainald is named as Reinhardt.
  • The DVD/Blu-ray of “Ben-Hur” (1959) referred in this article, is available with main dealers of movies. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
  • This article is in memory of Michael and Gertrud Schüller, (late) parents of Carina, who would have loved to spend this Christmas here with us. May their souls rest in peace.

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(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)

ORDER A GOOD CHEER

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ORDER A GOOD CHEER

The secret is out. One of my friends, Chef Rasheed Abdulkhader who often surprised us with his mastery in culinary flairs is soon to retire after few decades with the Taj Group of Hotels, one of the top hospitality groups in India where he had worked up the ladder to become one of the top Executive Chefs of this Group.

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Over the years, Chef Rasheed’s passion and dedication had gotten him to a position where he could deal with the meals of the high and reputed guests from different parts of the world – the sheer brilliance of his culinary delights earning the adulation of many. Each of his dishes stood up for itself for its excellence, freshness, taste and simplicity. The culinary aspects of many of our own parties were overseen by him and it will be sad to see this shining personality with a never-fading smile take an exit due to “getting on in years.”

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Now first things first. In the olden days, the chef (then known as “Kokki” or cook) didn’t triumph in the popularity and acquired glamour they have today. Back then, the thought about that leader of the kitchen rarely crossed one’s mind when you dined in a hotel. Like the cook in an upscale restaurant or in a smaller establishment like a toddy shop, you are aware they are there. In the context of my childhood, they made their personal appearance in your life to cook for occasions such as a marriage in your house when, following the religious ceremony, a wholesome feast (vivahasadya) of time-honoured family recipes (unaltered over the years) reproduced authentically keeping the taste firmly on the original version, was served inside the house or in a fabricated marquee (pandal) within the residential compound, enhancing the intensely close-knit personal atmosphere.

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It was an occasion when all the near and dear ones were invited with true open-handedness. And they might all come and attend the feast to celebrate with lavish experience.

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The cook turns up some days prior to the function to list the items to be arranged for his work which will commence mostly by the morning of the previous day of the wedding since there would be dinner served on the eve of the wedding day.  The cooking will continue overnight in a temporary outdoor cook-house for a second day running till the lunch is served following the wedding ceremony.

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Besides a couple of his assistants/washers-up, help in the shapes of scores of relatives and neighbours assist the progress of the cook’s work and other arrangements. Many would fondly recall the smell of the wood smoke hanging in the air or hear the sound from the bubbling pans.

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In those times, the caterers with table-ready food service and event managers and pretentious food were unheard of. Relatives and friends had time for manual help and there was collective participation in arrangements: the pandal was erected with sturdy bamboo poles roofed with tarpaulin and decorated with white-painted bamboo trellis panels fencing all around while decorations adorn the white cloth covering the ceiling.

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The hired trestle tables dressed with plain white cloth (without drape or box-pleat or petticoat) were arranged on the tarpaulin laid down on the ground. The cooking pots and pans, serving dishes, china, cutlery, moveable water-tank, chairs and even petro-max for artificial emergency lighting were hired.

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Besides ensuring that cultural traditions survive, thoughtful planning by the elders eliminated potential faults. Reliable relatives and family friends were conscripted as servers of food. There was a personal touch everywhere. Everyone participated – ate, drank and later merrily went away.

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The cook was sent away happily and that was the last time you saw him until another occasion turns up when he is needed or you see him working at another function. Those were simple and affordable, and joyous occasions. Time passes.

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Then came the time when the pomp and middle-persons took over and put a high price tag to everything – much before specialised food shops appeared throughout the length of the State. Soon common Italian words like Spaghetti Pomodoro, tiramisu, etc were no longer a novelty locally. The haute cuisine is here!

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14Cookery books have come a long way from “The Forme of Cury” (Form of Cooking), the earliest surviving mediaeval cookery guide written by the Chef Maister Cokes (Chief Master Cooks) of young King Richard II of England (Richard of Bordeaux, 6 January 1367 – c. 14 February 1400) in about 1390. Apart from the masses of books and DVDs on cookery, many of which are beautifully accomplished, with the advent of TV channels, radio and web shows, movies, foodie bloggers, culinary schools, etc, (and surely many more to come), food and cooking has become two of the most common subjects around, especially on the web – rapidly commercialised and glamourised.

Such medium are good tools to inspire us to try new recipes or to learn the techniques involved to mete out our expertise on the dining plates.

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Concurrently, it also brings about a healthy breeding ground not only for the qualified and dedicated chefs, but also, truth be told, for persons with the slightest inclination in cooking or scant knowledge in qualities of the cooking ingredients or dietary criteria, to gallop their way to recognition on the back of knowledge acquired from cookery books or shows or experience gained through apprenticeship as kitchen assistants or diploma in culinary education in tutorials. Not all that glitters is gold.

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My paternal grandmother never used a recipe in all her life but the heady aroma from her kitchen could lure a fully fed child back to the dining table. I often try my hand in the cooking department – but mind you, not as a hobby cook who ventures into the home kitchen to tackle culinary talents in the mid-afternoon of a Sunday or on a holiday or on one of those perennial local fun-days at home: hartal.

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Just like the innumerable budding actors finding exposure on the vast ever-growing entertainment scene, anyone linguistically proficient with common-sense approach and some knowledge/confidence in cooking can grow into a good cooking presenter on TV and web cookery demonstrations.

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The upshot is that apart from gaining wealth and fame, their perks could include opportunities to bring out cookery books/DVDs or conduct personal cookery classes/workshops, etc.

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The hostess of a TV cookery show once commented, ‘My Domestic chores? I am all behind like a cow’s tail. Where would I find time to cook when my daily schedule is tightly fitted around films lined up for shooting and other public appearances to be made? How do I keep up with it all day?’ The show is just a piece of cake for her. Owing to her profession, she is unfazed by the lights, camera and cables.

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It is implied that she just needs to turn up for the shooting of the episode, gets beautifully attired (in most cases chef’s uniform is avoided), decked with gold ornaments all over the body, hair let loose rather than tucked under a Chef’s cap or headscarf. The emphasis for such hosts is on glamour. In one’s hankering for ostentation and attention, one tends to forget that one actually has more lustre than gold.

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Good cookery shows do not just happen. Unlike most of today’s presenters who try to put in 100% data of their own for each episode, some amateur celebrity presenters in “cooking partnership” with the studios just follow the script guidelines for the episode researched and provided to them by the TV Studio writers for study and possible input. These writers often think visually. They push for the big goal: the show must be exiting and full of drama to hold the audience and entice sponsors.

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At the studio, where the presenter is already well acquainted with the many cookware and other aids at hand, he/she just needs to make a mental run-through of the episode, make mental notes for the occasional change of pace if the script calls for it, before the final shooting which would be suitably edited later. As the shoot progresses, it would likely trigger impulsive, spur-of-the-moment ideas in the presenter to suit the characterisation being projected. They needn’t be afraid to try something new. Amateurs built the ark. If you enjoy yourself, so will others. That’s the long and short of it.

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Being cheerful and unflustered from the curtain-raiser down to the end of the presentation, they are programmed to come across as culinary specialists, inspired by a deep love of home life, and smitten with the nostalgia of home-cooked cuisine of their childhood. If there is a guest for the show, their pleasing disposition is highlighted through chats with him/her who, in most cases, would be another popular personality who himself gets a shot to showcase himself with a song or dance or other gimmickry – all part of the ingredients of the cookery show.

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Currently, there are some truly amazing cookery programmes dominating the airwaves. To watch the shows of learned and talented chefs, including Michelin Star Chefs, Nutritionists, Hotel Management professionals, wellness experts, expressing valid ideas and tips for healthy and tasty food is always a pleasure and benefits us to learn and discover new recipes or smarten up the known ones.

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In fact, we watch the German show “Lafer! Lichter! Lecker!” hosted by Chef Johann Lafer and Horst Lichter. At other times, we find pastime in MasterChef Australia, a reputed show co-hosted by Chefs Gary Mehigan and George Calombaris, and food critic Matt Preston where the emphasis, besides good cooking, is on drama and competitiveness within a limited time. However, we keep away from another franchise show where some contestants sport an inborn addiction to mouth bad language while cooking good things.

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Our intense travel has brought us in contact with many top chef de cuisines in different countries. They have ensured that our appetites are in safe hands. Their skill and enthusiasm in their respective specialties are quite amazing.

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Some of them also possess that special gift of “blessed hand” known locally as “Kaipunyam”. Chef Stefan Trepp of Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Bangkok and Chef Joseph of Grand Hotel, Cochin are the owners of such brilliance. Chef Ken Murphy, Chef Nicolas Bourel, ……. it is impossible to name here all of them known to us. Of course, I do not leave out Carina’s skill in German cooking.

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Traditional cuisine of different countries has grown through little change over the years. In Kerala, keeping in line with the massive promotion of tourism, there is a renaissance of traditional dishes. The set-up of the recipes and the vocabulary of cooking sessions remain almost unchanged down to that most commonly and frequently used word in cookery: “….a little bit of …….”

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However, with the growing popular interest in good food, cooking is a process of evolution – subject to amalgamation of spices with different ingredients; mixing of flavours and culture like Chinese/Italian, Indian/Thai, etc.

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Imagination is the highest kite that can fly. Like Chef Rasheed whose thirst for knowledge and willingness to experiment with new ideas had driven him forward, a dedicated chef knows that his/her profession also calls for a very imaginative level of creativity and do-ability.

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During a dinner party we attended in Milan, the guests stayed longer than the proper time. The hostess, a French aristocrat known for her elegance and imagination where hospitality is concerned, was not at all disconcerted. She had a huge dish of Spaghetti Bolognese ready, specially prepared earlier envisaging such a circumstance. When everyone cheered her, she happily let out her plans for her next party. “Now let me tell you about that other dish I am going to cook next time. What about Saltimbocca?” There you go! I was nailed. Everyone is entitled to hope. Until next time. Jo

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Picture above: Rose of Melon with Capocollo, a speciality of Trattoria Ristorante Il Porcospino, at Piazza di Madonna degli Aldobrandini in Florence, Italy. Il Porcospino is worth visiting for its fine cuisine.

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Notes:

1.. Many thanks to friends Ms. Suparat Phumrattanaprapin, Ms. Clarissa Lo Cascio and Chef Rasheed Abdulkhader  for their hands on support to illustrate this article with their pictures.

2.. For more details on Kerala cuisine: http://www.keralatourism.org

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(©Joseph Sébastine/Manningtree Archive)

 

FORT COCHIN – Pepper, Souls and Restless Waves

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This is dedicated to the memory of my beloved maternal grandfather, Abraham – “silver in his hair and gold in his heart”

2In nomine Patris, I baptise thee Jo……...” the priest had pronounced during that ceremony held many years ago at Santa Cruz Cathedral (Basilica) at Fort Cochin (Kerala, South India). When those words were quoted to me by my maternal grandfather Abraham eight years later, it was decisive in arousing in me a curiosity for that cathedral and its origins that stretched back to the arrival of the Portuguese.

It is a place where I had witnessed many similar functions and weddings – including some of the festivals that dotted its annual calendar. Living on the mainland of Cochin (earlier Cocym, Cochym, Cochim,.… now, Kochi), those occasions were opportunities for me to hop over to Fort Cochin and be with my maternal grandparents.

Until the age of nine, the Cochin that existed before 14th century was rather shrouded in obscurity to me. My earliest knowledge of Fort Cochin at that time was fixated on an event said to have occurred in 1341 which occasioned it’s emergence as a prominent village consequent to the great flood of the River Periyar – during which a natural harbour was formed when the sea mouth of the Vembanad estuary opened up, and eventually ushered in trade and colonialism.

It is generally held that, it was due to this natural calamity that, Mahodayapuram (Mahodaya Pattanam) and its ancient port of Muziris (Kodungallur), which had silted up, lost their importance.

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History has taught us that Fort Cochin had seen the presence of the Arabs, then the Chinese before the Portuguese came along, followed by the Dutch and finally, the British. The fact remains that during the second half of the fifteenth century the intercourse between China and Malabar has waned, until at last it ceased altogether, leaving some tangible symbols in the form of Chinese Nets, pagoda-style roofs, palm-woven, broad-brimmed hats of the fishermen, Chinese style porcelain, clay pots (Cheena chatti), etc.

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And when the Portuguese came to India in 1498, suffering losses by shipwreck, disease and hunger, in due course they realized that, they were not conquering some kind of uncivilized and uncultured people – indeed, they were confronted by a civilization different from theirs, superior in some and inferior in many respects.

6I have often thought that it is my privilege to have been born in Fort Cochin reaped with legends and vibrant history. Primarily, I was fortunate to be the grandson of Abraham, once a teacher with Santa Cruz School (less than 200 meters from his house), who, with his useful and reliable knowledge about the East and the West, had sowed the first seeds of fascination in me for geography and history, especially about Fort Cochin. He had told me of names I haven’t heard before, …..  Zheng He (Cheng Ho – 1371–1433), Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324), Ibn Battuta (1304– 1368/1369), Dom Vasco da Gama (c. 1460/9–1524), Dom Pedro Álvares Cabral (c. 1467/68–c. 1520), Dom Afonso de Albuquerque (c. 1453–1515), Dom Francisco de Almeida (ca. 1450-1510), etc…

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Over the years, it was from him that I first learned of Fort Cochin being the fundamental reference point for many firsts in Kerala, even in India. It was the first place of European settlement in India; the first place where a foreign Fort was built; the first place in India where European food was served; cake and hot bread was baked; wine fermentation was tried; vindaloo (derived from the Portuguese dish “carne de vinha d’alhos”) made its first appearance in its original form using wine instead of vinegar.

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Most likely, it is the place where tobacco, potato, cauliflower, and new species of fruits such as pineapple, papaya, cashew, guava, custard apple, etc., were initially introduced. The chillies came from the West Indies and revolutionized the palates of locals. I savoured all this in small doses whenever I was in Fort Cochin until 1970, sitting before him, during long balmy evenings that stretched into the late hours.

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In the course of time, further readings led me to complement my list with more firsts: It is certainly the birthplace of Cochin Creole Portuguese, the language that came into existence with the contact of Portuguese language with the local languages and developed hand-in-hand with the formation of Catholic and Indo-Portuguese households. Since the Portuguese occupied Goa only by 1510, Fort Cochin, a citadel of peaceful coexistence, could probably be the first place where the concept of Mestiços or Luso-Indians (people of mixed and Portuguese descent through Indian women or even, órfãs del rei/young orphan Portuguese girls) emerged – the forerunners to Anglo-Indians who, imbibed in the European way of living, can be called the first moderns of India.

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No doubt, the true success of Kerala would remain in its ability to maintain religious harmony. Even though dress codes sometimes marked out the religious identities of the different groups, not prone to the extremes of communal disturbance or religious chauvinism, the natives dressed in mundu, chatta, and neriyathum; sari and blouse; pattu pavadai; ghagra cholis; pardah, Muslim cap, green belt and lungi; Western-style skirts and trousers – all existed side by side in perfect harmony.

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Once, my grandfather’s talk had diverged into the subject of another ritual that was said to have taken place some 489 years ago at less than 100 meters from Santa Cruz Cathedral – at the Church of San Francesco (now called St. Francis CSI Church). When that event took place, the place was known as the Church of Santo António (Igreja de Santo António), dedicated to the Saint who would subsequently capture the reverence and affection of Kerala devotees irrespective of their caste and creed.

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The occasion was the funeral of the Portuguese explorer Dom Vasco da Gama in late 1524. At the time of his death, the retired and ageing Dom Gama, by then “Conde da Vidigueira” (Count of Vidigueira) and the second Viceroy of India, was on his third visit to India when he fell ill and death stole him on Christmas Eve.

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14Years later, I would discover a written account of that event only in the writings of Gaspar Corrêa, (the Secretary of Albuquerque) in Lendas da India (a) which covered the history of the Portuguese from 1497 to 1549. According to Corrêa, Dom Gama was suffering from “great pains in the neck for some days, which had got awry, and some boils came to the surface at the nape of the neck.” In spite of remedies, it got worse to such an extent that the pains deprived him of speech. Having realised that his death was imminent, they shifted him from the fortress to the houses (perhaps this could be the Vasco House) of a Diogo Pereira close by to the church of Santo Antonio. Dom Gama was a great devotee of the Santo António, who himself is not unfamiliar to the perils of the sea. After Dom Gama’s testament was prepared and orders issued to subordinates that included his wish to convey his bone to the kingdom, as a basic preparation for death, Dom Gama made his confession and holy sacraments were administered to him. His life departed him in the night of Christmas, 1524, at three o’clock after midnight.

Corrêa relates: “The body, dressed in silk clothes, and over them a mantle of the Order of Christ, with a sword and gilded belt, and gilt spurs fixed upon dark buskins and on its head a dark round barret-cap, was placed in the hall, in the bier of the brotherhood of Mercy, uncovered; and the gentlemen, clothed in the mantles of their order, bore it on their shoulders, with many tapers, and followed by all the people. It was carried to the monastery of St. Antony, and buried in the principal chapel; and upon the tomb was a square grating surrounding the grave, of the height of a span, lined with black velvet, and a black and white fringe, placed upon a velvet cloth, which covered all the grave. There the next day a great service was performed”.

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Having discovered the ocean route from Europe round the Cape of Good Hope to India, the tough and fearless navigator Dom Gama, and his hard-bitten crew with seafaring capability had landed at Kappad near Calicut (renamed Kozhikode) on May 20, 1498 which culminated in the diversion of the profitable spice trade that passed through Syria and Alexandria into a new route – consequently destroying the monopoly of Venice and elevating Lisbon as the great spice-market of Europe. It was a time when much of the traffic in the Indian Ocean was dominated by the vessels of Muslim merchants who for centuries had controlled the trade routes with the support of powerful local rulers.

Although historians know little about why Dom Gama was chosen to command the expedition to India, the three objectives of Dom Gama’s feat to the southeast coast of India is well understood: conquest, commerce, and conversion. His success in breaking the maritime domination of the others had set the stage for him to not only earn a place in history by the side of Fernão de Magalhães and Cristóbal Colón but also established a link connecting the source of his family fortune to India.

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Favours such as the territorial title of “Dom”, “Admiral of India”, an annual pension of 1,000 cruzados, title of annual hereditary pension of 300,000 reis, right to send money to India, were granted to him. His return in a blaze of triumph to Lisbon after the first journey to India had also brought him a privileged marriage to prominent nobleman Álvaro de Ataíde’s daughter Dona Catharina de Ataíde just months before he set sail for his second journey to India in 1502 with the object of securing a permanent foothold on the Indian coast.

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Consequent to Dom Gama’s discovery, more adventurers like Pedro Álvares Cabral and the energetic commander Afonso de Albuquerque, the first European since Alexander the Great who dreamed of establishing an empire in India, or rather Asia, followed.

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When the Portuguese arrived in India, Cochin was in vassalage to Zamorin of Calicut. But the Raja’s surface appearances were out of step with inner truths. Irritated under the dominance of Calicut, Unni Goda Varma Koyil (Unni Raman Koyil I (? – 1503)) (b), the Raja of Cochin, was exploring ways to break away. He saw the arrival of Portuguese as a chance to assert his independence. No sooner they earned the goodwill and permission of the Raja to engage in trade and built a factory in Cochin, Cabral established the first Portuguese trading post in India, which the Portuguese called “Estado da India” (State of India). Besides their trade in pepper, they also popularised other spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, etc, in the European countries.

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The Portuguese victory in fending off the invading armies of the Zamorin and vassal Malabari states in the Battle of Cochin (the first siege was in mid-1503 and the Second Siege of Cochin was during March-July 1504) which took place on land and sea not only thwarted Zamorin’s attempt to conquer Cochin but also helped in reinstating the Raja of Cochin on the throne. This facilitated the Portuguese to secure their continued presence and strengthen commercial and missionary relations. The initial siege had proven that protection could not be achieved by unassertive means. In order to lay the foundation of the shore defences and to defend the local Portuguese factory, they acquired permission from Raja Unni Raman Koyil II (1503-1537) to build a Fort on the southside of the entrance of the river leading into the backwater using the Raja’s workers and material.

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21The foundation stone of this Fort was laid by the newcomer Albuquerque on September 27, 1503. Completed within a few months, the Fort would finally have seven large bastions, with the first bastion directly facing the sea. Named Fort Manuel de Cochim (Manuel/Emmanuel Kotta) after Manuel I the Fortunate (c) (English: Emmanuel I – 1469-1521), the 14th King of Portugal and Algarves, the area became known as Fort Cochin (d).

The Portuguese built their settlement in India behind Fort Manuel. They were acclimatised by birth to a hot climate. As they did in other Portuguese trading posts/colonies along the coastal districts where their power made itself felt, a wooden Catholic chapel was constructed in the neighbourhood in 1503 by five Franciscan friars who had accompanied the Portuguese expedition.

Dedicated to São Bartolomeu, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, the Chapel merits the honour of being the oldest European church in India and went on to garner great historical significance as a mute witness to the European power struggle in India.

A house to the left towards the rear of this chapel (in Rose Street) (e) with typical European glass pane windows and balcony-cum-veranda, considered to be one of the oldest Portuguese houses in India, is supposed to be the place where Dom Gama lived. Today it is known as Vasco House. The close proximity of this house and Dom Gama’s devoted attachment to this Chapel could be one of the criteria for his burial in this chapel.

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Great builders and promoters of architecture than any other form of fine art, the Portuguese apparently caught the admiration of the Raja of Cochin who was tolerant of other religions. The Raja granted permission to the first Portuguese viceroy (appointed in 1505), Dom Francisco de Almedia (1450–1510), a nobleman of illustrious rank and first cousin of Dom Gama’s wife Catarina de Ataide, to construct buildings using stone and masonry work. At the same time as Fort San Angelo (Kannur Fort/Kotta) was being built by the Portuguese with brilliantly red laterite stone at Cannanore, the foundation stone of Santa Cruz Cathedral was laid at Fort Cochin on May 3, 1505, on the old Feast Day of the “Invention of the Holy Cross”, the instrument of salvation. Hence, the church was called “Santa Cruz”. As we can observe, almost always in the early European explorations, religious and commercial motives were intertwined.

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In 1506, the wooden Chapel of São Bartolomeu by the side of the 4-acre Parade Ground (formerly Barrack Ground) was pulled down and reconstructed into a permanent structure with gabled timber-framed roof covered with tiles.

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While the façade of the Church in typical Portuguese style is flanked on both sides by a stepped pinnacle, the windows and doors displayed semi-circular arches.

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The bell turret is divided into three compartments and must have been visible to the European sailors from afar during their arrival and departure. In 1516, the newly consecrated church was dedicated to Santo António, the patron saint of Lisbon. The original title deeds written on palm leaf (Ola) pertaining to the land gifted by the Raja of Cochin to construct this church is still kept in the church. It was here Dom Gama was buried with honours in 1524, bestowing the church with historic significance.

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The method of construction using stone and masonry work for church edifices was unheard of during that period since construction of such imposing structures were solely limited to royal palaces or temples. Although this church does not have any architectural merits, it was during this period, when ornate monumentality of the European churches was introduced to India, which initiated the synthesis of Church art and architecture of an alien nation and religion to indigenous forms and techniques of Kerala’s artistic and architectural traditions.

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With the Raja of Cochin residing at Mattancherry, the peninsula became a fusion of traditional folk art forms and culture of Kerala as well as the West, although, till today, the peninsula retains the predominance of Malayali identity, its spiritual and traditional values.

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Europeans visiting Mattancherry “to pay their respects” to the Raja could not only watch the Raja’s numerous elephants with good features (Lakshanams), sometimes richly caparisoned, but also now and then enjoy performing arts like Sinkari Melam, Theyyam, Ottanthullal, Padayani, Maritheyyam, Peelikavadi, Karakattam, Kurathiyattam, Kathakali, Thiruvathirakali, Bharathanatyam, Pulikali, Margam Kali, kolkali, etc., – moments that were decisive in formulating a fusion of new and vital forms of literature and drama like “Chavittunadakam” (Stomping Drama) (f), etc.

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Having spent months out on the rough seas with sea-hardened sailors and listening occasionally to their bawdy sea shanties, these occasions must have appeared so refreshingly fresh and unique to the Europeans.

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Here they sometimes listened to discussions on the merits of Ayurvadic treatments, astrology, Vastu Shastra (Feng Shui), and about the delicious vegetarian food such as Sambar, Rasam, Puliserry, Aviyal, Thoran, Inji Curry, Kalan, Olan, Parippu curry, Kootu curry, Theeyal, Pachadi, Kichadi, Injithairu, Achaar, Pappadam, Payasam, etc, and mentally compared them to those of Europe such as fresh bread, beef stew, grilled sardines, cinnamon rolls, sauces, etc, cooked in their settlement in Fort Cochin. The world has become very small.

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During the time of Raja Veera Kerala Varma (aka. Gangadhara Veera Keralan – 1537-65) in 1538, fourteen years after the death of Dom Gama, his mortal remains were removed from the Church of Santo António to Portugal.

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However, the original gravestone of Dom Gama’s empty tomb can still be seen today on the ground floor near to the Southern sidewall (g).

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The southernwall marks the gravestones of Dutch personnel while those of the Portuguese are fixed on the northern sidewall – shifted from the floor of the nave in 1886.

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39Closely following the maritime accomplishments of the Portuguese, the Dutch were determined to take part in the valuable spice trade and establish their monopoly in pepper.

Cochin’s existence as a long-time Portuguese protectorate since 1503 finally came to an end when the Dutch laid siege to Fort Manuel and captured Cochin in 1663, almost a hundred years after the Jews of Kerala constructed their Paradesi (Cochin Jewish) Synagogue in 1568 (h) under the reign of Raja Kesava (Kesara) Rama Varma II (1565-1601) in the neighbouring Mattancherry.

Since the Portuguese posed a threat to the island of Ceylon which the Dutch had conquered not long ago, their conquest of the Malabar region was initially only on account of Cochin’s strategic importance. However, so as to make it easier to defend and maintain their settlement, they would reduce the size of Fort Manuel, and also demolish several houses to make the settlement narrower.

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Soon Protestantism gained influence and the control of the Church of Santo António shifted from the Order of Franciscans. Having decided to rid of all Portuguese influence, all European Catholic priests were ordered to quit the territory. The Dutch demolished all Catholic convents and churches except the Church of Santo António (The contents of a placard before the church include the sentence: “From 1510 AD to 1663 AD the Portuguese officially called St. Francis Church as the conventional church of the order of St. Francis of Assisi”), and the Santa Cruz Cathedral, which they used as their arms storehouse (i).

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Successively, when some of the Catholics practising their faith at the Church of Santo António/San Francesco shifted to the Roman Catholic Church of the Our Lady of Hope (Nossa Senhora de Esperanca) in Vypeen, the existing pulpit and some screens of the Church of Santo António were also shifted with them. In their place, a new communion table and the rostrum furniture were installed.

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According to a report, on January 8, 1664, the Dutch celebrated the first service with a parade of all arms commemorating their initial entry into the city after capturing Fort Manuel in January, 1663. Likewise, a tablet just above the main entrance relates to some restoration works the Dutch made in 1779.

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During the time of the Dutch, Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691) served as the Governor of Cochin (1670-1677). In 1674 he began working on his book Hortus Malabaricus (Garden of Malabar), a pioneering compilation of 740 plants of economic and medical value in the Malabar Coast and published its first volume in 1678 (j). The book is also reputed to have the first printed words in Malayalam.

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The British captured Cochin after occupying Fort Manuel in October of 1795. In spite of their supremacy, the British were lenient enough to let the Dutch, who had controlled Fort Cochin for 132 years, to retain possession of the Church of Santo António/Cochin/San Francesco.

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Eight years later after the British took over, Fort Manuel was blown up by the British East India Company in compliant with the orders to destroy all fortifications and public buildings and the leading Dutch families who resided there with every degree of splendour started to desert the place.

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In 1804, after the Dutch had voluntarily handed over the Church of Santo António to the Anglican Communion it was rededicated to San Francesco. It was eventually placed under the Ecclesiastical Department of the Government of India.

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Some more renovations took place during the 19th century as confirmed by a tablet indicating that “Repaired by The Government of Madras. Anno 1887. Being the Fiftieth Year of the Reign of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India”.

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According to the “Imperial Gazettee of India – Volume IV”, “the facade of the church was surmounted by an ornamented bronze cross and a weathercock, 6 feet high, which could be distinctly perceived some 10 miles off at sea; but in 1865 these were pulled down.”

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Since 1923, the church is treated as a protected monument of national importance under the Archaeological Survey of India and now remains under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 although it is owned by the Church of South India (CSI), the successor of the Church of England in India, that came into existence by a union of Anglican and Protestant churches in South India.

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One symbol of British days which can still be seen today is the continued use of manually operated large swinging cloth fans on frames called “Pankhas” suspended above the congregation.

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But history lovers would also love to have a peek at the “Doop Boek(k) of the church. It is the old Baptism and Marriage Register of the diocese covering the period 1751-1804, the most authentic record of the Dutch East India Company (Dutch: Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC or more colloquially as The Seventeen) and others who strode on the turf of the history of Fort Cochin.

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I understand that the original of that Het doop-en trouwboek is in the department of the India Office Records forming part of the VOC archives of the British Library in London, the very repository of the archives of the British East India Company (EIC).

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63In the aura of the colonial past stands a cenotaph before the church, erected on October 21, 1920, in memory of the residents of Cochin who fell in World War I. You can also see a clock that was set up on the façade on November 13, 1923 in memory of Hal Harrison Jones, a former Managing Director of Aspinwall & Co., Ltd, who died at Cochin.

The land before the church is now occupied by constructions including some colonial bungalows situated amidst landscaped grounds forming part of a club which commenced operation in early 1900s with admission privileges restricted to the British and men only (presently Cochin Club).

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What there is left of the beach that has had many cultural influences on these colonial powers exist on the west beyond the club grounds – its past glory diminished like the Fort Manuel, the remnants of which can be seen along the beach, like the symbol of a bygone era steeped in its historic significance and heritage value.

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The few occasions we had to interact with the locals during our visit to Portugal in 2006 had offered me the understanding that the bygone grand era is looked back by them with pride though they are at wonder about how they had managed to attain it.

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Even so, the fact remains that history should be seen in the context of its time – to the moods, attitudes, and conditions that existed during that time – as much as it is due to the farsightedness and pro-activeness of the illustrious explorers and adventurers; it is not unconventional to be aware that greed and brutality also played its roles to sustain this achievement, until more smarter and more able European powers appeared on the horizon and took over.

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The changes that took place by stages in the colonial period had greater impact on Fort Cochin. In point of fact, the spirit and character of Fort Cochin is largely defined by its unique history and heritage. While it is no longer fashionable to think of history in terms of kings and captains, we cannot ignore the truth about the past communities of colonial times and even the one that predates the Western conquerors. The cantilevered Chinese fishing nets that still raise their heads are a tangible signpost to that period.

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I recently attended a seminar on the heritage of Fort Cochin. There prevailed a sense of anticipation in the air – like a promise that something positive would eventually come out of it. Given that heads of historical monuments, prominent historians, archaeological experts, local populace and enthusiasts are roped in to participate, such seminars and activities of organisations are positive steps to regenerate and conserve the eco-cultural landscape of the area, its historical monuments, etc., and to watch out and curtail all actions that wipe out traces of the ancient civilisation.

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The active involvement of dedicated personalities like Dr. Charles Dias, MP and Dominic Presentation, MLA, and official departments like the Department of Tourism, etc, is commendable. Of the various protective measures being considered, languages like Cochin Creole Portuguese which has originated during the colonial times, and other kinds of intangible cultural heritage that are becoming extinct must also be given due attention.

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While the golden sands of the beach, still a distant dream, has to be definitely rejuvenated and there can be merit in establishing a community swimming pool – a public facility to enable visitors, especially low-budget travellers, etc, who like to swim safely in the ambiance of the beach and the Arabian Sea.

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Understanding is a two-way street. Following that Seminar, a short walk I took around the old Fort area provided me with the opportunity to examine how much of its character and quality has been preserved. Sure enough, one of Fort Cochin’s blessings is its partial isolation and you can stroll at a leisure pace in the quiet streets. That cool and quite ambiance is what makes this “sweet spot” so charming and endearing.

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Even now, you will not miss its charisma displayed so prominently on the doorways, walls and facades of the Portuguese, Dutch and British buildings from colonial periods lining the streets. Regrettably, many from the public, the tourists and heritage enthusiasts are still left unaware of several salient features of Fort Cochin’s history and monuments.

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Through awareness programmes and encouraging research, many ambiguities can be clarified and questions answered: Where were the real boundaries of the Fort Manuel, or where each of the seven bastions, renamed by Dutch as Groningen, Friesland, Utrecht, Zeeland, Holland, Gelderland, Stroomburg (names of Dutch provinces) was situated? Where was the smaller bastion called Overijssel or riverside entrances to the fort – Water-Gate, Bay-Gate, and New-Gate, located? Where is the Loafer’s Corner? Why is it that there are hardly any Dutch surnames compared to those of Portuguese; etc.

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The vestiges of three former European colonial powers that line the Burger Street (Burgerstraat), the Princess Street (Prinsesstraat); the remnants of the Fort; the huge, shady trees lining the lanes; the garden bungalows with large rooms, high ceilings and verandas, arched doorways, carved doors, colonial windows; the few edifices such as the Old Harbour House, Koder House, Vasco House, David Hall, the Bishop’s House (once the residence of the Portuguese Governor), Thakur House (Kunal or Hill Bungalow); the playgrounds, etc, – all extend their roots to a bygone era.

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As the spice race is long over, it is the tourism that had opened its door to Fort Cochin’s history. As the tourism industry in Fort Cochin encompasses many different areas, any tendency to cash in on its tourist potentiality by overpricing on services would have a negative impact on Fort Cochin and deter the tourists from returning. Besides, certain visible “not so goody-goody” problems that have cropped up with the encroachers, illegal shack vendors, the dumping of garbage, etc., are aspects that are being addressed.

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Although there are isolated incidents connected with the sale of drugs and abuse towards the visitors, the police have shown exemplary effort to curb these unsocial elements which are a menace in any part of the world.

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Development is part and parcel of a society whose requirements and demands change when society changes. Nevertheless, I would say without fear of contradiction, that development must not ignore the past, socio-economic attitude of the people and their culture. No doubt, it’s a blessing that the restrictions and lack of opportunities for haphazard development has preserved this area to a remarkable degree even though intrusiveness can be seen popping its head up in some places. It reminded me of the policies implemented at places of historical importance like Assisi, Siena, Firenze, Toledo, to name a few, where preservation is given the highest priority to maintain the connection the present has with the past.

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More than aides-mémoires of the collective past, historic place like Fort Cochin has social, economic, educational, and other values. I hope the renewed interest in this area would not only provide an incentive to our efforts for the welfare and protection of Fort Cochin and its surroundings but also bring in the essential cultural pride. Until next time. Ciao, Jo

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PS:

84a)   It seems that Gaspar Corrêa’s (1496-1563) Lendas da India, an indispensible contemporary source on India’s history or the story of Portuguese expansion, was not published until the 19th century.

b)   The names of Rajas vary in different publications.

c)   Dom Manuel was called “the Fortunate” because of the great wealth he earned from Portugal’s maritime discoveries.

d)  The second part of the name Cochin might have derived from kochazhi which in local language Malayalam stands for “small estuary”.  

e)   Dom Manuel I was bestowed with a Golden Rose by Pope Julius II in 1506. By receiving a second Golden Rose from Pope Leo X in 1514, Manuel became the first individual to receive more than one Golden Rose, which is a gold ornament traditionally blessed by the popes annually and conferred as a token of reverence or affection.  The street must have been named “Rose Street” by the Portuguese as a mark of respect to their king during the above mentioned period.

f)   Chavittunatakam: The first documentation and publication of this art form is planned by South Zone Culture Centre and Kerala Folklore Academy.

g)   In the writings of Gaspar Corrêa also, it is mentioned that Dom Gama was buried in the principal chapel of the monastery of St. Antony while in some writings it is referred as Monastery of St. Francis, Cathedral of Cochym . In an article of the Boletim do Governo, Goa, December 21, 1858, on the subject of Dom Gama’s tomb, he was buried in the principal chapel of the church of the Franciscan monastery of Cochym.

85h)   According to Cochin State Manual by C. Achyutha Menon, the first synagogue was established at Muziris but it does not exist today.

i)    This arms storehouse of the Dutch fell into the hands of the British who demolished it when they took over Cochin in 1795 under the rule of Rama Varma (Sakthan Thampuran – 1790-1805).

j)    Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India” (Conversations on Indian Herbs and Drugs) was published in Goa on April 10, 1563 by Portuguese Jewish physician/naturalist Garcia da Orta, a pioneer of tropical medicine, nearly a hundred years earlier to the publication of “Hortus Malabaricus”.

k)   The Doop Boek was maintained for 40 years and was sent to London in 1932 for repairs. Having rebound in the original style, it is unavailable for public scrutiny although a Photostat copy of the original book is, I understand, available to satisfy their curiosity.

l)    For more details on Kerala: http://www.keralatourism.org

m) A special thanks to Ms. Pearl Prakash.

n) This article presents only sign posts from the history of Fort Cochin. The excuse for its appearance at this time is my attempt to summarise these events at this juncture when much discussion on Fort Cochin’s importance and protection are progressing.  Although certain proposals are mentioned here, I have not included all the various proposals and implementations currently being addressed by the Government, other institutions and enthusiasts.

(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)

 

Kerala – Fruits of the Sea

 

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I have good reason to like seafood. From childhood on, a delicacy from the sea would often find its way onto my dining table with occasional reminder from Mom of the true nutritional value of the fish and how it helps to grow strong and wise. I do not dislike other kind of food (except anything that crawls or with feathers) nor do I love all sorts of seafood. Actually, if I wish to be selective, I could do so since my home State of Kerala in the South-western tip of India bounded by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west, and a coastal line that stretches more than 360 miles long, has an abundant wealth of seafood.

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Besides the lakes, ponds and paddy fields (where fingerlings are occasionally released), we have 41 west-flowing rivers here in addition to three east-flowing one and a continuous chain of lagoons and backwaters running parallel to the sea-coast. Then there are about 275 varieties of fish in India of which 175 species are reportedly in the coastal and inland waters of Kerala.

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Far into the ancient times, the shores of Kerala saw the arrival of visitors and traders from afar. The sea grew into a decisive factor in the history of Kerala in the wake of the discovery of the monsoon trade wind around the first century A.D when a proper route cutting right across the Arabian Sea was established which enabled the marines to adopt the direct sailing from Aden in Yemen to Muziris in Kerala.

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While a profusion of spices (1) went out in vessels like ‘dhows’; new religions, alien cultures and rulers breezed in. Looking back over the history of this State I note that, the people having come to terms with foreign influence were also remarkably tolerant of other people’s customs and ideas. And all along, this land strived to retain its natural beauty and resources.

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Indian climate may broadly be described as tropical monsoonal climate. The southwest monsoon season of Kerala begins in early June and it coincides with the spawning season of majority of the fishes of the land, particularly shrimp.

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To conserve the marine resources, more specifically, to prevent destruction of fish eggs and young fish from large-scale harvesting by fishing vessels, several studies had recommended that seasonal restriction is essential. Hence, fishing with trawlers or mechanised fishing boats is stopped during the breeding period, an annual feature since 1988 which blanketed 12 nautical miles of the sea from the Kerala coast.

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Even though the ban would contribute to make the price of fish to soar, in an era of depleted oceans and endangered fisheries, the restriction on trawling is an appropriate and a responsible approach, especially when we read this together with reports that under pressure from deforestation, mining and the building of dams of the Western Ghats, an estimated 30 species have been lost over the past 60 years. In view of the welfare of marine resources and the numerous fishermen depending on the connected industry, the Government and state owned enterprises have set up ever-improving activities. Besides, the Church is also playing a good role for the welfare of the fishermen and their families.

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At midnight of June 14 of this year, the annual ban on trawling came into effect which would give a bit of peace to some of those marine species swimming in the vicinity of Kerala. This 47 days break (until July 31) entitles the fishes to breed and groom and have a wonderful peaceful monsoon vacation in cooler waters when the ‘gentler’ Kerala is lashed with heavy rain and isolated thunderstorms.

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As the monsoon drenches the highland, floods the midland and drowns the lowland of Kerala, soaking the thick forests, inundate agricultural fields and luxuriant growth of trees dominated by the coconut groves; the raging sea does its annual business to wreak havoc on the coastal life and encroach onto the sandy soiled shores and grab bits of land from the coastal belt.

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With approximately 5,400 mechanised fishing boats registered in the State (2) now on compulsory holiday, thousands of fishermen, including some of those working in harbours and peeling sheds who lack material and educational advancement, face a period that is unlikely the best days of their lives.

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Although such an annual period is foreseen; some fishermen make use of this period to sort out domestic matters and attend to maintenance of fishing units, while those with dilapidated finances seek temporary jobs elsewhere, all the while, ticking off the days for the ban to end to once again see their silhouettes reflecting off the water, to toil in their boats in the territorial waters – early in the morning, under the scorching sun, sometimes into the middle of the night while their women and children anxiously awaited their return with aches and pain in their heart and mind. Health is a gift those men took for granted – the energy they need for the tasks comes at the right time. It’s a unique personal connection that fishing creates between man and nature.

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For these men, some trips are good, some not. And so, life at the sea is a buzz of many occasions, more smiles, less bitter or vice versa: the thrill of a good catch; the exhilaration when you hit Chakara (3); the extreme oppression of the weather and the strains of the job; the comradeship: its joy and pains; their mastery in the colloquial language laced with Portuguese and Jewish terminologies; their knowledge in the salient features of different kinds of fish and the taste of its roes; the happiness of seeing an occasional rainbow or a comet; of interrupted sleep on board, the constant alertness for warning signals of danger……

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Good timber does not grow in ease –

The stronger the wind, the tougher the trees

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Apart from observing from close quarters in harbours of Cochin, Vizhinjam, and Panaji, as well as from books and visual media, I have never set foot inside a fishing trawler. My cruise on board M/V Bharat Seema to the Lakshadweep Islands (India) and back was an awesome experience, especially to lie on the deck during the night and look up at the intense full moon glaring from the dark sky as the ship rolled from side to side shifting the wide horizon up and down. By far, I have seen the hustle and bustle of many beaches and markets of India including the Lakshadweep Islands, Thailand (Pattaya), Yemen (Hodeidah, Al Mokha and Aden), Italy(Venice), Portugal (Lisbon), Turkey (Istanbul) and few in England.

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The wealth of imagery on some of these beaches is phenomenal. I have savoured the thrill of watching the arrival of fish laden boats to dock; observed the everyday scenes on the beach and the daily lives of the fisher-folks. These are human beings working alongside nature – in harmony with nature.

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Having conversant with many in the field of fishing in Cochin itself, some of the stories they told have captured my imagination. The memories they stored away in their mental scrapbook: some spoke of the rhythms of their daily life as fickle and unpredictable as the sea; of their piscatorial gods of protection; the superstitions and their bravery. Once I heard a fisherman cooking up an anecdote of having seen a ‘stunner’ whale (Thimingalam) as big as the Venduruthy Bridge of Cochin (around 635 mtr); one spoke of an omen of misfortune about the crows while another about good aspects of seagulls believed to contain the souls of dead sailors.

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There are fishermen who would not stop to count the number of fish they caught for fear that they will not catch no more on that day. A naturally right-handed fisherman, considered it unlucky to cast his line with his left hand. But one thing I read in a publication that I didn’t tell them for reasons you could comprehend is, if a fisherman had an (un-staged) quarrel and fight with his wife before going to sea, he can expect a good catch! What an idea!

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In order not to miss the boat when the dark clouds gather under the sun, the seafood export-houses of Kerala do their annual stocking up (especially shrimps, Kerala’s “pink gold” much sought after in U.S.A, Europe and Japan) with the harvest of the sea well in advance to keep up with their regular outflow of exports. However, the dining tables around the State have no reason to panic about the fish factor. To substitute this shortfall due to the ban, Kerala’s good network of backwaters is breeding “nursery” for vast variety of fish, some of which the locals actually prefer more over those caught from the sea.

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Exempt from the blanket coverage of the ban, the artisanal and peasant fishermen on canoes (traditional Vallom), with or without small motor, continue with their fishing activities in these backwaters traditionally rich with fish and clams or even venture out into the generally rough sea during the monsoon months to cast their nets at their own risk – while the trawler workers are saved from dangerous exposure to the rough sea due to the ban. In addition, freshwater fish is sourced from Tamil Nadu and from Aqua farms on the eastern coast of Andhra Pradesh.

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Fresh and dried fish is a regular item on the dining tables in Kerala. With more than 70 edible varieties of sea beauties (4), Oh boy, this is heaven for a connoisseur of fish.

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A preferred variety for many is the Green Chromide (Etroplus suratensis), a species of cichlid fish whose colour is most beautiful during the monsoon (June-September & October-November). A fresh and brackish water fish commonly found in South India and Sri Lanka, it is locally known as Karimeen (Eli-meenu/matak/ersa/erpe/eri menu/kaggalase in Kannada, koral in Bengali, Kundal in Odia), but also bears the name Pearlspot Fish due to the pearl-like white spots on its scales.

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Distributed abundantly in large rivers, lakes, lagoons and estuaries throughout Kerala, especially at Alleppey (Alappuzha), this herbivorous fish has the perfect characteristics for fish-farming/Pisciculture (breeding, rearing, and transplantation of fish by artificial means). Karimeen commonly reaches 20 centimetres (7.9 inches) but the maximum length is twice that, a growth it achieves by feeding on filamentous algae, plant material, small worms/prawns and insects. Breeders are fed with conventional artificial feed prepared with rice bran, groundnut oil cake, etc. Even though fishing methods have continuously evolved and the opportunities for innovation have been especially good in recent decades, gillnets, which impose less impact on the environment, remain more prevalent in the local use to catch Karimeen.

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Available throughout the year, many restaurants in Kerala cater dishes featuring the oval-shaped Karimeen as their star attraction in addition to other authentic dishes that forms part of Kerala cuisine (5).

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One restaurant famous for Kerala cuisine, especially for Karimeen, is the Grand Hotel in Cochin where delicacies of this fish tops their Menu in different flavour and cooking methods (6). While cleaning this fish, after cutting off the gills with kitchen scissors, care has to be taken to not only remove it’s scales but also to remove a film of the skin with a sharp knife which can be done from the tail-end upwards, leaving a gleaming white surface.

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It is served on board traditional tourist boats (Kettuvallams) (7) plying the scenic backwaters (a chain of interconnected rivers, lakes, inlets and canals) since its dishes forms part of an average tourist’s Kerala experience. Even Kerala has elevated Karimeen as the official fish of the State and to boost up its production and facilitate larger exports, observed 2010-11 as “The Year of the Karimeen”.

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The restaurant of Grand Hotel is often filled with tourists resolute with their wish not to leave without savouring the good taste and flavour of this all-time favourite. This is also a preferred haunt of non-resident Keralites, especially those hailing from the Kuttanad region of Alleppey district who reminisce of their childhood at their houses beside palm-fringed rivers and lagoons where their mothers had displayed their culinary skills with this “upper-middle class” fish on their eating plates when it used to cost far less, unlike today when it is still dodging the cooking pots of the common man due to its overpriced cost.

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Tradition and religion have played an important role in Kerala cuisine. Although it has a specialized local character of its own, Portuguese and British rule is evident in the cuisine of minorities like the Christians. In the heart of all this are the spices and every family has their own specialism in its mixture that is passed on from mother to daughter over the years.

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Fish is a creative cook’s dream. Properly prepared, any palate will perk up at the taste of fresh fish. No doubt about it. Most of us have a favourite fish or seafood that is cooked in a certain way. From poaching to steaming to boiling to broiling to smoking to sautéing to grilling to frying, the ways for preparing fish are many.

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With great seafood dishes ranging from appetizers, to soups to salads to pasta to burgers to curry to Sushi, cooking seafood right does require skills – especially when we consider the delicious, nutritious and healthy aspects of the meals.

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Recently I came to know that the great opera tenor (late) Luciano Pavarotti shared a common interest with me. Like me, he loved to cook as well as eat. I learned of it the hard way when I was hitting singles during the last years of my stay in Yemen where fish is abundant but narrow on variety and availability of the right ingredients.

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39Later, the wonderful wealth of cooking techniques so graciously shared to us by some of the brilliant chefs we befriended during our outings enabled me to cook up some impressive dishes whenever I get into the kitchen where life sometimes makes up its mind. But it was Carina who taught me the secret of making a good court-bouillon which I find a fantastic base for lobster. Cooking and enjoying seafood can be quite fun with all the variety and the related ingredients we have here. As long as the fun lasts, we are glad we can make the most of the fish we buy. Until next time. Ciao, Jo

(1)    Spices like pepper (Piper nigrum L/Kurumulaku), cardamom (Elettaria cardamomum Maton/Elam), cinnamon (Cinnamomum verum/karuvapatta/Elavangam), ginger (Zingiber officinale Roscoe/Inchi), nutmeg (Myristica fragrans/Jathikka), clove (Syzygium aromaticum/Grambu/Karayambu), turmeric (Curcuma longa L/Manjal), etc.

(2)    Registered boats: Data according to a local newspaper.

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(3)    Chakara: When the temperature of the atmosphere increase, schools of poovalan shrimps living in the bottom of the sea rise up to the surface to enjoy the fresh water and coldness from the new rain. Another common explanation is that, the easterly approach of the south-west monsoon wind conjure up a current running perpendicular to the ebbs and tides forcing the subsurface water to come up with the fish swimming in the bottom. ‘Chakara’ is a rare phenomenon seen only in the coastal waters of Kerala between Kannur and Quilon during the southwest monsoon period. On June 24, 2013, a ‘Chakara’ of Poovalan Shrimps (Metapenaeus Dobson) appeared off the coast of Cochin. Another ‘Chemmen (Shrimps) Chakara’ occurred at Chavakkad, Trichur five days earlier to that when fleet of shrimps appeared a couple of kilometres off the coast.

(4)    There are crustaceans like shrimps, lobsters, crabs; sharks and rays (Elasmobranchii); King fish/Seer fish/Indo-Pacific king mackerel (Scomberomorus guttatus/naimeen/ayakoora/varimeen), Indian Mackerel (Rastrelliger kanagurta/ayala), Indian oil Sardine (Sardinella longiceps/mathi/naichaala), Pomfret Silver/Black (Pampus argenteus/niger/aavoli), Striped Mullet (Mugil cephalus/Thirutha), Malabar blood Snapper (Lutjanus malabaricus/chempalli), Mozambique tilapia (Oreochromis mossambicus/tilapia), Tuna (tunnus albacares/euthynnus affinis/choora) and I don’t forget Dussumier’s ponyfish (Leiognathus dussumieri/mullen), et al.

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(5)    For details on Kerala cuisine: http://www.keralatourism.org

(6)     Karimeen Molly, Karimeen Pollichathu, Karimeen Vevichathu, Karimeen Mappas, Karimeen Varutharachathu, Karimeen Fry, etc.

(7)    Kettuvallams were traditionally used as grain barges. The present motorised houseboats are made of planks of jack-wood joined together with coir and coated with a caustic black resin prepared from boiled cashew kernels. It has covered accommodation facility with kitchen, built up using bamboo mats, sticks, wood of areca nut tree and coir for roofing and wooden planks with coir mats for flooring.

(8)    Painting: “The King of Cochin riding on an Elephant, attended by his Nairs” by Portuguese traveller Jan Huygen van Linschote (1562-1611)  – Source: Public Domain image in Wikimedia Commons

(9)    Painting: “Overwinningh van de Stadt Cotchin op de Kust van Mallabaer – Victory over Kochi on the coast of Malabar” by Coenraet Decker (1650 circa-1685)  – Source: Public Domain image in it.wikipedia.org

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This article is dedicated to the memory of my late paternal grandparents, Anna and Joseph, great connoisseurs of seafood.

(Photos: © Manningtree Archive)

Backwater-Campaign-Kerala 1

Backwater-Campaign-Kerala 2

Backwater-Campaign-Kerala 3The three images shown above: Photo courtesy: Kerala Tourism