'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

A Dutch Search

In the heart of Tripunithura town, Kerala (I live here nowadays) is an understated-ly elegant and old-looking clock-tower. I have known of it since 'time immemorial'; but it was only a few weeks back that I chanced upon a piece of descriptive text at its base. The gist: "The tower was built around 1860-70. The then Maharaja invited Dutch experts to build it. The clock is British." I had known for a long while that the Dutch had a strong presence in these parts and that 'Kalikkotta Palace' (actually a set of pleasantly roomy halls where sundry functions are held) was a Dutch construction. But I also knew the Dutch had left Cochin for good by 1800; so their being 'invited' to do some construction a lifetime after they quit was a surprise. I decided to ask around a bit.

I soon learned that Dutch architecture had made a much bigger impression in Cochin than I had imagined. For example, the Dutch remodeled the palace at Mattanchery that the Portuguese had originally built (indeed, this palace is now known as the 'Dutch Palace') and built yet another and grander palace - perhaps the first three-storey building in Kerala - on the Bolgatty island off Ernakulam. Less famously, but far more interestingly, they built another edifice in Tripunithura - allegedly quite a beauty - barely a hundred meters from the clock tower. Whatever its original name and purpose, this building acquired a reputation for being haunted (and with it, the nickname, 'Devata Malika', approx. 'the mansion of supernaturals'); several abortive exorcisms later, it was demolished to the last brick sometime at the end of the 19th century.

With all that new info, I went to look around Old Cochin. To my surprise, the only serious Dutch remnants were (apart from the above-mentioned palace) a cemetery (locked up and forlorn-looking) and an honorable mention in front of the Fort Cochin Cathedral (to the effect that they rebuilt this church, originally set up by the Portuguese). I went over to Bolgatty but the palace there is now a star hotel - and beyond the ken of explorers with little money to splurge (*).

By now, I had realized how little I knew about the political side of the Dutch involvement in Cochin. I soon fished out an old copy of the classic, 'Kochi Rajya Charitram' (History of Cochin State) by K.P. Padmanabha Menon (coincidentally, the centenary of this work falls this year). Overly descriptive and written in dry and old-fashioned prose, the tome defeated me. But my goals were limited to finding out what the Dutch did in Cochin - and a few facts were eventually gleaned. The gist of Menon's evaluation, as far as I could make out, is given below. For those Mallu readers of mine, here is another great online treasure of facts (thanks, Vishnu!):

The Portuguese came first by sea to India and brought with them the major vices of religious fanaticism and imperialism. The Dutch followed and were far more civilized and liberal in religious matters (Even Britannica makes this Portuguese vs Dutch comparison and comes up with pretty much the same verdict). The Portuguese mercilessly massacred Hajj pilgrims from Calicut, tried to force Roman Catholicism on the Suriyani Christians of Cochi and terrorized the Hindu and other local population of Goa with the Inquisition (a very broad and 'secular' spread of religious atrocities!). The Dutch were cool about religion, did not care much for imperialism and were just smart and cold businessmen and monopolists.


With specific reference to Cochin, let me give a quick account of how the Dutch became dominant - I summarize Padmanabha Menon's narrative:

There is no mention of the kingdom of Cochin in any pre-Portuguese source - it is very likely that the kingdom itself was a Portuguese setup. Whatever, from the mid-16th Century, the king of Cochin was a vassal or satrap of the Portuguese (apparently, they used to perform the coronation ceremonies of new kings in the Fort Cochin Cathedral). When the Dutch turned up in the South and set up their factories and stuff at Kollam in the mid 17th Century, Cochin was ruled by a queen and a serious civil war was brewing. This was how:

Rani Gangadharalaxmi, the queen, was growing old. She had no surviving descendents so she adopted a set of three brothers and had the eldest crowned as King by the Portuguese. A short while later, a crooked Minister by name Ramankovil poisoned her mind and got these brothers disinherited and banished and another set of four brothers adopted; and the Portuguese, who were fine with all this, crowned the new eldest prince. The banished set of brothers plotted to win back the kingdom, aided (secretly) by Paliath Achan, a disgruntled military commander, and the Zamorin of Calicut (who had his own designs on Cochin)...

Hereon, the real action begins... The second of the banished princes, Virakeralavarma traveled to Kollam where the Dutch were securely established; he struck a deal with the Dutch and brought them over to Cochin and attacked Ramankovil and his Portuguese bosses. Cochin fell and Rani Gangadharalaxmi was taken hostage; three of the four brothers in the ruling faction were killed in battle; the youngest, Godavarma, swore vengeance and retreated to the South.

Ramankoil did not survive the war but Godavarma rallied his forces with help from his Portuguese allies and counter-attacked Cochin. The Dutch had to withdraw from the city; the queen, who had by now agreed to reinstate the banished brothers went along with them as they retreated nirth and set up base in Trichur. Virakeralavarma and his elder brother sailed to Colombo(**) and brought another Dutch fleet. Now, the Portuguese were knocked out, for good. The elder brother had died at sea so Virakerala was crowned King (the Dutch did the honors).

The later careers of Gangadharalaxmi and the defeated Godavarma are not mentioned (probably the queen retired into peaceful old age and the pretender simply got lost). The Dutch controlled Cochin proper till 1795 (although unlike the Portuguese, they only made sure they got their hoards of pepper and did not micromanage how the kings went about their job inland), when they handed over their holdings to the Brits.


I recalled from School history books and several other sources the names of several lady rulers - the several 'Bai's of Travancore, Umayamma Rani, Ilayidathu Rani,... But never had I heard even the name 'Gangadharalaxmi'. An online search on her gave another surprise: a certain Alathur Anujan Bhattathiripad had written a historical novel on this queen's career. In 'Touring Book Shop', Kozhikode, I found a retelling of this work by well-known children's writer Sumangala.

Even the bare sequence of actual events of those times has enough action and intrigue; but Bhattathiripad has tried to patch in a love-story side-track (let me just mention here it does not involve the queen) and that seriously damages the work. Accomplished writer Sumangala's retelling often slips into an exercise in precis-writing. But, despite the flaws, the work retains great interest - especially in how it reinvents some characters: the queen, whom history portrays as a helpless puppet(***) is invested with great moral courage and lofty stoicism; Paliath Achan, in many narratives (especially the Portuguese ones) a selfish turncoat, becomes a noble and loyal patriot working for his 'true' masters. And Virakeralavarma is very much a desi Richard-the-lionheart, handsome, adept in disguises and capable of great physical bravery. Another remarkable feature of the novel is the unalloyed Dutch heroism (especially in contrast with the deviousness of the Portuguese) - during the final coronation, both Virakeralavarma and the Rani deliver eloquent eulogies for their bravery and chivalry and timely assistance.

Of course, every author reserves the right to put his own spin on his story. For example, somewhere on is this sentence (part of the narrative on the first Dutch attack on Cochin): "a Dutch contingent, led by Captain van Reede, made a daring assault on the Mattancheri palace and arrested Rani Gangadhara Laxmi, the reigning matriarch of the Cochin Royal family."


As the search proceeded, I was struck by the fact: there are hardly any Dutch surnames in present day Kerala - "we have no Burghers!" as I noted in the post on Thangasseri, a short while ago (by way of contrast, Portuguese surnames are very common in coastal Kerala). Indeed, part of the intent behind my visit to Thangasseri was to ask around about Dutch surnames. A young student there told me: "I am not much aware of Dutch surnames in these parts. Many present-day folks have dropped European surnames. For example, a 19th century ancestor of mine had the surname 'Camoens'. Our family has since dropped it."

To me, 'Camoens' sounded Dutch all right. I searched online for confirmation; to my surprise, my guess was off the mark by a thousand miles. 'Camoens' was very Portuguese; indeed, it was the surname of Portugal's National poet. His great masterpiece - the Lusiad. The Wiki article on this epic led me on to an altogether different track of memories and searches. And that will be the next post(****)!

Afterword: It is a curious fact that all sources I saw flatter the Dutch and condemn the Portuguese. But whatever their achievements in Malabar, it is a fact that Dutch immigrants did incalculable damage elsewhere to the local population - the very word 'apartheid' is Dutch. And it is also unfair to say religious fanaticism was a Portuguese import into India - it might just be that their fanaticism was more fervent and focused - and more importantly, better armed - than the ones that existed in Malabar before their arrival.

Another note: The queen's name, taken literally, is odd - Laxmi is Vishnu's wife, so joining her with Gangadhara (Siva) is inappropriate. The explanation goes: 'Laxmi' is also a generic name (to mean just "the goddess of prosperity"); 'Gangadhara' here stands for 'Gangadhara Vamsam' - the royal family of Cochin was known as 'vamsam (clan) of 'Gangadhara', since they were trustees of the Siva (Gangadhara) temple at Tiruvanchikulam. Ergo, 'Gangadharalaxmi' is to be interpreted as "the laxmi or the Gangadhara clan" - it was a regal title and not her proper name.

Yet another note: I understand that the acclaimed novel 'Lanthanbatheriyile Luthiniyakal' ('The Litanies of the Dutch Battery')by N.S.Madhavan is "the story of a small (probably fictitious) island near Cochin, where a Dutch artillery unit used to be stationed". I have not read the work but at least its name shows that traces of Dutch memories still persist in Cochin's folk memory. And I just gathered that Kerala Varma Valiya Koi Thampuran, eminent Keralan writer of the late 19th century translated a Dutch historical novel on Akbar(!) into Malayalam. Unfortunately, Thampuran's work was a critical and commercial flop; I have never seen any copies of it.

I suspect that perhaps as far back as the 18th century, Dutch might have helped initiate the reclamation and layout of Kuttanad, giving it a rather Netherlandish agrarian landscape of low-lying fields laced with canals and dykes. is silent on this although it does list several Dutch contributions to Kerala's agriculture so the suspicion may be unfounded. Of course, at least one major 'padasekharam' in Kuttanad was indeed put together in the 20th century with Dutch know-how - I recall seeing board somewhere to that effect during a recent visit.

Lest one conclude that the Dutch-Cochin dealings were consistently harmonious, let me note a legend from the Aitihyamala: A certain king of Cochin, under severe military pressure from the Dutch, sought the help of Christian priest and famous sorceror Kadamattathu Kathanar. The latter shot a magical arrow into the Dutch camp and the invaders suddenly went mad and fought and killed one another to the last man (Kathanar's arrow perfectly fits the Mahabharata description of the 'Twashtra Astra' as was mentioned here in the post on Vishwakarma)!


(*) I now tend to believe that the Durbar Hall in Cochin and a few other buildings nearby - that includes a certain 'Indian Guest House' (now a residential building; I myself have stayed there for a while) - show Dutch hand. Several of more nontrivial Dutch contributions to Kerala are listed on - their greatest contribution by far must have been the compilation of 'Hortus Malabaricus' (wiki has further details). In recent years, I have heard a Nationalistic narrative: Calculus was developed in the Kerala School of Mathematics in the 16th century and the Portuguese took the know-how to Europe and enabled its (re)discovery by Newton and others. Whatever be the truth therein, I guess the Dutch are far better candidates for the transmitter's role than the Portuguese.

(**) - this is the only instance known to me of post-medieval and pre-modern orthodox(?) Hindus 'violating' the sea - with impunity.

(***) - A source which Menon quotes says: when the Dutch first captured the Cochin palace, the aged queen was found in such sorry shape that she had to be physically lifted and carried out by a Nambuthiri.

(****) - I have seen and heard a Rock singer from Cochin named Glenn Larive. 'Larive' sounds sort of Dutch but I am not sure. As I write, I have no other candidate surnames.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

A Cube of Green 'Aluva'

My memories of accompanying Pop to Mithai Theruvu ('Sweet Meat Street'), Kozhikode have parallels to Col. Aureliano Buendia remembering a trip with his father. The colonel is taken to see a block of ice (*); the focus of my own recollections is a huge cube of dense green 'Kozhikodan Aluva' - off which Pop bought me a little slab. I was then about four. Yesterday, half a life later, I was back in Kozhikode - sent there by Pop.

Along with more mundane assignments, I had orders to buy aluva from 'Sankaran Bakery' which was supposed to be at one end of Mithai Street (Pop did not recall which end). I began scanning the street at the north end - where a colossal portrait bust of great traveler and eminent writer SK Pottekkat (the big hero of my high-school and college years) casts a benign gaze on his one-time haunt. Surprisingly, the street had few sweet shops. Finally, at the South end, I saw a sweet shop with the required name. Indeed, there were two 'Sankaran Bakery's' facing each other. And at least one had a warning to customers: "We have no other branches!"

The Connolly canal that I used to know as the 'Puthiyara River' has not changed a bit in all these years - curving palms, ramshackle shacks, rafts of timber, the smell of decay(**). Opposite the Railway station, three water tanks which I remember calling "one box tank, two ball tanks" still stand side by side(***). Near the Mental Hospital is a massive 'Taanni' tree. A powerful visual impression from my early childhood, it still looks huge and immensely strong. Someone has built an ornate fence around it and put up a bit of holy text: "This giant, that has for generations provided shade to wayfarers and shelter to countless birds, we name 'Punya Vriksham' (Sacred Tree)"(****). Nearby is an overgrown compound where I used to imagine Abhimanyu's single-handed assault on the mighty Kaurava host taking place (just as the battle of Badr raged among the palm groves of 'Khasak'). Our (then) little house looks very different and added-on; but a chimney, reminder of its 19th century make, still sticks out.

I have seen so many great masterpieces reduced to banal predictability by guide books. So it was a mighty thrill to see the sculpture of 'Pathumma's Goat' - she reaches out to devour copies of the Basheer's 'Sabdangal' from atop a table; I feel blessed I did not know earlier about this amazingly heart-felt memorial to the Master.

All over Kerala, religious icons are kept inside vehicle windshields. In a Kozhikode city bus, I saw a mirror on display; that makes quite a mystery of the driver's religious stance - he could be a staunch Muslim ("no icons, not even pictures of the Kaaba!") or a staunch atheist ("nothing religious!") or even a follower of Vedanta ("That thou art!" or "look within thyself!"; Narayana Guru, Kerala's greatest Vedantin, is known to have consecrated a mirror instead of an idol in the inner sanctum of a temple he established). That apart, I was struck by the abnormally large number of revivalist religious posters - both Hindu and Muslim - plastered all over the city.

And I walked past the school where I learned to read and write and to count and add and subtract (multiplication on were attempted in other cities). Our LKG and UKG classes used to be held in thatched sheds with cowdung paved floors and crude wooden benches. The sheds now have pukka walls and tile roofs; within, I saw plastic chairs, computers, huge LCD screens and marker boards. The mulberry tree which stood in front is gone and a 'Mandaram' (bauhinia) has taken its place. In the front room of the school were a pair of rocking horses which used to be visible from the road. They are gone; at least I did not see them.

The school's little courtyard was where I won my first and only athletic prize - a blue plastic cup for coming third in 'Running Race for Senior Nursery'. It was also here that the 'Misses' made me act out the following on our Annual Day:

"Georgie Porgie, Puddin' and Pie,
Kissed the girls and made them cry,
When the boys came out to play
Georgie Porgie ran away. "

Yes, I do remember the 'girls'...

(*) Although am not exactly facing a firing squad, I feel pretty much up against it.

(**) In 1950, Pottekkat, the 'Prince of Puthiyara' made this observation from Rome: The Tiber is a disappointment - it's just a good-looking gutter, rather like our Connolly Canal.

(***) The 'ball tanks' are actually hemispherical. They look pre-independence but still function - I saw caustics writhing like fiery snakes on the interiors of their roofs. (****) The nitpicker in me observes that the tree does not give anything significant by way of shade.

Monday, January 16, 2012


"We sat in that scruffy shack with a steady rain falling outside. Sipping South Indian coffee, we discussed Proust and Mann; and I felt *this* afternoon in Kerala was what I really had set out for (from my home in far-away UP)"

It was not yet 6 in the morning. The Tripunithura railway station was deserted. I had an hour to wait out and sat under one of the few lights and slowly read Kumaran Asan's 'Karuna'. Having finished the poem, I contemplated the setting - the eastern sky just beginning to turn grey, a big and fat but very pale moon about to dip into the western treeline, a gentle nip in the air - with a certain smug satisfaction; and then memories rose of the above-quoted passage from Pankaj Mishra's 'Butter Chicken in Ludhiana'. Of course there was a vital difference: Asan's sublime poetry was not quite "what I had set out for". My journey was just beginning; the destination: Thangasseri, a Keralan coastal town I had never visited before.

Towards sundown, I was there. Vishnu and I stood atop the lighthouse at Thangasseri and took in a predictably amazing view - the open sea, changing hues by the second; the harbor and its formidable breakwater(*), a stretch of beaches to the north, and inland, a bristling-with-palms expanse of green with little white crosses rising here and there(**) ...

Thangasseri is now a maritime backwater and a fishing outpost of Kollam city. But during a large fraction of its two millennium history, it used to be Kollam proper - a great port and the biggest urban center in Kerala. Thangasseri hosted the Chinese, the Arabs and all the major European Maritime powers - the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English. But a piece of a laterite wall, about 30 foot high and of similar length and said to be part of the fort built by the Dutch in the 17th century is now the only substantial reminder of their presence. Lost among the densely clustered shacks of fisher-folk, we saw a few European graves - mildewed and crumbling - with not even the Archeological Society's blue board to guard them. The hub of Kollam has now migrated inland and lies on the bank of the Ashtamudi(**) lake.

The main repository of Thangasseri's colonial memories appears to be its many churches. Most of local population is not just Christian - their faith and culture have a strong European-ized flavor. Many refer to the place as 'Tangy' or Tang-sherry' (I guess even the Mallu 'Thangasseri' is a proper Christian name, although its etymology is not clear to me) and many answer to Portuguese and English surnames.

I was drawn to the place by a colonial mystery: a suspicion that Dutch surnames were very rare among Coastal Christians of Kerala(****); our inquiries strengthened those suspicions - although the Dutch had as much of a presence in Tangy as anybody else, there is hardly anyone with a Dutch surname. I will have some more to say on all that in a future story.


(*)I got to learn the Malayalam word for 'breakwater' from Vishnu; it goes: 'pulimuttu'. A straightforward break-up of this compound word is: puli ('tiger') + muttu ('knock' or 'obstruction'). The latter meaning of the latter word has some connection with its function - blocking out rogue waves (indeed, this structure saved Thangasseri from the impact of the 2004 tsunami) but what could a tiger possibly have to do with such a maritime structure?

(**) In the famous novel Malayalam 'Oru Desathinte Katha' by SK Pottekkat, the boy protagonist Sridharan dreams of becoming a light-house in-charge - "All you have to do is to sit up there and enjoy the breeze and read story books!". Sridharan certainly had a point. The caretaker of the Thangasseri light house was a remarkably literate and articulate chap; he recited to us a poem written by himself - appropriately, a meditation on lofty solitude. But he also had much else to work on - the machinery handling the lamp and the reflectors looked quite intricate. And he appears to be doing his job very well - everything in this century-plus old installation looked in ship-shape.

(***) - Ashtamudi approximately means 'eight inlets'. In terms of modern cartography, it is an understatement - this highly complex lagoon has well above that number of extensions curling inland from the Arabian sea.

(****) - to adapt an immortal bit of dialog mouthed by the great Mallu film action-hero Jayan in the smash-hit 'Angaadi' :
" 'Burghers'?? We have no Burghers(in Kerala)! We have 'parangees' ('Portuguese'; Mallu slang applies it to pure Desi folk with Portuguese surnames), Anglo-Indians, .... but we have no Burghers!"

Friday, January 06, 2012

New Year Snippets

If you thought Mallus (and some Gujjus) are the only ones confusing 'cot' with 'coat', check out this exchange from 'Mind your language', the BBC Rom-Com.

"What is a comma?" asks the very stiff and sterm Brit schoolmarm.

And her Italian student answers: "It is-er .... you are er... unconscious-er"


A bit of Narcissism. A quote from the intro to Italian Renaissance Man Girolamo Cardano's Autobiography (Thanks, Gyani!):

"The story of Narcissus is an allegory - of a writer who gets so obsessed with his own work that he keeps editing and polishing it to the exclusion of every other study"


Cochin, a city spread over several islands, has absurdly priced ferries - a trip from Ernakulam to Fort Cochin aboard a very comfortable and large 'vaporetto' costs Rupees 2.50. Comparison: the Belur Math to Dakshineshwar ferry in Calcutta, reputedly India's cheapest city, cost 7 bucks last year - and the boats are small and rickety and one has to squat on rough planks (the distances are about the same).

And here is the sublime height of it: if you buy a ticket to Vypeen via Fort Cochin, it costs a princely two rupees!


I have just discovered that the history of Cochin packs more action, drama and intrigue than that of any other Indian city, with the possible exception of Delhi.
More on that later!

In the last post here, I quoted an eminent politician who said he "had a viewpoint but no standpoint" on a burning issue. Just remembered this business of having a viewpoint without a standpoint has a precedent of sorts in (where else but) the Mahabharata! Arjuna's son and brave young warrior Iravan (Aravan) got killed at Kurukshetra but as he had previously arranged with Krishna, his severed head stayed alive for a few more days, hovered high over the battlefield and saw the entire action to the finish!

There is yet another version of this story. The head is not that of Aravan but of another warrior (whose name I can't recollect). This hero does not get killed at Kurukshetra - instead he was put to death by Krishna *before the battle* for the following reason: he was simply the best warrior around. Krishna had planned for the total destruction of *both* armies in the war and Hero, if he had participated on either side, would have annihilated the other side in hours - and thus spoiled the plan. So the lord finishes him off by trickery. Before dying, he asks Krishna for a chance to watch the war.

For more info on the Aravan phenomenon, one could read the Wikipedia ("Iravan") or look up a very interesting article in the Pakistani daily 'Dawn' about how "transgenders wed a Hindu God".