People in the coastal towns of Northern Kerala sport a rich appearance. Kannur, Calicut and Kasargod are examples of such richness. Gold and silk emporiums are many. The fact that so many of these exist is an indication of popular fashion and wealth. The people smell good in their imported perfumes. Men wear flashy gold watches. Let us not forget the fake Rolex watches either. The Malabar Coast has always had rich trade links with the Middle East, the Arab world and beyond due to the demand for its rich spices. These days a similar international relationship comes from migrant workers to the Gulf. Almost every family here probably has someone working in the Gulf, regularly sending back fat foreign remittances and glitzy gifts. This just about explains the rich appearance of these towns. One may be perplexed by such display of wealth if these foreign connections are not understood.
When I arrive at Calicut, once again by the Netravati Express, it is raining heavily. I am forced to wait hang around the platform for a while. There is a small white board outside an office. In its commitment to promote Hindi in a region sworn to local tongue, it announces quietly, ‘Aaj Ka Hindi Shabdh.’ To translate, ‘Today’s Hindi Word.’ The word happens to be ‘Absence’ or ‘Anupasthithi.’ I learn a new word.
The rain does not appear to subside even after twenty minutes. I walk out under my umbrella, hopping between puddles of water, search for a room and eventually check-in. In this rain, I lose interest to visit the local beach. I have lunch and go in search of dessert. One of the delicacies of Calicut is halwa. Shops are dedicated to selling this colourful jelly-like sweet. I step in one such shop where large chunks of halwa are wrapped in tight plastic sheets and stacked on racks.
‘I want just a little bit,’ I tell the man at the counter. ‘Is it possible?’
‘Yes, you can have quarter kilo.’
‘That’s too much for one person. Make it 100 grams,’ I reply. There are lots of varieties here and it becomes difficult to choose one. The colours are tempting – orange, green, yellow, brown, maroon, red. I point to one studded with dry figs and whole cashews, ‘How much is this?’
‘That’s 180 rupees a kilo,’ he quotes.
‘What about this one?’ I point to a plain black variety.
‘That’s 80 rupees a kilo,’ he quotes. Apparently, prices range from rupees 50 to 250 a kilo.
I go with the black one. I would have simply eaten it right there but I let him do the customary packing. The halwa is wrapped in a non-sticky transparent paper. It is then placed in a brown paper bag, closed and taped. Finally, he hands it over to me in a little plastic carry bag. Buying halwa in Calicut is a nice experience.
I do the unwrapping. I eat half of the halwa. I enjoy it. It is not sticky to the teeth and melts beautifully. But it is too sweet and easily cloys the taste buds. I’ll have to finish the rest of it tomorrow morning. If I were to live in Calicut, I would try every single flavour. I am sure.
Kozhikode is a reinstated name of Calicut. Even the name Calicut was later corrupted to calico, particulary with reference to calico textiles. These textiles were first plain and later printed with colourful designs. They were introduced into England during the 17th century for their lightness and fine quality. They soon replaced the old-style English broadcloths. By mid-18th century, they became so popular that printed calicoes came to be produced in England. I remember wanting to visit a museum in Ahmedabad dedicated to these wonderful textiles but this museum has very limited opening hours. Today, India is overrun with textiles, traditional and modern. But none of them have captured an international market the way Calicut did in the past.
I get to the other side of town by crossing the railway tracks. I make numerous enquiries, walk through little lanes and past large merchant houses until I finally arrive at an area known as Kuttichira. This is a Muslim area, grown rich by ancient trade with the Middle East. The people here form what is called the Moppila community. The old houses in this area have withstood Portuguese influence and retain their pre-colonial touch. Houses are large, generally on two levels, with long facades, long windows with wooden shutters in two tiers and sloping roofs that are elegantly tiled. High walls enclose a large courtyard which one must pass on the approach to the house. Sometimes an entrance gateway leads into the courtyard. A long pillared verandah decorates the facade on ground level before a central doorway leads to inner spaces.
Many old houses have this common feature of an open pillared verandah. It was a place to sit and relax. It was a place to meet guests and visitors. It was a place to take advantage of natural lighting and cool off in the hot summers. The architects of old India were practical in their designs. Their designs demonstrate a harmony with nature. Design is simple and uniform with balanced lines. The houses do not strive to put on airs. There is nothing ostentatious about them. Despite their outdated forms, it is easy to like and live in them even in the 21st century.
In Kuttichira, are three famous mosques. From a distance they are anything but mosques. The construction is in the same traditional style as the Keralan temples. The first mosque is I come across stands at a turning. A few youths are gathered outside. This is the Muchhandipalli Masjid. Lower levels betrayed modern interiors and renovation but the higher levels reveal timbered constructions, sloping roofs, projected gable and circular openings for ventilation. The eaves are thickly built in manu layers of tilework. Uniquely, latticed woodwork slope outwards at a higher level, something observed in the Malik Deenar Masjid of Kasargod. This facade is interesting. The other sides of the mosque are quite plain.
‘Can I enter?’ I ask one of them.
He calls out to some men gathered inside. ‘What is your name?’ one of them asks. I tell him. He considers my reply and pauses for a few seconds. He politely says no to my request. I think it is only fair. Most Hindu temples of the land do not allow non-Hindus to enter. Nonetheless, his reply surprises me. I have visited lots of mosques everywhere in India and no one has stopped me from doing so – from the Sharqui masjids of Jaunpur to Juma Masjid in Delhi, from the Moorish mosque of Kapurtala to the Taj-ul-Masjid of Bhopal. I guess it is simply the month of Ramzan.
Not far from here is the Juma Masjid. Like the earlier mosque, the first enclosed hall starts right at the doorstep of the road. An old man dressed in white shirt and dhoti is standing at the entrance corridor.
‘Only muslims are allowed here,’ he says. ‘This area is full of Muslims.’
He repeats the last statement a couple of times. It is perhaps a matter of pride for him, that Muslims have colonized a part of Hindu India. It must be acknowledged that Muslim traders of Kuttichira contributed to the progress of Calicut before the coming of the Portuguese and other colonial powers. They have been in Kuttichira for centuries. It any part of India is to be claimed to belong to Muslims or Muslims belonging to that part, it is Kuttichira.
‘See how great this mosque is,’ points the old man to the interiors.
From the road, I look up at the wooden ceiling. It is divided into little panels. Each panel contains a woodcrafted lotus. The panels beams themselves contain miniature lotuses. The facade is just as impressive as the previous mosque. A bell capital at the porch perhaps is a Buddhist influence. The colours are delicate and beautiful. Quranic verses carved out in the cornices. I take a couple of pictures in the rain. A school boy coming back from his classes stops by to chat with me.
‘In which class are you studying?’ I ask him.
‘Fifth. I should have been in eighth?’
‘My dad moved from Aligarh. I couldn’t go to school because I didn’t know Malayalam. Now I have learnt it,’ he says with a smile. ‘My brothers and sisters can also speak Malayalam.’
I leave the old man and the boy in search of the third mosque. A secondary school has finished classes for the day. Children are on their way home. I pass a few more of the characteristic Moppila merchant houses. I come to a large tank, the rain adding ripples to its otherwise quiet surface. Lots of policeman are hanging around in the area. I find that the Queen’s Baton Rally for the Commonwealth Games is visiting Calicut this evening. I cross the road, walk up and dirt path and I am in front of the most beautiful of Kuttichira’s mosques.
This is the Jamatpalli or usually called the Miskhal Masjid. The building stands in four tiers in the traditional timbered construction and tiled roofs. Built in the 14th century, it is still standing. Other than the ground level, the walls of higher levels are wooden. The first level has pillared corridor with a wooden parapet. The next two higher levels have latticed woodwork that slope outwards. This gives it the unique pagoda-style appearance. Crowning above all these is the gable, propped in the tradional manner with crafted wooden columns. I can see people prayer inside on the ground level. I quite like this mosque.
The old days of trade and wealth of Calicut are neither lost or forgotten. Calicut even today is a busy place. In the evenings, the streets are bustling with shoppers. On the way back from Kuttichira, I pass Big Bazaar. It is a place packed with warehouses. Labourers are busy loading and unloading large trucks. A merchant is displaying samples of his stock – dry peas, channa, different types of daal, beans, different types of rice. From here I walk to Court Road and S.M. Street where it appears that business never stops. This is simply a continuation of an ancient practice, a legacy which Calicut of today perpetuates.