Book review | Kochiites: A Look into the Intangible Heritage of Kochi

Book review | Kochiites: A Look into the Intangible Heritage of Kochi
The book by Bony Thomas (left) offers a kaleidoscopic view of the multi-ethnic cultures of the city.

Book: Kochiites: A Look into the Intangible Heritage of Kochi, author: Bony Thomas, translated by: Ravi Shanker N, publisher: Pranatha Books, pages: 232, Price: Rs 450

A good 60 years ago, Kochi witnessed a sad incident. A young Jew and his lover had to leave their Kerala city to get married. Societal pressure forced the two to flee to Bombay (now Mumbai), despite the pair following the same faith: Judaism. Only that Reema was a White Jew, while Gammiel was Black.

Exactly two decades later, in 1978, Kochi did become the venue for the wedding of a Jew couple—again, one of the ‘high-born’ White, the other ‘lowly’ Black. Joyed to learn the news, Reema and Gammiel joined the marriage celebrations on reaching their old city.

Reema and Gammiel went on to live into their 80s, but are no more now. This year, when a book on one of the world’s oldest cities came out, this couple stands out in its 232 pages as one who had to leave Kochi.

‘Kochiites’ is a well-knit work that sketches the histories of immigration to the city, colouring them with the contemporary life of such peoples and their new-age ecosystems. It’s the result of 13 years of research by the author Bony Thomas, a cartoonist-journalist and a cultural organiser. As the book’s preface notes, more than 30 communities have been coexisting for centuries in an area of just 4.5 square kilometres around Fort Kochi and Mattanchery. The twin urban pockets resonate with no less than 16 languages spoken by their residents. Overall, this a matter of social wonder, cultural rarity and ethnic uniqueness by transcontinental standards.

“Also, nowhere in the world has a region been ruled by three imperial powers successively,” notes Bony, pointing at Kochi’s bygone chapters under the Portugese, Dutch and the British. 'Kochiites', brought out by Pranatha Books recently, is the English version of Kochikkar that Bony, himself from that cosmopolitan coastal city, had published last year. The translation has been done by Ravi Shanker N, a literary columnist, film reviewer and anthologist. The 450-rupee book, with support from Greenix Centre for Cultural Tourism, is interspersed with Kochi vignettes that Bony has sketched and provided with their micro-level maps of pertinent spots.

For the record, a flood in the 14th century ravaged an ancient civilisation around Muziris on the western coast of Indian peninsula, but the calamity churned up new strips of land that continue to be vital. Together, they have grown on to become Kerala’s commercial capital: Kochi.

If a natural port it got following the 1314 tsunami worked to the city’s advantage, the place has been there in history for centuries prior to the watershed event. The Greeks, Romans, Arabs and the Chinese have had their trysts with Kochi much before men from Portugal, Holland and eventually England arrived on the land and ruled it.

It was towards the turn of this millennium, though, that Bony began to explore in detail the many layers of a fascinating past of his own land. That was courtesy a 2003 Malayalam novel which portrays the lives of natives of an imaginary island around Kochi. As somebody from one such real mass of land (called Ponjikkara), Bony was assigned to do illustrations for N S Madhavan’s Lanthan Batheriyile Luthiniyakal. If that turned out to be a milestone work, associating with it sowed in Bony the seeds of deeper probe into the hangovers of West Kochi’s bylanes.

That mission led the author to meet members from each such community in West Kochi. They come across as real-life characters in Kochiites, tacitly proclaiming that the pocket’s multi-ethnicity continues to thrive as ever.

Thus comes a certain Elias Josephai, who had taken the lead in restoring the Kadavumbhagam synagogue by Broadway in downtown Ernakulam. For all the efforts, the 13th-century shrine has gone into disuse after Kochi’s Jews began to leave for Israel since 1948. That no way weakens his pride: “My ancestors knew Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus Christ.”

Book review | Kochiites: A Look into the Intangible Heritage of Kochi
Ravi Shanker (left) and Bony Thomas

Equally delighted is Hashim Kochukoya Thangal, who comes as the opener in the series. His place is Thakyavu, which was the ‘Yemen of Kochi’, going by its ancient Arab links. Thangal goes on to cite his family’s lineage tracing to the daughter of Prophet Muhammad, who founded Islam in the 6th century. The Nainas, another Muslim community in Kochi, too claim an Arab connection even as their festivities “curiously resemble Hindu traditions”.

From farther west, the Portugese and the Dutch make their presence in Kochi. Veteran Kochiite footballer Rufus D’Souza, who has been coaching generations the game, is an Apelido. It’s a Portugese surname indicative of his blood relations with the south European nation.

For Emile of the locality, his surname is Issacs. A member of a Jewish family that claims a Dutch heritage, the singer-guitarist used to be a lead figure in the orchestra of pop musician Usha Uthup. Bony also introduces the reader to the immigrant Kutchi Memons of Gujarat and Dawoodi Bohras, also from the same barren belt of western India.

In another chapter, featuring nonagenarian Sara Cohen as the oldest Jew living in India, the book clarifies a crucial point: it is wrong to believe that all White Jews are of European origin. Sara’s ancestors, for instance, are from West Asia’s Baghdad.

Equally fair-complexioned is Nissar A Lone, but he belongs to a community that arrived in Kochi much later than the Jews. A Kashmiri, his people from upcountry came to Kochi in the 1990s after the Valley witnessed an ethnic strife that disturbed normal life. Today, there are 45 such families, together making 400 members and running 100 artefact shops.

Another trading community from the north are the Agarwals. They too total 45 in Kochi, having come down from Haryana—primarily Hisar—since the country’s Independence, intensely since the 1960s. Their members, including prominent merchant S P Goel, too, speak Malayalam, but at home the language is either Marwari or Rajasthani.

From the same northwest region have come Jains, whose families in Mattancherry alone total 389. Further westward, from Sindh (which is currently in Pakistan) are the Lohanas, who have a 120-year-old Kochi temple for Jhulelal, their favourite god (an incarnation of lord Varuna).

Religious festivals of such communities in Kochi go alongside that of the immigrants from the peninsula. The fellow southerners include the Konkanis—both the priestly class (Gaud Saraswat) and the non-Brahmins (Sonars, Vaishyas, Kudumbis, Paradesh Shoodranche). S Padmanabhan, a reformation leader among them, became the first Kerala Saraswat to do graduation. The founder of the Saraswat association in 1938, he went on to become a college lecturer and died in 1994, aged 86.

As if taking cue, Kochiite RS Bhaskar of the community’s Vaishya stream carries the spirit to the 21st century. He translated romantic Malayalam poet Chengampuzha Krishna Pillai’s Vazhakkula (1937) into Konkani in 2014. That was ten years after the death of the community’s Ammaniamma, 94, who had gained fame as a goldsmith. While Konkani Brahmins are strict vegetarians, the Kudumbi from the same coast introduced prawn farming that also opened a huge export market in Kochi.

Ammaniamma’s popularity was at its height in the 1970s, which was the time when Chudalamuthu reached Fort Kochi as a washerman from Tamil Nadu. His Vannan community members had already begun to earn a livelihood by rinsing, drying and iron clothes at Fort Kochi’s famed Dhobikhana. He found his life partner in Pratti, whose family had reached Kochi a decade before Chudalamuthu did.


Chakkilyas, who speak in Telugu-laced Tamil and earlier belonged to Coimbatore, had to agitate in the 1950s to wriggle out of their traditional job as manual scavengers. The community did come out of the ignominy, but a chunk of its members continue to do lowly jobs.

'Kochiites' is dappled with more such curious facts: the pappadam is a Kerala-toned version of the Saraswat papad, the Tulu Brahmins brought masala dosa to Kochi, the city’s Manai Telugu Chettiars (from Pollachi) had a monopoly over buffalo milk sale in the last century, the Kannadigas of Fort Kochi are not from Karnataka but upstate Kerala’s Kasargod, the 60 Vaniya families who live in Pandikudi after having left Madurai have a Kerala history of 17 generations (yet accord vitality to their Mariamman temple), the Urdu-speaking Deknis of Hyderabadi origin have ghazal vocalists as do the Tamil Brahmins of the locality have Carnatic musicians, a 1952 concert by Tamil cinema’s star singer M K Thyagaraja Bhagathar was performed before his fellow Visvakarma community in Kochi, it was a Gujarati-owned talkies that screened iconic Malayalam film Balan in 1938…

It thus reads as an understatement that most of these communities inter-mingle in their religious festivals as well as domestic functions.

Not that every community has managed to fiercely retain their pre-immigrant identity. Kochi’s Vellala Pillai, for instance, may be having a Rameswaram temple in the city, but their Tamil-ness is all gone. None among them even speaks the ancient Dravidian language these days, notes Bony, who is a trustee of the Kochi Biennale Foundation that hosts the subcontinent’s biggest contemporary art festival.

But such losers are a minority. Kochiites, overall, come across as a magical-real community.