The train rattled along, inducing in me the sluggish fatigue of rock-rocking train travel and blanketing heat. I sat atop a wooden luggage rack in third class, legs crossed, ankles pressed into the hard wood, to prevent my mosquito bitten feet from dangling in the faces of the people below. The man beside me sat hugging his knees. He wore a mint green handkerchief, folded into a triangle, over his mouth and nose, to prevent the dark coating of fine dust in his nostrils that was ordinary after an Indian train journey.
Out of the window, in a luscious landscape of immodestly green fields, palm trees stretched their necks in the sun. Waterlogged rice paddies reflected the sunlight; a mirror of still silver water and green stalks. A lazy stream wound itself between the green, and as the train curved, we rode alongside the ocean, grey and choppy. Kerala owes its fertility to 900km of waterways. Some flow far inland, but all have mouths opening into the tide’s ebb and flow. They are Kerala’s backwaters, and are a substantial part of the state’s appeal.
In the relative cool of early morning, an old white Ambassador heaved itself to a halt outside our guest house, with two Brits inside, to collect us for a trip along the backwaters. Hannah and Echo were mother and daughter, and had been lured to Kerala, not by its lush landscape and watercourses, but by an ashram in Kerala’s south. They had completed the two week long ‘yoga vacation’ the day before and would spend their last few days in Cochin, sightseeing and having clothes tailored in exotic Indian fabric, for peanuts. They had decided that half a day was enough on the backwaters, and would be leaving before lunch. There were clothes to be tailored.
The heaviness of the day grew, and the Ambassador’s brown velour upholstery became itchy, sticking to my damp limbs. After an hour of driving, we arrived at the edge of a river, where small wooden boats met us and other taxi loads of tourists.
Hannah, Echo, Iain and I waited for the groups of mostly French and Israeli tourists to clamber aboard. Our patience was rewarded: we were left the last of the boats, which was empty, save for the slight Indian boatman who would punt us for the day, in a faded orange lungi, folded above the knee, and a blue collared shirt.
We slid through the silky green water, legs dangling off the narrow wooden boat, stroked by soft slimy plants. Minute insects buzzed above the glassy surface, then landed, making minute ripples. The river banks were dense with palm trees, swaying collectively in a sturdy bunch; green with yellow tips and a brown cluster of coconuts in the middle. More like a sketch chalked onto paper, their thin bendy trunks were a blur of grey-brown, with white highlights smudged for effect.
With the wide river behind us, we took a turn down a dim stream, curtained in by feathery green leaves that hung on either side. We floated in tranquil quietude, through dense jungle, following this hidden path amongst the lushness of bird territory. Brilliant blue-tipped wings shone through the green, a long black beak protruded, held in the air, and a white chest stood distinct from the brown-black of a white-breasted Kingfisher.
We stopped at a small island, where coir was made. Washing hung on a line beside the island’s only plastered house. Outside, two ladies had stopped working, to begin a demonstration for us. They wore faded saris around their waists and their cholis (the miniature blouses worn underneath) were without the usual drapes of concealing cloth. Loose skin hung over the older lady’s washboard stomach, and – the crowd now assembled – they resumed their working positions.
Coconut husks were stripped of their wiry hairs, which were nimbly twisted between the ladies’ fingers to matt them together. The tangle of coconut fibre was then attached to a rudimentary spinning wheel, and twisted further, while pulled, so that only a few of the fibres intertwined with one another. As one lady pulled, and the other fed the fibre towards the mechanism, a fine length of coir followed. Two thin lengths of coir were then twisted together, making a rope of astonishing strength.
The glittering green of the water greeted us again; an emerald carpet spread out for our boat’s crossing. White blossoms played among the floating lily pads, speckled sunspots and deep shade colouring their faces. A tangle of green wove a canopy over our heads, shading us from the sun, which peeked through leaves; luminous light. Hannah and Echo postponed their shopping trip.
Another island stop – the tourists required refreshments. A spindly man grabbed the trunk of a palm, wedged his feet into a loop of coir, and using it to grip the tree’s sharp ridges, manoeuvred his feet toward his clinging arms, worming his way up, inch by agile inch, until he’d climbed the length of it. Coconuts were thrown to the ground, the man calling out incomprehensibly as the rock hard things hit the ground beside us. A small machete was used to hack them open, we were provided with straws, and sipped the clear unripe liquid; its slightly medicinal flavour a reminder that it contains enough pro-biotic goodness to cure Delhi belly.
Back in Fort Cochin, the island town where we were staying, we watched the daylight depart with a teacup of beer, facing the sea. An alcohol license was a rarity on the island, and most establishments served beer in a teapot. That evening, teacups had run out and Iain was left with a milk jug.
The teapot disguise was a gesture. No police officer, after several years of service on Fort Cochin, would believe for a second that hundreds of tourists spent each evening guzzling litres of tea, into the night, becoming increasingly loud from the caffeine. But appearances, in India, must be kept up. Once an evening, a police van would drive past, a scurrying waiter would present baksheesh, and the policemen would drive on. They had seen only teapots.
Ahead of us, on the water’s edge, were a row of wooden mechanisms, enormous and spider-like. These cantilevered fishing nets are believed to have been introduced by Chinese traders in the early 14th century. They require at least four men to operate their delicate system of counterweights. The spidery silhouettes descended slowly into the ocean, to rise against the mauve striped sky. Only a few fish and crustaceans were caught in each hoist of the nets, and these were quickly sold to passing tourists, who could have the fresh catch cooked at neighbouring restaurants.
Kerala’s long coastline has encouraged maritime contact for centuries; it was through Kerala that Chinese products and ideas found their way to the West. Fort Cochin itself is steeped in reminders of the state’s colonial past.
Early the next morning we began exploring the island’s narrow streets on bicycles, while an ambitious energy still inhabited our bodies. Already, South India’s heavy heat had crept up on the morning, and we soon realised happily, as a breeze washed over us, that it was cooler to cycle than to walk.
Outside Santa Cruz Basilica, one of several Portuguese relics on the island, a swarm of schoolgirls walked down the street. They were dressed in spotless white knee-length tunics, with blue trousers, and matching blue cotton scarves pinned neatly to their shoulders: salwar kameez, a commonly worn traditional outfit. They attended one of the Christian schools established by the Portuguese. Kerala’s population remains 20% Christian.
We cycled through a traffic circle, a red hammer and sickle symbol sculpted onto a plaque in its centre, and followed a narrow road toward Mattancherry, one of Cochin’s neighbourhoods, once a town in itself. Decrepit little rooms lined either side of a long road, used as modest warehouses, or wholesaler’s premises. Rice was piled onto tables that looked onto the street, metal was welded, different tea varieties were chalked onto boards outside. Men were silent inside their premises, expressionless as we passed, until returning a smile.
Goats clambered atop piles of rubble. Trucks, their width comparable to the street’s, hooted their way though, Horn Please, painted in red letters on their rear. The crumbling concrete of the street was defied by the bright paint-peeled surrounds. A wooden green wagon, a sunshine yellow auto-rickshaw, a blue, green, red and yellow wall of a building, advertising KRM Best Quality Rice.
We were passed by numerous bicycles, ridden by men – always men. Some cycled past bare-chested, in sarongs, with turbans that soaked up sweat from their foreheads.
Mattancherry has Kerala’s only functioning synagogue, situated in an area still known as Jew Town. Pardesi Synagogue was built in 1568 to serve the Cochin Jews, or Malabar Jews, who after several rounds of immigration made up a significant population in Cochin. They were of Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, Middle Eastern and North African origin.
Some sources say that the earliest Jews in India were those who settled along Kerala’s Malabar coast during the times of King Solomon of Israel, and after the Kingdom of Israel split into two. It is also said that Jews came to Kerala and settled as early as 700 BCE for trade. An old, but not particularly reliable, tradition says that the Jews of Cochin came in mass to Cranganore, an ancient port near Cochin, after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
In 1524, Muslims, backed by the ruler of Calicut, attacked the Jews of Cranganore on the pretext that they were tampering with the pepper trade. Most Jews fled to Cochin and went under the protection of the Hindu Raja there. He granted them a site for their own town that later acquired the name ‘Jew Town’. Unfortunately, the Portuguese occupied Cochin at about the same time and persecuted the Jews, destroying Pardesi Synagogue. It was rebuilt when the Dutch took Cochin.
Jew Town’s streets were filled with tourists, who must have bypassed the go-downs by rickshaw, and now browsed the curio shops. We cycled beyond the bustle, and along a quiet stretch of small homes. The perpetual scream of children, “One photo! One photo!” caused whole families to rush out of their homes to wave at us, grinning.
We boarded a passenger boat, bound for Ernakulam – Cochin’s mainland, and epicentre – where there was a Hindu festival being held at a temple. The boat was the same that ferried Fort Cochin’s commuters into Ernakulam daily, and as Iain and I enjoyed the smooth hour long journey across a wide stretch of Kerala’s backwaters, we decided it would be a pleasant commute to make; heavenly compared to long hours on rush hour trains.
The Shiva Temple was only a few minutes away from the waterfront by auto-rickshaw, and outside, the beating of drums informed us the festivities had begun. We added our shoes to the rows outside the temple grounds, and beneath a stone carved archway, entered a large courtyard, which surrounded the temple itself.
We skirted the temple, heading toward a crescendo of drum beats and saw, beneath the shade of an awning, seven bejewelled elephants standing, munching on large green leaves. They wore enormous gold headpieces fringed with a rainbow of tassels, and oval pendants featuring their names in Malayalam (Kerala’s local language) which dangled from thick gold chains. Men sat atop them ceremoniously, holding circus-style umbrellas, and below, on the ground, writhed a mass of glistening bodies in white cotton lungis, pounding drums and blowing long curved horns in a frenzy that we could all but stare at.
The drummers played in sweat coated ecstasy, muscular arms raised above their heads in between beats. Gradually the entrancing rhythm slowed, and the elephants were led steadily forward a few paces, with the mass of musicians in the lead. A gentler rhythm persisted, while thirsty men gulped water, pouring it into their mouths, to prevent their lips from tainting the shared metal cups.
The first rhythm frantically started up again, on some unknown cue. The elephants stood passively, devouring the piles of leaves, while tiny men carried their fresh dung away in large woven baskets. An elephant trainer sat under the shade of an elephant, between its four legs, waiting to lead it the next few steps in the procession, killing time with a newspaper.
After lunch, while the festival slept through the fierce afternoon heat, we wandered drowsily through Ernakulam, cursing the intermittent hooting of cars that I was sure we’d never get used to.
Kerala’s government is communist. It 1957 it was the first freely elected communist government in the world. Unsurprisingly, communism is hardly practised. But a more equitable distribution of land and income is said to exist, and communist principles are partly responsible for Kerala’s low infant mortality and 91% literacy rate – the highest in India.
Billboard sized advertisements were nailed to the exterior of a seven storey building. A light skinned Indian woman posed, wearing a midriff and swathes of silk draped sensuously around the rest of her body. She had striking features, and the kind of attractive curvy figure that would prevent her from becoming a model in the West. Intrigued, we entered the shop and took the escalator a few storeys up.
Ladies were seated in front of long counters, upon which metres of fine silk had been spread by slender shop assistants in matching floral saris; a pale yellow that elegantly complemented their rich brown skin. A group of them approached me, with wide white-toothed smiles.
“You want sari?” one lady asked me excitedly.
“Oh, no thank you,” I said. “I’m just having a look around – such beautiful silk. I mean, I’d love a sari, but I couldn’t fit anything else in my backpack.”
She smiled, along with the four other women, their hands clasped neatly behind their backs. It was not the potential sale of the sari that excited them, I suspected, but the prospect of a foreigner like me showing interest in one.
Iain was among a minority of males in the seven storey building, which a shop assistant proudly told us was the largest sari shop in the world. The few men in the store browsed their own department: a single floor which featured long traditional tunics, embroidered to the leg, in a style which I associated with fabled Oriental emperors. This, the wedding silk department, was female domain, and the saried shop assistants ignored Iain, perhaps only because his very un-Indian height intimidated them. Encircling me, they began asking the standard Indian questions: What is your country? What is your profession? How do you feel in India? Do you like Kerala?
I told them we’d been at the festival, where we were returning shortly, after stopping for some coffee. It was true; the heat was draining, and I required a pick-me-up before the evening’s festivities, but could also not foresee an end to this charming, yet tiring exchange with the sari ladies.
To me, coffee in India simply meant caffeine – instant and powdered. The rich aromas of real coffee were only a memory. Tourist restaurants sold it, but I never considered it worth the price of a beer. But here, out of a hidden door, came a yellow sari-ed lady carrying a paper cup of the strongest espresso I’d tasted in months – complimentary. I expressed my gratitude; the ladies beamed.
“I like your dress,” one of them said, assuming I didn’t know the local name of the traditional Indian outfit I wore.
“Oh, this… Thank you,” I said, feeling self conscious among all the silky exoticism, in my casual cotton salwar kameez.
“I put this?” the lady said sweetly, pointing to the black bindi stuck between her eyebrows.
“Sure… Thank you,” I said, as she stuck the black sticker onto the same position on my forehead: the location of the third eye – the chakra associated with insight.
“It matches your dress,” she said, pointing to the black embroidery on my tunic.
We watched the wedding silks being shown to some prospective customers, a mother and daughter I presumed. Heavy with gold thread, the cloth was flung into the air, and gracefully draped onto the counter before the scrutinising eyes of the two ladies. A weighty decision was required; the luxurious wedding sari alone can cost Rs 25 000 (about $600) for a garment weighing 1.5kg. This is only one of multiple expenses in the Indian marriage ceremony. The minimum cost of a middle class wedding is $34 000, according to wedding planners quoted on Sepia Mutiny. The average American wedding costs $26 327. India’s middle class are considered to be those earning between $4500 and $23 000 a year; a percentage of the population that constitutes 300 million. The upper-middle and rich classes are known to spend upward of $2 million.
Expressing happiness for your offspring’s marriage, while displaying emblematic Indian hospitality may seem reasonable. Financially, it can be devastating. Custom-made personal loans have been introduced to fund what Indians consider a vital expense, and extravagant weddings have spread like a disease.
Besides wedding costs (which are usually the responsibility of the bride’s family), the parents of the bride often face ludicrous dowry demands from the groom’s parents. The dowry remains the cause of numerous legal battles, despite being declared illegal in 1961. It is these burdens – the dowry and wedding costs – that are also responsible for India’s terrifying rate of female infanticide and sex-selective abortions. And it is the wealthy and educated alone who have access to prenatal equipment for determining a baby’s sex. Unfortunately, the ‘Keeping up with the Jones’s’ syndrome, for all its potentially horrific repercussions, remains the way of the middle class in India.
The sun was setting in the sticky pink sky as we walked back to the festival, and a carnival atmosphere fluttered through the air around the Shiva Temple. Shiny silver decorations flapped in the occasional, merciful breeze beside strings of coloured light bulbs that dangled from trees and buildings. Suspended from a frame of scaffolding was the main feature: an enormous Shiva, with his wife Parvati standing beside him, his trident glowing red, all lit up in coloured lights. Stalls had been set up, selling books on Hinduism, plastic Shiva figurines, sparkly framed pictures of popular deities, and other Hindu kitsch.
We entered the main temple area, where people had begun lighting hundreds of palm oil-filled hollows in the outer temple walls. Pieces of string were soaked in the oil, and then lit, to burn as wicks. Moving clockwise, people circled the temple, lighting a few wicks as they went, leaving little orange flames in their path. Soon enough, the temple was aglow with flickering wicks, which danced in the darkness of ancient ritual.
The elephants returned, to parade around the temple – clockwise, always clockwise in Hinduism – and the hypnotic rhythm began again. Iain, too, was making his way around the temple, lighting the higher rows of lights, when a tiny man approached me and introduced himself as Shiva.
“Can I explain something about all this to you?” he asked, looking up at me with bright eyes.
“Yes… thank you. That’d be nice,” I replied.
“This elephant…” he began, pointing to the largest, “is Shiva.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, confused.
He repeated himself. “This elephant is Shiva. Nobody can touch him, he is so so powerful,” he said. “They would die.”
“But what about the people riding him?” I asked, truly puzzled, trying to set aside my hopelessly Western sense of logic.
“For them, it is okay,” he continued. “But for anyone else to touch him, it will be very bad,” Shiva said.
I nodded slowly.
“Inside…” said Shiva, pointing to the temple, “is the real Shiva.”
“Oh,” I said, and squeezed the scepticism from my voice.
He began explaining a vital aspect of the temple’s history to me. Years before, a fire had devastated a large part of Ernakulam, destroying hundreds of homes and more lives. Such awful devastation could have only one source, decided the Hindu population: Shiva, the Hindu deity known as ‘the destroyer’. Characterised as the lord of yoga, Shiva is typically represented sitting in the lotus position, meditating. One day while Shiva was meditating, his third eye became very hot – heat between the eyebrows is supposedly common during intense meditating. But on this occasion, he told me, the heat was so extreme that it caused an entire neighbourhood in Ernakulam to ignite, and be devoured by flames.
But now, Ernakulam was safe, Shiva assured me. The position of the lingam (a phallus that represents Shiva) inside the temple had been altered, so that Shiva now faced toward the cool sea; a sensible measure which was sure to prevent any more spontaneous combustion from between his eyebrows, the little Shiva beside me concluded.
A man walked past and handed me a small lump of sandalwood paste, which Shiva indicated I should push onto my forehead, between the eyebrows, with any finger but the inauspicious index. A crusty beige bindi was now established just above the black sticker I had been given earlier, in the vicinity of my third eye. Sandalwood is known for its cooling properties, and is used specifically by meditating Hindus to lower the temperature of the heat-prone third eye region, hence its popularity as bindi paste. Ernakulam would be in no danger of spontaneous combustion from my third eye either.
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