Letter from India: Trivandrum

Note: This is an on-the-road blog post. To find out more about why I am on this trip, please read, Next book: From Kerala to Shaolin.

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As soon as I board the plane in Changi, I regret not having bought duty-free booze. Half the Malayali men around me are carrying sealed plastic bags full of whisky and beer. “Don’t bother with Changi, just buy my Heineken beer in Trivandrum airport,” was the message Babu Uncle delivered, in his desire to minimise my beer-carrying time. “Buy as many as they will sell you. Remember, Heineken.” Sure enough, when I get to Trivandrum’s DFS shop, they have only Anchor.

Food and drink is one way to delineate the two sides of my Indian heritage. My maternal relatives, Hindu Marwaris from Rajasthan, are vegetarians who don’t drink and generally lead austere lives. My paternal relatives, Christian Malayalis from Kerala, are prone to imbibe every delight known to man. I like to joke that when I visit Kerala, my uncles won’t let me into their cars until I’ve handed over the Johnnie Black and Dunhill. The next morning, the seven cans of Anchor are still sitting on the backseat of his car.

(Incidentally, Kerala boasts the highest per-capita consumption of alcohol in India, followed closely by Punjab. In other words, if you’re going for a piss-up with “Mallus” and/or Punjabis, please bring your best liver along. For more on this, here’s a good piece on Economist.com)

Trivandrum is Kerala’s capital. It is remarkably clean and green, and is unburdened by the mind-numbing gridlock one finds in many other Indian cities, befitting of a state locals call “God’s own country”. Babu Uncle is in no doubt that Trivandrum is India’s best city to live in; over the course of the next week, I will be spoiled by his hospitality, humour and his mum’s renowned cooking. We will spend hours debating our favourite topic: he arguing that “India needs a Lee Kuan Yew” and my responding that 1bn Indians would never tolerate his methods.

Since first visiting Kerala in the late 1990s, I have returned on average once every three years. It is lush; the food is divine; and almost everybody speaks English—although it took a while for my Chinese friends and relatives to realise when Malayalis call them Yello, it is not a reference to skin colour but a greeting.

What I like most about Kerala, however, is that there are innumerable gorgeous places for you to do nothing. You can do nothing on Kovalam beach, where the water rages and women come in pairs or groups or with their families, nervously entering the sea, their shalwar, pants, stuck to their skin, worried more about waves than wantons, celebrating life in this proudly matriarchal society. You can do nothing at a local tea stand, where men stand around in short-sleeved shirts and with their lungyis tied up exposing their skinny calves, cheering the high literacy and great healthcare in the first place on earth to democratically elect the Communists to power, in 1956; and then hear them grumble about corruption, money politics, worsening inter-religious ties, and the fact that nothing gets done.

You can do nothing in Fort Cochin, while sipping a Kingfisher, eating “fish fry”, and admiring the fishing nets that Admiral Cheng Ho and his Chinese fleet built in the 15th century.[i] You can do nothing on a houseboat in Kumarakom, the wind sometimes in your hair, the mosquitoes sometimes on your feet, drifting down hyacinth-covered backwaters that snake through padi fields, on whose banks you will occasionally spot a Toddy shop. And you can do nothing in Munnar, with a light sweater on, gazing blissfully over acres of rolling tea hills, which in their greenness hide what Rastas roll up the mountain for: Kerala Gold.

Some come to God’s own country and want to run around, as if needing to check off every stop on a treasure hunt. I suggest doing nothing. Bring a book, and cards, and somebody whose silence does not disconcert you.

Just. Breathe. In.

Kerala is India 101, an intro for beginners. It is the way it is partly because of communism, matriarchy, greenery, fish fry and Kerala Gold. But perhaps most important are the years of miscegenation and cultural mish-mashing. For more than two millenia, Kerala’s spices have attracted people from all over the world. In Kerala you will find what are believed to be India’s oldest mosque, church and synagogue.

The vestiges of foreign genes will sometimes surprise you, as with the extremely light, hazel or blueish eyes on some Keralites, including Arjun, a 28-year old kalarippayattu student, who you will get to know better in a future post (pictured).

Arjun2

In A.D. 47, Pliny, a Roman philosopher, wrote about a Kerala port as primum emporium indiae. There were more than 14 centuries of peaceful, bustling trade between Kerala and the outside world before Vasco Da Gama arrived in 1498, the prelude to European colonialism.

The agricultural tradition continues today, and if you are here for more than three days you will invariably marvel at the number of mango trees around; the sweetness of the bananas; and the size of the cinnamon barks, so long and broad they could pass for ancient rolls of parchment that the maharajahs of Travancore might have used in centuries gone by.

(As part of a nationwide drive for linguistic unity in the giant Indian Federation, Kerala was formed in 1956—nine years after independence—through the merger of three predominantly Malayali-speaking regions: the principalities of Cochin and Travancore and the Malabar state.)

In return for spices, riches flowed in. Where are they now? Seeking answers, on Day 1 I find myself outside the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple (pictured) at ten am in the morning, wearing only a white lungyi. With me is Kirit Kiran, a photographer who will be accompanying me on this three-month sojourn across his homeland. Kirit is an ethnic Rajput with a trademark handlebar moustache whose ends he periodically twirls, as if trying to accelerate their growth. Having only just arrived from his home in Delhi, he appears a bit startled that our very first outing together will be spent bare-chested in the company of God.

Padma Temple

Being neither very pious nor proper, I worry that this temple’s iron-clad security might instinctively repel my heathen ass. Luckily we are with Raju (not his real name), an elderly driver who “knows people” from his days of driving a senior civil servant around, and who assures us he can get us in. After Raju nods and winks to the rifle-bearing policemen, Kirit and I are soon strolling in the temple’s open corridors, between magnificent stone pillars, alongside Hindu pilgrims, singles, couples, families, most of who appear lost in calm serenity.

There are many policemen around and Hindu holy men. We are ushered into an inner central sanctum, where I am blinded by gold. A throng of people are huddled in front of three windows;  I tip-toe and manage to make out through the leftmost window a giant golden hand, which is about the size of a Tata Nano. Only later when Kirit points out a depiction of Lord Vishnu’s statue do I appreciate the enormity of that entire structure (pictured, with hand in lower left).

Vishnu

When India underwent its place name indigenisation process, with Bombay becoming Mumbai, Lord Vishnu kindly gave his name to Trivandrum—which is actually now Thiruvananthapuram, rivalled perhaps only by Antananarivo in the city tongue-twister tournaments.

But I’m not here to see an aeroplane-sized Vishnu. We walk around the entire complex again, trying to figure out where the “secret vaults” are. In 2011, after a lawyer challenged the Maharajah of Travancore’s custodial rights over the temple’s riches, the Kerala High Court ordered the opening of the two vaults—then subsequently known as Vaults “A” and “B”—that had remained dormant all these centuries. Inside Vault A they found unimaginable riches, including giant 100-carat diamonds, a golden bow and quiver of arrows, a solid gold idol of Vishnu, valued at some US$30m, and about 100,000—or, in Indian parlance, “one lakh” of—gold coins, including specimens from the Roman, Napoleonic, Mughal and Dutch eras. A conservative estimate valued Vault A’s riches at US$20bn.[ii]

Not every Keralite was pleased to discover that Sri Padmanabhaswamy is arguably the richest temple in India, if not the world. Many Hindus believe the riches belong to God; they serve no mortal purpose, and their unveiling only invites envy and the risk of looting. T.P. Sundarajan, a 70-year old lawyer who was one of the plaintiffs, passed away shortly after Vault A’s opening, amid heavy criticism from some Hindus who branded him a traitor. Among other things, they paraded a water buffalo, the Hindu symbol of death, with a placard around its neck reading: “I am Sundarajan”.

Many believe that Sundarajan’s death, officially of natural causes, had something to do with the curse of the cobras that are depicted outside the vaults, guarding them. This belief is at least partly why Vault B remains unopened to this day.

Unfortunately, as we stroll gaily around the temple, soaking in the spirituality, Kirit and I see no sign of the vaults, not even a “Keep away” or “Danger!” sign. We leave, walk outside and take a few photographs in front of the imposing tower, an exemplar of Dravidian architecture.

It might initially seem odd that Kerala has collectively not yet been able to unlock the riches that lay within Sri Padmanabhaswamy. Some reckon that the interest alone on the bounty could pay for a large chunk of the state’s developmental budget.

But it is in keeping with the ethos of this state. Here, there seem to be constant contestations between tradition and modernity; communism and capitalism; development and conservation.

The day I arrive, on the first two pages of the Trivandrum version of the Indian Express, there are stories on a “Ban on Aranmula Construction” (an airport project held up due to environmental concerns); “District officials told to provide broad data on plantations”; and “Applications invited for diploma course in watershed management”.

Much to the frustration of industrialists and the delight of conservationists, there just seems to be very little impetus for rapid economic development in Kerala. The flipside of high literacy and great healthcare here is unemployment. The same developmental criticism that is frequently levelled at India as a whole—that though a burgeoning services sector has helped many, the lack of a solid manufacturing base has prevented broad-based employment gains and poverty eradication—is perhaps intensified here.

In some ways, I am reminded of the underemployment I found in Cuba in 2003, when I met several economics graduates driving taxis. But unlike most Cubans, talented Keralites have been able to emigrate, with the prime destination being the “gelff”. This has created a massive remittance economy: remittances made up 22% of GDP in 2011, double the proportion in the Philippines.

I am still not completely sure what Keralites make of their state’s developmental model. That will take many more interviews. But it seems like they are keen, in their fiercely independent way, to not follow any prescribed path, but to chart their own way—and perhaps in the process continue broadening our understanding of well-being and happiness beyond mere GDP.

After the temple, Kirit and I walk to our real destination, the place where I will enjoy my very first martial arts experience on this trip—CVN Kalari, a kalarippayattu centre nearby. This is the place where I will start trying to find out: is it true that kung fu came from Kerala?

At a larger level, since I am writing a book about China and India, Kerala is also important because of all its other Chinese links. Admiral Cheng Ho is rightfully remembered for his interactions with Cochin, but the Chinese had been coming well before he did in the 15th Century. By the 9th Century, the Arab merchant Sulaiman had noted that the Chinese were the most important foreign traders in Kerala.

There is China in the giant vats used to store pickles (pictured), and the Cheena Cati woks used in the kitchen. There is China in the classical chairs that the Chinese traders gave to the Maharajah of Travancore, which you can still see in the splendid Padmanabhapuram Palace, the once-capital of Kerala, on the way from Trivandrum to Kanyakumari, the Indian mainland’s spectacular southernmost point. There is China in the winter melons that, as my friend Sangeetha Madhavan points out, are eaten only in Kerala, nowhere else in India. And there is China in everyday gestures—“Oh, yur vife is like that” an old amachi tells me, as she places her index fingers on the outer edges of her eyes, and pulls gently towards her temples.

Vats

Ah yes, I miss my wife dearly. And it’s only Day 5. As much as there will be adventure and fun, there will be sadness and longing. Oh well, I guess I’ll just do what I’m best at: drowning my sorrows. There are still seven cans of Anchor in Babu Uncle’s fridge, hiding ashamedly behind a row of Heinekens.

The story continues at Letter from India: Kalarippayattu.

Post-script

Singapore
For those of you based in Singapore, there are signs of Kerala everywhere. Many Indian Muslim—mamak—chefs are from Kerala, including the prata spinners. The Malabar mosque on Victoria Street is a Malayali one. Manu Bhaskaran, a Singaporean economist and a good friend of mine, is a Hindu Malayali from the Ezhavas caste, people who were primarily toddy tappers. Manu, of course, is so unlike his ancestors—the only drink he will very occasionally touch is the relatively mild Gunner.

And then there is Mar Thoma Church (St Thomas Church), the church my dad’s family goes to. You may notice a geographical peculiarity if you look up “Mar Thoma Road” in Singapore. It is off St. George’s Road, in the Bendemeer/Macpherson area, right where the CTE and PIE cross. However, there is no church—or “char-ch”, as Malayalis say—anywhere near there. Essentially, the church I used to attend as a boy had the misfortune of being in the path of some planner’s CTE dream. And so in the 1980s the government paid the church a nominal sum for the land and razed it, another footnote in our country’s rush to modernity.

Today Mar Thoma Church is in Upper Thomson, far away from “Mar Thoma Road”.

There are also signs of Singapore in Kerala. In the photography centre where I am getting some passport photos made, two people come up to the counter and ask for “Singapore-visa photo”, one of their most popular products. For Babu Uncle, who seems to have become more spiritual, two of his favourite pastors are the American TD Jakes, who he watches on YouTube, and the Singaporean Joseph Prince, who he watches faithfully on “The God Channel” everyday at 1.30pm.

[i] Some believe the Portuguese built them

[ii] The Secret Of The Temple, The New Yorker, Apr 30th 2012

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33 responses

  1. Yello! I love this post – I can almost imagine myself there! Indeed, it makes me itch to go to Kerala one day to see these places for myself and definitely, to find a spot to do nothing. For now, I will have to depend on your rich descriptions. Looking forward to more posts!

  2. I enjoyed reading your perspective on Kerala. The Malayali pronunciation of English words you include brings back memories that are whimsical and endearing. The juxtaposition of the government, literacy, matriarchy, and their export of services to the gulf is very interesting…hopefully another book in the making.

  3. The China pots used for pickles are called China Bahrani (sp?) and there is also thchina chatti (the Kerala wok) . Is there a relationship between kanji and congee?
    Looking forward to the book and enjoying the musings immensely.

  4. Fun piece, and Sudhir provides very good reasons for travelling to this blessed land. As a proud Keralan (I can never be a Kera-lite, as some would want me to be, I look forward to more of this stuff.

  5. Lovely breezy read. And to date had no clue that ” cheen chatti” referred to the chinese woks- wow! And you are the product of a malyali and marwari? My kids would say ” ditto” 😉

  6. Have gotten some clarifications from Sangeetha and her Trivandrum-based friend on winter melons:

    “I think you’re talking about good old kumbalangya, Sangeetha, aka ash-gourd or winter – not water – melon. You’re right, it is used in the north to make a sweet called ‘petha’ (Agra’s famous for this although you now get it everywhere) but I wouldn’t be too sure it’s eaten as a vegetable only in Kerala. “

  7. Sudhir: fantastic first post.. I wish I could have seen the innards of Vault A through your eyes! looking forward to your musings over the coming months..

    • Thanks Jaggy. An uncle in Thrichur told me last night about another treasure in there: a 2000 kg (2 tonne) gold throne meant for God, sent by the Nepal king, that was transported by elephants over two years. Nuts.

  8. Gosh, I wish I had known all this during my visit when I was at the Kennedy School in 2004. My grandparents were from Kerala and now I gotta go back to see all these marvelous sights! Wonderful post, Sudhir! Keep them coming!

  9. Great piece, cuz! Makes me wish we spent more time actually seeing Kerala than just visiting relatives the umpteen times we “Naati-poy” (how the heck does one spell these words!!). I think you should make a little travel guide for the once-removed Malayalis who want to return to see the land.

  10. An interesting and quaint bird’s eye view from the outside. By the way, the communists came to power in kerala in 1957.

  11. Woah friend…this is such good stuff!! Now I know 99% more about Kerala’s culture and history. Looking forward to your travels (never thought I’d hear myself saying that to anyone)!

    • പ ട ടന ,ഞ ന പലപ പ ഴ മ ത സ ബ ല ഗ ല പ സ റ റ കള വ മര ശ ച ച ട ട ണ ട . അത ര ക കല ബ ല ഗ ന ആയ ര ന ന ല ല . ഈ ബ ല ഗ ന എന ക ക ന ന നന ദ യ ട മ ത രമ ഓര ക ക ന കഴ യ കയ ള ള . ഞ ന , പ ട ടന അല ല ങ ക ല മറ റ ര ങ ക ല മ ആഞ ഞ ഒന ന ത മ മ യ ല ത റ ച ച പ ക ന ന ഒര ക ട ട യ മ അല ല ഇത . ഈ ബ ല ഗ ന ഒര പ ട അധ യ പകര ട യ ക ട ട കള ട യ പ ന ത ണയ ണ ട . ഇത ന റ പ ന ന ല ഒര പ ട ആള കള ട കഷ ടപ പ ട ണ ട . എന ത ന യ അന ധമ യ വ മര ശ ക ക ന നത ത ര ച ചയ യ പര ഹ സ യമ ണ . വ മര ശനങ ങള ക ക , ഭ ഷയ ക ക L K G ന ലവ ര എങ ക ല ഉള ളത വളര നല ലത ണ . ദയവ യ പര പ വനമ യ ഈ ബ ല ഗ ല കയറ വന ന ക ര ക ക ച ച ത പ പര ത . ഒര സദസ സ ന അഭ മ ഖ കര ച ച സ സ ര ക ക മ പ ള , നമ മ ട മ ന യതയ ക ക അന സ സര ച ചല ല , മറ ച ച സദസ സ ന റ മ ന യതയ ക ക അന സ സര ച ച വ ണ സ സ ര ക ക ന . ത ങ കള ട ബ ല ഗ സന ദര ശ ച ച ര ന ന . Gender: Male എന ന എഴ ത യത തമ ശ ന യ ര ക ക അല ല ? ഊള ളന പ റയ ല എല ല വര ക ക സ ഖമ ന ന വ ശ വസ ക ക ന ന . Lithium carbonate മ ടക കര ത . സ ന ഹ പ ര വ വ ത ങ കള ട സ ഹ ത ത .

  12. Enjoyed your tongue-in-cheek houmour, Sudhir ! Kirit looks less of a Mallu (last seen clean shaven) with his Rajput moustache in the photograph !

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