We, the Citizens
By Hugh and Colleen Gantzer
The commissioning of INS Vikrant has focused attention on Kerala and Cochin aka Kochi. Within a bumble bee’s flight of the Vikrant is the Thevara area. Here, there is a church where the worship is conducted in a Middle-eastern language: Cyriac. This recalls that the Christians of Kerala are the oldest in the world. Their faith was brought here by St. Thomas, one of the twelve Apostles of Jesus Christ. The second wave of Christians owe their origin to Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama who came during the European Age Of Discovery and was buried in Cochin.
To get back to Thevara, a little further down the road, from the Syrian church is a mosque. Many of its congregation are Moplahs: local Muslims. The word Moplah is derived from the word mapillai: son-in-law. They are descended from Arab Spice Merchants with trade links with Kerala. In spite of its reputation as a politically godless state, the most ancient faiths still thrive here in typically pragmatic Malaylee adjustment.
Years ago, on a sultry, loam-scented, afternoon, we were led through a tangled sacred forest to a clearing. Devotees waited expectantly. Drums began to throb, coming closer and closer. Then this figure emerged. The man was bare-bodied, his face heavily made-up under a towering headdress. He was awesome. The drums started throbbing again and he began to dance as if in a trance. The awesomely jerking, figure, called out to us identifying us. He told us why we were in Kerala and predicted that our quest would be successful. As devotees approached, he touched them and made predictions. When it was over and he retreated into the forest we wondered what had overcome us.
We were drenched in sweat and tingled with a strange elation as if we had been struck by a powerful surge of electricity. Shamanism is one of the world’s oldest faiths.
So, too, is the worship of snakes.
On another occasion, in Kerala, we drove down a dark road through a forest of towering, ancient trees, draped with moss and creepers. Statues of snake deities lined the road. It led to a Snake Temple. Infants were brought here to have their first rice meal, we were told. We went for a darshan of the High Priestess and were rewarded by a special blessing with her hand cupped like the hood of a cobra. A ray of sunlight lanced through a tree. We looked up. For a flash we saw a golden snake slide through the branches. It was, apparently, a sign that the blessing had adhered.
This assurance delighted us. Spiritual benefits cannot have a sectarian tag, like political freebies!
And all communities celebrate Onam with traditional vegetarian food. It marks the return of the benign ruler who was sent to the netherworld by Avatara Vaman.
So we asked ourselves, how does a small state with so many divergent creeds hold together? The fate of Kerala’s politicians is decided in the fora of the myriad tea stalls of Kerala. Communism seems to be a binding force. The Communism of Kerala is a particularly socially beneficial, version of the harsh manifestation of this political creed found elsewhere. It has resulted in high literacy, excellent health care, and education (roadside teastalls offer daily newspapers of all political complexions) The fate of Kerala’s politicians is decided in the teastalls of Kerala.
The people of this little state speak a dravido-Sanskrit tongue called Malayalam. All faiths jointly celebrate the return of King Mahabali at the festival of Onam. Even the very carnivorous Christians turn vegetarian. Malayalam is a palindrome: that reads the same backwards and forwards. That, symbolically, explains the Integrity in Diversity that is the strength of Kerala.
Kerala could also be the Shape of Things to Come in India.
(Hugh & Colleen Gantzer hold the National Lifetime Achievement Award for Tourism among other National and International awards. Their credits include over 52 halfhour documentaries on national TV under their joint names, 26 published books in 6 genres, and over 1,500 first-person articles, about every Indian state, UT and 34 other countries. Hugh was a Commander in the Indian Navy and the Judge Advocate, Southern Naval Command. Colleen is the only travel writer who was a member of the Travel Agents Association of India.)