The fall of Muziris following the freak flood of 1341 saw the rise of the twin cities of Mattancherry and Kochi down south. While the former grew into a great trading centre of repute attracting men and material from all over the globe, the latter emerged as a seat of royal power with all the attendant glitz and glamour. Today, neither retains the old mores, new ones having replaced them over the years. And therein hangs the fascinating story of their transformation.
There is no historical proof of how the place came to be called Mattancherry; but folklore tells us that it is derived from Madu Cheri (madu means cattle and cheri means shed), as the royal family had located its dairy farm there. There is also the story that the place was once the estate of the powerful Namboodiris and was called Ancherry Madom which the Europeans found it difficult to pronounce and they changed it into easily pronounceable Mattancherry.
The geography was favourable, the place being close to the sea and an entrepot to boot. Along with Calicut in the north and Kollam in the south, Mattancherry became a major commercial centre frequented by foreign traders in search of spices, pepper in particular, since the beginning of the 14th century. And history followed.
The earliest settlers were the Konkani Brahmins or Gowda Saraswata Brahmins who came from Goa to save themselves from the wrath of Alauddin Khilji who invaded their land in 1293 AD. The munificent Raja of Cochin settled them in Mattancherry and allowed them to pursue their vocations, both temporal and spiritual. They prospered in both. According to the Chinese chronicler, Ma Huan (1409), the Konkanis had virtual monopoly in spices trade and did business with the Chinese and other foreign traders.
One of the leading merchants of the time was Devaraj Kini, a wholesaler, who made the mistake of insisting on payment for goods sold to the royal palace and paid with his life for his impertinence. Another prominent merchant, Chalaga Prabhu, was exiled to South Africa by the Raja of Cochin for his nefarious dealings with one of the generals of the marauding army of Hyder AM of the neighbouring State of Mysore. That he and his tribe later prospered there heralding Asian settlement in the continent of Africa is a side story which indeed is fascinating in itself.
There were scholars among Konkanis. Records show that Ranga Bhat, Vinayak Pundit and Appur Bhat, to name the most outstanding among the lot, helped Dutch Governor Van Rheed compile the magnum opus, Rortus Malabaricus, an authoritative book, the only one of its kind, on the herbs of Malabar.
Simple but shrewd in their conduct, the Konkanis of Mattancherry attributed their prosperity to Lord Venkatachalapathy the presiding deity of their temple in the town. The idol, reportedly, belonged to the Vijayanagar kingdom and according to a legend was brought to Mattancherry by a Brahmin following the fall of the Vijayanagar empire in 1565. The idol, it was widely believed, brought prosperity to the Konkanis.
The Konkanis were followed by Jews in the second half of the 14th century. The latter had their original settlementat Muziris, the present Kodungallur, from where they came down to Mattancherry in the hope of furthering their business in spices, sans competition from the Arabs who were virtually ruling the roost at established markets from Calicut to Muziris. As had been his wont, the Raja of Cochin accommodated them too in Mattancherry, very close to his palace. Subsequently, they were given land to put up places of worship that, in the event, became major landmarks of the area.
The business peace they expected was shortlived as the Arabs soon joined them following the fall of Muziris to the fury of the floods in 1341. They too were treated with equal warmth by the Raja. Predictably, they came to monopolize trade in spices, by which time buyers were coming in droves from far away China, to begin with, and, later, Europe.
Two landmarks – the Chembitta Palli (copper-roofed mosque) in Mattancherry and the Kalvatty Palli in what is now Fort Kochi mark the enormous presence of the Arabs. Interestingly, the construction of the famous copper mosque was funded by the rich Jews who reportedly overheard the Sufi saint Syed Mau Lana Bukhari Thangal, the founder of the mosque, narrating the story of Moses to his followers and decided to reward him as much for his knowledge of the Old Testament as for his catholicity.
No less important are the two temples, the Pazhayannur Kavu and the Palliyara Kavu, both devoted to goddess Bhagavati. Their origins are shrouded in mystery. Historians trace them to 1662 when the seat of the Cochin royal family was shifted from Kodungallur to Mattancherry. The courtyard in front of the Pazhayannur Kavu was where the nine-day-old war between the armies of the Dutch and the Raja of Cochin was fought that ultimately led to the victory of the former.
The 16th century was in many ways, a turning point in world history what with the discovery of a new sea route to India via the Cape of Good Hope. The world virtually shrank, as it were. The Portuguese were the pioneers, followed by the Dutch, the French and finally the English. They all made a beeline for what was then called the Malabar Coast in search of pepper the black gold. Mattancherry was where they all did business.
Fame and fortune followed. And they in turn brought waves of Gujaratis, Marwaris, Jains, Parsees and Kutchy Muslims. Mattancherry became a veritable crucible of people of different castes, creeds, religions, languages and nationalities long long before globalization turned the globe into a village.
It was a magnificent matrix held together by money. There wasn’t a common language understandably so. That didn’t affect business which was carried on by gestures perfected over time and practised by all. The contracting parties negotiated their deals by holding hands covered by a cloth so as to keep it under wraps. The price would be negotiated by pressing the knuckles, each specifying an amount. They withdrew their hands once the final price was decided. The practice virtually ruled out undercutting as none knew at what price the deal was struck. Modern gadgets have evidently replaced it; yet this is said to be still in use, rarely though in Mattancherry.
No surprise that the place still smells as much of spices as history. Much of the past is still being lived by the people who for all their differences in dress, custom and belief, seem to show the world the perfect art of living in harmony.