30 July 2009

Kerala Diary - 01

The next couple of blog entries are a compilation of photos/memories from my last two trips to my motherland - Kerala - a land of beautiful red soil and insane greenery on the southern tip of India. Both my parents are originally from the Malabar region in northern Kerala - a land famous for its spices, the lure of which brought many adventurers/traders to its shores from distant lands for over two millennia.

The first of my trips was during the first week of May and I was accompanying Todd(an architect from Amsterdam). This was a bit of a serious trip as we were doing some research for an upcoming architectural publication. We started in Thiruvananthapuram and kept moving north - driving by Ernakulam, taking a small halt at the historically significant - Kodungallur, seeing a bit of Tirur, spending a good chunk of our time in Kozhikode and lastly doing a small trip to Kannur.


(Diary 1 - Day 1)

Thiruvananthapuram (earlier known as
Trivandrum) - While in the capital of Kerala we spend a lot of our time at the Centre for Development studies, a very well known independent research institution in India. It's campus which is almost outside the city is one of the most famous projects designed by Laurie Baker. It has all the ingredients of a typical Baker project - the extensive use of locally made bricks, expressive curvy forms and a good measure of earthy vernacular feel.
Though this projects remains one of the few references in India for a successful low cost institutional project, I was quiet disappointed with its design - it lacks any sort of overall clarity and is a bit too romantically whimsical.
In my opinion besides its climatic response and adopting local materials there isn't much architecturally worth learning from this centre!

(Diary 1 - Day 2)

On our second day we had a bit of time to kill and since it was Todd's first visit to Kerala (for that matter to India) we decided to check out a few of the must see sights in the city, so we headed straight for the old fort around which Trivandrum has grown. To get there we passed by a lot of government buildings from the 60s and 70s built in a stripped down modernist language with lots of concrete box windows, fins and brise soleil work.
I am really intrigued of how soo many government institutions took to this particular style of architecture - it would be amazing to map this across the country and make a publication on the 'Indian PWD style'!

Once inside the fort, the Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple with its towering Gopuram (entrance gateway) has an overwhelming presence. Sadly we had to content with a look from outside, a large no. of temples (including this one) in Kerala are open only to Hindus!
This is a great loss for all visitors to Kerala who are interested in architecture because a significant no. of buildings that together make up a 'Kerala architecture' are temples.
But thankfully the Kuthira Malika palace right next to the Padmanabhaswamy temple is partly opened to the public as a museum. The museum like most in the country is a mix-bag of stuff, it's very badly curated, badly light and is in need of a lot of work - that said, visiting it is a must for it's architecture!
The palace features many of the elements that make up any traditional house in Kerala only this one is on a large and more intricate scale - the forecourt, the verandah around the house (setting back the rooms from the harsh sunlight), the wooden windows with small opening, some great woodwork on the columns/balustrades and the internal courtyards around which the house and its social life is structured. I wonder why most museums in this country sill insist on this ancient rule of 'no photography inside'?

By the time we finished seeing the Palace it was time to head for another meeting after which we left for Ernakulam - where we were to halt for the night.


(Diary 1 - Day 3)

We started early on the third day. Although we would have liked to spend some time in Kochi (the historic port area of the city) and Ernakulam (which has grown to become Kerala's most important growth centre) we had some people to meet in Kozhikode later the same day and we had also planned to make a halt on the way. So as we dashed out of Ernakulam heading north we could step out of our car only for a few minutes at the edge of the city to admire these strange looking bamboo contraptions. These 'Cheena vala' (which literally translates to Chinese fishing nets) are the only physical evidence left of an ancient Eastern trade link between the people of this region and the Chinese. These things are stationery fishing nets which are lowered for a few minutes at a time and the catch is usually modest: a few fish and crustaceans - making you wonder whether its really worth all this jazz?
As we watched teams of up to 6 fishermen operating this delicate counter balanced structure Todd asked me a question that I've wondered about almost every time I've seen one of these nets - 'Haven't the crabs learned to avoid these spots yet?'


Our next stop was the small and unassuming city of Kodungallur. At the surface its like any other town in Kerala - small, mostly rural, quaint and covered in Coconut trees. But scratch the surface and you shall find one of the most important ports of ancient India and a site of great significance to world history - this was the ancient city known to the Romans and Greeks as Muziris.

Besides being an important trading port from where Pepper was exported to Europe the city also holds great significance to many religions - the city is mentioned in the most important Hindu epics of Ramayana and Mahabharatha. It is believed that St. Thomas, one of the apostle of Jesus, landed here at AD 52 with the word of Jesus.

This historical event started the growth of Christianity in the sub continent. Kodungallur also sheltered refugee Jews from Middle East after the destruction of their temples at their homeland making it one of the oldest Jewish sites in India.

It is also believed that Malik Ibn Dinar first landed here, to preach Islam in the 7th century. Kodungallur is one of the places where Islam first spread. It is said that the legendary Chera king Cheraman Perumal embraced Islam and built a mosque here, based on traditional Kerala architecture known as the Cheraman Perumal Juma Masjid. (Below is a model of the original mosque)It is the oldest mosque in India. Here's a few images of this highly significant mosque! Sadly the unique architecture style of the mosque has been lost over the years!

Kodungallur is one of those cities (like Delhi and Rome) that make me extremely interested in history - sadly the great flood of 1341 changed its destiny quiet drastically relegating it to the borders of memory!


After seeing the Mosque we were back on the road - heading to - Kozhikode (or Calicut as it was known till very recently). On that I think of it that's three every important historic ports of India in one day - Kochi, Kodungallur and Kozhikode.

(Diary 1 - Day 4)


Kozhikode, the city that's my mom's home town was historically dubbed the "City of Spices" for its role as the major trading point of eastern spices and was a major centre for trade with the Arabs. 15kms from the city is Kappad - where in 1498 Vasco da Gama first landed on discovering the sea route from Europe to India commencing a new era of European exploration and domination of India.

In between all our meetings I took Todd to see Kuttichira, this is the quarter of the city historically known as the muslim strong hold of the city.

It is here that the trading Arabs mixed with the locals marrying into their families and eventually creating a unique Muslim culture deeply rooted in local customs and traditions. One of the best examples of this culture is the architecture of this area. Emblematic of this are the three main mosques in this area which use a language of architecture that was typically used to make temples. Here's a few photos of these amazingly vernacular examples of mosque architecture.


Mosque 01 -Mishkal Mosque
Mosque 02 -Jama Mosque
Mosque 03 -Muchendi Mosque

I will hopefully share more from Kozhikode in the future.


(Diary 1 - Day 5)


Most of our time in Tirur was eaten up by our research work/meeting people and we didn't quiet have time to see any significant sight that I want to share here.



(Diary 1 - Day 6)

The last place we visited was Payangadi, north of the city of Kannur. My dad is from this village and I am quiet familiar with this area. Here we saw a nice step well, here's a few photos of it -
From here we headed back to Kozhikode where we flew out.. So that's it from my first trip!

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