Curious in Kerala: What really is Malabar
There was Malabar. And there was the rest of Kerala.
A landowner relative used to tell us he was going to Malabar and would be gone for weeks, sometimes months. From my early memories thus ‘Malabar’ meant ‘faraway’. A swank house would spring up overnight in the neighbourhood and we would be told the folks were from Malabar; Malabar meant money. There were occasional stories in the newspapers on secret ‘Chathan Seva Madoms’ or temples for devil worship frequented by the rich to kill or incapacitate a competitor which made Malabar dark and eerie. ‘Malabar’ thus came to mean many things none of it ‘Kerala’.Legends abounded of Yakshis or evil fairies who pretended to be pining for love looking irresistible in clingy saris and robust, flowing manes but sucked the blood dry from hormone-charged men who fell for the ploy. (These are the prettiest around, wear white saris and have their feet a few inches above ground: You have been warned.) This was also the land of the Gandharvas or servants of gods; themselves demi gods, who fell out of favour with their masters, doomed to a life on earth. They made the most of it roaming after dark, seducing fair maidens who fell without fail for their, well, out-of-this-world charms. These hapless ones, some even impregnated, were then accursed to a life of societal derision and fading sanity. As much as a fantastic façade for the local Casanova cavorting with a willing damsel and things turning awry, these Gandharvas did make Malabar a coast of salacious and folk lore. With enough going for it, thus it was time to put Malabar on the map. Alright, but actually the ad read ‘Wake up to Malabar’ and showed a meandering Kuttavallam (a coracle) on a tranquil backwater. The pretty couple could be honeymooning or just having a good time. But in Malabar? But where is Malabar? Rather, what is Malabar? This is not to mean that Malabar never existed – it did, but that was once upon a time. It flaunted boundaries under the British as a principality extending from north to south along the coast and covered about 150 miles. On the east were Coimbatore, Coorg and Mysore, the South Canara district to the north, erstwhile state of Cochin in the south and flanked by the Arabian Sea on the west. Malabar did change its size and shape over the years as did its name: Mulibar, Malabria, Malibar…were some of the ones that didn’t stick. Very generally, it almost always included most of the northern part of the state of Kerala and some parts of the coastal regions of present day Karnataka. In very ancient times, ‘Malabar’ was used to cover the whole of the south-western coast of the Indian peninsula; thus even today in the Middle and Far Eastern countries, anybody from the south of India – regardless of Kerala or Tamil Nadu, Karnataka or Andhra – is a ‘Malabari.’ In scientific circles today, ‘Malabar’ is also used on occasion by ecologists when they talk about the tropical and subtropical forests of Kerala. The Malabar Coast: Just like ‘Malabar’ today, ‘Malabar Coast’ has also come to be used as an all encompassing term – for the whole of the Indian coast extending from the western coast of Konkan in Goa, passing through the western coasts of Karnataka and Kerala till the southern tip of Kanyakumari. The Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea gives this narrow but scenic coastal plain company on the east and the west respectively. This coast was of great importance during the days of the seafaring traders; it still features a number of port cities of great history like Beypore, Kannur, Kozhikode and Kochi. Ladies and the art: The present day districts of Kannur, Kozhikode, Wayanad, Malappuram and Palakkad constituted Malabar during its days as a British principality. So if you look up ‘Malabar’ on the map today you will not find it. Nevertheless, it is not non-existent. Okay, let me make it simple. You cannot buy a ticket to Malabar. It is less a defined region, more an imagined province. Very broadly, it can be used collectively to denote the northern part of Kerala. And pretty much like the stories that stem from a different realm of existence, Malabar is a state of mind. Though it is the land of ‘Chekavars’ (highly trained, professional warriors) and Kalaripayattu the indigenously developed martial art of Kerala, this state of mind was one of patience and accommodation. Over the centuries Malabar has welcomed and allowed the Arabs, the Portuguese, French and the English to flourish. An infrequent skirmish aside, the region was largely peace loving and continuously reinvented itself under its ever-changing rulers. Life went on as long as trade thrived; Malabar was known all over the world for its spices especially pepper. This thrust on peace and progress is at times attributed to the prevalent matrilineal system known locally as ‘Marumakkathayam’ which was followed by members of both Hindu and Muslim communities alike. Not just trade, but art too got a thumbs up under the prevalent state of affairs. Some of the prominent art forms from Malabar include the Theyyam (a man is dressed up a god-incarnate), Vadakkan Paattu (songs extolling the virtues of brave men and women), Kolkali (a methodical dance with batons) and Poorakali (ritualistic chanting of verses from the Ramayana and Bhagwat Gita). There are also some notable contributions from the Muslim community (known locally as ‘Mappilas’) like Oppana (a women-only dance) and Mappila Paattu (religious songs). The region may not be so peaceful – or progressive – anymore with polity taking bloody turns now and then, crippling hartals and a lackadaisical attitude to industry being the norm. Still the region has continued to flourish thanks to Gulf remittances; it has historically been manpower suppliers to the oil-rich Arab nations just yonder the sea. These were the original ‘Malabaris’ and they were from Malabar. A Malabar which was known the world over, marked on the map, was a prominent port of call for trading communities everywhere. The days of glory are long gone, as have the geographical boundaries. But what remains today of Malabar is an existence imagined, something we believe we can see, we think we are looking at. Like, well, the Malabar Civet.
Then, that’s another story.
‘Curious in Kerala’ is a series on the little seen, heard and read-about places and people, myths and facts, history, wisdom and reminiscences from the state. This is the first part.