On Heritage Trails through ‘the City of Truth’
Kozhikode: Along the Malabar coast of Kerala was a port city that once, as folklore would have it, had a Goddess stranded on its shores. The Goddess of wealth, Lakshmi, was stopped from entering the sea, her father’s home, by the minister of the Zamorin, the reigning monarch. He asked her to wait at the port promising to return with the Zamorin’s consent letting her leave. The minister never returned and instead killed himself in the palace, leaving the daughter waiting along the shore even as her father sent her gifts from across the seas – ships full of gifts!
This fable, extracted from the book Calicut Heritage Trails, written by retired Naval officer Captain Ramesh Babu and published by DC Books, is a perfect opening to the story of Kozhikode – the quaint, sleepy city now more known for its exotic cuisines than anything else. Lucidly taking the reader through trails he designed during an official stint in Kozhikode, Ramesh Babu, a noted history buff and heritage enthusiast, has crafted a perfect handbook for anyone who seeks to explore the city’s fabled past in detail and listen to its stories.
In a sense, the book provides a peek behind the scenes of the famed culinary charm of the city – the stories of how the cosmopolitan settlement came about and how the aroma of spices from its shores decided the course of history. Mariners and traders made Kozhikode their home from the time of the Arab settlers, marrying into the local communities, bringing their faith and cuisine with them to form an eclectic and hybridised mix blending the best of both worlds.
For the uninitiated it would take a bagful of books to scrape the surface of the richly layered history of the port city of Kozhikode. And for a curious onlooker, it is just impossible to ignore those eye-grabbing sights of long row of shutters or lining narrow shopping streets still bearing their century-old names, old tile-roofed buildings that dot the city with their lime-painted walls and large cylindrical pillars or the mosques that resemble temples.
Captain Ramesh Babu, in an interview with Destination Kerala post the launch of his book said, “the most peculiar feature of this city is how the history is as much in dormancy and decline as in evidence. There could be as little as a single stone left of the fort of the Zamorins, but it could still provide clues valuable for understanding more than 600 years of history, trade and their eventual obliteration.”
During his few years in Kozhikode trying to set up a defence establishment for the Navy, post his retirement in 2007, Captain Ramesh Babu designed and conducted heritage walks that attracted tourists and heritage enthusiasts alike, including celebrities.
“For almost two years since 2017, I personally took people on walks, discovering more and more each time, but eventually I was aware I will have to return to my job in Mumbai. But by then I had a trove of information that could help retrace centuries of life in this city. I felt that the stories must be passed on and thus the book happened,” he said.
Divided into four sections enumerating four iconic trails and suggesting many more trails that could be developed into full-fledged history tours, Captain Ramesh Babu’s book is the first of its kind and serves as a handy package for the explorer.
“There are four very detailed walking trails, explained and embellished with authentic history, anecdotal history and folklore. While on a trail, the book could show you the sole surviving French villa in the city or even tell you the story of a fisherwoman who was caught in middle of an international territory dispute,’’ he said.
“The first shot, the harbour trail, is designed between the north and south piers of the beach tracing the different European trade posts and some distinctive structures tucked into the same landscape like the ‘Buddha Vihara’ or the Chinese fort. This trail is also about the anti-colonial movement as the beach was the arena for public gatherings during the freedom struggle,” said Captain Ramesh Babu speaking about his book.
“The second is essentially a trader’s trail, walking along what I personally like to call the ‘open mall’, a mind-boggling establishment now called ‘Valiyangadi’, that was the hotbed of trade for centuries and sold everything from grains to guns. This trail covers the themed alleys, street corners and religious structures of the marketplace. The place also hosts a medley of Indian merchant communities and is a proof of migrations across centuries. Located next to the railway station, this trail also speaks about how the introduction of the railway slowly killed the maritime trade and led to the eventual decimation of the port.
“Then there is the ‘Thekkeppuram’ trail, which starts near the Mishkal mosque and stretches down all the way to the Kallayi river. Apart from spurring architectural interests, this trail takes one through the curious marital alliances wherein the Arabs got married into aristocratic Nair families and adopted a matrilineal structure.
“The fourth trail focuses on the Zamorins and starts from Tali. It stretches through their cantonment, now a market area called Palayam, and explores religious and architectural interests along its way,” he said.
A Quiet Charmer
“Unlike Mumbai, where there are majestic structures that shout out their own stories, a place like Kozhikode is devoid of such imposing structures that inspire its iconic story teller. What makes the tale of this city a romantic discovery is this lack of structures and the abundance of tales,’’ he added.
“The trails were discovered and designed over a decade with the help of around 20 authentic books, numerous newspaper clippings, archival records and even PhD theses. As a navy man and a person who had childhood memories of the city, it was an emotional experience, too, for the author.
“To me, the beginning of the discovery of this city was a book called The City of Truth Revisited by
Prof. M G S Narayanan. It was a good initiation and I delved further into it to explore the layers of history that make Kozhikode what I believe is the ‘heritage capital of Kerala’,’’
Maritime history has a quality of expanse to it and brings with it a multicultural fare that richens the port of call. During those days the incoming ships and its men had no option but to stay till the winds reversed to set sail back home. While the men stayed on filling their large barrels and cans with exotic merchandise they also mingled well enough with a vibrant local community to leave behind stories that can feed curiosity for centuries – something well explored by the book.