Goshreepuram in West Kochi pulsates with Konkani culture and architecture that are centuries old.
A Konkani folksong harks back straight to the times when families from Goa, escaping Portuguese persecution, fled and reached the shores of Kochi. “Have you seen my daughter’s husband in Goa? Have you seen this boy's uncle? Did he say that he will come here today or tomorrow?” croons a distraught woman in search of her missing family.
A palpable pain in the lyrics singes listeners’ hearts. Four hundred years after this song was born it remains evergreen.
“It’s a community song that was sung when Konkanis came away in boats across seas. Families were separated and loved ones lost. The song is very popular and taught even today to children. It tells about our history of displacement and of our arrival on other shores,” says Baburaj Pai, who along with Kapil R. Pai, president of Cochin Tirumala Dewasom (CTD), is gathering documents on the ancestry of the Konkani community in Kochi. They along with community members are seeking heritage status for their centuries-old (Tirumala Dewasom) TD temple and adjacent areas which is collectively called Goshreepuram. This two square kilometre area in Cherlai, Mattancherry, with the temple at the centre has lanes, houses, shops, small shrines that are hundreds of years old and have over the years remained such. It is architecture that has stood the onslaught of modernisation.
A walk down the narrow lanes takes one into small corner shops with little glamour. Each one with a telling garlanded sepia photograph of an ancestor who started the enterprise. Many sport early 1900s as year of establishment. Old-style glass cabinets, chests and wooden chairs make for furniture.
The community lives in row houses, many of which have a well inside. Small temples dot the lanes. “We came from Goa with our deities (kuladevata), our culture and our language,” says Kapil Pai who lives in a 120-year-old house.
Veteran historian and one from the community, Puroshottam Mallya describes in a dramatic way the arrival of his people, hundreds of years ago. “Our ancestors landed near the Calvathy canal and moved inwards which is now called Sashtaparambu, sashta from 66, which in Konkani is sashti, the number of villages from where the exodus began. The Maharaja of Cochin then stayed at the Ariyittuvazcha Palace. We fell at his feet and begged for land. The Zamorin had turned us away. The Maharaja then gave us the land that lay behind his palace. It was filthy land called, chala. That is present day Cherlai.”
Konkanis claim that Goshreepuram was named by their head priest, after he visited them in 1560 and called the land for the settlers from ‘Goa-puri’ as Goshreepura. He brought the deity which was installed at the TD Temple with a kanakabhishekam or pouring gold coins over it and declared it Goshreepureshwara or the lord of Goshreepuram. Even today the temple and its activities remain the most important part in the lives of the community members. “Each one of us visit the temple at least once a day,” says Indu Baburaj who came here from Kollam through marriage.
The 360 families that landed originally had with them members from all professions. There were treasurers (Bhandari, Kilikars), landlord (Prabhu), ledger keeper (Pai), agriculturists (Kamath) accountants (Shenoy), soldiers (Naik), farm hands, businessmen, goldsmiths and even devadasis. “We brought the whole country here,” says Mallya with pride.
A royal writ inscribed on a copper plate in 1648, referred to as sangetham, gave the community a clearly demarcated area to themselves where they had the right to build houses with bricks, do business with foreign powers, have their own civil and criminal procedure laws and right to worship. “In olden days we had a jail too. It was a semi-autonomous state within a state,” says Mallya.
As the Konkanis settled and flourished they melded their customs with those of the Malayalis. They added to the breathtakingly beautiful elephant procession or shiveli, their custom of a palanquin procession.
Shyamala Prabhu, a councillor, takes pride in the resilience and hard work of the women of her community. She says, “All our women work. Nobody sits idle. From making pappads, kondattams (a Konkani speciality) and selling them, to giving tuitions, teaching Sanskrit and yoga, running tailoring shops, the women work.” Another quality she points out is that they all speak Konkani at home. “This is a policy. We love our language,” she says. Shyamala is respected for the work she has done in the area. As a councillor she speaks of solving the current water logging problem that the temple faces.
Susheela Bhat, 72, is a known figure having brought out two books in Malayalam on Konkani cuisine. She writes about their concept of food as medicine in Konkani Pachakasahayi. Latha Kamath teaches sari dance, a Goan village folk dance, keeping a bit of rural Goa alive here. She now holds performances with her group at folk dance events.
The 380 families that came have grown to 4,500 with 10,000 members. The temple and their Gods remain the most important aspect of their lives, their lanes, homes, shops and lifestyle adhering still to the values of a life they left behind. Baburaj speaks with emotion: “We left behind a life but this shore is heaven for us.”