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Evergreen memories

REBECCA CHANDY gives a first-hand account of Kumarakom's metamorphosis.

Bliss...relaxing in a cottage.

SOME time ago, when I heard my daughter eulogise Kumarakom in Kerala as an unusual tourist centre, offering first class accommodation and cruises in exotic houseboats, I could not believe my ears. I knew Kumarakom to be an obscure water logged village by the backwaters of the Vembanad Lake, about 30 km away from my own village. I had travelled many a time on the houseboat turned kettuvalloms (rice boats) of our waterways. They were cumbersome, propelled by poles, and their interiors were dark caverns. But last Christmas when my family decided to holiday on the Malabar coast, I saw this astounding metamorphosis for myself.

We motored down from Kochi, but had to cover the last lap of the journey by motor boat along a narrow canal. It took us to the steps of the foyer of the hotel. Everywhere we looked, we saw tall graceful coconut palms, evenly spaced, growing around tiny cottages with sloping roofs of red tiles. Narrow fens of water criss-crossed each other, spanned by small romantic bridges. We were indeed in a coconut lagoon.

Our cottage had the Kerala style front verandah — a must in every home because this is where the family relaxes every evening. It led to a large living cum bedroom panelled in the ornamental wood work of the arapura, the granary in old Malayali homes. The wooden walls of these dismantled aras are much in demand in the construction industry.

A quaint feature in the modern attached bathroom was the large walled courtyard, pebbled and open to the sky with a single broad-leaved banana tree growing in a corner. The open courtyard within a house was, at one time, a part of old Kerala houses. It disappeared when people went in for western type houses. Now it is back again as a motif in the quest for ethnicity.

The two-day cruise on the backwaters and the Vembanad lake on to Alleppey and back was the highlight of our stay in Kerala. The houseboat was, indeed, the kettuvallom of my childhood, but transformed beyond belief. It had a curved roof of bamboo and wattle. Latticed cane work framed the "look-out" openings and the sides of the deck. The inside of the boat was lined with the white satiny matting of the finest variety of Kerala mats called metha payus. The sleeping cabinets were comfortable bedrooms with foam mattresses, mosquito curtains and even an electric fan. Attached were baths with a shower and toilet. Beyond, near the bow, was a large saloon with a round table and wicker chairs. A crew of four, including the captain and the cook, attended to our needs efficiently and quietly.

Powered by bamboo poles and a purring outboard, the boat glided over the backwaters. Tall coconut palms grew on the narrow bunds in single file, like sentinels awaiting a royal procession. As the bunds broadened, there were cottages with green rice fields beyond. Some of them sported the "Star of David", a sign of the season. The waters were placid and calm, the silence broken only by an occasional kettuvallom crossing us or by a row boat carrying people to their homes. As our boat entered the lake area, we found ourselves in a vast expanse of water, banked in the far distance by jungles of palm and bamboo and stands of banana, growing in lush profusion. "How green is my valley?" I thought I should also have added, "And how rich its marine bounty!" for just then the crew brought us lunch with fried karimeen, and prawn curry, both freshly caught from the lake.

The next day found us at a beach resort in Mariakulam, near Alleppey. Here a charming thatched cottage set in a herbal garden with a tulsi plant in the central pathway, proved to be the Ayurvedic oil therapy centre. We decided to sample a general massage. The masseuse applied fragrant medicated oils on the head and body in plentiful measure as one lay on a high wooden plank on the secluded verandah of an open walled courtyard. Nimble fingers rubbed every inch of one's scalp and kneaded every muscle in one's body so expertly that one almost went to sleep.

The houseboat...transformed.

Arriving in Kochi, our last stop-over, we visited the Jew Town. Nowhere else in India have I seen the streets of a 400-year-old town, lined with antique and curio shops as in Jew Town. Astonishingly, their wares reflected the history of this part of the land — antiques of the native inhabitants juxtaposed with the religious icons of successive invaders and foreign settlers and curios brought in by foreign traders.

The Jewish Synagogue, which the Jewish community built with great zeal 400-odd years ago was our next focus of interest. It was wonderful to see a synagogue which had so far been only a word to me in the Bible. It was impressive with its many adornments — chandeliers imported from Belgium, blue hand painted tiles from China, no two of the same design covering the floor and gold painted bars surrounding the raised pulpit in the centre.

The 2,000-year long sojourn of the Jews in Kerala makes for an exhilarating story. They had arrived, as tradition goes, in the First Century A.D. as refugees from religious persecution. They were given shelter and allowed to settle in different parts of the country by the then Hindu rulers of Malabar, on the south west coast of India. They flourished here for more than 1,000 years when internecine dissensions and attacks by Moors, forced them to give up their settlements and seek the protection of the Hindu Raja of Cochin. "With a liberality that can hardly be understood", the raja granted them a site for a town by the side of his own palace and temple! Here was built in 1567, Jew Town and in 1568, the Cochin Synagogue.

Unlike the fate of their brethren in various countries in Europe, the Jewish population in Kerala continued to enjoy the patronage of the local kings and the friendship of the local communities. This enabled them to weather the stormy events of history and survive for nearly 2,000 years. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, almost all of them except a handful, left for their Holy Land. And their story here will soon come to an end. But the fact of the religious and cultural tolerance of the kings and people of Kerala and their amazing generosity towards an alien people deserve to be recorded forever in letters of gold in our history. No wonder my heart swells with pride to be an inheritor of this wonderful legacy.

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