Once a slave, now a deity

Candles are lit and a cigars offered to 'Kappiri muthappan' at a shrine at Mangattumukku at Mattancherry. Photo: H. Vibhu   | Photo Credit: H_Vibhu

The small shrine at Mangattumukku in Mattancherry bears no religious markings, idols, or symbols. It consists of a simple platform built onto an adjacent compound wall and a tiled roof covering it. Yet, people visit this shrine every day to light candles, offer flowers, cigars, tender coconuts, and even toddy to the ‘deity’ unique to Kochi – ‘Kappiri Muthappan.’

“‘Kappiri’ is the local slang for African slaves shipped to Kerala in the 16 century by the Portuguese. The name is a corruption of the word ‘kafir,’ meaning non-believer, which is what Arab travellers called the people of Africa,” said historian M.G.S Narayanan.

Brought to Kerala as slaves, kappiris were kept in inhuman conditions in dungeons or small cellars. “Kochi was a centre for slave trade in the 16 century,” he said. The legend goes that when the Dutch pushed the Portuguese out of parts of Kerala in the 17 century, Portuguese traders buried their riches under large trees and sacrificed their African slaves so their ghosts would be around to guard the treasure. Kochiites believe that these ghosts still linger to protect the lost treasures of the Portuguese. Today, the ‘kappiri’ is a benign spirit or deity who smokes cigars, drinks toddy, and helps lost travellers.

“An old uncle of mine used to say that Kappiri Muthappan showed him the way home when he was a boy and he had gotten lost,” says Blaze, who runs a tailoring shop close to the shrine to the spirit at Mattancherry. Blaze says several large trees, especially mango trees, in the area were believed to be inhabited by the Kappiri. Most of these old trees have been cut or have fallen dead. “A kappiri mango tree was present at a house nearby. They cut it off a few years ago. Many bad things happened when they tried to cut it. The large rope broke off and someone was injured too,” says Blaze.

Many people here are firm believers in the powers of the Kappiri. They also claim to have seen a ghost-like figure of the kappiri at night and the light from the cigar he smokes. Some have seen him sitting on walls drinking toddy and humming a tune. Even the police have been called in on occasion to investigate the Kappiri. A policeman from Mattancherry remembers a case a couple of years ago when they caught a youngster trying to scare local people by pretending to be the ghost of the Kappiri. “We don’t get any such complaints these days,” he says.

Religion and modernity have not dulled the local people’s faith in Kappiri Muthappan. Those who believe in his powers still make offerings so that he may cure a loved one of some illness, or bring better fortune.

“African slaves were treated very badly here, just like everywhere else. I remember stories about how people here found a skeleton when they broke down the wall of a house,” says K.J. Sohan, former city Mayor and State convener of The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. “Today, the Kappiri is a deity worshipped by people of every religion.

Not much remains in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry to remind people of the African slaves who once lived here, though there are plenty of structures in memory of the Portuguese and Dutch slave owners. Dungeons used to hold slaves have now been broken down or converted into new housing. They left no buildings or plaques to indicate their presence in Kochi. What the slaves did leave behind are stories of their powers that give them a special place in Kochi, long after their masters left the land.

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Printable version | Sep 11, 2021 7:04:49 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/once-a-slave-now-a-deity/article4820623.ece

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