SOME YEARS AGO, I bought a book in the antique shop on Princess Street in Fort Kochi. It is a modern reproduction of a book published in about 1910. Its subject matter, mostly in English, is a detailed description of the benefits of living in Cochin. Its intended audience was Gujarati speaking people thinking of settling in the area. It was aimed at Hindus, Moslems, Jains, and Parsis.
A few days ago (in February 2023), I purchased a recently published book by Bony Thomas called “Kochiites”. It describes the many different communities that have settled in Kochi. One brief chapter is about the small group of Dawoodi Bohri, Shia Moslems, who live south of the historic centre of Kochi. Another is about the Hindu and Jain Gujaratis (and Kutchis), whose communal activities are centred along the 1 mile long Gujarati Road. As my wife has roots in Kutch and the rest of Gujarat and we enjoy visiting those parts, we decided to take a stroll along Gujarati Road, which is in the Mattancherry District of Fort Kochi. It was Sunday morning.
Gujarati Road runs in a north south direction. We began our exploration at the Jain temple and moved southwards. At the Jain temple, we were not the only tourists. My wife was the only visitor who could speak in Gujarati with the lady who showed us around the spotlessly clean Mandir. Its interior has a beautiful inlaid multicoloured floor and the inside of the main dome was a replica of the kind of domes with concentric ridges that one sees in mediaeval Hindu and Jain temples, as well as in mosques constructed during that period. Photography was not permitted within the temple.
Our next port of call was the shop of Chamanlal H Mithalwala. For many generations, this shop, owned by Gujaratis, has been selling Gujarati sweets and farsan (savoury snacks). We were able to buy some freshly made dhokla. However, we were told that khandvi always runs out in the early morning on a Sunday, soon after it has been made. The owner is Kutchi, as are many of the folk who live near Gujarati Road.
The Sri Jalaram Dham, a Hindu temple frequented by Gujaratis and financed by them, is almost opposite the sweet shop. Built quite recently (2012), it is not particularly noteworthy architecturally. It contains several brightly coloured idols and a small tulsi tree grows outside. The priest (pandit) told us he came from Rajkot, and almost all of the worshippers are Kutchis.
Just to the south of the Jalaram Dham, we reached the Sri Cochin Gujarati Vidyalaya, a Gujarati school in which most of the teaching is done in English. Founded in 1920, it has about 3000 pupils and covers education from lower kindergarten to college entry.
Within the school’s compound, there is a Hindu temple – about 140 years old. Its ceiling is decorated with larger than life bas-relief lotus flowers. We spoke with a trustee of the temple, who showed us some of the original idols and explained that in the area there are about 200 Gujarati families. Of these, 48 are Kutchi Bhatias, about 100 are other Hindu Gujaratis, and the rest are Jain. The temple is Shaivite. Our informant told us about another temple, which is Vaishnav and is frequented by the local Kutchi Bhatias. This interested us because my wife’s mother was a Kutchi Bhatia.
As can be seen all over Gujarat, there is a chabutra (dovecote) next to the temple. There is another one at the Jain temple, mentioned above
We continued south along Gujarati Road, passing the Gujarati Bhavan (which we did not enter) and several wonderful fruit and vegetable stalls.
Near the fruit and veg shops, which are located near the southern end of Gujarati Road, there is yet another temple – the Shri Navneeta Krishna Mandir. This is the Vaishnav temple used by many of the Kutchi Bhatias. The main temple was locked up, but behind it there was a lot of activity. This was centred around the mandir’s gaushala (cow shelter), where cows are provided with a pleasant home.
Worshippers were feeding the cows and calves. They were also placing cloths on the cows before handing them to the priest who was standing amongst the congregation. We were asked to touch one of these cloths before it was handed to the priest. The congregants took it in turns to touch the priest’s feet, and receive a blessing.
Near to the temple, there is a large housing compound, all of whose residents are Kutchi Bhatias. One sweet couple invited us into their ground floor flat, saying to us: “Welcome to our home. As guests, you are gods.”
We chatted with them both in English and Gujarati. They gave us lovely cups of chhaas (buttermilk, a typical Kutchi drink). They offered to cook us lunch, but we declined because we had to get somewhere else. This charming couple, Deepika and Harish, did not want us to leave. When we did eventually go, I felt that we had been in the company of genuinely warm-hearted loving people.
Before setting off for Gujarati Road, I was worried that it might offer little of interest. How wrong I was! Although I have only briefly summarised our experiences, we saw many interesting places and met many friendly people. Over the years I have been falling in love with Gujarat and Kutch. This small outpost of people from that part of India in Kerala has only increased my affection for Kutch and Gujarat.
[NB Kutch, which is now a large district in the State of Gujarat, was an independent kingdom until 1947. Even today, no self-respecting Kutchi likes to be called a Gujarati!]