CONSTITUTION HILL, JOHANNESBURG – THE HORRIFIC PAST

Have you been to Constitution Hill?” This was the question we had constantly been hearing over six years every time we came visiting? This time, despite the birth of a little grandson and all the paraphernalia that came along with him, we decided that we had to climb the ‘Hill’, as it were, if only to witness the agony and the ecstasy that made it such a landmark in South Africa.

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So, there we were, two couples, wide-eyed and bushy- tailed, all set to have the experience of our lives, just the way people had told us. At the Visitor Centre, we were given brochures as our guide, Pearl, escorted us to the first leg of the tour – The Old Fort.

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The Coat of Arms at Constitution Hill has an eagle symbolizing dominance, a lion for courage. a Boer gun, an ox wagon and the words ‘Unity is Strength’.

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HISTORY: Johannesburg, established in 1886, experienced a gold rush which brought fortune hunters from across the world to its reefs. In 1893, the Old Fort was commissioned as the Johannesburg Prison by President Paul Kruger to house mining criminals. Only white male prisoners were housed here. It metamorphosed into a military fort after the British strove to overthrow the Boer government after the Jameson Raid in 1896. The Boer prisoners built the ramparts of the fort, but lost it to the British in 1900 during the Second Anglo Boer War, and it was turned into a prison once again to house Boer prisoners.

APARTHEID: In 1948, the National Party brought in an ideology that turned into a scourge that would leave scars across history – Apartheid. The word literally meant ‘apartness’ in Afrikaans, and though it was held up as the ideals of equality and freedom of cultural expression on paper, it proved to be a Frankenstein in actuality, forcing different racial groups to suffer gross inequality, keeping them apart, oppressed and miserable. Inter-racial marriages were banned and segregation of races was the norm. People were discriminated on the basis of their skin colour. Segregation had been practised by South African governments earlier, but apartheid took it one step further by making it part of an unfair law. It was based on the fear of the white minority who felt that their black counterparts would overwhelm them, causing them to lose their status, their jobs and their culture.

The British were in power from 1899 to 1902, and they left in 1906. At one time, the prison housed only white, male prisoners. However, Nelson Mandela was incarcerated there, and put along with the white prisoners as it was feared that he would influence the black prisoners and inflame their passions. Some of the other famous prisoners were Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Luthuli who was a Nobel Peace Prize awardee, Oliver Tambo, Winnie Madikizela Mandela, Walter and Albertina Sisulu and Bram Fischer, human rights lawyer. Joe Slova was another prominent prisoner who was the general secretary of the South African Communist part. He was a top notch lawyer and it is believed that there were long lines of prison warders who approached him seeking advice on matrimonial and financial matters. His wife, Ruth was also imprisoned with him. 

It was in 1904 that the Number 4 prison was opened for white, non-white, Asian and Indian prisoners. The gamut was wide, right from common criminals to famed political prisoners who had the power to change the thinking of the world. 

In 1908, the Awaiting Trial Block came into being. Prisoners were given the task of carrying bricks to help in the construction.

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THE MANDELA COURTYARD

This was a wide space where prisoners, black, white and coloured, were allowed to mingle while waiting for medical treatment in the Medical cell. It was known as the Place of Hope for this reason, and alternatively dubbed the Place of Pain as corporal punishment was also levied here. As prisoners received lashes, there was always a doctor present who would determine just how many lashes a person could endure. Nelson Mandela was kept here for two weeks before the Rivonia Trial in 1962.

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THE WOMEN’S JAIL

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In 1910, the Women’s Jail was opened, a Victorian building where the whites were segregated from the non-whites. In all the prisons, there was a distinct hierarchy that pitted the black gang leaders and their sycophants against the hapless black prisoners who were sometimes incarcerated for petty offences and yet, treated like hardened criminals. Women could be taken in custody under the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, 1949, the Immorality Amendment Act, 1950, the Populations registration Act, 1950, the Group Areas act, 1950, the Liquor Act and the like.

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The Woman’s Jail boasts of a well-kept garden that was initially tended by the prisoners within. When sunlight falls into the attractive Atrium through its high windows, it dispels the illusion of being part of a dark prison with unbearable memories.

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The Isolation cells here have morbid stories to tell of erstwhile inmates, with plaques that describe why they were imprisoned. Every cell displays the personal effects of the said prisoners, and it is heartbreaking to see some of the trivial reasons that led to their imprisonment.

The picture below depicts the actual size of the cell the women were put in, with two buckets on either side, one for drinking water and the other for defecation.

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The white women prisoners had it better than the blacks. Their cells were well maintained and their criminal histories adorn the walls. There was even an heiress, Daisy De Melker, (below) who murdered her husband, and she was treated more royally than many of the poorer inmates whose crimes were insignificant.

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When a pregnant Winnie Mandela had health problems in the jail, it was Albertina Sisulu, wife of Walter Sisulu and a nurse, who tended to her needs. Winnie was later released and had her baby outside the prison.

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Artist Fatima Meer’s paintings are displayed in the courtyard of the Women’s Jail.

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NUMBER 4 – THE NATIVES’ SECTION

This was built outside the ramparts in order to accommodate the growing numbers of inmates, and used to house convicted black male prisoners.

In one of the cells, there are black and white photographs of a number of people who had been imprisoned within Number 4, one of which was Mohandas Gandhi. A caption within asks the question, “Do you think they should have been imprisoned here? Please give us your responses.”

Of all the photographs, there were only one or two who were actual criminals; the others were political prisoners locked away to prevent them from causing unrest within the country,

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“It is said that no one really knows a nation until one has been inside its jails.” Nelson Mandela

THE TUNNEL: The tunnel is a grim reminder of the humiliation heaped on black prisoners and even today, as one walks through it, it evokes shudders. Our guide pointed towards the door from which prisoners were marched in the darkness that was the tunnel. The only lights seeped in through the side slits, which, to their horror, had guns sticking through, pointed right at them as they stumbled in the dark towards the prison. Once there, the humiliation continued as they were held down, stripped, deloused and finally given uniforms that bore the stamp of their plight as they were taken in and incarcerated, sometimes till their death.

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The worst debasement was the performing of ‘tausa’, where prisoners were stripped and their rectums examined by the warders to see if they were carrying any contraband or weapons. One cannot even begin to imagine the trauma and the humiliation the prisoners suffered.

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Joe Slovo was one of the prominent prisoners. In his unfinished autobiography, he described the conditions in which the prisoners were made to collect their food from three drums in the yard, where even today, the unappetizing menus are on display. Apparently, there were three drums with food.

 “The first drum, marked ‘Congress One’, contained cooked chunks of beef or pork for white accused. The ‘Congress Two’ drum, for coloureds and Indian prisoners, contained either porridge or boiled vegetables on top of which floated a few pieces of fatty meat that were most probably from the discarded cut-offs from ‘Congress One’ drum. The ‘Congress Three’ drum (for black prisoners) was always meatless and the contents alternated between a plastic-textured porridge and a mixture of boiled mealies and beans.” (Jo Slovo, African National Congress member)

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A poignant tale survives to this day. It is believed that black prisoners would pretend to be coloured just so that they could eat the slightly more palatable food from the second drum. However, the warders had a way to ascertain this. They would ask the inmate to place a pencil in their locks of hair. Black inmates had typical curly hair and the pencil would stay, whereas it would roll off the locks of the coloured inmates.

To make matters worse, there were nine, eastern style toilets right there in the yard that overlooked the area where the prisoners congregated to eat their meals. These were inadequate for the large number of inmates and were often filthy, and overflowed in clear view of the other prisoners. Privacy was a word that had no meaning in the jail. Apart from the stench due to the proximity of the toilets, diseases were rampant, arising from the general filth that was everywhere.

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There were open showers that provided no privacy and often, some of the showers did not work. Hence, prisoners were forced to share the water and there were days when the gang leaders finished off all the water and the rest had to resort to use the toilet to wash their faces. Showers were allowed once a week and missing them meant remaining dirty till the next week.

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COMMUNAL CELLS

These were set in a line and could house only around thirty inmates. However, often there were sixty to seventy prisoners and hence, they were overcrowded, leading to various problems like poor ventilation as there was only a tiny window, and filth which led to diseases that often killed people off. 

Within the cells, there was a hierarchy at work with the gang leaders who ruled the roost, and slept in the most comfortable areas, often taking the younger men as sex slaves. They were tended by bodyguards who were next in rank. The slaves were the neglected lot, who slept like cattle, close together in tiny cramped spaces, and right next to the open toilets. It was unnerving to see blankets in the shape of men placed in the cells to convey how unsanitary and barbaric the conditions were in the past.

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However, there was a tiny ray of hope that kept the inmates busy, apart for the hope that they would be released if their crimes were not serious ones. To keep their minds off the horrors, they would sit together and create blanket sculptures; we were fascinated by the creativity displayed in the shape of blanket furniture.

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Isolation cells were for the prisoners convicted of the most heinous crimes, or for political dissenters. The warders would leave the lights on to disorient them, and incarcerate them for twenty-three hours inside, after which they would be allowed outside for an hour. There was one cell with a tiny peep hole through which the prisoner could see a portion of what was happening right outside. The worst punishment was when a convicted prisoner would be hauled into a cell.He would be stripped, have cold water poured over him and left overnight. Often he would die of pneumonia by the next morning. 

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Ironically, all deaths were filed under suicide or derangement, never the brutality of warders or murder. In 1983, the prison was closed down and is now a museum filled with memorabilia, both photographic and video, that remains a memorial to the starkness and brutality of man against man.

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There was also a flogging frame onto which prisoners were tied and they were beaten in full view of the other prisoners. Doctors were always present to gauge just how far a man could be lashed without losing consciousness.

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The picture below shows a plaque with the names of all the prisoners in alphabetical order.

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GANDHI AND MANDELA

Mahatma Gandhi was one of the political prisoners held here as he brought forth the concept of non-violent civil disobedience in South Africa as a protest against apartheid. Nelson Mandela was inspired by him, but it is believed that their paths never69247988_379677362955803_3226559413359738880_n crossed. However, there is a museum dedicated to them, established on 24th July 2016, commemorating their lives and their struggles, right from their salad years to their seasoned ones.

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It is amazing to see how similar these two icons were in their natures and outlook as they mention the effect that South Africa had on both of them.

GANDHI PERMANENT EXHIBITION

The Gandhi section is titled ‘Gandhi: Prisoner of Conscience’ and covers his sojourn at South Africa from 1902 to 1914. He was imprisoned for refusing to carry a pass. The exhibition displays rare photographs, his personal effects, his ideas on prison life and Satyagraha, and even a missive to his wife, Kasturba.

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THE MANDELA CELL

The Mandela section is a treasure trove consisting of an exhibition of Madiba’s letters, his calligraphy, photographs, personal diaries, a draft of his book ‘Long Walk to Freedom’ and his words when he returned to the Old Fort in November 2003.

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There is no doubt that Constitution Hill holds within its depths gruesome memories of incarcerated men and women, who lived out their lives in indignity and privation, in surroundings that reeked of injustice and neglect. If those walls could talk, many would be the tales told and tears shed for the harrowing loss of dignity that humans could perpetrate on other humans, only because the colour of their skin was different.

Today, Constitution Hill plays a diametrically opposite role, as it houses South Africa’s highest Constitutional Court, created out of the very bricks that housed the horrors of the past, maybe as a living testament to prevent mankind from sliding back into those dark, barbaric ages, and to serve the purposes of the present in order to shape out a future resonating with rebirth, resurgence and equality for all. But that, of course, is another installment, and another story to be told!

Heritage Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa

Address: 11, Kotze Street, Johannesburg 2017, South Africa

Telephone: +27 11 381 3100

Crabtree and Evelyn – A Tea Room with a Heart!

 

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It was like a breakfast dream come true – or was it brunch, as my friend, Shobha, and I sauntered into Crabtree and Evelyn, a cosy little tearoom that looked as if it had been transported from England, replete with blue china and a menu that belonged there. The specials were on a blackboard that was cleverly decorated with chalk illustrations.

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It took us time to look around and take in the colourful decor all around us. The most eye-catching corner was a wall covered with framed pictures of flowers of every kind in the most attractive frames. Flowers formed a motif across the room, offset by sparkling chandeliers, coffee table books and quaint artifacts.

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By now, we were feeling rather peckish, and the centre table made our mouths water, as it boasted of an array of ornate cake dishes that housed what appeared to be mouthwatering slices of cake. By then, Suchitra, our friend had turned up and we turned our attention to the menu.

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As we sipped on orange juice and apple juice, actually a combination of both, scrambled eggs, omelettes and goat cheese salad arrived at their own pace, followed by crumpets and a delicious scone with whipped cream and preserve. 67649274_1292915927567933_4036960922537820160_n

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It was while we were soaking in the ambiance that Suchitra told us that this sweet little tea room was closing down soon. It had been a lovely outing and the realisation that this would be our last visit made our hearts sink.

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By the time we left, I had clicked a number of photographs just so that I could keep memories of  the wonderful time we had. As we walked out, Alexandra Stoddard’s apt quote came to my mind. “When you leave a beautiful place, you carry it with you wherever you go.”

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  House Beautiful

Photographs: Deepti Menon

 

The Black Horse Brewery and Restaurant

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“Black Horse Brewery… I’ve heard good things about it!” One comment from our daughter, Priyanka, and we were ready to go. The lineage was hard to miss… the story began way back in 2012 when the Brewery and Brew Pub threw its doors open to enthusiastic customers milling to taste their ‘Black Horse’ beer, aptly named after the majestic black Friesian horses whose descendants still lounge elegantly on the green lawns. The estate nestles in the heart of Zeekoeihoek valley north of Magaliesburg, 45 minutes outside Johannesburg.

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After a drive that took a while, we finally got to the estate where the lady at the entrance gave us a frankly shocked look when she realised that we had no reservations. “Could we have a table outside?” brought forth an expression of exasperation which continued with the whole “No reservations?” look. Luckily, there was a table available inside the quaint old building that went beautifully with the air of rustic charm that made up the whole estate.

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So we trundled along – two pairs of grandparents, one young couple, one toddler, and one tiny baby with his paraphernalia, making our way warily over rugged steps, weaving around tables, little shrubs, white umbrellas and varied motley cats that looked at us with disdain. The restrooms were aptly dubbed ‘Stallion’ and ‘Mare’ and were well equipped, though a trifle small, when it came to changing diapers, as we strove not to get in the way of other customers. As we got back to our table, a white dog sidled past us, much at home in an environment milling with animals, as we soon discovered.

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The restaurant loomed before us, an expanse of yellow stone and glass panes. There were steps everywhere, as we trudged up to our table, each step unique in width and size, almost as if the mason had broken the mould after every step. As our little toddler, Zoya, put it once we had reached the top, “My heart is breaking!”

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Once at our table, we gasped in wonder at the picturesque view that lay sprawled beneath our wide glass window. For miles around there were patches of green grass, trees that rustled in the breeze and rugged walking expanses, with black horses grazing in the distance. Children jumped on a trampoline as the sunlight dappled areas, creating a mosaic of brightness interspersed with shade.

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The small menu was delectable and it took us a while to order the focaccia bread, pulled pork sandwiches, gourmet burgers and the mother of all burgers – the Goliath burger – which Priyanka attacked valiantly.

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As the glasses of craft beer were relished, our young waitress informed us, in all seriousness, that every order would take forty-five minutes and that it would be prudent to order as soon as we could make up our collective minds. However, we were pleasantly surprised when our dishes came within half an hour. The dessert, the caramel panna cotta, melted in our mouth, and would, in due course, move down surreptitiously, “a moment on our lips, a lifetime on our hips”.

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Once we were done, we trundled down the stairs, marvelling at the rustic decor and the huge heater that made the interior toasty warm, things we had failed to notice on our way up, when traversing the steep stairs was topmost on our minds. The bar was a masterpiece of warm wood and cold stone, balmy and inviting, with people sitting around savouring the varieties of beverages offered.

It was time to work off the carbohydrates, and walk around the impressive estate that lay sprawled before us. More steps followed, leading to a niche with rust-coloured sofas with bright cushions for those people who enjoyed sitting outside, (more likely people with reservations!) We strolled across quaint arches covered with creepers, crossed a pretty little pool with foliage around it, and made our way to the very bottom where the horses stood, snorting at visitors and pawing the ground. The aroma of moist hay and horse manure assailed our nostrils as we walked along the path that was cordoned off by electric fences.

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Further on, there were enclosures with cows, calves and a militant-looking, rather small-made bull as well. Chickens wandered across, as one rooster, who seemed to have no sense of time, crowed stridently. Zoya was fascinated, and all the more so as she was learning about farm animals in school.

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We trudged back to the main area, making our way towards the large round stone tables coupled with iron chairs that required all our strength to move. “Coffee, please!” and a smiling waiter materialised! All those steps had made us thirsty all over again. Right behind us was the logo of the Black Horse Estate – the silhouette of a black horse’s head carved in stone.

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Of course, how could we ignore the ubiquitous craft shop that waved its tantalising wares, beckoning us to take a look? It was like a veritable Aladdin’s Cave, with Indian scarves, African curios, wind chimes, Black Horse T Shirts, exotic clothes, picture frames, bird cages, a wonderful Mandela poster and clocks. Not that we bought anything, but window shopping is always such a treat.

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As we sipped our coffee, and savoured the sun on our backs, we could hear the clip-clop of the horses as they passed us by, going back to their shelters or wherever it was they dwelt. The sound was reminiscent of old Western movies, and in the welcome sunlight, it seemed like a scenario out of an old Western movie.

There were ‘No Smoking’ sign boards everywhere, which brought smiles to our faces.

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There were also boards that mentioned the various options for accommodation – Firefly Suite, Black Horse View, Garden Cottage and Ivy Cottage. Another attractive option was the Interactive Brewery and Distillery tour for those interested in the actual brewing process.

It was early evening by the time we wound our weary way home after a day of family bonding, good food and a taste of the outdoors. As we drove back to Johannesburg, our hearts content, we knew we would go back again to The Black Horse Brewery.

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For those interested in taking a glance at the menu at The Back Horse Brewery and Restaurant: https://blackhorse.co.za/menu/

Website: http://www.blackhorse.co.za

Telephone: 082 453 5295

Photo credits: Col. Gopi Menon, Deepti Menon, Priyanka Menon Rao

The Waves, the Sand and the Enchantment – Cherai Beach Resorts

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As we drove into the Cherai Beach Resorts, the waves crashing in the background, a feeling of serenity accompanied us into the lobby. The decor was, perhaps, a trifle underdone, but the property itself was housed in the midst of lush greenery dotted with pools, winding paths, disused boats, awe-inspiring trees with roots hanging all the way down and a profusion of ancient doors studded with wood and glints of brass.

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We (my husband, my daughter and granddaughter) had two and a half days of relaxation to look forward to and were excited about our room which was supposed to have a pool within. However, on the first day, a mix up with our reservations ensured that we made our way to another room, which faced the resort pool, instead of a pool inside.

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The beach beckoned us welcomingly, as we scrambled across the road, stumbled down a pile of rocks, straight on to one of the cleanest beaches we had ever come across. Vast expanses of sand, the blue grey waters at sunset and the sight of our little granddaughter playing in the sand with her little pots and pans made our hearts swell with joy.

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The meals at Oottupura, the restaurant at the resort, were all buffet-style, and the food did not offer much variety, especially the desserts which were ice cream and fruit salad every single day. However, being on holiday and dipping into the baby pool (the main pool being too deep for me and my daughter!) and the beach, in turn, made us develop a healthy appetite, and we did full justice to the meals, which consisted of at least three non vegetarian dishes every meal.

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The first night, the geyser in our bathroom turned temperamental, and the moment we lodged a complaint, Mr. Raymond, the manager, offered us our original room – the one with a pool within. Off we went, all excited only to find that our new room was right next to the water, and offered us a spectacular view. The pool inside the bathroom was, indeed a novelty, but the weather being nippy, we did not take a chance to jump in. There was a tiny sit-out upstairs, where again, the view was amazing, but the rickety staircase made us a trifle wary of venturing there.

However, despite all the niggling hitches, we did have a lovely time, walking around the property, as the little one spoke animatedly to the equally animated crows that swooped down with no warning and the well-fed doves that drank water from the pool.

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My husband threw his fancy fishing rod into the water in front of our room, but found that he had misplaced a vital part of it somewhere. The intrepid Army officer in him resorted to a ‘jugaad’, as he attached a water bottle to the reel, stuck on chicken pieces as bait and threw it over. However, the fish proved to be even smarter as they whisked away the bait without even a ripple.

 

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For a change, I woke up early enough to view the sunrise, enthralled with the crimson hues that heralded the appearance of the golden globe that drove away the nip in the air. The sunsets were as mesmeric, except when the clouds decided to come in the way.

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At night, the sound of the crickets lulled us into a somnolent mood as the lights from the resorts around shone bright, like a necklace on two levels, the lower half being the dazzling reflection on the dark waters. I spent much of my time, sitting on the hammock outside our room, savouring the fresh, balmy air and the mesmerizing landscape.

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Cherai Beach Resort has been put together by a group of post graduate doctors who own a number of villas. Thus, a line of Doctors’ Villas share space with Club Villas, Illam Villas, Garden Villas and Pool Side Villas, among a few.

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One main draw here is the Ayurmana Spa, a Government approved Ayurvedic Centre, which welcomes you in with a traditional ‘villakku’, a lamp lit at its entrance.

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Alongside the the multi-cuisine restaurant named ‘Oottupura’ is ‘Tharavadu’, a Beer and Wine lounge, for those so inclined. (Pun intended!)

The sheer exuberance of colours painted by Mother Nature, as the sky and the waters took on myriad hues, each more breathtaking than the other, was another feature that kept us fascinated.

One of the purple patches of our stay was the sight of the fishermen in four boats who gave us a spectacular viewing of the way in which they caught their fish. It was like a ballet being staged for our benefit, as they came in from four directions, gave an oral signal and cast their nets at exactly the same moment, four fairy nets shimmering in the air for a split-second.

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By the end of the trip, we were quite euphoric, as the ambiance of Cherai had entered our souls, and we left with full hearts, satiated and relaxed, despite the fact that my husband had not caught a single fish. John Muir’s words echoed in our hearts as we drove away. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

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Cherai Beach Resorts is located at the Gateway of Muziris, around 25 kms from the Nedumassery International Airport.

It is 14 km away from the renowned Bhagavathy Temple in Kodangallur.

Picture credits: Gopi Menon, Priyanka Menon-Rao, Deepti Menon

THE ENAMAVU – CHETTUVA EXPERIENCE

Picturesque little villages have a history of their own that can quite astound you. As you drive along the length of Kerala, every turn brings with it a scene that is picture perfect. Whether it is a little stream with the typical red-tiled building, or a bridge across turbulent waters, a rustic thatch house flanked by coconut trees or an old, abandoned boat by the road, every sight is music to the eyes, if one can call it so.

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Enamavu is one such hamlet which was once controlled by the Portuguese and the British.  The exquisite church of The Lady of Mount Carmel reveals a strong Portuguese influence. Legend has it that, in those days, the locals worshipped the Lady of Mount Carmel, calling her ‘En Amavu’ or My Mother, and this is how Enamavu derived its name.

The Enamavu Lake takes one’s breath away as one drives along its periphery and derives its water from the water of the Peechi Dam. Mother Nature preens in all her magnificence as the hues of the blue lake and the greyish-blue backwaters form a striking contrast to the velvety hills and the lush green paddy fields. The Enamavu Dam or Bund was created by Sakthan Thampuran with a vision in mind, which was to prevent the salt sea water from mixing with the fresh lake water. The Enamavu Lake was also natural boundary separating the regions of Malabar and Cochin.

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Kerala has always been known for its secular nature. Here again, temples, churches and mosques exist together in perfect religious harmony, as the inhabitants of the port village believe in the oneness of humanity. As one drives along, one is amazed by the frequent sight of golden domes, imposing chapels and temple art along the way. One can catch a glimpse of the Communist symbol, the sickle, as well. The lake is dotted with fishermen in boats, waiting patiently for a catch, even as they bask in the beauty all around them. Myriad tourists travel along these picturesque paths, putting their cameras to good use, as artists and filmmakers find inspiration for their ventures here.

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After a drive along a road that seemed scarily tiny, we stopped at the Good Shepherd’s Church at Mullassery. Oh, what a beautiful sight it was, as it loomed above us, an impressive grey and white structure with little domes in varied hues.

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Outside, the statue of the Good Shepherd stood in solitary splendour as though watching over the beautiful edifice. A cleverly wrought basket and a white statue of The Good Shepherd completed the scene.

 

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As we stepped into its interiors, a feeling of utter serenity washed over us. It was as though we had been transported to another world, as we gazed entranced at the stained glass windows, the brilliance of the golden altar, exquisite niches with the statues of various saints and depictions of the life of Christ leading to the crucifixion. The ceilings reminded us of the Sistine Chapel, covered with the depictions of a blue sky with clouds, cherubs and angels.

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By now, hunger pangs had set in and we looked forward to a delicious Kerala meal. We did hunt for an elusive Karimeen Resort, but after encountering many puzzled looks and vague answers, finally settled for Thekkini Food Court run by DTPC, Thrissur in Chettuva. The first sight of the riverside family restaurant was a trifle dampening because the so-called riverside view had been shut away by opaque glass windows.

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The whole place had a rather neglected look about it. There was a children’s park that was obviously not being used much.

However, once we had got over the rustic decor, the jarring blue chairs and opened the windows out, we found that the food served was well worth the effort. The chicken biryani, the fried rice and the mutton fry were delicious, and the karimeen (fish) fry was one of the best we had ever had. So, by the time we left, the decor had faded away and all that was left was a pleasant lassitude that warmed the cockles of our hearts.

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It was time to wind our weary way home, though none of us were really weary. The return journey was as picturesque and as green fields and grey-blue waters whizzed by, with silhouettes of house boats, coconut palms, narrow bridges and interesting houses making interesting conversation pieces. As droplets of rain slid down the windscreen, I suddenly recalled the Longfellow quote.

“For after all, the best thing that one can do when it is raining is to let it rain.”

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Enamavu: Distance from Thrissur: 20 km

                    Distance from Guruvayur: 12 km

Mullassery: Distance from Thrissur: 23 km

                      Distance from Guruvayur: 9 km

Chettuva: Distance from Thrissur: 26 km

                   Distance from Guruvayur: 11km 504 metres

Photos: Deepti Menon

The Magic of Muziris

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It all began when my husband unearthed an article that spoke of the old port city that had the romantic name of Muziris, an ancient centre that brought in much revenue through its exotic spices.

The other story that held us in thrall was based on the Ramayana, where Muzaris or Murachipattanam was supposedly one of the spots where the Vanara king, Sugreeva, sent his sleuths to look for Sita, the abducted wife of Lord Rama.

As we read on, we could almost visualize the arrival of the Babylonians, the Assyrians and the Egyptians who landed in Muzaris as long back as in 3000 BC in their stately vessels, cutting a swathe across the seas in search of ‘black gold’ or black pepper, and semi-precious stones in exchange for gold coins. Muziris remained an attraction to myriads of other traders – the Chinese, the Phoenicians, the Arabs, the Greeks and the Romans as well.

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Thus, Muziris which is in Kodangallur, Kerala, made its presence felt in the world trade map and held sway for decades and decades.

However, in 1341, the mighty Periyar river changed its course, and the ensuing floods and earthquakes sounded the death knell of this once-flourishing city.

Forts have always written their own history, and the Cranganore Fort, located in Kottappuram is no exception. The word ‘Kottappuram’ itself means ‘a place around a fort’. In 1523, the Cranganore Fort also known as the Kodangallur Fort was built by the Portuguese. In 1661, the Dutch occupied it. Sadly, it was later razed by Tipu Sultan, as the legend goes.

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Today, the prestigious Muzaris Heritage Project by the Tourism Department of Kerala has created a protective umbrella over the remains of this ancient fort, conserving and preserving it for future generations. Excavations were done from 2007 to 2013, and painstakingly, the vestiges of the fort were brought to light.

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The Central and the State Governments have lovingly nurtured this project, to recreate the ambiance of the earlier shrines, markets, churches and cemeteries, just as they appeared in the hoary past.

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Isn’t it fascinating to think of how the ancient story was pieced together with the help of the excavated objects that were discovered in the vicinity? The foundation of the fort was laid in 1503 and it was created in all its magnificence in 1523. History was narrated with the help of the excavated artifacts, chinaware, and iron objects that found their place in a museum set up nearby.

We stopped to buy tickets to the fort. Right before us were fishermen busy plucking fish out of their nets.

As we walked towards the ruins of the fort, we were hailed by a lady in pink from the State Archaeology Department. Her name was Lalji and she was a walking encyclopaedia of information about the ancient town of Muziris. She pointed out interesting details like a well that had been part of the fort, the ‘kodimaram’ (flag pole) and an inscription in 1909 describing how the Portuguese had set up the fort. She spoke animatedly about the various archaeological finds, the dimensions of the old fort and the impressive work being done by the Muzaris Heritage Project.

 

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The front face of the fort was towards the confluence of the Periyar and the Chalakudy rivers. Earlier the fort was spread out over ten acres; today its remnants cover only two and a half acres.

In 2010, the skeleton of a young man, below the age of 20 years, was discovered. At the time the head was visible, but he had no left arm. Today, the preserved remains reveal the torso and one distinct tooth where the face must have lain before it crumbled. It is believed that in 1540, when the fort was under the Portuguese, many more bodies had been discovered, leading to the conclusion that there must have been a church with a cemetery in the vicinity. One can only hope that the spirits lie in peace within their sepulchres.

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Walking along the waterfront was a pleasure, with the silhouettes of the Chinese fishing nets, the gentle waves undulating alongside, the motor boats that broke the silence, and the colourful eateries that dotted the borders. The picture postcard perfection of the landscape quite took our breath away.

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My husband and I had worked up a healthy appetite and decided to walk into the most picturesque little riverside cafe, aptly named Portuguese. In no time at all, the food arrived, as we watched the waters swirl around us, the movement almost lulling us to sleep. However, the piping hot Kerala parathas, the chicken curry, the mutton roast and the plate of fish fry awoke us from our somnolence. The food was served in small portions, but large enough for us to ask for a doggy pack. Replete, we asked for one cup of payasam which came in a tiny cup, but was enough for the two of us.

After lunch, we walked along the riverside, savouring the balmy weather, and our hearts rejoiced to see ‘God’s Own Country’ in all its pristine wonder. The cobbled pavements were clean of litter as the buildings blended seamlessly into the ambiance of the place.

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What added to the charm was the beautiful blend of religions, with the Marthoma Church, the Kodangallur Mahakali temple, the Jewish synagogue and the Cheraman Juma Masjid, all in close proximity, denoting the harmony of all faiths.

This harmony continued like a motif as we walked on, admiring the red-tiled restaurants and the colourful graffiti on the side walls that revealed how consciously the architects had retained the old-world charm of Muzaris.

 

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As we drove back to Thrissur, it was with full hearts and a feeling of immense satisfaction. We needed to return one day. There were many more worlds to be explored, many more sights to be seen. And thereby hangs another tale!

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“Give some tree the gift of green again.

Let one bird sing.”

From ‘When Autumn Came’ by Faiz Ahmad Faiz

Translated by Naomi Lazard

Photographs: Deepti Menon

How to get to Muzaris:

Guruvayur: 50km                                Aluva: 28km

Thrissur: 39km                                    Chalakudy: 26km

Kochi: 29km                                         Irinjalakuda: 17km

Angamali: 28km

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