This post originally appeared at Murder Is Everywhere (murderiseverywhere.com) on May 4, 2014.
If I say India and visitor, almost everyone who hears me will think Taj Mahal, Varanasi and the Ganges, or Calcutta and Mother Theresa. But North India is not India, at least not all of it. There is also South India, a different culture, different group of languages, and different traditions. The state of Kerala is located on the west coast, almost at the bottom tip of South India. First and foremost, Kerala used to be a matrilineal culture, and still is in some ways. That was enough to get me interested.
In 1976, while everyone in the States was celebrating our bicentennial, I was immersed in an ancient culture. I was a graduate student studying Sanskrit and picking up Malayalam, the local language, for fun. In a city of almost one million people, with a few Brits and other Europeans, my husband and I were the only Americans living there. We had no telephone, no television, no car. We waited for the mail to find out how the Red Sox were doing, and we were the last to know that Carter had beaten Ford.
I arrived at Trivandrum airport in the early afternoon in late January. The airport building was two rooms, arrivals and departures, with a cluster of small offices between. You could walk in from the tarmac and look through to the unpaved parking lot outside, where taxi drivers slept in the back of their cars and goats claimed the one lane road beyond, unless a bus came along. I felt like I’d stepped into a Graham Greene novel. The city now has a very modern airport that rivals anything in the US for size and landings.
In a couple of weeks I’d rented a house, hired a maidservant, and settled in to learn as much as I could in a year. Our maidservant, Lakshmee, loved having a foreigner for an employer, and from her I learned enough Malayalam to ask questions and hold rudimentary conversations with non-English speakers. I visited temples, chatted with the women who sold fish and fruit, and took the bus to get to know the city.
Friends invited us to their homes, often to participate in various rituals and festivals. Lakshmee had a separate shrine, about the size of a tool shed, where she sometimes performed pujas, or worship rituals, for friends and neighbors. As a follower of Shiva, the shrine included a trident and other articles associated with him.One of my favorite festivals was the Sarasvati Puja, held in September-October, when devotees offered their books and study materials to the goddess as a way of invoking her blessing and support before beginning an important project.
Trivandrum is located on the west coast, on an endless strip of white sandy beaches mostly unsafe for swimming. The beaches today are packed with tourists, hotels rise up on the edge of the sand, and nights are spent wandering from one restaurant to another. But in the 1970s the beaches still belonged to the fishermen, and the few tourists who wandered through couldn’t have afforded a hotel room anyway.
The story of the fishermen is the same the world round—the work is hard and the catch is diminishing. The Catholic fishermen fish at night, in large groups, with lights. So many boats line the horizon that it looks like another city across a bay. They bring up the fish and load them onto their small boats, and return as a group in early morning. Other men broker the sales. The women take a share and head into the city to sell.
The Muslim fishermen fish during the day, in larger boats with larger crews, and pull their nets onto the beach. In the 1970s one net brought in dozens of fish, but in recent years, the catch has been so small I wonder why they even bother to go out. Today, the fishermen share the beaches with the tourist population, and their numbers dwindle.
The city of Trivandrum has growing pains. Trivandrum, or Thiruvanantapuram in its traditional form, was once the capital of a princely kingdom. Travancore was never ruled by the British, and had a very advanced ruler in the form of the maharajah who took the throne in 1924 as a boy. The open-front shops that lined the hills from Chalai Bazaar up to the Secretariat are still there but just as likely to be stuck between two air-conditioned and glass-fronted high-rises selling men’s clothing or electronic goods.
But for all its modernization, life still revolves around festivals and celebrations. The Pongala festival is considered the largest gathering of women in the world. Each year well over three million women come to Trivandrum for the ninth day of the festival, when women line the streets with clay pots cooking a kind of porridge that is blessed by the goddess of the Attukal Bhagavati Temple in Trivandrum, promising harmony and well-being in the home for the coming year. For one morning, the city is one long row of millions of women tending bubbling pots on open fires, lining all the main thoroughfares and many smaller side streets.
In contrast with the small pujas in private or temple courtyards are those at the larger temples. At the center of Trivandrum is the Shree Padmanabhaswami Temple, owned by the royal family and the center of many celebrations. The Laksha Deepika Festival is held every six years, when the temple is illuminated inside and out by a thousand lights and special pujas are held.
Despite all the changes in the city, from a backwater state capital in a largely rural area to a city rivaling Bangalore with its high-tech services, Trivandrum along with its environs retains its heart-stopping beauty.