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Calicut, the city of truth, hospitality and symbiosis: A conversation with MGS Narayanan

By Archa N.G.

MGS Narayanan is one of the eminent historians of Kerala, who specializes in Ancient Kerala history and history of Calicut. He had held academic positions at the University of Calicut and MG University, Kottayam.  He was a Commonwealth Academic Staff Fellow, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (1974 –75); Visiting Fellow, Universities of Moscow and Leningrad (1991); Visiting Research Professor, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, Tokyo (1994–95). MGS served as the First Member Secretary of the Indian Council of Historical Research under Irfan Habib from 1990-92 and later as its Chairman from July 2001 to December 2003. His major publications include Cultural Symbiosis in Kerala (1972), Calicut: The City of Truth Revisited (2006), Perumals of Kerala: Brahmin Oligarchy and Ritual Monarchy (2013).

In this interview, MGS Narayanan speaks to Archa N.G. 

Archa N.G.: You have written about Cultural Symbiosis in the context of Pre-modern Malabar. How can you place that concept in the case of Calicut city? How do you find the concept of Cosmopolitanism in the context of pre-modern Calicut city?

MGS Narayanan: It should start from the Story of Cherman Perumal. He was made an outcaste by Brahmins. There was a war against Cholas at that time, where Manavikraman and Perumal stood together. The Cheraman Mosque (518 AH/1124 AD) has an influence of Chola architectural style. This shows the connection of Manavikraman and Perumal.  This contributed a lot in drawing attention of Muslims to the Malabar Coast. In Keralolpathi, Calicut is seen as the “city of truth”. The Arab Muslims’ relation with Zamorin lasted for several centuries and that was the base of the starting of this cultural symbiosis of the city. There were several occasions when clashes aroused between Zamorin and Muslims. One was the time of issue of Kunjali Marakkar. This was a continuation of Portuguese interference in polity and trade of Calicut. Nair community protected the land where the Muslims protected the sea and the Port in Calicut. And even Nairs were also against handing over Kunjali Marakkar to the Portuguese.  The power was divided with in different communities, and not reserved for a particular community. This was also an important aspect of Cosmopolitanism.  But even after this issue of Kunjali Marakkar, no Muslims turned against Zamorin. In the time of Tipu, the wealthy Muslim class – Koyas – refused to make alliance with Tipu. They all stood by Zamorin. Tipu had to bring people from Cannanore. The reason behind this was the cosmopolitan nature of the city. The city was developed by Arabic people. They married local women and they were adapted to the concepts of matrilineal inheritance. This was a custom they received from Hinduism. All this was a part of religious intermixing which gave the city a cosmopolitan character. Apart from Arabs, many other communities were present in the city like Chettis, Gujaratis and Chinese. When the Calicut kingdom rose to dominance, the Chinese sent envoys to the city. Calicut was the most cosmopolitan city in the world at that time.

ANG: But was this as smooth and clear as we say? For example, what was the role of Caste and gender in the building of this so-called Cosmopolitan City?   How do you see this in the context of settlement pattern etc.?  

MGSN: To understand this we should understand the basis of the city. According to my understanding, hospitality towards new people, religions and religious institutions was part of the custom of the town. Money was provided by the ruler to build new religious institutions. This is   evident from different inscriptions in and around the city like that of Muchundippalli. But there is also an economic interpretation of the whole idea of hospitality. These institutions were a source of revenue also. I think charity begins at the market place. Even if Calicut was a center of different communities, no religious or cultural conflicts occurred. For example, there were no conflicts between Brahmins and Buddhists. There were Jain temples near Brahmin settlements.    The protection and maintenance of all religious institutions were taken care of. Caste was an existing factor. Caste reflects in Ezhuthachan’s work. He was an exception in that time.

In the case of law, a traveller notes that, in Calicut it was laid down through rules that no one should criticize other religion or people in other religion.  Zamorin had control over all the disputes. Battuta mentions that his was the route to go to China from Delhi. Battuta was left alone in the city because of certain trouble occurred, but he notices that it was a safe place and Zamorin came to check over the city and secured Battuta. From those words and other writings about Calicut, we know that Zamorin always tried to retain the name of Calicut as the “city of truth”. The legal system was not applicable to the merchants. They had their own chieftains to take care of law and order within their community. The entry of Europeans tilted the balance and symbiosis of the city.

AGN: As a resident of Calicut city, how you have experienced the city so far? What all changes in the city you have experienced yourself?

MGSN: I was not born in Calicut. But I am staying Calicut for last 50 years and witnessed several changes in the city, culture and living style. When I came, there was no transportation in the city except rickshaw and Jadka at that time. The mud roads were meant for walking and horse carts were also available.

I came here as a student. Then, the only college here was Zamorin’s Guruvayurappans College. There were two high schools. Basil Evangelical mission school was among the oldest. But the missionary school was out of reach for most of the people. The struggle for a native high school was not an easy task. Govt. Ganpath High school in Chalappuram was a result of long struggle of several people like Thayattu Shankaran. The initiative for a girls’ school was a novel one and very different experience for the city as a space also. This was done by Appu Nedungadi who was the author of the novel, Kundalatha. Only girls from Nair community could get into the school in the initial stage. Brahmins did not send girls to the schools (even boys  for that matter) to the school. Later Thiyya community also started sending their girls to this school.  They were rich and well-off and somewhere in the middle in the social ranking. I passed secondary school in 1949. Farook College was starting at that time, was under-developed and that explains the nature of Muslim education which was late in time.

I stayed in Puthiyakara near Zamorin’s high school. It was a village at that point of time. We stayed on rent basis with a Thiyya family, but the whole idea of renting was a novel one in village areas at that time. I think education drew attention of many people outside Calicut, and it was one part of a modern cosmopolitanism in certain sense. English education in each community created some changes, but there was no renaissance in that sense. 

AGN: How do you see the present Calicut city? The right-wing assertion of power and violence against minorities and Dalits are increasing day by day. According to your understanding, how has it affected the above said cosmopolitanism of Calicut city? 

MGSN: This whole idea of fear of right-wing is imagination. Even the communist party of Kerala was not based on the idea of class or class war. The freedom struggle was also not based on secularism. The development always happened on community line. We cannot say that after Modi came to power communalism is reviving; it was always there. The idea of “Hindu Communalism” is not true. It is divided into castes. Modi himself is a lower caste and he supports many adivasis. The settlement was always divided according to the Caste and Community. It was always symbiosis that happened, not synthesis. And we all are basically communal in our own ways and approaches.

Archa N.G. 
is currently a participant of Cosmopolis Foundation Year, organized by the Institute for History, University of Leiden. She completed her Undergraduate and Post-Graduate Programs in History from the University of Delhi, India and pursuing her M. Phil. program at the Center for Historical Studies, School of Social Science, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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