Mattancherry has been a microcosm of authentic cosmopolitanism, many ethnicities and faiths coexisting together, with its beautiful contrasts and combinations. I grew up there, in one of its small boroughs called Kochangadi. This Muslim dominated waterfront settlement had – and still has – a few Jewish, Ezhava and Christian families. Apart from a synagogue and a few churches, there are several small and big mosques that belong to different ethnic groups or factions of Muslims such as Kutch, Bohras, Ravuthars, Nainas, Patans and more. The most prominent of those masjids, Chembittapalli – literally means the mosque roofed with copper sheet – was closely associated with the Nainas who originally hailed from Kayalpatnam, an ancient port town in southern Tamil Nadu. It was where my grandparents had been buried and every Friday, my family would visit the Chembittapalli for Ziyarat. As a young boy, I preferred praying in the attic which had intricate wooden carvings. Adjacent to this mosque is a pond called Andankulam – meaning a pond owned by a king or ruler, in Tamil. During my childhood, every year someone would drown in this deep and large public pond. Scared, several families, including mine restricted their children from entering its vicinity. Alas, I never learned swimming.
Mystics and mysticism are a visible presence in Mattancherry’s popular culture. Incredible mythical stories of miracles and superhuman prowess surround several dargahs and shrines of mystic men and women, of different religions. The magical tales often crossed the borders of faith as believers from all faiths would visit, pray and give offerings to a Jewish or Islamic or Christian saint, with no inhibitions or restrictions. The grave of Makhdoom I at Mahalarapalli was the most famous of them all. There was another popular Jewish mystic shrine dedicated to Nehemiah Ben Abraham Mutha. I still remember the peculiar offerings to these different sacred sites. At a shrine in Pandara Parambu, dedicated to an unknown Beebi, the offering was thread and needle. To KappiriMuthappan, it was cigar and arrack.