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mercredi 29 avril 2015


For curious reasons, Fort Cochin, the  little peninsula jetting into the Backwaters, facing the Arabian sea in southwestern state of Kerala is the only city I know and visit in India.
During the last visit  just a month ago, the religiosity of the people were apparent to me, in my dealings with people of various faiths. Whether they belong to the three major religions here: Hinduism, Christianity or Islam , or minor one like the Jains or the handful of Jews in Jewtown, they were all deeply religious.
It gives the inhabitants of Cochin a respect for the sacred space. I cannot imagine burning of churches as happens in Pakistan or forbidding of new churches as in Malaysia or desecration of Jewish cemeteries as in France happening here in Cochin.
This harmony of relationships has a history which stretches back a millennia or two. Hinduism is the native religion, even though a pre-Hindu aboriginal religion may have existed. ( there are dolmens and other archeological sites thought to be from that period not too far from Cochin). Some of the oldest mosques and churches extant are to found in this region. St Thomas seemed to have travelled through here, the Portuguese priests who arrived with Vasco da Gama may have been surprised to see active churches along Malabar Coast. There may have been trade between Arabian shores and Cochin coast long before Islam, this trade possibly accelerated the spread of Islam along this coast. Notably, India may be the only country where Jews were not stained with the poisons of anti-Semitism.
I am writing this in Brussels in Belgium. As I look out of my window I see a row of hijab clad school girls, teenagers. It seems like an anomaly, a misfit into this environment, and certainly an added construction of recent years.  In Cochin, it looked quite natural, as it has been for centuries. Hindu children with pastes on their forehead, Christian children with crosses dangling from their necks and in school uniforms from their convent schools and Muslim children in their hijabs or caps and loose fitting tunics, all walk together towards their schools in the morning. It is a very common sight. It looks natural because it has been like this for centuries.
This harmony among religions has been mentioned ever since written records have been kept by Arab, Jewish, Christian European travellers to this part of the world. Before the arrival of the Portuguese there was a thriving Buddhist community of Chinese were present along the  Kalvathy River, who traded peacefully. The natives of this part of Cochin are indistinguishable from one another in their physiognomy, bearing countenances of their Arab, Jewish, Portuguese and Dutch ancestors rather than the Dravidian faces one encounters inland.

The people here are deeply religious. I was surprised to see the church service full of congregants at 7 am on a weekday, something you will not witness in the West. The Muslims are observant and Fort Cochin is dotted with mosques, the older ones are discreet. The newer ones built with money from Saudi Arabia have minarets or cupolas which seem unworldly amidst the palm trees and papaya and banana plants.
I work with Native people of the American continent and for them the religious observances are about spirituality. There are no churches, no religious leaders nor any texts. In Cochin, it is about piety, observance and ritual.
When we talk about Spirituality in the West it has different context and this has to be made clear in conversations with the inhabitants of Cochin.  Piety among Cochinis of all faiths and Spirituality among the American Native Indians both has a common mythic world. The Cochinis particularize and connect with this mythical world through their religious observances and the American Indians connect it through spirituality. For the American Indians, connection with the universe is more important than connection to any deity.  In the company of the Christian lady in Cochin, who apologized for not being at church during the weekend, despite the fact that she attends church twice a day, I could feel the same sense of an universal sentiment that I feel with my American Indian friends who talk to me of their observances of natural phenomenon such as thunder, trees and flowers.

This photo of Kochi (Cochin) is courtesy of TripAdvisor
Cochin Jews experienced no anti-Semitism because they lived in Cochin, not because they lived amidst Christians and Muslims. Such sentiments were rare in the centuries old amity between the faiths, except for a short period under the Portuguese when they burned down the synagogue in 1662 and persecuted the  Jews.

This photo of Kochi (Cochin) is courtesy of TripAdvisor
I wish to bring to your attention two good examples of this interdenominational amity. One is the shrine of Kappiri Muthappan and the other is the tomb of Nehami Mutta.
In both these sites, now considered sacred by all, people of all faiths come to pray, light candls, offer flowers and in case of Kappiri muthappan, offer toddy (arrack) or cigarettes.
Kappiri, a corrupt version of Portuguese, caffre, meaning a black African male, has entered vividly into the imagination of Cochinis. Many people would swear by the existence of this spirit,a  benevolent one. The story goes back to the retreat of the Portuguese when they were thought to have buried their African slaves when they hid their treasures, so that it would be guarded when they return.

Kappiri loves to live in mango trees and is fond of arrack and cigars and there are places in Mattancherry called kappiri mathil, places thought to be where kappiris rest. The shrine has no deification, just a platform and has become a sacred space now, for all faiths.
Just a short walk away from the Jew street which gets the most attention from  the tourists, there is a residential area where a tomb of a Jew has become a sacred space and one could see Christians, Muslims or Hindus offering their prayers  It is the tomb of rav nehamia ben avaraham , a Yemeni scholar who migrated to Cochin and died in 1616

Translation provided by Late Itzhak Hallegua of Cochin.

Here rests the Kabblist and famous old man of sanctity
Who emanated the light of his knowledge
And shines every where in the Jewish dispersion
(He is) the perfect wise man
(and) the righteous person of divinity
(he is) the rav and teacher.
Nehemia son of the rav and teacher, the wise and beloved
Abraham Muta (old person) of blessed and saintly memory
And he passed on his life to the (late) rabbanim ( e xpired)
On Sunday 28th of the month of Kislev
In the year of creation 5376 (1616AD)

The tomb is an area which used to be Black Jewish cemetery but when the black Jews left for Israel in 1955, owner of the house donated the house and the tomb to a local Christian family on condition that the tomb will be kept whitewashed and clean.
I lit the Shabbat candles and said prayers for my friends scattered around the world. and considered it a privilege to do so.
The fact that the original  Kappiri were Christian and that Nehemiah Mutta was Jewish, is of no concern to the devotees. They offer their prayers and seek the help from Kappiri Muthappan or Nehemi Mutta.

This interdenominational amity is documented over and over again. In a recently published book, The mosques of Cochin, Patricia Fels gives details of the Kerala architecture of many of the mosques of Cochin. One of the mosques detailed in the book is the Chembitta Palli. When I passed this architectural gem in the company of my friend, Mr N, he mentioned this story to me about the founding of the Kochangadi Juma Masjid, Chembitta Palli, in Mattancherry, near Kochi. A local Jewish merchant was so impressed with the knowledge of Sayyid Fakhr Bukhari, its spiritual leader, that he donated all the timber for the construction of the mosque.

This ancient friendship is not frayed in face of Arab propaganda against Israel. Many of the young cochin Muslims work in Arabia (I have met them in Salalah, Muscat in Oman and in Doha) and know Arabs from many countries who work there, but the ancient friendship towards other religion continue to triumph among the Cochinis.
I found this video in the  internet, hope i am not infringing on any ones copyright, but it is about faces of Cochin and you can see typical dravidian faces as well as faces of arab, european admixtures..