Travelogue Archive

God’s Own Country

Communism, they say, is dead. Post the dissolution of the USSR, only a handful of countries wave the red flag with the hammer and sickle.

It’s interesting that, today, Kerala has the only elected Communist government within the most populated democracy in the world. Unlike West Bengal, which was ruled by a Communist party for 40 years, the regime here is decidedly accommodating. The 100% literacy rate and healthy sex ratio also help. Socio-cultural ties are strong among all the religious communities. Such a fine balancing act of organising fragile elements is a rarity.

Physical signs of development are seen all around towns and cities here. Nothing about the state can be described as rural or backward.

Modernity notwithstanding, the state of Kerala is historically associated with an ancient Hindu system of caste-based stratification. This grouped people according to their birth, not their actions. The caste into which one was born determined the course of their lives, and this ancient Hindu varna system used to act as guidelines. In Kerala, this system was taken very seriously. Although nearly redundant now, the region was once a hotbed of caste-related conflict. Even today, many evils in Indian society can be attributed to the caste system.

In contemporary India these factors hardly matter. Today, a person’s legacy is defined by their actions and decisions, not by their birth name.
Communism was introduced in Kerala in the 1950s. E.M.S. Namboodiripad, a local communist leader, became the first of his kind — an elected communist state representative in India. He rallied for social and educational reforms. Kerala is now one of the most progressive and dynamic states in India.
Namboodiripad himself belonged to one of the upper castes based hierarchy. The Brahmins, according to the old order, constitute the priestly and learned class. This particular class of Kerala Brahmins were once considered the most influential people in Hindu tradition and culture, and even evolved their own (now defunct) inheritance laws. They would live as a close-knit clan within a single ancestral home (Illam), named after the clan itself.

Although the caste system is long abolished, their remnants are found in the form of the houses of the people who still live here and, of course, the food they eat. The latter being the only thing that has withstood the test of time.
I visited Tirur, a town located in the middle of the Moplah Heartland, towards the north of Kerala. Moplahs, being the native muslims of Kerala, have their own specialized cuisine, combining Malabar and middle eastern influences. Malabar biryani, pepper fries, parotta and other such dishes are available everywhere. Ironically, the purpose of my visit prohibited me from eating any of them. Not here, for now. I came to visit Vanheri Mana, one of the oldest clan estates in the area. Members of this clan still live on this land, like their ancestors did for almost 700 years. Unlike them, they live in modern villas. Some of the old structures still survive.

In stark contrast to the otherwise flavour-packed cuisine of Kerala, Brahmin cuisine is frugal. Simple gravies and vegetable preparations constitute their diet. Food is light and nourishing, believed to be a catalyst for higher thinking. Full of flavour sans the excesses, spice and heat are added in sparse amounts, if at all. Traditionally a religious community, use of onions and garlic is not permitted and the food is what in North Indians is regarded as being ‘pure’ vegetarian. The cuisine relies on vegetables and coconuts grown, in many cases, within the estate. The use of oil is limited, making the food quite healthy, promoting healthy eating and living. However, some dishes are unique and are eaten only by people of this community across India.

Here are some of them:

Avial: A simple vegetable dish with a light coconut and curd based sauce. Cumin and turmeric are used as spices.

> Mangakuttam: Ripe or raw mango is turned to a pulp, to which salt, chilly powder and turmeric is added. Jaggery is used to balance sweetness. A tempering of curry leaves, white urad and mustard is added at the end. This is the standard tempering used in all of South India. Asafoetida or hing is added as well.

> Chukuvellam: A beverage made by seeping cumin seeds in water. The resulting drink is considered good for digestion and regulating body heat.

> Mor: Buttermilk with South Indian tempering.

> Olam: Vegetable stew in a coconut sauce.

> Pulinji: Unique tamarind and ginger chutney.

> Netrapazham: Boiled plantain with papad.

Other than these dishes, standard South Indian fare such as rassam, papad, thayyir saadam (curd rice), sambhar and coconut chutney feature. Rice, appams (rice flour crepe) and idappams are used as starches.

This kind of food is said to be the origin of Satvik food, a cuisine gaining popularity as people are turning to self-preservation. Satvik cuisine uses the same fundamentals of wholesome home-cooked vegetarian fare, sometimes excluding root vegetables altogether. This is popular among vegetarian communities such as Jains. The recent consciousness of organic farming and vegan lifestyle has also made Satvik food an option for those looking for a change in palate. Brahmin food is closely connected with yoga, holistic living and ayurveda. It comes as no surprise that members of this household lead fairly healthy and regimented lives.

The caste system is of no consequence to our generation (of educated and enlightened people, at least). Today’s India has no place for narrow mindedness. Houses such as these in Kerala are usually deserted. Their inhabitants are far away doing more important things with their lives. The old house itself lies in ruins along with memories of an era long forgotten. History cannot be classified as good or bad. One can just learn from the past and ensure mistakes aren’t repeated.

I left relishing the fact that I ate food meant for a group of people who were once believed to be the closest to God. I wonder how much food has to do with it. Yes, it may make me healthier, prolong my life, or make me lose some extra pounds.

Ultimately, only one thing determines how close one is to whatever he has faith in.

His Actions.

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