The ‘Bell Thieves’ of Cochin

The history of the Cochin Jews is indeed quite interesting and it is also interesting to note that Cochin was probably the only place in the world where Jews had an uninterrupted stay, not unduly troubled by any kind of religious persecution, till they themselves decided to leave for Israel on ‘Aliyah’ (Holy immigration to Israel). I would recommend the reader to see the Malayalam movie ‘Gramophone’ to get a brief insight into this very interesting Diaspora of Cochin.

Two books I read recently, gave me details of this very interesting historical anecdote. I am sure the real story has been well massaged by time, to become a highly interesting tale today, with salacious additions by various grandmothers and uncles. I am recounting the present version for those interested about those times and am sure readers from Cochin can add much more insight. This version of the story comes from Ruby’s accounts, but slightly corrected with more aspects from Prof Jussay’s account.

This story comes from Fort Cochin and Mattanchery (did you know that the Mattanchery palace (later known as Dutch palace) was built by the Portuguese and later occupied by the Dutch is built in traditional Kerala Nalukettu style? This was finally gifted to the Cochin Raja) environs where the white and black Jews lived. Those who are interested in the tales from early days about this community may refer the books mentioned at the end.

In general, the Cochin Raja had reasonably good relations with the various foreign heads or governors who lived side by side, like the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Jews and so on. Except of course the neighboring Zamorin with whom he had constant rivalry and kept at many many feuds that emptied coffers of both kings over a 10 century period.

But once the Cochin Raja quarreled with the Dutch governor and this relates to that very event. This story takes us possibly to the Dutch times (Possibly late 17th or 18th century) where a fortification (possibly the Portuguese Fort Emmanuel or another which was eaten up by the sea) existed and Cochin was termed ‘Fort Cochin’. The governor and his people lived well within the fort, which was strictly protestant. All Roman Catholics had been expelled. The local populace, i.e. the Malayali community lived outside. Doors of the fort were opened in the morning and closed by dusk.

Many Jews had business with the Governor in supplying various commodities such as chicken and eggs and these were carried in the traditional way, in big woven baskets over their head, into the fort. Business went on; life was difficult & troubling for the people outside, though largely uneventful…But the reader may now wonder, why am I describing how the Jews carried provisions inside? Wait, it has a reason, of course.

One fine day, as it appears, the governor insulted the Raja. It was a bad day, I guess, maybe the heat & humidity was too much for the Dutchman? Well, what happened was this. The Dutch governor was in a meeting with the Rajah. After a while, as the interpreters struggled between themselves trying to translate, the king, who had probably been spending the whole night at the temple watching Kathakali or Krishnattam or something, nodded off, snoring with his mouth open. The Dutch governor was furious. He took out a pair of scissors (now don’t ask me why a governor should be walking around with a pair of scissors in his pockets – I don’t know and you should not question a simple story teller like me) and clipped off the royal whiskers.

As the King woke up and jerked back to life after a few minutes, he felt the cool sea breeze on his upper lips and discovered to his dismay that his manly moustache had vanished. And he saw the smirking governor, the culprit, with the scissors in his hands, sitting in front. Needless to mention, that the governor by now was feeling a bit bashful after his hasty act.

The Raja swore revenge – his screamed that he would pull out the governors tongue in retaliation, albeit impetuously. Only after the words came out did he realize, that as a king, he could not take back his word. What was sworn, had to be done.

Would the Raja expect the governor to put out his tongue so that he, the Raja can pull it out? Of course not, but the royal humiliation was too much. His courtier finally gave him a way out, maybe the rajah or somebody could go and pull the tongue of the great bell situated near the governor’s bungalow on the hill, which would be symbolic. But that was not an easy task and the King was lost in thought, trying to figure a way out.

The fort overlooked the serene waters of the Arabian Sea, strategically located with entry only from the fort side of the hill. The seaside however was unguarded. But it was a steep cliff and well, not the answer..

The Jewish (I guess they were consulted by the Raja) finally came up with a plan. They were trusted suppliers and not usually searched by the Dutch when they entered the fort with their provisions. So one day, they took a small boy with a thick long rope hidden inside one of those baskets into the fort. He was well hidden beneath cotton, chicken and so on (how he sat there without sneezing, I do not know – but you are not expected to question these stories or story tellers). Some people might wonder, why cotton? Well, there is a reason, so please wait, don’t be in haste, I will tell you. The basket with the boy was surreptitiously left near the bell tower in the fort and the sellers returned after their work was done with. The boy waited as he was told to, till darkness set in.

On the other side of town, two of the selected Jews boarded a ‘Pathemari’ (I will tell you more about this indigenous boat another day) but it is a traditional wooden vessel used to move cargo) or some such vessel, sailed it to the sea side the fort, late into the night of and waited there.

At the appointed hour, the boy clambered out of the basket, climbed the tower, reached up to the bell, wrapped the bell tongue carefully with the cotton, removed the entire bell, tied it to the long rope and lowered it to the waiting seamen. The bell was thus slipped noiselessly into the boat by the trio. The boat then quickly sailed away with the booty, the Dutch governor’s bell, the symbolic instrument for summons.

The boy went back and hid beneath the chicken. Early next morning the trader Jews came and took away the basket and the boy.

The bellman came to ring the bell, but did not find a bell to ring.

The bell was erected in the raja’s palace by now, the Raja pulled the tongue and rang the bell. Revenge was sweet. The royal word had been kept. The raja wanted to twirl his moustache in style, looking at his people (Like Sivaji Ganesan does in Veera Pandya Kattabomman), but it was only starting to grow back.

The happy Raja gifted a whole street in gratitude to the Mattanchery Jews and this, my friends, is what is known as ‘Jews street’ in Cochin. A much visited historical place.

But well, life is life, the Jews of Cochin after all this, wound up getting the name “Mani Kallanmar’ or bell thieves.

A child or a person wont to making snide remarks might pipe up and ask - What about the chicken? Did they make noise while the boy clambered out and got back in? I do not know and you should not ask such questions.

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Afterward:

The story did not end there; it actually intensified the conflict between the two trading communities of Cochin, the Jews and the Konginies. The Konginies ( Konkan traders – Saraswat Brahmins) were of course gleefully taunting the Jews with the term ‘Mani kalla’. But as it usually happens, justice is served at the end. The Konganies had loaned their deity to a neighboring temple for their festivities. But the temple would not return it. So the Konginies apparently bribed the priests to steal it and bring it back to their temple. The word eventually came out into the public and the Jews got their golden opportunity to retaliate. They started calling the Konginies as ‘Devan Kallanmar’ (God Thief). This was a bit too much for them and so a truce was arrived at and the two communities dropped their taunts of Mani kalla and Devan Kalla.

This real aftermath of the Kongani story took an even more interesting turn, and the complete story of the Devan kallar’s will be recounted another day….

Now this was all based on Ruby’s account, embellished by me with suitable masala and prepped up with Prof Jussay’s facts. Prof Jussay, my professor from college actually states - The King screamed – is there somebody who can pull out the tongue of this dog (Dutch governor)? The Jews came out in support of the Cochin Raja and the story took place as above (I suppose). I decided to leave the Ruby version in place; as it was more fun. According to the Jussay account, the Governor also repented and donated the Bell tower to the Rajah or the Jews.

References
Ruby of Cochin – Ruby Daniel & Barbara C Johnson
The Jews of Kerala – PM Jussay
The Last Jews of Kerala – Edna Fernandes

For lovely images of 'Jew Town' Cochin – check this blog

Comments

SrideviR said…
Can I ask you one question?
Just one...

Are you a history teacher?
Maddy said…
You can ask more questions, SreideviR, no I am not..
Tarun Mitra said…
Maddy you are a real story teller..

I was spellbound
SrideviR said…
Ah...I was just kidding! Your posts are pretty interesting like the jaw dropping sessions in the history class back in school.

Keep writing!
Sunita said…
Maddy, you should've been a professional story-teller! What drama!
Dreamer said…
Superb! I just read out this out to my son aged 11. and he was thrilled to bits. He wonders why his history textbooks aren't so interesting!
Awesomeness.
:-)

Tell me more about the Jews of Madayi :-)

-Nikhil
Happy Kitten said…
Keep reading ur posts in my inbox (am subscribed to it) and just sit there relishing it.. and not commenting...

as mentioned by others, even I wondered why History needs to be narrated so boringly while you have done it so well.. IMO u should rewrite the entire history (at least the one taught in today's classrooms) in your style... nd History would be the fav subject...
Kamini said…
What a fantastic story!! I enjoyed it from beginning to end. More, please!
I will have to come back. My wife is yelling. It's dinner time. I am fascinated.
Maddy said…
Thanks Tarun, Sridevi, Sunita, Dreamer..Nikhil. HK, Kamini and PNS..

Some stories are even more enjoyable when telling them. Some are difficult to narrate, some easy. But all in all an enjoyable task..

I am happy that I enlivened your day..Hope I continue to do so..
A friendly comment good or critical, makes it all worthwhile, so please do comment.
Sabeel said…
Maddy..
Excellent Narrative !!
Enjoyed till the end..

Try writing a screen play based on
an interesting historic plot :)

You have at good story telling.
Maddy said…
Thanks Sabeel...keep visiting
Ramachandran said…
A king of Cochin is called VIRULAM Thampuran.What is Virulam?Is this the King who lost his moustache?This King's son became a protestant christian & a priest-Yacob Ramavarman.

Ramachandran
Maddy said…
thanks ramachandran,
one thing i felt while recounting this story was if the cochin kings really had mustaches. I think the kshatriyas especially Varma lords always shaved their faces and never wore whiskers. so this is obviously a tall tale, but an interesting one nonetheless.
The virulam thampuran reigned during the 1820's, and the dutch were gone by then, replaced by English regents. so it must have been and earlier king - I suppose
Ramachandran said…
yes.virulam reigned after sakthan.Have u read Tripunithura Stories written by R T Ravivarma & published by Manorama?You will get a wonderful story on V K Krishna Menon from it.Menon's sister was the wife of Maharaja.So Menon boards a train(once again,a train for you!) to Ernakulam from Kozhikode...read rest of the story.
Ramachandran
Maddy said…
thanks ramachandran
will check it out - as you may know VKKM is a person I still spend a lot of time studying, so it should be fun..
Dear Maddy,

Recently while discussing about this topic with one of the remaining Jew from Ernakulam (Broadway - There are two lesser known synagogues) he narrated me the story and even told that the family name of the Ernakulam Jews associated with this event... Kallungal family who belonged to the Thekkumbagam congregation of Eranakulam Jews (now few members from that family lives in Nevatim Beersheva, Israel). The bell is still in Cochin, but unnoticed...

By mistake many people associate this story with the Paradesi Jews of Cochin, Mattancherry....

Ruby's version of story is much more reliable...
Maddy said…
thanks thoufeek
hope you are doing well..
Sanjay Vaidya said…
Greeting
You mentioned 2 books you read at the top of the article. Which 2 books pl? Thxs
Maddy said…
Thanks Sanjay
the first two books listed under references
rgds