Sauntering nonchalantly down a well stocked aisle of the upmarket Sultan Centre in Kuwait, I suddenly stopped dead in my tracks. My bemused eye had caught sight of the Brit celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s face endorsing a spice from the hotspot of North Malabar, Thalassery! Curiosity aroused, I took a closer look and behold—it was a beautifully packaged (in Turkey) jar of extra bold Thalassery black pepper. As early as 3000 BCE, Kerala’s chequered spice trade steered the world economy. Often, the source of these condiments was kept a closely guarded secret with fantastic tales woven about faraway exotic lands.
Thalassery, as it is called today, is perhaps associated with its delectable Moplah Biryani and other culinary delicacies. However, there is much to delve into in this tiny place steeped in history. A trade hub where the early Romans, Greeks, Chinese, Arabs and Jewish traders rubbed shoulders in the narrow market alleys, it gradually succumbed to European might. The adventures of Haider Ali and Tipu Sultan in Malabar, and Lord Wellesley, the hero of Waterloo, who defeated the prominent resistance leader Pazhassi Raja in the jungles of Wayanad, are gripping.
They illustrate the Raja’s valour and his mastery of guerrilla warfare.
Lore has it that Bapu Mambilly who opened the popular Mambilly Biscuit Factory in 1880, was handed a Christmas cake by Lord Murdoch Brown; Bapu sniffed out the ingredients and baked the first cake on Indian soil. Cricket was introduced by Lord Wellesley in Thalassery in the 1790s to benefit the British garrison there. The locals evinced keen interest and the hallowed Municipal Cricket Ground was proud witness to the first ball bowled in India.
Keeleri Kunhikannan Master, a martial arts teacher, started India’s first Circus School in 1901 at Chirakkara, a few km from Thalassery. Later, Krishnan Master’s Kamala Circus earned laurels from Pandit Nehru. Popularly referred to as the Town of three C’s (cricket, cake and circus), Thalassery remains the touchstone of Malabar culture, though politically and economically traumatised by European intrusions that changed caste and work culture.
Portuguese settlements in Malabar saw Banias from Gujarat, Chettiars from the South, Syrian Christians, Arabs, the Moors, Chinese (Kozhikode has a Silk Street where perhaps the Chinese lived) make a kaleidoscope of work culture, changing caste equations, currency, seafaring knowledge, culinary skills, dress styles, romance and inter-community marriages—a vast melting pot in a secular fabric. Globalisation was indeed the byword in the hoary past, wasn’t it?