Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Wayward Explorers

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and landed on the islands of Hispaniola and Cuba. He was in fact looking for the Malabar coast (today's Kerala) which, at the time, was the source of most of Europe's spices (which were very expensive commodities back then). The fact that he was 15,500km off course and yet is still greatly admired today is a mystery to me. Anyway, for many centuries Kerala has been an important centre for spice production and remains so to this day. Wandering around the spice market of Kochi (formerly known as Cochin), Kerala's main city and port, is a veritable assault on the nose. There are heaped piles of cinnamon, cloves, green cardamon, black cardamon, mace, nutmeg, green and black pepper, aniseed, star anise, ginger and many others whose names and uses elude me. It seems, from the number of spice sellers who targeted me as a potential customer, that spices are very popular souvenirs. Though what I would do with a kilo of cloves is beyond me. Not only do I dislike them in particular, but, when I do cook, I'm not much of a spice person in general either, barely using anything other than salt. The same cannot be said of Keralan cuisine that believes it has a duty to support the local industry by pouring in mountains of the stuff. It's not particularly bad, except when you happen to bite directly on a cardamon seed or a clove.

But back to our explorers. When the sea route to the Indies was finally discovered it was done so by Vasco da Gama (who was actually looking for it) who landed in Kerala on the 20th of May 1498. 26 years later he would also die there whilst on his third trip to the Indies. His gravestone can still be seen in the St Francis church in Kochi (his remains, however, were shipped back to his native Portugal in 1539). The Portuguese (and later the Dutch) influence can be seen in the houses in the old part of Kochi, where one could almost believe oneself in Europe, albeit a warmer and more humid version of the continent; and in the many churches in the state. Upon arriving in Kerala with their Jesuit missionaries, intent on converting the heathens, the Portuguese must have been surprised to find their job already half done when they found that Christianity, though a minority religion, was already firmly entrenched. It had been brought all the way to India from Palestine by the apostle Thomas (he of doubting nature). But, because they weren't proper Catholics, they converted them anyway.

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