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Walking Through Jew Town, Cochin

A perfect place to rummage and chaffer for fragments of history- truncated tales that one calls antiques, is the quaint old Jew Town at Mattancherry. The overwhelming melancholy of a town abandoned by its own people-the Jews, makes a walk through it is as fascinating as discovering bits and pieces of history to pack and carry back home. The long warehouses abutting each other spill out into narrow alleys and on the other side the tranquil backwaters merge with the roar of the Arabian Sea.


No one knows the exact date when the Jews first came to Cranganore, Kerala but somewhere in the fourteenth century they began fleeing Cranganore and wandered into Cochin. And Jew Town was built on the site granted to them by the Rajah of Cochin in 1567. After living in this town for almost four hundred years, trading prosperously and even waging wars with the Portuguese, in the 1950s the Jewry began to migrate to Israel and by the 1980s they were only a handful left in this town.

History's Junkyard

At about that time the first antique shop called Indian Arts and Curios was opened by a non- Jewish resident M P Isadore near the magnificent Paradesi Synagogue that was built in 1568. Slowly the pepper and ginger trading in the warehouses was displaced by the antique shops, which proved to be a far more lucrative business. The string of antique shops has a welter of objects piled precariously and the disorderly array of pieces make it truly history’s junkyard.

It is amusing to walk through the narrow streets and find what constitutes antiques and it is just not antiques but exact replicas too that jostle for space in the crowded shops. If our great grandmothers were alive they would be tickled to find that varpu (utensil for cooking payasam or halwa), chembu (utensil for cooking grains), spittoons, wooden spoon holders, old cash boxes, para (rice measures), spice boxes etc. now occupy pride of place as treasured antiques. The reason being that in haute style, drawing rooms are appropriating old kitchen utensils and showcasing them as objects of virtu!

Varpu and urulli, both round cooking utensils made of bronze are uniquely Kerala in character and when filled with water, flowers and floating candles it adds the dash of ethnic verve. You can pick up both the old and the new vessels and the price varies from Rs 450 to Rs 600 per kilo while the antique ones with motifs sends the costs accelerating further. The world’s biggest varpu is on exhibit at the Crafters Antique Shop and it draws thousands of curious tourists. Weighing 3184 kilos with beautiful motifs this three -year old varpu is not for sale.

The cash boxes with brass inlay sends a frisson of excitement down the spine when intriguing secret compartments are discovered within. Cash boxes and mundu pettis are increasingly being used as coffee tables or stools to enhance the traditional look. And very innovative idea is the use of Kerala’s ayurvedic massage platforms- modishly reinvented as longish coffee tables and the new designs are far more striking than the traditional ones. At Pappali’s Antiques Shop, the Kerala palanquins and the Kerala doors with shutter and frame with the intricate manichitrathazhu are heavier pieces that can be accommodated only in large spaces. The Jew almirah with coloured glass, an eighteenth century riveting piece of workmanship is here for the taking.

The Indian Arts and Curios has a fairly large collection of Chinese Jars that are mute testaments of a bygone trade. Long ago before the colonial crowd arrived on these shores the Chinese were peacefully trading with Kerala. The Cheena valla (Chinese fishing nets), Cheena Bharani (Chinese Jars), Cheena chatti (Chinese wok) etc. left behind by these traders are the remnants of a trading activity that took place over five hundred years ago. The Chinese Jars made of porcelain and clay are beautiful collector’s items and the big Chinese glazed jars with dragons embossed on them are period pieces that cannot be exported. It is believed that the Chinese brought water and oil in them and the bigger jars were used to balance the galley ships and on their return they carried spices. Every old Kerala home had the big and small Cheena Bharani, which were used to store salted mangoes, tamarind, salt etc. Ranging from Rs. 700 to Rs. 12000 or more, these jars are a great buy. While the Dutch left behind ink jars and alcohol bottles that are not as expensive but their lovely shapes make great objets d’art.

The colourful wooden Cow Heads that are used in temple processions on the 28th day after Onam found in the Ochira region and the plainer white Cow Heads from the Palakkad are exclusive to Kerala. The originals with vegetable dye paint are a rare find but the replicas are widely available and even on close examination it is difficult to detect the difference. If it is Cow Heads that arrests your attention Epic Craft has a good collection.

Politically Inclined Derriere?

There is something here for everyone even for the hardened politician. When the electronic age with its voting machines beeped in, the sturdy old ballot boxes were jettisoned without a second thought and now one finds these curiosities only in the realm of antiquity. You can pick up wooden ballot boxes at the Indian Arts and Curios shop to either showcase them or use as seats for your politically inclined derriere!

Tips for the buyer

  1. Never buy broken or welded pieces. They do not have resale value.
  2. The proportions of the furniture should be right.
  3. Make sure all the compartments of boxes are there.
  4. The patina on the bronze and brass indicates the antiquity.
  5. Look out for natural distinguishing marks.
  6. Make sure the locks and keys of cupboards and tables are in good condition
  7. (First published by India Today-Home. Some Changes have been made.)

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