When I first came to Kottayam for my bachelors, the place was completely unfamiliar to me as I had no friends or relatives in the area. But in the span of just three years, Kottayam pattanam has found a home in my heart.
The first time I went into the town was to buy a cake for someone’s birthday. I was instantly attracted by the old-world charm of the place. There was something about Kottayam that took me back to the yesteryears! It was the small shops, the people, the conversations and the churches, maybe. I still haven’t figured it out completely.
Take for instance, the bakery that I went to on the first day. Up until then, the definition of a bakery for me was a normal shop where you get lime juice, milkshake, ice-cream, and the view of puffs, swiss rolls, cutlets and cakes presented behind a veil of glass. But this bakery, which might be closer to the essence of the word, was totally different! It had stained glass in a few places and an antique clock. There were some dilapidated wooden chairs and tables and the walls closer to the kitchen had marks of coal on them. I peeked into the kitchen I saw that they were using a traditional oven fed by wood, I presume. No drinks were available and they only sold baked goods like cakes and puffs. You could see that no effort was done to make the bakery ‘seem’ antique, and yet the place was brimming with an old-world charm.
Kottayam was also revealing itself to me as the land of letters. It is known as Aksharanagari, maybe because of all the newspapers and publishing houses that were born here. Kottayam also boasts a list of outstanding colleges. During my various coffee expeditions, I have often overheard intellectual debates and have also had opportunities to get involved in them. This pattanam has had a tremendous influence on the formation of the perspectives of many, no doubt.
When we speak of Kottayam, we cannot really disregard the religious communities. It is famous for its old churches, temples and mosques, especially Thazhathangady Juma Masjid – one of the oldest mosques in India. These sites are also places of architectural marvel and huge historical significance. Kottayam is also one of the places of settlement of the Knanaya Christians, an endogamous community who claims to have arrived in Kerala in 345 AD from Southern Mesopotamia.
Another indispensable part of Kottayam is the influence of colonialism. Kottayam is home to the first ‘pen pallikoodam’ in Kerala, Baker Memorial Girls High School, which was established in 1816 by Amelia Dorothea Baker, who was the wife of Henry Baker Sr., a Christian missionary from the Queen’s land. The couple persuaded many parents and explained to them the need to educate women. The first college in India that provided the Western style of education was established by the Church Missionary Society of England in 1817. This is the famous CMS College in Kottayam. The college exudes beauty and has often been used in cult Malayalam movies such as ‘Classmates’.
While speaking of British missionaries, excluding the name Benjamin Bailey can be almost considered a sin. Bailey played an important role in the cultural history of Kerala. He is the founder of English education in Kerala. He introduced western education to Kerala, primarily to CMS College, of which he was the first principal. He formulated the curricula and syllabi for this purpose. Bailey established the first printing press in Kerala and it was there that Malayalam was first printed. He was the first lexicographer in Malayalam.
Education certainly was an important influence that the British missionaries had on Kottayam. Remarkable in this regard is the fact that the education of women was given prime importance. In colleges, including mine, you can find pictures of erstwhile female professors, who might have been first in the field in Kerala, wearing the traditional chatta and mundu or other traditional clothing.
Behind the efforts of imparting education, there were a lot of other women too. The wives of Christian missionaries played a pivotal role in making the public understand the necessity of education. But education wasn’t the only thing that they shared with the women of Kerala.
If you google the place where the first cake in India was made, the answer that you would get will be Thalassery. Colonialism introduced British cuisine to Kerala. And an important aspect of this cuisine that spread like wildfire across Kerala was cakes. Although patriarchy is at play here, cakes were introduced to the women of Kerala by the women of Britain, especially in Kottayam. Keralites who were till then only familiar with palaharangal like kozhukattai and idiyappam were introduced to baking. Soon, households in Kerala started actively making cakes. Kottayam houses many old bakeries and small businesses that sell cakes. The wives of missionaries have obviously played a huge role in this obsession with cake, that increases during the Christmas season. In fact, the first cake that was baked in Thalassery by Mambally Bapu in 1880 was a plum cake, a cake that is almost synonymous with Christmas and December.
Kottayam has so much history packed into it. The colonial ties it has makes the place stand out from all other places in Kerala. But don’t be fooled, because there are a lot of other things too that makes this place stand out, like festivals, backwaters, food, and natural marvels. As I prepare to bid goodbye to the place, I am still marvelled by Kottayam. At times, I can’t even stop staring at its beauty. And it is not the beauty of the ancient churches, Thirunakkara temple, or the water lily blossom at Malarickal alone. It is a combined beauty of all these things and the people and the very being of Kottayam, that is alive even in the air that surrounds the place.