PRIYA GANAPATHY travels to Kerala’s cultural capital Thrissur to understand the Malayali fascination for gold
Gold is extraterrestrial. How it came to our earth’s crust is itself a miracle. It was created in space by cataclysmic stellar explosions or supernova that rained on earth as meteorites! So, gold is literally born out of dead stars. According to the journal Nature, a meteor bombardment 4 billion years ago brought 20 billion billion tons of ‘gold and precious metal-rich space rock’ to Earth. So predicting when our love affair with gold began might be tough, though excavations in Egypt peg it to 3000 BC.
While the affinity to gold is universal, the people of Kerala possess an unabashed love for it. Keralites buy nearly a third of the overall gold imported into India. From Padmanabhaswamy Temple’s buried vaults spilling with gold worth hundreds of billions of dollars, to glinting nettipattams (forehead adornments) of caparisoned temple elephants during the renowned Thrissur Pooram, traditional ivory-hued kasavu saris woven with gold threads and giant hoardings with models weighed down with ornaments – the proof is out there.
In God’s Own Country, there’s ‘Gold’s Own Country’ Thrissur, an unassuming cultural district that is the epicentre of the gold industry. Nearly 70% of all the gold sold in the state everyday is handcrafted in Thrissur. People in Kerala love their gold. When asked why, college girls, mothers, husbands, salesmen, artisans, traders, each had a view.
“It’s in our culture.” “Gold is a deposit.” “We can easily liquidate it in an emergency.” “Unlike land, gold is a guaranteed investment.” Saji, a cab driver joked, “In Kerala, ladies love gold more than their husbands! Attend a rich family’s wedding and you won’t see the girl’s face or sari, only gold.” Those WhatsApp forwards on Malayali brides laden from head to toe in gold are true!
TS Kalyanaraman, Chairman & Managing Director of Thrissur-based Kalyan Jewellers says, “Kerala has always celebrated this precious yellow metal. Ayurveda has extensive references on the therapeutic nature of gold. In rituals, gold and ghee are considered two of the purest elements.”
In Kerala, gold plays its part through rites and rituals of life’s significant events – from the birth of a child, educational initiation, puberty, communion ceremony, graduation to wedding, the cycle continues. The gold connect begins rather early. Newborns are given honey and vayambu (sweet flag plant) mixed with 24-carat gold. During the Vidyaarambham ceremony elders use a gold ring to write on the child’s tongue, marking the entry into the world of knowledge and learning. We reckon, once Malayalis get the first (and second) taste of gold, they develop a healthy palate for it!
The Thrissur connection
Every state has its own unique style and creative renditions. Kerala’s traditional jewellery designs borrow heavily from nature. A visit to the Kalyan showroom presented the full range of designs, each with evocative names. Mulla Mottu Mala is shaped like a string of jasmine buds, Naaga Padam resembles a hooded cobra and Maangamala is inspired by the paisley shape of mangoes. Manimala was a string of gold beads, Poothali was embellished with intricate flower (poo) patterns, Pulinakha mala was shaped like a tiger claw, Kaasu mala was a chain of gold coins (kaas), while Elakkathali was a choker named after the quivering movement (elakku) of its tiny free-hanging gold leaflets.
Palakka, a chain with a repeated heart-shaped pattern, mimicked the palakka fruit that tribals strung together into long chains. The classy kasavumala, a broad band of gold, was recently invented to match the gold border of the traditional kasavu mundu or two-piece sari. Non-traditional names – like Sachin, Seema Tara and Savitham – are design identities named after celebrities, actor or movies for the karigar’s convenience!
CS Ajay Kumar ‘Chitti Kappil,’ a fourth generation goldsmith, says his ancestors moved from a village near Kochi and settled at Cherpu in Thrissur’s suburbs when King Rama Varma IX or Sakthan Thampuran (1751-1805) invited professionals to populate his newly founded capital. His family specialized in making the unique jewel Chittum Kaapum used in the past by Nambuthiri Brahmin women.
He discloses that his family name ‘Chitti Kappil’ is attributed to the jewel rather than the ‘tharavad’ or ‘ancestral place’ as is the norm. His son, Hari Krishnan says, “The unusual earring is not worn anymore as the earlobe hole had to be widened to insert and lock the stud. One would probably find it as a family heirloom or some elderly lady’s ear.”
Ajay narrates how until the 1930s, thatans (traditional goldsmiths) would visit homes six months prior to a wedding to take orders for customized jewellery. Easwar Warrier, belonging to a community of temple treasurers, opened the first gold workshop in 1935 near Paramekkavu Devaswom at Thrissur Round with 10-15 talented goldsmiths. As business grew, the workers roped in their skilled cousins and craftsmen from Palakkad, Thiruvallamala and Chenganassery.
Warrier encouraged them to settle down with their families, triggering an influx of master craftsmen and talented goldsmiths. This was the beginning of Thrissur as a gold hub. Families from across the state would travel to Thrissur to buy ornaments. The steady growth spawned more retailers and the advent of readymade jewellery.
Behind the Scenes
“In our culture women look more beautiful in gold,” said young Ans. His father Anto, a gold trader in the busy Puthanpally Church area since 40 years remembers it as the main gold hub. Some traders melted as much as 10-20kg gold every day; its purity checked by placing it on a ‘purity analyzer’ for 30 seconds. “The purity of gold in Thrissur is excellent so people love to hoard gold.” Ans continued, “Local lore says if there is an earthquake in Thrissur, they’ll find cities of gold underground!” “It’s a fixed asset that can be exchanged anywhere at the day’s rate”, sums Anto. “Today’s is Rs.2960/g.”
In sweaty workshops artisans deftly twisted, beat and blew fire on gold bits and wire, transforming them into wondrous adornments, which make their way to showrooms of India’s biggest brands and gold retailers. To Manikandan a craftsman from Palakkad, “This is good work and good pay.” Hammering a tiny bit of gold into a pathalachi – a pockmarked cube used in jewellery making, he says, “It’s been 35 years. I learnt the skill from my father when I was 10.” Thrissur has the most skilled and gifted craftsmen.
Another feature that sets Thrissur jewellery apart is its lightness – a skill that makes gold purchases affordable without sacrificing aesthetics or design. The astuteness of Thrissur’s craftsmen makes them an asset in every gold jewellery unit. The labour-intensive nature and migration to other cities led to a decline in craftsmen; a gap filled by migrant workers from Kolkata. Nearly 10,000 Bengali craftsmen work in Thrissur.
Demand for Thrissur-trained workers everywhere and the skills acquired here helps them earn better back home. This cultural cross-pollination has also impacted jewellery design. Customers now have additional choices of Bengali filigree designs and nakkaash or hand-embossed ornate designs from Karnataka and Chettinad.
Back at Kalyan Jewellers, Anjana, a shy bride-to-be eyed a tray of gold bangles quietly. Her mother, sister and grandparents hovered over her along with a small platoon from the groom’s side. The mother-in-law to be, her four co-sisters and a few nieces pored over the choices, mumbling about weight and patterns. Shelba, one of the nieces confessed that her pre-wedding gold shopping fourteen years ago was exactly the same.
“This is the tradition. Even after shopping, all the neighbours and relatives will come over on the wedding eve to scrutinize the purchases, comment and probe into all the details.” In contrast, at another counter Jibin and Vaishnavi, a young couple shopped independently for their upcoming wedding. Vaishnavi says, “This piece is my choice, the rest of the shopping like rings, mangalsutra and wedding pieces will be a family affair.”
“Jewellery shopping continues to be an emotional exercise that involves families or couples coming together to pick the right pieces,” says Kalyanaraman. “Thrissur is where brand Kalyan is from – and for that very reason, it is one of our most important markets, despite 18 showrooms across the state. When I started my business, I knew every customer by face and name. Today, their children are our customers, and for many in Thrissur, Kalyan is their family jeweller.”
They undertake surveys and study every market beforehand as jewellery tastes vary from city to city. Thrissur’s buyers prefer traditional designs – the shinier the better – and nearly 96% go for yellow gold rather than pink and brushed gold, platinum or diamonds. Thrissur also has a strong culture of exchanging old jewellery for newer pieces because there is 100% exchange on gold value.
Digging into the past
“It is the innate curiosity of women to enter a shop when they see a new product on display. If women were happy with whatever they had, shops would shut down”, quipped Mohan, a tour guide and history buff from Calicut. “The fashion-minded ladies in Kerala have perhaps motivated artisans to produce newer products, thus fueling the gold industry.”
Mohan explained, “The Greeks and Romans settled around Kodungullur in 300 BC. There was rich cultural exchange through trade as pepper, ivory, spices and diamonds were bartered for gold. When the Jews and Christians arrived, there was demand for skilled artisans to craft gold crowns and ornamented vestments for bishops.
Excavation findings between 2007-2014 at Pattanam point to a flourishing tradition of glass and bead-making in the region but little gold.” Historian TR Venugopalan too confirmed that Thrissur’s tag as a gold capital was a recent phenomenon.
Stories of excavated gold coins took us to Thrissur’s Sakthan Thampuran Palace, now a museum. The Numismatic gallery revealed 5th BCE Roman dinari found in the Eyyal hoards of Thrissur, which also included Veerarayans (gold coins) circulated around Kochi. Museum Curator Srinath said, “In 1341, when the great flood in the Periyar River swallowed Muziris, Kochi was created (derived from Kochch-azhi literally ‘new port’).”
At Kodungallur, Nawshad PM, Managing Director of the Muziris Heritage Project and archaeological expert Dr Midhun showed us around Kottapuram Fort. Pattanam, the excavation site, broadly corresponds to the ancient port of Muziris, hailed by ancient chroniclers like Pliny as ‘the first emporium of India’. However, gold findings were limited to a small axe-like pendant, a tiny gold bead and some Roman gold coins kept at Koyikkal Palace Nedumangad Museum in Trivandrum.
The temple of Augustus, testimony to the prosperous trade with the Red Sea, has long gone. It was evening and the sky was ablaze as families sat scrutinizing ornaments in bright-lit stores. The Latin word for gold is ‘aurum’, meaning ‘shining dawn’. Clearly, the name holds true in Kerala, where the sun will never go down on their love for gold.
Author: Priya Ganapathy. This article appeared in the January 2019 issue of Outlook Traveller magazine.