Fort Kochi and Mattancherry journal, Part 2: Big retail, local players push entrenched Gujarati trader community towards migration
More than 700 Gujarati families live in Mattancherry today. The dwindling business is forcing traders to either sell their shops and convert them into other businesses.
Editor's Note: Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, 10 kilometres to the west of Ernakulam, were once bustling commercial hubs till the late 20th Century. Today, the various ethnic communities that had made this place home are struggling to stay relevant, trying to keep their businesses and traditions. In this multi-part series, Firstpost looks at these communities and their place in the history of Mattancherry. This is the second part of the series.
Sanjay Selarka's grandfather had set up their family business on Bazzar Road in Mattanchery around 90 years back. His family is among the many Gujarati families who have made Kochi their home.
“I would not have been able to talk to you until I put the shutters down of my shop if you had come here 10 years ago," Selarka told Firstpost.
The 3-kilometre stretch from Fort Kochi to Mattancherry that has nearly 1,000 double-height godowns and hundreds of shops was once busy with retail traders and the locals walking around and procuring grains, pulses, tea and other products. With consumers turning to malls and multi-brand outlets, the warehouses and shops wear a deserted look today.
The dwindling business is forcing traders to either sell their shops or convert them into other businesses. Selarka, who is slowly shifting his business to Mumbai, is waiting for 2029 to call it a day as the year will mark 100 years of the family business in Mattanchery.
“There was not much competition when my grandfather set up the business in 1929. My father, who took over from him after my grandfather's death in 1981, also kept the business flourishing but I am struggling,” says Selarka.
Many like Selarka echo similar sentiments. Though the Gujarati merchants had trade links with the state from the 13th Century AD, they started settling down in the state only after 1813, when the Queen of England abolished the monopoly of the British East India Company. Before that the merchants used to come to Kerala with textiles and other items from Gujarat and go back with spices that they exported to different parts of the world.
Kishore Shamji, a leading exporter of spices, said Gujarati merchants had come to Kerala following the invasion of Gujarat by Mohammed Ghazni in the 13th Century AD. The attack forced many Gujarati merchants flee to different parts of the country. Spices were the major attraction for those who came to Kerala.
“There are references in history to a Gujarati — Kano Malan — who guided Vasco da Gama to the state’s northern city of Kozhikode in 1498. The Portuguese explorer was overwhelmed when he saw Malan's ship, which was three times bigger than his," says Shamji.
It is said that the Portuguese had used Gujarati merchants as intermediaries in their trade negotiations with the King of Kozhikode and subsequently with the Maharaja of Cochin. They also sought the help of Gujarati merchants in procuring spices and other goods from the locals.
The Gujarati settlements in Kerala, started in 19th century, when merchants started migrating to various parts of the state. Apart from Kochi, Alappuzha, Kozhikode and Thiruvananthapuram also provided them with ample opportunities to flourish.
However, they found Kochi ideal for settlement. The hub of their activity was Mattancherry, where the Raja of Kochi gave them land and special rights. The place where they set up their business and homes is now known as Gujarathi Street.
More than 700 Gujarati families live in Mattancherry today. Known as 'Little Gujarat', one can find Gujarati temples, schools, colleges, restaurants, sweet shops and cultural institutions in Mattancherry. Though these families have their roots in Gujarat, they are fluent in Malayalam.
The 5,000 odd-members of the community have preserved their socio-cultural identity with the help of the seven temples, one college, three schools, one institute of higher learning, guest house, commercial complex, sports club, goshala, crematorium and even a bird shelter. The Kerala government has made Gujarati as an optional language up to Class X.
Shri Cochin Gujarati Mahajan is the representative organisation of the Gujaratis, which include Marvaris, Jains, Patels and others. The association set up way back in 1883 not only binds the community together but also serve as a link to the local community. The Mahajan has been connecting with the local people by presenting programmes during major Kerala festivals like Onam and Navaratri.
The major concern of the community today is the dwindling business opportunities. Ramesh Pallicha, a member of the Mahajan, said that the community has been losing business due to rising competition from the locals.
The Jew Town, which was the hub of spice trade, lost its leading position in the market from the 1990s while Mattancherry lost out on being the prime centre for trade in grain and pulses since the 1970s. The Gujarati merchants had enjoyed virtual monopoly in both places.
“The problem with our people is that they are sticking to their traditional business. They are not able to keep pace with the fast changes taking place in the business arena. The new players are steadily pushing them out of their traditional business,” Palicha told Firstpost.
He says that the Gujarati settlement in Alappuzha had come to an end following entry of new players in the coir sector. This will happen in Mattanchery too if the community is not ready to adapt to new businesses. Palicha said that the new generation of Gujaratis have already started leaving the state in search of better opportunities and moving abroad or to other parts of the country.
Shamji points out that the businessmen are finding it difficult to cope with the rising labour militancy and corruption. The high labour cost has hit traditional industries.
“We had settled down in Mattanchery as it provided both a peaceful atmosphere and plenty of opportunities for trade. Labour militancy and corruption have vitiated the business atmosphere. The businesses are slowly shifting to other states. The state has conceded its dominance over spice and coconut to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. If the trend continues, the Gujarati settlement in Mattanchery will become extinct,” says Shamji.
The members of the older generation cannot wrap their heads around this idea as they view the community as an inseparable part of the socio-economic life of Mattanchery. Sebastian, a local resident, said that he cannot think of Mattanchery without the Gujarati shops, restaurants and sweet shops.
The trade and industry in Kochi is indebted to the Gujaratis for the strong commercial base the city has got now. Sreekumar, an NRI businessman, said that the connections of Gujaratis with global businesses had helped the city immensely in turning Kochi into a leading exporter of spices and other commodities.
“The Gujaratis have played a big role in the development of the city. It was a Gujarati who set up the first printing press in Kerala. Devji Bhimji, who set up the press, also gave the state its first Malayalam newspaper,” he added.
Incidentally, Kandathil Varghese Mappillai, who served as the editor of the weekly published by the Gujarati businessman and philanthropist in 1881, later founded his own newspaper Malayala Manorama, which eventually emerged as a leading Malayalam daily.
Kerala also owes to the Gujaratis for the first coir factory and the first medical shop in the state. Gujaratis, who are born and brought up at Mattancherry, find it hard to imagine the prospect of leaving the city. Dhara Ranaksha, a former school teacher, said that she could not think of leaving the place and its people.
“The people of Mattancherry are very social and broad-minded. They consider us as one among themselves. I have more Malayali friends than Gujarati friends. I cannot think of missing them,” she said.
Even new generation of migrants also share this feeling. Jitendra Narendra Thaker, who came to Mattancherry as a priest in one of the Gujarati temples only 20 years ago, said that he was doubtful whether he will find another place where people of different hues can co-exist as peacefully as in Kochi.
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