The whispers of a dark past float off the walls in several parts of Kochi. But as is the manner of time and memory, a whole culture has evolved around the stories of slaves brought to the shores of Cochin from the African continent by the Portuguese.
Several parts of Kochi are dotted with remnants of slavery practiced by the Portuguese. Although it is unclear how these slaves came to be called kappiri, it is believed that the word might have its roots in the term “kaffir”.
Historian KL Bernard’s book ‘History of Fort Cochin’ is one of the few that has made attempts to engage with this aspect of Kochi’s history. Popularly known as Bernard master, the historian discusses what came to be called Kappiri mathil (Kappiri walls) and their subsequent evolution into protective spirits called kappiri muthappan.
“In 1663, Portuguese, who had treasures made niches in their thick walls, tied up Kaffirs in them, placed their treasures beneath tied-up slaves and made them promise that the treasures would be kept safe till their descendants came to claim them. The niches were then plastered up with mortar,” Bernard says in the book.
He also chronicles that the skeletons were found in two wall niches – kappiri mathils – on Rose Street near Fort Kochi close to 450 years after the enslaved men would have died.
“When a building was pulled down for renovation, the skeletons of humans were found in the walls. The treasure beneath them, if there was any, had disappeared. Near the Dutch cemetery, while demolishing an old house, the contractor lighted upon a chained skeleton,” the book says.
Biju Bernard, the son of the deceased historian told The News Minute: “My father has told me many stories about how the slaves were treated. Some had later regained these treasures while reconstructing those walls.”
Over time, local beliefs took over and the wall niches where these slaves were chained up, began to be worshipped. The local people believe that the slaves turned into spirits which were called Kappiri Muthappans.
As the city changed, several of these niches were demolished and built over.
Possibly the only one that remains today, is the shrine in Mangattumukku in Mattancherry near Fort Kochi. There is just a simple black platform, without idols or symbols.
In Mattancherry, a practice of offering a piece of puttu (a rice dish made across Kerala) to Kappiri Muthappan evolved.
“When we prepare puttu, the first piece will be offered to Muthappan, so that the remaining pieces would be tastier and perfectly prepared. This is majorly followed by some traditional Anglo Indian families,” says Lawrence, an 80-year-old man who used to own a workshop in Fort Kochi.
Kappiri Muthappan shrine in Mangattumukku
This belief of the slaves having morphed into spirits also extends to some of the trees in Fort Kochi. Lawrence says that some of the trees around the Fort Kochi area were called kappiri trees in the past because people believed that the spirits of the slaves inhabited the trees.
“It was believed that souls of some Kappiris, who were killed, were reincarnated in big banyan trees. They were also called Kappiri aal (banyan tree),” he said, adding that the spirits also inhabited mango trees.
These oral narratives about slaves of African origin have also found mention in literature as well, says Edward A Edezath, in a paper published on Academia.edu. In his 1981 Malayalam novel Ora Pro Nobis, Ponjikkara Rafi uses the story of the Portuguese chaining slaves to their treasures.
In George Thundiparambil’s English novel Maya, a kappiri or slave of African origin is the protagonist who narrates a 500-year history to a girl he meets at Fort Kochi in contemporary Kerala.
Edezath says that Anglo Indian writer Sandra Fernandez has written about tales of protective spirits passed on for generations. “In different parts of Kerala, Anglo Indians of the previous generations have said to have seen Kappiri Muthappan, he appears as a male spirit wearing coat and suit and smoking cigar and shaking chains. He appears on full moon days,” the book says.