A friend speaks of a myth and a purported ancestor that has come down several generations in his family. It is a narrative that began one morning in 52 AD. A surreal silence hung in the air along the beach at Azhikode that morning. Life went on as it always had, the morning tide lapped gently over the sand, the crustaceans went about their business, overhead a lone eagle surfed the air currents, dipping, diving and soaring, children played their obscure games, women went about their chores, however, a funeral silence hung over the little village that Nunnu was born in. Named Nilesh by his parents, the villagers, for some obscure reason called him Nunnu.

Of late Nunnu was often tormented by visions, when asleep and even in his waking moments, hallucinations, so that people in the village believed that the young man was irrevocably heading towards insanity. There was a recurring sequence of images floating in and out of his consciousness, filling him with an insatiable need for redemption. A swarthy, chocolate skinned man with tightly curled mop of hair and sensually full lips, a fervid gleam in his eyes. Dressed in a shabby robe, his head framed by a luminous aura, the spoke in a metallic voice “You are the first of my flock. The first. You will receive me when I arrive on your shores.” Nunnu was not too sure if whatever that he was feeling was dread or a premonition of an event of considerable import that was to occur.

The morning passed without incident and then the sea began to turn choppy and a warm breeze blew inland. The solitary eagle overhead continued its vigil. It was a little after noon, the sun at apogee, when Nunnu and many of the villagers on the beach spotted a dhow, its sail unfurled, in the distance, growing larger as it approached the shore.

Nunnu felt his pulse quicken, his breath grew shallow in excitement “It is he, he has arrived. My master, my master!” he yelled. His loin cloth wound tightly about his lean waist, his black sweat covered skin shimmering in the afternoon light, Nunnu ran towards the dhow as it approached the river’s mouth.

The boat brought a motley crew, a complement of bedraggled passengers and merchandise. A man, whose face Nunnu had seen many times in his rambling dreams, led a small group of men as they walked ashore. St.Thomas had arrived in Kerala.

Nunnu ran towards them and fell at Thomas’ feet. “Master! My beloved master….” He exclaimed “Bless me master.”

Thomas’ weather worn face broke out in a gentle smile and helping Nunnu to his, blessed him in the name of Jesus. “You will travel me with me young man and spread the gospel among your people.” He said. That night Thomas slept in Nunnu’s hut and his disciples outside, on sheets of canvas.

In the morning Thomas spoke to a small group of men and women, of the life of Christ and his death, and over of the philosophy that he espoused, the miracles that he had wrought. When Thomas finished, a couple of days later, it was decided by some of the assembled congregation to establish a church in the village. A hut was built with a thatched palm frond roof and a crude wooden cross thrust into the sand. The next day the group left on an evangelical journey that was to establish Christianity in Kerala. Nunnu followed the group, after tearful farewells to his mother and friends in the village.

Thomas halted at Palayur, a town near modern day Guruvayur, arriving arrived at point in history when records mention a community of Jews living in the town. It is believed that the evangelists converted forty Jews to the Christian faith.

One morning Thomas came upon several Namboodiris (Brahmins) bathing in a tank and performing a ‘Pithru Yajna’ (a ritual of ancestor worship), throwing up handfuls of water into the air – offerings to their sun-god. With Nunnu translating, Thomas asked them to freeze the water in mid-air to prove that their offerings were divinely accepted. The Namboodris exclaimed in horror that this was impossibility. Thomas invoked the Holy Spirit, made a sign of the cross and flung a handful of water up in the air freezing it in mid-air, transfixing shards of silver and drops of crystal in the slanting morning light. A few of bedazzled Brahmins at once converted to Christianity and were baptized with water from the tank. The other Namboodri families, fearing defilement fled from the village, cursing as they left, referring to it as Chapakatt (Chavakkad today, meaning ‘the cursed forest’).

After establishing a church at Palayur and spending a little time in the town narrating the gospel and in prayers, the group travelled south along the Periyar River and its tributaries halting at Niranam, Chayal, Kollam, Palur, Kodungallur, Gokkamangalam, Kottakayal where similar settlements of Christians were established and rudimentary churches constructed. Crosses made of stone were later erected. Nunnu disappears from the narrative at this point in time. Many of his descendants believe that he died in Niranom, having fallen ill on the journey and left behind to take care of the church. Some believe that Nunnu was murdered, having angered some of the local people in the village with his ardent proselytization.

The myth goes that Thomas travelled towards the southern extremity of the Indian peninsula, proselytizing along the Coromandel Coast to the east where he attained martyrdom outside Chennai in 72AD and is believed to have been buried beside the San Thome Basilica.

“I grew up a vegetarian, but love working with meats.” Says Chef Anand, executive chef at Xandari Pearl. “Having trained under so many chefs in different parts of the world, I have been influenced by many of their styles and have experimented with many flavours. Here, at Xandari Pearl we offer customized menus to suit the tastes of our guests who come from different parts of the world. We are working towards a sustainable supply chain of organic produce and one aspect that we absolutely insist on is that we only serve the fresh catch of the day in seafood.”
Xandari Pearl is a delightful seaside getaway and a meal here can be a languorous exercise. Chef Anand offers to show me how he cooks Fish Mappas, a favourite in oeuvre.
“Heat oil in a pan, add mustard, fenugreek and curry leaves.” He begins, “Add slit green chillies and sliced onions. Saute until the onions turn brown. Now add coriander powder, mustard powder, chopped tomato, kokum, big cubes of any sea fish and a little fish stock. Cover the pan and cook for 5 minutes on a low flame. And then simmer until the gravy thickens. Add coconut milk and simmer, ensuring that the milk does not boil. Garnish with coconut oil, short, thin strips of ginger, diced garlic, curry leaves and chopped shallots. “
Fish Mappas is a Kerala style fish curry cooked in coconut milk and served with appams.

Antonio Moscheni had a premonition of impending doom on the 10th November 1905. It was a muggy afternoon in Fort Kochi and flies buzzed around his face when the first pangs began in his stomach and turned into mild rumbles. The gripping pain then shot upwards and Antonio began to break out in a sweat. His breath turned fetid. And his entrails seemed to want to erupt. The altar in the Santa Cruz church that Moscheni had been working on was ready to be unveiled five days from hereon. And through the thickening mist of pain and nausea he gazed with a certain pride at his latest masterpiece.
Antonio Moscheni had travelled far. Born in Stezzano, the boy’s talent was discovered early and he was enrolled to study painting at the Accademia Carrara. Antonio chose frescos as his medium and began painting the walls and altars of churches in Bergamo. In 1889, at the age of 35, Moscheni joined the Society of Jesus. After a couple of years as a novitiate, his superiors noting his talent, sent the young man to embellish churches in Croatia, Albania and many more in Italy. In 1898, Moscheni was sent to India.
The voyage took four months, the Suez Canal had not been built, and ships sailed around the southern tip of Africa, the Cape of Good Hope. Moscheni arrived in Mangalore, assigned to paint the Chapel of St. Aloysius College. This work of his is perhaps the most stellar of all the projects that the maestro undertook. In 1903 he arrived in Fort Kochi to begin work on the Santa Cruz Basilica along with an apprentice named De Gama from Bangalore.
The history of the Santa Cruz cathedral begins with the arrival of the second Portuguese fleet commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral on 24th December 1500. Unni Goda Varma, the king of Cochin welcomed them. This period in history was marked by internecine warfare between the kings of Cochin and the Zamorin ruler of Calicut. The arrival of the Portuguese fleet and the welcome accorded to Cabral caused the Zamorin of Calicut to declare yet another war. Portuguese troops commanded by Dom Afonso de Albuquerque came to the aid of the Cochin king and defeated the Zamorin’s army in 1503. In gratitude Goda Varma allowed the Portuguese to build a fort in Kochi.
On 3rd May 1505, Dom Francisco de Almeida the first Portuguese Viceroy laid the foundation stone of the Santa Cruz church, the feast day of the Invention of the Holy Cross and named Santa Cruz. This church was located on the eastern side of the present ‘Children’s Park’ in Fort Cochin.
The Dutch occupied Cochin in 1663 and razed all Portuguese religious structures to the ground. Only the St. Francis church and cathedral were left intact. The Dutch made the cathedral a store of arms. The British demolished it when they took over Cochin in 1795. One of the decorative granite pillars of the destroyed cathedral is still kept as a monument at the south eastern corner of the present Basilica premises.
A hundred years passed before João Gomes Ferreira (1887–1897), the Bishop of Cochin, initiated the reconstruction of the cathedral and it was completed by Mateus de Oliveira Xavier (1897–1908). The church now has two lofty spires and a remarkably bright, white-washed exterior and a pastel-coloured interior.
As Moscheni gazed upon his work, an extravagant style reminiscent of the excessive artistic indulgences of the baroque – columns decorated with frescoes and murals. Seven large canvas paintings depicting the passion and death of Christ on the cross, a painting of ‘The Last Supper’, modelled on the famous painting of Leonardo da Vinci, luminous in the afternoon light streaking in through beautiful stained glass windows, the pangs in his stomach grew more painful and insistent. The figures in his paintings turned grotesque, the luminous colours swirled around his face, sweat soaking his cassock, trickling down his armpits and between his legs and the flies hummed a dirge.
Later that night after a frugal dinner of gruel, Moscheni slept fitfully as his body continued its purgation. In the morning his dead body was found, crumpled on soiled sheets, like a cloth bag bereft of its content. Four days later, his labour of love would be unveiled to the world. Moscheni’s last words floated over Kochi that night, “Lord why have you forsaken me?”

Vaidyar: Naturalist, Xandari Pearl

We are seated in the restaurant at Xandari Pearl, Vaidyar and I, looking out at the swimming pool. The afternoon is languid, humid, even the usually vociferous birds have submitted to the heat. We hear the throb of the ocean. Vaidyar is swarthy and weather worn, a substantial moustache frames his upper lip, his hair thick and black, cut short, a joyous smile punctuates his conversation often. He is the resort’s naturalist, nurturing the lush 18 acre property.

Exquisitely landscaped with fruit trees, flowering and medicinal plants segueing in symphonic harmony, Xandari Pearl is a unique ecosystem populated by 80 species of butterflies, more than 350 species of endemic

plants, and about ten frog species. Little Sunbirds flit over bunches of flowers, Owls have been spotted often. Kingfishers precision dive into a large pond stocked with fish, even as Woodpeckers strike up a rhythmic staccato somewhere up in the trees that look on benignly. Outside, a gentle breeze has begun to blow in from the sea. On the beach, sea turtles ponderously come ashore followed by troops of crustaceans.

Vaidyar fondly reminisces “My family, has over generations, worked with nature, we are children of the soil, farmers once.” I notice that his hands are the colour of fecund earth, his fingers trace delicate patterns in the air as he speaks.

 

A garden requires patient labor and attention. Plants do not grow merely to satisfy ambitions or to fulfill good intentions. They thrive because someone expended effort on them.

– LIBERTY HYDE BAILEY

“As a species we do not listen sir, human beings are bad listeners. We may be missing a lot of what’s going on. Sir, plants release attractive chemicals to pollinators, attracting species that eat pests, removing them from roots. Sir, I tell you plants listen too, to each other, unlike you and me….nature, sir.”

Vaidyar leans towards me, the texture on his facial skin is accentuated in the slanting late afternoon light. “I have been hearing insect-chewed tomato plants since when I was born. I have also heard other plants sing with joy and lament their moments of sorrow too. They rejuvenate when they start increasing production of compounds that upset insect digestion. And plants can recognise each other and their kin.” And then as the sun begins its descent into the ocean and shadows lengthen, the realisation dawns on me that Vaidyar is one of those blessed with a rare gift, the ability to converse in the secret language of plants.