Gosripuram Cochin Tirumala Devaswom is the biggest and most important socio-religious institution of Gowda Saraswat Brahmins (GSB) of Kerala. The temple (occupying 5.5 acres), is situated in the heart of Mattancherry town in Cochin, which is one of the earliest settlements of GSBs in Kerala. The temple was established in the later half of 16th century. The history of GSBs in Kerala is inter-woven with that of this temple and its Venkatewara idol. This temple houses a bronze bell (4ft diameter and 6ft high) and is the 2nd largest bronze bell in Asia. Locals told me that the ‘gong’ of the bell during the worship resonates through out Kochi and it used to be even heard in the near by town of Alleppey which is 50 Km! Not so now due to the automobile pollution, I was also told.
The Gowda Saraswat Brahmins claim their origin to the Brahmins who lived on the banks of the now extinct river Saraswati of Punjab. The history of Saraswats is a record of their struggle for existence and a chain of migrations, the longest and the most wide spread among any groups in India. Even after generations and centuries they preserve their culture and traditions intact. The Saraswats (also know as Konkanis) migrated to different part of India, including Goa. From Goa, they continued migration during the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, but the exodus became thicker after the entry of the Portuguese from the 16th century. The migration of GSBs to Kerala were mainly in two phases – in the 13th century (the exodus of 1294 AD) and subsequently in the 16th century (1560 AD).
On the north east corner is the PadmaTirtham temple tank. The revolving cradle in the upper storey of the copper roofed Arattumandapam in the center of the tank is an excellent piece of temple art noted for intricate and beautiful wood work and engineering skill.
On the eighth and final day of Aratt (annual festival) the temple main idol from the main temple is taken to a procession to the temple tank. The idol is taken round the tank in a canoe specially decorated for the occasion. At night, the procession resumes and the idol is taken back to the main temple.
On 31st May 2011, I had the rare opportunity to visit the temple pond, while the pond was being emptied for cleaning. This happens only once in 10 years!
When I arrived, water was still being pumped out, and roughly only 2 feet of water was left in the tank. Among the cleaners were also curious onlookers and small treasure hunters. But most of them were people who came to fish. Men and boys (I did not see any girls) used small bows and arrows and bamboo harpoons to shoot at fishes that were struggling to keep alive in the sudden shallow water.
Architecture of the center temple (Arattumandapam) was stunning to say the least. My guide and friend (Artist Shenoy) told me of ingenious engineering used in construction, the knowledge which has been lost to some of the brightest Engineers of modern India. Among many things he pointed out to me was this – the entire stepped stone boundary structure (100s of tons) around the tank was placed on a bed of wood. The wooden floor (while holding the pressure of the heave stone structure above it), which has been immersed in water for hundreds of years, still did not rot!
These Chinese fishing nets (locally known as Cheenavalas) is believed to be introduced by the Chinese explorer Zheng He, and were set up in Cochin between 1350 to 1450. Curiously these are seen only in the Cochin area, straddling the backwaters.
These shore operated lift nets are cantilever nets (on fixed installation), not seen these days in the southern mainland China where they are supposedly from. These huge mechanical devices hold out horizontal nets of 20 m or more across. Each structure is at least 10m high and comprises a cantilever with an outstretched net suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counterweights at the other end. A team of up to six or so fishermen operates the installation. The system is sufficiently balanced that the weight of a man walking along the main beam is sufficient to cause the net to descend into the sea. The net is left for a short time, possibly just a few minutes, before it is raised. The catch is usually modest: a few fish and crustaceans – these may be sold to passers by within minutes. The system of counterweights is most ingenious. Rocks, each 30 cm or so in diameter are suspended from ropes of different lengths. As the net is raised, some of the rocks one-by-one come to rest on a platform thereby keeping everything in balance. Each installation has a limited operating depth. Consequently, an individual net cannot be continually operated in tidal waters. Different installations will be operated depending on the state of the tide.