The Sacred Spirits of African Slaves: Kochi’s Unique History
An illustration of slavery in Kerala under the Portuguese. (Photo: <i>The News Minute</i>)
An illustration of slavery in Kerala under the Portuguese. (Photo: The News Minute)

The Sacred Spirits of African Slaves: Kochi’s Unique History

A dark past, unkown to most, haunts many parts of Kochi. Centuries after African slaves were brought to these shores by the Portuguese, many stories and beliefs have evolved about them.

Several parts of Kochi are dotted with remnants of slavery. 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 role in the subsequent evolution of 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... 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.
KL Bernard writes in his book.


Several parts of Kochi are dotted with remnants of slavery practiced by the Portuguese. (Photo: <i>The News Minute</i>)
Several parts of Kochi are dotted with remnants of slavery practiced by the Portuguese. (Photo: The News Minute)

He also chronicles that the skeletons were found in two wall niches – on kappiri mathils – on Rose Street, near Fort Kochi, close to 450 years after the enslaved men would have died.

Biju Bernard, son of the deceased historian. (Photo: AP)
Biju Bernard, son of the deceased historian. (Photo: AP)
My father has told me many stories about how the slaves were treated. Some had later gained these treasures while reconstructing those walls.
Biju Bernard, son of KL Bernard

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 practice is mainly followed by some traditional Anglo-Indian families.
Lawrence, an 80-year-old man who used to own a workshop in Fort Kochi
Kappiri Muthappan shrine in Mangattumukku. (Photo: <i>The News Minute</i>)
Kappiri Muthappan shrine in Mangattumukku. (Photo: The News Minute)

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 as big banyan trees. They were also called Kappiri aal (banyan tree).

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.

KL Bernard’s <i>History of Fort Cochin</i>. (Photo: <i>The News Minute</i>)
KL Bernard’s History of Fort Cochin. (Photo: The News Minute)

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 previous generations were said to have seen Kappiri Muthappan. He appears as a male spirit wearing coat and suit and smoking cigar and shaking chains on full moon days.

(Published in arrangement with The News Minute.)

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