How can one describe a bazaar? A first attempt: Walking over the “Big Bazaar” in Calicut
In April 2019, when I accepted an invitation to give a lecture at Kannur, our partner university, I combined my stay with initial on-site research on our research project “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations”. I already had a first idea of what I wanted to investigate in selected West Indian coastal cities. As with any historical research question, I first wanted to check whether the necessary sources were available to answer my questions – especially since this is a completely new region that I am currently exploring. So I used my stay to visit museums, libraries and archives in Kerala and to get an overview of existing objects and texts. One of my excursions took me from Kannur to Calicut (or, as it is called in the national language: Kozhikode). Since I didn’t want to repeat the adventure of a three-hour bus ride (for about 90 cents), I bought a ticket in an air-conditioned train compartment for 12 April 2019 (for about 7 EUR and only a two-hour ride).
Arriving at the station in Calicut, I approached the city on foot and, turning left shortly before the SM-Street, famous for its sweets, reached the Railway Bridge. On the right I see a mosque, straight ahead, after the crossing the Bazaar Road starts, which is called MA-Road for the first half. This bazaar in Calicut is in fact a street, as the name says, and not a market with stalls or a kind of big department store that could carry the name bazaar in modern times. It is essentially a wholesale market, although one can still buy there as an individual consumer. To the right and to the left of the street are stores lined up, at first mostly metal goods, but a few meters further there are already dried fruits, dates, nuts, but also rice, sugar, chili, spices (a lot of turmeric and other local spices) in large quantities to choose from. Many products can be tested, i.e. viewed, touched, compared and tasted. Large bags are loaded onto trucks, which sometimes block the road, and brought to the countries or the storage rooms behind them, which can be reached via alleys and courtyards between the shops. It is loud with the horns of motorcycles, cars and trucks, but also with people on the phone and communicating across the street. People draw attention to themselves, negotiate prices or shout something to the loaders. At the other end of Bazaar Road there are warehouses again, then a standing snack where some young men eat something – and again a mosque.
This morning it’s so incredibly hot that the next thing I do is call a taxi, or rather one of those yellow-black autorickshaws. But the driver has no time, he has to go to the mosque to pray and therefore drives on. So I walk a few steps further and come to the Beach Road that runs parallel to the Arabian Sea. I walk as far as Gujarati Street, then finally an autorickshaw driver has mercy on me and drives me to the archive further north in the city, which is located in the Civil Station. In the Regional Archives Kozhikode I am allowed to look through some finding aids. But I also have to think about this Bazaar Road, which is also called “Valiyangadi” in Malayalam. Since when does it exist? What is it about this conspicuous structure that there are mosques at both ends?
In the evening, after the visit to the archive, I go back to this street and record a 15-minute video with my mobile phone by slowly walking the street from front to back again. This is a 1.5-minute short version of the video, cut by Fritz Unruh. You can go to the video by clicking on the image:
Then I must hurry to the train and continue my reading. I read in Narayanan’s History of the City of Calicut, where I also find some interesting reference to this street (Narayanan 2018, p. 25-27, 66, 96, 98, 246): It has been documented in the sources since 1442. At that time, of course, it was not yet paved. It was asphalted under British rule in the 1930s. For some time there must have been tracks on which wooden shutters were used to transport the goods. For centuries Muslims, Jains, Hindu Seths, Gujarati and Marwari moneylenders as well as Tamils and Andhra Chettis have met here. They are the actors of this place, where large quantities of goods and money are handled. This must have been a hub of South Asian trade, which Calicut has been since the late Middle Ages. Religion played and plays a role here not only by the present representatives of different religious groups, which came from the north, east, from the Arabian peninsula, from Persia and since the end of the 15th century also from Europe.
Religious practices were integrated into the daily routines of trade. This can be seen not only with my rickshaw driver, who had to pray instead of driving me to the archives, but also in the commercial practices and morals for which the religions have always formulated rules. And it is evident in the urban structure (mosque – bazaar or suk), which can be found in many Islamic cities. Whether this is an urban planning concept remains to be clarified for Calicut. At the one end, near the Railway Bridge, is the Sunni Masjid, at the other end (seaside) the Khaleefa Masjid. Myths have formed around the long-lasting prosperity of the urban centre of Calicut, which the inhabitants pass on orally. Narayanan tells of a legend about Mangatt Achan, the first secretary of Zamorin Raja. „After a long and difficult penance, the Achan had succeeded in having Lakshmi, the Goddess of Wealth, appear before him and offer a boon. He made her promise to wait in the same place until he returned, then went home and committed suicide. The clever idea was that the Goddess, unable to break her oath, will stay permanently in Valiyangadi (Big Bazaar), where the devoted Secretary had left her, and that is why prosperous trade continues in that street in spite of all sorts of changes. Besides illustrating the intelligence and self-sacrificing loyalty of the First Secretary, this popular tradition tries to offer a mythical explanation for the steady progress of trade in Valiyangadi from medieval to modern times. It provides an insurance against slump, and a source of confidence.” (p. 26-27)
The bazaar of Calicut, its historical depths, the worldwide interdependence of people and goods, the religious practices and urban structures that characterize the everyday life of this street have captivated me. I would like to know more about it – more about the different interdependencies and mutual formations of trade, religion and urban development in this ‘global city’ avant la lettre; but also more about the connection between piety and trade in cities influenced by Islam. Because only this should be undisputed so far: that bazaars, like the fairs in Europe, are a distinguishing feature. They seem to have existed only in cities, whereas there were cities without bazaars and without fairs.
In the coming weeks I will continue to read, go to the bazaars of different world cities and then report again…
— Susanne Rau
M.G.S. Narayanan, Calicut. The City of Truth Revisited, Kozhikode 2018 (first published: 2006)
Syed Ali Nadeem Rezavi, Bazars and markets in medieval India, in: Studies in People’s History, 2, 1 (2015): 61–70
Saskia Sassen, The global city. New York, London, Tokyo, Princeton, N.J. 2001 (2nd edn.)