Walking through the streets of Calicut (II)

Calicut, 14th of March 2020

In times of Corona, is it still possible to walk through the streets of a big city that is always teeming with people? Especially in cities where there are no sidewalks, but where passers-by, vendors and automobiles (from autorickshaws to trucks) have to share the streets, it is easy to get in each other’s way. And it is exactly these things, especially physical proximity and touching, that we should avoid at the moment. Covid-19 has already changed our cities. In Tianjin, blue metal walls have been erected to separate shops from their customers or to seal off entire districts. It is known as the „Blue Great Wall“. The blue walls are a symbolic wall against the virus, but de facto they are supposed to protect people from themselves. This virus will further segregate our society in new ways. The demarcation measures issued by the local authorities, ranging from recommendation to prohibitions, are only the beginning.

What does Corona have to do with Calicut? Relatively little, actually. India is currently not one of the countries at risk. We’re currently talking 87 known and confirmed cases, 19 of them in the State of Kerala. However, since Germany is one of the risk countries, I was put under “quarantine” by the Indian authorities on March 13, 2020 “for my own protection”. Actually, it is only a “hotel quarantine”, i.e. I am not supposed to leave the hotel if possible, avoid all “non-essential” movements in the city and most importantly not use public transportation. There are certainly worse things, especially since the reports from friends and colleagues in Germany do not at all give me the feeling that I just wanted to be there. To understand why not only China, South Korea and Italy are counted among the risk areas, you just have to take a quick look at the map of the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) at Johns Hopkins University on “Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases”.

The context of all this is a research stay in Calicut. Fortunately, I was able to do some of the fieldwork at the beginning of the week. Besides a visit to the regional archives, this included a short “city walk” with Dr. Muhammedali, head of the History Department of Farook College, and Dr. Shinoy Jesinth, a young historian from Malabar Christian College, who wrote his dissertation on the urban development of Calicut during the colonial period. We visited the Tali Shiva Temple, a Jain Temple (but haven’t had access to the interior of either one) and the Railway Institute, founded in 1888, went through the Big Bazaar (Valiyangadi) and finally ended up at the Mothakara mosque, which is believed to date back to the 19th century. (For images see Twitter).

The site visits are only one part of the program – of course to see which historical buildings, streets or squares are still there today and what they look like, in order to check which elements that early modern travellers have seen are still there today. By concentrating on the historical (preserved) travel accounts, I can circumvent the current problem to a certain extent. After all, it reminds us that these travellers, too, have already had to contend with epidemics and disease; and we can all take this opportunity to remember that it was always our journeys – private and business, voluntary and forced by migration – that contributed to the spread of disease and epidemics in the world. In order to be able to make further observations on the emergence and development of urbanity, we will today devote ourselves to the Italian Pietro Della Valle, whose reports combine ethnographic observations, object-related documentation, astronomical position-finding and precise route descriptions.

Again, it’s our interest to find out, what this city looked like in the time of its greatest economic success and visibility: the houses, the streets, the squares and the buildings. And how people moved within it, how they used these places and what they thought and expected of it. In the research group “Religion and Urbanity” we are primarily investigating how religion and urbanity formed each other: “What role has religion played in urbanization? How has urbanity changed religion, and how do they continually influence one another?” However, since urbanity has not only been influenced by religious practices, actors and institutions, we first have to ask more general questions (under which conditions urbanity emerges and possibly disappears) in order to be able to define the specifically religious part more precisely.

The Italian travel writer, poet and composer Pietro Della Valle (1586-1652), a member of the Roman nobility, actually wanted to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1614. This turned into a journey as far as India, which lasted eleven years in total. On June 8, 1614, he started in Venice, sailed first to Istanbul to learn Turkish and Arabic. After about a year he continued his journey, via Alexandria and Cairo to Jerusalem, where he visited the holy places. However, he did not return to Rome, but continued his journey to Damascus, Baghdad (where he married a Syrian Christian woman, who died during the journey) and Isfahan (1617). Trained in ancient (European) languages, the nobleman also visited ancient sites such as Babylon, Nineveh and Ur, where he made transcriptions of inscriptions (cuneiform). The path led him further into the northwest of India. He reached Surat in 1623, from where he travelled south along the west coast in stages to Calicut. Via Muscat, Basra and Aleppo he returned to Rome, where he finally arrived on 28 March 1626.

After an honourable reception in Rome he was allowed to devote himself to the elaboration of his travel description, which was published in three volumes from 1650 onwards. The work consists of 54 letters to a friend. In the seventh letter, he reports on his “excursion” to Calicut, after having previously stopped in Mangalore, Kádiri, Carnáti and Cannanore [Kannur].

After the reception by the great Zamorin, he was able to explore the city and its inhabitants. So let’s follow him on his way through the bazaar, through the streets of Valiyangadi and into another, more “noble” quarter to the Palace of the Zamorin: „After Dinner I landed also with the Captain of my Ship and some other Souldiers; we went to see the Bazár which is near the shore; [1] the Houses, or rather Cottages, are built of Earth and thatched with Palm-leaves, being very low; the Streets also are very narrow, but sufficiently long; the Market was full of all sorts of Provisions and other things necessary to the livelihood of that people, conformably to their Custom; for as for clothing they need little, both Men and Women going quite naked, saving that they have a piece either of Cotton, or Silk, hanging down from the girdle to the knees and covering their shame; the better sort are either wont to wear it all blew, or white strip’d with Azure, or Azure and some other colour; a dark blew [turchino] being most esteem’d amongst them.” (Travels, p. 360) In the following he deals with hair and jewellery. Men carry sword and bucklers.

Before going any farther, Pietro Della Valle devotes himself to the division of the local population into social and religious groups. There are essentially two groups, the “Gentiles” and the “Malabari”, who live with the pagans, but are basically Muslims: „The Inhabitants of the Kingdom of Calecut and the In-land parts, especially the better sort, are all Gentiles, of the Race Nairi for the most part, by profession Souldiers, sufficiently swashing and brave. But the Sea Coasts are full of Malabari, an adventitious people, though of long standing; for Marco Polo, who writ four hundred years since, makes mention of them; they live confusedly with the Pagans, and speak the same Language, but yet are Mahommetans in Religion.[2] From them all that Country for a long tract together is call’d Malabar, [3] famous in India for the continual Robberies committed at Sea by the Malabar thieves; whence in the Bazar of Calecut, besides the things above mention’d, we saw sold good store of the Portugals’ commodities, as Swords, Arms, Books, Clothes of Goa, and the like Merchandize, taken from Portugal Vessels at Sea; which things, because they are stolen and in regard of the excommunication which lies upon us in that case, are not bought by our Christians. Having seen the Bazar and stay’d there till it was late we were minded to see the more inward and noble parts of the City and the outside of the King’s Palace; for to see the King at that hour we had no intention, nor did we come prepar’d for it, but were in the same garb which we wore in the Ship.” (Travels, p. 361-362) Then they continued through the city, towards the palace, along plots of land with large trees in which wild monkeys climbed. The passage is interesting above all because this part of the city is clearly different from the bazaar quarter in the eyes of the traveller: „Accordingly we walk’d a good way towards the Palace, for the City is great, and we found it to consist of plots set with abundance of high Trees, amongst the boughs whereof were a great many wild monkeys, and within these close Groves stand the Houses, for the most part at a distance from the common Wayes, or Streets; they appear but small, little of their outsides being seen; besides low walls made of a black stone surround these Plots and divide them from the Streets, which are much better than those of the Bazar, but without any ornament of Windows, so that he that walks through the City may think that he is rather in the midst of uninhabited Gardens than of an inhabited City. Nevertheless it is well peopled and hath many inhabitants, whose being contented with narrow Buildings is the cause that it appears but small.” (p. 362-363) From here they continued on to meet one of the viceroy’s men who knew from Goa. He finally persuaded them to meet the Zamorin, who also wanted to receive the group. The main gate of the palace was located on a small “piazza” with trees, which finally gave the flaneurs the shade they were looking for, before they went step by step into the inner area of the palace. (p. 363)

More will follow soon.

— Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at the University of Erfurt and one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” .


[1] This is most probably the Bazaar Road.

[2] Many of the inhabitants were, in fact, Hindus.

[3] According to Grey, this is a misapprehension. The word is derived from Mala (Dravidian: hill) and Arabic bar or Sanskrit bara, denoting territory. (Travels, vol. 1, p. 121, n. 4). See also: “Malabar Coast”, URL: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Malabar_Coast (14.3.2020)


Viaggi di Pietro della Valle il pellegrino ; con minuto ragguaglio di tutte le cose notabili osseruate in essi: descritti da lui medesimo in 54 lettere familiari all’erudito suo amico Mario Schipano, divisi in tre parti cioè: la Turchia, la Persia e l’India, Rom 1650-1658 (full text available on Gale)

Quotations are taken from the English translation:

The travels of Pietro della Valle in India, 2 vols., from the English translation of 1664, by G. Havers, ed. Edward Grey, London 1892.

Research literature:

Ayyar, K.V. Krishna, The Zamorins of Calicut. From the earliest times down to A.D. 1806, Calicut 1999 (first published 1938).

Flüchter, Antje, Frühneuzeitliche Indienwahrnehmung zwischen Empirie, Antike und Antiquarianismus. Die Briefe des Pietro della Valle (1586-1652), Maritime Entdeckung und Expansion. Kontinuitäten, Parallelen und Brüche von der Antike bis in die Neuzeit, ed. Raimund Schulz (Historische Zeitschrift / Beihefte (Neue Folge), vol. 77), Berlin/Boston 2019, p. 361-390.

Micocci, Claudia, Pietro Della Valle, Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani, vol. 37 (1989), p. 764-770.

“Pietro della Valle”, in: Encyclopædia Britannica [2019], URL: https://www.britannica.com/biography/Pietro-della-Valle (13.03.2020)

Cite this blog post
Susanne Rau (2020, March 24). Walking through the streets of Calicut (II). Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3ca

Susanne Rau

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at Erfurt University. Since 2018, she is directing the Centre for Advanced Studies in the Humanities (Kollegforschungsgruppe) "Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations" (DFG, FOR 2779).

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  1. October 30, 2020

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