20th August 2022

The Slave God

Fort Cochin, Kerala, IND

KAPPIRI - Title believed to have originated from the arabic word Kafir signifying non-believers or non muslims by the Arab slave traders to describe the Africans who they captured to be sold as slaves.  

Fort Cochin once had much more massive trees and many of these trees were believed to be frequented by the spirits of kaapiris. The people who believed that they saw the ghost of kaapiris on the trees or anywhere else have dwindled significantly with the majority dead. They were the last generation who had memories of living in a Fort Cochin in which there was abundant land dotted with trees, huge swathes of darkness and a large number of ponds. For the ones devoted to the kappiri spirits, the question about the veracity of the sightings of the black ghosts sitting on top of large trees is unasked for as logic is deemed unnecessary. 
Inside a strange scenario in a land of thousand gods, another deity mysteriously was born out of the cruel and superstitious deeds of foreigners and still lives inside the belief systems of a multitude of people spread over multiple ethnicities. In physical form it exists at the still surviving little shrines still to be found in the region. As with the tale of many other spirits or supernatural forces from any other province, the real sightings ceased as soon as electricity appeared. The darkness which in the popular imaginations is considered vital for the survival of these other worldly beings stopped to be as intimidating as before. The slow vanishing of the large tracts of vacant land, massive trees and the thick vegetation which lend the frightening aura to the surrounding moonlit darkness also became explanations for the disappearance of the spirits.

Tales centered on kaapiri experiences were once galore in the society. Encounters of various natures in the nocturnal hours were told and retold to become akin to folklores. The sightings at night were of dark men of both large and average body types. In a plethora of recounts, the spirits become visible as a compassionate old man sitting on top of big walls ever willing to help a needy night traveller in some trouble. In many other instances, they were visible on top of trees looking down. The initiation of the kaapiri myth began with cold-blooded murders and the Portuguese retreating to Goa and elsewhere due to the onslaught of the Dutch in Fort Cochin. 

With the arrival of the first European rulers of Cochin in 1500, the tale of the kaapiri began to be weaved. The island called Thuruthy situated at the banks of the Calvetti Canal was once known as Kaapiri Thuruthy because the subjugated Africans brought to Fort Cochin were held there as captives. They became an important work force for the ruling Portuguese in the functioning of the port activities and also became an fundamental part of the life of their masters inside the massive Fort Immanuel at Fort Cochin, the first colonial fort in India constructed in the year 1503. By the end of the Portugese rule and the takeover by the Dutch, the first life narrative of the Black Slaves also halted and a second one began. The conquest by the Dutch was very brutal and they finally could drive away the Portuguese after multiple failed attempts over a span of several years.  

The Dutch became victorious on January 6, 1663 and on that day the life of several ‘African Servants’ were decided to be squandered to satisfy the nefarious beliefs of many among the category of Portugese serving community called Topasses.  The birth of the class of Topasses was a consequence of the Portuguese mixing up with the local population and creating a new breed of subsidiary personnel leaning more to European ways of life and following the Christian religion. This clan served their masters in different capacities and is assumed to have been highly superstitious. Over a period of time, many among them are believed to have become very wealthy serving the Portuguese in several trades. When the victorious Dutch sent out a decree proclaiming all the wealth, property and slaves to be handed over, it sent shivers down the spine of several of the Topasses who wanted to somehow retain their valuables.  They thought of hiding their treasures in pits and inside holes made in the thick walls of their dwellings. Along with their treasures, the Topasses also buried their slaves after sacrificing them believing that their spirits will protect the wealth till they come back to claim it. 

Interesting faith systems revolve around the belief conceived centuries back by the sacrifices of the African slaves. From the social tapestries, the once prevalent practices related to the myth of kaapiri has largely disappeared. One example was the tradition of offering of the first piece of the local food puttu to the spirit so that the rest of the cylindrical shaped preparation is prepared perfectly and is tasty. This custom was primarily followed among Anglo-Indian communities. Till a few decades back in Fort Cochin or Mattanchery, if one got rich unexpectedly, there was a chance of an accusation muttered around spreading a tale of being helped by the kaapiri to discover a lost treasure. 

Gradually, the demand for land has led to the destruction of many physical evidences of the kappiri shrines. In most of these huge trees where the kaapiri deities were sighted, the custom of placing idols in the base of the tree known as kaapiri maram in the local parlance and worshipping it by lighting lamps as well as keeping offerings to please the spirit were practiced. The possibility of any of these shrines still surviving is very small. In the course of time, narratives of finding skeletons being found inside the large walls of some colonial era buildings during it’s demolition was also heard around. Muthappan is a deity worshipped in North Malabar region of Kerala. The use of the same title in Fortcochin to address the spirits as Kaapiri Muthappan  can be considered as being used to address a mystical protecting deity and as a name suggesting reverence to a supreme force beyond actual human comprehensions.

Mesha Vekkal (The table laying ritual) 

Mesha Vekkal is a still surviving custom of kappiri invocation practiced for more than a century and still continued by certain families. In the house of Kanakkan in Panayapally at Fortcochin, delicacies like the puttu, vellappam, catfish (fried as well as cooked in gravy) and duck egg fry is prepared with and without salt and neatly laid on a table. Earlier, toddy, arrack and churuttu (native cigarettes made with rolled tobacco leaves) also used to be kept with the food. Now as  toddy and arrack are unavailable, Brandy or some other liquor is used. The inaccessibility of Churuttu has led to it being dropped from the practice. The people who want something from the ‘Kappiri Muthappan’ pray for some time and then they lock up the room for a few minutes.  

One of the remaining shrines of ‘Kaapiri Muthappan’ in the region is situated in a narrow concrete street which can be accessed from the ‘Iyen Master Road’ in Panayapally at Fortcochin. The shrine situated just opposite to the house compound of Kanakkan with no symbols of any kind engraved in it is part of a house wall and is visited by many followers of every faith system. They light up candles and pray to the ‘Kappiri’. Sometimes alcohol is also offered. It’s not clear whether the shrine which was earlier situated inside the compound when the whole region was vast and filled with trees and other vegetation came about due to it being a spot of a slave sacrifice or due to a frequent spotting of a ghost of the ‘Kappiri’ there. The other shrine of a similar nature and engraved into a compound wall at Managattumukku in Mattancherry is also shrouded in mystery. No one who comes here to pray is aware of the real story of it’s origins. No one knows whether it was previously constructed on a place where a slave master buried his treasure and also a sacrificed slave or whether it was shifted from an adjacent compound to it’s current location or whether as in the case of the other shrine at Panayapally, it was conceived in honour of a ‘Kaapiri spirit sighting’ occurring consistently. 

The small gate at the left side of the narrow lane just behind ‘Baby’s Home Stay’ at the Kokker’s Theatre bus stop on the way to Fortcochin leads to an old house owned by Kishore, a staunch believer in a mysterious deity only known to him as ‘Muthappan’.  Upon the first look, it’s like the umpteen concrete constructions found in Hindu family households built for planting the Thulsi plant as well as lighting a lamp every evening. But in this household, the structure hides more. As per the traditions, everyday a lamp is lit by either Kishore or his wife.  On every Friday, there are additions. A few lit incense sticks stuck in three bananas are kept in the structure and candles are lit. The combination of the lamp as well as the candles is weird. It seems to be a fusion of some kind, a mutation of a peculiar nature conceived by some belief acquired by an ancestor due to a strange mystical occurrence. The uncanny combination is made more interesting by the presence of a round granite stone lying half buried in the soil surrounding the structure. It looks exactly like the stone statue which can be found along with the serpent figures in the snake shrines to be found in different parts of Kerala as well as in the nearby areas of West Cochin. The circular rock figurine was situated in a different part of the plot in the earlier times and then was shifted to it’s present location. 

Kishore remembers the deity from the days of his childhood and believes that it has existed in the compound from before the time of his father. Although he cannot verify whether it is actually a ‘Kappiri Shrine’or some other ancient Hindu deity, what is most amusing is that the ‘Mesha Vekkal’ (table laying) custom practiced in the Panayapally area has been practiced here for decades.  Instead of having both salted and non-salted delicacies, at Kishore’s house during the custom of ‘Mesha Vekkal’, only salted items are preferred and the dishes are Puttu, chicken curry, duck egg fry, dry fish and a curry made of any other fish . Foreign alcohol in absence of toddy or arrack and cigarette in place of ‘churrutu’ are also included. Till some years back, tender coconut water also used to be poured on top of the stone structure every week. The last time Kishore undertook the ritual of ‘Mesha Vekkal ‘is two years back.  Long back, when adjacent compounds were not yet divided by the brick and stone walls, members of other communities were also regular visitors of the deity.