When Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived at the Kappad beach in Kerala's Kozhikode in 1498, he was not greeted by a Malayali. Instead it was said to be a Gujarati merchant, who had settled down in Kozhikode.
The community of Gujaratis has merged with the history of this land in northern Kerala. Even when Ibn Battuta visited this land way back in the 14th century, Kozhikode was a bustling harbour town. Gujaratis too turned up at this north Kerala coast to do trade. It is said that Gujaratis taught the local people to trade with the Arabs and Chinese, and reap profit. The Gujarat community has played a significant role in this town's growth.
Though generally referred to as Gujaratis, this community in Kerala is made of innumerable number of sects. And each of them claim different beliefs, customs and even eating habits. Among them, there are Vaishnavites, Shivates, Jains, and Gujarati Marvadis.
More number and different sects of Gujaratis live in Kozhikode than in other regions of Kerala, including Kochi and Alappuzha.
Myriad facilities for trade in this city could be one reason that attracted them to northern Kerala. The community is mostly settled around the outskirts of the Valiyangadi, near the coast. They have also established their worship places around them.
The Gujarati Street
A path into the historical heritage of this town is how several historians describe the Gujarati Street, which consists of several narrow lanes beginning from Valiyangadi and leading to the South Beach. These interlinked paths remind one of the children's pictorial puzzle of finding the right way to reach the destination.
Houses and buildings line the narrow lanes. Most of the buildings follow the same format of houses in the upper storey with the ground floor functioning as a shop.
The place would give the famed Mattanchery in Kochi a run for its money, when it comes to bottling up the essence of the yore. That is the Gujarati Street for you.
Naveen Chand - a name scribbled in blood
Though he was of Gujarati origin, Naveen Chand Ishwarlal Sharoff was a Kozhikode lad at heart. He was the only child of his parents. At the age of 20, he actively participated in the Quit India Movement led by Gandhiji.
However, the British Army gave no concession to him for being a student. He was arrested for taking part in the stir and put behind the bars. When his mother visited him in the jail, he told her with confidence that "I would come out of prison into a free country."
However, he never got out of the prison. The British Army personnel stomped him with their boots and he collapsed on to the prison floor. With no treatment given, his wounds got infected and he contracted severe fever. Naveen Chand breathed his last in the prison, without ever seeing the free India. He probably was the first martyrs of the Quit India Movement from Kerala. But have you ever heard his name in the annals of history?
The freedom fighter
Not just Naveen Chand, there are several others from the Gujarati community in Kozhikode who have given their life and blood for India's freedom struggle. When Mahatma Gandhi visited Kozhikode during the 1930s, he was greeted with much pomp by people from his land.
Shyamji Sunderdas, a rice merchant at Kallayi in Kozhikdoe, was an ardent follower of the Gandhian principles. He was Gandhiji's host the three times the Mahatma had visited Kozhikode. Shyamji was the secretary and president of the Malabar Pradesh Congress Committee. He also took effort to bring other Gujaratis in Kozhikode to the forefront of the national establishments and social activities.
He was one of the brains behind the Congress mouthpiece that was printed and circulated on the sly during the Quit India Movement. He gave as many as 800 acres of his land in Malappuram to Harijans as part of Vinoba Bhave's Bhoodan Movement. During the last 25 years of this life, he lived at the old-age home at Malaparambu. He died on July 7, 1987.
The Gujarati Vidhyalaya in the city is celebrating its 150th anniversary. The institution was started in 1896 as the Calicut Private Gujarati School. It was moved to the building near the Beach Road in 1952 under the name Srenaranji Purushotam Vidya Bhavan. It became a high school with the state government's approval in 1969. All students were given admission. Renowned Malayalam writer S K Pottakad was a teacher at the Gujarati School from 1936 to 1939.
Balkrishna Mandir in Kozhikode
The Balkrishna Lalji Mandir at Gujarati Street is very popular. This temple was reconstructed in its present form about 150 years ago. This temple belongs to the Vishanavites from Gujarat. Ashtamirohini is their most important festival. They also celebrate Diwali, Holi and Makaravilakku. The beautiful silver idol of Sree Balakrishnan, about 3-4 inch tall, can be seen here.
There is a huge cattle shed with several cows near the temple.
About 400 Vaishnavite families lived here earlier. Now, there are only 150 families as several of them returned to their land. Some others are living in flats and houses in the various parts of the city.
The Jain temple
The names Nagjee Football and Sait Nagjee Purushotam Company have been etched in the minds of people here. For people in Kozhikoe, football would mean the Sait Nagjee Football Tournament. During the rains, they look for the 'Suryamark' umbrella. Several people who turned up to work at the umbrella company of the Sait Nagjee in Kozhikode settled down in the city.
Walk through the narrow lane on the south of the Sait Nagjee's company and you would reach the Jain temple. This is the Kalyanji-Anandji temple. The 35-cm alikund Parshwanath deity here is six-centuries old. Some claim that another part of the same idol is at the Jain temple in Wayanad.
The return journey
However, several people from the Gujarathi community here are migrating to other cities. They have better job opportunities in states such as Gujarat and Maharashtra. Most of the new-gen want to go abroad after completing higher studies.
Chethan Shah, a Gujarati-origin man, who was born and brought up in Kozhikode, said that many youth are cutting their ties with the city and returning.
"Several people are leaving. They are more concerned about the children's education and future. They find much better opportunities in Mumbai and Mangaluru. What is there in this land?" He asked.