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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Heritage Site Soon to Disappear

One more landmark in the glorious past of Calicut may soon disappear – unless those who love Calicut (and they are legion) act to prevent the demolition of the only colonial structure left in the Mananchira Square. The row of buildings constructed in the Victorian style which adorns the southern bank of the Mananchira Tank may soon be sold in auction for meeting some statutory payments relating to the dues of the workers of the Commonwealth Trust.

Photo: Courtesy

The Commonwealth Trust, which is the successor to the Basel Mission Industries, is a standing reminder of the bold and revolutionary attempt at social engineering in Malabar, attempted by the German missionaries. The story of this magnificent failure has been recounted by Jaiprakash Raghaviah, an active member of Calicut Heritage Forum, in his work : Basel Mission Industries in Malabar and South Canara, 1834-1914 (1990).

The fascinating story of dedication and perseverance of a handful of Calvinist priests is worth narrating in some detail. Napoleon had, in 1815, escaped from imprisonment in the Island of Elba and had landed in France. Soon, war restarted in Europe. The city of Basel which shared its boundaries with Germany and France felt the tremors of invading armies. A group of pious Christians belonging to the Reformed Church of Basel and the Lutheran Church of Wurtenberg pledged to start a seminary fro missionary training if God would spare Basel from destruction. Soon Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo and the threat disappeared. In fulfilment of this pledge, six persons including three clergymen, one professor, a notary and a merchant, met in the rectory of St. Matin at Basel and formed the Evangelical Missionary Society on 26th September, 1815. Within a year, they started an institution for training missionaries with seven students.

They started by setting up centres in West Africa in 1821. However, their effort to send missionaries to India was thwarted by the East India Company which did not permit non-British missions to work in the areas occupied by it. This obstacle was removed after the revision of the Company's Charter in 1833.

Thus it was that three missionaries – Johan Christopher Lehner, Christian Lenhard Greiner and Samuel Hebich – landed in Calicut on 21st August 1834. Although their original mandate was to establish schools and institutions for training catechists, they realised soon that mere education without providing some remunerative jobs would be unsustainable, due to the extreme poverty of most of the members of the congregation.

The mission had started work in Mangalore, as the place was thought to be more hospitable. The Collector of Mangalore, Mr.H.M.Blair had donated a piece of land to Rev.Hebich to help him pursue his idea of jobs for the poor. The padre's experiment in coffee plantation on this land was a disaster. The next experiment of making sugar from toddy was equally disastrous. When their various agricultural ventures failed, the missionaries turned to industries as a possible alternative for creating jobs for the congregation.

It was not as if their industrial ventures were great successes, either. The first attempts at locksmithy, carpentry and watch making were all failures. The printing press which was started in Mangalore in 1841 fared better and soon it was churning out English-Kannada-Tulu-Malayalam dictionaries.

The arrival of Mr.Haller, a European weaving expert marked the beginning of the weaving industry by the Mission. He set up a small factory in Mangalore with 21 handlooms of European design and a Dye house. Mr. Haller is reputed to be the inventor of Khaki, the colour and cloth which is now known the world over. Khaki was born in Mangalore in 1852.

A review of the Mission's activities was undertaken in Basel and as a result, Mr. Pfeiderer was sent to India in 1854 to guide the missionaries in their ventures. It was Mr. Pfeiderer who laid a firm foundation for the commercial enterprises of the Mission by laying down that their aim should be not to make profits but to teach how to conduct business on Christian Principles. A joint stock company was formed under the name Mission-Handels-Gesellschaft (Mission Trading Company) and one of its first ventures was a Tile manufacturing factory.

Although the Mission had started its industrial activities in Mangalore, it soon found that Malabar had better availability of labour, raw materials and other factors. The activities spread rapidly in Malabar with the first weaving factory being set up in Kannur in 1852, followed by another in Calicut in 1859, Chombala, Tellicherry and Codacal in 1860. A Dye house was established in Koilandy in 1880. The first tile factory in Malabar was established in 1887 in Codacal and Palghat, followed by another in Feroke in 1905.

The Mission insisted on a casteless society among converts unlike many other congregations, particularly in Travancore where the converts continued to carry their pre-conversion caste hierarchy and prejudices into their new lives. It also insisted on following a management pattern which mirrored closely the Church hierarchy. In many cases, factory responsibilities and Church positions overlapped. The idea was to look after the converts in an exclusive atmosphere where their temporal and spiritual needs were looked after. In spite of this, the Calvinist doctrine of individual salvation perhaps limited the scope for mass conversion. Raghaviah reports that the total number of converts in 1914 was less than 20,000.

Perhaps Malabar and the Malayalam literary world will remember the Mission less for its factories and more for its gift of its first and greatest lexicographer, Dr. Herman Gundert. He was part of a team of missionaries which landed in Calicut on 13th October 1834. Mr. Thomas Strange, the British District Judge of Tellicherry, who was well disposed towards the Basel Mission, donated his Illikkunnu Bungalow for missionary activities. It was here that Gundert spent the next several decades working at not only the monumental dictionary, but on a grammar book called Malayala Bhasha Vyakaranam (1868) and a translation of the Bible into Malayalam.

When World War broke out in 1914, the properties of the Mission were seized as belonging to Germans who were enemies of the British. Commonwealth Trust was formed in London to administer the properties and industrial ventures. (Please see for more details

The Mission's activities were thereafter confined to its original mandate of education and uplift of the socially depressed classes. In 1947 the Protestant denominations of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Congregationalists came together to form the unified Church of South India (CSI). The Lutherans did not take part in the unification. CSI now maintains a large number of educational institutions and health centres.

The Commonwealth Trust meanwhile prospered under British patronage, making fabrics for the European homes. Most of its products found ready acceptance as these were tailored to the demands of the western market. Modern designs and technologies, introduced from time to time, ensured that the supremacy was maintained. A case in point is the invitation to the influential American weaver Sheila Hicks in 1966 to visit Calicut and work with the weavers to develop new designs. She designed a type of tapestry 'in plain weave, its ribbed, sculptured effect relying on the random insertion of very thick tapering and overlapping wefts secured by rows of plain even weave using the same fine cotton as the warp.'

Sheila named the fabric 'Badagara' to commemorate her stay at the Sandbanks island in Badagara during her assignment in Calicut. She took samples to Paris where it became popular as a wall covering for hotel foyers and other common areas. The new Hong Kong Club which was being built in Sydney used 'Badagara' for its foyer.

However, the Trust and its products gradually declined and, under a new ownership the effort was to sell the family silver to overcome temporary cash flow problems. The first casualty was the majestic colonial bungalow on the beach which went, reportedly, for a ridiculously low price. Then followed some factory sites in Palghat and the Guest House facing Crown Theatre, another piece of colonial architecture.

The final piece will be the imposing building on the southern shore of Mananchira Tank which houses the administrative block and some weaving sheds at the back. Efforts are on by institutions like INTACH to stop the sale of this heritage building. We can only pray that the new owners may retain the facade of the existing structure while building their own dream edifice behind it.


Gyaan Books : Basel Mission Industries In Malabar And South Canara (1834-


  1. To commemorate the contributions made by the Basel mission we need to preserve such structures that we have in Calicut. Unfortunately commercialization has taken away the aesthetic sense of our people. We find structures being constructed here and there pock-marking the face of the city. We have a legislation to preserve old structures as these. Unless some political party takes up the issue no one is going to stop the demolition of the structure. Hope that your article would open the eyes of some political party and prevent its destruction.

  2. The loss of this building will be very sad if it occurs.

    When I was in Calicut two years ago the building appeared to be very fine, and I believe the city would in time come to regret its passing, as modern concrete buildings rarely have the appeal that a building like this can have, especially if it were restored.

    Tourism is a growing industry in Kerala, and the accomodation in Calicut is generally poor. Couldn't this building be redeveloped into a comfortable hotel and conference centre, like some of those in Kochi?

    Nick Balmer

  3. I understand that any building which is more than a century old comes under the preview of the Archialogicala Society as it ia a Heritage building?.Can the sociity be alerted?
    Mr.Herman Gundert, was taught Malayalam and Sanskrit by the famous Oracheri Gurnath. He has mentioned this in his diary.It is really surprising thet no mention is made of this great teracher who made Gundert as we know today. The "Khaki" colour also was also developed in Illikunnu to stand against the dusts of India.

  4. The historical "Huzur" building was sold off to LIC and it was demolished.People has taken it very lightly .

  5. The location of the CT building itself is very historic. it was the site of the old zamorin's palace, now it is the CT building and soon, like others said maybe a hotel will lord the site. As Kidsons round teh corner used to do. I recall going there to buy 'crepe' cloth for shirts during my college days.

  6. It should be designated as a heritage building and protected. Thanks for brtinging this up with a lucid narration of what went behind.

  7. Interesting read. Why do you call it Victorian style? There is a typo which put 1921 instead of, probably, 1821. You were going to talk about the building itself and then you drifted away and forgot it. When was this built? Some three or four years back they sold a large number of heavy pieces of furniture. I got a solid table of teak of adjustable length for Rs 5000.;)

  8. The heritage of Mananchira will not be lost, as is presumed. There are still people around with a bit of a vision, both inside and outside Comtrust. Time shall tell...Feel really nice that most people feel the same way.

  9. Our sincere thanks to all who have commented.
    CKM - Do we really have a Heritage Law in Kerala? Could we have details, so that friends working to preserve such monuments are informed?
    Yes, Nick, we agree with you. The best that can happen to this structure is for it to be converted into a heritage hotel.
    Thank you, Premnath, for bringing up the name of Ooracheri Gurukkanmar from Chokli, Talasseri, the teachers of Gundert. We are collecting information for a possible story.
    PNS- Many thanks for your kind words.
    Calicutter- Grateful for pointing out the typo. We have corrected it!
    Mo-We are reassured by your confidence in the vision of people both inside and outside Comtrust. As the testimony of Calicutter above would suggest, this vision must have been acquired quite recently - would they have sold antique furniture, otherwise? And, where was this vision when the guest house cum residence opposite Crown Theatre was demolished recently?
    Finally, Maddy,we share the nostalgia. There was a time when we could afford to buy cloth from Comtrust only during the annual sale. The surplus that the angrez did not want used to be gobbled up by quality-conscious desi crowd. And the stuff would last and last!


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