The Lakme Fashion Week is one of India’s most prestigious style events that redefines the future of fashion. This glorious five day event has already begun and has managed bring together the most prominent names of the fashion industry, from all over the globe. This year, noted designer Wendell Rodricks is all set to celebrate the legacy of handwoven Indian textiles and will display his contemporary collection of Indian textiles at the Lakme Fashion Week Summer/Resort 2016.

Therefore, here is an excerpt from Wendell’s book, Travelling In, Travelling Out: a book of Unexpected Journeys (Harper Collins), where the erudite designer turns his attention to a rather unusual subject: the roots of his own language, Konkani, and the ancient glory of the otherwise ignored coastal region of present day Maharashtra where it emanated from.


 

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The mango groves stretch for miles along the coast. In the hot, humid month of May, Maharashtra sizzles on the Deccan Plateau. But here, near the sea, in Ratnagiri, a cool breeze blows the luscious perfume of the world’s best mango, the Alphonso, through the palms and well-tended orchards. Then, suddenly,wafting on the wind, I hear it. The lilting melodious sound of my ancestral language.

Yes, it is Konkani indeed. There are few local words that I do not understand. I speak to the man in my native tongue. He is a Konkan Brahmin, he tells me. And his dialect of Konkani is called Chintapawani. We bond in an ancient brotherhood of the Konkan coast. It happens to me everywhere on this coastal strip. Further south, the people of Malvan speak Malvani, the Goans speak Gomantaki. Tipu Sultan’s influence has resulted in Konkani with Urdu words in places as far flung as Mysore, Coorg and Srirangapatnam, and even in Calicut I was astonished to hear Konkani in a jewellery shop. There were some Malayalam and Tulu words thrown in. The owner recognized me and spoke in Konkani at length. How his ‘family left Goa twice… in the thirteenth century fleeing the forces of Alauddin Khilji and later escaping the horrors of the Portuguese inquisition in1560. There have been Konkan people here always. Before the Malabar coast, this was the Konkan coast.’

Surely he was misinformed! I had never heard of this before. ‘But let me take you home for lunch and share more about our common lineage.’ Over lunch that comprised steamed red rice, a fish curry and local pickle, I realized that it was not just language but food that was also common. So I set about discovering the Konkan coast— with my tongue.

Dr Krishnanand Kamat has a website that recounts the history of the Konkan. ‘The seven kingdoms of the Konkan, as per Hindu mythology, mentioned in the Hindu history of Kashmir, included the entire west coast of India.’ The Pandavas of the Mahabharata, Lord Krishna, Goddess Durga and later the Mauryas, the Marathas, the Muslims from the plateau and the Portuguese arrived on this coast. Due to the pious nature of the people this strip of land by the sea has many temples, with people faithful to ‘their’ temple gods. Annual pilgrimages all over the Konkan are common and the events surrounding them colourful and festive. The capital of the Konkan is supposedly Chandrapur. Is this the present village of Chandorin Goa?

The Konkan coast may have vanished today, but the Konkani language lives on. You can hear it in Karwar, Ankola and Kumta-Honavar. Away from the Mangalore coast, in the valley of Siddapur, I attended a wedding where villagers from far and wide spoke fluent Konkani. The Nawayatis of Bhatkal speak melodiously with Persian words thrown in. This did not surprise me. In Goa, the famous Chapora fort area was occupied by the Persians. The ancient name was Shahpura, the town of the Shah of Persia.

I settle down to a breakfast in Karnataka with a Konkani family. Steaming undi rice balls flavoured with ginger, curry leaf, chilli and coconut appear. They have a delicious sweetness as well. Is it the local molasses? This addition of a sweet ingredient in savoury or spicy dishes is popular from Gujarat to Kerala.There are other commonalities. The simple broths made with lentils, the humble dishes using local bananas, rice andvegetables.

Ambotik shark curry from Goa
Ambotik shark curry from Goa

Here, in what was once Canara, a region of the Konkan, sour ambat and fiery prawn gassi find common ground with the hot and sour ambotik shark curry and the spicy Portuguese-influenced pork vindaloo of Goa. Rice is a staple. It is powdered, ground to a paste, steamed, fried or cooked as is. The neerdosas, the idlis, the sannas — rice preparations — grace most Konkani tables in their various avatars. Fruit like banana, jackfruit, cashew nut, mango and sour kokum flavour dishes in numerous ways. Mangoes are eaten raw in water pickles, ripe as dessert and sun-dried when raw as a souring ingredient. With a limited range of spices, such as turmeric, asafoetida, cumin, mustard, fenugreek, chilli and pepper, a wondrous array of Konkani cuisine hasevolved over the years.

Local ingredients are abundant due to the landscape that permits agriculture during the torrential rains which lash the coast in the monsoon, and the fertile earth that makes it easy to grow crops. On my trail of the tongue for language and food, I discovered a rare natural phenomenon. Along the entire Konkan coast, near the ocean and on the islands in the Arabian Sea, there are natural spring wells with fresh water.

While in Arambol, Goa, a freshwater lake almost touches the ocean, the Fort Aguada derives its name from this natural wonder. The hill was called ‘Mae de agua’ (mother of waters). There were, and still are, so many springs on Aguada Hill that mariners would anchor at the base of the hill while barrels of freshwater rolled down into the ships embarking on long journeys across the globe. In Sindhudurg, Maharashtra, the stunning fort covers an entire island. Thirteen families live on the twenty-three-acre island surrounded by a raging ocean. But within are three freshwater springs. It is the presence of these springs all along the Konkan that makes for easy cultivation of vegetables such as pumpkin, drumstick, ladies’ finger, tendli, cucumber, tomatoes, eggplant and ridged gourd which have different names in different coastal areas.

There is in Goa an unusual astringent spice call teflam or teofam that flavours the curries of oily fish like sardine and mackerel. Non-Goans ask for teflam. They must have this spice that grows wild on the hills. But they possibly have anothername for it.

In ancient times, Konkani speakers were believed to stretch right across the western coast of India
In ancient times, Konkani speakers were believed to stretch right across the western coast of India

And this is something remarkable about Konkani as a language. Because of the various influences, words appear inthe language across the coast that seem alien to Konkan’sneighbouring areas. Goan Konkani is peppered with Portuguese.For the most part, the items of daily life that the Portuguese introduced to Goans stayed in the original language. Spoon and table became localized to culer and mez (from colher and mesa).Similarly, traders who touched the coast introduced Arabic and Persian words such as dukan (shop), karz (debt), fakt (only), dushman (enemy) and barik (thin).

The most remarkable transformation of the Konkani language is that Konkani people introduced local words to be understood by non-Konkani-speaking people. Hence, a Konkani person from faraway Alappuzha or Kasargod in Kerala can understand what a Konkani person in Ratnagiri, Maharashtra, is saying but will not understand business terms.

Konkani is often denounced as a dialect of Marathi. Nothing can be further from the truth. Konkani, because of the sea trade, has more connections with Gujarati. There are many common words between the two languages that are not found in Marathi. The lo, li, le case terminations in Konkani find resonance in the no, ni, ne of Gujarati. In both languages, the present indicative have no gender. Similarly, the termination ke in Gujarati is the same as ki or kir in Konkani —for example, kartoke in Gujarati is kartoki or kartokir in Konkani.

There is a strange link away from the Konkan coast to the east of India that connects the Konkani language to Bengali.There are theories that suggest that Konkani is a language with Bengali as the mother language. Just as Hindi is from Sanskrit.This connection has found credence due to the migrations of the GaudeSaraswat Brahmins along the Saraswati river, whose origins are disputed, but it is believed that the Saraswat Brahmins travelled to Goa via this river while another group travelled toBengal. In Goa, on a journey to see the magnificent Betal statue in Loliem, I met a teacher, Raul Bose, who had played a part in the famous opinion poll in 1967 when Goans were fighting against being joined with Maharashtra. Mr. Bose told me that there were migrations from Bengal since ancient times. European travellers to Goa in the seventeenth century mention about ‘beautiful Bengali’ women in their travelogues.

The aptly named Konkan Railways traverses the whole belt of south Maharashtra to Kerela
The aptly named Konkan Railways traverses the whole belt of south Maharashtra to Kerela

On the highway from Goa to Mangalore, about twenty-three kilometres before the city approaches, we stop regularly at a restaurant called Pallavi. The local fish, dusted in spices and drizzled with rice flour, is deep fried in coconut oil. It is crunchy, spicy and delicious. The prawn gassi curry is to die for and the lacy rice neerdosa’s light as air. They also make a Konkani dish: vadde. It is a small, deep-fried fritter that can be made with potato, grated vegetables or seafood. Here it is made with local clams. When I speak to the owner and ask to pay my bill, he chatters away in Konkani but presents the bill in the Kannada script. Another fact about Konkani sinks in. As it is a Prakrit (spoken) language without a script of its own, the melody of Konkani is written in the Devanagari, Roman, Kannada, Malayalam, Persian and Arabic scripts. How many living languages in Asia can claim to be written in six completely different scripts?

It would take the tiny state of Goa and its Konkani-proud people to make Konkani one of the official languages of India in 1986. A language that once trailed the length of the Konkan coast has found its space in many places dotting the western coastline of the country. But in Goa it has found its official home.