Gold is extraterrestrial—it was created in space by cataclysmic stellar explosions, literally born out of dead stars. According to Nature, a meteor bombardment 4 billion years ago brought 20 billion billion tons of ‘gold and precious metal-rich space rock’ to Earth. While the affinity to gold is universal, the people of Kerala have an unabashed love for it.
They buy nearly a third of the overall gold imported into India. From the Padmanabhaswamy Temple’s buried vaults spilling with gold worth hundreds of billions of dollars to glinting nettipattams (forehead adornments) of caparisoned temple elephants during the renowned Thrissur Pooram, and traditional ivory hued kasavu saris woven with gold threads—the proof is out there. Thrissur, an unassuming cultural district, is the epicentre, nearly 70 per cent of all the gold sold in the state daily being handcrafted here.
College students, mothers, husbands, salespeople, artisans, everyone has a view about this gold fascination. “It’s in our culture.” “Gold is a deposit.” “We can easily liquidate it in an emergency.” “Unlike land, gold is a guaranteed investment,” Saji, a cab driver jokes, “In Kerala, ladies love gold more than their husbands. Attend a rich family’s wedding and you won’t see the girl’s face or sari, only gold.” T.S. Kalyanaraman, chairman of the Thrissur-based Kalyan Jewellers says, “Kerala has always celebrated this precious yellow metal. Ayurveda has extensive references on the therapeutic nature of gold. In rituals, gold and ghee are considered two of the purest elements.”
In Kerala, gold plays its part in the rites and rituals of life’s significant events— birth, educational initiation, puberty, communion, graduation, wedding and so on, the cycle continues. Newborns are given honey and vayambu (sweet flag plant) mixed with 24-carat gold. During the Vidyarambham ceremony, elders use a gold ring to write on the child’s tongue, marking their entry into the world of knowledge. We reckon, once Malayalis get their first taste of gold, they develop a healthy palate for it.
Kerala’s traditional jewellery designs borrow heavily from nature, as evidenced by a visit to the Kalyan showroom. Evocative names describe each piece: Mullamottu mala is shaped like a string of jasmine buds, Naaga Padam resembles a hooded cobra, Maangamala is inspired by the paisley shape of mangoes, Manimala is a string of gold beads, Poothali is embellished with intricate flower (poo) patterns, Kaasu mala is a chain of gold coins (kaas), while Elakkathali is a choker named after the quivering movement (elakku) of its tiny free-hanging gold leaflets. The classy kasavumala, a broad band of gold, was recently invented to match the gold border of the traditional kasavu mundu or two-piece sari. Non-traditional names—like Sachin, Seema Tara and Savitham—are design identities named after celebrities, actor or movies for the karigar’s convenience.
C.S. Ajay Kumar ‘Chitti Kappil’, a fourth-generation goldsmith, says his ancestors moved from a village near Kochi and settled in Thrissur’s suburbs when King Rama Varma IX or Sakthan Thampuran invited professionals to populate his newly founded capital in the 18th century. His family specialised in the unique jewel chittum kaapum once used by Nambuthiri Brahmin women. He discloses that his family name ‘Chitti Kappil’ is attributed to the jewel rather than the tharavad (ancestral place) as is usually the norm.
Until the 1930s, thatans (traditional goldsmiths) would visit homes six months prior to a wedding to take orders. Easwar Warrier, belonging to a community of temple treasurers, opened the first gold workshop in 1935 near Paramekkavu Devaswom at Thrissur. As business grew, the workers roped in their skilled cousins and artisans from Palakkad, Thiruvilwamala and Chenganassery. Warrier encouraged them to settle here with their families, triggering an influx of master crafters and talented goldsmiths. This was the beginning of Thrissur as a gold hub. Families from across the state would travel to Thrissur to buy ornaments. This spawned more retailers and the advent of readymade jewellery.
“In our culture, women look more beautiful in gold,” says young Ans. His father Anto, a gold trader in the busy Puthanpally church area for 40 years remembers it as the main gold hub. Some traders melted as much as 10 to 20kg of gold every day, checking it for purity. “The purity of gold in Thrissur is excellent so people love to hoard it,” Ans adds, “Local lore says if there is an earthquake in Thrissur, they’ll find cities made of gold underground.” Another feature that sets Thrissur jewellery apart is its lightness—a skill that makes gold purchases affordable without sacrificing aesthetics or design.
Back at Kalyan Jewellers, Anjana, a bride-to-be, eyes a tray of gold bangles. Her mother, sister and grandparents hover over her along with a small platoon from the groom’s side. The prospective mother-in-law and a few nieces pore over the choices, mumbling about weight and patterns. Shelba, one of the nieces, confesses that her pre-wedding gold shopping 14 years ago was exactly the same. “This is the tradition. On the eve of the wedding, neighbours and relatives will come over to scrutinise the purchases, comment and probe into all the details.” In contrast, at another counter Jibin and Vaishnavi, a young couple, shop independently for their upcoming wedding. Vaishnavi says, “This piece is my choice, the rest of the shopping will be a family affair.”
“Jewellery shopping continues to be an emotional exercise that involves families or couples coming together to pick the right pieces,” says Kalyanaraman. “Thrissur is one of our most important markets, despite 18 showrooms across the state. When I started my business, I knew every customer by face and name. Today, their children are our customers, and for many, Kalyan is their family jeweller.”
They undertake surveys and study markets to understand jewellery tastes from city to city. Thrissur’s buyers prefer traditional designs—the shinier the better—and nearly 96 per cent go for yellow rather than pink and brushed gold, platinum or diamonds. Thrissur also has a strong culture of exchanging old jewellery for newer pieces because of the 100 per cent exchange on gold value. “Women enter a shop whenever they see a new product on display. If they were happy with whatever they had, shops would shut down,” quips Mohan, a tour guide and history buff from Calicut. “The fashion-minded ladies in Kerala motivate artisans to produce newer products, thus fuelling the gold industry.”
“The Greeks and Romans settled around Kodungallur in 300 BCE,” Mohan adds. “There was rich cultural exchange through trade as pepper, ivory, spices and diamonds were bartered for gold. When the Jews and Christians arrived, there was demand for skilled artisans to craft gold crowns and ornamented vestments for bishops. Excavation findings between 2007 and 2014 at Pattanam point to a flourishing tradition of glass and bead-making in the region but little gold.” Historian T.R. Venugopalan too confirms that Thrissur’s tag as a gold capital is a recent phenomenon.
At Kodungallur, Nawshad P.M., MD of the Muziris Heritage Project and archaeological expert Midhun showed us around Kottappuram Fort. Pattanam, the excavation site, broadly corresponds to the ancient port of Muziris, hailed by ancient chroniclers like Pliny as ‘the first emporium of India’. However, gold findings were limited to a small axe-like pendant, a tiny bead and some Roman coins kept at Koyikkal Palace Nedumangad Museum in Thiruvananthapuram.
The evening sky is ablaze as families sit scrutinising ornaments in brightly lit stores. The Latin word for gold is ‘aurum’, shining dawn. In Kerala, the sun will never go down on their love for gold.