Calicut’s SM Street – and its everlasting allure

Posted by Maddy Labels:

Its influence on the city’s inhabitants, writers, and a new book by Nadeem Naushad

This little, but busy street in Calicut still has a tremendous influence on the inhabitants of Calicut. A street which came into being just over two centuries ago, has as people of Malabar will agree, an everlasting allure on those living in Calicut or visiting the city center. Let’s take a look, see how SK Pottekat picturized it, and also get to know what Nadeem had to say about it in his recent book on the street.

It is difficult to pinpoint when the street came into being. Old maps of the area - the first were created by Pietro Della Valle around 1623 and this did not show a thoroughfare nor did the descriptions mention one existing. The present street lies within the boundaries of the ancient Kottapuram (Zamorin’s palace) complex and with the gates being manned, the possibility of shoppers and visitors in ancient times is quite bleak. None of the later accounts by the French, the Dutch, or the English in their early records mention a street other than the big bazaar area. From a topographical overview, it cuts right through the ancient Padinjare Kovilakom or Zamorin’s palace, so it would have come into being only after the demolition and dispersal of the palace ruins, the sale of the land to others and resettlement. Thus, it is relatively clear that this happened after the disintegration of Zamorin’s authority and power base following the 1766 invasion by Haider Ali of Mysore. It took quite a few decades before the British took over the Malabar administration and the Zamorin’s (the Valia Thamburatti) family who held title to the lands in the area started to divest them, following a drastic drop in revenues. It could thus be concluded that shops sprung up in the mid-19th century, on either side of a new street connecting Huzur Street to Palayam, called Camp Bazar Street (now SM Street) by the British.

Another input has it that the trading street was situated just outside the palace walls, with traders encouraged by the Zamorin and popularized by Gujarati merchants trading in cloth and sweets, as well as the Parsis, but this is not tenable as the SM street cuts through the palace area (see attached map – the black square roughly depicts the Zamorin’s palace area- Kottapuram) and building. The building of the Parsi (see author’s article on Parsees of Calicut) fire temple on SM Street dates to the early 19th century, though the community had been around since 1670. All these make it clear that the street took its form in the 19th century after the British had solidified their administration structure in Malabar. The general contention that the Zamorin invited Gujarati sweet vendors to set up shop at the so-called SM street, as some writers allude, is potentially erroneous.

Pic - Courtesy Google maps

A look at the Mananchira area – 19th century

Now, let us take a look at some early accounts

1828 Bombay records - The site of the old fort is still to be traced in the northern part of the town, with its ditches, which are now crossed by one of the public roads (SM street?), on each side of which are portions of this site converted into fields and gardens. The two portions and the architrave of the original gateway of this fort, remain erect, though every other vestige of building that was within it is demolished, and it is beneath this framework, which more resembles gallows than the gate of a fortress, that the Zamorins are crowned, and most other ceremonials of state performed.

Was this street that crosses through the ruins, the so-called SM street? If so, that could be the original camp bazar road. At its end, near the palace ruins stood the Pattalapalli, or mosque for the ragtag Ali Raja Mopla army and Tipu’s soldiers.

Ward Survey 1840 - The nuggarum or town consists of one very extensive street (SM street?) of bazaars, about three-quarters of a mile in length, some have upper stories, and many narrow cross streets lead from the main one….A beautiful reservoir of fresh water of about 200 yards square with flights of granite steps, both useful and ornamental, is almost surrounded by garden-houses towards the E. On the N. W. of it is the Collector's cutcherry, an upper-roomed house. To the E. of the reservoir is a small parade (ground) for the detachment stationed here, also the sepoy lines and a stone reservoir (muthalakulam), in figure, an octagon, has a flight of granite steps all around, but the water is not drinkable.

In 1851 Richard Burton visiting Calicut mentions - The bazaars appear to be well stocked with everything but vegetables and butcher’s meat, these two articles being as scarce and bad as the poultry; fish and fruit are plentiful and good. The shops are poor; there is not a single Parsee or European store in the town so that all supplies must be procured from the neighboring stations. While Burton specifically mentions stores, the Parsee Anjuman was of course situated in the center, and much later the Hirjee ice factory came into being.

Circa 1900, Mission records - Almost all subsequent descriptions make it clear that the roads are palm-lined. They also mention a bazaar full of shops (the Valia Angadi or big bazaar). By the turn of the 20th century, the houses on the East side of the tank, i.e., the Kizhakke kovilakom of the Zamorin had been converted to Police offices, the Girl’s school, and the Civil dispensary.

The 1908 map of Calicut, an extract reproduced below, shows the Camp Bazar Road, though it Is not named so in the map (see red line). What is important to note is the Parsee Dharmasala. (See picture/map for details)

Pic - Calicut town 1908 (Mission archives)

We get to hear of the shops in the last decades of the 19th century, plus mentions of the Camp Bazar Road and the Halwa Bazar, signifying the arrival or establishment of the sweet shops across the old Collector’s office the Huzur Cutchery.

If you recall my article about Calicut in the 1880’s you will note - There is a fine tank in the centre of the town, enclosing about four acres of water, with flights of stone steps all around, and four carved archways, which have been partially destroyed by some Goths, and the material carried away to build houses. These Indian tanks are the great institutions of the towns and villages. Round the tank, the official bungalows and Government offices form a wide amphitheater, with graceful palms scattered everywhere, and filling up the background of the picture with a waving sea of plumes.

In the afternoon I made an expedition into the town on foot, not much caring about any more buggy riding after yesterday's proceedings. The road is something like a Devonshire Lane, with high red banks on either side, but the clumps of bamboo and palms spoil the comparison. Occasionally there are European bungalows standing back from the track in their compounds, where little white children are often to be seen playing about, attended by ayahs and menservants. Further on there was a native street (SM Street?), with little open shops on either side: one shop devoted to sugarcane hung up in bunches, and seeds and pulses exposed for sale in open vessels; another to earthenware chatties, and another to tinware.

To get a better perspective, note the dispensary was completed in 1845, the telegraph office was set up in 1856, the Malabar club in 1864, the Calicut pier in 1871, and the lunatic asylum in 1872. The collector’s office or the Huzur Kutchery dates to the beginning of the century (initially a rented mansion at the mouth of SM Street) and was demolished around the end of the 19th, after new office buildings were constructed. To ensure safety, Collector HV Conolly had all the Big Bazar shops tiled in 1847. The Beach Hotel and the Town Hall were built in 1890 and the Cosmopolitan Club in 1900. This was also the time when the railway station in Calicut was constructed and the link to Beypore was established. Until then visitors to Calicut arriving by train used to boat it to Kallayi from Beypore or take a slow-moving bandy or kala vandi, to reach the town! The British lived in the hills up North – namely West and East hills, see my article on Lachlan for details. The parade ground is not new, it existed since medieval times.

How Camp Bazar Road became the Sweet Meat or SM street is a stuff of legends. Some say the red or black halwa exhibited as slabs resembled meat and thus it got termed (by a health inspector who tested it) sweet meat. Eventually, it became known as the Mithai Theruvu of Calicut. Interestingly, the Halwa Bazar or Halwa Street was the one connecting Big Bazar to Kuttichira. Talking about meat, the slaughterhouses were situated in West Hill and the Moplah areas in the West and South.

The street became the meeting point for the people of Calicut and ever since, people have been congregating at or near SM Street for government or legal business, or when they wanted to while away spare hours (sora parayan). Be it friends or relatives, be it meetings between lovers or meetings to quickly discuss a business, the people of Calicut ambled across to the environs of SM street. SK Pottekat was the first to write several stories based on the street and its people (The Story of a Street – Our theruvinte Katha). In gratitude, the people of Calicut put up a statue in his honor at the mouth of the street!

Like many others, our little college gang of friends did exactly that, we used to be at the Park restaurant off Mananchira either smoking or drinking faludas, hanging around Kidsons, playing Table Tennis at the P&T club, or drinking a cup of tea at Paragon. But there was another very interesting place youngsters desired to go if they had the cash, which was incredibly rare. It was to either sup at the Queens restaurant (set up and run by two unemployed postgraduates and proudly stated so on a board behind the manager’s counter!) or wait for a few more hours to see the cabaret they hosted! Eagerly waiting for the lovely Michiko or Sumiko who danced around to live music and cast away their clothes…

Maharaj’s (Krishnan Hegde who learned the craft from the Gujarati named Maharaj) halwa set the standard in those days, and one must note that the Calicut Halwa is very different from North Indian Halwa and Arabic Halwa. It is also quite different from the Sesame ‘helwa’ but is somewhat closer to the Turkish Lokum. The Karachi Halwa or Bombay Chandu (though made of corn flour and ghee) halwa is quite similar, but tougher and sticks to one’s teeth. The varieties you get in Calicut and its sweet & soft texture wrung out of coconut oil and maida are unsurpassed. Wheat, plain red, mixed fruit, mixed nuts, pineapple, coconut, badam, walnut, pistachio…so many varieties can be found, though, in the old days, it was a black, wheat, banana, or the plain red koyikodan halwa.

As time went by, it became a shopping street, with many Gujarati cloth shops and knick-knack shops, kitchen utensils, and of course, restaurants. The Radha Theatre and Arya Bhavan completed the ensemble and so from morning till night, the street was abuzz with shoppers. But that was for the normal visitor, onlooker, or passerby. The street had a life of its own, behind the shop facades, and for the many who depended on or lived on or around the street, life did not stop even after the shops closed. That is where observant fiction writers like SK Pottekat and Nadeem conjured up lovely stories.

For a long time, the street was not paved and proved to be incredibly dusty. Water spraying was the only way out and it was only in 1936 that it got asphalted and paved. Oil lamps dotted the side of the street and if you recall, I had mentioned them some years ago.

What we miss are the news hawkers that Pottekat used to write about, the man shouting at the top of his voice that day’s important news - the one who was selling the Mathrubhoomi – those days the daily evening newspaper. The Anjaneya Vilas Brahmins and Modern Hindu Hotel are gone, but the public library existed in the corner and still does. Hawkers were selling and yelling about all kinds of things and well, like in London’s Hyde Park, there were people also exhorting about religion and politics in that very corner where Pottekat’s statue now stands serenely looking on into the street which he so beautifully described in Oru theruvinte katha.

That was also the time (this was earlier - Pre-40's) when there was no electricity distribution, and one left the locale before it became too dark. There were lamp posts with kerosene lamps, and the fascinating chapter by ARS Iyer explains – “In those days the lanes and bye lanes were not lit well after dark, and we normally make it home before it gets too dark. The lanes which we normally take as shortcuts to reach home were dotted with lamp posts with only kerosene lamps encased in a glass container as electric streetlights were a rarity in those days. A municipal worker carrying a tin of kerosene, a few wicks a cleaning cloth, and a ladder on his shoulders would stop at each of these posts to fill in kerosene in the lamps, change the wick if necessary, and wipe clean the glass case of the lamp. He would light the lamp by sunset every evening which would burn throughout the night giving light to people to walk safely. I have often watched these men at work fascinated by the clockwork regularity with which they provide the lights to the common man.” Adv Seluraj tells us that this kerosene was imported from Britain, and called Kurangenna (monkey brand oil), after the trademark monkey on the cases.

One should also not forget the relentless effort of Malabar collector William Logan to try and create a botanical garden in the area where we have SM Street these days. His idea was to acquire a seven-acre piece of land for this purpose, but it did not quite pan out due to the arrival of the railway and the resulting increase in land prices. Even when Logan changed his plans to have a much smaller one-acre garden, the idea did not get approval from his superiors. Logan incidentally was the person who decided the location of Calicut’s railway station (the Chaliyam railway station lost out in the bargain) upon what once was the route of the dried-up Robinson Canal or the Bazar Canal, so you can see that one idea of his nixed the other! Nevertheless, his failure did not harm the city, and people learned to love the street, now paved and cobbled and for ‘pedestrians only’, much like the ‘old time malls’ in some colonial cities.

Oru Theruvinte Katha (SK Pottekat)

Written in 1960, the author (born 1913) traces the life of a host of characters living on and off the street, seen through the eyes of the protagonist, Krishna Kurup, a newspaper seller. Multiple stories are loosely connected and the protagonist and his daughter Radha, give you a vivid description of the street and its character. Seedy characters, vagabonds, rich men, thieves and robbers, blind men, slick conmen, beggars, and whores complete the cast and provide a rich tapestry on which the SM street is painted. The stories talk about joy, sorrow, abject poverty, the many injustices of life, and tales of a sorrowful humanity wallowing through a muddy road called fate. But they do find time for joy and gaiety, love and lust in the middle of it all, and Pottekat skillfully takes us through many of them, putting us bang into the middle of the SM street of the 30s. Interestingly, Pottekat never identified the street of the locale, anywhere in the book!

Madhuratheruvu (Nadeem Naushad)

In an interview with Santhosh Elanthur (WTPlive), Nadeem mentions that it was this shortfall in Pottekat’s famous venture that he wanted to focus on, by attempting to write a fictional novel with the SM Street itself as its centerpiece. I knew Nadeem from the time I was researching the great singer Kozhikode Abdul Khader, for Nadeem had done a lovely documentary on the singer and written a little book about him as well. This time around, I needed some inputs on the Mehfil scene of the 40-50’s Calicut, but Nadeem did not have a copy of his book “Mehafilukalaude Nagaram’ at hand, so he suggested that I read his fictional venture centering on SM Street. It was time well spent, to say the least, and it had been ages since I read a novel in one or two sittings. Needless to say, I enjoyed reading it, for it rekindled memories of my college weekends and many evenings spent in those environs during the late 70’s.

Set in the 1967-92-time frame, this tale takes you through the life of Abdu, the son of Tailor Mustapha, and Abdu’s coterie of friends, notably the adventurer Baby who leads him through all kinds of wrong alleys. In a very interesting fashion, the book meanders back and forth through the street and the lanes, and settles down to focus on Abdu’s love interest, Devi, working at Rosemary tailoring. The book is complete with hand sketches of the street (Sasi Memuri) and dwells on buildings we do not know very well such as the Huzur Kutchery (the old Collectors office), the sherbet shops, and the mehfil salons and of course the tolling chimes of the Austrian clock at the nearby Ashoka hospital. Nadeem mentions SK Pottekat often, he frequents evenings on the street, holding court at the Northern end, and Abdu introduces us to the Pathan community and the young beauty Nilofer, who then strays into Abdu’s life.

The book is easy to read, sticks close to facts, and keeps you captivated, touching upon events and incidents of the time, including the turbulences of the Emergency years. The story does not stray too far from the street and keeps you close to the shopping mile, his text holds you there, enough for you to feel the smells and sound of the fascinating street and the many people who live there, but fail to notice. Nadeem takes you through their lives, their small desires, joys and disappointments, their life and religion, and small pleasures like the music from the Mehfil halls.

In his simple way, Nadeem tells you how and why the small street is part and parcel of anyone who claims Calicut to be his home, his nadu. Well worth a read. Those who fail to find it may contact

Goa, and the Blue Mountains; Or, Six Months of Sick Leave- Richard Burton
BEM archives
Survey reports - BS Ward
Mithaitheruvu – Adv CB Seluraj
Our Theruvinte Katha - Pottekat
Madhura Theruvu – Nadeem Naushad
The City of Truth revisited – MGS Narayanan
CHF article & meeting notes