Known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, Kochi (formerly Cochin) is an important seaport on the west coast of India. Traders sailed across seas to reach these wealth-laden shores famous for exotic spices, ivory, peacocks and silk. The formation of a natural port at Cochin is attributed to a flash flood that washed away land in the year 1341.The flood heralded Cochin’s rise as a trade hub and triggered the fall of Kodangallur (known variously as Craganore, Shinkli and Muzuris), a port that had beckoned explorers and travelers for eons. The flooding waters deposited silt at Kodangallur ‘s harbour and the port became too narrow for incoming ships. While Cochin thrived, Kodangallur’s importance diminished rapidly.
Cochin was once a seat of power and a stage for fiery battles. Its fabric transformed as the baton of power changed hands. Lured by its riches, the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Jews, the British, the Arabs and the Chinese arrived and settled in Cochin. Epithets like “Mini England”, “Homely Holland” and “Little Lisbon” speak of its heydays in times of the British, Dutch and Portuguese. Cochin is the commercial capital of Kerala and its municipality comprises of Ernakulam, Fort Kochi and Mattancherry.
The 20-minute ride on a government ferry from Ernakulam to Fort Kochi was my passage to a land that is a stockpile of history. As the boat drifted away from the Ernakulam Boat Jetty majestic old buildings standing on the water's edge presented a preview of the cocoon called Fort Kochi. Life ambles at its own pace here and each street flaunts a different facet of its diversity. I chose to explore Fort Kochi on foot resisting my temptation to rent a bicycle or hire a rickshaw. Constant pit stops to refuel at roadside tender coconut stalls and cafes kept me going despite the oppressive heat and the saline soaked wind. I walked past brightly coloured houses reminiscent of different eras.
My first stop was at the eye-catching row of cheenavalas or the Chinese fishing nets. The huge fixed fishing nets, believed to be Chinese in origin are installed on the land and operated by teams of about six men. After each physically taxing fishing exercise, the fishermen return to their makeshift shack to smoke beedis and relax. “You buy, we fry”, read the sign boards outside shops where the fresh catch is cooked instantly. These imposing 10m high fishing implements with an outstretched net on one side and stone suspensions on the other end are a popular tourist attraction and have become an icon of Fort Kochi.
From the fishing nets I walked ahead to St. Francis Church, the oldest European Church in India. It was built by the Portuguese who made their way into India following Vasco da Gama’s discovery of a new route from Europe. Commanding a troop of 170 men in three eastbound ships from Lisbon, navigator and explorer Vasco da Gama, set sail to India and reached the town of Calicut in 1498. He however failed to impress the ruler of Calicut (Samoothari or Zamorin) to initiate trade with Portugal. Vasco was followed by Pedro Alvarez Cabral who won the Zamorin’s trust and was allowed to set up a factory in Calicut. But clashes with the Moors drove Cabral to the safer shores of Cochin. The Portuguese became allies of the Raja of Cochin and subsequently helped him in fighting the Zamorin. As a goodwill gesture, the Raja permitted the Portuguese to build a fort. Square in shape with a bastion in each corner, the fort was made of coconut logs fastened by iron bands. The Fort was named Fort Manuel (or Manuelkotta) after the king of Portugal. It laid the foundation for the Portuguese dominance in the years to follow. Within the confines of the timber fort was a flourishing Portuguese settlement comprising of factories, a palace, educational institutions and places of worship.
As the Portuguese supremacy ebbed, the control of the Dutch strengthened. The oriental style Dutch palace was originally built by the Portuguese and later renovated by the Dutch. European and indigenous architecture styles blend beautifully in this two-storeyed structure. The central courtyard enshrines Goddess Pazhayannur Bhagavathi, the tutelary deity of the Cochin Royal Family. The upper floor consisting of a coronation hall, bedchamber, a ladies chamber and a dining hall, now serves a beautiful museum. Murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana and puranic legends adorn the walls of the palace. Like the Portuguese, the Dutch left lasting signatures on Cochin. The Bolgatty Palace that has been converted to a heritage hotel and the Bastion Bungalow that has been declared as a protected monument are few streaks of the Dutch lavishness in Cochin.
A rickshaw driver who doubled up as a tour guide took me to the Jew Town in the neighboring settlement of Mattancherry. We went past an array of shops that were resplendent with traditional Indian curios and antiques. Mattancherry’s Jew Town is spread around the Paradesi Synagogue (also known as the Cochin Synagogue). Constructed in 1568, it is currently the only functioning synagogue in Kerala. Paintings inside the synagogue trace the history of the Jews in Kerala. It is said that the first Jews came en masse to Craganore around 70 A.D to avoid religious prosecution. While one painting depicts the Raja of Craganore welcoming the Jews, another shows Joseph Rabban receiving copper plates from the Raja. The copper plates spelled out the rights and privileges of the Jewish community. The destruction of Craganore by the Moors led to the displacement of the Jews who then settled in Cochin. Paintings also depict the Maharaja of Travancore presenting a golden crown to the Torah in 1805 and the last Maharaja addressing his Jewish subjects in 1949.
Fort Kochi is a melting pot of myriad races and religions. Stones, bricks and wooden reinforcements in bungalows, heritage hotels and monuments speak volumes of eras bygone. Everything, from its name to its people spawn stories that are woven over several hundreds of years. Foreign influences, interspersed in a truly Indian setting make for an interesting walk down memory lane. Fort Kochi is a mélange of different languages, cultures and customs. The past blends seamlessly with the present, presenting an enticing treat to the discerning eye
This article was published in Deccan Herald on the 25th of July 2010. Below is the link to the online version of the article.