Flanked by the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats on the tropical Malabar coast of south west India, the ancient port of Kochi (formerly known by its colonial name Cochin) is an ideal starting point for a tour of Kerala’s diversity and beauty.
Freighted with the past and set on a cluster of islands and narrow peninsulas, Kochi has long since outgrown its original boundaries and now includes the old town of Fort Cochin, Mattancherry, Ernakulam and many other nearby towns and villages. Similar in many aspects to Venice, it’s culture and architecture has been shaped by its legacy as a great crossroads on the world-embracing Spice Route which brought trade, technology, religion, ideas, people and conquerors to the sub-continent. It’s the romance and longevity of this history that attracts visitors to Kochi today and there are many cultural treasures and historical buildings that reflect the various periods of migration and foreign hegemony. Originally the seat of the kingdom of Cochin, a princely state which traces it’s lineage back to the Kulasekhara Empire, this ancient port became an important gateway for Phoenicians, Syrians, Egyptians, Romans, Arabs, Chinese and European colonial powers, who used the natural ports around Cochin to trade goods, the most precious of which were spices. Used as medicines, tonics, flavourings and, perhaps most importantly in world history, as a preservative, spices made it possible to store food for longer periods and this particular function had great benefits for the merchants of the day who were able to travel longer distances by land and sea to open up new trade routes across the world.
Approaching the harbour in laid-back Fort Cochin, the effortless and elegant cantilevered Chinese fishing nets lining the waterfront immediately catch your attention. These are the most famous sights of Kochi and are a legacy of the mid 14th century Chinese traders from the court of the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan. At one end of the massive timber boom structures, which pivot in the middle, is a net counter-balanced at the other end by stones. By pulling on ropes the nets can be lowered into the water and then, when theoretically full with fish, the ropes can be pulled upon and the nets drawn out of the water again. Unfortunately many of the fishermen are not young and due to dwindling catches over the years the next generation of fishermen have decided to take to the sea and fish from boats, the lights of which can be seen off the coast each night. Sadly, it would appear that if nature doesn’t prove as abundant as it once was this traditional method of fishing will eventually disappear. Close-by, shallow palm-fringed waterways offer access to the old spice warehouses and this would have been how traders would have seen the city from their vessels when it was one of the most important trading hubs of the world. The architecture and curving gables of the old dilapidated Dutch style warehouses lining the waterfront wouldn’t look out of place alongside the canals of Amsterdam or Delft. Brick built with ochre lime washed rendered walls and timber roofs, the warehouses are still used by numbers of small firms today and the air is filled with pungent aromas as sacks of dried ginger, turmeric, cardamom, nutmeg, mace, mustard, cloves, cinnamon and peppercorn, once known as black gold, are stored and prepared in the traditional manner bound for the still eager global market.
These old warehouses are found in the Mattancherry part of town which is also the home of Kochi’s long established but tiny Jewish community. The Inquisition was active in Portuguese India and the Raja of Cochin gave the area known as ‘Jew Town’ to the Cochin Jewish community to protect them from persecution. The historic and beautiful Paradesi Synagogue is well worth a visit and was founded in 1568 before being rebuilt in magnificent style in 1760 with Belgian chandeliers and hand painted willow pattern Chinese tiles that cover its floor. The cavernous St Francis Church is the oldest European built place of worship in India and was built in 1503 by Portuguese Franciscan friars. It is the burial place of Vasco da Gama, one of the greatest explorers of the 16th Century who died here in 1524. Da Gama originally came to Cochin in May 1498 and declared to the Arab merchants there that he was “looking for Christians and spices”. Bartering cinnamon, cloves, ginger and pepper for gold, silver and scarlet cloth, Da Gama helped ensure that the European spice trade passed into the hands of the Portuguese. After his death, he was buried here for 14 years before his remains were returned to Lisbon but his tomb remains as a place of attraction and mark of the European role in shaping modern India. Vasco House, on Rose Street, is thought to have been his former home and with its sweeping verandahs and European glass-paned windows it is thought to be one of the oldest Portuguese homes in the country.
Built in 1555, Mattancherry Palace was presented to the Raja of Cochin, Veera Kerala Varma as a gesture of goodwill by the Portuguese, partly as compensation for a temple that they had demolished and partly to safeguard future trade. When the Dutch took Cochin from the hands of the Portuguese in 1663 they renovated the palace and it became known by its alternative name – The Dutch Palace. The simple exterior belies a very decorative interior with the central hall on the first floor being the Coronation Hall of the Rajas and their dresses, turbans and palanquins are all on display. Astonishing murals in the side galleries depict scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Punanic legends and are some of the best on view in India.
Kochi is also a good place to witness a Kathakali performance, a classical dance of Kerala which dates from the 17th century and based on Hindu mythology. Drawing heavily from drama and performed with elaborate masks and costumes, Kathakali recitals are generally long and while other dance forms are more emotive than narrative, Kathakali combines dance with dialogue to bring myth and legend to life in the temple courtyards of Kerala.
Kochi has for thousands of years been a gateway to the sub continent for wanderers and traders from around the world who come to bustle, connive, thrive and leave with their legacies being absorbed, reworked or ultimately rejected by Mother India and her people. It’s this maritime contact with the outside world that has resulted in an intriguing blend of cultures, people, architecture and tradition that makes Kochi a living homage to its varied past and a delightful place to spend time before exploring Kerala’s many other attractions.