Old Kochi exudes a unique charm, reflective of centuries of lucrative spice trade that brought in traders and invaders.
For a land that seems to have every inch seeped with history, Old Kochi had an unusual push into the limelight. History states that devastating floods in 1341 led to sand clogging the flourishing port of Muziris (present day Kodungallur), north of the picturesque fishing island of Kochi. The floods also opened up an estuary along Kochi that blessed it with a safe harbour. In the aftermath of this catastrophe, Muziris declined in importance and Kochi blossomed into a thriving seaport.
A Sea Port through Centuries
The ensuing centuries witnessed the arrival of the Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British, among others from overseas, along with people from different parts of India, at Kochi. The three European powers successively took control of the island and their presence still lingers in its architecture, layout and names of structures and streets.
While trade activities transformed the island of Kochi into a bustling port town, waves of settlers infused it with a character distinct from the rest of modern day Kochi city that comprises the mainland and several islands. So, while mainland Ernakulam (13 km to the east) bustles with a modern skyline and the neighbouring Willingdon Island is home to offices of the Port Trust, the Indian Navy and a luxury heritage hotel, it is the original island of Kochi, now informally called Old Kochi, to allude to its antiquity that unfolds as a mesmerising mosaic of varied influences.
Old Kochi is home to the heritage precincts of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. Meandering paved streets edged by old red coloured sloping tiled roofs, roads shaded by old rain trees, European style buildings, churches and old bungalows, spice and craft shops, cafes and art galleriesthese make Old Kochi a perfect place to explore on foot.
Atmospheric Fort Kochi
In 1503, the Rajah of Kochi granted the Portuguese permission to build a fort near the western seafront of Kochi island, and the stronghold went on to give that part of the island its name – Fort Kochi. Though the fort walls (demolished and rebuilt over time) no longer exist, the name Fort Kochi continues to identify the compact area that enjoys a European flavour.
One of the best spots to commence exploring Fort Kochi is Vasco da Gama Square, aptly located by the seafront. Its name speaks of the intrepid adventurer who, credited for reaching India by circumnavigating Africa, had arrived in Calicut (now Kozhikode), Kerala, in 1498, and furthered trade relations between Kerala and Europe. Pausing at this promenade and taking in the panoramic views of the Arabian Sea to the west, one realises how the island’s strategic location and safe harbour must have attracted traders and invaders alike.
Lining the shore is a row of Chinese fishing nets that are huge contraptions operated by agile men, using heavy stones and muscle power, to lower large nets and haul them up with catch. It is said Chinese traders had originally put up these nets in about the early 15th century, giving them their unusual name. From here, one can walk down St Francis Church Road, taking in the views and pausing at Bastion Bungalow before visiting the historic St Francis Church that is located next to Parade Ground, once the venue of military parades and now a lovely green expanse. The memory of Vasco da Gama lives on at St Francis Church, the oldest European Church in India (its origin goes back to 1503) as he was temporarily buried here when he passed away in 1524. The impressive Santa Cruz Basilica, a short distance away, is another landmark church, being one of the eight basilicas in the country.
To the east of Fort Kochi is the unusually named precinct of Mattancherry, its name apparently derives from it having been a street (cheri) of mutton butchers! Within it is Jew Town, where names of streets – Jew Town Road, Synagogue Lane, Jews Street – and the Jewish Cemetery speak of the community that once lived here and oversaw a flourishing overseas spice trade. Though their population has dwindled to a single digit figure now, the highlight of the charming precinct remains the Pardeshi Synagogue (built in 1568) that is graced with holy objects, brass pulpit, beautiful 18th century hand-painted Chinese floor tiles, Belgian chandeliers, and a picture gallery; it is the oldest active synagogue in the country. The roads leading to the synagogue are lined with low buildings, some painted in bright colours with red tiled roofs that give the area a vernacular flavour. Spices, clothes, embroidery, curios, crafts and art stores are aplenty. Among these, Spice Market is an ideal one-stop store for a range of products from spices to teas and textiles; they have live demonstration of hand-loom weaving. An interesting spot is the International Tourism Police Station and Police Museum that has interesting displays of police uniforms, weapons and other objects.
The Mattancherry Palace, a large complex of temples and a palace (built 1555), speaks of the grandeur of times past. It houses a wealth of treasures, from artefacts and attire to portraits and luminous murals, that showcase the richness of the erstwhile princely kingdoms of the region and the skill of local artisans. Stepping out of the palace, you feel mesmerised by the heritage of Old Kochi.
written by : Brinda Gill