Leaving Colombo, we head north, rounding the tip of the Indian Subcontinent to attain what was once known as the Malabar Coast – the south-western coast of the peninsula, facing the Indian Ocean.
For millennia, the Malabar Coast has seen ships from across the Indian Ocean arrive to trade – Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Persians, even Chinese vessels came here in search of fabled spices and other raw materials. They were followed by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the English.
Our destination – and the next stop on our Grand Tour – is Cochin (known today as Kochi) in Kerala state. Once the seat of a Kingdom, Cochin was successively colonised – like many other Indian port cities – by the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the English. The city boasts a cross-cultural heritage, with Portuguese-era, Dutch-era and British-era buildings continuing to stand side by side in the city centre.This city centre is Fort Cochin, formerly a small fishing village occupying the tip of a peninsula, that in turn, frames the mouth of the entrance to a vast network of backwater channels Kerala is famed for.
In 1500, the Portuguese came, and by 1503, they had secured permission from the Raja of Cochin to establish a small fort and factory on this very spot. Just a few years earlier in 1498, the Portuguese – led by one Vasco da Gama – had arrived but failed to establish a factory in Calicut (today’s Kozhikode). Today, the sole trace of these modest fortifications – which the Portuguese called Fort Emmanuel – sits at the northwesterly tip of the Peninsula, along the beachfront.
The Portuguese would build churches and residences here, and quite a few of these still stand today. The most notable of these churches is St Francis Church, completed in 1516 and located at the very heart of the Fort near the Parade Ground. Vasco da Gama died in Kochi in 1524 and was buried here in this church, though his remains were removed back to Lisbon after 14 years. In 1553, the body of St Francis Xavier, was brought here from Malacca to be venerated for three days before being moved to its final resting place in Goa.
The church sits near what is possibly Asia’s oldest colonial building – a Portuguese-era residence built in 1506 and believed to have housed both Vasco da Gama and St Francis Xavier when they passed through the city. Today it houses a luxury boutique hotel which we will stay in during our sojourn here.
The Dutch United East India Company, or V.O.C. came in 1663, conquering the city from the Portuguese, and establishing a trading post here on what would be Dutch Malabar. They expanded the fortifications of the city to encompass most of the northern and western sections of the Peninsula – what is today known as Fort Kochi.
Their legacy is still palpable in the many Dutch-era buildings that still stand around the Parade Square, most notably David Hall, and close by, the VOC Gate, built in 1749 and still bearing the monogram of the V.O.C.
On a nearby island, the Dutch erected Bolghatty Palace – a palatial residence for the Governor of Dutch Malabar. Built in 1744, it too still stands today and has been transformed into a hotel.
In 1814, under the terms of the Anglo-Dutch Treaty, the Dutch and the British agreed to swap Cochin for Banca Island in Indonesia. The British would add their own distinctive civic and commercial architecture to the city, but as it was never a major commercial capital such as Madras or Bombay, they did not invest as much of themselves into the urban landscape.
As a result the Portuguese and Dutch heritage remain strong. While there are major landmarks from the British era in the city – such as the Cochin Club and some wonderfully decrepit commercial edifices – overall, Fort Kochi still feels remarkably Dutch; not least because the plan of the city itself, with its canals and its broad and orderly streets lined with towering rain trees, were laid down by the Dutch and have not changed much since.
Fort Kochi was the city’s “white town” – the civic and commercial heart of the city for its European inhabitants. To the east of the Fort, sitting just alongside it on the North and eastern sections of the peninsula, is Mattancherry, the “black town”, inhabited by the locals.
This was the ancient port and trading centre, from which the Greeks, Romans, Arabs and Persians of yore would have come seeking spices. For centuries, many people have settled here from other port cities in India and the Indian ocean, such that today’s Mattancherry plays host to a dizzying array of communities, faiths and places of worship.
Mattancherry has two interesting historic sites. The first is the Paradesi Synagogue, built in 1597 and the oldest synagogue in India. It was built by Paradesi or “White” jews – Sephardic Jews who had fled Spain and Portugal in the 14th century and settled in India. The synagogue is located in Jew Town, home to other Jewish communities such as the Malabari Jews or “black jews”, who had settled in Cochin even earlier than the Paradesi Jews.
The second is the “Dutch Palace” or Mattancherry Palace. Despite its name, this palace was first built by the Portuguese in 1555 as a residence for the Raja of Kochi. While the exterior of the building appears unprepossessing, the interior walls of the palace boast a spectacular array of vibrant and sensuous murals.
The Mattancherry Palace isn’t the only palace in the city. Some two hours in the outskirts of town in Tripunithura sits the Hill Palace, the official residence of the Raja, built in 1865 in the British period, in an eclectic style fusing European and Indian elements. The Cochin Royal Family, descendants of which still live in the city today, turned the palace over to the government in the 1980s, and it was transformed into an Archaeological Museum.
Meanwhile, back in Fort Cochin, we journey forward to the contemporary era. Fort Kochi today is a laidback, verdant gem of a city, unlike any other city in India. The streets are clean and well-organised, and everywhere one looks there are these towering rain trees. There is a friendly and welcoming atmosphere, and a palpable sense of pride in the city. To Kochi-ites, Kochi was less a city than a feeling.
Here and there on the walls of the city are tongue-in-cheek works of street art, commenting on the latest phenomenon to colonise the city – the Kochi Biennale, an exhibition of contemporary art that takes place once every two years.
We make our way towards the beach, to view one of the most iconic sights in the city – the Chinese Fishing Nets. These large lift nets are supposedly found also in Vietnam and Southern China, and are thus believed to have been imparted to local fishermen in the 1400s by the Chinese, when Admiral Cheng Ho’s Treasure fleets stopped by.
Of all the sights we shall see on this sojourn in Cochin, the Chinese fishing nets shall prove to be the most evocative and most enduring.