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(Return to GatewayforIndia - Tourism)

THE OLD WORLD CHARM OF FORT COCHIN

By Manmohan Melville

 In recent years, Cochin has changed its name to Kochi . Fortunately, nothing else has changed in that little sea-side town of Kerala . Centuries ago, Cochin was established as a tiny port on the busy Malabar Coast . Since then, it has changed hands many times; but its basic character -- a laid-back, serenity -- remains in the air even today.  

Cochin -- like the city of Mumbai further north on the same coast -- is basically a cluster of islands linked to the mainland of India . Unlike Mumbai, which has been invaded by many bridges bringing to it all the modern woes of this century's life; Cochin remains linked delicately to its sister city Ernakulam on the mainland by several long bridges and ferry-boat services; but, refuses to accept any modern-day woes.  

Ernakulam and Cochin together form the biggest city complex in the state of Kerala. The twin-city is actually a complex formed by mainland Ernakulam, the islands of Bolgatty, Vypeen, Willingdon and Gundu and again Fort Cochin and Mattancherry on a part of the southern peninsula jutting northwards.

Of these islands, the Willingdon Island is entirely man-made -- created by the pile-up of rocks and soil that was dredged up when the harbour opposite was deepened by the British in the 1920s. Willingdon Island is also the site of Cochin 's airport and railway terminus.

It was from the traffic-congested streets of high-rise Ernakulam that we began our drive into Kochi .

 Portuguese Fort  

We heaved a sigh of relief as we escaped from the claustrophobic, billboard-and-skyscraper environs of Ernakulam into the free space of Willingdon Island . Still greater pleasure was in store for us as we crossed another bridge and drove into the old township of Fort Cochin . Here, time seemed to have come to a standstill and we entered a scene that may well have been straight out of the turn of the last century!.  

In the Ernakulam-Cochin city complex, almost all the interesting tourist sights are centered around Fort Cochin , while the better hotels are located in Ernakulam. We decided, however, to try our luck in Fort Cochin . And so we found ourselves, frugal, but clean, lodgings in Fort Cochin -- just a stone's throw from its famous quay and Chinese fishing nets. There, we allowed the old-world charms of Fort Cochin to gradually take us captive.

  Cochin is made up mainly of tree-lined straight lanes, running between old, pastel-painted, red-tiled Dutch and Portuguese villas and bungalows. The town is dotted with old churches, synagogues, palaces, temples and mosques.

  Cochin came into being because of Muziris' misery! Muziris (now called Kodungallur) was an important port 50 kilometers north of present-day Cochin -- and once upon a time the capital of the mercantile Rajahs of Cochin. In 1341, the port of Muziris was inundated by floods from the Periyar River -- but the area around Cochin remained above water. The royal family decided then to shift their capital to Cochin .

 Along with the Rajahs, their entire maritime operations and trade were shifted to the new port in 1405. At that time trade in spices -- especially pepper -- was the main attraction for the European traders to the Malabar Coast . In fact, Cochin had the monopoly on pepper and pepper was so precious, that it was called "black gold". The port attracted Christian, Jewish and Arab traders. The locals referred to their port as kocchazhi (little harbor) and the foreign sailors shortened it to Kochi or Cochin . At that time, the pepper trade was so lucrative that the Rajah of Cochin was considered among the most powerful in the subcontinent.

 From the 1500s onwards Cochin was dominated, in turn, by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British. Each of these European powers tried to leave its own mark on the port town -- either by building a new church or palace, or by renovating an old one. While wandering through the maze of charming narrow lanes of Fort Cochin , I suddenly came upon the simple, white Church of St. Francis . This church is considered to be the first church built by Europeans on Indian soil. The story of this church, more or less, parallels the story of Fort Cochin .  

In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama reached Calicut north of Cochin . Two years later another Portuguese, Admiral Cabral Jaun de Nova Costelho reached the cluster of islands near Kochi . He paid his respects to the Rajah of Cochin and secured permission to trade with the coast. Three years later, when the Zamorin of Calicut sailed threateningly southwards in a bid to subdue the Rajah of Cochin; it is said that a Portuguese admiral, Alphonso de Albuquerque sent a squadron of ships to protect the Rajah.  

As a gesture of his gratitude, the Rajah allowed the Portuguese to build Fort St. Emanuel -- a wooden stockade -- near his own palace. The wooden Church of Santo Antonio was built, inside the fort, to accommodate five Franciscan friars. In 1516, the wooden church was rebuilt in stone as the Church of St. Anthony .

In 1524, Vasco da Gama returned to Cochin as Portugal 's Governor general of the Indes. He had a short tenure, however, as he died that very same year. He was buried in the courtyard of the Church of St. Anthony . (Later his body was taken back to Lisbon by his son). When the Dutch East India Company defeated the Portuguese in 1663, they took over the Fort. They then proceeded to destroy everything built by their arch-enemies in the Fort -- except the Church. They converted (or reformed) the Church into a Dutch Reformed Church.

More than a century later, in 1795, the British took over the Fort from the Dutch and they re-re-formed the Dutch Church as the Church of St. Francis. And to this day, it bears this same name. Today, all the European conquerors have departed from Indian soil. But, they have left many of their fellowmen asleep in the soil behind the Church. And that is where I found the original grave of Vasco da Gama (now bereft of his body). The original tomb-stone and metal railings mark the spot where he had been laid to rest.

 Dutch Palace  

The early days of the Portuguese in India gave Cochin another of its great landmarks -- the Rajah's Palace at Mattancherry -- a few kilometers east of Fort Cochin. The palace was built by the Portuguese as a gift to the Rajah Veera Keralavarma of Cochin. The Dutch who later took over trade in these areas, carried out extensive repairs to the palace. And it is an irony of history, that although the Portuguese built the structure it is remembered today as the Dutch Palace-- in honor of their arch-rivals -- who merely repaired it!  

The external appearance of the palace is deceptively simple -- in fact it is hardly remarkable! But, the interiors of the palace were extraordinarily luxurious -- and in this modern age -- has been put to good use as a museum that showcases the grandeur of the royal past. The collection on the top floors of the museum includes imperial robes and thrones, Dutch maps, palanquins and weapons and -- on the walls -- a fine depiction of the Ramayana in beautifully painted murals.  

I had read that the piece de resistance of the museum was the royal bed chamber on the lower floor. However, entrance to that chamber is blocked by a surly guide -- who breaks out into a dazzling smile when I pass him a crisp note. Happily, we descend into the shadowy chamber and my eyes feast on the murals. The gods are at play and leisure in these highly erotic murals. Here, I catch a glimpse of Lord Shiva romancing the female form -- Mohini -- of Lord Vishnu. And elsewhere, a six-armed Lord Krishna uses all his arms and two legs to caress eight happy gopis.One foreign publication describes these paintings as "rarely ... mentioned, although they are one of the wonders of India."

 Chinese Fishing Nets

As the warm, lazy day turned into a mellow evening, I walked towards Cochin's famous quay, to catch a glimpse of the city's land-marks -- the Chinese fishing nets that dot the sea-side.

These large, cantilevered contraptions fashioned out of bamboo poles, nets and ropes were supposed to have been introduced to Kerala from the royal courts of Kublai Khan, by traders centuries ago. Each net is worked by four or five fishermen -- usually at high tide. A system of weights, counterweights and pulleys, allows the nets to be lowered into the water-- and then hoisted up with the trapped fish, after a while. The creak-creak-creak of the giant nets forms a sort of background theme to the fast-advancing twilight. The electric lights come alive one-by one. But there are not too many of them. A few kilometers east across the bay, Ernakulam -- Cochin's enormous twin city -- comes to blazing neon life as the darkness settles in. But, at Fort Cochin we are still bathed in the soft glow of the dim bulbs that dot the quay-side.

It is as if the town of Cochin has made an agreement with its modern twin, Ernakulam -- you can send in a few bridges, I can handle your bus-loads of tourists, but when it comes to you fancy modern-day living and their accompanying woes -- sorry! -- you can keep them for yourself!