Kochi or Ernakulam, as it was called a few years back, has been known to the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Chinese and Jews since ancient times. This tiny fishing hamlet that became famous after Vasco da Gama discovered the Spice Route, emerged out of its obscurity to become the center of the Indian Spice trade.
Today, this city boasts of one of the finest natural harbors in the world. It has become the main commercial hub in Kerala, inviting traders, merchants, corporates and multinationals to its profitable shores. Many cruise liners dock here for its guests to step out and soak up all that Kerala has to offer from here.
On the face of it, Kochi is like any other city, with its malls, theaters, shopping areas and business enterprises. But as you travel to a place named Fort Kochi, an hour’s drive from the main Ernakulam Town, you would be treated to old time Portuguese architecture, heritage houses, home stays, river-side food stalls and shacks and narrow old-fashioned streets that take you back in time.
This quaint little town located 45 minutes away is also referred to as Old Kochi. The Portuguese began their first settlement in India here, in the 1500s. Thus began the colonial era that lasted in India for the next four centuries. The ancient Fort Emmanuel which was destroyed by the Dutch gives this little town its name- Fort Kochi.
With the Portuguese pitching their settlements here, followed by the Dutch and the British, many inter-cultural marriages ensued, giving rise to Fort Kochi’s Anglo Indian community that lives here to date. Although a lot of the Anglo Indians, especially the second and third generations moved out in search of better opportunities, you would still find their ancestral houses as you walk the narrow streets. The names on these 16th-18th century houses like Mayer’s, Caesar’s, D’Costas and D’Cruzes bear testimony to the few who have remained here and retained their heritage homes. Influences of Portuguese and European architecture can be seen in the churches and brightly colored homes dotting the town.
Countless aspects make Fort Kochi a charming little town still carrying a quintessential flavor of its past. The town of Mattancherry located adjacent to Fort Kochi houses a Jew Town that prides itself on the oldest synagogue and a Dutch Palace.
Built in 1568, the Paradesi Synagogue is the oldest Jewish synagogue among the Commonwealth Nations. After having been partially destroyed in the 1600s, the Dutch managed to restore it. The incredible detailing on the floor that comprises of hundreds of unique 18th century hand painted Chinese porcelain tiles is something worth seeing. An 18th century clock tower adds to the imposing structure. Belgian glass chandeliers, ancient Jewish scrolls, royal gifts of a golden crown and an oriental rug, a brass railed pulpit, etc. beautify the synagogue’s interiors.
I always love to stroll down this street in particular. Not only do you get to scour through a chain of shops selling interesting curios, antique crockery and furniture, brass sculptures, and jewelry, but you also get to witness the descendants of a fast dwindling population of Jews, whom these shops belong to. They make their living by selling wares and almost every item that you pick up would have a tale of its own to narrate. There is a strong feeling of antiquity that adds a fresh breath to the trite modernity we are surrounded by.
The Dutch Palace
The Portuguese originally built it before handing it over to the reigning King of Cochin. Subsequent renovations introduced a more Hindu flavor to the palace walls and interiors. Today, the rounded doors, windows and the masonry walls retain their European look but the Indian essence is more visible. The palace is in fact considered one of the best proofs of ‘nalukettus,’ a style of Hindu Temple Art and Architecture. The murals on the walls portray scenes from the tales of Ramayana and Mahabharata.
The Santa Cruz Basilica was built in 1505 by the first Portuguese viceroy and is one of the oldest Cathedrals in Cochin and India. It incorporates a blend of Indo- European and Gothic styles of architecture. Its extravagant interiors are in stark contrast to its plain exteriors. Italian paintings depicting scenes from the New Testament, ornate wooden pulpits, colorful statues of the saints, brightly colored tiles on the floor, may all seem to emerge as too loud for a man with simple tastes but they add to the basilica’s magnificent and imposing structure.
The St Francis Church is another church here that was the first to bear a European architecture and style. The church that was replaced in 1546 from its original face, held the body of Vasco da Gama in its grounds until it was exhumed and moved back to Portugal in 1538.
Staying in Fort Kochi
There are many home-stays, roadside cafes and restaurants peppered across the Fort Kochi town. Reaching early in the morning would afford you a view of the auction that takes place at the fish stalls lining the shores. You could even manage to get a good deal on the fresh catch of the day- lobsters, crabs, King prawns and other fresh fish. The Chinese fishing nets are an added attraction but are hardly in use. It is interesting to see the mechanism whenever the operators do use it. Set up between 1350-1450 AD by the Chinese explorer Zheng He, the Chinese fishing nets lining the waterside look like giant sea hammocks forming a magnificent silhouette against the setting sun.
The food you get here is best when you are experimenting with local cuisine. However, to cater to the tastes of many foreigners, there are restaurants that offer continental cuisine. Mattancherry has an old eatery called ‘kaikas’ which has the most amazing mutton biryani accompanied with date chutney, that is a closely guarded secret recipe of the family. A small hole in the wall kind of a restaurant located near the Basilica, called ‘Upstairs’ is known for its selection of Italian food. Besides this, you can even catch an evening performance of the famous traditional dance of Kerala known as Kathakali.
Fort Kochi warms the visitor’s heart in every way with its people, sights, sounds and smells. The ‘Tuk Tuk Brothers’ will be most willing to take you around and show you the town. Make sure you get a good deal though.
The best time to visit is between the months of Oct- Feb.