Cultural Mapping

Cultural mapping is an exercise in locating cultural expressions, whether tangible or intangible, in a geographically delimited area. Cultural mapping may include categories as diverse as communities, public art and built heritage.


This cultural map will be a dynamic digital resource that records the complex native, settler and colonial history of this island space of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. Although it is not a comprehensive resource, it gives users one way of situating themselves in the middle of what is an extraordinarily rich cultural landscape.


The map provides ways for visitors to navigate the remarkable diversity of the communities and heritage that is contained in the relatively small area that comprises Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. The map also provides a space for those who live and work here to enunciate their lived experience of this space and to offer multiple perspectives in doing so.


In this instance, six categories of cultural expression have been mapped:

  • Cultural Centres (theatres, museums, galleries…)
  • Heritage Sites (palaces, colonial buildings…)
  • Lifestyle (foods, festivals…)
  • Places of Worship (churches, mosques, temples…)
  • Public Spaces (parks, markets, the beach…)
  • Public Institutions (historic schools, hospitals, the jail…)


Fort Kochi and Mattancherry: A Short History

By Tanya Abraham, author of Fort Cochin: History and Untold Stories


Fort Kochi is one square mile of heritage, culture and a plethora of communities. With a history dating back more than 500 years, the town, like no other place in India, has housed three European empires; a natural harbour that lured traders and saw the development of the Spice Route. 


In Fort Kochi, there are remnants of a past so precious that every alley holds a story that has an identity unique to the town alone.  When the flood of 1341 AD closed the harbour in Pattanam (the fabled Muziris), a natural harbour opened in Kochi. When Pattanam no longer lured ships that plied to its shores for black pepper and other spices, Kochi invited them. The past closed its doors upon Pattanam and subsequently, Calvathy in Mattancherry grew into a robust town of trade, traders and new communities. Arab and Chinese ships sailed to the area bringing silk, honey, horses and more in exchange for jars of black pepper. There is no concrete evidence that the Chinese settled in Kochi, but writers have noted that they arrived on very large ships, carrying products for trade, with many families aboard. The Arabs, however, had a community in Kochi. They stayed for a period of time and built houses, had long-term relationships with women and sired children. Arabs raised a new community of its kin known as Mappila( or Mother's child), as fathers' identities were lost when they travelled back to Arabia, many never to return again. Parts of Mattancherry still bear resemblance to Arabia, as houses huddle together as if designed to combat a sand- storm! 


The area around Mattancherry for centuries remained a robust trading town. The Maharaja of Cochin (who lived for a long period of time at the Mattancherry or Dutch Palace, before the family moved to Trippunithara), welcomed traders from afar, offering refuge around his palace. The Jews who had arrived in Kodungallur in AD 72, fled to Cochin in the 14th century due to the fighting between the Portuguese and the Arabs. Finding refuge under the rajah, they grew to become an important trading community who remained extremely conservative in culture, customs and religion but socialised freely with the rest of the Kochi community. Today, Jew Town houses a handful of the White Jews or Paradesi Jews, many having left for Israel or other parts of the world after India gained Independence in 1947.The Jews were followed by the migration of people from other communities from across India, to Mattancherry. To date, these communities live in perfect harmony together, just like they had for generations. 


In 1500, when Pedro Alvarez Cabral followed Vasco da Gama to India, he was the first European man to set foot in Kochi. Vasco da Gama came a little later, first having visited Calicut, and to Kochi on his second trip from Portugal. Years later, he died in Kochi and his remains first buried at the St. Francis Church, were later shipped to Lisbon. The Portuguese left an indelible mark upon the land. In their century-long rule, Fort Kochi saw new architecture, economic, and social development. Architecture changed to resemble a fancy European city of the time. Asia's largest library, a printing press and a thriving trade market turned Fort Kochi and adjoining Mattancherry into a treasure trove of interesting attributes.


The Portuguese, determined to integrate into society deeply, married local women and raised children who represented yet another community of people. Catholicism grew under the Portuguese, spreading across Kerala. The Vatican's point of power in Asia remained in Kochi till later, in 1557, was shifted to Goa. Fort Kochi's popularity grew tremendously and European nations vied to establish a base here to participate in the pepper trade. In 1663, the Dutch arrived and after a long drawn battle between the two European powers, the Portuguese fled the town. Many Portuguese men and women were murdered and the town ransacked. It is said that the Dutch, under the leadership of Hendrik Van Rheede, tore the magnificent buildings down, not wanting a trace of Portuguese presence left in Fort Kochi. The few structures that survived can still be seen, like St Francis Church that was converted into a warehouse for sugar by the Dutch and thus escaped being blown up. The Dutch did not integrate freely into society and were interested largely in commercial activities. It is said that they lived flamboyant and conspicuous lives, paying little attention to the town and its needs.  Fort Kochi lost the glorious prominence it once had under the Portuguese. However, the one noted development under Dutch reign was the compilation of Hortus Malabaricus, a study on the plants of Malabar, the result of Van Rheede's remorse for having savaged the town. It still remains an important botanical study in the world today, although it was first printed in Latin in Amsterdam between 1678 and 1693. The book of 12 volumes is still considered an expert manual on tropical plants and their medicinal properties.


More than a century later, in 1814, the English took control of Kochi. The Dutch, after a long and tiring battle fled, and English supremacy reigned. Fort Kochi became a part of the rest of the British Empire, and soon from a trading-town under British domain, it turned to one that worked tirelessly for a free India. It was during British reign that the local communities of Kochi rose together to fight English rule. The freedom movement in Kochi was led for almost a century from the Kurishingal tarawad, turning the family-house into a makeshift base for the independence movement. The Mahatma during his visit, pleased with the relentless work towards independence, called Kochi the Queen of the Arabian Sea. And when India attained independence in 1947, Fort Kochi was crowned the little town that fought for the country's rights. From a municipality, it became part of the Cochin Corporation. Yet, to date, the town has managed to stay apart from the rest of the city, magnificently housing its ancient stories.


Fort Kochi is not only about the reign of three European empires and the freedom movement. It carries with it cultures that are a wonderful melange of many a flavour. For example, religion and trade both played important roles in defining new cuisines. Kerala’s foods found creole versions: Communities from afar, like the White Jews (Paradesis), the Saraswath Brahmans from the Konkan coast, the Kutchies, and the Gujaratis are some of those that continue to live in Mattancherry amidst a synagogue, temples, mosques and a clock tower with three faces in ancient Malayalam, Arabic and Hebrew numericals.


Fort Kochi, down Bazaar Road of Mattancherry, has flamboyant and spacious European homes, the architecture distinctly shifting from its neighbouring area. The first European church of India (built in the 16th century), the gigantic Chinese fishing nets built by the Portuguese, remnants of the old forts and ramparts, the Maharaja's abode now called the Mattancherry Palace, and the Bishop's House built on a mound—all encourage one to relive the days of yore to understand how deeply rich the areas of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry are. It is only through patiently peeling the layers of the many ancient stories that the hidden mysteries of the town slowly unveil tehmselves.


By Tanya Abraham, author of Fort Cochin: History and Untold Stories


The Cultural Mapping Project would not have been possible without the generous support and local know-how of many, many people. 

First of all, the Sahapedia team would like to express our appreciation to the Kochi Biennale Foundation for being open to this collaboration and lending us support in Kochi. Riyaz Komu has been a great supporter right from when the idea of mapping first came up, and helped through several stages of its creation. Sahapedia also thanks Bose Krishnamachari, Sudarshan Shetty and all the team at the Biennale Foundation.

For sharing his wonderful collection of vintage Dutch period maps of the Cochin coastline, and his personal reminiscences of Fort Kochi, we would like to thank Mr. KJ Sohan. His love for this area, and his encyclopaedic knowledge of it is truly inspiring.

For generously sharing of their time, their personal memories and anecdotes about Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, we would like to express our gratitude to EP Unny, NS Madhavan, Monolita Chatterjee, KJ Sohan, TB Kurishingal, Bony Thomas, and Tanya Abraham. Tanya Abraham also wrote the brief and perfect introduction to Fort Kochi and Mattancherry for our site, and we would like to thank her for that.

In sharing materials from previous exhibitions on Fort Kochi, Biley Menon has been incredibly helpful.

KT Ravindran has always been willing to talk, listen and ideate with us, and we thank him for that, and continue to wonder at his immense knowledge about Kochi.

For their mastery of the visual medium and for sharing their photographs with the project, we would like to thank AJ Joji, Swanoop John, Joseph Rahul and Roshan Mohammed.

In addition, we would like to thank the project team:

  • Bony Thomas (treasurer of the Kochi Biennale Foundation) kindly agreed to be a project consultant for cultural mapping. He has mentored the researchers through the duration of the project, identified critical sites and shared of his anthropological knowledge of the area very generously;
  • Resmi Sajit and Divya Hrishikesh have been tireless in their research efforts, and have displayed unbounded enthusiasm and great attitudes throughout; 
  • Sarover Zaidi helped kickstart the project and has been generous with her time;
  • Pratyush Kashyap's unmatched aesthetic and his responsiveness to the team's requirements have determined that the cultural mapping project not only looks fantastic, but is intuitive to navigate; 
  • Lakshmy Venkatesh devoted a keen eye to editing a lot of text and her attention to detail ensured that the project timelines were met over the last few weeks; 
  • Dharmendra Sharma has been really innovative as the tech lead on this project despite really tight deadlines, and Mahesh Yadav and Amit Kumar Aman have been unfailingly attentive in providing technology support for this project.

Finally, Sahapedia would like to thank the people of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry--they have been uncommonly welcoming toward our associates and have been invaluable collaborators in research. We dedicate the resource, www.culturalmapping.in/fortkochi, to them and their traditions of hospitality. We hope this resource is not the end of this project, but that it enhances opportunities for community engagement and adds to the experience of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry for residents and visitors alike. 


Sahapedia.org is an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India. “Saha”, Sanskrit for “together with”, is an invitation to explore together the richness of our cultural landscapes.

We understand that knowledge around each subject is complex and has many dimensions. So, our platform gives you many options for finding your preferred way around each subject. At Sahapedia, you can read articles, watch videos, listen to interviews, and browse image galleries. You can also visit historic sites and natural spaces through our virtual walks.

In the spirit of building this resource together, once you register, you can also share your writing, photographs and videos through your personal workspace. Once reviewed by Sahapedia editors, your contributions become a part of the shared encyclopedic collection. At Sahapedia, we collaborate with institutions to curate and host material from their collections.


Most of what Sahapedia shares is curated in the form of multimedia modules, made up of articles, interviews, photographs, videos of performances, timelines, walkthroughs and bibliographies. We curate these collections because we want to explore each subject in-depth, showcase its multiple facets and give you options of reading, watching or listening your way through each topic. Look out for the quarter logo to instantly identify modules!

In addition to modules, you will find stand-alone articles, interviews, image galleries as well on Sahapedia - we think of these as the beginnings of what will eventually be collections on subjects. We hope these will act as starting points for you too, and that you will share your work with us, and through us, with the world. 


Knowledge Traditions: Philosophy, oral traditions, healing practices...

Visual and Material Arts: Sculpture, cinema, textiles…

Performing Arts: Dance, music, puppetry, theatre…

Literature and Languages: Authors, works, language histories…

Practices and Rituals: Festivals, cuisines, life-cycle rituals…

Histories: Places, movements, social change…

Institutions: Museums, universities, cultural centres…

People: Artistes, scholars, practitioners…

Built Spaces: Places of worship, memorials, historic sites…

Natural Environment: Ecosystems, native species, national parks…


Workspace – Register, create and share your work with Sahapedia

Projects – Explore our collaborations with institutions

Library – Access books, old journals, photos and more

Events – Find and attend performances, talks, exhibitions  


Sahapedia is a non-profit organisation registered in India under the Societies Registration Act of 1860. As such, any donations made to Sahapedia are eligible for tax benefits under Section 80G of the Income Tax Act. For corporate donations, partnering with Sahapedia qualifies under Schedule VII, Item V, of the Companies Act, 2013. It can, therefore, be a part of the corporate social responsibility initiatives of commercial enterprises.


For enquiries or support, please contact us at: Sahapedia, C 1/3, First Floor, Safdarjung Development Area, New Delhi – 110016

Kochi Biennale Foundation

The Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF) is a non-profit charitable trust engaged in promoting art & culture and educational activities in India; primary amongst them the hosting of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. KBF works around the year to strengthen contemporary art infrastructure and to broaden public access to art across India.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to invoke the latent cosmopolitan spirit of the modern metropolis of Kochi and its mythical past, Muziris, and create a platform that will introduce contemporary international visual art theory and practice to India, showcase and debate new Indian and international aesthetics and art experiences and enable a dialogue among artists, curators, and the public.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to create a new language of cosmopolitanism and modernity that is rooted in the lived and living experience of this old trading port, which, for more than six centuries, has been a crucible of numerous communal identities. Kochi is among the few cities in India where pre-colonial traditions of cultural pluralism continue to flourish. These traditions pre-date the post-Enlightenment ideas of cultural pluralism, globalisation and multiculturalism. They can be traced to Muziris, the ancient city that was buried under layers of mud and mythology after a massive flood in the 14 th century. The site was recently identified and is currently under excavation. It is necessary to explore and, when necessary, retrieve memories of this past, and its present, in the current global context to posit alternatives to political and cultural discourses emanating from the specific histories of Europe and America. A dialogue for a new aesthetics and politics rooted in the Indian experience, but receptive to the winds blowing in from other worlds, is possible.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to establish itself as a centre for artistic engagement in India by drawing from the rich tradition of public action and public engagement in Kerala, where Kochi is located. The emergence of Kerala as a distinct political and social project with lessons for many developing societies owes also to aesthetic interventions that have subverted notions of social and cultural hierarchies. These interventions are immanent in the numerous genres and practices of our rich tradition of arts. In a world of competing power structures, it is necessary to balance the interests and independence of artists, art institutions, and the public.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to reflect the new confidence of Indian people who are slowly, but surely, building a new society that aims to be liberal, inclusive, egalitarian and democratic. The time has come to tell the story of cultural practices that are distinct to the Indian people and local traditions, practices and discourses that are shaping the idea of India. These share a lot with the artistic visions emerging from India’s neighbourhood. The Biennale also seeks to project the new energy of artistic practices in the subcontinent.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to explore the hidden energies latent in India’s past and present artistic traditions and invent a new language of coexistence and cosmopolitanism that celebrates the multiple identities people live with. The dialogue will be with, within, and across identities fostered by language, religion and other ideologies. The Biennale seeks to resist and interrogate representations of cosmopolitanism and modernity that thrive by subsuming differences through co-option and coercion.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale seeks to be a project in appreciation of, and education about, artistic expression and its relationship with society. It seeks to be a new space and a fresh voice that protects and projects the autonomy of the artist and her pursuit to constantly reinvent the world we live in.

The Kochi Biennale Foundation is also engaged in the conservation of heritage properties and monuments and the upliftment of traditional forms of art and culture.

KBF was founded in 2010 by artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu.