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