There are perhaps only few countries that tell more stories than this tiny town. Fort Kochi, 12 kilometres from Eranakulam town in Kerala tells the tales of Chinese sailors, Arab traders, Jewish merchants and European conquests.
I have had the opportunity to visit Fort Kochi several times. And once during the Kochi Biennale to! Fort Kochi can be identified by some very typical spots that can well become its emblem. My driver, Vishnu, took me one by one to all of them starting with the Chinese Nets.
- The Chinese Nets: We cross the Thopumpaddy bridge from the Taj Malabar Resort and Spa towards the sea to see these huge cantilevered fishing nets. They are locally known as ‘Cheena Vala’ and are believed to have been brought into the country, sometime between 1350 and 1450 by traders from the court of Kublai Khan. Some others say Chinese explorer Zhang introduced the nets to Kochi shores. The fishermen at the beach show me how the nets are operated and get an ovation from the visitors. The fresh catch is displayed on the side of the beach and is immediately bought by customers. However, it is unfortunate that these Chinese nets are fast disappearing due to the high maintenance cost and poor volume of catch. Most of this fishing is now mainly for tourists, with the Kumbalangi Integrated Tourism Village Project adopting the Chinese nets as part of their project.
2. St. Francis Church: A little away from the beach is the St. Francis Church. Built in 1503, it is one of the oldest churches built by Europeans in India. It was initially dedicated to St. Bartholomew and was built by the Portuguese traders who arrived at Kochi with their Admiral Pedro Alvarez de Cabral. They made the journey to Kochi by following the path of the legendary explorer Vasco da Gama, who landed at Kappad, Calicut in the year 1498. The Portuguese traders had initially put up the church with a mixture of mud and wood but in 1506, they received permission from the Maharaja of Kochi to reconstruct it with stones. The reconstruction took a decade and was completed in 1516. The Portuguese dedicated this new church to St. Antony. In 1663, the Dutch invaded the Kingdom of Kochi and took over the town. Since the Dutch were protestants, they demolished all other churches, except the St. Francis Church.
On his third visit to Kochi in 1524, Vasco da Gama died in Kochi and his body was originally buried in this church. However, after fourteen years his remains were removed to Lisbon. Incidentally we had the opportunity to see the crypt in Lisbon in 2018.
The St. Francis Church is open to all every day of the week; 7.00 am to 6.30 pm (Monday to Saturday) and 8.30 am to 6.30 pm (on Sunday). Every Sunday, there is a special mass organized in the church for all the believers who pursue CSI followings.
3. Santa Cruz Basilica: The Santa Cruz Cathedral not only happens to be one of the oldest churches in Cochin, but also in the whole of India. This church was built by the Portuguese in the year 1505, commissioned by Francesco de Almeida, the first Portuguese Viceroy and has a chequered history. The church was elevated as a Cathedral in the year 1558 by the Pope Paul IV. It was somehow spared by the Dutch invasion who destroyed churches that were not Protestant.
Later, the British demolished the structure and when Bishop João Gomes Ferreira, was appointed as the prelate of Cochin/ Kochi, he commissioned a new building in 1887. Consecrated in 1905, Santa Cruz was proclaimed a Basilica by Pope John Paul II in 1984. It’s one of the eight Basilicas in India and the architecture of the basilica is a blend of the Indo-European and the gothic style.
4. Dutch Palace, Mattancherry: The palace in Mattanchery was actually built by the Portuguese and presented to the king of Cochin around 1545. The Dutch, however, carried out renovations in the palace in 1663, and thereafter it was popularly called Dutch Palace. The palace was built to appease the king after they plundered a temple nearby. The Rajas improved upon the building further. Today, it is a portrait gallery of the Cochin Rajas. It also houses the some of the best mythological murals in the typical Kerala Hindu temple art.
5. Jain Temple, Mattanchery: In the 14th century (most likely 1341), a flood in the River Periyar led to the river changing its course and subsequently the closing of the Muziris Port. The Kochi port then evolved and made it a main centre for spice trade. Traders who came from various places were welcomed by the King of Kochi.
One such community were the Jains, who came from Gujarat and Rajasthan and some 390 Jain families live in Mattancherry and are part of its cultural fabric. The Jain Temple is their place of worship and Lord Dharmanath is the main deity at this temple. He was the fifteenth Jain tirthankara. Built in 1960, the architecture of this temple is like a typical Jain temple in Gujarat. The interiors are made of marble.
6. Cochin Port Maritime Heritage Museum: This is located near the North End of Willingdon Island. The museum was inaugurated on May 27, 2014, 86 years since the first ship docked in Cochin Port, as a part of the Port Day celebrations. The museum curates a collection of rare photographs connected to the development of Cochin Port Maritime Heritage Museum.
It was the British harbour engineer Sir Robert Bristow’s efforts in constructing the inner harbour in 1921 that transformed Kochi into one of the most modern and safest ports in the entire southern peninsula. The museum has a good display of navigational instruments like clocks and anchors used in the early decades of 20th century.
7. Pardesi Synagogue and the Jew Town: A little known fact is that India’s Jews have a long history in the region around Kochi. The are said to have arrived as the descendants of traders from the time of King Solomon’s reign (circa 970 to 931 BC). They landed in present day Kodungallur (Cranganore), 30 kilometres north of Kochi.
Much later the Chera Dynasty king, Bhaskara Ravi Varma, bestowed a gift of copper plates to the tribe, giving 72 privileges to the community, including the freedom to practice their religion and tax exemption. In the 14th Century, the Jewish community moved south to Cochin due to flooding of the Periyar River, and in 1344 they built Kochangadi Synagogue, Cochin’s first synagogue.
In 1492, a group of Sephardic Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula. This community travelled to Cochin and assimilated themselves in the area. During Portuguese persecution in the 16th Century, they were granted sanctuary by the Hindu Rajah of Cochin, Keshava Rama Varma. Further the Kochangadi Synagogue was believed to have been demolished by the army of Tipu Sultan during his raids in Kerala. The Jewish community then carried the inscription stone to the Kadavumbhagam Mattancherry Synagogue. Later on, it was inserted into the east wall of the nearby Paradesi Synagogue where it remains till today. The present day Paradesi synagogue was built in 1568 on land granted by Keshava Raja Varma, and the Jew Town neighbourhood grew around it.
The Jew Town today, however, looks like a Kashmiri town with over 500 Kashmiri traders. The first amongst them came in the late 1980s and they sell Kashmiri handicrafts. The only think Jewish or Judaica here is a shop called ‘Sarah’s Embroidery Shoppe, that was run by the late Sarah Cohen, a Pardesi Jew who passed away at the age of 96 in August 2019.
8. Sree Poornathrayesa temple, Thripunithara: The Poornathrayeesa Temple is situated in Tripunithura, 10 km to the south-east of Kochi city, in Ernakulam District of Kerala. The presiding deity of the temple is Santhana Gopala Krishna, an incarnation of Maha Vishnu. The Lord is seen in a sitting posture under the shade of five hoods of Adishesha. This is an unusual posture, as he is usually found in the reclining posture on the divine serpent, Anantha. The folded body of the Adishesha serves as the seat for the God. The two upper hands of Lord Vishnu hold Shanku (conch) and Sudarshana Chakram (holy wheel) and the lower right hand holds the Padmam (Lotus flower).At the back of the temple is a small window from where devotees can get a close look at the idol of Santhana Gopala Moorthy of Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple.
Poornathrayeesa is the combination of 3 words – poorna means complete, thraye means three, and isa means Iswara, meaning that he is the Lord of Knowledge and the Three Vedas; Rig Veda, Yajur Veda and Sama Veda.
Lord Poornathrayeesa is the family deity of the erstwhile Kochi dynasty. It is believed that childless couples are blessed with children on worshiping Sree Poornathrayeesan as the Lord is in the form of Lord Santhana Gopalakrishna. It is believed that Arjuna, one of the Pandava brothers established this temple.
We were fortunate to be there during the annual 8-day Vrischikotsavam festival in November 2019 in the month of Vrischkam. The highlight of this festival, is the royal procession of 15 elephants. The Ezhunnallippu, with the figurine of the deity is held on top of the elephant in the centre.
Chendamangalam Weavers: Chendamangalam weavers are one of the four weaving centres in Kerala. The array of handloom fabrics woven in Chendamangalam are similar to what one finds in Balaramapuram, but with less emphasis on kasavu patterns. A typical Chendamangalam mundu or settu mundu has coloured borders with a matching colour stripe, and only small amounts of kasavu for ornamentation. Kasavu (golden border) is of generally pure gold, copper coated or artificial thread. The floods of 2018 had destroyed the looms. But thanks to the efforts of savetheloom.org, a nonprofit community group that was created to revive, restore, and restructure the handloom industry, the weavers could get back on track.
Other places to visit, when in Kochi are the following:
- Kochi Biennale: If you are in Kochi during the Kochi biennale, that would be a great decision. Read about it here.
- Jail of Freedom struggle – Fort Kochi
- Chottanikara Amman Temple: The Chottanikkara ( a corrupted name from Jyotiannakkara) Devi Temple is a famous temple of Mother Goddess Bhagavati located in the southern suburb of Kochi.
- Backwaters: You can have a houseboat experience if you drive down to Allapuzha Backwaters or the Kumarakom backwaters. Read about the experience here.
- Thrikkakara and Thirumoozhikalam: There are two Malai Nadu Divya Desam temples which are a short drive from Kochi. Read about the two temples in the link here and here.
- Kalady: Visiting Kalady, the holy birthplace of Adi Shankaracharya is a must. Will update the link to article on Kalady here at a later date.
- Dutch Cemetery
- Bastion Bungalow – the official residence of the sub-collector.
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