Explore Spice Route Kochi – Recent excavations reveal the existence of Muziris.
Kochi along the Malabar coast which was a thriving port on the Spice Route during the first century BC. Known to Romans and Greeks, this is mentioned in early Indian classics including the Sangam literature. Putting on a historian’s cap we do some time travel and delve into this little known side of Kochi. This route, deeply influenced by religion, trade and black pepper, makes for an exciting experience.
An itinerary for touring Kerala is made, the first thing that gets added is a ferry ride through the backwaters. Mine was no different. I was packing up sunscreen and summer wear, given that Delhi winter had set in. The 3 hour flight breezed away as I woke up to a view of a verdant landscape with shimmering tributaries.
Kochi, a small town known for unadulterated spices and geographical terrain, surprised me with its great store of history. Driving through Kochi, while on one side I crossed coconut trees, while the other was flanked with Chinese fishing nets. I soon realized this journey was about going back in time. Walking on the streets of Jew Town, the need to plunge into the parchments of the past overtook me. As the street ended, it unveiled the beautiful and only functional synagogue in Kochi. The Paradesi Synagogue, where the sound of first prayers still resonate.
Next stop was the Mattancherry spice market which an integral part of Kochi’s cuisine but also to its history. (I was at the right spice settlement after the first sip of rasam overpowered my senses with tamarind and pepper. No wonder it is considered the perfect antidote for a sore throat!) Packed and lined up in jute sacks were hundreds of spices, from vanilla sticks to dried ginger powder. Though the market offers a wide variety, a friendly shopkeeper suggested the Kay Cee Corporation. A wholesale spice market for bulk buying, a few metres away. To pacify the strong aroma of spices, in the same lane I stumbled into shops of Eau De ittar. Fresh flower extracts of lavender, Kerala flower, orchids and more. You can choose your fragrance, get them packed in decorative vials, gift them. Here’s a suggestion, keep one for yourself.
HISTORY RETOLD – Explore Spice Route Kochi
Having thoroughly soaked my numbing senses in the packed spices. It was now time to soak in the history talk trade while leisurely treading along the spice route. So, with the help of Kerala Tourism, I became a time traveller going back to 1341. We embarked on a journey in the search for the lost city of Muziris. Hunting for vestiges of the past around Kochi and its inception through the lens of the Muziris Heritage Project. Part of the UNESCO – backed Spice Route Project that involves 31 countries, anchored by the Kerala Council for Historical Research. But before I set off, it was important to understand the background of that era. Insisted Biju Thomas, a historian who doubles as a guide for Kerala Tourism. And snap! I was back in Mattancherry.
CHURCHES, MOSQUES AND PALACES
In the same vicinity as the Paradesi Synagogue stands the humble Dutch Palace with its wooden interiors and slanting roofs. And has a temple signifying harmony. Ongoing excavations in Pattanam point towards a flourishing trade town. Which could as well have been a popular hub for the spice route trade. The city, Muziris, is still a blurred vision that spans across the Malabar Coast. The best way to joining the dots, either by road or cutting through the calm waters of the Periyar River. First stop: Marthoma Church (Marthoma Research Academy). Where the backwaters open into the sea and is also one of the main entrances for the harbour and shipyard. It is believed that the apostle St Thomas landed in this region in 52AD. Around the same time when the first Jews are believed to have travelled to Paravur, to spread the word of the gospel.
After a fair bit of knowledge of one religion, it was time to get acquainted with another. The next stop was the Cheraman Juma Masjid which was built in 629 AD and is believed to be the first mosque in India. It was an ancient Buddhavihara that gifted to Muslims for the construction of this mosque.
Not very far from here stands Thiruvanchikulam Mahadeva Temple which is a part of the King’s fortress—that sheds light upon the cultural diversity of the area. Finding my way out, I reached the Kottapuram for built by the Portuguese, an important centre for the Spice Route where traders’ ships would arrive laden with gold and wine, would then pass through the tributaries of the Periyar, exchanging spices along the way, before leaving for Sri Lanka. The port was destroyed in the flood of 1340. So if any part of you believes the backwaters to be like lakes, here’s a reality check. They are so wide and deep that ships could sail through them, and that’s how the trade continued.
The area for the Muziris Heritage Project spreads over 300 sqkm. When the locals started building their houses, they unearthed gold coins, artefacts and much more, that reflected the excessive presence of trade on the Spice Route and of a major port. Driving to a current excavation site, I reached Pattanam (now under the Kerala Council of Historical Research) where digging started back in 2007. A small museum at the site has on display pots and jewellery—all those things that point towards the presence of a vibrant city.
Travelling through time, I visited the Paravur and Chendamangalam synagogues, Paliam Nalukettu and Paliam Palace and was lucky enough to get a chance to travel back to the hotel—Bolgatty Palace which was once a Dutch retreat, on the jetty. A Kerala trip is incomplete without cruising through the backwaters. Feeling the mild breeze as the sun hid behind the coconut trees, fishermen emerged canoeing their way through to fetch the catch while the seagulls waited for their evening snack.
LIVING IN THE PRESENT TIMES – Explore Spice Route Kochi
On my last night in the city, I decided to return to the present. Kochi is also known as ‘poor man’s Goa’. You ask why—well, the sea coast, a bustling fresh fish market, Bohemian clothes’ shops, cafes, old structured restaurants and small book shops, located at Fort Kochi definitely bring out a sense of déjà vu. You can spend an entire day in the area, visiting art galleries, spa resorts and dining in colonial buildings that offer you myriad cuisines.
As the sun went down, the harbors opened to welcome the ships home and the fisherman were all set to show off their catch, as I headed to Fort Kochi. After paying a visit to the grave of one of the greatest explorers Vasco De Gama at St Francis Church, the humid heat demanded sipping on some fresh coconut water from a local vendor at the beach. Taking off my slippers, sinking my feet in the sand, I walked along the coast, the fort walls, hearing stories of the Portuguese, the Dutch, the Brits and the Dutch East Indians, it was clear that no amount of time was enough to let this history unfold.
Sifting through the pages of the past, a lot has been uncovered and a lot is yet to be discovered. The Muziris Heritage Project brought the Biennale to Kochi and gave it recognition on the international canvas as well.
This journey had no ending but it did make for an interesting chapter in my book and definitely for an unforgettable experience that has made it to the top of my travel list. And here was another addition: while the road trips are often long and hectic, I decided to take the local ferry back to the hotel which charges 23 per head—yes, and this is not a misprint.
In the Fort Kochi area there is a small street behind the big post office called the Quiero Street. Down the road, there is a small store named Vastra that sells Ayurvedic clothes, towels, bed sheets, handkerchiefs and many other things. An interesting fact about their cloth is that it has properties of ayurvedic herbs that benefit your body. It’s definitely worth the buy.
AT A GLANCE
Getting there: Indigo has two direct flights and two connecting flights from Delhi to Kochi every day.
When to go: We would suggest escaping to Kochi during November-December.
Stay: You can stay at Bolgatty Palace & Island Resort, 0484 275 0500; www.bolgattypalacekochi.com.
Eat: You can indulge in delicious seafood at various restaurants at Fort Kochi. David Hall Gallery Café, Spice Fort and Vasco Café are some that we would suggest. For a local experience, you can dine at any small dhaba near a temple where you get a vegetarian meal with rice, sambar, korma, papad, butter milk, rasam.
Shop: Buy spices and flower extracts from Mattancherry Spice Market. The shops at the airport are well stocked and priced too.