Civilizations did not exactly clash in Fort Kochi, they unconsciously coalesced into a colourful mosaic. So much so, the place presents history in a capsule.
As the competing yachts sailed into the Cochin waters in tandem! on the second lap of the famous Volvo Race in early December 2008, they were inadvertently, but symbolically, recapturing the history of over five centuries ago. With, perhaps, one major difference: the earlier seafarers were adventurous traders, while their present-day peers are footloose adventurers. Fort Cochin, a coastal fishing village, then called British Cochin, now Fort Kochi, the gateway to Kerala, a tourist super brand.
This tiny municipality is, in fact, history in a capsule. Here civilizations and cultures did not exactly clash; they unconsciously coalesced into a cultural mosaic. The Chinese were the first to come, followed by the Arabs, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and, finally, the British. They came to take a slice of the spices trade. Some chose to stay back and lived comfortably with what power and pelf could buy. Each of them contributed an indelible strain that, transcending time and space, finally got woven into a radiant fabric. Quite deservedly, Fort Cochin became a Heritage Town, the only one of its kind in the State of Kerala.
History records many adventurous seafarers who doubled themselves as great chroniclers. Pliny, a Roman, in the first century AD, for one, Ma Huan, a Chinese, in the 14th century, for another, and Nicolo Conti, the Italian in the 16th century, for yet another. They wrote extensively and vividly about the land they called Malabar Coast. Calicut (present Kozhikode), up north, and Muziris (present Kodungallur), and Cochin, down south, fascinated the latter two no end.
But history overtook Fort Cochin only with the arrival of the Portuguese on Christmas Day, 1500 AD, two years after the legendary * Vasco da Gama landed at Kappad in Calicut. **Pedro Alvares Cabral who led a fleet of 12 ships ran into a storm that tossed them over to Brazil from where they sailed past the Cape of Good Hope to reach Cochin which, by then had emerged as a great spices trading centre.
- *Portuguese navigator (1469 – 1524) who discovered the route to India around the Cape of Good Hope.
- **Portuguese navigator credited with the discovery of Brazil (May 3, 1500) who later came to Cochin.
The then Maharaja of Cochin not only welcomed Cabral and his men but also allowed them to trade. In twenty days, they left for their homeland with their ships loaded with merchandise. It was the first-ever cargo to leave the Cochin harbour. More importantly, it marked the beginning of Fort Cochin’s tryst with foreigners which ultimately ended only on August 15, 1947. This tiny piece of land at the mouth of the Cochin harbour had been under foreign powers for a much longer period than any in the rest of the country.
To revert, the Portuguese found the land and the people disarmingly hospitable. For his part, the ruling Maharaja of Cochin not only allowed them to trade but even gave them land to build a fort and a township. This was more an act of gratitude on the part of the Maharaja for having saved him from the attack of the Zamorin (King) of Calicut. The kind act was done by the Portuguese navy of Alfonso de Albuquerque. The first fort, Fort Immanuel, was named after their King. Fort Cochin thus became the first European settlement in the subcontinent.
The fort was later expanded. A new fort was also added to it. The Dutch who followed the Portuguese, however, trimmed it to a smaller size and renamed the bastions of the fort after places in their own country-Holland, Zealand, Glenderland, Stromberg, Groningen, et al. And the British who followed the Dutch demolished the fort. Today only a few bastions stand as sad reminders of their former glory.
Similar reminders of the early European presence dot the landscape. St. Francis Church (1503), India’s oldest European church where Vasco da Gama was buried, Vasco House (first half of 16th century), Bastion Bungalow (1 503) built-in Indo-European style, and Santa Cruz Basilica (1558) are some of the famous monuments of yesteryear. No less ee-catching is the ubiquitous Chinese fishing nets that take Fort Cochin’s history to a much earlier era. And nothing gives the place a more tantalizingly romantic ambience than these nets. They are the leitmotif of today’s Fort Cochin.
The piece de resistance of the Portuguese era was the library, described by French historian Tavernier as “the greatest in Asia”. The library, named after St. Paul, had, according to Tavernier, books from Europe, besides “handwritten copies of first-rate books in Indian, Chinese, Persian, Arabic, Chaldean and Hebrew”.
The Dutch weren’t appreciative of the monuments the Portuguese left behind. In the carnage that followed their takeover, they burnt down almost everything their predecessors had built The library was put on fire and, according to legend, it burnt for five full days.
What reigned supreme during the foreign occupation was trade domestic as well as international. Genuine globalization was at its best. From within the country came Gujaratis, Konkanis, Kutchis, Tamil Brahmins and Pathans from Hyderabad.
There is also historical evidence of the presence of traders from Basra, Hormuz, Egypt, Aden, Indonesia and Indo-China. No other trading centre had attracted so many people from so wide and disparate destinations as Fort Cochin. It wasn’t just a mini India, .it was more of a mini world.
The spices and other hill range products were brought to the markets in and around Fort Cochin and Mattancherry in Ketu Vallams (roofed boats) uniquely designed to protect the cargo from rain. These sailing vessels used the land breeze in the morning to bring the cargo to markets at and around the trading centres and return in the evening with the help of the sea breeze. The unique network of canals, the island harbours and markets, the special navigational skills of the natives and the supply and communication channels had all been finetuned to perfection. Some survive even to this day.
Trade wasn`t one-sided. For everything the foreign traders took from the Malabar Coast, they brought back something from their land and elsewhere. The Portuguese, particularly, introduced many exotic plants and fruit trees to the Malabar Coast that, over the years, became part of the flora and fauna of Kerala. The list is long. It includes cashew, tobacco, pineapple, papaya, rubber, tapioca and chilli.
With people and products came cuisine, distinctly different from the local one and yet lapped up with great relish. And furniture too. In fact, till the arrival of the Portuguese, the locals squatted on the floor and never had the luxury of tables and chairs. Predictably, their Portuguese names -Mesa (table) and Kasala (chair) – were assimilated into the local language. As for cuisine of all hues, Fort Cochin became the diners’ delight.
Little wonder the great Mahatma Gandhi termed Fort Cochin ” an epitome of adventure”