Kochi / Cochin – The City Of Charm

Long before any part of India came up for reckoning, this gorgeously verdant land Cochin* now Known as Kochi has already had a tryst with the rest of the world, if ever history was made by geography, it was indeed here.

*‘Cochin’ is the old name which was later changed to ‘Kochi as part of Indianizing the names of states, cities and towns.

For a short stretch of land in a country of continental proportion, the Malabar Coast, presently called Kerala, perhaps deserved mention only on the back pages of history. That was not to be. Long before any part of the country came up for reckoning, this gorgeously verdant land had already had its tryst with the rest of the world. Its spices, particularly pepper, also called black gold, were what the world was after. And, if ever history was made by geography, it was indeed here.

For long, Calicut (now Kozhikode) and Muziris (now Kodungallur) were where mercenary merchants and tricky traders from China in the east to Europe in the west flocked. Till *Cochin emerged sometime in the fourteenth century, more by accident than by design.

A freak flood virtually destroyed Muziris, both as a port of call and as a centre for trade and commerce, but created a natural harbour in Cochin, besides a backwater system and a new land deposit (Vypeen island), off the mainland. Soon, Cochin rivalled Calicut, till then a major spices market, thanks to the availability of good quality spices at a much lesser cost. Thus began the saga of Cochin.

By comparison, Cochin has a shorter history than other ancient places on the Malabar Coast like, say, Calicut or Muziris or Kollam. It was originally called Balapuri, a Sanskrit name meaning ‘a small town’. How the name changed to Cochin is shrouded in mystery. There are several theories about the name itself. One is that the place was on the banks of a small river (Kochazhi, in local parlance) that connected the backwaters and the Arabian Sea. The name Cochin was thus the derivative of Kochazhi.

There is also the story that Chinese traders (14th century) named it Cochin after a place with the same name back home. Chroniclers like Nicolo Conti (15th century), Ceason Frederik (16th century), and Fra Paoline (17th century) called it Cocym, Cochym and Cochin.

Interestingly, none of the earlier chroniclers made any reference to Cochin in the otherwise elaborately descriptive narration of their travels on the Malabar Coast. But places like Kollam, Poonithura and Calicut figured prominently in their writings. This gives credence to the theory of Cochin being a later-day city of importance on the Malabar Coast.

It was, however, a Chinese, Ma Huan, who made the first-ever mention of Cochin. That was in the Year of Grace 1409. Ma Huan made as many as seven voyages to the Malabar Coast between 1405 and 1433 in the company of the legendary Chinese sea adventurer Cheng Ho who commandeered the massive fleet of China during the period of the Ming dynasty. According to the Chinese historian Huang Sheng-tseng, Cheng Ho “was nine feet tall and had a girth of ninety inches.”

Cochin by then must have been a happening place. Else, Nicolo Conti would not have written that “China was a good place to make money in and Cochin to spend it at”. The other writers were no less fascinated, though they were taken up more by the utility of the fine harbour and the money-spinning spices than the eye-catching sideshows so typical of a port town.

Early British settlers were equally eloquent about the place and people. Charles Allen Lawson, an official and a writer to boot, for one, was ecstatic in his description of Cochin in an otherwise condescending book titled “British and Native Cochin”, (1861). He wrote about the then-prevailing view that “Cochin is the centre of civilization, the modern Cadiz, after seeing which nothing remains in the world worth beholding”.

His description of the land was even more laudatory. Before us, he wrote, “is the town, embosomed most cosily among tulip, lettuce and coco-nut (sic) trees, the venerable Flagstaff Tower and peculiar Church just peeping above the brown tiled roofs of the white and yellow houses…… Inland, so far as we can see, stretches a beautifully verdant plain, occasionally relieved by gentle elevations and woody hills; whilst behind, forming a grand termination to so extensive a landscape, are the Southern Ghats, a noble range of mountains, many apparently of great altitude.”
That was Cochin of the late nineteenth century. Time, of course, had taken its toll, as much for the good as for the bad. It’s now certainly not the verdant land that it was. The tiled roofs are like the lilies in the meadow now, few and far between, in a landscape dominated by monstrous-looking skyscrapers. And man’s hunger for land has flattened much of the ghats.

The transformation was to be expected, given the influx of men and materials from far and near. But what really turned Cochin’s fortunes was the port that was virtually exhumed, as it were, from the waters between the mainland and Mattancherry.
And the man who did the miracle was Robert Bristow, a Briton who, quite justly and justifiably, became a legend in his own lifetime.

While the brain and brawn were that of Bristow’s, the man who thought of the possibility of a port off Cochin was Lord Willingdon, the then governor of Madras Province and later India’s Viceroy. There were many detractors, both foreign and native, some of whom even tried to scuttle the project midway through. They didn’t succeed, thanks to the timely intervention of Willingdon. A grateful state and people named the island where the port was built after him.

Cochin has never ceased to grow since then. Everything about it has changed; its landscape, its skyline, its geographical contours, its lifestyle, et al, as the following pages reveal. Except for its old-world charm. And that’s what makes it a city to see. Over to Cochin.

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