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Fort Kochi, Kerala | Remains of a spice coast

Fort Kochi, Kerala | Remains of a spice coast

Centuries-old houses and a breeze spiked with spice are reminders that the past is a living thing.

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Chinese fishing nets. Photo: Thinkstock
“You can get there by road or by ferry,” said the man I asked for directions on National Highway 17, outside Kochi city.

 

An hour later, my car was rolling off the ferry that had just dropped me in Fort Kochi. Soon, I was driving past houses with flaking paint, and big teakwood windows and doors bound by moss-smudged walls. These houses were unlike the malls, glowing signboards, high-rises and soaring urban ambitions of Kochi city that lay across the water.

 

I was walking past vast 200-year-old houses that surrounded the Parade Ground’s vociferous tennis-ball cricket matches. A few blocks away, hushed prayers echoed in the around 500-year-old St Francis Church and 400-odd year old Santa Cruz Basilica. A few hundred metres away, children in uniform played in the compound of the 200-year-old former warehouse that’s now The Delta Study high school. Grand mansions turned heritage hotels rubbed shoulders with one- and two-roomed residences, transitory tea stalls and vendors’ carts. After spending my first 2 hours in Fort Kochi driving and walking around the streets, I headed to my hotel.

 

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A street in Jew Town, once a building centre
of the spice trade. Photo: Shamanth Rao/Mint
Fort Kochi’s story begins more than 650 years ago and owes its beginnings to traders from Kodungallur, which had been one of the great trading ports of ancient India’s spice trade with Europe and West Asia for many centuries. In 1341, when there was a great flood in the Periyar river, the harbour at Kodungallur was blocked.Traders panicked and scrambled to find ways to keep their flow of money and goods intact. They used the Kozhikode harbour some 170km north for some time. But Kodungallur harbour showed no signs of opening up. There was no way these traders could bank their ships there.

One day, one of these traders’ scouts came panting into their camp, and reported that he’d discovered a new harbour just some 40km south. There was no harbour there before, but the flood that had closed up Kodungallur had opened it up. Instead of moving their trade and headquarters 170km north to Kozhikode, these traders decided that the new harbour would be far easier to use.

Consequently, much of Kodungallur’s trade shifted to this new harbour, today’s Fort Kochi. Thus Fort Kochi became one of the major centres of the world’s spice trade, with Chinese, Arabian and European traders making it a major base for their operations.

As European powers sought to set up outposts in India and the Far East, Fort Kochi became a crucial location in world geopolitics. The Portuguese, led by Pedro Álvares Cabral (in 1500) and Vasco da Gama (1502) set up a colonial town here. The Portuguese were supplanted by the Dutch in 1653 and the British in 1795, as all of them sought control of the spice trade and the resultant riches.

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