Funny how we often think that diversity or multiculturalism started late in history as our current century is marked with large-scale migration of people across the globe. Good to be reminded just how far back the mixing of cultures and people actually reaches…As far back as the early Middle Ages as I discovered visiting Fort Kochi, the old part of the city of Cochin in Kerala.
Among my many favourite memories of this gem of an old port is the All Spices Market – a large rectangular square which has been used since the 14th century to trade spices. While not a usual tourist attraction, the local auto rickshaw drivers know the spot. On my visit, the square was filled with ginger roots left to dry in the hot sun. The smell of fresh ginger mixed with the sight of the ancient buildings flanking the market square created a fabulous feeling of what it must have looked and felt like back in the hey day of the lucrative spice trade! Sacks, barrels and bushels of spices were unloaded from ships onto the square to be traded.
The lovers of literature, check out Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies and the River of Smoke as great narratives from the times when the spice trade had changed hands from the Dutch to the British in the 19th century. The Dutch and British East India Companies were by then fully in action, using Fort Kochi as one of the many harbours in southern India. Spending a few days in Fort Kochi made me recall so many of the tales and scenes from Ghosh’s novels of the world he so well describes in Southeast Asia of those times.
The history of Kochi is reported to originate from a major flood in 1341 that broke open the estuary at Kochi, which was then landlocked. That huge natural event turned the area eventually into one of the finest natural harbours in the world, still very much in operation today. Kochi thus became a haven for seafaring visitors globally and became the first European township in India when the Portuguese settled in the 15th century. What is amazing is that the modern-day Fort Kochi has managed to keep the flavour of the mixing of cultures as a witness to what obviously was once a fierce battle among the merchant fleets for the lucrative spice trade.
One of the most amazing testaments to the mix of cultures are the Chinese fishing nets, still hanging from bamboo poles and hoisted on teak wood structures by the Vasco da Gama Square in Fort Kochi. Records say they were first set up here between 1350 and 1450 near the beach. They are still lowered and pulled out of the sea although I’m not sure the catch is what is used to be back in the Middle Ages…
The Dutch wrested Fort Kochi from the Portuguese in 1663 and later in the last phase of the colonial saga, the city was actually “sold” to the British in 1795. During 1660s, Fort Kochi became the commercial centre and its fame spread far and wide – as a rich trade centre, a major military base, a vibrant cultural hub, and a great ship building centre. St. Francis Church, Vasco Da Gama Basilica and many Portuguese built houses are left behind. The large Christian community in the city also bears witness to the far-reaching influence left behind by the early settlers.
I loved hearing the rickshaw drivers talk about the “rain trees”, the now massive tall trees everywhere in Fort Kochi the Portuguese had reportedly brought as saplings from Brazil to India. Not only people but also trees seemed to have traveled from one side of the world to the other. Hope you too can visit this truly amazing and magical place!