Friday, June 12, 2009

The Princely Isle of Kochi

Set in God’s own land, with a well pronounced imprint of rule of indigenous Chera kings and of many foreign rulers - Portuguese, Dutch and English, Kochi is laden with history in every aspect – from its birth to its prosperous disposition as a royal capital and now as a modern Indian city and sea port of strategic importance. It is a port that found mention in almost every early traveller’s record – Italian, Chinese, Greek or Portugese. The journey from Perumbadappu Swaroopam (the capital of many thavazhi (branches) of Thamopoorans (kings)) to Kochazhi to Kochi is of exemplary importance and as a tourist to this place, one gets a glimpse of annals of its history.

As the Vembanad Lake opens into Arabian Sea encompassed by islets - Fort Kochi and Vypeen, the city of Ernakulam on mainland overlooks this union from a distance, through a group of multiple isles (Bolghatty, Willingdon and Vallarpadam) scattered around. For a person in Ernakulam main jetty complex from where ferries leave to this group of isles, the sheer expanse of Vembanad Lake dotted with multiple isles housing huge buildings and harbour complexes is a royal treat. The ferry service is an absolute marvel, always on time and free of traffic jams, it offers the perfect way to travel from one isle to the other. Subhash Bose Park on Marine Drive, Ernakulam provides a well laid out pathway along the Vembanad Lake offering a close view of numerous ships safely anchored as gigantic cranes carry out the business of loading and unloading mammoth containers onto/from them. The buoys float on Vembanad as ferries loaded with passengers intercept the path of huge ships entering the river mouth from high seas; the distant Goshree bridges carry automobile/bus traffic from Ernakulam to different isles – the view is worth all the money you put in for the trip. Add to this a view of a sunrise/sunset, the lake waters shimmering in soft rays of the sun, it is truly worth reminiscing a million times. To top it all, the view of a vast blanket of dark monsoon clouds descending on the high seas, spreading its tentacles from isles to mainland, the distant lighthouse on Vypeen Island sending periodic beams of light that break through this eerie darkness – it stands priceless.

Fort Kochi is one of my personal favorites, as this isle resembles a Greek coastal village that appears in many Bollywood movies. Avenues with stylish English bungalows, mansions with sprawling green lawns, luxury hotels, prim and comfortable home stays, cafes and bakeries, ancient churches, neatly laid out parks at Fort Kochi tempts one endlessly to come back. One can view the mouth of Vembanad lake opening into mighty Arabian sea as laborious fisherman jostle on sea waters for a pricy catch, big and small vessels travel to safe havens of Vembanad Lake from the rough, monsoon sea while some fishermen maneuver with Chinese fishing nets that adorn the coastline. Fort Kochi houses many important places such as the Vasco House (Vasco Da Gama’s residence in Kochi) on Rose street;St Francis Church, initially a Catholic church built by Portuguese later turned to an Anglican church under British rulers, where Vasco da Gama was buried after death before his son claimed the body and took it to Lisbon; Santa Cruz Basilica – a Catholic church with impressive paintings on the ceiling and Dutch cemetery. The walkway close to Chinese fishing nets at the river mouth proceeds to present a better view of the high seas and is adjoined with a small food court.

On this isle, on the other half lies Mattencherry – which also houses some very important buildings. Mattencherry is a slice of history by itself bearing the Mattencherry Palace and a Jewish synagogue, the oldest in British Commonwealth. The Mattencherry palace also known as Dutch palace (as it was renovated by Dutch multiple times) was built in 1557 by the Portugese for Raja of Kochi, Veera Kerala Varma in return for a temple they plundered and vandalized. The palace, currently a museum abounds with articles used by Rajas of Kochi, their palanquins, mural paintings of Ramayana scenes and pictorial charts depicting royal lineage and history of Cochin from 50 AD to 1956.

Kochi came into existence with a devastating flood in Periyar river in AD 1341 closing the earlier prosperous port of Cranganore (now known as Kodungallur). Kodungallur, then known as Mahodayapura, the capital of the Kochi Rajas, the gateway of trade for spices with the West was silted completely by the flood and a new sea mouth was opened at Kochi which later flourished as the capital of the Rajas and was hailed as Perumbaddappu Swaroopam.

The Portugese landed at Kochi in 1503 with Vasco Da Gama pioneering the act by landing at Calicut in 1498. The initial inkling of trade in spices (cardamom and black pepper) matured into local territorial conquests and a vehement urge to spread Christianity accompanied by large-scale destruction of temples. The Rajas of Kochi fled Mahodayapura after the devastating flood and sought the support of Portugese to fight the Zamorins of Calicut. The year 1663 saw the arrival of Dutch into Kochi and the port became quite a battleground for Dutch and Portugese. The Dutch won and entered into a treaty with the Kochi Rajas’ Mootha Thavazhi (royal branch) until the year 1795 that saw the arrival of British on Kochi soil. Thereafter, Kochi, virtually remained in full control of British East India Company with the Varman kings (Kochi Rajas/Thampoorans) merely being vassals. Trade flourished at the Kochi port, Willingdon harbour complex as seen today was planned and built by Mr. Robert Bristow in the year 1920. Post independence, in 1948, the Kochi - Travancore princely states under Thampoorans and Thirunal kings expressed interest to join the Indian union and under States Reorganization Act, 1956, Perumbaddapu Swaroopam (Kochi) officially became a part of the Kerala state.

If one wanted a peek into times of Kochi before the 1341 AD flood, one must visit the Jewish Synagouge in Jew Town, Mattancherry. A set of 5 Jewish families reside in the isle with a treasure of information on how they settled, their religious practices etc. The year AD 50 witnessed growing trade relations between Western world and Cranganore, referred to as Shingly by the Jews. The religious tolerance of the Chera king then – Cheraman Perumal saw Jewish families settle in Cranganore. The last surviving Jewish family escaped from the hands of brutal Portuguese finding refuge under Kochi Raja at Mattancherry. A synagogue was built right next to the Mattancherry palace as a place of worship for the Jews, a clock tower erected next to it, its interior decorated with bright Belgian and Italian chandeliers and 1100 blue and white willow-pattern ceramic tiles on the floor.
The Vypeen island, right opposite to the isle of Fort Kochi is a long, narrow island, densely populated that runs almost upto Kodungallur. The ferry journey from Fort Kochi to Vypeen is highly thrilling as one sails right across the mouth, galloping up and down as high sea waves modulate on relatively placid Vembanad Lake waters. On Vypeen island, one can visit Cherai beach (23 km) and Pallipuram fort (built by Portuguese, 25 km) or take the road that forks off to the right leading to Goshree bridges that connect islands of Vallarpadam (harbour site) and Bolghatty (houses a Dutch palace built for the Raja of Kochi, currently a KTDC hotel) to Ernakulam.
Willingdon Island, an artifically laid out island (year 1920), completely planned by Englishman Mr. Robert Bristow, is a chief industrial centre that houses Cochin harbor, dockyard, many factories including that of coir, tea processing and currently abandoned Cochin Harbor Railway Terminus. Aboard the ferry, one can see wide, clean roads bordered with stylish mansions, a Taj hotel and the Cochin Port Trust building with its typical British style clock tower. On Sundays, you might find yourself walking alone in the isle in absolute silence broken by intermittent sounds from the busy harbor complex and “Vroom Vroom”of gigantic trucks loaded with containers.

Bolghatty Island is a very small island that lies between Vallarpadam isle and Ernakulam and it houses a beautiful Dutch palace, now converted into a KTDC hotel; the best property to stay in Kochi if you can afford Rs 3000-4000 a day for a room. The hotel surrounded by Vembanad waters on all three sides has lush greenery, golf course, some horse riding activity, a swimming pool and a restaurant offering splendid view of the Harbour and Vembanad.

Another sunset; the monsoon clouds, in an act of intimidation, settle over the isles and spread in all vigor to the main land, engulfing the twin cities of Kochi and Ernakulam with a thick, blanket of rain. As you stand in Ernakulam, watching the isles with jet-black clouds shroud them, you only wonder how many more stories, this princely isle of Kochi has, that are left untold.


Ashwin said...

I have lived in ekm for 24 years.But i have never bothered to know abt it. Thankx to u i am aware of a lot more things abt ekm and kochi. Great article.

Kiran K.A said...

Very informative. Especially the history of Kochi. Good one