Spreading across islands and promontories between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters, KOCHI (long known as Cochin) is Kerala’s prime tourist destination. Its main sections – modern Ernakulam and the old peninsular districts of Mattancherry and Fort Cochin to the west – are linked by bridges and a complex system of ferries. Although some visitors opt to stay in the more convenient Ernakulam, the overwhelming majority base themselves in Fort Cochin, where the city’s complex history is reflected in an assortment of architectural styles. Spice markets, Chinese fishing nets, a synagogue, a Portuguese palace, India’s first European church and seventeenth-century Dutch homes can all be found within an easy walk.
While the majority of visitors use the city as a base for day-trips into the surrounding backwaters and satellite villages, there’s nothing to stop you doing the opposite, basing yourself in quiet backwater locations out of town – such as Vypeen Island to the north, or Kumbalanghi to the south – and travelling in to see the sights by bus, taxi or auto-rickshaw. There is some outstanding accommodation in Kumbalanghi village, in the form of homestays.
Kochi sprang into being in 1341, when a flood created a safe natural port that swiftly replaced Muziris (now Kodungallur, 50km north) as the chief harbour on the Malabar Coast. The royal family moved here in 1405, after which the city grew rapidly, attracting Christian, Arab and Jewish settlers from the Middle East. The history of European involvement from the early 1500s onwards is dominated by the aggression of the Portuguese, Dutch and British, who successively competed to control the port and its lucrative spice trade. From 1812 until Independence in 1947 it was administered by a succession of diwans, or finance ministers. In the 1920s, the British expanded the port to accommodate modern ocean-going ships, and Willingdon Island, between Ernakulam and Fort Cochin, was created by extensive dredging.