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.Read More
Fort Cochin, the grid of old streets at the northwest tip of the peninsula, is where the Portuguese erected their first walled citadel, Fort Immanuel, which the Dutch East Indian Company later consolidated with a circle of well fortified ramparts. Only a few fragments of the former battlements remain (the outline of the old walls is traced by the district’s giant rain trees, some of which are more than two centuries old), but dozens of other evocative European-era monuments survive.
A good way to get to grips with Fort Cochin’s many-layered history is to pick up the free walking-tour maps produced by Kerala Tourism and the privately run Tourist Desk. They lead you around some of the district’s more significant landmarks, including the early eighteenth-century Dutch Cemetery, Vasco da Gama’s supposed house and several traders’ residences.
Walking around the old quarter you’ll come across several small exhibition spaces and galleries – evidence of Fort Cochin’s newfound status as one of India’s contemporary art hubs. The scene takes centre stage in mid-December when the annual Kochi-Muziris Biennale (w kochimuzirisbiennale.org) draws artists and collectors from across the country with its mix of film, installation, sculpture, painting, performance art and new media hosted by half a dozen different venues.