Fort Kochi is part of the islands forming Old Kochi in the southern Indian state of Kerala.
Arabian traders, Chinese treasure fleets, Portuguese, Dutch and British have all influenced the 4.5 square kilometre island comprising Fort Kochi and Mattancherry.
Since independence in 1947, a multi-cultural diversity rarely experienced elsewhere remains.
Fort Kochi’s melting pot of cultures is best experienced on foot. Grab some comfy shoes, we’ll be off shortly, but first….
A little history.
In the north, Hindu-Muslim relations are tenuous at best, yet Kochi (Cochin) sees both living together harmoniously. Long before Kochi became a famed trading port Arabian traders discovered Kerala’s gold mine of spices.
Shipping cinnamon, cardamom, sandalwood, turmeric and other exotic spices to Europe, they had a big part of the market, only sharing it with a small Jewish community at Mattancherry.
In 1341 a Tsunami caused a flood that wiped out the port of Kondungallur, creating Kochi’s natural harbour and deeming it the new South Indian trading port.
Chinese voyager, Ma Huan is the first, according to historians, to have written of Kochi during his visit in the 1400s with Admiral Zheng He’s treasure fleet.
Recognising the opportunity for trade, a Chinese settlement was established and with it came Buddhism, Confucianism and the now famous Chinese fishing nets.
At the Cochin Raja’s request, Portugal came to aid in an internal dispute. 3 years later Portugal ruled with the Raja as head in name only. Introducing Catholicism, they built the grand Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica.
Next came the Dutch at the Cochin Royal family’s behest to oust Cochin’s Raja and overthrow the Portuguese. In 1664, Fort Kochi was established as the first municipality in the Indian subcontinent by the Dutch.
Hyder Ali, the Kingdom of Mysore’s de facto ruler, invaded from the north securing access to Cochin’s port. In cahoots with the English East India Company, he opened the door for the Brits to enter the equation.
The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 saw the Dutch hand over Cochin to the Brits in exchange for Banca, an island off Sumatra allowing British rule until Indian Independence in 1947.
This brief history is evident in the architecture, religious monuments, and flavours as you stroll the streets of Fort Kochi. Are you ready?
South to Mattancherry.
We begin at the Waterfront Granary Hotel, a museum hotel with a unique blend of old and new. Hindu temples sit beside mosques interspersed with spice traders on Bazaar Street. This is a wholesale market, but there are many stores to stock up on your favourite spices.
Bazaar Road turns into Jew Town Road. Paradesi Synagogue can be visited from here and lining Jew Street are traders in gems, jewellery, clothing, religious and non-religious artefacts.
Mattancherry Palace, with its decidedly non-royal exterior, is referred to as the “Dutch Palace”. Built by the Portuguese for the Raja as penance for destroying a temple, the Dutch put up some cash for repairs and it’s been known as the Dutch Palace ever since. Mattancherry Palace is closed Fridays.
Central Fort Kochi.
Continue to Shri Cochin Jain Temple. Permission to enter is gained from the front office. Jains welcome all to their temple and provide saris to cover shoulders and knees, although ladies in their menstrual cycle are strictly prohibited. Jainism is considered the oldest of Indian religions following 5 principles; non-violence, truth, non-stealing, chastity/ celibacy, and non-attachment. Visit the Jain Temple between 11:00 am and 12:30 pm daily.
Saint George Orthodox Koonan Kurishu Old Syrian Church is around the corner and a complete contrast to previous architecture. One of India’s oldest churches, it was renovated in 2016 using Nubian architecture – mud bricks, no steel, little cement, and a focus on natural lighting and air circulation. You can learn about the faith here.
At the Kerala Kathakali Centre, traditional Hindu stories are performed through dance and martial arts. Open daily with performances from 4:00 pm, reservations can be made online. This traditional form of storytelling dates back to the 2nd century and is performed in the local Malayalam dialect.
Visit the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica website for updated opening times and to view this imposing building.
Nearby the Indo-Portuguese Museum draws a complete picture of the area’s history while Malabar House offers sanctuary and a glass of wine.
With the diverse culture, not only in Fort Kochi but throughout Kerala, alcohol licenses are difficult to obtain. Muslim owned premises are not permitted a license and strict zoning laws apply. Alcohol may not be served in close proximity to a school, church, temple, mosque or any religious enclosure and the cost of an alcohol license is financially restrictive.
At Malabar House, you can rest easy. A selection of Indian and international beers are on the menu, but the real draw is the celebration of the emerging Indian wine industry.
Malabar House is a boutique residence with 17 rooms & suites. Designed by Joerg Dreschel, a German designer and talented artist, in partnership with his Spanish wife Txuku Iriarte Solana a master of textiles, Malabar House is not only a lovely place for a glass or two but a perfect place to rest your head.
The Coastal Route.
If you can find it in yourself to leave Malabar House, (let’s face it, it won’t be easy) there’s still more to see in Fort Kochi. Make your way to Fort Kochi Beach and the Beach Walkway.
Photo and shopping opportunities present themselves along the path and it leads to the famous Chinese Fishing Nets.
Aspinwall House was the primary venue hosting the 2016 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Facing the sea, the heritage property was originally the premises of Aspinwall & Company Ltd.
Established in 1867 by English trader John H Aspinwall, the Company traded in coconut oil, pepper, timber, lemongrass oil, ginger, turmeric, spices, hides and later in coir, coffee, tea, and rubber.
That Wine & Beer sign ahead means you’ve reached Seagull Seafood Restaurant and almost completed the circuit. As a reward, request a waterfront table and take in the activity.
Cruise ships, Navy vessels, ferries and fishing boats use the waterways surrounding Fort Kochi. Sip on a Grover Sauvignon Blanc or an ice cold Haywards 5000 while you prepare yourself for the flavours to come.
Before leaving Fort Kochi, introduce yourself to Rizwan at Iram Perfumes (Greenix Complex, Kalvathy Road) for handmade incense and essential oils. The quality is outstanding and the value for money, incredibly good.
There’s a lot to take in on this walking tour so, if you have time, split it in 2, the western side of the peninsula one day and the eastern another.
Fort Kochi and Mattancherry’s 32 cultures speaking 17 languages, including the local Malayalam, proves diverse cultures can live harmoniously together. Observing this for a few days: it’s a thing we love….
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