Cochin (Kochi), India
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Cochin (Kochi), India
Known as the ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea‘, Kochi has long been among India’s most cosmopolitan cities. A center of trade and cultural exchange, Kochi has been shaped by a number of cultures: Indian, Chinese, Jewish, Portuguese and British.
In ancient times, the port of Muziris (believed to be the contemporary city of Kodungallur, 29 km north of Kochi) was a hub of exchange between India, China, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. According to ancient Tamil poetry, it was the city where
the beautiful vessels, the masterpieces of the Yavanas [Greeks and Romans], stir white foam on the Periyar, river of Kerala, arriving with gold and departing with pepper.
In the writings of the ancient Roman Pliny, it was “the first emporium of India”. Maritime trade between Rome and Muziris is believed to have begun in the first century BC, as Rome exchanged gold, coral, glassware, olive oil and garum (fermented fish sauce) for pepper, ivory, pearls and spices. Though trade with Rome declined in the third century AD, exchanges with China, Persia, and the Arab world kept Kerala a vibrant centre of economic and cultural interchange.
The ancient trade shapes the culture of Kerala today, with Jewish and Christian communities established in ancient times still existing in Kochi. Local tradition holds that the first Jews arrived in Kerala as sailors in King Solomon’s time (970 to 931 BC). More reliable evidence exists of a Jewish community in 70AD, perhaps owing to trade with the Roman Empire. The 12th century Jewish traveller, Benjamin of Tudela, recorded a community of thousands of Jews on his voyage to India. The Christian community of Kerala traces its lineage back to the apostle St. Thomas, who is believed to have evangelised in the area in the 1st century AD. Today, local St. Thomas Christians are organised as part of the Oriental Orthodox churches, with connections to the Christian churches of Armenia and Ethiopia.
In the Middle Ages, the port of Kodungallur was detroyed by several natural calamities and the centre of trade moved to Kochi. In 1498, the Portugese navigator Pedro Álvares Cabral founded the first European settlement in India at Kochi. He was soon followed by the explorer Vasco da Gama, who established a trading station. Portuguese rule saw Kerala’s Jewish and Christian communities grow, as the Portuguese converted locals to Catholicism, while the city also became a centre for Jewish Spaniards, following the 1492 expulsion of Jews from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Known as the ‘Paradesi (foreign) Jews’, Kerala’s two Jewish communities remained resolutely separate into the 20th century.
Kochi passed to Dutch rule in 1663. Under the Dutch Kochi enjoyed its greatest prosperity, with wealth shared between the city’s Hindu majority and Muslim, Jewish, and Christian minorities. Kochi was then ruled by the British from 1795 to 1947, at which point it joined independent India.
Today, the metropolitan region of Kochi consists of several townships, including the mainland hub of Ernakulam, and the historic port towns of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry. The city’s multicultural history can be explored at Mattancherry Synagogue, built for the Paradesi community in 1568. The synagogue features ornate tiles from Canton, China, and chandeliers from Belgium. Also worth visiting is St. Francis Church, built in 1503 by Portuguese Franciscan friars, and believed to be the oldest European-built church in India. The Chinese fishing nets – sitting by the Indian ocean shore – date back to Chinese traders from the 15th century court of Kublai Khan, and are still in use by fishermen today.
For more history, head to Kochi’s two grand palaces – Mattancherry Palace, presented to the Raja of Kochi as a gift from the Portuguese in 1555, and the Hill Palace Museum, a 49-bedroom palace that was formerly the residence of the Keralan royal family.
Make sure also to join a city tour of Fort Kochin, led by a knowledgeable local guide, and stroll around the colonial buildings of the Mattancherry neighborhood. The main drag, Princess Street, is one of the oldest streets in Kochi and an ideal place to people watch, shop for local handicrafts, or stop in a local cafe for tea.
To get away from it all, join the locals on the ferry to Vypeen Island, home to the lengthy Kuzhupilly Beach, or take a sunset cruise on the government owned Kerala Shipping and Inland Navigation Corporation.
Kochi is an ideal starting-off point for your Kerala tour. The world-famous backwater canals begin just to the south of the city, making it an ideal place to begin your cruise to Alleppey.
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