Fort Kochi and Mattancherry journal, Part 1: Century-old settlements fight to retain historical legacy

Editor's Note: Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, 10 kilometres to the west of Ernakulam, were once bustling commercial hubs till the late 20th Century. Today, the various ethnic communities that had made this place home are struggling to stay relevant, trying to keep their businesses and traditions. In this multi-part series, Firstpost looks at these communities and their place in the history of Mattancherry. This is the first part of the series. 

A group of architecture students from Mumbai had come to Fort Kochi and Mattancherry in Kerala’s commercial capital of Kochi in October for an exhibition. But it was the complex composition of the ethnic settlements and its turbulent history that captured their imagination.

As they walked through the warrens of the twin-town, interacting with people and documenting spaces and histories for over a week, they familiarised themselves with the memories associated with place that had once attracted colonisers, missionaries, refugees, asylum seekers and traders from all over the world since centuries.

Fort Kochi and Mattancherry are not just architectural marvels but a living guide to the students of history. Apart from the historical, cultural and social imprint left by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British, who occupied the area from 1500s, the various ethnic communities like the Jews, Konkanis, Gujaratis, Jains, Memons, Marathis, Tamils and Kashmiris have maintained their distinct culture.

Photo courtesy: Thomas Thottungal.

The main beach at Fort Kochi. Photo courtesy: Thomas Thottungal.

No wonder the twin town, which is declared as a heritage zone by the state government, has become an inseparable part of the itinerary of the travellers coming to Kerala from all over the world. Mattancherry and Fort Kochi gained prominence after a flood in River Periyar in 1341 blocked the port at Kodungalloor, 25 kilometres north of Ernakulam and opened up a natural port at Kochi Lake.

It became a bustling international trade centre, particularly in spices, after the merchants of Kodungalloor, who had trade links with the Romans, Phoenicians, Persians, Egyptians, Greeks, Jews and the Chinese since the 1st Century BC, shifted their business to the new port.

The colonisers and the ethnic groups made Mattancherry and Fort Kochi their permanent home as the King of Kochi and the people welcomed them with warmth and provided them with ample opportunities to flourish. The colonisers have left but the place is home to as many as 22 different communities.

The drawings and dioramas exhibited at the Students' Biennale held as part of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale had art installations that identified each of the community like the Jain temple, the Hanafi mosque of the Memons, Paradesi Synagogue of Jews, Tamil’s Dhobi Khana, Portuguese-buildings, godowns, warehouses and the spice shops.

Neha Paliwal of Sahapedia, who was associated with the Kochi-Muziris Biennale Foundation (KMB) in developing a cultural map of Fort Kochi, said that she had heard people talking in five languages in just one hour after her arrival.

“Fort Kochi represents history in the broadest and widest sense. It has layers of historical and cultural connections and we thought it is one of the best venues to begin the cultural mapping project, something which has not been attempted so far anywhere in India,” said Sudha Gopalakrishnan, executive director, Sahapedia.

Bonny Thomas, a trustee of the KMB, said that 16 languages apart from Malayalam are being spoken by the different communities at Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. The cultural map that includes facts about various places, basic amenities, architecture styles, historical references and records serve as a community resource, he added.

The Jew Street. Photo courtesy: Thomas Thottungal.

The Jew Street. Photo courtesy: Thomas Thottungal.

Thomas told Firstpost that it will be of immense use to people who do heritage walks in Kochi, which incidentally is the only place in India where three European colonial powers have ruled. Families will also find it useful to trace their genealogies and histories. This can also be used by schools to design local history syllabus for students, he added.

The archaeological students from Mumbai have traced distinct geographical spaces created by migrant communities. Though the number of these communities has dwindled over the years, those who continue to live in the place maintain their distinct geographical space by strictly following their language, customs and cultures.

The geographical spaces etched by them in their drawings include the Jew town, the Anglo-Indian community, the Gujarati Street, the Jain locality, the Tamil colony, the Konkani and the Kutchi Memon settlements. An interesting extrapolation represented through axonometric (three-dimensional, top-down) mapping of the locations was a similarity between the clustered housing styles and the ‘chawl’ found in Mumbai.

The fascinating history of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry has also been documented widely by artistes, film-makers, historians and travellers. It's history has even inspired cartoonists. Noted cartoonist EP Unny has tried to take the readers on a literary journey across half a millennium with the help of caricatures.

Based on accounts of secondary sources from the 14th Century and 135 drawings of present day scenes, his book entitled 'Santa and Scribes: The Making of Fort Kochi' narrates the hectic trade, conquest, migration and assimilation of hundreds of years.

“Fort Kochi is the kind of place, where just about everything, except the fishermen on little canoes fitted with rusty Yamaha outboard engines, are a few centuries old. Pack all of this and a million mosquitoes into one square mile and you have Fort Kochi,” says Unni.

Historians and archaeologists, however, have doubts about the sustainability of the rich heritage. They fear many of the historical buildings may fade into history when their present occupants leave. There are only five Jewish families left in Mattancherry to take care of the Paradeshi Synagogue built in 1567 and other historical buildings associated with the community

Most of the buildings where the Jews lived and ran their business have been taken over by tourism industry. Many of them have been occupied by Kashmiris to sell their handicrafts and artefacts. The decline in the spice and commodities trade in the last few years have also left several historical buildings in ruins.

The archaeologists feel that the people who own these buildings may alter the structure or sell off if the trend continues. A warehouse at Mattancherry constructed more than 100 years ago was converted into a swanky hotel recently. Another has become an art gallery.

The charm of Dhobi Khana may fade if the move by the Tamil washer folk to set up a modern community laundry at Fort Kochi succeeds. The dhobis, who came from Tamil Nadu during the colonial rule to wash the clothes of the soldiers, have already submitted a project to the government for financial support.

The historical legacy of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry is not considered as a blessing for the people who live there. Pradeep Kumar, who was born and brought up at Fort Kochi, said the influx of tourists, particularly the foreign travellers, had brought in its wake several bad influences in the areas.

Kumar, who runs an ayurveda outlet at Fort Kochi, has identified the rising drug culture among the new generation as the most harmful impact of the boom in tourism. He told Firstpost that youths at Fort Kochi and Mattancherry were turning not only drug addicts but also peddlers.

“The influx of tourists has also caused serious environmental issues. Many places are littered with wastes from hotels and home-stays. The nauseating stench is unbearable,” he added.

The locals rue that it is the price they have to pay for the historical legacy.

Updated Date: May 17, 2017 17:39 PM

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