Kochi (colonial name Cochin) is a vibrant city situated on the south-west coast of the Indian peninsula in the breathtakingly scenic and prosperous state of Kerala, hailed as ‘God’s Own Country’. Its strategic importance over the centuries is underlined by the sobriquet Queen of the Arabian Sea. Informally, Cochin is also referred to as the Gateway to Kerala.
From time immemorial, the Arabs, British, Chinese, Dutch, and Portuguese have left indelible marks on the history and development of Cochin. Over the years, Cochin has emerged as the commercial and industrial capital of Kerala and is perhaps the second most important city on the west coast of India (after Mumbai/Bombay). Cochin is proud of its world class port and international airport that link it to many major cities worldwide.
This lovely seaside city is flanked by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. Its proximity to the equator, the sea and the mountains provide a rich experience of a moderate equatorial climate. Kochi is the arguably the ideal starting point for exploring the unfathomable diversity and beauty of Kerala, rated in the top three tourist destinations by the World Travel & Tourism Council and featured in National Geographic Traveler’s ’50 greatest places of a lifetime’.
Fort Kochi To explore the historic town of Fort Kochi, there is no better choice than setting out on foot. Relax, breathe deep and come out in cotton, soft shoes and yes – a straw hat. At each and every nook of this island steeped in history, there is something amusing awaiting you. It is a world of its own, retaining the specimens of a bygone era and still proud of those days. If you can smell the past, nothing can stop you from walking through these streets.
Walking straight through the K. J. Herschel Road and turning left, you can have a glimpse of Fort Immanuel. This bastion once belonged to the Portuguese and is a symbol of the strategic alliance which existed between the Maharaja of Cochin and the Monarch of Portugal, after whom the fort is named. This fort was built in 1503 and reinforced in 1538. Walking a bit further, you come across the Dutch cemetery. Consecrated in 1724 and managed by the Church of South India, the tomb stones here silently remind visitors of those Europeans who left their homeland to expand their colonial empires.
The next spot to watch is the ancient Thakur House, which stands erect as a concrete specimen of the colonial era. The building is simply graceful. Formerly known as Kunal or Hill Bungalow, it was home to the managers of the National Bank of India during the British rule. Now, it belongs to the Thakur and Company, renowned tea trading firm.
Walk on and there is another colonial structure awaiting you – David Hall. It was built around 1695 by the Dutch East India Company. The hall is associated with Hendrik Adriaan van Reed tot Drakeston, renowned Dutch commander, who is more admired for his monumental book on the flora of Kerala namely Hortus Malabaricus. However, David Hall is named after David Koder, a later occupant of the hall.
Walking past the Parade Ground, the four acres of ground where the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British had once conducted military parades, you reach the St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India. It has passed through many phases ever since the Portuguese built it in 1503. Now the church is under the Church of South India. By the way, it was in this church that Vasco-da Gama had been buried and his tombstone can still be seen.
The Church Road is a nice place to walk, with the cool breeze from the Arabian Sea caressing your body. Walk down a bit closer to the sea and there is the Cochin Club, home to an impressive library and collection of sporting trophies. Set in a beautifully landscaped park, the club still retains its British ambience.
Walking back to the Church Road, on the left side, you would stumble across another majestic mansion, the Bastion Bungalow. This wonderful structure of Indo-European style had been built in 1667 and is named after its location on the site of the Stromberg Bastion of the old Dutch fort. Now it is the official residence of the Sub Collector.
The Vasco-da Gama square is nearby. A narrow promenade, this is an ideal place to relax a little. Stalls full of delicious seafood and tender coconuts are simply tempting. Savour a bit and feed your eyes on the Chinese fishing nets, being raised and lowered. These nets had been erected here between AD 1350 and 1450 by the traders from the court of Kublai Khan.
Refreshed, you can now proceed to the Pierce Leslie Bungalow, a charming mansion, which once had been the office of Pierce Leslie and Co., coffee merchants of yesteryears. This building reflects Portuguese, Dutch and local influences. Its waterfront verandahs are an added attraction. Turning right, you come to the Old Harbour House, built in 1808 and owned by Carriet Moran and Co, renowned tea brokers. Nearby is the Koder House, the magnificent building constructed by Samuel S. Koder of the Cochin Electric Company in 1808. This structure shows the transition from colonial to Indo-European architecture.
Turn further right and you reach the Princess Street. Mind having some fresh flowers from the shops here. One of the earliest streets of the area, this road has European style residences on both its sides. Located here is the Loafer’s Corner, the traditional hangout for the jovial and fun loving people of Kochi.
Walking northwards from the Loafer’s corner, you come across Santa Cruz Basilica, the historic church built by the Portuguese and elevated to a cathedral by Pope Paul IV in 1558. In 1984, Pope John Paul II declared it as a Basilica. After having a quick look at the Burgher street and the Delta Study, a heritage bungalow built in the year 1808 and now functioning as a high school, you walk down, once again to the Princess Street and then to the Rose Street. There you would find Vasco house, believed to be the residence of Vasco-da Gama. This traditional and typical European house is one of the oldest of Portuguese residences in Kochi.
Turning left, you walk over to the Ridsdale Road to find the VOC gate, the large wooden gate facing the Parade ground. The gate, built in 1740, gets its name from the monogram (VOC) of the Dutch East India Company on it. Close by is the United Club, once one of the four elite clubs of the British in Kochi. Now, it serves as a classroom for the nearby St. Francis Primary School.
Walking straight, you reach the end of the road and there is the Bishop’s house, built in the year of 1506. It had once been the residence of the Portuguese Governor and is set on a small hillock near the Parade Ground. The facade of the house has large Gothic arches and the building was acquired by Dom Jos Gomes Ferreira, the 27th Bishop of the Diocese of Cochin whose jurisdiction extended over Burma, Malaya and Ceylon apart from India.
Mattancherry Dutch Palace Built by the Portuguese in 1557 and presented to Raja Veera Kerala Varma of Kochi, the Palace was renovated in 1663 by the Dutch. The palace with a Bhagavathi Temple in the central courtyard is built like the typical Kerala style mansion – the Nalukettu – the home of the aristocracy, nobility and upper classes, with four separate wings opening out to a central courtyard. The double storeyed palace building which stands by the panoramic Kochi backwaters has an exquisite collection of murals collectively covering over 300 sq ft of its walls. The themes of these murals have been borrowed from the great Indian epics – the Ramayana and the Mahabharatha, and mythology and legends about the Hindu gods especially Guruvayurappan. Some murals depict scenes from Kumarasambhavam and other works of the great Sanskrit poet Kalidasa. Also on display are royal paraphernalia like weapons, swings and furniture which offer a glimpse of the lifestyle of the royal family.
Mattancherry Synagogue The synagogue at Fort Kochi, constructed in 1568, is the oldest in the Commonwealth. Destroyed in a shelling during the Portuguese raid in 1662, it was rebuilt two years later by the Dutch. Mid-18th century hand-painted, willow patterned floor tiles from Canton in China, a clock tower, Hebrew inscriptions on stone slabs, great scrolls of the Old Testament, ancient scripts on copper plates in which the grants of privilege made by the erstwhile Cochin rulers were recorded etc., are articles of interest here. The area around the synagogue is a centre of spice trade and curio shops.
Hill Palace Museum The Hill Palace, Kerala’s first heritage museum noted for royal collections of the erstwhile Maharaja of Kochi, is today the largest archaeological museum in Kerala. Built in 1865, the palace complex consists of 49 buildings in the trational architectural style of Kerala, sprawled over 52 acres of beautifully landscaped terraced land which houses a deer park and facilities for horse riding. Numerous species of flora including rare medicinal plants grow here. On display in the full-fledged Ethno-archaeological museum are oil-paintings, murals, sculptures in stone and manuscripts, inscriptions, coins, belongings of the Kochi royal family and royal furniture including the simhasana (throne). Also exhibited are over 200 antique pieces of pottery and ceramic vases from Japan and China, Kudakkallu (tomb stone), Thoppikkallu (hood stone), menhirs, granite, laterite memorials, rock-cut weapons from the Stone Age, wooden temple models, plaster cast models of objects from Mohenjodaro and Harappa of the Indus Valley Civilisation. The museum also houses a gallery of contemporary art.
Kaladi The birthplace of Adi Sankaracharya, the great Advaita philosopher of the 8th century, Kaladi is 19 km from Aluva. Temples dedicated to Sri Sankara, Sarada Devi, Sri Krishna and Sri Ramakrishna add to the sanctity of the destination. A place called Crocodile Ghat is where Sri Sankara took his vows of renunciation. According to legends, a crocodile caught hold of him and refused to release him until Sankara’s mother Aryamba permitted him to accept Sanyas (renunciation).
Thattekkad Bird Sanctuary Thattekkad is made up of tropical evergreen and deciduous forests and some grassland patches. This globally acclaimed bird sanctuary owes much of its fame to Dr. Salim Ali, the internationally renowned ornithologist. After his famous bird survey of Travancore in the early 1930s, he reported that this area is extremely rich in bird diversity and that it should be made into a bird sanctuary. Thus his efforts were instrumental in the formation of this sanctuary to a large extent. More than 300 species of birds are found here. Spread across 25 sq. km. the sanctuary lies between the tributaries of the River Periyar like a peninsula. Birds like Srilankan Frogmouth, Racket tailed Drongo, Bronzed Drongo, Whitebellied Treepie, Shama, Yellow-browed Bulbul, Rufous Babbler, Malabar Parakeet, Whitebellied Blue Flycatcher, Malabar Grey Hornbill, are some of the birds that can be easily seen here. Thattekkad also has extensive plantations of teak, rosewood, mahogany. The dense forest is also home to nearly 28 species of mammals and about 9 species of reptiles.
Cherai Cherai Beach, a picturesque beach, located on the north-end of the Vypeen Island is ideal for swimming. Lined with luscious green coconut groves and paddy fields, this sandy beach is a unique combination of the sea and the backwaters, studded with seashells of various hues and shapes. Dolphines are occasionally seen here. Thick coconut groves and Chinese fishing nets on the waterfront are added attractions.