Ferrying along Kochi

Ferrying along Kochi

Colonial heritage

Ferrying along Kochi

Why would anyone want to holiday in Kochi? An industrial township, popularly known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, a bustling centre of commercial activity, a cluster of islands on the vast expanse of the Vembanad Lake, Kochi boasts of the finest natural harbours in the world.

This is a city one would visit on business, to trade in spices, much like the Arabs, British, Chinese, Dutch, Italians and Portuguese had done for centuries. Unconcerned with Kochi’s commercial reputation, we were determined to make the most of the backwaters separating Ernakulam from Fort Kochi and Mattanchery.

We were told that half the fun of a Kochi holiday is going about in the local ferries. Cruising through the winding waterways would take you to several quaint picturesque islands of Bolgatty, Vypeen, Gundu and Vallarpadam.

After a 25-minute ferry ride from the main ferry station at Ernakulam, we landed at the Fort Kochi ferry wharf. A leisurely walk through the city turned out to be the best way to discover Fort Kochi. From an obscure fishing village to become the first European township in India, Kochi has a colourful and eventful history. Shaped first by the Portuguese, the Dutch and later the British, their individual cultural influences resulted in many examples of Indo-European architecture which we could now explore leisurely on foot.

Portuguese past

With the Portuguese arriving first, Fort Kochi was full of recollections of Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese explorer and Viceroy of India. He had come to India on his third voyage when he tried to impose a new order in Portuguese India. But Gama contracted malaria and died here in Kochi on Christmas Eve in 1524, three months after his arrival. It is believed that Vasco House, one of the oldest Portuguese residences in Fort Kochi, was the residence of Vasco da Gama. Built in the early 16th century, we saw typical European glass-paned windows and balcony-cum-verandas characteristic of those times.

We had to see the oldest existing European church in India, the St Francis Church, built in the early 16th century, by Portuguese Franciscan friars. Initially built of timber and later reconstructed in stone masonry, this was restored in the late 18th century by the Protestant Dutch, converted to an Anglican church by the British in 1795, and is presently governed by the Church of South India.

Another historic church worth seeing was the Santa Cruz Basilica, one of the eight basilicas in India. It was built by the Portuguese and elevated to a Cathedral by Pope Paul IV in the 16th century. The church was proclaimed a Basilica in 1984 by Pope John Paul II. A narrow promenade that runs along the beach, called the Vasco da Gama Square, is the best place to watch the cantilevered fishing nets, the legacy of one of the first visitors to the Malabar coast. Erected in the 14th and 15th centuries by traders from the court of Kublai Khan, these nets are set up on teak wood and bamboo poles. We watched the nets being lowered into the sea and the catch being brought in from the square.

The Dutch legacy is preserved here in the form of the Dutch Cemetery. The tombstones here are the most authentic record of hundreds of Europeans who left their homeland on a mission to expand their colonial empires and changed the course of history of this land. The cemetery was consecrated in the early 18th century and is today managed by the Church of South India.

Many influences

The next day we caught the ferry from the Ernakulam ferry station to disembark at the Mattancherry wharf. First on the list was the Portuguese-built Mattancherry Dutch Palace, constructed in the mid-16th century as a present to the Raja of Kochi.  It got its present name because it was extensively renovated by the Dutch. Currently a museum, on display here are beautiful murals depicting scenes of the puranic Hindu legends. The palace also houses Dutch maps of old Kochi, royal palanquins, coronation robes of former rajas of Kochi as well as period furniture.

A Jewish synagogue, known as the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth, was our next destination in Mattancherry. Destroyed in a shelling during the Portuguese raid, this was rebuilt later by the Dutch. The synagogue is noted for its 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 and ancient scripts on copper plates. The Jew town, the area around the Synagogue, is a centre for spice trade and curio shops.

We had our fill of the ferries. Although bridges linking Kochi’s islands have now been constructed making ferry transport less essential, visitors never seem to get enough of the waterways.