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Fort Cochin is one of the most unusual enclaves in India

I don’t know about you but I have always slightly resented the way they taught us history at school.

According to the textbooks everything that happened to India happened in or from the North.

 

The Khyber Pass was the gateway to India. That is how Alexander’s army got here and the Greeks were astonished by India. Later, many armies from Central Asia marched into India and created the Delhi Sultanate. Then, the Mughals arrived and set up their dynasty. When the Mughal empire crumbled, the British seized control of Delhi. And on and on the history books went.

 

   The truth is that the history of South India, though neglected by the schoolbooks, is much more interesting. And many of those who were to play a decisive role in the history of our country did not march their armies through the Himalayas but came by ship to South India.

 

   Alexander got here around 326 BC and yes, his invading Greeks did find India to be a wondrous place. But they were not the first Europeans to get here. We know now that there had been trade links between Cochin and Europe much before Alexander arrived. And we know that ancient Rome was an important trading partner of South India.

 

   So it is with India and the Arab world. There were trade links between the area we now call Kerala and the Middle East even before the Prophet was born. Long before Christianity reached Europe, in the days when it was still a Middle Eastern religion, a missionary came to Kerala to convert high-caste Hindus. Legend has it that the Syrian Christians – among the oldest Christian communities in the world – were converted by St. Thomas, the Doubting Thomas among Jesus’s apostles.

 

   There were Muslims in South India long before the whole of the Middle East turned to Islam and contrary to the North Indian narrative, the Muslims who came here did not come to conquer or to convert by the sword. They came for the same reason people from the Middle East had come for centuries: for trade and friendship.

 

   I am reminded of how North-centric the narrative that drives Indian history textbooks is each time I go South. Of all of South India’s cities, the one that represents an alternative historical narrative most clearly is Cochin.

 

   There was a phase when I went to Cochin all the time. I discovered the backwaters in the mid-1990s, but then, after Kerala became God’s Own Country and tourism boomed, I stopped going.

 

   So it came as a shock to me how much the city had changed when I went back last month after a decade and a half. In the old days, I would take a flight to the airport on Willingdon Island, drive to the Malabar Hotel next door, eat an appam or a dosa in the coffee shop, watch the dolphins gambol in the water and then take a speed boat to the backwaters.

 

   The Malabar is still around but the hot new hotel in town is the Grand Hyatt, built to international standards for its owner Yusuf Ali, the billionaire head of the Lulu group who also owns a grand convention centre next to it.

 

   With a net worth of around $6 billion, Yusuf Ali is one of a new breed of Malayali businessmen who have made money overseas (mostly in the Gulf) and are now investing heavily in their home state. These investments, along with remittances from other Malayalis in the Gulf, have transformed Cochin. It is now a booming, prosperous city and the Grand Hyatt with its international restaurants, its two swimming pools and its stupendous banqueting business (parties for 3,000 people are not uncommon) is riding the Cochin boom.

 

   Most hotels in Cochin either had a slightly small-town air about them (the Malabar, for instance: it was part of its charm) or a slightly second rate ambience (all the others, except for the Malabar!) so I was surprised to see that Hyatt had pulled out all the stops to build a world class resort-style property.

 

 "It’s a symbol of another way of looking at Indian history. In this narrative India is much more than the victim of various Muslim invasions." 

   Obviously Cochin can now sustain grand hotels run by the big international chains.

 

   The Hyatt is on Bolgatty island, not far from Willingdon Island, one of the few parts of Cochin I remembered well. (There is also the wonderful Bolgatty Palace hotel, next door, which used to be a Dutch colonial building, and which is now sadly being run to the ground by the state government.) I asked the Hyatt if they could find me a guide to take me around Fort Cochin, another part of the city that I have warm memories of.

 

   They found me a terrific guide and though Fort Cochin has retained its original character, it has also gone upmarket, thanks to an influx of foreign visitors. It now has boutique hotels, fancy restaurants and even, its own Anokhi shop!

 

   Fort Cochin seems to me to embody the history of South India or perhaps, India itself. Each street reminds us of the region’s global character. We know about the Syrian Christians but few of us realise that there have been Jews in Kerala from the time of King Solomon – or so legend has it. Others argue that the Jews came to Cochin around the 10th Century. We know for certain that they were recognised as a community in 1025 by the Raja.

 

   Then, there are the so-called white Jews, so beloved of foreign media. They are Sephardic Jews who probably took shelter in India after fleeing from the Spanish Inquisition. Their synagogue still exists in Fort Cochin as does an area called Jew town.

 

   The most notable buildings in Fort Cochin date from various colonial periods. The Portuguese got here around 1503 and built part of what we now call Fort Cochin while aligning with the local Raja. Eventually the Portuguese influence in Cochin faded and even the Catholic church complained about the loose morals of Portuguese men who took temporary local ‘wives’. The most notorious of the Portuguese colonialists was Vasco da Gama. On this trip I checked out the house where he finally departed from our world. (Apparently he died of syphilis.) His remains were later dug up and he was reburied in Portugal. (I went and saw his grave in Lisbon last year just to make sure that the old sod was really dead.)

 

   Then, the Dutch took over and ruled Fort Cochin for over a hundred years, building many interesting structures that still survive. In 1814, the Dutch signed a treaty with the British which gave them control of the island of Malaya. In return, they handed over Fort Cochin. (Isn’t it strange to think, in this day and age, how parts of Asia were so readily exchanged by European colonialists between themselves, with the locals having no say in their future?)

 

   The Brits ran Cochin like they ran most of India: with a certain racist languor except when it came to advancing their own commercial interests. Their greatest contribution (under an engineer called Robert Bristow) was to reclaim large parts of the sea to build a huge harbour for themselves. The reclamation led to the expansion of an island in the lagoon which the Governor Lord Willingdon (later a vain but undistinguished viceroy) modestly named after himself.

 

   You can find traces of all of the colonial influences in Fort Cochin. But you can also find proof of Cochin’s pre-eminence as a trading port through the centuries. Sometime in the Middle Ages, many Gujaratis moved to Kerala to trade with the ports of the Middle East. They stayed on and today there are Gujarati enclaves in Fort Cochin (with signs in Gujarati) and shops that sell Gujarati snacks. So it is with many other communities from all over India who came to Cochin and never left.

 

   All this makes Fort Cochin one of the most unusual enclaves in India. It is, of course, a part of Kerala, but it is also a reminder of the various strands in our history: the earliest Christians; wandering Jews; Arab trade links dating back to the era before Islam; strong Muslim influences (Cochin was once part of Hyder Ali’s empire); three sets of colonialists (Portuguese, Dutch and British); trading communities from all over India; and now, the new money of the Malayali-Gulf boom.

 

   It’s a symbol of another way of looking at Indian history. In this narrative India is much more than the victim of various Muslim invasions. It is the centre of world trade from the ancient period, a place that everyone wanted to come to and where communities learned to live together.

 

   It’s a narrative that makes much more sense. But then, these days, everything in the South seems to make more sense than in the North

 

 

Posted On: 09 Jun 2018 04:55 PM
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