Eulogised as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, Cochin, Kerala's commercial capital is an anachronism. The dashing metropolitan city prides itself on a historical heritage stretching back to ancient times and embracing within its far reaching hold, cultures as diverse as Hindu, Chinese, Arab, Jewish, Syrian Christian, Portuguese, Dutch and English.
One of the finest harbours in the world, nature has generously endowed Cochin with clear lagoons, emerald plantations and sprawling beaches whose splendour is perfectly complimented by forts, palaces, temples, museums, old churches, and today, modern sky rises.
Essentially a collection of islands and jutting peninsulas, Cochin is made up of Ernakulam, Willingdon Island, Mattancherry and Fort Kochi. Ernakulam, the business centre comprises the mainland, separated from Fort-Kochi and Mattancherry by the Periyar River, while the man-made island of Willingdon lies between Ernakulam and Mattancherry. An international airport and seaport connects Cochin with the great world outside and an efficient internal network of roads, railways and water works keeps the city machinery moving.
However it is its social and cultural extravagance, rather than the physical, that distinguishes Cochin amongst other unique Indian cities. Graced with a port that enjoyed optimum exposure to foreign influences, Cochin has developed into a rare mishmash of influences: Here is where you'll find the oldest European church in India St. Francis Church. Here is also where a 16th century synagogue provides spiritual succor to a thriving, if miniscule, community of Jews. Besides, Cochin showcases Hindu Temples, a Portuguese palace (presented to a Hindu Raja and renovated by the Dutch!), forts, streets and shops in a delightful tapestry that often blurs the individual threads.
So much so that the origin of its name remains a mystery. Believed to be a modification of 'Cochazi' or 'small sea' in Malayalam, it could as well have been the Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan who named it 'Kochi' after their homeland - Cochin is almost the only place in the world where you can see the quaint Chinese fishing nets outside China.
No mystery surrounds Cochin's rise to prominence as a port. In 1340 AD, the world famous Kodugallur Port, just north of Cochin, was destroyed by flooding of the Periyar River. Kodugallur's loss however, was Cochin's gain, as it soon assumed importance as a substitute port for carrying on the trade in spices such as cardamom, pepper, cloves and cinnamon.
While the Chinese and Arabs enjoyed trade with Cochin as much as 2000 years ago, Christians are said to have originated from the visit of the apostle St. Thomas himself and Jews are believed to have settled here in AD 388.
In 1500, Pedro Alvares Cabral, a Portuguese navigator pioneered a settlement in Cochin. Vasco de Gama established the first Portuguese company and in 1503 the Viceroy Alfonso de Albuquerque built a fort. The British, who took over Cochin in 1635, were driven out by the Dutch in 1663. In 1776, Cochin fell in the hands of Hyder Ali, but was lost by his son Tipu Sultan in1791. After passing through British hands again in 1795, the Dutch finally ceded Cochin in 1814.
Such an influx of the Chinese, Arabs, British, Dutch and Portuguese, including great travelers like Fa Hien and Sir Robert Bristow gave rise to a flowering of commerce and culture in Cochin, making it a centre of cross cultural interactions. The prosperous spice trade, of which all Cochin's racial and religious groups including Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Jewish minorities were beneficiaries as they shared in the city's prosperity, facilitated this.
Off all these inhabitants of Cochin, the Jews are perhaps the most interesting. The oldest of the Jewish communities in India, and distinct from the much larger and more absorbed Bene-Israel Community of Maharashtra, they are known to have been in India since more than a thousand years. While their arrival in India has been speculated to occur around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 BC, others speculate it to coincide with the Assyrian exile in 722 BC or Babylonian exile in 586, or even from the era of King Solomon himself.
Persecuted by the Moors and later the Portuguese, many Indian Jews settled in Cochin under the protection of Cheraman Parumal known to the Portuguese as the "King of the Jews", where they prospered. Today however only a handful of Jews remain in Cochin, where the Pardesi Synagogue in Jew Street stands testimony to better times enjoyed by the community.
Jew Street remains one of the lasting anachronisms of Cochin. A corner of the city where the earlier Jewish traders had their establishments, the ancient cobbled street lying between rows of old timber wood buildings is almost medieval. Shops selling different varieties of spices still exist here and the combined fragrance of these condiments hangs heavy in the air. At the end of the street is the Jewish Synagogue also known as the Pardesi Synagogue. An ancient structure built in 1664, it uses oil-burning chandeliers from the 19th century to light up the interior while blue and white hand-painted Cantonese tiles make up the flooring. The Torah ? The Jewish scriptures- written on sheepskin scrolls are lovingly housed in ornate metal receptacles.
Cochin's charms remain timeless.