Kochi: From Spices to Kathakali

Asia, India, South

The 17th-Century Church of Our Lady of Life in Mattanchery

Chapter 3, Part 2

On the Malabar Coast in the southwestern corner of the Indian subcontinent lie old trading ports which served as the main gateways for ancient traders and explorers, from China to Persia, from Arabia to Europe. Calicut, Quilon and Cochin – modern-day Kozhikode, Kollam and Kochi – were visited by some of the world’s greatest explorers including Niccolò de’ Conti (a Venetian merchant who chronicled his visit to Vijayanagara during its heyday), Zheng He (the great admiral of the Ming dynasty), and Ibn Battuta (a 14th-century Moroccan traveler and scholar who explored Africa, the Middle East, South Asia and the Far East).

However in the year 1453 a major event unfolded in the crossroads of the Old World, marking the beginning of a new era. For centuries Constantinople’s bazaars were teeming with traders from different nations, kingdoms and empires, selling and purchasing items from ceramics to spices. Pepper, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg were some of the spices procured from faraway places in Southeast and South Asia to be sold to the Europeans. But the fall of the city to the Ottoman Empire practically made the access to the spice market increasingly difficult for the European merchants.

This disruption of commodity and spice supply to the Europeans triggered an upsurge in the number of state-sponsored sea expeditions, notably by the Portuguese and the Spaniards, to find direct sea routes to India and the Spice Islands. More than three decades after the fall of Constantinople, Bartolomeu Dias from Portugal successfully sailed to the southernmost point of Africa in 1488, paving the way for later explorers to discover sea routes to India. Ten years later Vasco da Gama reached Calicut, becoming the first European to travel by sea to India. Only three years after da Gama’s arrival, another Portuguese explorer by the name of Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil, and continued his journey eastward to reach the Malabar coast.


The Former Residence of Vasco da Gama

Gereja Portugis

St. Francis Church where Vasco da Gama was Once Buried

Dalem Gereja

Inside the Church

In the coastal town of Cochin, Cabral forged a close relation with the local king resulting in an agreement which allowed the Portuguese to build a factory and establish a settlement in the town – the first European settlement in the Indian subcontinent. In the early decades of Portuguese presence in India, Cochin was the seat of the colonial administration before it moved north to Goa following the fall of the latter to the Portuguese.

Despite losing its status as a colonial capital, Cochin continued to flourish as a major trading port in the Indian Ocean. One of the most well-known icons of modern-day Kochi – as what the city is now officially called – is the Chinese fishing nets which dot the shores of Fort Kochi, the city’s historical center, as well as other coastal areas in the state of Kerala. Some suggest that the nets made their way into India by way of Zheng He’s expeditions as the Chinese admiral frequented Cochin in his multiple sea voyages. However other believe that it was the Portuguese who introduced the nets to the Malabar coast from Macau, another Portuguese colonial post in Asia.

For around a century the Portuguese was the dominant European power in Asia, controlling much of the spice trade between the continent and Europe, and bringing immense wealth home. This had sparked the interest of other European powers to send their own sea expeditions to Asia and beyond in hope for reaping even bigger fortunes. Over the following centuries the British and the Dutch, and to some extent the French, competed fiercely to exert control not only over the sea trade routes between Asia and Europe, but also the political landscape of vast swathes of land and sprawling archipelago thousands of kilometers away from home.


Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica


Cochin Thirumala Devaswom

Atap Kuil

Kala-Makara Ornament on Top of the Temple’s Roof


Paradesi Synagogue, the Oldest Active Synagogue in the Commonwealth

Chinese Fishing Nets

Chinese Fishing Nets in Fort Kochi


Ginger Drying in the Sun

Decades of relentless confrontations by the British and Dutch forces eventually eclipsed Portuguese influence in Asia. By the late 17th century, Portuguese colonial realm in India was mostly concentrated in Goa and a few small pockets of land along the coasts of the subcontinent. The Dutch controlled Cochin until 1814 when it was exchanged with the island of Bangka to the east of Sumatra, at that time under British control. It was one of several exchanges which allowed both European powers to consolidate their colonial possessions to eventually form a contiguous empire that stretched from much of present-day Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar for the British, and more than 13,000 islands around the equator between Australia and Mainland Asia (which now make modern-day Indonesia) for the Dutch.

Today Kochi is more famous as a starting point to explore the renowned scenic backwaters of Kerala. But its historical significance is palpable chiefly in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, home to the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth, one of eight basilicas in India, the oldest church in the country, as well as a Dutch Palace which has been turned into a museum.

Having lived under colonial rules for centuries does not diminish local cultures and custom. Kathakali, an exquisite form of performing arts unique to Kerala, in fact flourished when India was still colonized by the Europeans and has now become one of Kochi’s cultural icons. Animated facial expressions, deft body gestures, exuberant and colorful costumes, energetic beats of maddalam and chenda (Keralan percussion instruments) and a forlorn lament made Kathakali a very atmospheric, profound and moving performance. All done without the actors uttering a single word. The night’s show was inspired by a scene in Mahabharata, one of the main Hindu epics, where Draupadi – the wife of the Pandavas – was harassed by Kichaka and later on rescued by Bhima, one of the Pandavas. In a more melancholic note, the performance also resonated with Kochi itself: loud, playful, frustrating, cheerful and amusing.


Putting Make Up to Become the Only Female Character in the Performance

Make Up

A Solemn Moment of Preparation


A Performer Explaining the Different Face Expressions

Dushasana (Dursasana, Left), the Kaurava Prince who Humiliated Draupadi (Drupadi, Right)

Kichaka (Left), the Villain who Humiliated Draupadi (Drupadi, Right)

Draupadi lagi

Kichaka and Draupadi

Bhima and Draupadi

Bhima, Draupadi’s Husband, upon the Ordeal of His Wife

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

Writer’s note: An earlier version of this post referred to Kichaka as Dushasana.

Posted by

Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

64 thoughts on “Kochi: From Spices to Kathakali”

    • Thank you, Adelheid. My travels always teach me so much, not only about the people but also the history of places I visit.


    • Once you gain profits, you want more and more, and that was how the Europeans — notably the Dutch and the British — reaped immense wealth from their global empires, especially between the 17th and the 19th centuries. As for Ibn Battuta, his accounts on China made James chuckle once: “The Chinese infidels eat the meat of pigs and dogs and sell it in the bazaars.” More than seven centuries later the Chinese still love their pork so dearly. 🙂 Thanks for reading, Mallee.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Your photo of “a solemn moment of preparation” is exquisite. It’s so fascinating that spices inspired so much travel and discovery. How fun to imagine what the world must have been like back then. Thanks for a beautiful post, Bama!


    • Thanks Kelly! Human’s desire to scour the world and make huge profits were once fueled by spice, now it is fueled by oil, and some say in the future it might be water we will be fighting for. Hopefully it will be peace we’ll all be seeking because it is one that is invaluable.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful photos of the performers Bama, and a fascinating history lesson. I agree with Kelly – the solemn moment photo is definitely a winner!


    • Thank you, Alison. James and I were glad that we watched Kathakali on our last night in Kochi as it wrapped our short stay in the city on a positive note.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Aku suka penjelasan sejarah panjang Kochi, Kerala dan sekitarnya yg dirimu tulis di sini. Keren Bam.

    Btw dengan menukar Kochi ke Bangka, Belanda lebih untung gak ya? Mengingat Bangka lebih kaya bahan tambang daripada rempah-rempah yang kala itu menjadi incaran.

    Trus kalau Vasco da Gama pernah di kubur di situ. Berarti sekarang jenazah nya sudah dipindah ya?

    Dan aku penasaran banget sama Kathakali. Aku pikir itu mereka pakai topeng lho, ternyata itu riasan yaaa. Wuih mahal modal dandannya hahahaha ….


    • Makasih Bart. Hmm, soal tukar guling jadinya lebih menguntungkan atau nggak aku harus riset lagi sih. Tapi yang pasti tuker-tukeran wilayah jajahan antara Belanda dengan Inggris itu beberapa kali terjadi. Contoh lainnya adalah Bengkulu (yang dulu jajahannya Inggris) dituker sama Malaka (dulu jajahannya Belanda). Juga Pulau Run di Kepualauan Banda (dulu punyanya Inggris) dituker sama New Amsterdam (punyanya Belanda) yang sekarang jadi Manhattan. Kalo dipikir-pikir seenak jidat ya nuker-nuker wilayah jajahan, hehe..

      Iya Bart, jenazah Vasco da Gama dibawa pulang ke Portugal buat dimakamkan di sana.

      Kathakali itu keren pake banget! Ekspresi mukanya bener-bener bikin ceritanya hidup, padahal gak ada dialog sama sekali. Dan emang sih, make up-nya tebel banget, terutama yang jadi Dursanana sama Drupadi.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Aku jadi mikir seandainya gak dituker gimana ya nasibnya sekarang?

        Itu kok bisa motret pas mereka make up an. Dapat akses ke backstage ya Bam?


      • Mungkin batas-batas negara yang kita kenal saat ini bakal terlihat jauh berbeda. Itu mereka make up-nya di atas panggung kok Bart, sekitar satu jam sebelum mulai dan pencahayaannya juga masih agak diredupin. Yang susah itu ngatur settingan kamera sampe dapet yang pas.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yoi. Mungkin karena banyak yang pada pengen motret jadi akhirnya mereka make up di panggung sekalian.


  4. Vasco da Gama – a name conjuring up all my elementary school dreams of world travel, a man filled with wanderlust at a time when travel was truly travail … I think I’d be happy just seeing the places associated with him in this place! Of course, all the history is fascinating, but I always tend to focus on someone or something small, and here he is the man! (I do have to add that the Chinese fishing nets photo is exquisite!)


    • Exactly! And for me, it was how some of classmates called me: Vasco da Bama. 🙂 Reading about his achievements and visiting where he used to live, and where he was once buried was really an invaluable experience. Have you been to India? If you haven’t, maybe you’d want to focus on the south and retrace da Gama’s footsteps. Thanks for reading, Lex.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha – great nickname! I have not been to India and I’d love to follow some of the old trade routes and adventurers’ paths – such an enjoyable way to make history come alive.


      • I would not recommend India to everyone, but I know it’s a place you — as a seasoned traveler — would find fascinating to explore.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. petakaplan says:

    We loved Kochi, when we were in India last. It was so full of surprises…! And definitely one of the highlighs was the Kathkali dancers, as well as the drum meditations of the “morning ragas” at the same cultural center as the Kathkali, in the mornings.

    The spice market area captivated us as well… Especially being Jewish ourselves and finding the synagogue in the Jewish quarters of the spice market and learning about it’s fascinating extensive history…

    Thanks for bringing back such great memories of one of our favorite places in India! It made me go back to our post on our blog to reread it 🙂



    • I didn’t watch the morning ragas, but from your photos it looks equally interesting. The first time I visited a synagogue was in Yangon, and the one in Kochi was my second. It was very interesting as well as intriguing because in Indonesia there is currently only one synagogue left which is located in North Sulawesi, pretty far from where I live.

      Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts on Kochi, Peta!


  6. The connectedness of the world is powerful, and I like the role the desire spices has in developing trade. Makes me think of the stories centuries ago when salt was such a valued item, and often only the upper class had access to something that today is so prevalent. The last series of photos are tremendous, a feeling of the Kathakali performance ~ wonderful post Bama.


    • Salt, silk and tea were some of the commodities which spurred trade among far-flung communities in the ancient time along with spices. Trade has really changed the world profoundly, and even today it is often behind some of the most contested issues among modern nations. You would love Kathakali — the energy was palpable, as well as the emotions. I can imagine beautiful shots you’d take out of the performance. Thanks Randall!


    • The Internet really helped me with the fact-checking, especially if there are conflicting accounts about a particular subject. Thanks for the encouragement, Indah. Really appreciate it!


    • Much appreciated! I haven’t mentioned about the food though, which was one of the highlights of my stay in Kochi. I will save the post on Keralan dishes for the final chapter of this series.

      Liked by 1 person

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  8. Ya ampun itu bukan topeng? Wow.. keren sekali dandannya. Bagaimana bisa sampai dia mengeluarkan airmatanya tanpa melunturkan dandanannya? Hebat sekali…
    BTW, saya baru tau dalam peristiwa penistaan itu ada pertolongan dari Bima, setau saya Bima pun tak bisa berbuat apa-apa karena dia juga dijadikan taruhan. Banyak pendapat mengatakan Draupadi ditolong langsung oleh Tuhan sendiri. hihihihi… Tapi di lain pihak memang ada scene ketika Bima menolong Draupadi dari percobaan penistaan lain yaitu dari Kichaka saat penyamaran Draupadi menjadi sairandri di kerajaan matsya. Saat itu akhirnya Bima dapat menghabisi Kichaka dan Arjuna (as Brihanala) memainkan gendangnya dengan keras untuk mengelabui suara perkelahian Bima. hihihi… mungkin saya kebanyakan nonton film


    • Bukan mbak, jadi kalau nonton Kathakali jangan cubit muka para pemainnya ya buat buktiin kalo itu memang make up. 🙂 Nah untuk air mata, mereka pakai semacam biji-bijian yang bisa membuat mata perih, sehingga mata menjadi merah dan berair. Agak-agak serem sih memang, tapi mereka sudah terbiasa dengan itu. Mengenai versi cerita yang Mbak Riyanti sebutkan, mungkin yang di Kerala ini ditulis dengan versi yang berbeda, karena setau saya kan Mahabharata memang banyak sekali versinya meskipun secara garis besar tokoh-tokoh utamanya sama. Saya dulu mulai tertarik sama Mahabharata waktu nonton TPI di tahun 1990an.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Waw ngeri banget ya pakai bantuan begitu, kasihan matanya… syerem. Tapi mas Bama, performance itu pasti bagus banget ya… mahal ga tiketnya? Ntar liat youtubenya ah. Kalo mas Bama memahami MB trus gimana dengan James? Hihihi jangan-jangan dia lebih paham. Trus banyak ga yg nonton? Ada cewenya ga? *kebanyakannanya


      • Berapa persisnya harga tiketnya lupa, tapi yang pasti sih murah mbak. Saya belum bisa dibilang memahami banget sih, ini masih mencoba memahami sedikit demi sedikit. Bapak saya jauh lebih paham dari saya. 🙂 Oiya, mengenai Kichaka, saya jadi inget kalo di Bhima’s Gate di Hampi ada relief Bima mengalahkan Kichaka. James sih baru mulai tau ada tokoh-tokoh Mahabharata dan Ramayana sejak mulai traveling bareng saya. Cewe yang nonton banyak mbak. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Mbak Riyanti. Hari ini saya kebetulan cross check lagi mengenai karakter jahat di pementasan Kathakali, dan bener kata Mbak Riyanti. Itu harusnya Kichaka, bukan Dushasana. Somehow catatan saya gak sinkron sama ingatan. Di postingannya udah saya update juga informasinya.

        Liked by 1 person

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  11. I do love the last six pictures of Kathakali.
    Even the look of Bhima in Wayang Wong performance inJava is so different to Kathakali.
    Also in sculpturing of Bhima during Hindhu Buddhist era in Java, compare to the provenance, India.

    There is an interesting reference about Bhima in Java :
    The Worship of Bhima :
    The representations of Bhima on Java during the Majapahit Period.
    By Marijke Duiker

    I wonder how to translate ‘seenak udelnya’ and ‘seenak jidatnya’ in proper English.
    It musn’t ‘as delicious as their belly-button’, though.
    I never know that belly-button could be that such delight.


    • Thank you, Sapto. It’s interesting to learn the Indonesian and Indian version of the characters from Mahabharata and Ramayana. Sometimes they’re not that different, but some characters do differ greatly. Gatotkaca for example. Thanks for sharing the information!


      • sapto says:

        Yes, you mentioned some differences in the older post (about Gatotkaca and Srikandi).

        I do not remember the reference I’ve read, or whether you already mentioned it.
        Drupadi (Draupadi), in Java version, is not a sharing wife among the five Pandhawa,
        but a wife of the oldest of Pandhawa, Puntadewa (Yudhistira).

        The Javanese avoid the polyandry issue of Drupadi.
        Similar to avoiding Srikandi as a transgender who married to Arjuna, the one as a role model.

        Are the Kathakali performers all men?
        It looks so, ….sorry if wrong….


      • I did mention about the difference between the Indian and the Indonesian version of Drupadi in another post: ‘Rise of Islam in Java’.
        Yes, all Kathakali performers are men. So you can imagine the amount of time needed to transform that one particular man into Draupadi.


  12. Watching the Kathakali was a real highlight of our time in Kochi – and a great way to finish it off. I too was amazed at the range of facial expressions, and the fact that it was the hairiest cast member who played Draupadi! The old whitewashed churches were beautiful (as was the Paradesi Synagogue), and I am not at all surprised that you spotted the Kala-Makara sculpture on the roof of that Hindu temple.


    • I tried to mimic the eye, forehead, cheek and mouth movements of those Kathakali performers, but it was so hard! I believe only talented people can do that, and that’s why I would recommend watching Kathakali to everyone who’s visiting Kochi. That and the Legong dance in Ubud are among the most impressive traditional performances I’ve seen so far. As for the Kala-Makara sculpture, it was really nice to spot something familiar in places far from home.


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      • Like my previous travels, I usually learn a little bit of the history of the place I’m visiting in order to appreciate more about the historical sites there. When I’m exploring that place, I often come across intriguing facts which I didn’t know before. Then after my travel, and prior to writing a post for my blog, I do more research on what I saw. So there are basically three main phases of research for me before I hit that publish button.

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