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.
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.
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.
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.