Kochi – The Queen of the Arabian Sea

A Most Honorable, Honest, and Forthright Man Unknown to Many


Kochi also known by its anglicized name Cochin is located in Kerala, the southern State in India. It is the second largest city in Kerala after the state capital Thiruvananthapuram. It is located in the district of Ernakulam and about 220 kilometers (137 miles) far from the capital. With the largest urban agglomeration in the state, the city has always been one of the principal seaports of the country. Heralded as the Queen of Arabian Sea, Kochi was an important spice trading centre on the Arabian Sea coast since the 14th century. Kochi merchants began trading in spices such as black pepper and cardamom more than 600 years ago. In many ancient scriptures and history books based on Kochi, one finds that ancient travelers and tradesmen frequented the city from time immemorial including the Arabs, British, Chinese, Dutch, and Portuguese, who came here mainly for the purpose of trade have left indelible marks on the history and development of Cochin. Many of these groups went on to reside in the city for sometime before migrating away to other lands. Kochi thus has been a cultural melting pot due to successive waves of migration both within India and from outside over the course of several millennia. The pan-Indian nature is highlighted by the substantial presence of various ethnic communities from different parts of the country and many people including Anglo-Indians who are products of cross-breeding with foreigners. The city once had a large Jewish community, known as the Malabar Yehuden-and now referred to as Cochin Jews. The nos. of this group has dwindled and the foreign blood has been substantially diluted with local marriages. Retaining the Jewish knack for business, this group has figured prominently in Kochi’s business and economic strata.

Over the years, Cochin has emerged as the commercial and industrial capital of Kerala and is perhaps the second most important city on the west coast of India (after Mumbai). Cochin has a world class port and international airport that links it to many major cities worldwide. Its strategic importance over the centuries is underlined by the reference-Gateway to Kerala. Kochi is a prosperous city and also known as the financial capital of Kerala. Surrounded by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west, it is a breathtakingly beautiful and scenic land. Kochi one of the best places to travel and it also boasts of hundreds of islands, some even uninhabited. This important and beautiful port city been rated as the top three tourist destinations by the World Travel & Tourism Council and featured in National Geographic Traveler’s ’50 greatest places of a lifetime’.


Kochi has a lot of remnants from the past still clinging on. As European a city as one can find in India, it has Fort Cochin built by the Portuguese on an island offshore that seems to be pulled straight out of the 16th century with narrow, winding, canal-lined streets, 500 year-old Portuguese houses, cantilevered Chinese fishing nets lining the northwest shore of the island, a 16th century synagogue surrounded by ‘Jew Town,’ which was once home to the flourishing Indian Jewish population, the oldest church in India and a palace that was built by the Portuguese, renovated by the Dutch, and eventually was given to the Indian Raja of Cochin. The most famous symbol of Kochi is the row of Chinese fishing nets at the mouth of the harbor leading to the Arabian Sea in Fort Kochi, the oldest part of the city. In Ernakulam, where modernity has ushered in skyscrapers and shopping malls, the old quarter — the Fort Kochi area and Mattancherry area — maintains a colonial air and has building that have been designated as a part of Kochi’s heritage. Vasco House in Fort Kochi located on Rose Street, is believed to be one of the oldest Portuguese houses in India. Vasco da Gama is believed to have lived here. This house features European glass paned windows and verandahs. Da Gama reached India in the autumn of 1524, but he died in Kochi only three months after his arrival. Even in death, Da Gama remained a traveller. Though his remains were removed from Kochi and buried in Goa, it was subsequently removed and sent to Portugal to be interred in the Church of Vidigueira. However, the coffin remained there until 1880, and it was finally transferred to a marble sepulcher in the church of the Monastery of the Jerónimos at Belém, outside Lisbon. Kochi had the honour of hosting the great explorer-colonist and the fact that his final exploration of another world began here associated the city with him forever. Despite the forward march of modernity, the city retains its distinct colonial heritage and is a lovely blend of tradition and modernity.


Etymologically, many theories exist pertaining how Kochi derived its name. Ancient travellers and tradesmen referred to Kochi in their writings, variously alluding to it as Cocym, Cochym, Cochin, and Cochi. According to some accounts, traders from the court of the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan gave Cochin the name of their homeland. The Chinese connection seem to obvious from the trademark fishing nets prevalent in the area known as china-vala or Chinese nets. Another theory is that Kochi is derived from the word Kachi meaning ‘harbor’. Accounts by Italian explorers Nicolo Conti (15th century), and Fra Paoline in the 17th century say that it was called Kochchi, named after the river connecting the backwaters to the sea. After the arrival of the Portuguese, and later the British, the name Cochin stuck as the official appellation. The city reverted to a closer Anglicization of its original Malayalam name, Kochi, in 1996. However, it is still widely referred to as Cochin, with the city corporation retaining its name as Corporation of Cochin.

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Kochi is located on the southwest coast of India at 9°58?N 76°13?E? /?9.967°N 76.217°E? / 9.967; 76.217, spanning an area of 94.88 square kilometers (36.63 sq mi). The city is situated at the northern end of a peninsula, about 19 kilometers (12 mi) long and less than one mile (1.6 km) wide. To the west lies the Arabian Sea, and to the east are estuaries drained by perennial rivers originating in the Western Ghats. Much of Kochi lies at sea level, with a coastline of 48 km. This lovely seaside city is flanked by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. Its proximity to the equator, the sea and the mountains provide a rich experience of a moderate equatorial climate. It is separated into numerous distinct areas particularly close to each other. These include the mainland areas of Ernakulam City (where the train stations to the rest of India leave and arrive), Willingdon Island, Fort Kochi (the primary tourist enclave), Mattancherry, Kumbalangi and outlying islands. These distinct neighborhoods arose as the result of a mixed past.

Brief History:

The port city of Kochi has a very colorful and rich history. The city occupies a very strategic position geographically, being flanked by the Western Ghats on the east and the Arabian Sea on the west. Cochin’s trade links with Chinese and the Arabs is reputed to be at least 2000 years old. Christianity in this city dates back to the apostle Thomas, who, as tradition holds and evidence suggests, landed in India in AD 54 to spread the Gospel. Kochi was the centre of Indian spice trade for many centuries, and was known to the Yavanas (Greeks) as well as Romans, Jews, Arabs, and Chinese since ancient times. The earliest documented references to Kochi occur in books written by Chinese voyager Ma Huan during his visit to Kochi in the 15th century as part of Admiral Zheng He’s treasure fleet. There are also references to Kochi in accounts written by Italian traveller Niccolò Da Conti, who visited Kochi in 1440.

It may be said to have originated as an important port in 1341 AD when the flooded Periyar River destroyed a world-renowned port, at Kodungallur, just north of Cochin and created an all-new harbor in Cochin, which is today one of the finest natural harbors on the West coast of India. Cochin’s busy port assumed a new strategic importance and began to experience commercial prosperity after the flood. The Portuguese penetrated the Indian Ocean in the late 15th century. Vasco da Gama, discoverer of the sea route to India, established the first Portuguese factory (trading station) there in 1502, and the Portuguese viceroy Afonso de Albuquerque built the first European fort in India there in 1503. It was the first European fort in India. The British settled here in 1635 but were forced out by Dutch in 1663, under whom the town became an important trade center. It came under the sovereignty of Haider Ali, the militant prince of Mysore in 1776, but was surrendered by his son Tipu Sahib to the British in 1791.

There is also evidence pointing to the presence of Jews since at least AD 388. Legend holds that the Jews first settled in India during the time of King Solomon, when there was trade in teak, ivory, spices and peacocks between the Land of Israel and the Malabar Coast, where Cochin is located. Others put their arrival at the time of the Assyrian exile in 722 BC, the Babylonian exile in 586 BC or after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 BC. No reliable evidence exists, but most contemporary scholars fix the date at some time during the early middle Ages. The earliest documentation of permanent Jewish settlements is on two copper plates now stored in Cochin’s main synagogue. Engraved in the ancient Tamil language, they detail the privileges granted a certain Joseph Rabban by Bhaskara Ravi Varma, the fourth-century Hindu ruler of Malabar.

The earliest account of Kochi is derived from the records made by the Chinese traveler, Ma Huan. Even in other documents belonging from the same period, the account of Cochin history prior to the Portuguese rule is quite vague. As per the available information, the city gained its reputation of being a port city only after the collapse of the Kulashekhara kingdom. In 1102 CE, Kochi became the seat of the Kingdom of Cochin, a princely state which traces its lineage to the Kulashekhara Empire. According to many historians, it came into existence in 1102, after the fall of the Kulashekhara Empire. The King of Kochi had authority over the region encompassing the present city of Kochi and adjoining areas. The reign was hereditary, and the family that ruled over Kochi was known as the Cochin Royal Family (Perumpadappu Swaroopam in the local vernacular). The mainland Kochi remained the capital of the princely state since the 18th century. However, during much of this time, the kingdom was under foreign rule, and the King often only had titular privileges.

Occupied by the Portuguese in 1503, Fort Kochi was the first European colonial settlement in India. It remained the capital of Portuguese India until 1530, till they opted for Goa as their capital. This Portuguese period was a harrowing time for the Jews living in the region, as the Inquisition was active in Portuguese India. The time during which Cochin was under the Portuguese rule is very interesting. It is said admiral, Pedro Cabral was sent by the Portuguese king to set up a factory at the city. The Raja of Cochin succumbed to the demand of the admiral predominantly to negate the Zamorins who ruled the Malabar region. Zamorins were the dominant power in the region and was constantly breathing down the neck of the King of Raja for political influence within the Kochi Kingdom. With the arrival of Vasco Da Gama, peace was made with the Zamorins after which the Portuguese built Fort Manuel to protect their factory from any sort of attack. Once the Portuguese shifted their capital to Goa, their strategic intent shifted from Kerala and was centered on it.

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The Portuguese rule was followed by that of the Dutch, who had allied with the Zamorins in order to conquer Kochi. The Dutch rule over Cochin lasted from 1663 to 1795. They defeated the Portuguese and disposed the Cochin Raja. After landing confidently at Njarakal, they went on to seize the Pallipuram fort, which they later gave to the Zamorins. Cochin prospered under the Dutch rule by shipping pepper, cardamom and other spices, coir, coconut, and copper. In between by 1773, Kochi has slipped into the hands of the Mysore King Hyder Ali extended his conquest in the Malabar region and briefly forced Kochi to become a tributary of Mysore. Later the authority was recaptured by the Dutch. They fearing an outbreak of war on the United Provinces signed the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814 with the United Kingdom, under which Kochi was ceded to the United Kingdom in exchange for the island of Bangka. However, there are evidences of English habitation in the region even prior to the signing of the treaty. The port city of Cochin had become highly developed during the time of the British rule in India In 1866, Fort Kochi became a municipality, and its first Municipal Council election was conducted in 1883. The Maharaja of Cochin, who ruled under the British, in 1896, initiated local administration by forming town councils in Mattancherry and Ernakulam. In 1925, Kochi legislative assembly was constituted due to public pressure on the state.


Many written accounts clearly state that Cochin was invaded by foreigners and colonized many times. The king remained the titular head. The pungent smell of pepper and fragrances of other spices beckoned the invaders. The intra-struggles between the dominant powers of Kerala resulted in the weakening of its politico-military institutions and resulted in the dominance by the colonial powers. Religion was also liberally used to consolidate colonial hold resulting in numerous conversions primarily by the European powers and to Islam by Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan. These conversions resulted in a fragmentation of the native mind and this enabled the erstwhile powers to continue their exploitation of the natural resources of the state as well as its manpower.

Contemporary Kochi:

In 1949, Travancore-Cochin state came into being with the merger of the erstwhile Cochin and Travancore states. Travancore-Cochin was in turn merged with the Malabar district of the Madras State. Finally, the Government of India’s States Re-organisation Act (1956) inaugurated a new state – Kerala – incorporating Travancore-Cochin (excluding the four southern Taluks (smaller administrative unit) which were merged with the contemporary state of Tamil Nadu), Malabar District, and the taluk of Kasaragode, South Kanara. On 1 November 1967, exactly eleven years since the establishment of the state of Kerala, the corporation of Cochin came into existence. The merger leading to the establishment of the corporation, was between the municipalities of Ernakulam, Mattancherry and Fort Kochi, along with that of the Willingdon Island, four panchayats (Palluruthy, Vennala, Vyttila and Edappally), and the small islands of Gundu and Ramanthuruth.

A growing centre of shipping industries, international trade, and tourism and information technology, Kochi is the commercial hub of Kerala, and one of the fastest growing second-tier metros in India. Kochi’s economic growth was accelerated after the introduction of economic reforms in India by the central government in the mid-1990s. Since 2000, the service sector has revitalized the city’s stagnant economy. The establishment of several industrial parks based on Information technology (IT) and other port based infrastructure triggered a construction and realty boom in the city. Over the years, Kochi has witnessed rapid commercialization, and has today grown into the commercial capital of Kerala.

Kochi is now a major destination for IT and ITES companies, ranked by NASSCOM as the second-most attractive city in India for IT-based services. Availability of cheap bandwidth through undersea cables and lower operational costs compared to other major cities in India has been turned to its advantage. Various technology and industrial campuses including the government promoted Info Park, Cochin Special Economic Zone and KINFRA Export Promotion Industrial Park operate in the outskirts of the city.

Kochi is the headquarters of the Southern Naval Command, the primary training centre of the Indian Navy. The Cochin Shipyard in Kochi is the largest shipbuilding facility in India. The Cochin fishing harbor, located at Thoppumpady is a major fishing port in the state and supplies fish to local and export markets. To further tap the potential of the all-season deep-water harbor at Kochi, an international cruise terminal and several marinas are being constructed.

Exports and allied activities continue to be important contributors to the city’s economy. Kochi’s historical reliance on trade continues into modern times, as the city is a major exporter of spices and is home to the International Pepper Exchange, where black pepper is globally traded. The Spices Board of India is also headquartered in Kochi. The Cochin Port currently handles export and import of container cargo at its terminal at the Willingdon Island. A new international container transshipment terminal-the first in the country-is being commissioned at Vallarpadam, which is expected to be play a vital role in India’s economic aspirations.

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Kochi also has an oil refinery-the Kochi Refineries (BPCL) at Ambalamugal. Central Government establishments like the Coconut Development Board, the Coir Board and the Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) have head offices located in the city.

Highlights of Kochi:

Willingdon Island: Towards the early 20th century, trade at the Kochi port had increased substantially, and the need to develop the port became necessary. The English harbor engineer Robert Bristow was brought to Kochi in 1920 under the direction of Lord Willingdon, then the Governor of Madras. In a span of 21 years, he transformed Kochi as one of the safest harbors in the peninsula. This man-made island was created in 1933 by sand dredged while deepening the backwaters for the Cochin Port, under the direction of Sir Robert Bristow. A while back the Airport, Sea port and the railway terminus (Cochin Harbor Terminus) were situated on this island. Today, it is the home of the Cochin Port and the headquarters of the Southern Naval Command.

Marine Drive: A stroll along the long tree-lined coastal pathway that lines the backwater is well worth the time spent, especially late afternoon or dusk. The bustling backwaters, dotted with fishing boats, speedboats, ships, tankers and passenger boats, can be observed from this walkway that lines the coast. The greatest pleasure is to stand and watch when the monsoon lashes Kerala-it’s a awesome sight by itself.

Cherai Beach: This lovely beach ideal for swimming is located on the north end of Vypeen island, one of the many small islands just off the mainland. The beach is lined by gorgeous coconut groves and paddy fields. Vypeen can be reached by land or by boat.

Parikshith Thampuran Museum: The Kings of Cochin used to conduct their durbars (grand banquets) in this impressive building located within the Durbar Hall grounds. It was later converted to a museum which has a treasure trove of archaeological findings and relics including old coins, sculptures, oil paintings and murals. The building has been taken over by the Kerala Lalitha Kala Academy and now houses the Gallery of Contemporary Art. All the royal exhibits of the museum have been moved to the Hill Palace museum.

Museum of Kerala History, Kalamassery: The museum takes visitors mainly through the anthropological and cultural history of the geographical unit called Kerala. In line with modern techniques, it has on display spectacular audio-visual exhibits depicting the history and culture of Kerala along with many life size statues of ancient tribal people, famous personalities and several paintings depicting Kerala history. To understand Kerala, a visit to this museum is a must.

Palliport (Pallipuram) Fort: The first and the oldest surviving European fort in India, built by the Portuguese in 1503. It is situated in Pallipuram on Vypeen Island.

Hill Palace, Tripunithura: Built in the 19th century by the Raja of Kochi, this palace served as the seat of the Raja of the Kochi province. The palace has been converted into a museum displaying a fine collection of royal articles displaying the wealth and splendour of the Rajas of Kochi, including the throne and the crown. The museum also houses a large collection of archaeological findings. Hill Palace is located 16km east of Cochin in Tripunithura, a satellite town of Cochin.

Bolghatty Palace located on the Bolghatty Island: This Dutch palace is situated on Bolghatty Island is just a short boat ride away from the mainland. The palace has been converted to a hotel run by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC). The island has a tiny golf course and the panoramic views of the port and the harbor, makes it an attractive picnic spot. Frequent boat service is available from the mainland.

Dutch Palace (Mattancherry Palace), Mattancherry: The erroneously named Dutch Palace was originally built by the Portuguese. Later, in 17th century, the Dutch modified it and presented it to the Raja of Kochi thus usurping its ownership. Coronation of many Rajas of Kochi used to be held here. The palace has a fine collection of mural paintings depicting scenes from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The palace is located in Mattancherry.

Jewish Synagogue and Jew Town, Mattancherry: The synagogue, built in 1568, is magnificently decorated by Chinese tiles and Belgian chandeliers. This is a small yet beautiful building. Giant scrolls of the Old Testament can be found here. It is located near the Dutch Palace in Mattancherry. The local markets nearby sell beautiful trinkets and the famous Kerala lock-Manichitrathazu.

Santa Cruz Basilica, Fort Kochi: The original church, situated in Fort Kochi, was built by the Portuguese in 1505 and named as a cathedral in 1558. The British colonists destroyed the cathedral in 1795. The current structure was built in 1905 and raised to the status of a basilica by Pope John Paul II in 1984.

St. Francis Church, Fort Kochi: It is the oldest church built by Europeans in India. On his 3rd visit to Kerala, Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese trader who reached India from Europe by sea, fell ill and died in Kochi. He was buried in this Church till his remains were taken back to Goa for burial on the way to his final resting place in Portugal. In spite of the removal, his burial spot inside the church has been clearly marked out.

© Sanjai Velayudhan.

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