Kerala is one of the most beautiful states of India. Situated on the south-western coast with several harbours like Cochin, its story is as ancient as the history of trade, merchants, pirates, setters, and conquerors. The geography and history of Cochin distinguishes it from any other city in India.
The mainland is marked by Ernakulam, the modern commercial center, shielded by two arms of the peninsula that protect the quite harbour. The northern arm is Vypin, the southern one Fort Cochin, where the city's early history is recorded in its buildings and monuments. Into the enclosed Vembanad Lake harbour-friendly dolphins accompany the large ships that come to dock right in the center of the city. Flowing into this sea lake are the freshwater streams of the backwaters which meander through a countryside rich in agricultural produce. Safe and reliable water travel by sail and rowing boat bring to the harbour the bounty of spices and timber that enticed early western sea-merchants to battle the great oceans in search of wealth.
Along the water's edge of Fort Cochin, on the narrow passageway to the harbour, are a line of Chinese fishing nets, the first visual symbol of ancient trade and age-old shared influences. Trade with the Far East was well-established in the early years of the Christian era. Southern Indian princes sponsored a huge fleet of ships to the coast of China in search of trade and wealth. The Chinese fishing nets still work (except in the monsoons), their fine nets, full of fish, are hauled up by a pulley weighted down by enormous rocks and boulders. They rise like giant butterflies, their wings painted with the vibrant colors of the setting sun.
Wandering past the line of Chinese fishing nets through the streets of Fort Cochin is a wonderful experience. This little Dutch colony has some lovely timber and masonry houses painted white, which have steep sloping roofs as a protection against the heavy monsoon rains which descend non-stop for days from May to July.
Cochin was the earliest European settlement in India. In 1500 the Portuguese, in search of trade contracts in pepper, landed in the harbour. Pedro Alvarez Cabral, the Portuguese adventure-explorer brought with him some Portuguese Franciscan friars who established a church and began their missionary work. St. Francis Church was originally built of wood, which was later replaced by stone in 1546. It is the oldest European church in India. Vasco da Gama, who traveled here in the mid sixteenth century, received permission to trade from the local ruler. Unfortunately he died on Christmas Eve in 1524 and was buried in this church. His body was later taken to Lisbon, but a railing and tombstone still remain in the memory of this brave adventure who opened the route to the Indies and became its governor. The church. Originally Roman Catholic, was converted into an Anglican one during the British period. It is now under the Church of South India and looks a little uncared for, but it modest proportion, simple lines, and form are suggestive of an elegance of those pioneering days when this little church offered refuse and comfort to those who chose to live in a strange land.
Moving a kilometer south into the Fort Cochin area is the Dutch Palace, now called Mattancherry Palace. This large but modest-looking is set in a grand, spacious compound. The palace was built by the Portuguese in 1557 and presented to the local Raja of Cochin who had granted to them several favours and trading rights. In 1663, the town fell into Dutch hands and the palace was renovated. It stands today a pale painted building with sloping roofs. The structure has two storeys and part of it is open to the public as a museum. There is a collection palanquins, costumes, and portraits of the Cochin royal family. Along the walls of the bedroom chamber and other areas are the mural paintings for which the palace is famous. The paintings belong to the seventeenth century and are large in scale and concept. The murals congested with figures inhabit the empty space of the museum. Enormous figures of Hindu deities, with exaggerated large breasts and thighs, peer out of the wall with lovely sensuous eyes. Painted in hues of yellow ochre, red, and green are scenes of Krishna, the divine lover surrounded by his female devotees, and of Vishnu and Shiva in dramatic poses.
On the eastern side of Fort Cochin, south of the main Mattancherry street, is an ancient area called Jew Town. According to local legend, trade flourished between the Middle East and Kerala even in the time of King Solomon of the Old Testament. Western trade was established five thousand years ago, as is evident from the remains of the Indus civilization excavated in ancient Mesopotamian cities. Following the great ocean winds, the seafaring boats from Arabia found their way to the west coast of India by the first century AD and from there proceeded to the Far East. These trading ships brought men of different faiths to the Indian shore, amongst them Jewish settlers. The Jewish quarter in Fort Cochin