The boat ride from Ernakulam to Fort Kochi is as wonderfully reanimating as it is cheerily short – after passing the hustle of the jetty, and the massive Indian Navy ships reminding you that waters too have boundaries, you reach a sanctuary far removed from the hum of the rest of Kochi.

History lingers in the air in Fort Kochi, as you walk its cobbled streets and tree-lined lanes, past the cafes and bistros. The oldest fishing village in Kerala, the Portuguese ruled here from 1503 to 1682, followed by the Dutch till 1795, and then the British until the year India became independent. If you stand in the middle of Parade Ground, the square around which Fort Kochi is built, in one direction you can see David Hall, a bungalow built by the Dutch in the late 17th century, and in another direction, Cochin Club, an institution once exclusively meant for British men. Rooted at the same spot, if you turn, there’s St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India housing the gravestone of the explorer Vasco de Gama.

Architecture isn’t the only remnant of the past here. The 500 years of migration have left the 4.5 square kilometre area of Old Kochi, the collective name given to Fort Kochi and the adjacent Mattancherry, with a deep sense of multiculturalism. At least 32 communities live here, speaking at least 16 languages, other than Malayalam, according to Bonny Thomas, a local historian and a founder-member of Kochi Biennale Foundation, the charitable trust that hosts the Kochi-Muziris Biennale.

St. Francis Church. Credit: Bikashrd/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0.
St. Francis Church. Credit: Bikashrd/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 4.0.

Abdul Qader sits outside his house in a narrow lane on Princess Street, not far from Parade Ground, puffing on a cigarette. His great-grandparents came to Fort Kochi in 1920 as a young couple from Awadh. He speaks Hindi and Urdu, but is more comfortable with Malayalam.

“My great-grandparents set up a business selling cloth, and they made some money,” said Qader. “My grandfather invested that money in selling spices to the Middle East. But my dad lost it all. When the family fell on hard times, they became butchers.” He wants his sons to get professional jobs: “computers are good,” he said.

A grizzled 40-year-old, Qader is grateful for the way history played out. When the East India Company’s commercial monopoly ended in the 1800s, entrepreneurs flocked to the thriving port and trade centre. “This brought migrants from all over the country, be it from Mewar, Gujarat, Madras,” said Thomas. Today, the congested area is a good example of how multiculturalism can work. And thrive.

Qader’s neighbour on one side is the D’Cruz family, whose ancestors came from Goa and who speak Konkani at home. On the other side of his house live the Butts, a Kashmiri family that arrive in Fort Kochi in the 1980s when trouble erupted in their native state. The Butts now sell kaftans and carpets. “Their children go to a Malayalam medium school,” Qader said.

Princess Street. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0.
Princess Street. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 3.0.

The extent of this diversity dawned on Thomas a while ago, while he was doing some sketches for a Malayalam novel. “All migrant communities here have their customs, festivals and food,” he said. Ganeshotsav, for instance, is celebrated with pomp, and gets contributions from Marathi, Rajasthani, Konkani and Gujarati communities. Diwali and Eid are marked with equal vim. The goat that Qader’s family slaughters for Eid-al-Adha, or Bakri Eid, is supplied by a Yadav family.

“You get the best biryani in this area, but it’s not complete without the papadums brought here first by the Konkanis,” said Thomas. “You get the best seafood – delicacies like pearl spot, white snapper. But they’re caught with fishing nets that the Chinese brought. The best vegetarian food is here – and the Marwaris and Gujaratis are to thank for that. It is a small congested area with many communities and a shared history, not just of European powers but Indian migration. Fort Kochi and Mattancherry are the most multicultural place in India.”

This comity has admittedly frayed occasionally. Following the Babri Masjid demolition in Ayodhya in the early 1990s, there were some skirmishes in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, though nothing of the scale of the riots that killed so many in Mumbai, Delhi and other parts of India.

What happens going forward is uncertain. The port headquarters have moved from Fort Kochi to nearby Vallarpadam, affecting the economy. Jobs in Old Kochi are few, unemployment is high, migration is low, and gangs have sprouted up in a place once seen as benign.

Still, for Qader, there is hope. Fort Kochi is now home to India’s biggest art festival, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Tourism, brought in by the festival, will create jobs, he believes. The Kerala government too has realised how valuable Fort Kochi is to the state’s cultural heritage, and is planning to revive its glory. Qader is positive. “My sons will be okay. Fort Kochi is our home. Always has been and always will be.”

An Indian fisherman catches fish in front of the popular Chinese nets at Fort Kochi. Credit: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP
An Indian fisherman catches fish in front of the popular Chinese nets at Fort Kochi. Credit: Manan Vatsyayana/AFP