What would you do on your first trip to Kerala — go through Kochi, take a backwater break in Alleppey, or enjoy the rolling greens of Munnar? I was spared the agonising choice by an equally tempting offer — a road trip along the spice route in Kochi and parts of Ernakulum and Thrissur districts, that the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation (KTDC) is now promoting, with support from UNESCO.
Our first destination, like for most first-timers in the city, was Fort Kochi. It’s a picturesque drive, with Dutch and Portuguese-style villas standing guard on either side. We stop next to a large football field and make our way to the St Francis Church, which houses the original tomb of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama. Opposite the church stands the aristocratic Cochin Club, earlier called the English Club, where, in the early 1900s, only Britishers were granted admission.
The next day, we head to the Marine Drive for some sea-gazing. A Dutch cemetery built in 1720 and a Bob Marley cafe sit nestled in a corner right before the Fort Kochi beach. With its Vasco da Gama Square and famous Chinese fishing nets — or Cheena Vala, as they are locally known — it is a throwback to a different time. There are crowds around vendors selling fresh fried fish and ice cream, while groups of men lounge on benches and old anchors, having animated discussions.
From Fort Kochi, it took us less than 10 minutes to reach Mattancherry, about four km away. The spice trade in Kerala, which has its roots in the third millennium BC, still runs strong and Mattancherry, with its booming spice market, is a vibrant example. The air is ripe with the smell of fresh cardamom and aniseed as we walk through the market on our way to the Dutch Palace, a gift from the Portuguese to the Raja of Kochi in 1555, which was later restored by the Dutch and given the name. The museum inside the palace houses extensive literature on the Kochi royal family. The palace shares a wall with the oldest active synagogue in the country — the Paradesi synagogue, built in 1568, which sits in the heart off the Jew Town, home to the local Jewish community.
Shops selling a variety of antiques dot the area. It’s early evening when we reach and the Jew Town is bathed in the dying rays of the sun. The houses have colourful windows, many of them half-open, with delicious smells of freshly cooked food wafting out. A shopkeeper at a nearby store laments how the number of Jews here is dwindling. “It is becoming more difficult to complete a minyan (the quorum of 10 men required to hold a service),” he says, shaking his head.
The next morning, we are up bright and early and head northwards, deeper into Ernakulum district. Our destination is Pattanam, 35 km north of Kochi, where archaeologists are conducting excavations to find the lost port city of Muziris. Located in North Paravur in Ernakulam district, the port city served as a key link in the spice trade with the West till it was destroyed in 1341, when the Periyar river flooded. Mentioned by classical writers like Pliny and Ptolemy in their books, Muziris was thought to be the gateway to India. Artefacts discovered in the region first by the Archaeological Survey of India and then Kerala Council for Historical Research, are proof of the fact that the spice route existed around 3,000 years ago.
As the car plows on, the roads are framed by lush foliage on both sides. Earthy houses flash past, and mustachioed men in mundus go about their business in clean prosperous towns. The excavation site at Pattanam is open to the public from February to June, so when we arrive, we can see precious little, barring a few photographs of the eight excavation cycles and some fragments of pottery.
The next day, we move on to Pallipuram Fort, nearly 40 km from Kochi, the oldest existing European fort in India built by the Portuguese in 1503. All around it, the countryside looks pristine and untrammelled by development. We drive further north and visit the Kottapuram fort and market before getting to the Cheraman Juma Masjid, the country’s first and oldest mosque. It was built in 629 AD at the behest of the last of the Cherai kings. The compound, which also has a pond in the backdrop, houses a museum with old artefacts and a model of the mosque. Footfall is modest at the mosque; Saraf VM, the curator, says that about 300-500 visitors come in peak season.
Heading back to Kochi, we visited the Paravur synagogue in North Paravur town. Built in 1615, it was recently restored by the Kerala government and its doors opened to visitors early this year. With its symmetrical pathways and central courtyard, it’s an example of typical Kerala architecture. Of all the religious monuments we visited, I found this to be the most soul-stirring.
Back at the hotel, I settle down in a bamboo grove overlooking the backwaters, my mind drifting to the many treasures I had witnessed. The spice trail lets you immerse yourself in the extensive history of the region, allowing you to see more than the idyllic paddy fields and the backwaters. Alleppey and Kumarakom could wait for the next visit.
(The writer was a guest of the Kerala Tourism Department Corporation)