Tag Archive | Vasco da Gama



The joy of Christmas is nearer, drawing in a beehive of activities allied to it. The Christian Churches here, as in all parts of the world, are livened up for the yearly holy event marking the birth of baby Jesus, followed by the close of another year. Most educational institutions are on preparatory mode for holding mid-term exams prior to the culmination of the vacation season.


Plans are being made for annual vacations, or joyous activities, or gourmet feasts, or family get-togethers. Banking on the commercial value of the holiday season, the hospitality industry and other retailing sectors including big Malls are once again out with window decorations, dangling fantasies and other crowd-tickler marketing gimmicks through the media, web and signposts.


One is baffled and bewildered by the choice of innovative merchandize, latest tech trends, etc, available.  “Happy Shopping Holidays” – three charming words dominate this period to augment the marketing campaigns.


A special event at all times to me, Christmas, like Easter, has a considerable period of preparation. The Gospel of St. Matthew relates so briefly about preparations that had taken place some 2020 years ago when, three wise men, proficient in astronomy and astrology, turned their heads up to gaze at a brilliant star that would set them on a journey. Theirs was a spiritual desire to find and adore a new-born child – to lay their gifts contained in caskets of odoriferous wood at the child’s tiny feet – gifts of pure gold (asserting the kingship of Christ), frankincense (Christ’s divinity) and myrrh (that He was man, and doomed to death).


Their long and perilous journey through “field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star” culminated in success when they found the new-born Jesus not in the stable, as usually depicted in the scene by artists, but in a roofed house where the three holy ones were temporarily lodged. These three wise men (or kings) would be the first to acknowledge Christ.


These wise men, assumed to be three given that three gifts were given in homage of Christ’s birth, are identified by various names, but generally known as Balthazar, Melchior and C(G)aspar since the ninth century (1). Believed to be Babylonian names, according to an old valuable book about Virgin Mary, they probably hail from the city of Séleucide which was the abode of the most celebrated astronomers of antiquity (2).


The Bible also relates to another journey during that period, taken place hundreds of miles away from the path the Magi would travel. Carpenter Joseph of Nazareth in Galilee accompanied by his wife Mary was on their way to Bethlehem of Judea, to register their names and pay tribute-money owing to the Roman Census of population and landed possessions.


Besides his beloved pregnant wife riding on a donkey, Joseph, humble, modest and retiring, was devoid of possession of anything of great value except for few clothes and the usual provisions for their painful journey of possibly five days. Their basket made of palm leaves could have included dates, figs, raisins, thin cakes of barley meal, earthen vessel to hold water, and the most precious swaddling-bands Mary’s hands had prepared to envelop her child. The census, made in the late autumn or early winter when agricultural work had ceased, might have attracted great concourse of people to the region that accommodation in cells of caravansaries in Bethlehem were unavailable.


Whatever the reason, upon their arrival at Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary sought shelter in a stable in the interior of a little cavern located in the suburbs which served as a stable and sometimes as refuge for the shepherds in cold and stormy nights. In there, after a good lengthy time following the hour of the Nativity, the new-born infant was adored by the shepherds as the Christkindl lay in a manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes.


12The adoration of the shepherds and the Magi is depicted in several movies. One of the realistic among them appears in the initial scenes of director William Wyler’s cinematic triumph, Ben-Hur (1959), its devotional ambiance enhanced by the Academy Award winning music score of Miklós Rózsa (1907-1995). Watching Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” is an enjoyable and rewarding experience. Its grandeur and spectacle, colourful characters, richness of its screenplay, excellent direction, fantastic production values, the realistic action sequence of the chariot race, the many visual symbolic threads woven into the story such as water accentuated as an agent of renewal, the dramatic effect emphasized without showing Christ’s face, the transition from full orchestra to organ during the sequences in which Christ appears, and most importantly, its story about a rich man passing through the eye of the needle, had caught up my imagination that “Ben-Hur” rates the highest number of times I have seen a movie.


The little figurines of the Magi from the story of the Adoration of the Biblical Magi, part of the ensemble of the Christmas crib-set in our house, were objects of marvel in my childhood. Their crowned figures clad in embroidered robes featured all the paraphernalia and pomp of royalty; their camels decked with ornamental bridles and saddles, the mysterious gifts in their hands, were all sprigs of fascination. Their images got better and fine-looking as we purchased better crib-sets over the years – from Austria, Italy and Bangkok.


The custom of exchanging gifts could date back to the three wise men. As some stories go: in olden times on Christmas Eve, children used to place shoes filled with oats outside their huts for the camels of the Magi which they hoped would be miraculously replaced with gifts.



The closest I got to the physical entity of the three wise men was when we stood before the gilded and decorated triple Sarcophagus traditionally believed to contain the relics of the Magi at the Shrine of the Three Holy Kings (Dreikönigsschrein) behind the high altar of Cologne Cathedral (Der Kölner Dom) in Germany.


Those relics were transferred from the church of St. Eustorgius in Milan on 23rd July 1164 by the powerful imperial chancellor, Rainald von Dassel (later Archbishop of Cologne) (3) having received them from the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (Barbarossa).


Sometime after her arrival in the Holy Land around December 326/January 327 A.D., Helena (Flavia Iulia Helena Augusta/St. Helena – 248/9-329?), the mother of Emperor Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross, had discovered the bones of the Magi while searching for relics and building churches in honour of the life of Jesus. Chroniclers contend that she transferred the relics to Constantinople and later, Bishop Eustorgius, a native of Constantinople, was allowed by Emperor Constans (Flavius Iulius Constans Augustus – from 337 to 350) to transfer them to Milan in 343/44. The relics eventually became the most remarkable medieval cults to royalty.


The magi, a popular subject of tapestry, are patrons of travellers and pilgrims. In addition to the above three places, I have visited other centres where Christian reliquaries are kept, but a visit to one in Greece connected to the Magi remains yet to be realised. The Holy Monastery of Agiou Pavlou (Saint Paul’s) in Mount Athos houses, among many other relics, some cases containing gold, frankincense and myrrh, believed to be the gifts the Magi brought to baby Jesus. The authenticity of some of the relics could be doubtful but such vestiges play an important role as catalysts in connecting us to the history and legends of our illustrious past.


21Christmas, celebrated everywhere, is particularly enjoyable at some places where it exudes a whole lot of charm to enjoy it the most. We have spent Christmas Day and New Year’s Day in different countries. Those special days made good memories for us – just like some days bearing special names are auspicious for many: Thanksgiving Day, Republic Day, Independence Day, May Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Patriots’ Day, Valentine’s Day, Friendship Day, Day of Tiger, of Elephant, etc….. All this is very well.

Then again, woven into the fabric of the year are ill-fated days from history lesson: 9/11 (World Trade Center attack), 26/11 (Mumbai attack), 13/11 (Paris attack), ……. – named after disastrous events that have spawned sadness in us and bruised our pride, occasioned by malicious minds hell-bent on executing everything violent in excess. The world witnessed outpour of grief when innocent and helpless people lost their lives recently owing to brutal violence.

Even so, pain nourishes courage. The global goodwill resonated in displays of solidarity, judiciousness and calm wisdom when the Eiffel Tower, Paris; San Francisco City Hall; Tower Bridge, the London Eye, the National Portrait Gallery in Trafalgar Square, Wembley Stadium in London; Brandenbourg Gate in Berlin; Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro; the CN Tower in Toronto; Burj Khalifa in Dubai; Tokyo Tower; Sydney Opera House; etc, showcased colours of blue, white and red. Vive la France!


Naturally, we bank on a sense of order and peace around us and we wish our lives to measure up to our hopes. There is nothing so precious and nothing more important than peace, though throughout history it has often been taken for granted until it’s too late. The past high degree of violence and unpredictability, offensive to our good spirits, had markedly dampened this holiday cheer. Recently there was news about tourists being selective on places to go for a safe and peaceful vacation.




26As for us raring to go, despite the weather, we could opt for Christmas time in Italy even though we would be doing only a repeat of what we have done there many times over the years. There would be the traditional outdoor Christmas markets in Florence, Verona, Venice, Rome, …. On Christmas Eve, we could attend the Papal Mass by Papa Francesco at the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano and admire the huge Christmas tree and the life-sized Nativity scene in Piazza San Pietro; or at the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore (Duomo di Firenze); or at Basilica di San Marco, Venezia and watch the gondola arrive with Babbo Natale (Father Christmas) to distribute goodies, before sitting down for dinner and Bellini at Cipriani’s Harry’s Bar; or at Basilica di Sant’Antonio di Padova where we have wonderful friends amongst the Franciscan friars of the Basilica, etc.

Besides England, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, all wonderful places where we have enjoyed the local culture, Madrid (Spain) would garner our priority due to the wonderful ensemble of jolly good friends we have there. Alternatively, should we look at the East, we could always opt for Thailand, Singapore – or within good old India.



Now with the three wise women  in my life, my wife and two daughters, here – it’s ample reason to take the pleasure of this season in the comfort of our sweet home. There won’t be snow here. But, never mind – the carollers and Santa Claus will come, maybe even Santa Mama.  Peaceful Cochin and Fort Cochin will be decked with lights and stars – with the brightest most cheerful displays. Impersonations of the three wise men may appear in the yearly Carnival on the first of the New Year. Listen closely and we may hear Santa Claus cracking up with laughter in helplessness – at the seasonal hike in retail prices. I think there was never a sad Christmas time in Fort Cochin except maybe in 1524 when a period of mourning was observed owing to the death of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama at Fort Cochin on Christmas Eve.


Out of the many boxes resting in our storeroom for the past eleven months would spring beautiful stars, lights and ornaments to deck up our Christmas tree and adorn strategic places in our house. A beautiful floral table centrepiece will be made. My wife, very skilful with dazzling décor ideas, characteristic of her German origin, will once again ensure that all is done.


31As for the creation of the Christmas crib, I believe I still have the inspiration from the creative astute shown by San Francesco di Assisi when he, with the permission of Pope Honorius III, recreated the Nativity scene (Presepio) for “the babe of Bethlehem” at the village of Greccio in Provincia di Rieti, Italy during the Christmas of 1223. Then again, the most inspiring of all this would be the message of Christmas – summarized in three magical words: “Kindness, Love, Peace”.

Not outdated or irrelevant, those sweet meditations of a mature faith appear relevant, especially in these times of adversity, to “survive with dignity”. Jo


  • In art, so far as is known, the name of the three wise men appears for the first time in a relief sculpture on the lintel of the central portal above the main door at Chiesa di Sant’Andrea, the oldest surviving church in Pistoia, Tuscany. Created by Magister Gruamonte and his brother Adeodatus, it dates to 1166 – about 29 years prior to the birth of St. Anthony of Padova.
  • The three wise men were said to have come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba – three of the many places proposed as their countries of origin.
  • In “The War of Frederick I. against the Communes of Lombardy”, Rainald is named as Reinhardt.
  • The DVD/Blu-ray of “Ben-Hur” (1959) referred in this article, is available with main dealers of movies. Please refer to “About” of my webpage for more details.
  • This article is in memory of Michael and Gertrud Schüller, (late) parents of Carina, who would have loved to spend this Christmas here with us. May their souls rest in peace.



(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)

FORT COCHIN – Pepper, Souls and Restless Waves


This is dedicated to the memory of my beloved maternal grandfather, Abraham – “silver in his hair and gold in his heart”

2In nomine Patris, I baptise thee Jo……...” the priest had pronounced during that ceremony held many years ago at Santa Cruz Cathedral (Basilica) at Fort Cochin (Kerala, South India). When those words were quoted to me by my maternal grandfather Abraham eight years later, it was decisive in arousing in me a curiosity for that cathedral and its origins that stretched back to the arrival of the Portuguese.

It is a place where I had witnessed many similar functions and weddings – including some of the festivals that dotted its annual calendar. Living on the mainland of Cochin (earlier Cocym, Cochym, Cochim,.… now, Kochi), those occasions were opportunities for me to hop over to Fort Cochin and be with my maternal grandparents.

Until the age of nine, the Cochin that existed before 14th century was rather shrouded in obscurity to me. My earliest knowledge of Fort Cochin at that time was fixated on an event said to have occurred in 1341 which occasioned it’s emergence as a prominent village consequent to the great flood of the River Periyar – during which a natural harbour was formed when the sea mouth of the Vembanad estuary opened up, and eventually ushered in trade and colonialism.

It is generally held that, it was due to this natural calamity that, Mahodayapuram (Mahodaya Pattanam) and its ancient port of Muziris (Kodungallur), which had silted up, lost their importance.



History has taught us that Fort Cochin had seen the presence of the Arabs, then the Chinese before the Portuguese came along, followed by the Dutch and finally, the British. The fact remains that during the second half of the fifteenth century the intercourse between China and Malabar has waned, until at last it ceased altogether, leaving some tangible symbols in the form of Chinese Nets, pagoda-style roofs, palm-woven, broad-brimmed hats of the fishermen, Chinese style porcelain, clay pots (Cheena chatti), etc.


And when the Portuguese came to India in 1498, suffering losses by shipwreck, disease and hunger, in due course they realized that, they were not conquering some kind of uncivilized and uncultured people – indeed, they were confronted by a civilization different from theirs, superior in some and inferior in many respects.

6I have often thought that it is my privilege to have been born in Fort Cochin reaped with legends and vibrant history. Primarily, I was fortunate to be the grandson of Abraham, once a teacher with Santa Cruz School (less than 200 meters from his house), who, with his useful and reliable knowledge about the East and the West, had sowed the first seeds of fascination in me for geography and history, especially about Fort Cochin. He had told me of names I haven’t heard before, …..  Zheng He (Cheng Ho – 1371–1433), Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324), Ibn Battuta (1304– 1368/1369), Dom Vasco da Gama (c. 1460/9–1524), Dom Pedro Álvares Cabral (c. 1467/68–c. 1520), Dom Afonso de Albuquerque (c. 1453–1515), Dom Francisco de Almeida (ca. 1450-1510), etc…


Over the years, it was from him that I first learned of Fort Cochin being the fundamental reference point for many firsts in Kerala, even in India. It was the first place of European settlement in India; the first place where a foreign Fort was built; the first place in India where European food was served; cake and hot bread was baked; wine fermentation was tried; vindaloo (derived from the Portuguese dish “carne de vinha d’alhos”) made its first appearance in its original form using wine instead of vinegar.


Most likely, it is the place where tobacco, potato, cauliflower, and new species of fruits such as pineapple, papaya, cashew, guava, custard apple, etc., were initially introduced. The chillies came from the West Indies and revolutionized the palates of locals. I savoured all this in small doses whenever I was in Fort Cochin until 1970, sitting before him, during long balmy evenings that stretched into the late hours.


In the course of time, further readings led me to complement my list with more firsts: It is certainly the birthplace of Cochin Creole Portuguese, the language that came into existence with the contact of Portuguese language with the local languages and developed hand-in-hand with the formation of Catholic and Indo-Portuguese households. Since the Portuguese occupied Goa only by 1510, Fort Cochin, a citadel of peaceful coexistence, could probably be the first place where the concept of Mestiços or Luso-Indians (people of mixed and Portuguese descent through Indian women or even, órfãs del rei/young orphan Portuguese girls) emerged – the forerunners to Anglo-Indians who, imbibed in the European way of living, can be called the first moderns of India.


No doubt, the true success of Kerala would remain in its ability to maintain religious harmony. Even though dress codes sometimes marked out the religious identities of the different groups, not prone to the extremes of communal disturbance or religious chauvinism, the natives dressed in mundu, chatta, and neriyathum; sari and blouse; pattu pavadai; ghagra cholis; pardah, Muslim cap, green belt and lungi; Western-style skirts and trousers – all existed side by side in perfect harmony.


Once, my grandfather’s talk had diverged into the subject of another ritual that was said to have taken place some 489 years ago at less than 100 meters from Santa Cruz Cathedral – at the Church of San Francesco (now called St. Francis CSI Church). When that event took place, the place was known as the Church of Santo António (Igreja de Santo António), dedicated to the Saint who would subsequently capture the reverence and affection of Kerala devotees irrespective of their caste and creed.


The occasion was the funeral of the Portuguese explorer Dom Vasco da Gama in late 1524. At the time of his death, the retired and ageing Dom Gama, by then “Conde da Vidigueira” (Count of Vidigueira) and the second Viceroy of India, was on his third visit to India when he fell ill and death stole him on Christmas Eve.


14Years later, I would discover a written account of that event only in the writings of Gaspar Corrêa, (the Secretary of Albuquerque) in Lendas da India (a) which covered the history of the Portuguese from 1497 to 1549. According to Corrêa, Dom Gama was suffering from “great pains in the neck for some days, which had got awry, and some boils came to the surface at the nape of the neck.” In spite of remedies, it got worse to such an extent that the pains deprived him of speech. Having realised that his death was imminent, they shifted him from the fortress to the houses (perhaps this could be the Vasco House) of a Diogo Pereira close by to the church of Santo Antonio. Dom Gama was a great devotee of the Santo António, who himself is not unfamiliar to the perils of the sea. After Dom Gama’s testament was prepared and orders issued to subordinates that included his wish to convey his bone to the kingdom, as a basic preparation for death, Dom Gama made his confession and holy sacraments were administered to him. His life departed him in the night of Christmas, 1524, at three o’clock after midnight.

Corrêa relates: “The body, dressed in silk clothes, and over them a mantle of the Order of Christ, with a sword and gilded belt, and gilt spurs fixed upon dark buskins and on its head a dark round barret-cap, was placed in the hall, in the bier of the brotherhood of Mercy, uncovered; and the gentlemen, clothed in the mantles of their order, bore it on their shoulders, with many tapers, and followed by all the people. It was carried to the monastery of St. Antony, and buried in the principal chapel; and upon the tomb was a square grating surrounding the grave, of the height of a span, lined with black velvet, and a black and white fringe, placed upon a velvet cloth, which covered all the grave. There the next day a great service was performed”.


Having discovered the ocean route from Europe round the Cape of Good Hope to India, the tough and fearless navigator Dom Gama, and his hard-bitten crew with seafaring capability had landed at Kappad near Calicut (renamed Kozhikode) on May 20, 1498 which culminated in the diversion of the profitable spice trade that passed through Syria and Alexandria into a new route – consequently destroying the monopoly of Venice and elevating Lisbon as the great spice-market of Europe. It was a time when much of the traffic in the Indian Ocean was dominated by the vessels of Muslim merchants who for centuries had controlled the trade routes with the support of powerful local rulers.

Although historians know little about why Dom Gama was chosen to command the expedition to India, the three objectives of Dom Gama’s feat to the southeast coast of India is well understood: conquest, commerce, and conversion. His success in breaking the maritime domination of the others had set the stage for him to not only earn a place in history by the side of Fernão de Magalhães and Cristóbal Colón but also established a link connecting the source of his family fortune to India.


Favours such as the territorial title of “Dom”, “Admiral of India”, an annual pension of 1,000 cruzados, title of annual hereditary pension of 300,000 reis, right to send money to India, were granted to him. His return in a blaze of triumph to Lisbon after the first journey to India had also brought him a privileged marriage to prominent nobleman Álvaro de Ataíde’s daughter Dona Catharina de Ataíde just months before he set sail for his second journey to India in 1502 with the object of securing a permanent foothold on the Indian coast.


Consequent to Dom Gama’s discovery, more adventurers like Pedro Álvares Cabral and the energetic commander Afonso de Albuquerque, the first European since Alexander the Great who dreamed of establishing an empire in India, or rather Asia, followed.


When the Portuguese arrived in India, Cochin was in vassalage to Zamorin of Calicut. But the Raja’s surface appearances were out of step with inner truths. Irritated under the dominance of Calicut, Unni Goda Varma Koyil (Unni Raman Koyil I (? – 1503)) (b), the Raja of Cochin, was exploring ways to break away. He saw the arrival of Portuguese as a chance to assert his independence. No sooner they earned the goodwill and permission of the Raja to engage in trade and built a factory in Cochin, Cabral established the first Portuguese trading post in India, which the Portuguese called “Estado da India” (State of India). Besides their trade in pepper, they also popularised other spices such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, etc, in the European countries.


The Portuguese victory in fending off the invading armies of the Zamorin and vassal Malabari states in the Battle of Cochin (the first siege was in mid-1503 and the Second Siege of Cochin was during March-July 1504) which took place on land and sea not only thwarted Zamorin’s attempt to conquer Cochin but also helped in reinstating the Raja of Cochin on the throne. This facilitated the Portuguese to secure their continued presence and strengthen commercial and missionary relations. The initial siege had proven that protection could not be achieved by unassertive means. In order to lay the foundation of the shore defences and to defend the local Portuguese factory, they acquired permission from Raja Unni Raman Koyil II (1503-1537) to build a Fort on the southside of the entrance of the river leading into the backwater using the Raja’s workers and material.


21The foundation stone of this Fort was laid by the newcomer Albuquerque on September 27, 1503. Completed within a few months, the Fort would finally have seven large bastions, with the first bastion directly facing the sea. Named Fort Manuel de Cochim (Manuel/Emmanuel Kotta) after Manuel I the Fortunate (c) (English: Emmanuel I – 1469-1521), the 14th King of Portugal and Algarves, the area became known as Fort Cochin (d).

The Portuguese built their settlement in India behind Fort Manuel. They were acclimatised by birth to a hot climate. As they did in other Portuguese trading posts/colonies along the coastal districts where their power made itself felt, a wooden Catholic chapel was constructed in the neighbourhood in 1503 by five Franciscan friars who had accompanied the Portuguese expedition.

Dedicated to São Bartolomeu, one of the Twelve Apostles of Jesus, the Chapel merits the honour of being the oldest European church in India and went on to garner great historical significance as a mute witness to the European power struggle in India.

A house to the left towards the rear of this chapel (in Rose Street) (e) with typical European glass pane windows and balcony-cum-veranda, considered to be one of the oldest Portuguese houses in India, is supposed to be the place where Dom Gama lived. Today it is known as Vasco House. The close proximity of this house and Dom Gama’s devoted attachment to this Chapel could be one of the criteria for his burial in this chapel.



Great builders and promoters of architecture than any other form of fine art, the Portuguese apparently caught the admiration of the Raja of Cochin who was tolerant of other religions. The Raja granted permission to the first Portuguese viceroy (appointed in 1505), Dom Francisco de Almedia (1450–1510), a nobleman of illustrious rank and first cousin of Dom Gama’s wife Catarina de Ataide, to construct buildings using stone and masonry work. At the same time as Fort San Angelo (Kannur Fort/Kotta) was being built by the Portuguese with brilliantly red laterite stone at Cannanore, the foundation stone of Santa Cruz Cathedral was laid at Fort Cochin on May 3, 1505, on the old Feast Day of the “Invention of the Holy Cross”, the instrument of salvation. Hence, the church was called “Santa Cruz”. As we can observe, almost always in the early European explorations, religious and commercial motives were intertwined.


In 1506, the wooden Chapel of São Bartolomeu by the side of the 4-acre Parade Ground (formerly Barrack Ground) was pulled down and reconstructed into a permanent structure with gabled timber-framed roof covered with tiles.


While the façade of the Church in typical Portuguese style is flanked on both sides by a stepped pinnacle, the windows and doors displayed semi-circular arches.


The bell turret is divided into three compartments and must have been visible to the European sailors from afar during their arrival and departure. In 1516, the newly consecrated church was dedicated to Santo António, the patron saint of Lisbon. The original title deeds written on palm leaf (Ola) pertaining to the land gifted by the Raja of Cochin to construct this church is still kept in the church. It was here Dom Gama was buried with honours in 1524, bestowing the church with historic significance.



The method of construction using stone and masonry work for church edifices was unheard of during that period since construction of such imposing structures were solely limited to royal palaces or temples. Although this church does not have any architectural merits, it was during this period, when ornate monumentality of the European churches was introduced to India, which initiated the synthesis of Church art and architecture of an alien nation and religion to indigenous forms and techniques of Kerala’s artistic and architectural traditions.


With the Raja of Cochin residing at Mattancherry, the peninsula became a fusion of traditional folk art forms and culture of Kerala as well as the West, although, till today, the peninsula retains the predominance of Malayali identity, its spiritual and traditional values.


Europeans visiting Mattancherry “to pay their respects” to the Raja could not only watch the Raja’s numerous elephants with good features (Lakshanams), sometimes richly caparisoned, but also now and then enjoy performing arts like Sinkari Melam, Theyyam, Ottanthullal, Padayani, Maritheyyam, Peelikavadi, Karakattam, Kurathiyattam, Kathakali, Thiruvathirakali, Bharathanatyam, Pulikali, Margam Kali, kolkali, etc., – moments that were decisive in formulating a fusion of new and vital forms of literature and drama like “Chavittunadakam” (Stomping Drama) (f), etc.


Having spent months out on the rough seas with sea-hardened sailors and listening occasionally to their bawdy sea shanties, these occasions must have appeared so refreshingly fresh and unique to the Europeans.


Here they sometimes listened to discussions on the merits of Ayurvadic treatments, astrology, Vastu Shastra (Feng Shui), and about the delicious vegetarian food such as Sambar, Rasam, Puliserry, Aviyal, Thoran, Inji Curry, Kalan, Olan, Parippu curry, Kootu curry, Theeyal, Pachadi, Kichadi, Injithairu, Achaar, Pappadam, Payasam, etc, and mentally compared them to those of Europe such as fresh bread, beef stew, grilled sardines, cinnamon rolls, sauces, etc, cooked in their settlement in Fort Cochin. The world has become very small.


During the time of Raja Veera Kerala Varma (aka. Gangadhara Veera Keralan – 1537-65) in 1538, fourteen years after the death of Dom Gama, his mortal remains were removed from the Church of Santo António to Portugal.



However, the original gravestone of Dom Gama’s empty tomb can still be seen today on the ground floor near to the Southern sidewall (g).



The southernwall marks the gravestones of Dutch personnel while those of the Portuguese are fixed on the northern sidewall – shifted from the floor of the nave in 1886.


39Closely following the maritime accomplishments of the Portuguese, the Dutch were determined to take part in the valuable spice trade and establish their monopoly in pepper.

Cochin’s existence as a long-time Portuguese protectorate since 1503 finally came to an end when the Dutch laid siege to Fort Manuel and captured Cochin in 1663, almost a hundred years after the Jews of Kerala constructed their Paradesi (Cochin Jewish) Synagogue in 1568 (h) under the reign of Raja Kesava (Kesara) Rama Varma II (1565-1601) in the neighbouring Mattancherry.

Since the Portuguese posed a threat to the island of Ceylon which the Dutch had conquered not long ago, their conquest of the Malabar region was initially only on account of Cochin’s strategic importance. However, so as to make it easier to defend and maintain their settlement, they would reduce the size of Fort Manuel, and also demolish several houses to make the settlement narrower.




Soon Protestantism gained influence and the control of the Church of Santo António shifted from the Order of Franciscans. Having decided to rid of all Portuguese influence, all European Catholic priests were ordered to quit the territory. The Dutch demolished all Catholic convents and churches except the Church of Santo António (The contents of a placard before the church include the sentence: “From 1510 AD to 1663 AD the Portuguese officially called St. Francis Church as the conventional church of the order of St. Francis of Assisi”), and the Santa Cruz Cathedral, which they used as their arms storehouse (i).



Successively, when some of the Catholics practising their faith at the Church of Santo António/San Francesco shifted to the Roman Catholic Church of the Our Lady of Hope (Nossa Senhora de Esperanca) in Vypeen, the existing pulpit and some screens of the Church of Santo António were also shifted with them. In their place, a new communion table and the rostrum furniture were installed.



According to a report, on January 8, 1664, the Dutch celebrated the first service with a parade of all arms commemorating their initial entry into the city after capturing Fort Manuel in January, 1663. Likewise, a tablet just above the main entrance relates to some restoration works the Dutch made in 1779.



During the time of the Dutch, Hendrik Adriaan van Rheede tot Drakenstein (1636-1691) served as the Governor of Cochin (1670-1677). In 1674 he began working on his book Hortus Malabaricus (Garden of Malabar), a pioneering compilation of 740 plants of economic and medical value in the Malabar Coast and published its first volume in 1678 (j). The book is also reputed to have the first printed words in Malayalam.



The British captured Cochin after occupying Fort Manuel in October of 1795. In spite of their supremacy, the British were lenient enough to let the Dutch, who had controlled Fort Cochin for 132 years, to retain possession of the Church of Santo António/Cochin/San Francesco.


Eight years later after the British took over, Fort Manuel was blown up by the British East India Company in compliant with the orders to destroy all fortifications and public buildings and the leading Dutch families who resided there with every degree of splendour started to desert the place.


In 1804, after the Dutch had voluntarily handed over the Church of Santo António to the Anglican Communion it was rededicated to San Francesco. It was eventually placed under the Ecclesiastical Department of the Government of India.



Some more renovations took place during the 19th century as confirmed by a tablet indicating that “Repaired by The Government of Madras. Anno 1887. Being the Fiftieth Year of the Reign of Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and Empress of India”.


According to the “Imperial Gazettee of India – Volume IV”, “the facade of the church was surmounted by an ornamented bronze cross and a weathercock, 6 feet high, which could be distinctly perceived some 10 miles off at sea; but in 1865 these were pulled down.”



Since 1923, the church is treated as a protected monument of national importance under the Archaeological Survey of India and now remains under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958 although it is owned by the Church of South India (CSI), the successor of the Church of England in India, that came into existence by a union of Anglican and Protestant churches in South India.


One symbol of British days which can still be seen today is the continued use of manually operated large swinging cloth fans on frames called “Pankhas” suspended above the congregation.



But history lovers would also love to have a peek at the “Doop Boek(k) of the church. It is the old Baptism and Marriage Register of the diocese covering the period 1751-1804, the most authentic record of the Dutch East India Company (Dutch: Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie or VOC or more colloquially as The Seventeen) and others who strode on the turf of the history of Fort Cochin.


I understand that the original of that Het doop-en trouwboek is in the department of the India Office Records forming part of the VOC archives of the British Library in London, the very repository of the archives of the British East India Company (EIC).


63In the aura of the colonial past stands a cenotaph before the church, erected on October 21, 1920, in memory of the residents of Cochin who fell in World War I. You can also see a clock that was set up on the façade on November 13, 1923 in memory of Hal Harrison Jones, a former Managing Director of Aspinwall & Co., Ltd, who died at Cochin.

The land before the church is now occupied by constructions including some colonial bungalows situated amidst landscaped grounds forming part of a club which commenced operation in early 1900s with admission privileges restricted to the British and men only (presently Cochin Club).


What there is left of the beach that has had many cultural influences on these colonial powers exist on the west beyond the club grounds – its past glory diminished like the Fort Manuel, the remnants of which can be seen along the beach, like the symbol of a bygone era steeped in its historic significance and heritage value.


The few occasions we had to interact with the locals during our visit to Portugal in 2006 had offered me the understanding that the bygone grand era is looked back by them with pride though they are at wonder about how they had managed to attain it.


Even so, the fact remains that history should be seen in the context of its time – to the moods, attitudes, and conditions that existed during that time – as much as it is due to the farsightedness and pro-activeness of the illustrious explorers and adventurers; it is not unconventional to be aware that greed and brutality also played its roles to sustain this achievement, until more smarter and more able European powers appeared on the horizon and took over.


The changes that took place by stages in the colonial period had greater impact on Fort Cochin. In point of fact, the spirit and character of Fort Cochin is largely defined by its unique history and heritage. While it is no longer fashionable to think of history in terms of kings and captains, we cannot ignore the truth about the past communities of colonial times and even the one that predates the Western conquerors. The cantilevered Chinese fishing nets that still raise their heads are a tangible signpost to that period.


I recently attended a seminar on the heritage of Fort Cochin. There prevailed a sense of anticipation in the air – like a promise that something positive would eventually come out of it. Given that heads of historical monuments, prominent historians, archaeological experts, local populace and enthusiasts are roped in to participate, such seminars and activities of organisations are positive steps to regenerate and conserve the eco-cultural landscape of the area, its historical monuments, etc., and to watch out and curtail all actions that wipe out traces of the ancient civilisation.



The active involvement of dedicated personalities like Dr. Charles Dias, MP and Dominic Presentation, MLA, and official departments like the Department of Tourism, etc, is commendable. Of the various protective measures being considered, languages like Cochin Creole Portuguese which has originated during the colonial times, and other kinds of intangible cultural heritage that are becoming extinct must also be given due attention.


While the golden sands of the beach, still a distant dream, has to be definitely rejuvenated and there can be merit in establishing a community swimming pool – a public facility to enable visitors, especially low-budget travellers, etc, who like to swim safely in the ambiance of the beach and the Arabian Sea.


Understanding is a two-way street. Following that Seminar, a short walk I took around the old Fort area provided me with the opportunity to examine how much of its character and quality has been preserved. Sure enough, one of Fort Cochin’s blessings is its partial isolation and you can stroll at a leisure pace in the quiet streets. That cool and quite ambiance is what makes this “sweet spot” so charming and endearing.


Even now, you will not miss its charisma displayed so prominently on the doorways, walls and facades of the Portuguese, Dutch and British buildings from colonial periods lining the streets. Regrettably, many from the public, the tourists and heritage enthusiasts are still left unaware of several salient features of Fort Cochin’s history and monuments.


Through awareness programmes and encouraging research, many ambiguities can be clarified and questions answered: Where were the real boundaries of the Fort Manuel, or where each of the seven bastions, renamed by Dutch as Groningen, Friesland, Utrecht, Zeeland, Holland, Gelderland, Stroomburg (names of Dutch provinces) was situated? Where was the smaller bastion called Overijssel or riverside entrances to the fort – Water-Gate, Bay-Gate, and New-Gate, located? Where is the Loafer’s Corner? Why is it that there are hardly any Dutch surnames compared to those of Portuguese; etc.



The vestiges of three former European colonial powers that line the Burger Street (Burgerstraat), the Princess Street (Prinsesstraat); the remnants of the Fort; the huge, shady trees lining the lanes; the garden bungalows with large rooms, high ceilings and verandas, arched doorways, carved doors, colonial windows; the few edifices such as the Old Harbour House, Koder House, Vasco House, David Hall, the Bishop’s House (once the residence of the Portuguese Governor), Thakur House (Kunal or Hill Bungalow); the playgrounds, etc, – all extend their roots to a bygone era.



As the spice race is long over, it is the tourism that had opened its door to Fort Cochin’s history. As the tourism industry in Fort Cochin encompasses many different areas, any tendency to cash in on its tourist potentiality by overpricing on services would have a negative impact on Fort Cochin and deter the tourists from returning. Besides, certain visible “not so goody-goody” problems that have cropped up with the encroachers, illegal shack vendors, the dumping of garbage, etc., are aspects that are being addressed.


Although there are isolated incidents connected with the sale of drugs and abuse towards the visitors, the police have shown exemplary effort to curb these unsocial elements which are a menace in any part of the world.


Development is part and parcel of a society whose requirements and demands change when society changes. Nevertheless, I would say without fear of contradiction, that development must not ignore the past, socio-economic attitude of the people and their culture. No doubt, it’s a blessing that the restrictions and lack of opportunities for haphazard development has preserved this area to a remarkable degree even though intrusiveness can be seen popping its head up in some places. It reminded me of the policies implemented at places of historical importance like Assisi, Siena, Firenze, Toledo, to name a few, where preservation is given the highest priority to maintain the connection the present has with the past.



More than aides-mémoires of the collective past, historic place like Fort Cochin has social, economic, educational, and other values. I hope the renewed interest in this area would not only provide an incentive to our efforts for the welfare and protection of Fort Cochin and its surroundings but also bring in the essential cultural pride. Until next time. Ciao, Jo



84a)   It seems that Gaspar Corrêa’s (1496-1563) Lendas da India, an indispensible contemporary source on India’s history or the story of Portuguese expansion, was not published until the 19th century.

b)   The names of Rajas vary in different publications.

c)   Dom Manuel was called “the Fortunate” because of the great wealth he earned from Portugal’s maritime discoveries.

d)  The second part of the name Cochin might have derived from kochazhi which in local language Malayalam stands for “small estuary”.  

e)   Dom Manuel I was bestowed with a Golden Rose by Pope Julius II in 1506. By receiving a second Golden Rose from Pope Leo X in 1514, Manuel became the first individual to receive more than one Golden Rose, which is a gold ornament traditionally blessed by the popes annually and conferred as a token of reverence or affection.  The street must have been named “Rose Street” by the Portuguese as a mark of respect to their king during the above mentioned period.

f)   Chavittunatakam: The first documentation and publication of this art form is planned by South Zone Culture Centre and Kerala Folklore Academy.

g)   In the writings of Gaspar Corrêa also, it is mentioned that Dom Gama was buried in the principal chapel of the monastery of St. Antony while in some writings it is referred as Monastery of St. Francis, Cathedral of Cochym . In an article of the Boletim do Governo, Goa, December 21, 1858, on the subject of Dom Gama’s tomb, he was buried in the principal chapel of the church of the Franciscan monastery of Cochym.

85h)   According to Cochin State Manual by C. Achyutha Menon, the first synagogue was established at Muziris but it does not exist today.

i)    This arms storehouse of the Dutch fell into the hands of the British who demolished it when they took over Cochin in 1795 under the rule of Rama Varma (Sakthan Thampuran – 1790-1805).

j)    Colóquios dos simples e drogas da India” (Conversations on Indian Herbs and Drugs) was published in Goa on April 10, 1563 by Portuguese Jewish physician/naturalist Garcia da Orta, a pioneer of tropical medicine, nearly a hundred years earlier to the publication of “Hortus Malabaricus”.

k)   The Doop Boek was maintained for 40 years and was sent to London in 1932 for repairs. Having rebound in the original style, it is unavailable for public scrutiny although a Photostat copy of the original book is, I understand, available to satisfy their curiosity.

l)    For more details on Kerala: http://www.keralatourism.org

m) A special thanks to Ms. Pearl Prakash.

n) This article presents only sign posts from the history of Fort Cochin. The excuse for its appearance at this time is my attempt to summarise these events at this juncture when much discussion on Fort Cochin’s importance and protection are progressing.  Although certain proposals are mentioned here, I have not included all the various proposals and implementations currently being addressed by the Government, other institutions and enthusiasts.

(© Joseph Sebastine/Manningtree Archive)