A Day in Kochi

Kochi (formerly Cochin) is a city on the South Indian coast, in the State of Kerala boarding the Arabian Sea. There in fact two Kochis, the fabled spice city of the Malabar Coast on Fort Cochin Island, and a newer modern city across the channel. These two cities lie at the mouth of a natural harbor formed where the Vembanad River meet the sea.

The region is beautiful. It is warm, fragrant and tropical. Inland waterways form intricate canals through dense tropical forest punctuated by fields of rice. Small boats ply the inland waterways, elegant houseboats cruise the lakes and back waters.

The geography is relatively new. The port was created by a cataclysmic river flood in 1341 that carved new channels to the sea. In the process it destroyed the ancient city of Cranganore, twenty miles north of the city. The port  may have been originally built by Chinese maritime traders not long after the great flood. There is a record of Chinese in the area as early as 1343.  The design of the fishing nets along the channel is Chinese and dates from this time (see photos).

The great Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama first came here in 1498. He returned in 1502. He died here, possibly of malaria in 1524. He was originally buried here in what now in St. Francis Church. His remains were later returned to Portugal. The Old Portuguese city was begun by Pedro Alvares Cabral. The Dutch took over the city in the 1663 followed by the British in 1795. The city remained under British rule until independence.
 
The Malabar Coast has long been the source of spices for the ancient and medieval world. Arab and Romans traded here primarily for pepper, sometimes called "black gold". Dried ginger, nutmeg, coriander, cardamom, turmeric and other spices were traded here as well. Whereas the Silk Route  emanating from China for the early days of the Roman Empire is now well know, the Spice Route, both by sea  to Arabia and by land (up the coast  Malabar coast where it joined the silk route west from Afghanistan to Europe and East to China) was also a very important trade route. In fact, much of the early Portuguese and later Dutch exploration of the Orient was in search of spices. Kochi has been central to both ancient and modern spice trades. In addition to spices the area is famous for fish and rice. The food is fragrant, fresh and delicious.

The modern City of Kochi has a different economic base from the old. It is rapidly becoming a major port of entry for Southern India. Dubai is building a major container port. It is already the site of petroleum refineries. New Kochi has become a thriving information technology outsourcing hub as well. Literacy in Kerala is nearly universal. Kerala provides most of the nurses for India and from India much of the world. The government changes from election to election from Communist (with hammer and sickle) to Congress Party regularly.

The world's major religions have long and deep roots here. The Malabar Coast has a rich tradition of Hindu scholarship and learning dating back more than 2,000 years. Christianity came early with the arrival of Saint Thomas in 62 AD. He established a church which still flourishes here and in Goa, the Syrian Christians. St. Thomas is buried in India, in Chennai (formerly Madras). These Christians date to well before the establishment of what is now the Orthodox Church by Constantine in the Emperor in 330AD. Only the Egyptians Coptic Church that was founded by St. Mark is as old. Catholicism arrived with the Portuguese. Francis Xavier was here and his body is now in the former Portuguese Colony of Goa, just to the north. The Dutch and the British both brought Protestantism here in several forms. The first mosque was built here in wile Mohammed was still alive.

William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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