The Lost Beaches of Fort Kochi
Time flies, flows, events happen, life goes on with interminable and insufferable regularity all around you while you live in a stupor. Suddenly it is the last days of 2022. We have now lived in Kottayam for a decade after spending close to forty years in Ahmedabad. My family, wife, two children and their families, had converged here a decade back to celebrate our purchasing an apartment in Kottayam. They had visited separately on various occasions in the past. Regular zoom meetings had kept the bonds strong. However, both my children and their families agreed we should all get together without further delay. Christmas of 2022 appeared to be an excellent target.
Earlier vacations, whenever children visited, were confined to a stay at a resort in Kumarakom for a few days. While the children swam, we would sit around the pool dozing. We had a break with this format; wandering in Fort Kochi and Mattancheri with an afternoon of shopping in the Lulu Mall were agreed upon as a desirable holiday plan.
I booked rooms in the Holiday Inn and engaged a 12 seater Traveler for three days to take us to Kochi from Kottayam and to haul us around Kochi and the suburbs. Shijo, the driver, turned out to be friendly and willing to meet our impulsive demands for random forays with a friendly smile.
The earliest historical record of Kochi is found in a report about the flooding and destruction of Kodungallur in 1341, the major port in the region. The receding waters carved out a small port in the village, later called Kochi. Kochi finds mention in the writings of Nicolo Conti, the Venetian traveler who visited in 1440  and the first to use the name Cochym for the place. From that time, similar-sounding names appear in the records of other travellers and traders from across the globe. The variants are Cocym, Cochym, Cochin, Cochi, etc. The name Ko-chih is also found in the accounts of Ma Huan, a Chinese traveller  of the 14th century. A radically different view is that Kochi is derived from the Malayalam word, koch-azhi meaning ‘small sea.’ Portuguese records of the 15th century mention Kakochi and Kochim.
Blessed by geography, Kochi developed into an important trade centre on the Arabian sea coast where the Arab traders from the Middle East would converge for fragrant Indian spices and condiments. Fort Kochi was gifted by the king to Pedro Alvarez Cabral of Portugal, who established the Fort Emmanuel and St Francis Church in 1503. Both these structures were destroyed and subsequently rebuilt. After a century and a half of Portuguese control, the Dutch captured and destroyed the fort. After a century under the Dutch, the British took over Fort Kochi. Fort Kochi perfectly blends the colonial Dutch, Portuguese and British cultures and inspired a recommendation from Lonely Planet as a must-visit place.
The Fort Kochi beach was our first stop. My memory of it goes back to 1950s when I, with my siblings, would be packed off for a brief stay with my father’s elder brother during the summer vacations. The boat trip through the Vembanad backwaters was an experience out of this world! Achan lived in a house on Lily Street. This had a Dutch design, a two-storey building with stores, a kitchen etc., on the lower part and living quarters with a wooden floor on the upper floor. The house had walls at least 4 feet thick. We used to listen in horror to the stories told by the servants that the thick walls had ‘kappiris’, negroes buried in them. Lily Street is a popular destination for tourists, as it provides a glimpse into the city’s rich history and cultural heritage. It is also known for its charming cafes and restaurants, which serve traditional Kerala cuisine. There are art galleries, souvenir shops and other small family-run businesses on the street. It is a picturesque part of Fort Kochi, with a unique blend of Dutch, Portuguese and British architecture, and a perfect place to stroll around.
My cousins — six girls of various ages — pampered us and we had a routine of going to the beach in the evenings. In those days, it was an enormous stretch of sandy shore, a few hundred meters wide. The larger stretch is close to the Bastion Bungalow. You could walk along the sea from Fort Kochi Beach to the boat jetty. Google Maps shows two beaches; Fort Kochi Beach and Mahatma Gandhi Beach.
The deterioration of the beach began with the construction of the container terminus at Vallarpadam located opposite the Fort Kochi beach, separated by the estuary formed by the discharge of the Vembanad Lake waters into the Arabian Sea. A vast tract of land was reclaimed for its construction. With the construction of a boundary wall, the discharge water was forced more towards the beach side on the opposite shore.
The Vallarpadam Container Terminal, in the port city of Kochi in Kerala, India, has had a significant impact on the Fort Kochi beach area. The terminal, which is one of the largest container transshipment facilities in India, has led to an increase in cargo-related activities in the area. This has resulted in the beach’s degradation and coastal ecosystem, as well as increased noise and air pollution. The construction of the terminal also led to the loss of mangrove habitats and fishing grounds, which have negatively affected the local fishing community. The increased traffic has led to congestion and difficulty for residents and tourists accessing the beach.
Fort Kochi beach witnessed further distress when Cyclone Ockhi hit the Kerala coast in 2017. This led to further diminution of the beach. 2019 monsoons caused further erosion of the beach. There is garbage and sea weed that get deposited on the shore, an overall effect of detritus and decay and one feels sad for what the place had once been beach.
What remains of the once-glorious beach is a narrow walkway, damaged here and there, where one can take a stroll. There are some eateries selling snacks and seafood and sitting areas where people gather to have a chit-chat. Remnants of old Fort Emmanuelle are visible at some places on this walkway. Pieces of concrete blocks are strewn all along the walkway as a protection against the encroachment of the sea. Flotsam deposited by the sea scars the beachfront further.
Another loss is that of the Jewish community. Malabar Jews are the oldest group of Jews in India, with roots dating back to King Solomon’s times. A few families of Sephardic Jews arrived in the 16th century and became known as Paradesi Jews. In the late 19th century, a few Arabic-speaking Jews, who became known as Baghdadi, also immigrated and joined the Paradesi community. After the founding of Israel, most of the Malabar Jews emigrated in the mid-1950s. The Paradesi Jews preferred to migrate to Australia.
Visitors to Kochi can see the ancient Chinese Fishing Nets. The Chinese Fishing nets are huge contraptions requiring a few people to operate the mechanism that allows the net to open up to get a good catch of fish. The nets attract hoards of curious onlookers. They look exquisite in the lights of the setting sun.
After wandering around the lost beaches of Fort Kochi, it was now time for lunch at the Fort House Hotel, just off Calvathy Road. It is a family-owned place, personal and cosy. Sea breeze and the gentle lapping sounds of water against the pier create a pleasant ambience. The food is characteristic of Kerala Latin Christian cuisine. The hotel is close to the four century old Jewish Synagogue, the Mattancherry Palace, and the antique and spice markets of Mattancherry.
If there is a sweet memory of the trip, it is that of the famed Mattanchere Spice Cake. Infused with honey-soaked fruits and left to mature for months, the iconic cake Mattanchère Spice is baked to a rich brown colour and then sealed to lock in the moisture, flavour and fragrance. The cake is indeed a tribute to the small town of Mattancherry, an ancient centre of the spice trade. After three decades of experience they have perfected the real taste of a rich, premium plum cake with deeply soaked honey infused raisins, candied orange peel, ginger flakes and nutmeg which are some of the key ingredients. To our great delight, we found that the cake is delivered by Amazon.
 The Travels of Nicolo Conti in the East in the earlypart of the fifteenth century. Translated from theoriginal of Poggio Bracciolini, with Notes, by J. WinterJones, Esq., F.S.A., Keeper of the Printed Books, BritishMuseum.,https://www.rarebooksocietyofindia.org/book_archive/196174216674_10153806947676675.pdf
 Geo. Phillips, Ma Huan’s Account of Cochin, Calicut, and Aden, The Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (April, 1896), pp. 341–351
 Ma Huan, a detailed record of the history of Zheng He’s voyages to the West!, Seetao 2021–07–30 16:12, https://www.seetao.com/details/100508.html