Fort Cochin - heritage under threat

I arrived back in Kochi around mid-afternoon. This time I had booked a homestay in Ernakulam. It had stopped raining so I decided to head over to Fort Cochin on the local ferry as I had not seen much of the town on my first night. In any event, I wanted to get a few shots of Fort Cochin’s iconic Chinese fishing nets against a sunset – which is something that every photographer visiting Kochi has to do.

The ferry ticket cost me five rupees – about 12 cents US. According to my guidebook, the fare was supposed to be 2.5 rupees, so either the fare just went up, or I got ripped off (the ticket man looked very annoyed when I tendered a 100 rupees note, so maybe he thought that if I had that much money I could afford to pay double). The trip took about 20 minutes and we passed a couple of gleaming white cruise ships tied up at Willingdon Island on the way – they provided a striking contrast to all the grubby grey warehouses behind them.

Fort Cochin in the daylight didn’t look much better than it did at night. It is a tragedy that this historic heritage town – the first European settlement in India – has been so neglected by the local authorities. The town has some incredible architecture dating back to the 15th century, and if more effort could be made to restore some of the more significant buildings, Fort Cochin could become the major drawcard for tourists on the west coast of India.

I read an article in The Hindu about a German historian by the name of Dr Falk Reitz who has founded an organisation called the European Foundation for Indian Heritage Monuments (EFIHM).

In the article he said he was disillusioned by the state of conservation of monuments in Fort Cochin and Kerala generally.

"Heritage is not given enough importance in the State. I have been working in Kerala since 1989 and my experience is that architectural heritage is widely neglected,” he said.

“The hordes of tourists who visit Fort Cochin will be disillusioned by the poor maintenance of the historical buildings, if nothing is done about them’” he added.

Dr Reitz said that with the Indian economy on an upswing, he was hoping that some private sponsors could be persuaded to take an interest in the preservation of Fort Cochin, and that he was also trying to get support from the European Union given that Portugal, Holland and the UK have had such a long, historical relationship with Fort Cochin.

I wish Dr Reitz the best of luck in his endeavours because there really are some fine examples of Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial architecture in Fort Cochin – but many of the buildings are so dilapidated, it may be hard to save them if something is not done soon.

The other problem that Fort Cochin has is the amount of rubbish everywhere. Yes, I know India is a dirty country, and everywhere else there is rubbish, but given that Kochi is one of India’s two primary west coast tourist destinations (Goa being the other of course), it is sad that little effort is made to keep the place at least reasonably clean.

Just look at the beach in the photograph below. As you can see from the people in the picture, it’s not just foreign tourists who come here to savour Fort Cochin’s history and see its famous Chinese fishing nets, but many locals as well. But to walk along the beach you have to pick your way through so much rubbish, you wonder where it has all come from.

The impressive cantilevered fishing nets date back to sometime between 1350 and 1450 when Chinese traders first constructed them here using teak and bamboo poles. That was before the first Portuguese settlement here, so they are they very much part of Fort Cochin’s history (although the poles and nets would have been replaced many times over that period of course).

Although the rain had cleared, there was still a lot of cloud in the sky, so I wasn’t able to get my photograph of the fishing nets silhouetted against the setting sun (which is something of a cliché anyway) but I did manage to find a spot where there wasn’t too much rubbish on the beach to take the photograph below of some locals wading in the water waiting for the sun to go down.

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