K E R A L A   H E R I T A G E


Conservation in Kerala, India: Valuing the Vernacular
By Patricia Tusa Fels
(email: ptfels@nwlink.com)

For thousands of years, urban civilization has flourished on the Indian subcontinent. In modern, independent India, the fate of the historic monument (temples, mosques and palaces) varies: some buildings are protected, some have become heavily-visited icons, others have been left to decay. Completely off the heritage radar screen, the Indian vernacular (housing, shops, and warehouses) remains unrecognized and ignored, left to slowly deteriorate or be demolished. Frequently massed in historic enclaves, these structures display an artisan skill with local materials, a visible response to climatic conditions, and designs that reflect social and religious patterns.

The state of Kerala stretches along the Malabar Coast, in southwestern India. Malabar was the locus of the exotic spices sought around the globe. These were freely traded with Arabs, Jews and Christians, Chinese, and Southeast Asians until the Portuguese arrived seeking control over the trade. The arrival of Vasco da Gama at the end of the 15th century began a long period of European domination.

Midway up the coast, Cochin (recently renamed Kochi) is a jewel of this trading culture. Fort Cochin, at the tip of the peninsula, became a colonial outpost, the first European settlement in India and one of its few cities with a history of Portuguese, Dutch and British presence. The adjacent, older settlement of Mattancherry remained the home of the ruling maharaja and site of the port. Here the storage, shipping and trading of local products (spices, rubber, rice, and coir) took place. A unique vernacular developed, reflecting the local environment, the trade and the traders. The historic patterns of a trading culture, visible in the buildings and layout of the city, are the major cultural resources begging for protection.

The Cochin peninsula slipped into a reverie after Indian independence. The mainland area of Ernakulam became the modern city, a new port was built on an adjacent island, and Cochin was left to sleep. A lack of demand meant that buildings were not torn down, but nor were they maintained. Now, with an expanding tourist industry, the city government has taken the first step in recognizing its rich patrimony. The Tourism office has declared the colonial centre (Fort Cochin) a heritage zone. The local government has established a Centre for Studies in Heritage and Culture. However, no guidelines have been enacted and no legal status given to historic buildings. Most of the government action has been directed at promoting tourism and not at conserving buildings for residents or businesses.

Conservation work by private parties has restored family bungalows (many turned into tourist guesthouses or hotels). However, in general, residents are unaware of the uniqueness of their history, and the potential of their buildings. The locales of day to day activity are ignored by the government, except for the occasional road paving. Many areas still have no water service and open drains carry a foul mixture of refuse.

The Fort Cochin neighborhood, site of the original Portuguese fort, is bounded on three sides by the sea. The center of the old colonial area is the large Parade Ground, surrounded by huge rain trees. The oldest European church in India and a series of historic bungalows border the open space. The adjacent streets are lined with rowhouses. Both bungalows and houses show signs of Dutch, Portuguese, English and local influences. Architectural details include wide overhanging roof brackets, large gabled roofs, upstairs verandahs, and sidewalk seatings.

Bazaar Road, once the bustling market-place of the region, connects Fort Cochin to Mattancherry. The Palace complex, at the southern terminus of Bazaar Road, includes the Raja’s palace (now called the Dutch palace) and a Hindu temple. Immediately adjacent is Jewtown, once the home to Middle Eastern Jewish traders. Here, godowns (Asian vernacular for warehouse) stretch along the water side and shophouses line the lanes leading to the 16th century synagogue. Jewtown has become an antique center. Aged godowns are packed with old furniture, building parts (including granite columns, wood carved gable ends and doors), religious artefacts (Hindu, Jewish and Christian), and a dizzying array of lamps, statues, photographs, jewellery and household containers. Few buildings remain in the spice trade and it is almost a shock to see a warehouse full of ginger. However, moving north towards Fort Cochin, the activities of the city’s older trading days continue. Rice, ginger, rubber, perfumed oils, and spices are moved in and out of large godowns. On roads leading inland, ethnic communities connected to trade maintain their historic enclaves. Even today, thirteen different linguistic groups can be found in Cochin.

Narrow and long, Bazaar Road is lined with shops. The two-story buildings along the street, with decorated windows and carved eaves, must have, in their heyday, presented a formidable street facade. The impressive Mattancherry godowns run perpendicular to the street. Grand doors lead from the road to expansive courtyards which extend to the water’s edge. The long interior courtyards are enclosed by the godowns. Designed for storing goods, these wharf buildings have gable roofs covered with clay roofing tiles, timber rafters with heavy timber ties and thick, brick stuccoed walls.

The history of the spice trade and the power of the architectural spaces in Cochin provide potent images and a marvellous urban typology. The Parade Ground and garden surroundings contrast dramatically with the linear, dense Bazaar Road street face and its deep godown courtyards. The political powers, by focusing on Fort Cochin, are protecting, and therefore telling, only part of the story. Ignoring the potential of the Mattancherry/Bazaar Road environs contributes to a lack of stature for the local vernacular, thus leading to continued deterioration. This entire area merits protection and renewal. Indians want to modernize, but only a few realize the potential of old structures. The vernacular buildings of Mattancherry offer countless opportunities for adaptive re-use. The passage to global city will be made more humane for everyone by a revitalization that maintains the scale and patterns of this singular neighbourhood. In addition, there is a chance to celebrate a truly unique urban settlement, one that holds the physical remnants of the spice trade, the very raison d’etre of the city.


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