The venerable city of KOCHI (long known as Cochin), Kerala's prime tourist destination, spreads across islands and promontories between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters. Its main sections – modern Ernakulam and the old peninsular districts of Mattancherry and Fort Cochin to the west – are linked by ferries, and less romantic bridges. Although some visitors stay in the more convenient Ernakulam, the overwhelming majority base themselves in Fort Cochin itself, where spice markets, Chinese fishing nets, a synagogue, a Portuguese palace, India's first European church and seventeenth-century Dutch homes can all be found within an easy walk. Kochi also offers kathakali dance performances, both in authentic and abridged tourist versions.
Kochi sprang into being in 1341, when a flood created a safe natural port that swiftly replaced Muziris (now Kodungallur, 50km north) as the chief harbour on the Malabar Coast. The royal family moved here from Muziris in 1405, after which the city grew rapidly, attracting Christian, Arab and Jewish settlers from the Middle East. From the early 1500s onwards the Portuguese, Dutch and British successively, and aggressively, competed to control the port and its lucrative spice trade. From 1812 until Independence in 1947 it was administered by a succession of diwans, or finance ministers.
Old Kochi, the thumb-shaped peninsula whose northern tip presides over the entrance to the harbour, formed the focus of European trading activities. With high-rise development restricted to Ernakulam across the water, its twin districts of Fort Cochin, in the west, and Mattancherry, on the headland's eastern side, have preserved an extraordinary wealth of early colonial architecture, spanning the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras – a crop unparalleled in India. Approaching by ferry, the waterfront, with its sloping red-tiled roofs and ranks of peeling, pastel-coloured godoowns (warehouses), offers a view that can have changed little in centuries.