Spice Culture: A Walk Through Mattancherry, Kerala

A rich multi-cultural part of Kerala with a trade history dating back centuries, this coastal area is often overshadowed by neighbouring Fort Kochi
The dilapidated buildings of Kochi are steeped in history
The dilapidated buildings of Kochi are steeped in history Shutterstock

Located less than 10 km from the heart of Kochi lies Mattancherry. Once a hub of the spice trade, this part of the island often gets upstaged by its hipper neighbour Fort Kochi. Yet Mattancherry was once a famed spice and tea trading centre in the late 20th century. Today, it has transformed into a melting pot coastal enclave where different cultures, beliefs, customs, and faiths blend together in harmony.

The entire "cherry" (local term for street) was once filled with mutton butchering shops, hence the name. At least, that is what some locals believe. Others say the name was given by traders from foreign countries who couldn't pronounce "Ancherry Mattom" and resorted to calling it "Matt-Ancherry." Whatever the origin, today, this cherry serves as a rustic destination with unique attractions and historical landmarks.

The streets of Mattancherry are filled with shops selling artefacts and spices
The streets of Mattancherry are filled with shops selling artefacts and spices Nina Lishchuk / Shutterstock.com

It's a small area, so you can take off from your regular tour of Kochi for a couple of hours and check it out. Located beside Fort Kochi, Mattancherry is easy to reach by road. But we recommend you take a boat from Ernakulam to explore Kerala's enchanting backwaters while entering this melting pot of cultures. From the man-made Willingdon Islands to the rare sightings of dolphins swimming in the waves, the boat ride is quite memorable.

Step down from the boat at Mattancherry Ferry and instantly find yourself in the middle of a busy street. The ferry opens up to a dingy road filled with two-wheelers and tuk-tuks connecting the market to Fort Kochi. The long line of tuk-tuks waiting for visitors may look tempting, but Mattancherry needs to be explored on foot via a leisurely walk.

Start from the Mattancherry Palace. Standing tall, it was an elegant gift from the Portuguese traders to King Veera Kerala Verma. The former also called it the "Dutch Palace." Most of Mattancherry's places have different names as the multiple troupes of traders and soldiers who took control of Kochi had different plans of control. The two-storeyed palace, built in traditional Kerala "naalukettu" (quadrangular) style, is rich in design. The flooring combines burnt coconut shells, lime, plant juices, and egg-whites. The ceilings are embellished with wood-carved designs and brass cups. And the interiors are decorated with aesthetic mural paintings. Soak in the life of the Kochi kings here before heading to the Paradeshi (foreigner) Synagogue nearby.

The Jewish synagogue in Kochi is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth
The Jewish synagogue in Kochi is the oldest active synagogue in the CommonwealthShutterstock

A walk through the bustling roads of Jew Street will teleport travellers back to a world of antiques and rustic charm. The street tells tales of Mattancherry when it was a prominent centre for Jews who came here on ships and settled in Kerala. Today, the total number of Jews who live here are few and far between.

The street leading to the Jewish synagogue houses colourful shops, food joints, and artefact stores. Built by the Jewish community of Kochi in 1568, the synagogue is the oldest in the Commonwealth. It is filled with antiques, from tiles brought from China to the dangling chandelier imported from Belgium. In 1662, the Portuguese had destroyed parts of the synagogue, but it was restored two years later by the Dutch. Today, it stands as a symbol of the multicultural trade in this area. Also, check out the clock tower and the Jewish cemetery.

Shops between the Synagogue and Mattancherry sell antiques
Shops between the Synagogue and Mattancherry sell antiquesAjayTvm / Shutterstock.com

From Jew Street, the busy lanes of Mattancherry lead to roads with old, dilapidated buildings populated chiefly by fisherfolk. Dodging the goats and dogs in your path, head to the Dharmanath Jain Temple. Located in the "Gujarati Colony," the temple is at the heart of the Jain community of Mattancherry. Built primarily with white marble, it symbolises peace amidst the chaos of its surroundings. The area is populated by Gujaratis who settled here in the earlier centuries and continued their trade practices. The mithaiwalas here serve some of the best sweets in Kochi.

Continue on the trail through dingy lanes leading to the heart of Mattancherry, the spice market.

The heady fragrance of the finest ginger, cloves, cardamom, turmeric, and pepper, also known as black gold, emanates from the spice warehouses flanking the lanes. This is mixed with loud conversations of the people at work. The sight of spice loads being taken in and out using pushcarts, and workers drying, sorting, and packing spices, takes one back centuries to those years when this was a spice trade hub.

Old songs of Mohammad Rafi playing on radios and pigeon flocking this street makes it radiate a vibe so relaxing that one forgets that it is a market.

The Coonan Cross Shrine is another significant landmark in the region. It is historic for being the location where more than 25,000 Christians took the religious oath of not following Latin Archbishops in 1653. The shrine is a busy part of Mattancherry, and the locals, irrespective of their religion, come here to pray.

The densely populated settlements here are flanked by the canal
The densely populated settlements here are flanked by the canalSatish Parashar / Shutterstock.com

The locals of Mattancherry love a good meal, and the eateries here are famed for serving the best local food. You get a range of dishes, from avocado shakes to heaped plates of erachi choru (meat rice) and many seafood dishes.

Strike up a conversation with a local, and they will be happy to lead you to some of the best eateries.

Visit Mattancherry at its best during the months of October and February when the temperature drops and the skies are clear blue. The Christmas fever during December adds to the experience. Plan a few hours here, exploring one of the most multi-cultural localities in Kerala.

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