This Mattancherry street boasts of world’s first pepper exchange

A street in Mattancherry where goods are being transported. Photo: iStock/Gilitukha

A rendezvous with history is inevitable while walking through the age-old Mattancherry Bazaar in Ernakulam district. One could also never escape the striking aroma of dried ginger and pepper wafting through the air of the market. A stiff salty breeze will rustle your hair as you look at the wares that are up for sale. On one side, the lake has spread out a picturesque view and on the other side a road teeming with vehicles and people. The travelogues of prominent explorers are replete with narratives of Mattancherry warehouses filled with pepper, cinnamon and cardamom. The Mattancherry Bazaar, which was spread across from Boundary Canal to Mattancherry Bus Stand, was marked by overflowing cash boxes and godowns. While stepping into the Mattancherry Bazaar, you are entering a 500-year-old market place where Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, Dutch and English merchants used their bargaining skills to strike the best deal.

The unique ‘kol kanakku’

A ‘kol’ (a small stick) could be seen perched on the ears of workers carrying sacks from the godown to the mini vans parked outside. An accountant sitting on the side of the door, which is just big enough for two persons to enter, would collect the ‘kols’ from the workers. This method of calculation was used for trade purposes in Kochi much before there was uniformity in numbers and letters across the globe. The number of sacks transported is arrived at by counting the ‘kols’ and interestingly, this practice is followed in certain shops even now.

Gone are the days when the Bazaar road was flooded with cargo trucks and hand carts. Now the warehouses are empty and some of them had been converted into hotels and museums. The historical records would vouch for the fact that the Mattancherry Bazaar had traded with close to 52 countries. Once upon a time, the Bazaar had nearly 200 warehouses, which could store hundreds of tonnes of goods, situated from Calvetti Canal Bridge to the Jew Street. But now all these structures are in a dilapidated situation. The Bazaar road till the 1970s was bustling with trade activities but now is a playground for children.

A Mattancherry street. Photo: iStock/Rklfoto

Rich in history

The world’s first pepper exchange was established on this street. In the olden days, a trade deal was struck by using fingers after tying the hand with a piece of cloth (thorthu). This unique method, which was followed by the buyer and seller, had faded into oblivion only a few decades ago.

The ships started docking at the Kochi harbour as it was safe to drop anchor there even during peak monsoon after the Kodungallur harbour was in ruins. While the Arabs went to Kozhikode, the Chinese chose Kochi as their favourite trading destination. It may be noted that there was a large water body in Calvetti where thousands of big boats and even small ships used to drop anchor.

People walking at Jew Town in Mattancherry, Kochi. Photo: iStock/g01xm

The business in Bazaar became robust after the Portuguese were given permission to build a fort. The sought-after spices from the mountains in the east reached Kochi through the Manimala River. Thazhathangadi in Kottayam was the hub of trade from the eastern region and the goods were brought from Thazhathangadi to Kochi on boats. Merchandise were also transported from Kodungallur, Kollam and Alappuzha on ‘Kevu vallams’ (large wooden vessels used for carrying goods) to Kochi.

Fort-like godowns

Each trader had a warehouse and a jetty facing the lake on the back side of the godown. The front doors of the godown with tall walls faced the road. The floors of the warehouses were paved with wooden panels that could fight moisture and pests. The structure had a central courtyard where spices and other products are dried and packed. The commodities that are brought by ships that drop anchor on high seas are transported to godowns on small boats. After the commissioning of the Harbour Terminus, goods were taken to the Bazaar on trains. The boats touching Kochi shores for trade had to pay fixed fees to the Irrigation Department and the old jetty and offices could be found in the area. It is noteworthy that there were check posts at Thevara and Edakochi to collect taxes on merchandise transported to Mattancherry.

An antique shop in Mattancherry. Photo: iStock/Gilitukha

Bridge ushers in changes

New roads and bridge gave a boost to road transport. The large trucks avoided the narrow roads of Mattancherry, and slowly but surely the Ernakulam market on the eastern shores of the lake got prominence. The goods were also later unloaded directly at the wharf. Once, the workers’ organization of ‘CTTU 12000 pada’ lorded over the Mattancherry market. Later, the godowns were looted in the Mattancherry riots and sacks of merchandise were thrown onto the roads and set on fire. Many traders closed down their outlets after the riots.

The much-acclaimed business centre of Mattancherry started to change a lot. Now the Mattancherry Bazaar is known for its museums with sculptures and houses around 150 art emporiums. When foreign tourists come in search of the heritage of Kochi, sadly both genuine and fake symbols of a bygone era are sold here. The history of Kochi boasts of honesty and integrity in trade and while walking through the Bazaar street, those qualities are becoming a thing of the past.

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