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‘Our Past Needs a Future’: Meet The Storyteller Unveiling Kochi’s Fascinating History

Johann Kuruvilla is building a repository of stories surrounding the iconic Kochi. His 'Kochi Heritage Project' focuses on the city's art, culture, history, gastronomy and more.

‘Our Past Needs a Future’: Meet The Storyteller Unveiling Kochi’s Fascinating History

At least a few times every month, a delivery agent can be seen making his way to a certain residence in Ernakulam, Kerala. His hands are laden with packages which hold books –  sometimes two, sometimes more, but never less. 

These are not your ordinary fiction titles. Instead, they are retellings of the history and heritage of Kochi. Within their pages, they hold fascinating accounts of how the city evolved into its present form, backed by intriguing anecdotes. The content would leave any history buff spellbound. 

As the delivery agent rings the doorbell, he doesn’t need to wait long. A man in his thirties opens the door within seconds. It’s almost as if he were waiting impatiently for this moment! 

Enthusiasm is etched on Johann Kuruvilla’s face as he tears open the package, hungrily eyeing his next reads. 

The books find their way to a home library which already boasts over 300 books. “One can never have enough books around heritage,” smiles Johann. 

For anyone who would like to know what’s in those books — the secrets of South India and first-hand stories of the lores surrounding Fort Kochi — there are two ways. Either you ask Johann to share his reading list or you attend one of the many experiential walks organised by him and his team as part of ‘Kochi Heritage Project’. 

‘Not shy of my heritage.’

Johann's heritage walks across Kochi's bazaars, forts, quaint streets and iconic spots are loved by people of all ages
Johann’s heritage walks across Kochi’s bazaars, forts, quaint streets and iconic spots are loved by people of all ages, Picture source: Johann

Born into Fort Kochi, a place that lies at the epicentre of coherence of histories, a love for heritage is in Johann’s blood. It is astounding how the stories that Johann treats his audience to today were born almost 520 years ago when Kochi began witnessing a saga of reigns, each leaving a lasting imprint on its culture, heritage and gastronomy. 

Through the five centuries, this unassuming city on the southern coast of India has seen a transfer of leadership. Once under Indian rule, the city saw a Portuguese influence in 1503 when the Raja of Kochi granted it to the Portuguese as a fishing village. 

Following a rule of 163 years, the city was conquered by the Dutch who ruled for 132 years before the British established their rule. In 1947, the reign came full circle, passing into Indian hands again.

For Johann, who is deeply in touch with his Indian roots, watching tourists amazed at the story of Mattancherry,  a melting pot of customs that was once a bustling site for the spice trade, or Jew Town known for its 16th century Paradesi Synagogue, or the antique shops interspersed alongside the sidewalks, is simply amusing. 

Johann is a history buff who undertakes heritage walks to Fort Kochi to explore and unearth its mysteries
Johann is a history buff who undertakes heritage walks to Fort Kochi to explore and unearth its mysteries, Picture source: Johann

Their excitement mirrors his when he first learnt about these iconic spots. Praise him for the extensive knowledge base he has put together and Johann is adamant that there is still a great deal he hasn’t yet explored.  

Once a sales manager in the Middle East, one might ask what geared him towards heritage storytelling. “I wanted to travel,” he answers.  And so, storytelling was born out of serendipity. 

While the trip is the best part for many, for Johann it was to return home to write about it. The heritage walks were what fascinated him the most. 

“Why don’t we have something like this in Kochi?” he wondered. 

While this set the stage in Johann’s mind for the idea of heritage storytelling, the Kochi Heritage Project would take a few years to come into the picture. The gap was spent applying to storytelling positions, doing freelance travel projects, and conducting a few heritage walks around South India. 

And it was during the COVID-19 pandemic — and the hours spent reading the books he had been stacking in his home library — that Johann decided this was it. 

The past needed a future. With this motto, the Kochi Heritage Project was born as an Instagram page in August 2018.

“The idea was to document Kochi’s history — the art, culture, architecture, food, stories of places and stories of people through stories that were not available on the internet. It would take me a month of research to come up with one post,” Johann brims with nostalgia. 

But when a post did go up, it would catch eyeballs. 

Today, the Kochi Heritage Project has gone beyond being a repository with fun history tales. It is a heritage storytelling initiative tailor-made with over 12 experiences that have one goal in mind — to transform Kochi from being a “random stranger” to a “special acquaintance”. 

But where does Johann source these titbits of exclusive information from? Books, online research, conversations with experts who have PhDs in history and heritage, research papers and first-hand insights, he says.

These are some of the compelling tales Johann and his team have unearthed – 

1. The story behind Gujarathi Road 

Also known as ‘Little Gujarat’, the area sees close to 700 Gujarati families whose ancestors migrated to the Malabar coast as far back as the 11th century and settled here for trade. “It is also said that it was a Gujarati sailor who guided Vasco da Gama to Kochiwhen he was expelled from Calicut,” shares Johann. Despite the name, the street was home to many Jains, Baniyas, and Vaishnavas. “The Gujaratis are fluent in both Gujarati and Malayalam and have been master merchants in procuring spices and goods from the locals,” Johann adds. 

2. The new map 

If you take a closer look at the map — whose picture Johann found in an Indian Express article dated 1 November 1956 — you will find it slightly different from the present-day edition.  “This was a new map of India, which then had 14 states and 6 centrally-governed territories after adding Kerala and Karnataka,” Johann explains. 

3. A flight ticket for Rs 165  

Johann takes special pride in telling this story. The image shows an airline ad that appeared in Kerala Bhushanam Magazine in 1952. While many know about Air India operating flights from Kochi’s old Willingdon Island Airport, Johann says very few are aware about the other airline that also ferried passengers. ‘Scindia Line’, known as and operated as ‘Air Services of India Ltd’ (ASI), was owned by the shipping company, Scindia Steam Navigation Company Ltd. 

The name bears no relation to any present political party, Johann emphasises. However, what is interesting about this story, he adds, is that the flight from Kochi to Bombay was 4.5 hours and priced at Rs 165 a ticket. “Imagine flying for this price! Of course, not taking away from the fact that this was in 1952 when even Rs 100 was a big deal!” he says.

4. Kochi — “an integral part of India” 

The image is of an ad that appeared in The Hindu newspaper on 15 August 1947. It highlights Kochi as the first state in India to have a responsible government and was one of the first states to join the Constituent Assembly. “The essential charm of Cochin lies neither in her modernity nor in her antiquity but in the harmonious merging of the past into the present,” it reads. Backing this was Maharaja Kerala Varma Aikya Keralam Thampuran who once stated, “No word or act of mine shall usher in a day when a Cochinite finds that he has lost the right to call himself an Indian…Let us remain an integral part of India, gaining strength from India’s strength and in return giving her all the strength that a homogeneous and strong unit could give.”

5. The mystery of Saudi in Kochi 

In 2022, the film ‘Saudi Velakka’ was released which was lauded with critical acclaim both internationally and closer to home. The film is set in a Saudi colony in Kochi. But while many believe that the history of the area has some connection to Saudi Arabia, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, it is a beautiful story interlinked by a landmark church, Cochin Jews, and a popular phrase still in use. Watch! 

6. Koder House 

Reconstructed over an early nineteenth-century Portuguese mansion, the Koder House is believed to have been structured and gabled in Europe and shipped to Kochi. The patriarch, Samuel Koder, ran the Cochin Electric Company and he is credited with bringing electricity to the city. Koder was also said to be the pioneer of the Freemasons’ organisation in Kochi. The name evokes a sense of deja vu among many who have heard about its famous Friday Open Houses, the guest list of which saw the Raj literati, glitterati, ambassadors, celebrities and heads of state!

7. The Jewish Synagogue 

“The Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry’s Jew Town was built on the land donated by the then Maharaja Kesava Rama Varma in 1568 by the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Iberia in 1492. They came to be known as the Paradesi Jews in India,” writes Johann. 

In 1662, the Portuguese began railing against the Paradesi Jews for siding with the Dutch and set the synagogue on fire which partially destroyed it. With the support of the Dutch, the synagogue was restored and there is an interesting anecdote of how in 1968, on the synagogue’s quatrocentennial, the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi attended the celebrations and wished a hearty ‘mazel tov’. Pictured here is the poster of the 400th-anniversary celebrations in Mattancherry from this very day 50 years ago.

This story is especially nostalgic for Johann who shares that one of his granduncles called him up sharing how this story had struck a chord with him. “We had once volunteered at the synagogue and were part of the event,” he had said. 

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As Johann comfortably moves between worlds both past and present, a conversation with him is almost like taking a trip back into history, back into a simpler world, something which I can testify to. 

Edited by Padmashree Pande

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