Anasuya Menon traverses through Pallipuram’s fort and churches and mulls over its exalted past

The expansive Goshree bridge that connects Ernakulam to its islands descends into a narrow, busy road towards Vypeen. At 8.30 a.m., the traffic is like high tide — we are confronted by heavy-duty automobiles and school kids on bicycles on the numerous little bridges that make up the way.

Pallipuram, our destination, is at the northern end of Vypeen island, approximately 25 km from Ernakulam. As the vehicles whip up a cloud of sun-coloured dust, our first stop, Pallipuram Fort, seems a long way. Built by the Portuguese in 1503, the fort is considered to be the oldest surviving European monument in India; a label that surely guarantees visions of grandeur. But all we encounter is more traffic and people.

Abruptly, a signboard saying Pallipuram Fort appears. The slim road leads to a cul-de-sac and the fort looms large, almost startling us with its sudden appearance — a gigantic hexagonal structure in the middle of a bustling town. Amid huge trees, the fort stands like a token of endurance, its mildewy walls ravaged by time, whitewash and the scrawny, unsure letterings of teenaged vandals. The rusty iron gate to the fort is locked with a cycle chain, but we peer to see history’s ruinous splendour within.

Also known as the Ayikotta or the Alikotta, the fort was surrendered to the Dutch army in 1663, when they occupied Cochin. The clearing in which it stands opens out into one of the busier veins of the Veeranpuzha, connecting Ernakulam to the Munambam harbour. The bluish-green waters swell gently as fishing boats zip by. Flanked by decrepit small buildings, which used to be police quarters, the fort has uncomplainingly merged into the landscape, its compound harbouring thousands of fluorescent green insects and mosquitoes.

Pallipuram wears its historical greatness with an air of nonchalance. The locals are aware of its significance in history, but “life is not greatly altered just because one lives in such a place, is it,” asks 75-year-old Chandrasekharan, who claims he visits the fort every day. “Did you see the tunnel inside? It is said that a man went down it and never returned,” he whispers. We move in to take a closer look at the “tunnel” now completely claimed by darkness and cobwebs. It was just a cellar used for storing gunpowder. But the locals believe it is a tunnel that leads to the Cheraman Masjid in Kodungallur.

The fort was purchased by the Travancore Raja in 1798 and is now a protected monument of the Kerala State Department of Archaeology. However, the caretaker appointed by the Department is absent.

As the day grows hotter, Pallipuram slows down a bit. Traffic has lulled and the streets are quieter. The place got its name perhaps from the church, dedicated to Our Lady of Snow (or the Manjumatha church), built by the Portuguese in 1503. ‘Palli’ is church in Malayalam and the surrounding areas became Pallipuram. Legend has it that the church got its strange name from a miraculous snowfall that occurred when Tipu Sultan tried to destroy it. Mist enveloped the church and hid it from Tipu’s view and all he managed to destroy was the top portion of the fort. Though it has been rebuilt the ancient structure remains in a corner of the compound, as a museum of epitaphs. The wooden roof gave in years ago, so a false roof has taken its place. “Every boat that passes by stops here and seeks blessings,” says Michael Srambikkal, a vendor who has been in Pallipuram all his life. He directs us to Kadalattukurishu, the remains of an ancient church a few feet from Our Lady of Snow. The devout locals believe the sea brought the cross to the island and hence came to be known as ‘Kadalattukurishu’. But what exists today is just a small, distinctly Portuguese church, with its insides barnacled by moss and small plants.

Pallipuram now finds itself under unexpected spotlight. It comes under the Muziris Heritage Project, launched by the Department of Cultural Affairs, to retrieve and preserve the historical heritage of the area. Beneath the chaos of daily life, every street treasures a thousand secrets within its bosom, of civilisations and conquests. We leave Pallipuram to mull over its exalted history and its evolving present.