Kochi’s oldest centre of merchandise, the Ernakulam Market, retains its link to the past
The air is suffused with the biting scent of lemongrass oil, masked once too often by the stench wafting from the nearby canal. Vendors are tossing sacks of grain and vegetables from box-like trucks. While buyers haggle over their purchases, a group of men, stirring a large steel pot full of thin orange liquid with small mountains of ice floating in it, invite them to quench their thirst. It is Monday, ‘Market Day’ at the city’s oldest centre of merchandise, the Ernakulam Market.
About 150 years ago, it had merchants converging from all the important trade centres of the State. The tradition of observing Mondays and Fridays as Market Days continues to this day, but the frenzy has died down a bit, say shop owners, many of whom have been running businesses for over five decades here.
The Market seems to have existed forever in their memories—before the North and South overbridges were built, before M.G. Road came into being and much before the small pox vaccine was invented.
A centre, which had trade connections from as far as Ponnani and Chavakkad in the north and Kollam, Changanassery and Kottayam in the south, the history of Ernakulam Market is inextricably linked to the city’s present.
“Though a lot of new shops have come up, many of the buildings here are easily over 150 years old. The Market can give you a sense of Ernakulam’s past like no other place. It has witnessed the golden days of trade,” says James C.D., who took over his father’s stationery shop, C.D. Stores, on Basin Road, one of the integral streets that constitute the Market. Though the shop was set up only in the early 40s, James remembers stories from before the time. “The Maharaja of Cochin gave the Market area to Jewish traders for business. They prospered here, mainly in poultry and coir trade. Later, when they left the country, they sold their shops to the people here. Many of the shops you find here were built by them,” he says.
The northern end of Broadway, Basin Road and Jew Street together forms the Ernakulam Market, which has over 2,000 shops selling everything from vegetables to provisions, meat, stationery, cloth and hardware. A row of temporary shacks selling vegetables and fruits have come up on the side of Basin Road with their backs to the canal. “These were not there until a few years ago, when the canal was still functional. And the majority of the merchandise was bananas,” says James. The canal, known as the Basin Road Canal, which was the Market’s most vital link to the outside world, now lies in a state of disuse. Country boats used to bring in goods even until the 1990s. “Now, it is just a perfect dumping ground. Even the odd fishing boat that used to come by for transporting fish to the stalls at the end of the Market, has stopped,” says Saju C.J., who runs a rice shop, Chakiath Traders, on Basin Road.
“It may be hard to believe, but the canal once had sparkling clean water. A direct link to the Vembanad Lake, it was a busy waterway. Many of the boats that were rendered useless once the highways were built are now being used for touristy purposes, as houseboats,” James says.
Beyond the small bridge over the canal where the shops are sparse is the St Mary’s Cathedral Basilica, probably one of the oldest churches in Ernakulam city. Built in 1112 AD, the church came up as Christianity flourished. The only church in Ernakulam before it was the Edapally church, said to be built in 550 AD. The St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica was known as ‘Thuramukha Mathavinte Palli’ (church dedicated to Our Lady of Ports), as it was an imposing structure which could be seen on the shoreline. The church was also known as the ‘Anjikaimal Palli’ (a corruption of Anjukaimal), as the area belonged to five Kaimal brothers in Ernakulam. Legend has it that when the Zamorin attacked Kochi in 1503, the brothers switched loyalties to the Zamorin and fought against the Kochi Raja. Despite that, the Zamorin was defeated and his troops had to retreat. The Kochi Raja made a pact with the Kaimals, who were valiant warriors and gave them a small portion of Ernakulam and since then, they lived loyal to the Raja. Later, the church also came to be known as the ‘Nasrani Palli’.
Some old timers in the Market talk of a fire that broke out in the area in the 50s. Several shops were gutted and the Corporation rebuilt the present Market complex after its formation in 1967. Today, however, the condition of many of the stalls in the complex is deplorable. In the 2012 budget, Rs.17 crore was allotted for the revitalisation of the Ernakulam Market. However, no concrete steps have been taken in this regard, says K. Venkatesh Pai of Diwakar and Co. and the President of the Ernakulam Merchants Union. The Union, formed in 1973, has an office in the area and “is not opposed to any developmental activities”, he says. “There is a need to revamp the market. The concept of a wholesale market is slowly dying out. Unless we develop the area, with necessary modifications, the Market may not be able to keep up with the growing pressures of industrialisation,” he says.