Vasco Da Gama Square, it got its name only in 1985, has changed beyond recognition. Earlier, it was a panoramic sea shore where six to seven Chinese nets operated quietly. The 400-year-old, ocean facing, Bastion Bungalow, then the residence of the Sub-Divisional Officer (SDO), stood resolutely on one end. On its leeward side was the Tower House, belonging to the English trading firm Pierce Leslie. The River Road separated the two historic edifices bifurcating at the bend, opening a delta where imperial history was churned.
The wave of tourism was yet to lash the shore but when it did, in the 90s, the quiet seaside lost its isolation and became a hub for people from all lands. In 1985, K.J. Herschel, former MLA and Chairman, Fort Kochi Municipal Council, inaugurated the Square as a public space. The Beach Festival committee, part of the Cochin Carnival, initiated the move. Trees were planted and the move was supported by K.B.Valsala Kumari the then SDO.
Soon the place started beckoning droves of holidayers and strangely if walls have ears they once again began hearing familiar accents that inhabited the space three to four centuries ago.
“Life has come a full circle for Vasco Square. It is one of Fort Kochi’s main attractions,” says K. J. Sohan, former mayor and a conservation foot soldier.
“It was of strategic importance as an entry point for successive European powers - Portuguese, Dutch and British. It is here that the sea meets the channel and all ships carrying cargo anchored nearby. The gear shed, the coal shed, customs office, port office were all adjoining the Vasco Square. Once upon a time all these activities went on in its vicinity. Bastion Bungalow is part of the first Fort Immanuel built by the Portuguese. The Dutch fortified it and it was called the Stromburgh Bastion. The British renamed it as Bastion Bungalow. It is now been declared as a protected monument soon to be converted into a heritage museum. There was a signal tower at the far end of Vasco Square, where the present children’s park stands, that was brought down” says Sohan. And he goes on to add: “An oil painting of the tower, perhaps the only one, is present at the Cochin Corporation office in Fort Kochi. A flag was hoisted to signal the arrival of a ship carrying a particular cargo. The tower was later shifted near the lighthouse. It was only in 1951 that a park for children, Nehru Park, designed by C. R. K. Menon, came up. But because of its openness Vasco Square was always a public space.”
Dutch anthropologist Bauke van der Pol who shared the unique 19th century photograph of Vasco Square writes on mail: The photograph of what is now part of the Tower House Hotel, the building with the staircase, used to be the bungalow of an English trading company. According to the Dutch map from 1696 there was a horse stable right behind this Tower House. In an interview in 2009 the new owners said that before they began the renovation on the building there was ‘a clear sign that the ground floor was a stable.’
Jose Dominic, MD Cgh Group of Hotels has this old photograph enlarged and showcased at Eighth Bastion and the Brunton Boatyard. A history buff, he narrates an interesting tale about the dusty pathway in the picture. “The story goes that a lady of sufficient importance, must be the commander’s wife, who stayed in the Tower House was sensitive to the dust that rose from the mud track. Hence, bitumen was brought by ship from Europe and the path was tarred. This is roughly dated to sometime in the 1940s.”
Ivan D’Costa, 77, a former custom’s officer remembers playing at the “port maidan,” the open land which is a part of the Square. “It is a pretty old photograph, when my mother was teaching in Vypeen. There were only row boats then. ‘Crossing Over’ was the word commonly used to go to the other side. When there was a storm the boat officer this side would raise a red signal. They had lanterns those days and placed red paper on it. This picture must be sometime in the 1920s because there is no weather cock. When I grew up in the 1940s, playing at the maidan, there was a rain gauge, a temperature recorder all kept under lock in an iron trellis. There are still evidences of that. The port officer was one Mr. Shepherd. The Tower House was a nurse’s quarter.”
Today, Vasco Square is chockfull of people, cars, vendors, free speech makers, protestors, painters and plain visitors. There is activity all around. The Nehru Park walls were brought down at a suggestion by INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art and Culture Heritage), in the 90s, to give more visibility to the water. The area was cobbled and colonial style lampposts erected. A walkway was built snaking past the Square along the water. The trees planted in the 50s have grown into gigantic shade trees, their overarching branches providing a leafy canopy. Sun umbrellas, small eateries, film shootings, children on see saws and slides, balloon sellers, tourist police are all part of the colourful picture at the square. A concrete stage has been recently erected, in the late 90s, with the Bastion Bungalow in the back drop. Cultural events are held here almost everyday.