Memories of Broadway: The 100-yr-old shopping lane that Kochiites can’t get enough of

Broadway evokes a deep sense of nostalgia for Kochi residents and for those who have moved to distant lands from the city.
Entrance to Mather Bazar in Ernakulam Broadway market
Entrance to Mather Bazar in Ernakulam Broadway market
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There would hardly be any Kochi resident who has not strolled through the bustling Broadway market, trying to make their way through the narrow streets thickly packed with hundreds of stores and customers hurrying amid the rush of two-wheelers. Be it Christmas shopping, purchases before school reopening, or random shopping for a matching piece of cloth or a fountain pen or spices, Broadway and the Ernakulam market have always been the go-to place for Kochhiites for many decades.

For this reason and many others, Broadway evokes a deep sense of nostalgia for Kochi residents and for those who have moved to distant lands from the city.

Located right in the heart of Kochi, opposite Marine Drive and only a kilometre from the Kerala High Court, Broadway and the Ernakulam market, which have a history of over a century, continue to be the busiest spots in the city.

Entering Broadway through the main entrance near the CSI Immanuel Cathedral, one is welcomed by the fragrance of spices from stores run mostly by people from the Gujarati community, followed by the mouth-watering aroma of dishes from Bharat Coffee House. Next comes a flood of retail stores selling everything one would require in a household. The parallel Market Road is replete with wholesale stores selling merchandise ranging from textiles to spices and plastic products.

A narrow lane in the market

Cherished memories

For Kottayam native Elina Elsa, who had lived most of her life in Kochi, Broadway is intrinsically interwoven with Christmas memories. “Walking through those lanes looking for the perfect green leaves for the wreath and other decor for Christmas was something Amma and I used to do together. Revisiting Broadway always kickstarted our holiday spirit,” Elina says. She also gushes about her love for the imli (tamarind) candies she used to buy from the Gujarati spice shops.

For 30-year-old Kochi native Ruben, Broadway is ingrained in his childhood memories. “It was from Broadway that I bought my first cricket bat as a 10-year-old,” he says. He has cherished memories of “endlessly walking” and being mesmerised by the “amazing bargaining skills” of customers that one is sure to witness in these alleys.

Anand Siva, a 54-year-old native of Tamil Nadu, lived in Kochi as a teen. Broadway to him is linked with some emotional memories. “I was just 18 and it was my sister’s wedding. My father suddenly fell unwell following a heart attack and it was I who singlehandedly ran around arranging things for the wedding. I remember going around Broadway placing orders for vegetables, fruits, flowers, plantain leaves, rice, oil, firewood… all the stores in one stretch, one after the other. I remember how friendly and kind the vendors were,” Anand recalls.

The market is also home to some speciality outlets that have become iconic in their own right – Caravan Ice Cream Parlour, Bharat Coffee House, Pen House, the Pai & Co bookstore, to name a few. “If you can’t find a refill for a pen in Pen House, you cannot find it anywhere in Kerala,” says 66-year-old GS Sreenivasan, a retired bank manager from the city.

At Bharat Coffee House, one can spot some rare paintings of the old Kochi’s Marine Drive and Rajendra Maidan.

Painting of old Rajendra Maidan in Bharat Coffee House

A glorious past

However, beyond all these memories, Broadway and the adjoining market have a prosperous past, recall traders. But this will often not be apparent with a hurried walk through the place for shopping. A quiet stroll and a word or two with the old vendors can reveal the remnants of its lingering past, which they say was a prosperous one.

Prabhusons General Merchants, situated in the antique looking two-storey building that resembles a traditional Kerala house just opposite Malabar Tailoring shop in Broadway, is one such store where one can get a whiff of the past. Sitting under the wooden ceiling and amid the wooden shelves that hold all kinds of stationery items, the 85-year-old owner of the shop wistfully unwraps the past.

“It was a glorious time. This was the largest and only kind of market in central Kerala. People flocked here even from other districts, as they’d get anything under the sun in one place,” he says looking out on the paved road outside. Back in the 1930s when the shop was newly opened, it was just a mud road used by bullock carts, he recalls.

Today Kochi is a vast city growing and expanding to its suburbs day by day, but decades ago Broadway and the adjoining market were the only bustling establishments here, recall old traders. Most of them say that the market could well be over a century old, set up during the Cochin Dynasty’s rule.

“This building itself is 150 years old. It is owned by the Ernakulam Thirumala Devaswom. We took this shop on lease 90 years ago,” says the owner of Prabhusons.

150-year-old building

At present the whole marketplace is knit together by narrow roads that have become dingier with hundreds of two-wheelers parked everywhere, but there was a time when Broadway was the ‘broadest’ road in town. “All the other streets we see in Kochi now, including the famous MG Road, was barren land back then. It could have been the reason why this place got the name ‘Broadway’”, says Roy Varkey, owner of Cochin Cycle Emporium.

The Market Canal near the vegetable market towards Basin Road is another spot where one can spot remnants of the olden days when trade was at its summit. The wide platform that protrudes into the canal, beyond the green fence put up by Kochi Corporation on the periphery to prevent people from littering, is the jetty where hundreds of large canoes carrying goods used to arrive in the past.

Ernakulam market in 1950 (Credit: Ernakulam District Website)

“Hundreds of people, especially traders from far-off places like Kottayam, Changanassery and Alappuzha, used to come here in large canoes that could carry heavy goods. Mondays and Fridays used to be the busiest days as they were known as market days then. They would transport the goods through the canal, entering the Vembanad Lake,” says Anwar Sadath, a vegetable vendor in the market. It was indeed quite the sight, he adds.

Old jetty for canoes

Today the canal contains putrid, black water with drains carrying the city’s waste water being dumped into it. But vendors recall a time when the water was pristine, back when canoes used to stop in the jetty there.

The Jewish connection

Walking amid the tiny stores overflowing with wares in Mather Bazar, comprising one of the narrow streets in the market, one gets a glimpse of a two-storey white building with tiled roof tapering in the front resembling an old Kerala house. Stepping out from Mather Bazar into Market Road, you can enter the building through a gate on the right. The compound wall is adorned with creepers giving the place a green hue.

Kadavumbhagam Synagogue

Though the name board suggests it is an aquarium and plant shop named Cochin Blossoms, inside is the Kadavumbhagam Synagogue, which is believed to have been built in the 18th or 19th century. One might wonder what a synagogue is doing in the middle of a market, but it is not the only one. On the adjacent Jew Street is the Thekkumbhagam synagogue, which is now shut. Both the synagogues, and Jew Street itself, is a reminder of the rich history of the Jewish community in Ernakulam.

Inside view of Kadavumbhagam Synagogue (Credit: Kerala Tourism)

The present day Kodungallur, which is said to be the ancient port city of Muziris, is where the Jews landed initially in Kerala, writes Bony Thomas in his book Kochiites: A Look into the Intangible Heritage of Kochi. Following persecution by invaders, the community shifted to Ernakulam, where they built the two synagogues.

Inside view of Thekkumbhagam Synagogue (Credit: Kerala Tourism)

“Jews had an upper hand in the trade in Ernakulam market till they began migrating to Israel. The market wouldn’t function during the prayer hours and holidays of the Jews,” Bony writes in his book, describing the influence of Jewish traders in the market. Jew Street is now occupied by other traders while there are only a handful of people today from the Jewish community in Kochi. One of them is Elias Josephai, who takes care of the Kadavumbhagam Synagogue and runs Cochin Blossoms.

Market renovation

One would be hard-pressed to find such a marketplace, with a prosperous past and rich culture, anywhere else in Kerala. But the place, with its narrow alleys and stores packed tightly together, has its challenges. In May 2019, a textile shop in Clothes Bazar caught fire, quickly spreading to another one nearby gutting both completely. Rescue operations proved to be a herculean task, with fire engines finding it tough to navigate through the narrow lanes. Though no one was injured, this is a danger that plagues the place.

The lurking danger forced officials to propose a plan to renovate Broadway and the adjoining market. Cochin Smart Mission Limited (CSML) has started operations to renovate the place. However, CSML officials told TNM that as of now there are no plans to renovate Broadway, but only the adjoining market. “In meetings held with the stakeholders, including traders, this was the decision reached,” said a CSML spokesperson.

Image of proposed Ernakulam market complex

According to the plan, in a few months hundreds of vendors from the market will be rehabilitated nearby temporarily. This will be followed by the construction of a brand new Ernakulam Market Complex after demolishing the existing dilapidated structures, along with a multi-level car parking facility to address the issue of parking woes. According to CSML, once the construction begins, work will be completed in two years.


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