On Thursday afternoon, King of the Netherlands Willem-Alexander and his wife Queen Maxima arrived in Kochi on a special flight from Mumbai. The royal couple, who are visiting Kerala for the first time, met Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan and other ministers of the state government. They will be touring the scenic coastal town of Alappuzha on Friday and spending time in a houseboat on the famed backwaters, before flying back to Amsterdam in the evening.
Why is the Dutch royal couple in Kerala?
King Willem-Alexander, who ascended to the throne in 2013 after the abdication of his mother, and Queen Maxima are in India on their first-ever state visit to the country on the invitation of President Ram Nath Kovind. As part of their five-day tour in India, the royals had engagements in New Delhi and Mumbai, before flying down to Kerala, a state that has a long cultural relationship with the Dutch on account of European colonisation.
The royals' visit comes just a few months after the Kerala chief minister undertook an official trip to The Netherlands on the invitation of the government there. During his extensive visit, CM Vijayan held meetings with officials and ministers of the Dutch government on the possibilities of exploring technologies with respect to flood control and inland water management.
What is the Dutch connection to Kerala?
After gaining independence from Spain in the 16th century, the Dutch initiated attempts to establish colonies across the world and one of their main targets was southern India due to the presence of spices. Bolstered by the Portuguese, who had by then set up extensive trade relationship with the local kings in Malabar, Cochin and Travancore and seeking to get their share of the pie, ships carrying Dutch merchants and generals arrived on the shores of Malabar in the early 17th century.
Dutch generals were greeted warmly in Malabar by the king and the local people as the latter had begun to be frustrated with the Portuguese. The first trade treaty between Dutch Admiral Van der Haghen and the Zamorin of Kozhikode was signed in 1604. Over the next century and a half, the Dutch fought several wars with the Portuguese in a bid to annex territories such as Cochin (now Kochi) and Quilon (now Kollam) and establish their own fortresses and trading ports.
The most striking effects of the Dutch rule in Kerala can be seen in Kochi, which had emerged as an important hub for spice trade. Dismantling the Portuguese-built structures, the Dutch established their own symbols, paving streets named after flowers and redesigning the town.
A marvellous palace in Mattancherry, gifted by the Portuguese to the Cochin Kings in 16th century but renovated by the Dutch, is now popularly known as the Dutch Palace. It is built with 'nalukettu' in Kerala style of architecture and has a temple dedicated to a Goddess in the middle. It underwent extensive renovation ten years ago and houses extensive murals and portraits of the Cochin Kings. The Palace on Bolghatty island was built by the Dutch as a residence for its commander in 1744 and is considered to be one of the oldest existing palaces built by the Dutch outside the Netherlands. Today, it is a heritage holiday resort run by the state tourism department. The Dutch cemetery in Fort Kochi, consecrated in 1724, is also a marker of the Dutch occupation of Kochi.
The royals were first given a warm reception at the Dutch Palace in Mattancherry where they were studied the architecture and the detailing that went into restoring the centuries-old structure. They also saw a documentary on the Dutch influence on the state. They also participated in a seminar, 'India and the Netherlands - Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow', at the palace. An agreement was also signed on the exchange of archived documents between the two countries. Later, the King and the Queen visited Nedspice, a Dutch company in Mattancherry involved in exporting spices.
What are some of the areas Kerala and the Netherlands hope to deepen cooperation in?
At a reception hosted for the royal couple, CM Vijayan said Kerala was interested in adopting the best models from the Dutch in sectors where both India and the Netherlands have mutual interests. He said the state aspires to strengthen bilateral cooperation in the fields of agriculture, sports medicine, water management, ports and science and technology.
One of the areas the Kerala government is particularly interested in is the area of flood control and water management. In 2018, Kerala had witnessed devastating floods that claimed nearly 500 lives and displaced a million people from their homes. During his visit in May this year, the chief minister evinced interest in adopting the Dutch model of 'Room for the River' in Kerala. The model rests on the premise of allowing more space for the river to flow so that excess water can be managed during floods. During his visit, the chief minister had touched down at Noordward, the site of the project in the Netherlands. With a quarter of their country resting below sea-levels, the Dutch had enormous expertise to provide. The project is in the pipeline for implementation in Kuttanad, Kerala's rice-bowl frequently prone to flooding and one of the few places in the world where paddy farming is done below sea-level.
Additionally, two centres of excellence, one on Internet of Things (IoT) and another for fruits and vegetables in Ambalavayal in Wayanad, are likely to come up as part of deepening cooperation.