The flavourful, ancient, coastal city of Kochi, often known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea used to be the famous port for the Spice trade. The natural port once formed by the flooding of the Periyar river initiated the sea route for trading across Asia. The Jewish, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British influence have blended into the past of the city to give it a rich history whose remnants are scattered around the coastal region. A beautiful amalgamation of the old and the new makes Kochi a much sought of destination.
I have a strange affinity towards Kochi and on every visit, the feeling turned intense. Kochi serves as the base connecting the other places in Kerala and thus the opportunity to visit the place broadens. The laid back lifestyle near the coastal and the island areas balance the rat race in the mainlands making Kochi a favourite destination satisfying visitors of every taste.
I am much inclined towards the historical lazy part of the city rather than the busy cosmopolitan with broad roads, flyovers, metro rails and every other amenities of the modern world. Kerala, being a major tourist destination in India is an all season hotspot and these old part of the city is touristy throughout the year.
Even being touristy you still have the liberty to admire the beauty of the place at your own pace. Ancient buildings from the colonial era are seen on either side of the roads and the roads are shaded by the thick foliage of the age-old mighty trees. The remnants of these Portuguese and Dutch buildings lend a European touch to the place.
Some of these houses have transformed into homestays some to heritage hotels some to ethnic stores and restaurants and cafes. The narrow lanes and the surrounding setup near the synagogue area depict the picture of a small town within the city. This area is popularly known as the Jewish town. Tattoo parlours, antique stores, boutiques and cafes adorn the streets enticing the tourists to cling to the shops while on a visit to the synagogue.
The Jews of this region, commonly known as the Cochin Jews or Malabari Jews were the earliest among the community in India. It is known that they first settled in this area in the 12th century. Later, followed by the expulsion from Iberia few jew families arrived in Cochin and were known as Pardesi Jews (Foreign Jews) or the Spanish speaking Jews.
The Jews became the major spice trading community in the world. The Pardesi synagogue was constructed in the year 1568 and later destroyed by the Portuguese and was rebuilt two years later. This is the only functioning synagogue in Kochi today. Photography is not allowed within the synagogue. Visitors are allowed within the synagogue with a minimal fee.
Belgian chandeliers and tinted glass lights decorate the interior of the synagogue. Hand-painted porcelain tiles, ancient hand-knotted rugs, 10th-century copper plates are among the objects of antiquity here. An ancient tablet with inscription is installed on the outer wall. The synagogue clock tower has the 18th-century clock on it.
Very close to the synagogue is the Mattancherry Palace popularly known as the Dutch Palace. This quadrangular shaped palace was built in the Nallukettu style (a traditional homestead architecture typically found in Kerala) by the Portuguese. The Kochi kings welcomed the Portuguese and helped then establish business and factories. To return the gesture the Portuguese built the palace and gifted it to the kings. The Dutch and the Rajas carried out some extension and restructuring of the Palace.
The Palace is a museum now with a rich display of exhibits starting from religious murals (depicting scenes from Ramayana and Krishnalila, Laxmi, Vishnu, Rama, Shiva, Parvati and other goddesses), ivory palanquin, Howdas, coins, royal dresses, embroidered umbrellas, stamps and several paintings and royal portraits.
The Chinese fishing nets are another attraction in the vicinity. Locally known as ‘Chenna Vala’ these are large cantilevered stationery lift nets, introduced by the Chinese traders possibly from the time of Kublai Khan, the founder of the Yuan dynasty in China. These installations are seen in series on the Vypeen Island.
Each of these giant structures comprises of an extended sturdy cantilever (mostly of teak) with a huge net attached to it. Heavy stones are attached to the other end to balance the net. A group of five to six men pull the net up and thus operate this huge structure. The set up is perfectly balanced so that a man walking on the main beam can submerge the net into the waters of the high tide.
The net remains submerged into the water for few minutes before it is pulled up again. As compared to the huge size of the nets the catch is nominal, ranging from small fishes to crustaceans. This laborious and less profitable, high tide dependant fishing technique has many limitations. The usage of these nets are gradually declining and these nets are more of a tourist attraction than a technique of fishing.
Watching the colourful sunset in the backdrop of the rhythmic movement of these Chinese Fishing Nets is a memorable experience. The sun gradually dipping into the calm waters, painting the sky in its warm hues. I make sure to watch the sunset from here on my visits. Once a standard fish market is now a handful of shops selling the fresh catch.
Coastal Kochi is full of history, moving from Jewish to Chinese to Portuguese part one gets informed about the rich past. Vasco Da Gama, the Portuguese explorer was the first European to reach India (1497-1499). He established the easier spice route through the sea and thus initiated the Portuguese colonial era in Asia. Da Gama on his third visit to India died in Kochi in 1524 and his body was rested in the St Francis Church.
St Francis Church was the first European Church in India. In Fort Kochi, the Portuguese built Fort Emanuel with the permission of the Raja of Cochin and a wooden church within its precincts. Much later this wooden structure was replaced by stone and brick with a tiled roof. The present structure of the St Francis Church remains the same with little reconstruction and restoration work done with time. Portuguese were Roman Catholic while the Dutch were Protestant and during their reign, they demolished all Portugues churches barring the St Francis Church.
The pale simple structure holds its importance even today with the tombstone of Vasco Da Gama in the same place where he was buried even though his remains were later moved to Portugal. Walking through the streets of Fort Kochi is like a heritage walk. Every corner there is an ancient house or church speaking of their past. The Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica is one such magnificent white structure which again holds a heritage status built during the Portuguese era.
The coastal city has many inlets of sea water thus making it a favourable place for the harbour. The Kochi port is a major port in the west coast of India and a point of sea connectivity to the Lakshadweep islands. Wellington island and the Vallarpadam islands within the lake of Kochi forms the part of the port area.
Ferry services are available from the Marine drive to the nearby islands and other coastal parts like Vypeen, Bolgatty, Mattancherry, Fort Kochi. Tourist boats, as well as local boats, are there for leisure and transportation purpose. During my first visit to Kochi, I availed the boating trip to Fort Kochi and nearby places. At the same time, I took a half day boating trip through the narrow backwaters getting the first taste of scenic Kerala waterways.
A memorable trip through the spice garden, the coir factory the coconut groove and a visit to the hospitable guide’s house is still afresh in my mind. Everything was synonymous to the very name of Kerala. The KTDC office close to the Marine Drive had all the information and the tickets for the trips then. Now, the information and tickets are easily available through various modes.
Marine Drive is one of the best hangout places in the mainland Kochi for the locals as well as the visitors. This long walkway on the shore of Vembannattu Kayal offers the pleasing view of the backwaters with some part of the port area, Chinese fishing nets and some beautiful structures visible on the other banks. Pedestrians can walk around, rest for some time on the seats facing the waters, shop from the GCDA shopping mall and fill their tummy from the eateries and restaurants.
Mainland Kochi is the cosmopolitan part of the state and there are restaurants for every cuisine. When Kerala has so many varieties of foods to offer why to look for other cuisines. Starting from puttu, appam, idyappam, nadan kozhi varuthathu, Kerala style beef and prawn, Malabar parota, palada payasam to sadhya and so many more to be included in the list of vegetarian and non vegetarian Kerala delicacies. I make sure to taste the ‘Ela sadhya’ on every visit, the sumptuous vegetarian meal spread on the large banana leaf has the traditional feel of Kerala.
Moving inland from the coastal area marks the gradual transformation of ancient buildings to modern structures. Beautiful bungalows and houses are seen with contemporary architecture, multistoried buildings housing commercial establishments, glittery shopping malls (with the largest mall in India, the Lulu Mall), large flyovers, big metro stations and other structures planned to give the city a versatile look.
Food, heritage, art, culture, tradition, history and modernism is smoothly blended in this city to give the visitors the real taste of Kerala. Kochi can also be called as mini Kerala with the flavour and taste of state in a tiny package. Kochi is a unique mix of spice to suit every taste starting from the largest shopping malls in India to the quaint backwaters and the laidback lifestyle in the coastal islands.