The Queen of the Arabian Sea
The Chinese fishing nets descended into the waters, rising in an almost hypnotic rhythm. The cool breeze blew in from the sea. Ships passed by in the distance. I’m in Cochin or Kochi, this week. Cochin is that veritable multicultural melting pot of humanity in Kerala and things couldn’t be more peaceful.
I am in Cochin to attend a wedding of a close friend. I figured I might as well take a few days to explore this part of the south of India and attend the wedding as well. I originally planned to roam about and visit places near Cochin, but I was forever afraid of trying to pack in too many things in too little time, and so I decided to only stick to Cochin for the few days that I would be there.
Cochin or Kochi, as it is known now, was an important spice trading centre in South India during 14th Century. The port has seen numerous foreign occupants over the years and has passed from being the seat of Portuguese power in India to playing host to the Dutch and the English in later years.The origin of the name “Kochi” is thought to be from the Malayalam word kochu azhi, meaning ‘small lagoon’. Yet another theory is that Kochi is derived from the word Kaci meaning ‘harbour’.1.
I reached Cochin by an evening flight from Mumbai and checked into a hotel in Ernakulam for the night. The idea was to explore the city, especially the historical parts over the next few days, before the wedding. My first destination in this journey was the picturesque Fort Kochi area of the city.
Cochin is a collection of islands and peninsulars along the Arabian Sea. Each part of Cochin has its own unique character, with both the old and the new co-existing in a somewhat odd harmony. The Fort Kochi area of Cochin is decidedly a more ancient part of town, with quaint old European buildings and charming streets. The area also boasts of some excellent heritage buildings like the Santa Cruz Basilica and St. Francis Church.
I left Ernakulam in the early morning to head towards Fort Cochin. The idea was to check into my hotel and then head out exploring on foot. For the two odd days I planned to stay in Fort Cochin, I had booked myself into a quaint heritage hotel called Fort Heritage. The hotel turned out to be quite decent, albeit a bit deserted. After checking in, I decided to first explore Mattancherry.
Due east from Fort Cochin, along the waterfront lies Mattancherry2. Mattancherry used to be an important hub for the spice trade, dealing mainly in turmeric and pepper. Due to trade, Mattancherry was a veritable melting pot of cultures, with settlers from places like China, Africa and Israel settling there.
My destination for the day was the old Mattancherry Palace or the Dutch Palace3. The palace was originally a gift from the Portuguese to the Raja of Cochin. Later on it fell into Dutch hands and the Dutch carried out extensive renovations on the palace leading to its current name of the Dutch Palace. The palace is now maintained as a museum that allows the visitor a glimpse into life in the time of the Rajas of Cochin. It also presents the history of the region. If you visit the palace, do not forget to see the murals that decorate some of its interior walls. The murals depict the Ramayana, in all its splendor, and are excellent examples of Hindu temple art.
After seeing the Dutch Palace, I wandered into the streets of Mattancherry, searching for Jew Town. Jew Town was the place where the original Jews of Kochi settled and began trading in spices. The narrow lanes of Jew Town are dotted with shops selling antiques and spices and finally end at the Pardesi Synagogue. The Pardesi Synagogue, built in 1567, is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations4. The Synagogue has a small gallery that depicts the history of the Jews in the region. The inside of the Synagogue is beautiful, decorated with blue Chinese porcelain tiles. After viewing the Synagogue, I caught an excellent lunch of some appams and chicken stew in a cafe.
Heading back to Fort Kochi, I spent the evening strolling by the beach and admiring the fishing nets. The “chinese” fishing nets are shore operated nets and are thought to have been introduced to Cochin by the Chinese explorer Zheng He. The giant nets stand over 10 m tall and are operated by teams of fishermen, using a cantilevered mechanism to immerse the net in water as well as lift it out from the water. The days catch is often available for sale, with shops promising to cook the fish as well. After a peaceful evening strolling by the seaside, I decided to call it a day.
The next day I planned to explore the wonderful old buildings of Fort Kochi and the various heritage buildings in the region. I began by looking at the two important old
churches in the region – Santa Cruz Basilica and St. Francis Church.
The Santa Cruz Basilica is one of the eight Basilicas in India5. The church has two spires and a white washed exterior. The interiors bear beautiful painted walls and frescoes and large murals. The main altar is decorated by the famous Italian painter Fra Antonio Moscheni, S.J. A visit to this rather Gothic church is a must for fans of architecture.
St. Francis Church on the other hand has simple white washed walls, smooth stone floors and elegant woodwork. The church is famous for once being the resting place of Vasco da Gama, the famed Portuguese explorer who found the first sea route to India from Europe.
Fort Kochi is also dotted with numerous old buildings with quaint windows and white-washed fronts. Some of these have been converted into hotels, others sell antiques and still others have been converted into Cafes.
The Quaint Cafes of Fort Kochi and Kerala Cuisine
A visit to Kochi isn’t complete without a trip to some of the quaint, bohemian cafes of Fort Kochi.
First on my list was the Teapot Cafe. The Teapot Cafe is set in a small house on quiet Peter Celli street. The cafe has excellently done interiors with lots of tea related paraphernalia decorating the cafe. It is an excellent place to unwind over a nice cup of Indian tea after a long day of roaming about the streets of Fort Kochi.
A bit more famous and popular is the Kashi Art Cafe. The cafe has an art gallery at the entrance and is an excellent place to view some local art. The actual cafe is usually quite crowded with tourists catching up in the rather cozy interiors. Its a nice place to relax with a book or some good conversation over a nice steaming cuppa of Malabar Coffee.
If you are in Kerala, a visit isn’t complete without feasting on the wonderful cuisine of Kerala. I had already eaten some wonderful appams and chicken stew during my visit to Mattancherry. In Fort Kochi, I feasted on traditional Kerala mutton roast and Kerala beef fry. While the traditional cuisine of Kerala is highly spicy, these two dishes are recommended for the balance of spices in the dishes are best eaten with some rice or fresh appams.
Traditional Arts of Kerala
I also managed to catch some traditional art performances during my visit to Fort Kochi.
The Kerala Kathakali Centre holds daily shows of traditional folk arts of Kerala. Tucked away in a narrow by-lane near the Santa Cruz Basilica, getting to the Center is a minor adventure in itself. I watched performances of Kalaripattayu and Kathakali on two different days.
Kalaripattayu is a traditional martial art form of Kerala that evolved in about 13th Century AD and is considered to be one of the first martial art forms in the world. It encompasses both unarmed combat and fighting with various weapons like sticks, swords and some unusual ones like the urumi, a flexible whip like sword. The performance I attended showcased all aspects of this martial art form from unarmed combat to deadly duels with swords. The mid-air acrobatic strikes with swords demonstrated the mastery of the combatants and was a sight to behold. The one hour performance went on quite quickly with the audience mesmerized by the fighting skills of the combatants.
Kathakali on the other hand is the traditional dramatic dance form of Kerala. The show began with the long and painstaking process of applying make-up to the performers that allowed them to portray various characters. Then a quick introduction to Kathakali was given with particular attention to how various emotions are subtly conveyed through the eyes and gestures in this art form. Finally, the show ended with a short performance showing one of the many stories that are traditionally performed in Kathakali. The various characters like the demon, the gods and the ordinary mortals were well depicted.
The next day, I ventured out to try that other magnificent Kerala art – The Ayurvedic massage. We found this ayurvedic therapy center called Ayurville after some quick searches online. I opted for the Abhyanga massage, which is a traditional full body massage that relieves the joints and muscles from stiffness and makes all body movements free. After about an hour of soothing massage, I was rejuvenated and ready to catch the flight back to Mumbai.
Cochin is well connected by both rail and air. Daily flights are available from all major cities to Cochin. I flew Air India to Cochin from Mumbai. Book in advance to get some good deals on airfare as it can be as cheap as 4-5,000 INR for a return flight. International flights also land at the Cochin International airport. Cochin is well connected to the rest of India by an extensive rail network. Look up IRCTC for latest train information.
Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Cochin is between October and April. Summers are extremely hot and humid and Cochin receives heavy showers during the Monsoons.
Where to Stay
I stayed at Fort Heritage (Single Rooms: 4,400 INR, Doubles from 5,400 INR per night), an heritage hotel. But both Ernakulam and Fort Kochi have excellent staying options to suit all budgets. You may also want to look at Myoki for some off-beat stay options
Getting around in Cochin is much easier than other Indian cities I have been to. Most short auto-rickshaw rides around mainland Ernakulam should set you back by Rs. 50 -70. Auto-rickshaws in Fort Kochi typically charge Rs.40 for short distances. Buses do ply within Cochin, but the signage is not in English and is a bit difficult to understand if you do not speak the local language. An economical way to get between Fort Kochi and mainland Ernakulam is to use the excellent network of Ferries. A ferry between Fort Kochi and Ernakulam costs only about Rs.5. If all else fails, walking around in Fort Kochi is also a good option since most places of interest are not that far away.
Things to see and do
There is a lot to see and do in Cochin. The Chinese fishing nets, Santa Cruz Basilica (Entry Free, Timings: 9 am to 5 pm except during service), St. Francis Church (Entry Free, Timings: 9 am to 5 pm except during service), Mattanchery Palace (Entry Rs.5, Timings: 10 am to 5 pm, closed on Fridays) and Pardesi Synagogue (Entry Rs.5, Timings: 10 am – 12 noon, 3 pm to 5 pm, Monday-Thursday )are must sees. Also try and soak in a little art at David Hall and Kashi Art Cafe. Besides this Fort Kochi and Mattancherry have a lot of history in old buildings, the Jewish and Dutch cemeteries, old temples etc. Also pay a visit to the many quaint cafes of Fort Kochi of which Kashi Art Cafe and the Teapot Cafe are probably the best. For some local traditional art performances head over to the Kerala Kathakali Centre. The center has daily performances of Kalaripattayu, Kathakali and traditional Indian music. Finally to rejuvenate, try a traditional Kerala ayurvedic massage. I tried Ayurville and highly recommend them.
- Kochi. (2015, April 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 12:52, April 25, 2015
- Mattancherry. (2015, April 16). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:36, April 25, 2015
- Mattancherry Palace. (2014, September 4). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 13:51, April 25, 2015
- Paradesi Synagogue. (2014, December 23). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:00, April 25, 2015
- Santa Cruz Basilica. (2015, January 2). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:23, April 25, 2015