Kochi, or Cochin as it is traditionally known, is the largest city in Kerala, and was my first destination on arriving in India. Knowing that I would be jet-lagged, I decided to spend a few days relaxing in the old area of Fort Kochi before moving on.
A Maritime Hub
Kochi certainly has a fascinating history: being located on the tantalisingly-named Malabar Coast, it has played host to a range of arrivals from across the sea, creating a fascinating blend of cultures. The Malabar Jews, for example, although now a tiny community of only 15, once thrived here under the protection of the rajas. One can still visit the Paradesi Synagogue in ‘Jew Town,’ built for a wave of Jewish refugees who fled persecution after their expulsion from Spain in 1492.
Kochi, of course, was a centre of the spice trade that drew the Europeans to the East, and the initial traders were Portuguese – indeed, Vasco de Gama’s bones were initially laid to rest in St Francis’s Church here, before being returned to his homeland. They were then superseded by the Dutch, who were themselves replaced by the British. The rajas of Kochi survived the changes of European patrons, ruling almost uninterruptedly until Kerala joined the Indian Union in 1947.
Whilst the rajas have gone, the European colonisers have left and the Jewish community has dwindled, Kochi remains religiously diverse: Nasrani Christians, Catholics, Hindus and Muslims live here interspersed. The Keralans I spoke with claimed that the religious conflicts of the north were absent here, a fact they ascribed to Kerala’s impressive literacy rate. Certainly everything seemed peaceable at first glance; if the statements are true, it could provide a fantastic example of a successful multi-faith community. Interestingly, the various creeds of the Kochiites are combined with an enthusiastic communism (the Communist-led LDF regularly wins a majority in the Kerala legislative assembly), meaning that the brightly coloured images of Lakshmi, Ganesh, Jesus and Mother Theresa were combined with many hammer-and-sickle bearing images of the recently deceased Fidel Castro.
It was certainly an intriguing place to spend a few days; Fort Kochi itself felt relaxed by Indian standards, with wide boulevards and bright bougainvilleas offering shade, whilst Mattancherry boasted most of the historical attractions. I enjoyed wandering the non-touristed streets between, which were bustling with spice and coffee exporters. For some reason, everywhere in Kochi seemed to be full of immaculately-uniformed secondary school students, walking arm in arm and laughing in the sun, which will be one of my abiding memories of the city.
Below are some things I enjoyed whilst in Kochi:
Eating fish fresh from the sea
The Chinese fishing nets are not only one of the best photo opportunities in Kochi (sadly over four days of cloud, I never did manage to get the spectacular sunset shot), but they also provide good eating! The best food I had in Kochi was snapper and prawns from one of the nets, cooked fresh from the sea in one of the little shacks. It was fried up with tamarind, ginger, garlic and lemon and was, quite simply, delicious.
Seeing Kathakali dance
Kathakali is a traditional Indian dance, in which stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana are dramatised by artists in spectacular costumes and makeup. The performance itself consists of highly stylised facial expressions and hand gestures, and the action is narrated by a singer (in Malayam, so you won’t get much of what’s going on, although a story synopsis is provided in a variety of languages). It’s worth going for the costumes and make-up alone – if you go at 5pm you can see the elaborate make-up being applied.
The Kerala Kathakali Centre doesn’t just host kathakali – I went to a fantastic sitar and tabla performance, and you can also see kalaripyattu, a traditional South Indian martial art that is believed to be one of the oldest in the world. I didn’t see it here, but loved it in Munnar. Tickets for each performance are 350 rupees.
Going museum hopping
There aren’t many places where you can wander between Hindu temple paintings, the oldest Jewish synagogue in the British Commonwealth, and a Portuguese-era church that once boasted the bones of Vasco de Gama. It’s worth walking (or getting a tuk-tuk) over to Mattancherry to explore the Dutch Palace, which boasts fantastic Indian temple paintings and history about the Dutch settlement and the lives of the Kochi maharajas, and the Paradesi Synagogue, which once functioned as the centre of the Jewish community. The Dutch Palace and Paradesi Synagogue each cost 5 rupees to enter. Back in Fort Kochi, you can wander into the free St Francis Church, where Vasco de Gala was once buried, and enjoy the kitschy interiors of Santa Cruz Basilica.
Getting an Ayurveda massage
I had a wonderful one hour abhangya massage at Ayurville with Reshma – you can read more about it here. Ayurville gets fantastic reviews, and while it’s tucked away in a quieter part of town, it’s worth seeking out.
Trying a ginger-lime soda
The Ginger House in Mattancherry specialises in all things ginger, and whilst their ginger fried fish was very good, I particularly loved their classic ginger lime soda – lovely to sip whilst looking out over the water. I also enjoyed the food at Mary’s Kitchen in Fort Kochi, particularly their mango prawn curry.