THE SMALL CHARMING TOWN IN KERALA seduced many a visitor in the past. I embarked upon this unusual destination to unearth its many mysteries. A dear friend Sakshi Grover asked me details about Fort Kochi and here it is. A quick guide of things to do in a day in Fort Kochi!
It took me a rickety ride on an autorickshaw on the bumpy roads from Ernakulum to arrive at the vibrant city of Kochi. As I strolled down the culturally rich streets of Kochi, I was transported to another era. Kochi is a time warped Indian town which has blended several international influences and invented a unique culture of its own. Owing to its strategic location, Kochi established international trade relations via sea routes as back in time as 600 years ago. Seduced by the lure of fragrant exotic spices, the Arabs, Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese traded with Kochi. They left back the influence in the architecture, religion, festivals and cuisine of the city. The famous Chinese fishing nets – still in use – have become the defining image of Kochi. It’s a town where the echoes of past still resonate in the present.
CHINESE FISHING NETS
Since most points of attraction are close to each other, it’s easy to navigate the whole town on foot. I preferred walking through most of Kochi’s lanes and alleys and discovered some secrets and surprises lurking at every turn. I started my day with the famous fishing nets of Kochi, a legacy left behind by Kochi’s ancient Chinese trade relations. Located by the sea-facing promenade, the fishermen work as a team in lowering and pulling the nets.
The crows demand their share adamantly while the amused tourists witness the ‘circus’ with bewilderment. The incongruous looking fishing nets were introduced hundreds of year ago and continue to be popular amongst the fishermen and tourists alike. The spectacle of lowering and raising the nets is not to be missed, especially at sunset when the silhouette reveals each section of the net in detail.
The streets of Kochi are vibrant, what with cool cafes and colourful graffiti culture injecting energy in the streets! You have to be blind to miss the graffiti on the walls of Kochi, anywhere you go. Even a tree has not been spared, painted as it is red and blue with lively images. While some wall graffiti is sombre; some is downright hilarious.
My favourite was Monalisa (with a pot balanced on her head) dressed as a village girl, and Mr Bean, who wears a traditional South Indian attire and smiles sheepishly from a wall. You’ll also find the trio of Bob Marley, Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix playing veena with such aplomb as if they were born with it. This fusion of east and west has added a new personality to the town.
Sipping relentlessly on ‘fresh from the tree’ coconut water, I marveled at the many old churches, an old moss-covered cemetery, colonial residences and heritage buildings converted tastefully into hotels. While the colossal Santa Cruz Basilica looms large over the town and impresses with its grandeur and architecture, the 16th century Saint Francis Church intrigues with its history. Said to be the oldest European Church in India, it is in here that the body of the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was buried originally.
Moving on, I could not resist myself when the smell of freshly cooked South Indian cuisine escaped the homely kitchen of oddly named Taj Mahal restaurant-cum-home stay. Located right next to Kerela Kathakali Centre, the restaurant is run by a young lady. I chose the mouth watering avial (gravy of mixed vegetables cooked with curd and coconut as the base), thoran (dry preparation of mixed vegetables cooked with grated coconut and tempered with mustard seeds and curry leaves) and steamed rice. It turned out to be a highly satisfying experience, gastronomically speaking, helped by the fact that the authentic food was cooked by a housewife in a kitchen that resembles yours and mine in our homes. Further, those smitten by this unique cuisine can also take cooking lessons at this restaurant.
Fuelled by the carbohydrate-rich food, I channeled my new found energy by exploring the ancient town of Mattancherry. As I walked past the touristy shops, I was bombarded with a blitzkrieg of pleasant and strong smells. The mesmerizing fragrances of sandal soaps, perfumes and spices filled the air.
So overpowering were these smells that I began to understand why people from faraway lands were so obsessed with this village eons ago. I found ‘The All Spice Market’ on the road towards Mattancherry charming, thanks to the colourful heritage building it is based in, and also because it allows you to see the workers going about their job – like, drying spices, segregating, processing, etc.It is also a great place to buy quality spices at reasonable prices.
Equally interesting was the architectural wonder called Dutch Palace, also known locally as Mattancherry Palace. A former residence of the Maharaja of Kochi, it was built and gifted to the king by the Portuguese. It is, however, called the Dutch Palace because the Dutch later renovated the building. It is simple in design but stands out thanks to its spartan rooms overlooking green surroundings, royal artefacts on display and the exquisite murals depicting scenes from Ramayana and Mahabharata. If you are willing to crane your neck a little, you will be greeted with beautiful wood-carved designs on the ceilings. The palace also houses many old portraits of the royal family, giving the visitor a glimpse of the life in the ‘good old days’, including the fashionable hairstyles. It’s indeed humbling to learn that the royals of Kochi lived a simple, austere life sans any ostentatious display of wealth and frills associated with royal lifestyle. The beauty of this palace lies in its simplicity, quite unlike the other grand palaces I had seen across India.
The melting pot of cultures once this city was, I was not surprised to discover the ancient Jew Town few kilometres away. Though very few Jews remain there now, the streets of the quaint town still whisper volumes about the multicultural and assimilative nature of this place. The 16th century synagogue is aesthetically beautiful and serene. Lined with touristy shops selling everything from interesting handicrafts to Ayurvedic products, the synagogue is at a walking distance from the Dutch palace.
Also known as Pardesi (Foreigner) Synagogue, its interiors are tastefully done with ancient lamps, Belgian chandeliers (of the 19th century) and antiques. There is also a series of interesting paintings depicting the history of Jews in Cochin. Today, as the population of Jews in the area has dwindled to an alarming low, Jews from outside the city are invited to perform the rituals.
AYURVEDIC BODY MASSAGE
A trip to Kerala is incomplete without a rejuvenating full body massage. And walking all day long, exploring places is just another excuse for the hedonist massage. I chose the Birla Kerala Vaidyashala Ayurvedic Medispa, which turned me into a new person with an invigorating hour-long hot oil massage accompanied with a relaxing ambiance.
Struggling to fight the sleep induced by all the kneading on my body, I chose to spend the next few hours comfortably watching the cultural shows at the Kerala Kathakali Centre. Originally the ancient performing arts of Kathakali and Theyyam were hosted in temples, but are now packaged for the tourists.
I reached early to catch the elaborate make-up session of the Kathakali dancers. It was sheer delight to see them transform from mere mortals to demigods. I tried my best to fathom the nuances of the grand show. What helped me in this was the print-out of the story handed out to the visitors before a performance so as to make them get a sense of what is happening on the stage. The artists demonstrated how a slight twitching of facial muscles changed the meaning of the expression. Each and every expression has been perfected painstakingly over years of relentless practice.
Most Kathakali performances begin with a sole artist performing the ‘Navarasa’ to acquaint the audiences better with the performance. Navarasa are the nine basic human emotions suggested in the ancient text Natya Shastra – serenity, courage, wonder, fear, love, compassion, anger, disgust and mirth. It was a delight to get lost in the performance, often reminding myself that I don’t have to change my expression every time the artist does it on the stage.
The spellbound audiences were later visually treated to testosterone-charged Kalaripayattu, the ancient sword fighting tradition. The dexterity and speed with which the fighters performed the act, left audience with no time to blink. I decided to call it a day, but not before taking a postprandial walk along the breezy seaside promenade. Of course, with fresh coconut water in hand!
Kerala Kathakali Centre shows are well presented and much liked. The shows vary from day to day. They mostly come in a package of Kathakali Dance and Kalaripayattu. One can also opt for either of these. I suggest, go for both. On some days there’s classical dance, song recital, etc. Details at: http://www.kathakalicentre.com/
Pics above : Kalaripayattu at Kerala Kathakali Centre
Greenix has similar shows but gives you more for your money. The package is called Cultural Arts performance and usually starts from 6 pm and go on till 7:30 pm, comprising 5 performances. Make up starts at 5-6 pm. It has a set of dance performances (Kathakali, Mohiniattam,Theyyam) and Kalaripayattu. It is well packaged for those in a hurry. They also encourage taking pictures with dancers. Greenix houses a cultural museum, open from 10 am to 6 pm. Reach the venue at 5 pm to see the artists dressing up and getting their make-up done. Greenix also offers Yoga classes in the morning! Details at: http://www.greenix.in/
Did you know you can reach Ernakulum from Fort Kochi in under Rs. 10 and you will pass through scenic views on a smooth journey. Ask me how, in the comments below!
Where to stay:
Walton’s Homestay: Located at Princess Street, it’s small and affordable (Rooms under Rs 1,500; go for non-AC post October). The owner is very knowledgeable. It also has a library.
Sonnetta Residency (also at Princess Street) is clean. We paid `1,600 for 4 pax per day.
Grande Residencia (Princess Street) Upscale and expensive
The place also has many home-stays. On my first solo trip I stayed with a family and paid Rs.400 for a neat room, centrally located.
Best time to visit: October to March
Kochi is well-connected with Ernakulum, Bengaluru, Alapuzzha and Mysore
It is a great place to go solo and also with family. I first trip here was solo. My second trip was with parents. I wanted them to see this must see place.
You can pick Kerala style saree, mundu, spices, soaps (My favorite no-nonsense Mysore sandal soap), artefacts, masks, et al!
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