Located on the Malabar Coast, Kochi, the largest city in Kerala, consists of an archipelago of various islands like Ernakulum, Willington Island, Fort Kochi – Mattancherry peninsula, Bolgatty, Gundu and Vypeen islands. Known for its backwaters, one can take a ferry to navigate between its various islands, just like Goa. The city, at different points in time, was inhabited by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British, which is evident when one visits the Old Kochi Fort. The harbour town enjoyed spice trade with the Arabs, Chinese, Jews and Romans all of which made Kochi a cultural cauldron over several millennia.
Kerala has been the family favourite and frequently visited over the past decade. This time around it was a short visit mainly to Kochi and Munnar during the summer vacations. We landed at Ernakulam Airport at noon and were hungry. Our resourceful driver Jobin recommended that we grab a bite at one of the malls. He suggested Lullu Mall, which is the largest shopping mall in India.
Post lunch, we decided to visit Marine Drive, which is a long tree-lined promenade that lines the backwaters. A ferry boat ride was the perfect way to spend a laid-back evening. We sailed by the promenade facing fancy high rises, an islet with colonies of sea birds, hotels and resorts. The beautiful Bolgatty Palace built by the Dutch was the cynosure of all eyes. The soothing, gentle breeze and picturesque sunset helped us forget the hustle-bustle and stresses of everyday life as this was after all ‘God’s Own Country’.
The next day we set off to explore the Hill Palace at Tripunithura which was earlier the residence of the Maharaja of Kochi but today is a museum with a treasure trove of artefacts. Beautifully landscaped gardens welcomed us to the palace grounds as we ascended a flight of stairs that took us to the palace. We were required to deposit our bags and cameras as photography is prohibited. The museum was chock-a-block with manuscripts, inscriptions on palm leaves, wooden sculptures of gods and goddesses, coins, jewellery, clothes and sepia-toned photos providing a glimpse to the opulence and glorious past of the royals.
We then decided to visit the Old Kochi Fort, which has an old-world charm and felt like taking a walk back in time. The Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica in gothic architecture has two lofty spires and a whitewashed edifice. On stepping inside, we were awed by its arches, stained glass windows, a serene alter and ceilings with paintings depicting Christ’s crucifixion. As always, I sat on one of the wooden benches reminiscing my childhood studying at a convent school and frequenting the chapel.
The other church that old Kochi is known for is the St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India. It is here that Vasco-da-Gama was buried, and later his remains were taken back to Portugal. We could even see his gravestone in the corner of the church.
Next, we decided to explore the Jewish Town, which we had somehow missed seeing on our earlier trip, and it turned out to be the highlight of the old fort. In a bygone era, foreigners or ‘Pardesi’ (from whom the synagogue gets its name) had flocked to this area, made it their home and thrived. The Pardesi Synagogue with its whitewashed exterior clocktower is where today only a handful of descendants assemble for prayers.
Shops selling antiques, perfumes and incense, spices, wooden furniture, hand-embroidered items and so on lined the street leading to the synagogue. The perfume and incense stores had a distinct Arabian influence like the kind one sees in Dubai.
We then headed to the Mattancherry or Dutch Palace and quickly rushed in as it was nearing closing time. The palace on the outside looked stark and straightforward, but inside was a treasure trove of masterpieces that are a testimonial to its glorious past. The highlight of the palace were the murals that depicted scenes from the epics Ramayana and Mahabharat. The royal possessions like their clothes, swords, palanquins, and so on were on display.
The Fort Kochi beach is always buzzing with tourist and locals. We found kiosks selling everything from fish to clothes, to tacky jewellery, to toys and other stuff. The beach was filthy, but it is only the Chinese Fishing nets on the beachside that draw a large number of tourists. It was nearing sunset as the sky turned ochre and grey. This juxtaposed with the silhouette of the spiderweb-like fishing nets created a stunning image. For a few bucks, you can try your hand at this unusual method of fishing. A pulley, ropes, stones and bamboo tied to the net are some of the paraphernalia. The net is lowered into the sea and then lifted using the pulley to receive the catch. If not, you can purchase the fish which nearby kiosks will cook as per your taste.
Princess street was lined with colonial-style homes, hotels, cafes and shops selling an assortment of clothes, handicrafts and knick-knacks. Uniquely designed buildings gave the feeling that we were sometimes in Pondy, thanks to the structure painted mustard yellow, at other times in Goa or a European locale. One place Old Kochi but so many different avatars.
On our earlier trip, we had stayed at a resort on Vypeen Island near Cherai beach. This beach with golden sands, azure sea waters and palm trees is worth visiting if you are looking for some fun in the sun, sea and sand.
Do watch a Kathakali classical dance performance known for its colourful costumes, heavy makeup and enactment of themes from Ramayana and Mahabharat. Make sure you reach early to watch the performers put on their make up and get dressed for the performance. Another option is the martial art and fighting system of Kalarippayattu which originated in Kerala. After an oil massage to make their body’s flexible and agile, the performers will demonstrate several feats using swords, daggers, spears, and bows and arrows.
Kochi, the ‘Queen of Arabian Sea’ which is a potpourri of multicultural history, incredible palaces, scenic backwaters, will cease to satiate you, making you hungry to want to revisit it for more.
This travelogue was first published in Corporate Tycoons magazine, Dec 2019