Story and Photos of Kochi by Dave Stamboulis
Travelers often get confused over the various names given to Kerala’s port city of Kochi. The city used to be known as Cochin, and internationally as Fort Cochin, which is actually the name of the old harbor area of the city, while many Keralans may be heard referring to it as Ernakulam, which is actually the larger mainland part of the town. Yet names aside, Kochi is a fabulous mélange of cultures and people, perhaps due to its history of openness to the outside world.
Kochi has been known throughout the ages as the center of the spice trade on the subcontinent. Jewish, Roman, Arab, and Chinese merchants visited it from the 13th Century and the city became Europe’s first settlement in India when the Portuguese colonized it in the early 1500’s. The Dutch and later the British also had their period of rule, and even as an Indian city today, Kochi is characterized by its large numbers of ethnic minorities, ranging from Tamils to Jews to Gujaratis to Syrian Christians, and probably the largest concentration of Catholic churches and followers you’ll find in Asia outside of the Philippines.
Vestiges of all this multiculturalism can be seen everywhere, from the city’s iconic Chinese fishing nets, which date back to the 14th Century and are still used sparingly today, to the imposing Santa Cruz Basilica Cathedral and the St. Frances Church, the first European churches built in Asia (1502 and 1503) and still the site of well attended masses today. Kochi also boasts a Jew Town, with the Paradesi Synagogue as its centerpiece, and a living heritage site today. The father of the warden of the synagogue built the still standing Koder House (www.koderhouse.com), reconstructing it over a 19th century Portuguese mansion, and is just one example of the fine colonial architecture one will find meandering the pleasant back streets of Fort Cochin. The house serves as a fine boutique hotel today and gives a feel for what life must have been like during the days of old.
Kochi prides itself on culture and spectacle. Leading the way is Kathakali, Kerala’s famed dance-drama performance art in which long periods of training, makeup, and ritual are fused into a colorful and mesmerizing spectacle. While short performances are staged for visiting tourists, the real deal still involves all night long temple shows and is a major part of the elaborate Keralan festival calendar each year.
Not far from one of the Kathakali performance theatres lies the ornate Dharmanath Desar Jain Mandir, a Jain temple founded by Gujaratis that engages in a rather bizarre pigeon feeding ritual each afternoon, in which pilgrims come and pray to the thousands of pigeons which descend from the rooftops to eat the birdseed put out by the temple monks each day. Needless to say, Kochi never ceases to astound.
While the heat of the day drives many to shaded cafes, it’s still easy enough to find an auto rickshaw driver out seeking a fare who will be more than happy to show you all the old colonial buildings and act as a history lecturer at the same time, all the while trying to get you to stop in for a purchase of some of Kochi’s famous products such as pepper, cardamom seed, or tea from the nearby plantations in the Western Ghat Mountans.
He will also be quick to point out his favorite Ayurvedic shop, as most of the plants used in this ancient traditional medicine practice come from Kerala and are traded out of Kochi’s busy port. An Ayurvedic massage, which features warm herbal oil head massages and relaxing steam treatments are extremely rejuvenating and yet just another reason to pay the bustling Kochi a visit.
It is a popular ritual for visitors and locals to gather along the promenade next to the Arabian Sea in Fort Cochin each night, drinking fresh mango shakes and portions of fried fish served up by enterprising hawkers. The backdrop of the sun setting behind the Chinese fishing nets is the most photographed site in Kerala, and yet this long running tradition may be seeing its final hours. The novel land operated cantilevered fishing nets which are counterbalanced by large rocks on ropes and need 5-6 men to work, have been reduced to only a dozen or so in the past decade, as the trade is no longer profitable enough for the fishermen due to market prices and local dredging. While cultural heritage and trust foundations have tried to get behind movements protecting the long running practice, the Indian government has not done anything to make the nets a natural treasure.
Yet undoubtedly Kochi will survive, just has it has all these years of the Portuguese, Dutch, British, and more, always open to the sea, to new faces, new ideas, and perhaps India’s most inviting destination, just waiting for what the drifting tides will bring in next.
Transport: Kochi’s International Airport is one of India’s busiest, with dozens of carriers calling in from around the world. The airport is about an hour’s drive from the city. In town, local ferries are a great way of getting around and avoid the heavy traffic that pervades Kochi during rush hours.
Stay and Eat: The Koder House Boutique Heritage Hotel has a fantastic location in Fort Cochin opposite the harbor and Chinese fishing nets, and the hotel’s unique restaurant serves sumptuous Keralan and Jewish cuisine. There are not many rooms at this gem, so make sure to book in advance especially during high season. The Koder House: Phone: +91 484 2218485, www.koderhouse.com
Do: aside from all the local attractions, it is easy to visit the famed Kerala Backwaters for a boat trip or go up to the tea plantations of Munnar for an excursion from Kochi. Travel agents abound in Fort Cochin and can set this up.
Dave Stamboulis (Facebook Page) is a global nomad who spent seven years traveling 40,000 kilometers around the world by bicycle. His book Odysseus Last Stand chronicles that journey. Dave resides in Bangkok, Thailand, where he works for magazines, newspapers, and stock agencies as a freelance photojournalist. His quest for stories and images in off the beaten track places has taken him to spots such as Borneo, Ethiopia, Bolivia, and other way out locations, often reached via bicycle, kayak, or on foot. you can check out his work at www.davestamboulis.com and his most recent photography at his Flickr.