Of iron ore and days of yore

Cargo_ShipThe difference is evident even from the skies – New Delhi is a concrete jungle; Cochin (rather the whole of Kerala) is verdant intercepted only by meandering water bodies or the infinite sea-shore. The proximity to the sea makes this area pretty humid and this was the only adjustment issue we had during our trip to Coastal Kerala.

Our first stop was Cochin or Kochi, a commercial hub of Kerala, with a natural harbor that also makes it a prime naval base and port. The town itself is divided into three areas:

1.       Fort Cochin, which in spite of the name doesn’t not have a fort but is more famous as the first European settlement in India.

2.       Willington Island, which is a man-made island and is home to the Taj hotel, the government of India tourist office, the southern naval command head quarters, the Cochin port trust and the customs house.

3.       Ernakulum, which is nearly 33 kms away from the Cochin airport and was the part of the town which we stayed in.

Our first evening in Cochin, we got tickets for a half day Kochi boat tour, starting at 9:30 am and then on the hotel’s recommendation went to the Marine Drive. The Marine Drive is a paved walkway facing the Vembanad Lake. It is accessible through one of the posh shopping complexes located in the area, and is a good place to spend the evening just gazing at the open water, or taking a ferry ride around the lake, nearing sunset.  At one end of the Marine Drive is the “Fishing Net Bridge”, and in the middle is a “floating restaurant”.

Around the Fishing Net Bridge are various coffee shops and ice-cream parlors that mostly play loud Himesh Reshammiya songs (though I also heard Michael Jackson)! If this is not enough to shatter the peace of the area, local hawkers coax you to eat batter-fried pakoras or semi-fried peanuts.  The floating restaurant is attractive and we planned to have our dinner there on the second day of our visit. But they didn’t have much to offer our hungry palates, so we chose our hotel’s restaurant over the Marine Drive restaurant.

Day 2, we took the morning KTDC boat tour and after braving the humidity for nearly 45 minutes, we were finally seated in a ferryboat with a large group of other North Indian as well as local tourists. The maximum capacity of the boat is 65 and the local security patrol checks the tour license and load of the ferryboat.

The moment the ferryboat tour started we got some respite from “sticky discomfort”.  During this ferryboat trip it becomes evident how the Vembanad Lake (India’s longest and Kerala’s largest lake) actually connects two different time zones – on one side are large modern cargo and naval ships, and on the other is a nearly obsolete Jewish culture and remnants of the British Raj.

The boat tour includes a round-trip on the Vembanad lake, where you can view the Chinese nets and see the commercial setups on the Wellington Island. Wikipedia has an interesting article covering the mechanism of the Chinese fishing nets – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_fishing_nets_%28of_Kochi%29. Tourist stop-over during the boat tour are at Mattancherry to see the Jewish Synagogue and Dutch Palace and St Francis Church. We couldn’t visit this protestant church, where Vasco da Gama was buried, as it was a Sunday and the church was not open for public viewing.

The narrow lanes of Mattancherry, are flanked by old European style buildings, most of which have been converted into antique shops. Only 11 Jewish descendants from the medieval Jewish families still live in this area and most of them are more than 70 years old. The Jewish or Paradesi Synagogue offers spiritual respite to the last of the Jews in Mattancherry and for the upkeep and maintenance of the place of worship, a meager entrance fee of Rs 2/- per tourist is taken. Embellished with Belgian chandeliers and tiled with nearly two hundred and fifty six blue and white hand-painted willow-pattern tiles from China, the Synagogue resounds with sermon and prayer, every Saturday.

Close to the Synagogue is the Dutch Palace museum, which was built by the Portuguese in 1555 and later remodeled by the Dutch in 1666. The Palace is one of the oldest buildings of the Portuguese and is in Oriental style. The Palace is a two tiered quadrangular building consisting of long spacious halls with a central courtyard enshrining the Royal deity, Palayannur Bhagavati. Two more temples are situated on either side of the Palace dedicated to Lord Krishna & Lord Siva respectively. The Palace with two floors built around a central courtyard follows the traditional Kerala style of architecture known as ‘nalukettus’.

Ornamental wood carvings on the ceiling, portrait gallery of the Maharajas of Kochi, ceremonial robes, headdresses, weapons, palanquins, furniture, and some of the best mythological murals in India, are the notable features of this palace, especially for students of Art and History. I knowingly added the phrase, “for students of Art and History” because tourists may be “misled” by the use of the word Palace and may anticipate extensive grandeur and a well-maintained, polished museum with well-protected murals. If this is what you expect, then here’s a word of caution, the palace is indigenous inspite of its name, and is time-wrapped in the medieval ages, with art and architecture that will only impress the discerning scholarly eye. Photography is prohibited in both the Palace and the Synagogue.

Cochin is a calm place with the city traffic, as we saw in and around MG Road, disciplined. There is hardly any honking, the auto-rates are reasonable, no rickshaws or cyclists intercept the traffic and regular local buses ply for the convenience of the people. Residential complexes and malls are coming up but still the place remains uncluttered. The people are adorned in traditional saris and dhotis and go about their daily business in a quiet and orderly manner.

If you are in Cochin then you must try the fruit “mithai” at the Ceylon Bake House, and you will instantly think of the traditional Christmas Plum cake. Date cake is another tasty treat for the sweet-toothed. You must also treat yourself to raw cocunut water at Marine drive, while you enjoy the site of the local ferries dotting the twilight horizon.

Cochin definitely stands out as a unique combination of a culture that has huge ships docked at the harbors, and hand-rowed fishing boats plying the waters.

For more in the Kerala Diaries, view our complete itinerary and read about our beach trip.

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