Kochi Chronicles: sights, sounds and tastes of the historic city

The Lonely Planet magazine has just come out with its list of “Top 10 cities to visit in 2020” and an Indian city has made its way to the list. With its rich architectural heritage, vibrant art scene, lip-smacking cuisine and veritable amalgamation of cultural influences, Kochi has truly earned it.   

Sleepy fishing village to a vibrant port city

The fortunes of this nondescript fishing village were dramatically altered when a tsunami devastated the once important port of Kodungallur (Muziris), 50km away, and flooded the lands around Kochi creating an excellent natural harbour in 1341 AD. Spice trade with China and the Middle East flourished in Kochi and began transforming it beyond recognition.

In 1500 AD, the Portuguese found their way to Kochi and established amicable relations with the Rajah of Cochin. What began with trade inevitably ended in conquest. Control over Kochi was later wrestled from the Portuguese by the Dutch in 1663. It was held briefly by the Nizams of Hyderabad before finally settling with the British in AD 1790. It stayed that way until India’s independence in 1947.

The colonial period deeply influenced Kochi’s architecture, culture, food and much more and the influences are in abundant display in modern-day Kochi.

5 must-dos to absorb Kochi

Amble around Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi is a 1.5hr drive from Cochin Airport and about 45 minutes from Ernakulam station.

Discovering Fort Kochi isn’t about a checklist of things to see and do. It is about soaking in the feeling of being in Fort Kochi. For romantics prone to nostalgia, it is easy to visualize nearly 450 years of colonial history unfolding in front of one’s eyes while crossing colonial-era churches, mansions, offices and cemeteries.

Fort Kochi gets its name from a fortification built by the Portuguese in the early 16th century to safeguard their trade interests. It was destroyed by the subsequent Dutch conquerors and only tiny fragments of the actual fortifications now remain to be seen inside the Indo Portuguese Museum. 

The resplendent Santa Cruz Basilica

Start your walk from the Santa Cruz Basilica. While the original church was erected by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, it was used as an arms store by later Dutch colonists and razed completely by the British in 1795. More than a hundred years later, it was re-erected by the Bishop of Cochin and that structure endures to the present day. The exteriors are spotlessly whitewashed in a pleasant shade of yellow. The interiors are decorated with beautiful murals of scenes from the passion narratives. 

St. Francis CSI Church where Vasco da Gama was once buried

Walk onwards to the St Francis CSI Church. This humble monument was the first ever European church in India, erected in 1503, soon after the arrival of the Portuguese. The legendary explorer Vasco Da Gama was buried here briefly upon his death in 1524 before his remains were taken back to Lisbon. 

Dutch Cemetery

Walk further on to the Dutch cemetery which was consecrated in 1724 and now lies in ruins. The gates are perpetually locked but you can peep inside to get a view of the tombs. The tombs of Dutch governors, commanders and officials now lie overgrown with moss and weed. It is a stark reminder of the rise and ebb of fortunes of empires and the agents.

Chinese fishing nets

End your walk through Fort Kochi with a stroll along the seafront, ending near the Chinese fishing nets. Along the way, you can spot the lone surviving canon from Fort Emmanuel, the original Portuguese fortification of Kochi. Chinese traders of the 14th century introduced the fishing nets to Kochi and they continue to be in use even today. It’s also a great spot to watch the sun go down. The fishermen bring their fresh catch in the evening for auctioning and witnessing the orderly chaos of the auctions is a treat in itself.  

Check out Jew Town & Mattancherry Palace

Paradesi Synagogue

All that now remains of the once-thriving Jew town is the Paradesi Synagogue. But then it’s not just any synagogue. Built in 1568, it’s the oldest active synagogue in India. The name “Paradesi”, meaning foreigner, proclaims that the Synagogue was erected by Sephardic (Spanish speaking) Jews, from Europe as opposed to the local black Malabari or Cochin Jews.  

The Synagogue is open to visitors from Sunday to Thursday from 10 am to 2 pm and again from 3 pm to 5 pm. It is closed on Saturdays and in the second half on Fridays. It is also closed on all Jewish holidays. Unfortunately, our visit overlapped with the Jewish festival of Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) and we couldn’t enter the synagogue to see the treasures it holds inside.

Jew Town

The street leading to the synagogue is closed to vehicular traffic is lined on both sides by antique and souvenir shops and cafes. With the gradual emigration of the local Jews, a once thriving community is now down to a handful.

Mattancherry Palace, also known as the Dutch Palace, looks deceptively dilapidated from the outside. But inside, it houses a well maintained museum documenting the history of the Kingdom of Kochi. Built in 1555 by the Portuguese to appease the Rajah of Kochi, it was extensively restored by the Dutch overlords in the 17th century and hence the name Dutch Palace.  

The inner walls are covered in spectacular murals with some dating back as far back as the 16th century. Particularly noteworthy is one that captures the entire story of Ramayana in one contiguous painting with one scene merging seamlessly into another. A painting depicting Maharaasa of Krishna has him employing his eight divine limbs to simultaneously pleasure a multitude of milkmaids. This epitome of erotica is housed, perhaps justifiably, in the basement connected by a steep staircase!

Portraits of Rajahs of Kochi, their stamps and currency and plaques on the history of Kochi complete the informative collection of exhibits.

The palace museum is open from 10 am to 5 pm on all days of the week except Friday. It charges a princely Rs 5 per person for entry.

Witness Kerala’s Traditional Performing arts

Kerala Kathakali Centre is probably the best place in Kochi to get a taste of Kerala’s rich traditional performing art forms. It is a private institute operated by a certain Mr Vijayan. At their auditorium located in Fort Kochi, they host daily shows of Kalaripayattu from 4 pm to 5 pm and Kathakali from 6 pm to 7 pm. One can also witness the pre-performance Kathakali makeup session happening live on stage from 5 pm to 6 pm.

It’s not a one-man job
Kathakali makeup
The final output

In fact, the makeup is as big a draw as the performance itself. The elaborate facial makeup still uses entirely natural pigments following centuries of traditions. It is a mesmerizing experience to witness the transformations of perfectly normal looking men into mythical characters of either gender, even animals if the story demands it! The prominent facial colour signifies the kind of character being portrayed – green symbolizes godliness, black is for evil, white is for spirituality, red for turmoil and yellow denotes a mix of godliness and turmoil.

The performance is spellbinding. The performers challenge the limits of human physiology with the manoeuvring of facial muscles and eye movements. The unsung heroes of the act are the singer and the drummers whose skilful rendition perfectly compliment the performance of the dancers. Stories from Indian mythology are the typical themes of Kathakali performances. We got in early and got balcony seats on the upper level which offer an unhindered view of the stage.

Kalaripayattu is Kerala’s flagship martial art form dating back from at least the 6th century BC. It has been referenced in many Hollywood and Bollywood movies and even has spawned a popular animated show for kids. It would have been a sin to come to Kerala and not catch a demo. But be prepared for flying swords and other nerve-rattling stunts. The accompanying descriptions of each form of combat, the weaponry and associated traditions make for a rich experience.

The Kalaripayattu show costs Rs.300 per person and the Kathakali show is for Rs.350. One can refer their website for updated information and mail kpvijayan@yahoo.com for reservations.

The shows are a tiny but essential glimpse into Kerala’s rich tradition of performing arts. It is heartening to see the traditions being kept alive through the collective enterprise of dedicated individuals like Mr Vijayan and his associates.

Hop across Museums

Kerala draws in droves of tourists, both Indians and foreigners, primarily because of its resplendent natural beauty. But it packs enough of a cultural punch to satiate culture vultures. And there is no better place to get a taste of its rich history and culture than the Kerala Folklore Museum.

Kerala Folklore Museum

Surprisingly, this place flies under the radar when it comes to most tourist itineraries of Kochi. Located about 10km away from Fort Kochi in Thevara, it is the labour of love of Mr George Thaliath.

The private museum has been painstakingly assembled by him with collection efforts spanning over three decades.

The museum building itself has been assembled using antiques and structural elements from 25 dismantled heritage structures. Inside it is a cornucopia of artefacts of historical and cultural significance.

The ground floor has an excellent collection of centuries-old wooden statues collected from various sites in South India. Particularly noteworthy is the wooden gable of a disused 15th century temple. There are Nannangadi, or giant terracotta pots from 1000 BC, in which human bodies were traditionally buried in a crouching position. Also on display are the Manichitrathazhu, which are metal locks with extremely elaborate craftsmanship that were fitted on sturdy jackwood doors in the traditional homes of the elite for providing security and displaying pomp in equal measure.

My interest was kindled in Theyyam, a ritual form of worship popular in Kerala, by the many masks, breastplates and costumes on display. They are elegantly crafted and heavy AF. I couldn’t fathom how it would be humanly possible to even don the full paraphernalia, let alone dance in it.

The uppermost floor is actually a transported dancing hall called Koothambalam, once attached to an ancient temple in Kerala. The massive wooden edifice from the 18th century weighs more than 60 tons and stands without any middle support. On the ceiling are wood carved figurines of 333 gods and goddesses representing the proverbial 333 crore gods of the Hindu pantheon. This is accompanied by 253 mural paintings depicting traditional art forms of Kerala.

What makes the museum truly unique is how such a vast collection has been thoughtfully assembled and maintained by the individual zeal of one person, and now upon his death, by his family, to preserve and showcase the cultural heritage of his motherland. I left the museum determined to spread the word about this marvellous initiative. To anyone headed to Kochi, the museum is open from 9 am to 6 pm on all days of the week and the Rs.100 entry fee is very well spent.

India Portuguese Museum

This museum established through the efforts of a former Bishop of Kochi is housed within the Bishop’s House premises in Fort Kochi.

The basement of the museum has the last surviving remnants of the original Portuguese fortification of Kochi. While there isn’t much left to see anymore, these bare bricks once ushered in colonial expansion in Kerala and subsequently in all of India.

The collection here provides a glimpse into the religious traditions of the period through the historical artefacts. It is open from 10 am to 6 pm, with a lunch break from 1 pm to 2 pm, every day barring Mondays and public holidays. 

Apart from these two museums, there is also the Mattancherry Palace museum of which I have written earlier and the Museum of Kerala which I didn’t have occasion to visit.

Devour Kerala’s Mouth-watering Cuisine

Eating out in Kochi is as much about savouring the flavours as it is about soaking in the charming ambience of its restaurants. The Fort Kochi area, in particular, abounds in heritage bungalows converted into dreamy cafes, bistros and restaurants. Below is a short selection of restaurants we tried out and liked to varying degrees.

Jetty Restaurant at Forte Kochi

Jetty takes the top spot in my recommendation of eateries in Fort Kochi. Housed inside a renovated heritage building that’s now Forte Kochi boutique hotel, the décor here oozes class from every nook. The bright ochre yellow exteriors will deceive you into thinking that you are somewhere in Portugal. But once you dig into your meal you will be brought back to Kerala through the classic eats of Kerala cuisine, are all done to perfection. If you have one meal in Fort Kochi, head here.

Bristow’s Bistro is housed inside the Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel. It is the former mansion of renowned British Engineer, Sir Robert Bristow, who played a key role in the construction of the Kochi Port. The stately dining hall is near the edge of the sea and an evening meal here accompanied by the sea breeze and the sounds of crashing waves is a delightful experience. The food is excellent and moderately priced. I can vouch for the succulent Tuna Steak, flavourful Pork Masala and soft and fluffy Appams. It is among the few establishments in Kochi that serve beer, though the choice of brands will be severely limited (as is the case pretty much everywhere in Kerala). 

Kashi Art Cafe

Kashi Art Café This hybrid of a café and an art gallery has been making waves in Kochi’s casual dining scene and justly so. If the tables are removed, you might well mistake it for a rather nice art gallery. That’s until the food is served and you realize that artsy distractions notwithstanding, the food is the real hero and is reason enough to make your way here.

The mustard flavoured chicken served on a bed of buttery mashed potatoes and the juicy skewered prawns come highly recommended.

Tea Bungalow is yet another jewel in the long list of heritage boutique hotels in Kochi and has a restaurant to boot. A tastefully decorated property dating back to 1912, its décor is themed on prominent port towns strewn across the Indian Ocean region. The food at their restaurant is delicious and the service prompt and efficient.

Ginger House draws in droves of foreign visitors led by its backwater-view dining room and prominent mentions in guidebooks. It is located in the Jew Town and like many Kochi establishments, this is also housed inside the eponymous boutique heritage hotel. After being spoiled by the amazing food across restaurants in Fort Kochi, the food here was a big let-down. And if the food was middling at best, the service was absolutely atrocious. The views are lovely but that couldn’t quite make up for the disappointment in the other departments.  

Kochi will delight your eyes, ears and taste buds in equal measure and you will doubtless concur with the curators of the Lonely Planet Cities to visit in 2020 list!

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