As the port city gears up for its annual art biennale, Laxmi Sharath discovers a fascinating blend of Indian and European cultures in one day
It was the spices that brought the Arabs to the shores of Kochi, then a small fishing village on the coastline of the Arabian Sea. In the medieval era, the harbour of Kochi in Kerala, formed by a flood, slowly evolved into a flourishing port as it brought the Arabs, Jews and Chinese, besides the Europeans, to the city. The fishing hamlet eventually grew to become a magnet for imperial powers, making it the first European colony in India. The Portuguese were the first to arrive, followed by the Dutch and then the British. Legends say that the then king of Kochi granted a small piece of the fishing harbour to the Portuguese, who fortified it. The settlement came to be known as Fort Kochi. That is where I stand in the wee hours of the morning, watching the dawn break over the ocean and pondering over the blend of cultures that forms this ancient territory. I have just one day in Kochi and I decide to spend it pottering around Fort Kochi and the adjacent Mattancherry, or the Jew Town.
>> I start my day early, as I stroll around to the waterfront at Vasco da Gama Square, watching the fishermen set out to sea for their daily catch. The Chinese fishing nets, an icon of Kochi, paint a pretty picture silhouetted against the morning sky. They apparently look even more stunning during sunset. The silence is soothing as I sip tea at a local tea stall and listen to the morning call of birds. It is said that Chinese explorers landed here during medieval times and the fishing nets are credited to Zheng He, an ancient mariner.
>> Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama’s ship may have docked near Kozhikode or Calicut but his remains were buried at St Francis Church in Kochi before being taken away. This 16th-century church is the first European church to have been built in India. It draws tourists from all over the world as locals pride themselves over the fact that he was buried here for 14 years before his mortal remains were taken to his homeland. My next stop is the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, built by the Portuguese but destroyed eventually by the British, only to be consecrated later.
>> There is nothing quite like exploring the sights and sounds of a town on foot. Ruins of old British warehouses jostle for space among colonial mansions with tree-lined courtyards. Quaint art cafés and galleries beckon me, while I explore the colourful Princess Street and Rose Street, dotted with shops selling goods ranging from spices and souvenirs to fabrics and books. But to get a real flavour of the famed Kerala spices, I head to Jew Town, a narrow street between Mattancherry Palace and the Jewish synagogue. Shops filled with old clocks, metal vessels and other knick-knacks vie for attention here.
At the Mattancherry market, local traders hover around mounds of dry fruits, spices and tea, which are transported to various destinations across the country. I am at the popular tourist haunt, the Spice Market. The aroma of cloves and cinnamon stroke my hunger pangs and I stop by at a local restaurant for a masala dosa. I want to eat light, and thus opt for the South Indian staple, but Kochi’s cuisine is an eclectic mix of Indian, Jewish and European flavours and cooking styles.
>> At the heart of Mattancherry is the Dutch Palace, also known as Mattancherry Palace. It is one of the finest examples of the Kerala style of architecture, interspersed with colonial influences. A highlight here are the murals depicting scenes from epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. I stop next at the Paradesi synagogue, said to have been built in 1568. Here, a collage of hand-painted blue and white tiles made of Chinese porcelain blend with brass columns and fragile Belgian glass chandeliers.
The eclectic Kashi Art Cafe is a landmark in Fort Kochi but there are several art galleries that double up as cafés. So I spend my evening hopping from Mocha Art Café to Teapot café and Pepper House café among others, sipping coffee and biting into cookies and cakes, meeting young artists and catching up on some reading as well.
>> Catching a sunset at the waterfront is the perfect way to unwind after a long day. And I am back to where I started my day. The blob of gold glows through the fishing nets as the setting sun sets the ocean on fire. Ships lie silhouetted against the horizon while the fishermen have called it a day. The square is now filled with locals and tourists as stalls offering fresh fish marinated in spices open up. I find a quiet corner and lose myself in the gentle breeze that brings with it several tales from different shores.
>> There is no better way to spend an evening in Kochi than by enjoying a kathakali performance. This classical dance form originated in Kerala many centuries ago. Traditionally, this dramatic and powerful dance with elaborate costumes and makeup, is performed on temple grounds. In Kochi, there are several places where kathakali performances are held at night. The Kairali Centre is one such place. As darkness gathers around me, I lose myself in the legends of Lord Rama, as the dancer on the stage expresses the stories with slight twitches of his eyebrows and twirls of his hand!
The author is an avid traveller and the views expressed in this article are her own