Backpacking Through South India–1: Fort Cochin

…the shutters let in everything else: the dust and the tumult of boats in Cochin harbour, the horns of freighters and tugboat chugs, the fishermen’s dirty jokes and the throb of their jellyfish stings, the sunlight as sharp as a knife, the heat that could choke you like a damp cloth pulled tightly around your head, the calls of floating hawkers, the wafting sadness of the unmarried Jews across the water in Mattancherri, the menace of emerald smugglers, the machinations of business rivals, the growing nervousness of the British colony in Fort Cochin…

If it was Alice Albinia’s Empires of The Indus which compelled me to visit Wagah Border and Amritsar, and Tsering Wangmo Dhompa’s A Home In Tibet which fascinated me with Tibet and Tibetans and inspired me to make a trip to McLeodGanj in January, it were these words (and more) by Salman Rushdie with which he dazzlingly paints an articulate verbal sketch of Fort Cochin in ‘A Moor’s Last Sigh’ that made me spend an extended weekend on the island in Kerala.
I had been to Cochin and the cities of Trivandrum and Thrissur as a kid in the late 90s. Of all the places, I had liked Cochin the most, and being there once again after about 15 years was bit exciting. This one was a truly rejuvenating excursion. Nice locals, friendly tourists, beautiful countryside, scrumptious Sea Food and beef (which is so elusive in rest of the country), Kathakali performance, pulling up Chinese fishing nets, a glimpse into the Jewish, Portuguese and Dutch era of Cochin, and most importantly, hitting the beach for the first time after leaving Bombay.

Cochin, the princely state where the Jews from Palestine arrived as early as the 1st century after the destruction of the second temple by the Romans; the city where stands the hollow tomb of Vasco Da Gama – the first European to arrive on Indian soil by sea in 15th century and to make Cochin the centre of Indian spice trade (which assimilated India in the global trade circle and economy), establish the Portuguese empire and spread Christianity, ultimately to be followed by the Dutch who then ceded the control of the territory to the British.
Such exhilarating has been the journey  of Cochin from it being a princely state, to having its control wrenched by multitude of foreign rulers to being a part of the Indian Republic post independence. In short, Cochin has been the epitome of global multiculturalism in ancient India.

The first thing I said to myself the moment I stepped out from the bus at KSRTC Bus Stand in Ernakulam was ’It’s hot here’. Not just hot, it was extremely humid too, which made the impact of the temperature even worse. Rushdie has aptly described this tropical heat in the above paragraph.
I took an autorickshaw cruising through Ernakulam’s commercial district to head to the Jetty to catch a boat to Fort Kochi. There it was, the Arabian Sea in front of me, which I longed to see since I moved out of Bombay – another reason to visit Cochin, to hit the beach.

Amidst a bunch of locals and some backpackers like myself in the ferry, I reached the Fort Cochin island and walked to the dorm which was shared with two Lonely Planet carrying French travellers who had been travelling through the Malabar coast since a week and one Australian. 
After taking a shower for some (temporary) respite from the heat,  I headed out to explore the island on foot. First stop were the Chinese fishing nets. Believed to be introduced by the Chinese, these huge nets require multiple men to operate and at a time, can catch large number of marine creatures, though many are picked up by the birds straight from the net before the catch reaches the fishermen.


Catch of the day, sold just beside the Chinese fishing nets.

After savoring some Sea Food, i.e. post a serving of Prawns, the next stop was Princess Street and the surrounding areas where stand bungalows and buildings of colonial architecture which make it a picturesque sight. If it wasn’t for the tropical heat, it would have been easier to forget that this was India. The buildings here comprise of Homestays, restaurants, antique shops targeting the tourists etc.

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Bungalows turned commercial establishments at Princess Street.


A cozy place by the window at Loafer’s Corner restaurant, perfect spot to watch the life at the Princess Street go by.

Quite close to Princess Street in the Portuguese quarter of the island stands St Francis Church. Vasco Da Gama, who died in Cochin in the 16th century was laid to rest here and 14 years after his death, his remains were shipped to Portugal, but his hollow tomb still stands inside the Church premises.

St. Francis Church (above) and the hollow tomb of Vasco Da Gama.
It is here where Rushdie has portrayed Aurora Da Gama in his book The Moor’s Last Sigh coming to talk to the vacant grave of her ancestor much to the dislike of the priest Oliver D’Aeth (laughed upon as ’All over death’). This part of the book set within the Church was one of my favorite; the way iconoclastic Aurora avows to her family her liking for the Jew -Abraham Zogoiby and marries him, the way she mocks Oliver D’Aeth as he sweats at her sight by comparing him to Bombay’s Flora Fountain and telling her Uncle Aires and Aunt Sahara on how their dog Jaw Jaw Jawaharlal must be dejected as they have come out on a walk with Oliver, a dog with a different collar… (Isn’t Rushdie unbeatable in his wit and humor).
These bits came right at me while being inside the St. Francis Church and I couldn’t help but imagine these fictional characters within the Church premises.


Santa Cruz Basilica

After a brief stop at Santa Cruz Basilica, it was time to head to the Indo-Portuguese Museum. Located in the complex of the Bishop’s House, the museum in its basement encloses the last remains of the Portuguese fort that once stood there, whereas in its upper area one can find various interesting artefacts from the Portuguese era including precious and intricately carved statues, ornaments, copper plates and Bishop’s headgear.


Last remains of the once standing Portuguese Fort on the island.

Walking in the serene streets I reached the Dutch Cemetery by the Fort Cochin Beach, which for obvious reasons was kept locked, but one can look at it and click pictures from the gates.


Quaint streets of the island.

A trip to Kerala without a Kathakali performance is incomplete.  Hence with pre booked ticket, I headed straight to Kerala Kathakali Centre where before the performance, the artists apply the make up too in front of the audience. Kathakali is an intricate dance form which has a story but no speech. All the bits of the story are communicated via the expressions of the performers in gaudy outfits, which were explained to the audience before the show.

The road to Mattancherry from Fort Cochin is dotted with interesting features. Wall graffiti adorning the houses, the sea making its way inland, spice shops and what not. It makes for a gratifying visual treat. After crossing the Dutch Palace, the road gives way to Jew Town which has its own unique air.





Our Lady of Life’s Church in Mattancherri, on the way to Jew Town.

Jew Town, where handful of Cochin’s Jews live today. Jews of the First Diaspora came on this island in 72 CE after their exodus from Palestine by the hands of Romans who destroyed the second temple. They were welcomed into Cochin by the then Rajah. The Jewish community expanded and established multitude of synagogues across Cochin, one of them, 460 year old Pardesi Synagogue still stands tall in Jew Town. After the formation of Israel, the Jews started migrating en masse and today, only a 9 Jews remain in Jew Town.


Jew Street during the early hours before the tourist commotion begins.


Jew Street during the tourist hours.

Jew town, once the bastion of Cochin Jews, today comprises of spice and antique shops-almost all owned by non Jews-targeting tourists. Above the shops are the houses (in the picture above) where the last remaining Jews live. Some elderly Jews can be seen peeping out of the windows, maybe wondering what happened to their quaint little town and reminiscing the old days when the bell on the Synagogue clock would strike every hour and shake up that laidback street-then devoid of hawkers and tourists-out of its slumber, where they would celebrate Hanukkah and Yom Kippur with the entire community and when they had enough people for the Sabbath prayers.

Sarah Cohen, at 90, she is the oldest Jewess living on the island. She runs her quaint little embroidery shop selling Jewish items such as the Kippah, table clothes etc. in the front portion of the house she lives in.  A Malyalam AIR FM station was tuned in on the radio as I entered her store. Sitting by the doorway, Sarah in her orange frock was reading a book in Hebrew (religious texts?). Inside her store, apart from the items for sale, you’ll find many pictures adorning the wall, including hers from her younger days, her staring into the camera from behind a blue door, a black and white group picture of the diaspora, an old gramophone on the cabinet etc. She has seen the island transform in front of her eyes. A part of which she has preserved through the photographs and artefacts in her store. It was a pleasure meeting her.


Sarah Cohen, the oldest living Jew of Jew Town at her embroidery store.


At the end of the Jew street lies the Pardesi Synagogue.

The blue-tiled Cochin synagogue… No two are identical. The tiles from Canton, 12 x 12 approx ‘orted by Ezekiel Rabhi in the year 1100 CE, covered the walls and ceiling of the little synagogue. Legends had begun stick to them. Some said that if you explored for long enough i your own story in one of the blue-and-white squares the pictures on the tiles could change, were changing generation by generation, to tell the story of the Cochin Jews. Still others were convinced that the tiles were prophecies, the keys to whose meanings had been lost with the passing years.

Scene after blue scene passed before her eyes. There were tumultuous marketplaces and crenellated fortress-palaces and fields under cultivation and thieves in jail, there were high, toothy mountains and great fish in the sea. Pleasure gardens were laid out in blue, and blue-bloody battles were grimly fought; blue horsemen pranced beneath lamplit windows and blue-masked ladies swooned in arbours. O, and intrigue of courtiers and dreams of peasants and pigtailed tallymen at their abacuses and poets in their cups. On the walls floor ceiling of the little synagogue.

That’s how Rushdie paints the picture of the synagogue in Moor’s… (apologies for bringing up the reference again, but that book was central to my trip). The tiles in reference are the beautiful hand painted Chinese tiles that adorn the floor of the synagogue, imported by a certain Rabii Ezekiel (from China?). Blue, and though they may seem identical, all are different. After having read so much about them in Moor’s… it was exhilarating walking on them. So much of history below my feet… A look above and one can see the chandeliers and lanterns hanging, and the central segment where the Torah scrolls are placed.

The synagogue is still a functioning place of worship, which is reminded to the visitors by the caretaker asking them to maintain silence as ’it is not a museum’. Talking about museum, the synagogue complex also consists of a gallery depicting the history of Cochin Jews in pictorial format from 72 CE till date.
The lady issuing tickets at the Synagogue is one of the few remaining Jews on the island. I introduced myself as a blogger writing a piece on Fort Cochin and asked her some general questions about the community. One thing that struck was me that they can’t offer the Sabbath prayers as there are not enough people in the community, hence they are able to offer it only when some Jew from outside visits them to add up the number of people to 10, which is the least number required.


The Jewish cemetery.


Spices. It was in lure of these that the Portuguese came to the shores of Cochin. The spices continue to be sold here till date. Mattancherry is replete with such spice and antique shops.

After the Jewish cemetery, it was Dutch Palace on the itinerary, the palace was gifted by the Dutch to the Rajah of Cochin and is now converted to a museum. I didn’t find it interesting. I went in there expecting to get the insights of the Dutch era of Cochin about which not much is written, but instead it was replete with the history of the royal family Travancore.

After another tiring day, it was time to relax a bit by the beach and let the Arabian Sea kiss my feet. It felt good to be by the beach again after I left Bombay. I headed back to the beach again in the night after a dinner of beef fry and sat on the sands till late, listening to the sound of the waves crashing under the starry sky… If only it wasn’t for the mosquitos…


Fort Cochin Beach.

And with that came to an end, the three day long excursion on the shores of the Arabian Sea. A fruitful weekend it turned out to be…

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