There’s a little of Goa and Mumbai about Kochi, say folks as they watch the lap-lap of the backwaters flowing into the Arabian Sea beyond.
One sees the old world charm of Kochi when the haze of urbanisation lifts every now and then. Mattancherry, the Jewish Synagogue, Fort Kochi, the Chinese nets and ruins of Dutch and Portuguese heritage strewn around are a few of Kochi’s lingering sights. The charm of a trip up to Fort Kochi lies in the boat trip across the backwaters.
There are state transport boat services across to Mattancherry and Fort Kochi. Pay Rs 4 for a one-time trip to Fort Kochi from the Ernakulam jetty. It’s the same rate to Vypeen and Mattancherry. There are services every half an hour which will ferry you back to the mainland. Bliss indeed! No crowds, no vehicles screeching past. It’s just you, the boat, the water, and the horizon.
The service at 9.20 am is ideal for any tourist. Along the vast expanse of the water lie the shipyard and ships in anchor. Thirty minutes from Ernakulam jetty and the boat pulls up at Fort Kochi jetty. You are in for a shock as you walk into Vasco Da Gama Square. Is this Fort Kochi or Thrissur Pooram? Such is the crowd here at the best of seasons.
Fort Kochi almost bursts at its seams every year when the great carnival ushers in the New Year. The place turns into an ocean of fair faces mixed with the dark, a perfect study in the contrast of colours. A lot of westerners who flock to Fort Kochi are inheritors of a past colonial legacy. The Dutch, the Portuguese, the British and the Jews who once lorded it over Fort Kochi, left their seeds behind and those who left Cochin shores were inexorably drawn to the place, for here existed their past, their love and their lives. Every year, Jewish visitors come calling to see the old synagogue and get a feel of what life must have been years ago.
The crowds start pouring in by mid-November and there’s a swell by December. It all but bursts by New Year.
Portuguese-born Mariam Agnes was all set for Goa to ring in the New Year. She had landed in Fort Kochi with plans to stay here through November. The Dutch couple George and Kamili was also enjoying every bit of their stay here. Pedalling their way through the narrow lanes of Fort Kochi, the couple got to learn a lot about the Dutch influence over the place. What’s New Year without being a part of the Fort Kochi carnival, they ask.
When the season peaks, it’s impossible not to be knocked off by the crowds along the walkway from Vasco Square to the beach. There’s a surge in the crowd around the Chinese nets who’d give anything to haul up the nets with their fresh catch of fish. Those who jump into the water are invariably folks from North India. Fort Kochi is every tourist’s photo spot. Foreign tourists scout round the place to get the best shots against the backdrop of the sea. And thanks to that great social leveler called selfie, it’s a mad rush to be seen by the sea with faces known and unknown framing the camera.
As you turn away from the milling crowd at the beach and walk leftward, the road winds out to the old Dutch cemetery. There’s a strange quiet over the place. The centuries-old place holds the grave stones of the illustrious dead. All that’s left of a glorious past lies here in dust forgotten by the history of over two hundred years that swept over it.
The next stop is the lane opposite to the Bob Marley cafe where David Hall stands. The David Hall bungalow is a reminder of Hendrik Van Rheede, the Governor of Dutch Malabar, who conceived the book Hortus Malabaricus. The building today is an art gallery and has a cafe operating out of it.
Another sight for keeps is the 500-year-old St Francis Church built by the Portuguese. Very much like the Bom Jesus Church in Goa where the remains of St Francis are preserved, the St Francis Church in Fort Kochi with its altar, facade and steeples, are an almost exact replica of the church in Goa. The remains of Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama who came to Fort Kochi centuries ago, were interred here in the church. Though the remains were carried back to his homeland, the spot where they were laid is still revered by visitors.
As the season peaks up, it’s a field day for guides. You find guides here who speak up to eight languages. They hang around foreigners, taking them to every nook where history sleeps, showing them pictures, maps and shopping stops. But not one shows up around Mallu or North Indian crowds!
Princess Street, Rose Street, Ridsdale Road, Quiros Street, Peter and Shelley Street, Napier Street, Lily Street, Elphinstone Road, Parade Palace and Bristow Bungalow are the landmarks that comprise Fort Kochi. Unlike in Goa where vestiges of Portuguese life lie sprawling across vast land stretches, their representation lie in the narrow streets and alleys of Fort Kochi … a mini Goa.
Mattancherry is also another old-world reminder where visitors throng the Dutch palace and synagogue. The clock tower set up in front of the synagogue stands to this day as a reminder of what it once was centuries ago, a symbol of Jewish culture. The crowds pour in into the five-century-old synagogue. Caste, creed, color and race hold no meaning here when people bow their heads in reverence before the ancient altar. Four families of Jews still live around the synagogue, guarding their heritage in a foreign land. They will live here to the last man standing, guarding their church, no matter what. They also manage the tourists visiting the synagogue.
The Jews Street is a cultural experience. It’s a veritable market, redolent of the old Spice Route, where foreigners and natives alike haggle over the price of everything from spices, to clothes and trinkets. The Dutch palace and museum are also sights to savor. Though the palace was built by the Portuguese and later fell into Dutch hands, it’s always been known as the Dutch Palace. But inside the “nalukettu”, what’s left behind are the remains of the Kochi kings.
You can delight in the old-world charm of the town's intricate yet bright streets on a rented bicycle or scooter. It will also allow you to take a detour, whenever you like, to grab a bite at one of the many trendy cafes of the town that offer great breakfast menus.
As for food, there are eateries aplenty around serving anything from local to continental. Walk into Kayikka’s biryani joint and there’s still the old man’s legacy of rich food around. A plate of Kayikka’s biryani with dates pickle to lick is a gastronomic treat.
The Fort Kochi sights over, one can move on to Thevara where the Kerala Folklore Museum sits. Set up seven years ago, the museum, built in traditional Kerala style like a palace, houses exhibits of traditional arts, temple arts and artifacts which speak volumes of Kerala’s art, tradition and culture.
The design of the structure is quaint in that the ground floor is designed in Malabar style, the first floor in Kochi design and the upper floor in Travancore style. The museum has a treasure trove of exhibits collected and sourced from all over Kerala over a long period of 40 years. The topmost floor turns into a venue where traditional and classical dance forms like kathakali and mohiniyattom, and the martial art of kalari payattu are staged.
If you have planned to spend more than a day at Fort Kochi, lodge in one of the many well-run home-stays near the Fort Kochi beach so you can enjoy an early morning walk/run along the beach. You might be surprised at the calm bustle of the place so early in the day. Try not to indulge too much in shopping trinkets and comfy cotton-wear from the galore of shops on the way to the beach. Rejuvenate yourself after the walk by gulping down fresh and sweet coconut water at the beach.
As you gaze at Fort Kochi when the boat takes you back to the mainland, you can see the sun dipping into the sea. An album of memories unfolds. The place may be small. It could be tucked into a corner of Goa or Mumbai, but it has a history, older and richer than that of any place in India.
How to reach Fort Kochi:
Ernakulam-Fort Kochi boats: Service runs from 4.40 am to 9.30 pm. There are services every 20 minutes.
Fort Kochi-Ernakulam: Service starts from Fort Kochi ferry from 5 am and winds up at 9.50 pm. Boats run every 20 minutes.
Ernakulam-Mattancherry: From 5.55 am to 6.45 pm.
Mattancherry-Ernakulam: From 6.40 am to 7.30 pm. Services every 30 minutes from Mattancherry ferry.
Synagogue visiting time: 10 am to 1 pm; 3 pm to 5 pm. The place is closed in the evening on Friday.
Dutch Palace: 10 am to 1 pm; 3 pm to 5 pm.
Kerala Folklore Museum (Thevara Ferry Junction): 9 am to 9 pm. Phone: 0484 2665452.
For more details on Fort Kochi: 0484 271761 (Tourist Desk).