March 2019


Kochi: Ancient And Modern, This Is A City Of Contrasts
March 2019




The Chinese fishing nets date back 500 years but to this day, remain a much used technique

Tell folks that you are going to Kochi and chances are you will get looks of surprise. Few travellers to Asia know of this historic, beautiful city in the southern Indian state of Kerala, which is a good thing. It means the city's landmarks aren't overrun with tourists, giving those who venture this way an opportunity to have a more authentic, less overtly touristy experience.

Words: Lauren Kramer

Kochi is located on the Arabian Sea coastline and wherever you travel in the city, you're not far from serene views of the slowly drifting backwaters, their surfaces dotted with floating plant life. This is a city where old and brand new exist in seeming contradiction. Take Kochi's new solar-powered airport as an example - the first of its kind worldwide and a stunning display of progress. Drive to or from the airport and you cannot miss the 46,000 solar panels spread over 45 acres. They produce up to 60,000 units of electricity daily, enough to power the airport and deliver excess power to the Kerala State Electricity Board.


That is the ‘new' Kochi, with its solar progress, people texting on their mobile phones, and its fashionable first-world Centre Square Mall in the bustling district of Ernakulum. But there's also the ‘old' Kochi, where coconuts are sold road-side, cultural and religious traditions from centuries ago are closely guarded and historic sites date back hundreds of years.


The place to explore one of the most interesting sites is Jew Town, a small neighbourhood in Kochi that was once the centre of Jewish life. When the Maharaj of Kochi learned there were Jews fleeing persecution in the late 1700s, he welcomed them to the city with open arms and maintained close ties to the community. The Jews flourished in Kochi and built several synagogues over the years - but only one remains today: the 450-year-old Paradesi Synagogue. Step inside the two-story structure and you can feel the spirituality that lingers within. Exquisite oil lamps hang from the roof and the floors are lined with hand-painted Chinese tiles. Though the Jewish community has long since emigrated to other regions of the world, the narrow streets of Jew Town are filled with their memories: homes with window bars decorated with stars of David and a store selling decorative items of Jewish interest.


If there's one image that's emblematic of Kochi, it's that of the Chinese fishing nets. Most visible from an ancient area of the city known as Fort Kochi, the fishing nets are a legacy from Chinese traders dating back to the 1400s. They constitute a dramatic sight, appearing like large spider webs that arch out over the water from rustic wooden docks, and they are lowered into the ocean to catch what they can. Some of that catch is sold by street vendors on the boardwalk of Fort Kochi. Filled with interesting sights and sounds, the boardwalk is a magnet for locals and visitors to the city - a place to marvel at the ocean views, sample fried delicacies, peruse the wares of fishmongers and other outdoor retailers and get away from the noise and smog of the roadways.


Walk the streets of Fort Kochi and you will see colourful Portuguese and Dutch-era houses, now occupied by hotels, boutiques and artsy cafés and restaurants. The stores are a fun place to shop for fabulous Indian textiles and bright, feminine kurtis, while the restaurants offer great local fare at remarkably low prices.


A short walk from the centre of Fort Kochi is the St Francis CSI Church, India's oldest church dating back to 1503. This was the original burial place of the seafaring Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, whose remains were later exhumed and sent to a Lisbon monastery. Inside the church, an ancient stone tablet is inscribed with his name, located near what was once his gravesite. The St Francis, a protestant church, remains a house of prayer to this day. It's a beautiful structure with whitewashed walls and old pews with fabric drapes above them, used to fan the worshipers sweating in the tropical heat in pre-electricity times.


Ernakulum is the ‘city centre' of Kochi and a place teeming with people and heavy traffic, day and night. If time permits, stroll through the marketplace, where merchants sell inexpensive copperware, sweets, stationery and house supplies. Try the local fare, particularly matta rice, a fluffy, fat, red grain that's a Kerala special. Coconut trees are abundant in this state and their rich coconut milk is used ubiquitously to create a tasty assortment of dishes, sauces and desserts. And before you leave, find a mehndi artist and treat yourself to some hand art. The intricate patterns artists paint on the hands and arms are a visual masterpiece. Best of all, they stay on for up to a week, leaving lasting memories.

 

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    The Paradesi Synagogue is a significant historic site, with handpainted Chinese tiles on its floors and decorative oil lamps

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    Kochi's new, state-of-the-art airport is the world's first fully solar-powered airport

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    Loafer's Corner or Princess Street is one of the oldest streets in Fort Kochi and popular among visitors

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    The ancient tradition of mehndi with decorative designs is a unique form of body art

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