S.India- day 6&7: Kochi

Long overdue post on the last leg of our trip! Here it goes…

Kochi, we started off on the wrong foot. You are not too bad after all!

Kochi, also known as Cochin, is a port city on the Arabian sea. It has a long, interesting story, having found it’s prosperity through the abundance of the land: spices such as pepper, cloves, mace and nutmeg, a myriad of medicinal plants and nuts, the oils extracted from them, and coir.  Merchants from faraway lands- the Phoenicians, the Persian, the ancient Greeks, the roman empire, China and the Arabs- all flocked to this region to have a part of the riches.  This area, now called Kerala, has known religious and cultural diversity for millennia, as well as relative peace between the communities. Two important  indigenous religious practices are what we now know as Hinduism and Jainism. Since the 1st century CE, Christianity has been present in Kerala, having been brought, legend has it, by John the Apostle. Judaism also arrived in this part of India between the 1st century BCE and CE, and the jewish community thrived until the middle of the 20th century, the overwhelming majority of whom emigrated to the newly formed Israel. Islam also first arrived with the arabic merchants, around the 7th century CE. Then came the europeans in the 15th century, first the Portuguese, later the Dutch, finally the British. The Europeans, unlike the previous traders, stablished permanent settlements, and they too wanted their share of political control, and they knew how to get it. Vasco da Gama, the famous Portuguese explorer, is often quoted as having said that he came to India looking for Christians and spices.

But back to Cochin. It is here that you can get a view of this elaborate past, all concentrated in one tiny territory, Fort Cochin, the old town. In a big sentence: colonial architecture, Christian churches, Mosques, Jain temples, Hindu temples, small busy commercial streets, a proliferation of hotels and homestays, restaurants, cookie-cutter backpacker souvenir shops, a swarm of rickshaw drivers following you around, herds of playful goats, and some imposing rain trees.

We visited the Paradesi or Mattancherry synagogue, as it is called, that was built in 1567. It was very busy, and very hot… It was also pretty, with chinese blue porcelain tiles lining the floors and many glass chandeliers. We learned that the Jewish community was very diverse in Cochin, composed of the descendants of those practicing the faith in Kerala  since the 1st century CE (often called in texts and articles the “black or malabari jews”), and others, descendants of sephardim from Spain and the Netherlands (called Pardesi or  White jews) that came later.

The street leading to the synagogue. You can see it's clock-tower in front of us.
The street leading to the synagogue. You can see it’s clock-tower in front of us.

After acquiring so much new knowledge we needed to sit down, have some drinks and eat. We went to a restaurant called the Ginger House, that we found by accident. It’s at the end of a busy and very interesting series of huge warehouses filled with a mesmerizing collection of things. I say things, because the variety was such that I’m not sure how to describe what they sold in a single word. There were wooden things (statues, tables, chairs, trays, toys, crucifixes), metal things (religious artifacts, tea trays, toys, chandeliers, boxes), antiques in all shapes and sizes, soaps, vintage posters, stone things (you get the idea)…. It was very nice to browse through, want to buy everything, and end up too flustered having to decide on a single thing that fits in your tiny bag. Oh, they even had vintage phones – candlestick telephones ( i just learned what they are called), that Little M loved it (“Alooooooo?”). Anyhow, we managed to find the “other-side” of the big warehouse and there was a restaurant, overlooking the water. We had a nice little meal of cashew and paneer curry, appam (fermented rice pancake), chapatti (wheat flat-bread), rice and mango pickles. Yummy. We began drinking a lot of lemon soda in Cochin, I’m not sure why.  Mr. A liked the ginger version, ginger lemon soda.

Lunch: Panner and cashew curry at the Ginger House.
Lunch: Panner and cashew curry at the Ginger House.
The humble ginger lemon soda
The humble ginger lemon soda

Because I’m writing this so many days after it happened, I can’t remember exactly the order of things. I’m sure you’ll get over it. I’ll tell you what I remember and found interesting enough to share.

We visited the St. Francis Church, first built by the Portuguese in 1503 (and renovated many times since then). What caught our eye was how bare it looked. I had assumed it to be a catholic church,and had a south american style in mind,  and was surprised by the lack of crucifixes and of golden decorations. I now know it is actually under the governance of the Church of South India, which is more of a Protestant- Anglican church, following many changes under the different colonizing powers. I learned that the christian community in Kerala is also very diverse, overwhelmingly diverse for me to write about it here, let alone to fully understand.  But briefly, the Saint Thomas Christians, or Syrian Christians, or Nasrani  (phew!) is the community of  those who trace their religious origin to Saint Thomas since the 1st century CE. They originally were part of the Church of the East, with strong ties to Syria and Persia. The Portuguese however brought their own version of Christianity, centered in latin liturgy (as opposed to Syriac liturgy),  obeying different authorities. Conflict followed, of course, as the Portuguese were as interested in religious conversion as in the spice trade. Then came the Dutch and the British, with their own versions, notably protestantism. History explains the many layers, the many divisions and subdivisions in the christian faith in Kerala found nowadays: catholic, protestant, orthodox churches, independent branches…. I wish we had planned a stay with a Syrian Christian family, it would’ve been very interesting. Next time!

But how was it to actually visit the church? It was touristy, it was hectic, and people wanted photos with little M. We agreed to the first two. Then we didn’t want to agree to more and a group of young boys became almost aggressive! “-She’s shy, no photos this time. – No! She’s not shy! One photo!…one photo!” (snapping away as we ran out, whaaaaaat?). Once out, away from the paparazzi, the rickshaw drivers were waiting (“Hellooooooo, where do you want to go, I’ll give you very good price, I ‘ll show you very nice places, sir! sir!!!!!!!!!” ). It’s actually funny now, wasn’t too funny then. I think it takes practice to stay cool under touristy attacks. We don’t have enough practice.

Speaking of touristy things, we went two nights in a row to see indian classical dances, at two different venues.  The first, the Kerala Kathali Center is the same I visited a decade ago (wow), and that had impressed me very much at the time, not necessarily for the quality of the arts , but simply from the atmosphere and the connection I felt to the place and the dancers. However, the place had been remodeled, and was now a two story building, with air-con, and a sound system. It felt very different. The second venue was the Greenix Village, the archetypal tourist trap.

The first venue has a 1.5 hour Kathakali presentation, with a small introduction to the art form, and a nice paper english translation of what we were about to see. The second venue had a 1 hour kathakali show, followed by a half hour of mohinyattam, bharathanatyam, kalaripayattu and another keralan dance (forgot the name). I’m no expert, but I am not completely ignorant about these art forms either. I actually studied Bharatanatyam for 3 years myself (one of the classical dances of South India), and in University did some research on Indian dances. I’m telling you this for two reasons: first, so that you will believe me when I say that the show at the Greenix Village is not very good; secondly, so that you will understand how proud I felt because Little M loves Kathakali. For those of you who didn’t study Indian Arts in university, I will briefly explain 😉  I am tempted to write a whole book about it here, but I will be quick. India has about 8 classical dances (the number changes according to the definition of “classical”). They are codified, revered, intimately linked to the hindu religion and to the sanskrit philosophies. Most were until very recently temple dances, meant as a ritual. Now they have become more show-like, although the religious connection is very much present, and they are still danced within the temples. Kathakali is one of these classical dances, originating in the state of Kerala. It is more of a theater-dance, than proper dance. It has a codified sign language (mudras), that the dancers use to tell the story. The costumes and make-up are grand, symbolic and very meticulous. It is also plain boring. Let me explain: it is mostly a theatrical performance using a codified sign-language. If you don’t understand the sign language the dancers are using, and you don’t understand the chants narrating the story, and you don’t have the cultural knowledge about the mythological story being told, well…. Don’t misunderstand me I find it fascinating, and I understand the extraordinary cultural value it has. If you have the opportunity, you should see it. But I can understand why Mr. A soon nodded off, into a somewhat deep sleep, and why the touristy performances keep it short and sweet. The real performances can last the whole night. Well, it turns out, Little M LOVED Kathakali. I am talking, 1.5 hours of awe, fascinated by the performance, and now back home, multiple bursts of spontaneous kathakali, her interpretation of course, which is hilarious. And I am one proud, proud mother.

Kerala Kathakali Center
Kerala Kathakali Center
Kathakali dancer (photo from wikipedia)
Kathakali female character (photo from wikipedia)

So, as you see, we did cultural things. But we also ate very well. The highlights in Kochi were the Kashi Art Cafe, and the Malabar House hotel’s restaurant (Malabar Junction). We were very impressed by both.

Breakfast at the Kashi Art Cafe- spinach and cheese omelette
Breakfast at the Kashi Art Cafe- spinach and cheese omelette
Breakfast at the Kashi Art Cafe- cinnamon breakfast cake
Breakfast at the Kashi Art Cafe- cinnamon breakfast cake
Thali at the Malbar Junction
Thali at the Malbar Junction
Thali close-up
Thali close-up

Overall we did enjoy Kochi, but it was a bit of a shock after the serenity of the backwaters. We also felt like we were missing out on a lot because we didn’t hire a guide. Next time we probably will.

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