Cochin, now known as Kochi is one of the principal seaports of the country. It was a major spice-trading centre on the Arabian Sea coast since the 14th century. The site of the first European colonial settlement in India, it was occupied by the Portuguese in the early 16th century, later by the Dutch, the Mysore and then the British.
Spread across a cluster of islands and promontories, it is beautifully located between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters. Its main sections, modern Ernakulam, and the older Mattancherry and Fort Cochin are linked through a complex system of waterways. Glimpses of Kochi’s past greets you at every corner of the old sections.
Located on the south-west coast of India, it is 95 sq kms with a population of 1.35 million.
Being just 10 degrees north of the equator, Kochi is moderately hot and humid throughout the year. The temperature hits a summer high of 35C and a winter high of 25C. December to February is the best season to visit Kochi. Heavy rainfall and fertile soil support luxuriant vegetation. The midland areas mostly support coconut palms, paddy, tapioca, pepper and pulses. Monkeys, elephants and ungulates are the main mammals found here.
Popular shopping areas in Kochi are the Marine Drive, Broadway Road and the MG Road where one can find modern malls but the more interesting buys would definitely be coir handicrafts, nuts and spices. Mattancherry would be the place for spice shopping.
There are hundreds of restaurants in Kochi offering a variety of food from fast food to North Indian to Lebanese. Make sure to sample the grilled sampi and lobsters, karimeen (a local delicacy), Malabari fish molee, and Malayalee fried prawns. With its long coastline, it is not surprising why Kochi flaunts seafood dishes.
Kochi has hundreds of hotels, some of best being the Taj Malabar, Taj Residency, Le Meridien, Bolghatty Palace Hotel, Kamyakam Haven Resort, Cherai Beach Resorts, Hotel Renaissance, Jacob’s Holiday Home, the Trident, the Brunton Boat Yard, and Quality Inn Presidency.
Fort Kochi Beach
The architecture in this quiet part of town is distinctly European with beautiful houses built by wealthy British traders, and Dutch cottages with split farmhouse doors. Along with the many treats that Kochi has to offer, the serene beach is a major attraction with a fort in the backdrop.
Chinese fishing nets
Unique to Kochi is the Chinese fishing net or Cheenavala that are used by the local fishermen. Along with the backwaters, these nets that line the northern shore of Fort Cochin must constitute the most familiar images of Kerala. The nets suspended from poles, are operated by a system of levers and weights and require at least four men to operate one of them.
St Francis Church
Said to be the first and oldest church built by Europeans in India, the façade with its multi-curved sides became the model for most churches in India. Under the Dutch, the church was renovated and became Protestant in 1663, then Anglican with the taking over of the British in 1795. Since 1949, it has been attached to the Church of South India. A residual influence of the British is the use of the ‘punkhas’, large swinging cloth fans on frames suspended above, operated by ‘punkha walas’.
There are various tombstone inscriptions on the walls, the earliest dating back to 1562. Vasco da Gama was buried here in 1524, but his body was later removed and taken to Portugal.
Dutch Palace(Mattancherry Palace)
Originally built by the Portuguese as a gift to the Raja of Cochin, Vira Keralavarman (1537 – 61), it was later renovated and modified by the Dutch in the 17th century. It is located a short walk form the Mattancherry Jetty in the opposite direction from the Jew Town. Though the exterior is not attractive, the interior is striking. The murals on the first floor are among the best of Kerala’s paintings depicting stories from the Ramayana. The paintings downstairs in the women’s bedchambers are less complex. The other items of interest in the palace are Dutch maps of old Cochin, coronation robes of past maharajas, royal palanquins, weapons and furniture.
Located near the Dutch Palace, this synagogue was built with Dutch patronage and is the only one among the seven synagogues in the area still in use. Its interiors are a strange but attractive mix of various influences; the floor is paved with blue and white eighteenth century hand painted tiles from China, the nineteenth-century oil-burning glass chandeliers from Belgium, a gallery reserved for the female congregation just above the entrance, and opposite this gallery, an ark encased in silver and gold housing the Torah. On the ark are placed golden crowns presented by the Maharajas of Travancore and Cochin signifying their good relations with the Jewish community. A fourth-century copperplate inscription from the Raja of Cochin is the oldest artifact in the Synagogue.
Kathakali dance shows
Kathakali is the traditional dance form of Kerala. It is a dance-drama theatre in which artistes with elaborate make-up take on the stage for no less than three hours enacting stories from epics like the Mahabharata and Ramayana. The facial make-up can take up to about three hours to paint. The dance skills and stamina comes from vigorous training based on Kalaripayattu, the ancient martial art of Kerala, which may vary from 8 – 10 years. There are daily performances at the India Foundation, Cochin Cultural Centre and the Kerala Kathakali Centre.
Kochi has been an important spice-trading centre since the early days. The spice market at Mattancherry is a profusion of sights and smells, a subtle testimony to the frenetic trading port it once was. Numerous little shops negotiate prices for tea, chilly, rubber, jute, turmeric, cashew, ginger, cardamom, pepper and a host of other spices, as cartloads of produce are transported between warehouses all adding to the hectic atmosphere of the market.