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  • Shelley Dark

20. Kochi (Cochin)

We wake in Cochin to the sight of a busy waterway below our hotel window.

The city is on a huge lake, 90 kilometres long and 8 kilometres at its widest. Built near the outlet to the Arabian Sea, it's a thriving seaport. The waterway reminds me a little of Istanbul, with oil tankers, passenger liners, container ships, ferries, private boats, pilots and shipping of all descriptions moving in an ordered chaos. It’s 8m deep and 14m in the shipping channels. There are man-made islands.

Just the name Cochin evokes romance, tropical nights, and the Malabar coast. We learn that the emphasis should be on the tropical part. It’s very hot and very humid. When we walk out of our hotel, it hits us with a blast. We are soon sweating profusely, shirts wet through. I had forgotten what it's like.

At the front door of the hotel, a bowl of lotus flowers.

After a ferry ride across to the old fort area, we explore with our local guide, Marcus.

Vasco da Gama landed near here in 1498 and soon afterwards built a fort and a church with the permission of the Raja of Cochin who was seeking an ally. The Portuguese left for Goa in 1530, and it was later occupied by the Dutch and the British.

Along the waterfront are the famous Chinese fishing nets. They were introduced by Portuguese from Macau. They work on a cantilever system, with ropes strung over a high tripod of poles.

Huge rocks are attached as counterweights.

To lower the net into the sea, a man walks out along a horizontal beam and the whole suspended net lowers gracefully into the water. When it’s raised, several men pull on the ropes on the shore. It rises into the air, hopefully full of fish.

We visit the Dutch Palace, built by the Portuguese as a gift to the Raja of Cochin around 1555. The Dutch renovated it a century later which is where it got its name.

Inside, the walls are covered with fresco murals done between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. Unfortunately no photography is allowed.

They're absolutely marvellous, depicting stories of the Hindu gods. What captivates me is delicacy of the drawings and the exquisite colour palette. The characters and scenery are drawn in earth colours of black, dark and light brown, ochre, yellow through to palest yellow. All in a slightly muddy tone. The smaller highlighted features are in a most beautiful transparent celadon green. The murals have tromp l’oeil frames and below that there's panelling featuring small repeated geometric shapes with a tromp l’oeil skirting board. These murals alone are worth coming to Cochin. No representation could do them justice.

There is a long gallery of portraits of the rajas of Cochin. Each of the paintings has a whimsical three dimensional touch. Feet which change direction to follow you as you go past, a scroll which appears to change the direction it’s facing. It’s fun to go back and forward past them. We are fanning ourselves as we walk.

We see palanquins made of teak, totally enclosed. One is of carved ivory and silver. I ask the guide Marcus how the king or queen could have travelled in a closed palanquin in this oppressive heat and humidity. He replies ‘They had so much wealth those kings. It's fitting they suffered a little.’ He's trying to be funny, but I still wonder how they did it.

There is a glass display case with a sword gifted by the Prince of Wales to the raja in 1875, and a very grand iron spear in black and red, topped by an explosion of chook feathers. It was used by the royal attendants.

Paintings of men demonstrating the martial art known as kalaripayattu, practised since 2000BC. And photographs of royal babies lying on their tummies kicking their legs. Their eyes are rimmed with kohl and heavy jewellery hangs around their necks.

Close by the palace is, Marcus tells us, the oldest working synagogue in the British Commonwealth. I love the qualification to make it a superlative. No photography here at the Paradesi Synagogue either.

Although some 'black' Jewish people are supposed to have come to the area as sailors in 587BC in the time of King Solomon, a large group are said to have come here in 68AD. Some may have been converted to Christianity by Saint Thomas. The Paradesi Jews, also called 'white jews', settled in the Cochin region in the 16th century and later, following religious persecution in Spain and Portugal. They controlled the pepper and ivory trade. The raja of Cochin gave them this land.

The main part of the synagogue is for men-only worship, with women in the gallery above. Except tourists, who are allowed in the synagogue proper outside prayer times. There are only 6 jewish people left in this ‘parish’ (my word), but 90 in the wider Jewish community.

It’s simple and unadorned except for about 25 chandeliers of all different sizes and types delineating a rectangle on the ceiling around the central brass pulpit. No statues or figures are allowed. The walls are the softest powder blue plaster with faint markings reflecting the passing of time in a humid climate. At the end of the room, a large red flag covers what we are told is an ark containing the Torah scrolls.

The floor is covered by blue hand-painted tiles which look amazingly like Delft. Each one is different. They are actually Chinese.

We also visit St Francis Church. It was built in 1503, so a venerable age, simple architecture and the site of Vasco da Gama's tomb.

The skull and crossbones doesn't indicate pirates. It's the way we all end up. We've seen it in Chennai on old graves. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

After this visit we wander the streets of the old city for a while, vendors out on the street outside their shops calling ‘Welcome back’. It makes me laugh. I enter a shop here and there, as much for the owner to put the fans on to cool me as to look at their silver jewellery and fine cotton tops. I’m tempted to buy a top but it’s too hot to be bothered.

There's plenty of wildlife in the centre of town. These goats are walking somewhere with a purpose. No herder with them.

This matronly old girl was taking it easy in the shade.

This animal had the best idea of all. Wallowing in a puddle. In the middle of town.

These women make so little look so good.

Motorbikes are the popular form of transport. These are waiting for a ferry.

We see women turning dried ginger.

Cochin is emulating Rio.

The cottons are of beautiful quality, colourful and light.

I've no idea what the graffiti means.

It's all moss and decay. I'd decay too if I lived here.

And always the spices.

I love the architectural details.

The beautiful patina of the walls. The old, and the new.

Tiny mussels at a market.

The trucks are painted in bright colours and look like children's toys rather than work horses.

I think he'll fall off his motorbike if he doesn't stop ogling the ladies.

Some of the old homes are quite grand.

Going barefoot makes toe-rings a must-have fashion item.

More of Shiva's flower, this time a pale apricot.

A kindly soul in passing.

The only way to carry your overnight bag.

Sun umbrellas make such good sense.

Later in the afternoon, we board a boat for a cruise around the immediate waterways. It's much cooler on board, and the wind feels wonderful. Big Brazilian rain trees, samanea saman give the skyline a distinctive appearnce with high spreading canopies like an umbrella. They give welcome shade at the old fort area. We hear about Indian real estate, and the Dubai hypermarket businessman LuLu who is expanding here. The government has given him land as an NRI, non-residential-Indian. A man earns about $30 for 8 hours work and that there is a 93% literacy rate in Kerala. I can't comment on the accuracy.

A sleek old fishing boat with beautiful lines glides by.

There's a sadness about the abandoned skeletons.

Beautiful old buildings rotting away.

A vehicular ferry carries people too.

We see the Chinese fishing nets from the sea side in the late afternoon light.

We pull in to the main part of town. The jetty looks in danger of falling into the water itself.

It's close to the Brunton Boatyard where we are to have dinner.

It's a short walk to the the Kathakali Theatre where we see the brilliantly coloured make-up being applied before the performance.

It’s very hot inside the building watching the makeup being applied, even with fans whirring. Then it’s time for the performance. The blackened theatre is air-conditioned but it’s struggling to cope.

The shows begins with a power blackout. Two beautiful girls holding a tea-candle in each hand perform a welcome dance. The first part is in the dark.

A dancer dressed in a gold brocade dress comes out, fake hair flowing down his back and a matching headdress much like fairytale princess out of grimms fairy tales. He looks quite mature, with extreme blackened eyebrows and pouting red mouth. A narrator with a clear British accent describes what is happening. On the side of the stage there are two men with drums. One uses sticks, the other wears wooden finger caps.

He proceeds to demonstrate eye movement, rolling his eyes, moving them horizontally, opening them wide till they bulge. All in time to the drum beats. I can't believe he can do this for so long. Then he shows us the emotions. Happiness, sympathy, disgust, dismissal, coquettishness, grief. His facial expressions are extraordinary and I wonder at the years it must have taken to be trained to perform in this way.

Then another power blackout. The demon comes out and the dancing continues in the darkness. A story is enacted but the plot escapes me. A man (demon) in a voluminous skirts held out by hoops moves and the skirt rocks, his bare legs visible. His makeup is extraordinary. I know that he kills a woman and then wipes imaginary blood from his sword with disgust. We are sitting on very hard wooden seats, and I’m beginning to feel hot and my bottom is numb. I've absolutely loved this performance but it was a little too long.

When it's over we're invited to go to the stage to take photographs. I am torn between escaping, and capturing the shot. Of course the shot wins. Tourists are jumping up on stage to have their photos taken with the dancers. People are pushing. I hold my phone up high and press the button. It's good to reach the street.

Our dinner menu starts off stunningly. Coriander prawns.

Next a crab soup.

I pull up at the main course. It's described as a fish from the brackish backwaters. Someone should tell them to rewrite that one.

It's just after midnight on Friday morning. I'm sitting in the foyer of our hotel because the internet in our room is so slow I could fly the photos home to you more quickly. The foyer is quite something. I'm up at the back.

I've so much more to tell you but I'll keep it for tomorrow. Until then, travelling buddies, these were at the hotel in Bangalore where we had lunch.

shelley dark, writer 

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