Many of our acquaintances expressed some surprise when we told them that we were going to spend 12 days in Fort Cochin ('Cochin'). They thought that we would get bored, and suggested that we left the place for a few days to see the Backwaters or some of the Keralan nature reserves. We did spend 12 days in Cochin, but did not follow our friends' advice. We discovered, as I hope to show, that there is plenty to see in Cochin and that, maybe, 12 days is not long enough.
The climate in Cochin is hot and extremely humid. Therefore, it is best to take things at a leisurely pace; try to 'chill-out' (if that is possible in such a hot climate) rather than rush. Try to spend a lot of time eating and drinking - Cochin is full of lovely places to refresh body and mind (see my article about eating in Cochin by clicking HERE)
The place to which we kept returning at least once every day was the stretch of beach where the Chinese Fishing Nets operate. These nets were introduced to Kerala either by the Chinese explorer Zheng He (1371-1433) or by Portuguese settlers from Macau. A net stretched between 4 connected rods forms the base of a pyramidical structure. This is attached to a long lever which carries stone counterweights at its landward end. Periodically, the net is lowered beneath the water and left there for a while. Then a number of men, assisted by the counterweights, raise the laden net fom the water.
The contents of the nets consist mainly of the weeds that float on the water, and are emptied into crates. One of the fisherman sifts through the weeds looking for seafood (see below). Small, immature fish are chucked back into the sea, and anything that can be sold is sorted into containers.
One needs to visit the nets often to be lucky enough to see a net 'in action'. A path runs alongside the nets. Fisherman offer the passersby fresh fish, which they suggest you buy to take to nearby restaurants to cook. Other people try to sell a wide variety of products, mostly of little use! If all this activity is too much for you, there are more 'Chinese' nets to be seen across the waters on nearby Vypen Island.
The ferry stations for Vypen are close to the Fort Cochin Bus Stand. You can use the foot passenger ferry (see above), which has a special 'ladies only, section at its stern, or the vehicle carrying ferry on which men, women, autorickshaws, two-wheelers, cars, and trucks, mingle freely. The nets at Vypen stand facing those across the waters in Cochin, but without any crowds near them.
Vypen has a beautiful church that dates back to the Portuguese invasion of Kerala (see below).
An autorickshaw or bus from the Vypen landing stage will transport the visitor over a bridge across a stretch of water to Vallarpadam Island, where the twin-towered Basilica of Our Lady of Ransom (see next 2 pictures below) stands in splendid isolation and attracts many pilgrims.
Returning to Cochin from which we hardly ever strayed, let us now look at some of Cochin's churches. Not far from the Chinese nets and almost opposite the grounds of the Fort Cochin Club - a fine example of British colonial architecture, which can be viewed by non-members through its gates, is St Francis Church. Now a Protestant church, it was once Roman Catholic. It was built by the Portuguese. The altar which they installed (see below) is now housed in the fascinating Indo-Portuguese Museum (very well worth a visit) in the compound of the Bishop's Palace on Elphinstone Road.
Today, that altar has been replaced by a newer one. The general appearance of the church's interior is rather dull except for the hand-operated punkahs (ie. ventilators, see below)that are suspended above the pews.
Look out for the gravestone marking the resting place of Vasco da Gama who died in Cochin. His body was later taken to Lisbon in Portugal. The walls of the church and especially the estern end of it are lined with Dutch (see below) and Portuguese gravestones.
Near to St Francis is the marvellously stocked Idiom bookshop. This is a booklover's paradise, but do not expect any bargains!
The Basilica of Santa Cruz (see above), now a Roman Catholic Church, stands further away from the coast than St Francis. Its interior (see below) is nothing special but worth visiting briefly. For those who like attending masses, they are available in Malayalam, English, and also Latin.
However, the church is located close to a truly wonderful Italian restaurant called Upstairs.
St Peter and Paul is a less visited church, but most interesting. Located in Tower Road, it serves an Orthodox Syrian congregation. It is said that the Syrian Orthodox Christians in India began worshipping in the Orthodox rite following their conversion by St Thomas in 52 ad. Whatever their origins, these Christians worship according to rites that resemble those practised by Orthodox Christians in the Balkans and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Over the centuries, the Syrian Christians in India have become divided into numerous different sects. Those that worship at this particular church in Tower Road look to a spritual leader not in Syria but somewhere in Kerala.
The high altar of the church is hidden not by an iconostasis, as in Orthodox churches in Europe, but by a curtain rather like that found in a theatre. The picture above shows this as found in St Mary's Orthodox Cathedral in Ernakulam. The church in Tower Road in Fort Cochin contains an interesting carved tablet (see below).
It is carved, so we were informed, in Syriac (a dialect of Middle Aramaic) script. The bible (see below) used in this church is bilingual - Malayalam and Syriac. I hope to write much more about this fascinating church in a future article.
Another church well worth visiting is St Lawrence at Edacochi, which can easily reached on a local bus (see below) that starts at Fort Cochin bus stand.
This attractive Roman Catholic church was established by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Close to the weed covered waterway, this church has a lovely white-painted facade and a bell tower with 'arabesque' features.
When we visited it, a christening was in its final stages (see below). The congregation were very friendly and some of them spoke with us afterwards.
Regular buses connect Edacochi with Mattancherry, but the latter can only be reached by autorickshaw from Fort Cochin. For many centuries, Mattancherry had a thriving Jewish community. Now, only a handful of very elderly Jews live there. We met one of them - an old lady called Sara Cohen, who supervises the running of a shop (see below) selling woven material of Jewish interest (kippot etc.) There are not enough male Jews in the Cochin area to be able to hold services in the beautiful synagogue, which has now become a protected national monument.
The synagogue is well worth a visit.It has a beautiful floor covered by hand-painted Dutch tiles, each one a different design. The central bima made with brass is spectacular as are the many lamps that hang from the ceiling.
Many tourists swarm through the ancient synagogue, but it is worth sitting down and passing a few minutes inside. In between the bursts of visitors, it is a very peaceful place to linger. The synagogue is close to Jew Street, which ought to be renamed 'Kashmiri Street' as many of the shops lining this picturesque thoroughfare are now owned and run by people from Kashmir.
The Synagogue is right next to the Mattancherry (Dutch) Palace (see below). This contains some interesting frecoes, but these and the other exhibits are difficult to see because of the crowds of visitors streaming through the place. Give it a miss if you are pressed for time!
Halfway between Mattancherry and Fort Cochin, there is a delightful church with a Portuguese facade to be visited.
Its peaceful interior is quite decorative (see below)
Back in Fort Cochin, there are many more attractions. A small arch on Tower Road (near to the Tourist Police office) admits one to the old prison which is now open as a visitors' attraction.
On entering the jail's compound, you get to see a row of empty cells, whose doors open out onto a covered walkway. A number of photographs (see below for an example) commemmorate heroes of India's long struggle to become independent of the British.
Some distance away from the jail, and well beyond the vast grassy Parade Ground which is surrounded by a number of grand buildings dating back to Portuguese and Dutch times, there is the Dutch Cemetery. This was closed when we visited it, but the gates permit a good view of its well-spaced funereal monuments.
Even further away from the centre of Fort Cochin lies the Maritime Museum. Situated on Indian Navy Land, this place is a bit disappointing at first sight. But, do not be put off by first appearances! The grounds of this museum are filled with guns, weaponry, and other military hardware (see below). This is of limited interest in my opinion.
You should give the outdoor naval 'armamentarium' a cursory glance before entering the massive 'bunker' that contains the most interesting part of the museum. This pleasantly cool bunker cxontains a number of extremely fascinating exhibits relating to India's many century-long history of military warfare. One part of this that attracted my eye was an exhibit about the tracking of a Pakistani submarine that plied between West Pakistan and what is now Bangladesh (formerly 'East Pakistan') during the 1971 Bangladesh War.
There is another museum that must be visited. This is the Indo-Portuguese Museum, to which I have already briefly alluded. This is housed in the grounds of the Bishop's Palace (which is not open to the public). It has been handsomely endowed by the Gulbenkian Foundation and contains a good selection of exhibits dating back to the period during which Cochin was a Portuguese 'possession'. The pair of doors illustrated above make a fine entry to the exhibition space. The door lock, illustrated below, is one of many fascinating exhibits.
It contains within its complex designs the following religious symbols: a Hindu trident, an Islamic Crescent, a Christian cross, and Jewish candles. It summarises Kerala's religious diversity. Another curious exhibit is a statuette of St George and the Dragon (see below). St George in this depiction looks remarkably like Indian representations of Lord Krishna.
While the Indo-Portuguese Museum is a contemporary structure housing 'heritage' items, David Hall, which faces the Parade Ground, is a 'heritage' structure that houses contemporary objects.
Its external appearance (see above) reminded me of Dutch constructions that I saw when visiting the Cape Province in South Africa (see an example below).
David Hall is a Dutch construction. It contains a number of room used to house contemporary artworks: paintings and sculptures. The largest of these is used occasionally as a performance space. We were fortunate to have been able to attend a concert given by a jazz ensemble visiting from the Netherlands. The concert was so popular that some of the audience were forced to stand outside and peer through the windows (see below).
Fort Cochin is full of 'heritage' buildings, some of which date back several centuries to the times when the Portuguese and Dutch ran the area. By wandering slowly through the streets of Port Cochin, the visitor will gain plenty of views of these, some of which contain rooms that serve as accommodation for tourists and other visitors. One one of these buildings I spotted the sign of the Dutch East India Company (see below).
The road that connects the Fort Cochin Bus Stand with the Ernakulam ferry station, Calvathy Road, contains a number of so-called 'heritage' buildings of varying degrees of interest. The slightly dilapidated Aspinwall's building (see below) is used as one of the exhibition places during the Kochi-Muzhiri Biennale, which is next to be held from December 2014 until March 2015.
Aspinwall and Company Ltd has been involved with commercial activity along the Malabar Coast since 1867 when it was founded by an Englishman John Aspinwall. Almost opposite this building, there is a small shack in which I spotted a large portrait of Che Guevara (see below), This and the many hammer and sickle signs that can be seen all over Cochin remind us that many people in Kerala have socialist leanings.
Greenix, further along the road, was described to us as being 'unmissable'. It describes itself as a 'cultural art centre promoting Kerala's varied art forms under a single roof '. It might well live up to its claim but the unfriendly and unhelpful behaviour of the staff on duty when we visited it put us off exploring it. The Pepper House, which is across the road from Greenix makes a pleasant contrast. This old building contains a large, peaceful inner courtyard (see below), at one end of which there is a pleasant café.
The building, which is also used during the biennale, houses a privately owned magnificent library of art books and DVDs. The collection that is open daily for members of the public to use rivals many universitys' collections of books on contemporary (and older) art.
Back in town, not far from the Fort Cochin Bus Station, stands the luxurious Brunton Boatyard Hotel. Its website describes the building that houses as being a 'recreated period building ' , the period being the 19th century. It is worth wandering around its extensive lobby in order to view the fine coollection of portraits (see above) and old maps (see below) that line its walls.
I hope that by now you are, dear reader, beginning to understand how we were able to spend so long in Fort Cochin without having to make excursions to undoubtedly fascinating stretches of the Backwaters or to nature reserves. Spend lots of time in Cochin, relax and make your own discoveries!
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