Exploring Kerala’s Historic Cochin

The state of Kerala stretches for 550 km along India’s southwest coast, divided between the densely forested mountains of the Western Ghats inland and lush, humid coastal plain of rice paddy, lagoons, rivers and canals. Its intensely tropical landscape, fed by the highest rainfall in peninsular India, has intoxicated visitors since the ancient Sumerians and Greeks sailed in search of spices to the shore known as the Malabar Coast.

Travellers weary of India’s daunting metropolises will find Kerala’s cities smaller and more relaxed. The most popular is undoubtably the great port of Cochin, where the state’s long history of peaceful foreign contact is evocatively evident in the atmospheric old quarters of Mattancherry and Fort Cochin. The city’s complex history is reflected in an assortment of architectural styles. Spice markets, Chinese fishing nets, a synagogue, a Portuguese palace, India’s first European church and seventeenth-century Dutch homes can be found within an easy walk.

I landed in Cochin late at night from Delhi and the following morning when I woke up I felt as though I had arrived into a different world, a tropical paradise compared to Delhi’s current Autumnal temperatures. My memories of Cochin are wrapped up in a sweaty, 24 hour race to uncover the city’s secrets.

Hill Palace Museum

In the morning I slowly woke up to the world by gently marching up the steps to the Hill Palace Museum at Tripunithura. The impressive 49-building palace complex was formerly the residence of the Kochi royal family and today plays host to the largest archaeological museum in Kerala. Built in 1865, the palace complex sprawls over 52 acres of beautifully landscaped terraced land which houses a deer park and facilities for horse riding. On display in the museum’s galleries are 19th-century oil paintings, murals, old coins, stone sculptures, belongings of the Kochi royal family and royal furniture including the simhasana (throne).

My guide mentions the museum is often overlooked by tourists and during my visit I find myself scratching my head, unsure what to make of the experience. For those who have visited many a museum, you are bound to be disappointed by the collection and its poor display. However, what one realizes during a visit to the Hill Palace is that it’s not always the trappings inside a museum that make it worthwhile. Leave the museum behind and you’ll find yourself happier enjoying an enchanting stroll through breezy deer park, ancient temple and lush gardens.

Ernakulam Market

The northern end of Broadway, Basin Road and Jew Street form the Ernakulam Market, which has over 2,000 shops selling everything from vegetables to provisions, meat, stationary, cloth and hardware. It is here at Cochin’s oldest centre of merchandise where one can see the city still vibrantly flaunts its links to the past. The exotic odour of the finest ginger, cloves, cardamom, tumeric and pepper, also known as black gold, emanate from the spice warehouses lining the street.

I step into what feels like an underground community, cloaked in a soft blue hue from the expansive tarps which hang overhead to cool merchants from the blazing afternoon heatwave. It feels like I am swerving through an army of ants as I hop over bushels of bananas, fragrant spice shops and mountains of the regions iconic red chili. The Portuguese first brought the fiery chili to Kerala which after many years became deeply intertwined into the local cuisine. My guide notes that Kerala’s red chili is a perfect symbol for the region, “We are very different to the north as for many years we were cut off by the mountains and spent our time trading via the Arabian Sea. Kerala many moons ago had more in common with its trade partners than it did with the India of today. The red chili is a visible link to this past as are the city’s plethora of church’s, synagogues, Dutch homes and perhaps the fact that you won’t find cows wandering around the streets here. This is the only state in India where you will find a butcher selling meat at the market and chef’s will prepare beef dishes in their restaurants.”

Chinese Fishing Nets

Cochin’s two most famous landmarks are a stones throw from each other. The huge elegant Chinese fishing nets lining the northern shore of Fort Cochin add grace to the waterfront view, and are probably the single most familiar photographic image of Kerala. Traders from the court of Kublai Khan are said to have introduced them to the Malabar region. Known in Malayalam as cheena vala, they can also be seen throughout the backwaters further south. The nets, which are suspended by poles are operated by levers and weights, require at least four men to control them.

South of the Chinese fishing nets is the large, typically English Parade Ground. Overlooking it, the Church of St Francis was the first built by Europeans in India. Its exact age is not known, though the stone structure is thought to date back to the early sixteenth century. The facade, meanwhile, became the model for most Christian churches in India. Explorer Vasco da Gama was buried here in 1524, but his body was later returned to Portugal. Under the Dutch, the church was renovated and became Protestant in 1663, then Anglican with the advent of the British in 1795. Inside, the earliest of various tombstones inscriptions placed in the walls dates from 1562.

Kathakali Centre

For those looking to tap into Kerala’s world renowned theatre, dance and festive culture a visit to the Kathakali Centre is a must. Housed in a multi-storey laterite building encrusted with traditional wood and tile work, the collection of antiques includes dance-drama masks and costumes, ritual paraphernalia, musical instruments, pieces of temple architecture, Thanjavur paintings, cooking utensils, portraits and ancestral photographs.

Its crowning glory is an exquisitely decorated theatre, where evening performances of kathakali are given against a backdrop of swirling Keralan temple murals and dark wooden pillars. Arrive an hour before the show begins to watch dancers prepare their makeup for the show, a labour intensive ordeal which transforms each artist into a magical, multicoloured mime.

Bruton Boatyard Hotel

After the show I strolled down to the Brunton Boatyard Hotel in search of a fine feast. Moored on a historic stretch of Cochin’s famed harbour, Bruton Boatyard offers a tribute to another age. Resurrected from the remains of a Victorian shipbuilding yard, the historic building is a reminder of the once great trading houses which brought prosperity to the region when the pepper of Kerala was as precious as gold.

I’m seated at the hotel’s signature History Restaurant and flip through Chef Ajeeth Janardhanan’s fact-packed menu. Each of his dishes reflects a different community in Cochin, a testament to the city’s melting pot of cultures. Rifting through the menu one quickly gets a history lesson: Portuguese came to trade in spice, but left behind the ‘Indian’ red chili. The Syrian Christians cooked up a variety of Pork dishes that coincidentally, tasted fabulous with the local string hoppers. The Jews found coriander both Kosher and delicious, so into the cook pot it went. And Dutch puddings were found to benefit greatly from a smidgen of fresh cinnamon.

Each dish that evening revealed another edible secret of Kerala’s past, which began with a plate of Tea Dusted Prawns that showcased the three finest ingredients available in Cochin – tea, black pepper and prawns. Flakey Spinach and Mushroom Strudel provided a nod to the cuisine made popular during the Raj, largely evolved from traditional British cooking.

After spending a week in India I was most intrigued by the menus beef and pork offerings (a rare find elsewhere in the country). Sliced Mooriyearchi Roast offered a taste of India’s typically forbidden beef while Fernandes Roast Pork explored the tastes of Portuguese Anglo-Indians who developed their own brand of cuisine which was traditionally passed on through the ladies of the house, called choochis, a Creole term for an elderly Anglo-Indian woman. Both carnivorous creations were served with thick slices of bread. No naan here, a reminder that you are indeed down south.

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