Exploring Fort Cochin
Chinese fishing net
A morning tour of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry
On our first full day in Kerala we had pre-booked a private tour in Cochin which took us to some of the main sights including St Francis Church, the waterfront, the Jewish quarter in Mattancherry with its synagogue and Mattancherry Palace. We had an excellent local guide in Mary, who gave us a great introduction to Kerala.
St Francis Church
We started out at the first Christian church to be built in India, which is famous as the burial place of Vasco de Gama, although his body only lay here for 14 years before being moved to the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem, near Lisbon. His tomb can still be seen in this church - it is a very simple and worn stone set in the floor on the right-hand side. More interesting to look at are the wall-mounted gravestones - Dutch on the right-hand side, Portuguese on the left. These give a clue to the varied history of this church.
Contrary to what you might think, Mary told us, it was not the Portuguese who brought Christianity to this part of the world. Tradition holds that the first to convert people here was the apostle Thomas, who came to this coast just 29 years or so after the death of Christ. He brought the new religion to the educated upper classes, but it was the Portuguese, several hundred years later, who converted the lower caste groups. Perhaps these were the most receptive at that time, keen to shake off the traditions of the by-then prevalent Hinduism which dictated their lowly position in society.
This church was therefore built as a Roman Catholic one and would have been richly decorated. We owe its present sombre appearance to the Dutch, who when they conquered this part of India converted the church for use as a Protestant one. Later still came the British, and the church became Anglican. Today it is under the joint jurisdiction of the government archaeological department (for maintenance and preservation) and the local Indian Anglican community (for worship).
Dutch gravestone and British 'punkah'
One notable feature that remains from the days of British rule are the cloth 'punkah' fans which hang from wooden poles with ropes attached leading out through the side walls where they would have been operated by men employed for the purpose - the 'punkah wallahs'. Of course today there are electric fans to cool the congregation!
Photography is permitted inside but not video, and you have to remove your shoes as they are anxious to preserve the Victorian London tiles laid by the British when they took the church over.
Murals near the church
Chinese fishing nets and waterfront
From St Francis Church we strolled across the road to the main area of activity for fishing in Fort Kochi. On the way we passed some interesting murals, lovely homes, and what remains of the one-time Fort, with a single cannon pointing out to sea. I took a photo of the sign on its walls as an example of the script used by the local language of Kerala, Malayalam - the sign reads 'no posters allowed', I believe.
Here the famous traditional Chinese fishing nets (so-called because it was the Chinese who first introduced this style of fishing to Kerala) line the shore, while numerous small black boats are employed to get further out into the channel to catch the larger fish. These small boats are still made the traditional way, with planks of wood "stitched" together with coir rope (although increasingly more durable plastic covered wire is used in place of the latter). The black colour comes from a mix of turpentine and sardine oil used to make them waterproof. We watched two men engaged in a repair job for a while before going over to take a closer look at the fishing nets themselves.
If you want a detailed look at the workings of these you'll need to tip the fishermen - I felt the 100 rupees we paid for the two of us, at our guide's suggestion, was worth it for the photo opportunities we got and the better understand of the mechanism which came with having a go on the ropes ourselves! The heavy stones on the ropes provide the counter-balance as the large net is raised and lowered, which is done every few minutes. At this time of year (February) the catches aren't usually great (the net we helped to raise held just one small fish and a crab too tiny to keep). The tourist tips help supplement the men's income - another reason to go and get involved!
Mary explained the economics of these small businesses. Each net is owned by a proprietor who pays a fee to the local government for their spot on the waterfront. The proprietor employs four men to work the net who are not paid a salary but instead all get a share of the money made by selling the catch at the nearby market - as does the proprietor of course. With his share (which I am sure is the larger part) he must not only pay the government fee but also maintain the net and the working mechanism. As in so many places, it is becoming harder to attract young people to do this kind of work and there is a real risk that these traditional fishing methods will die out. Already several nets stand idle as their owner can't get the men to work them.
The fish caught in the nets and by the small boat fishermen is sold almost where it is landed, at a handful of stalls that line the path here. Some will be bought by local bicycle salesmen who deliver daily to local families (our guide's included) but the majority will be served at restaurant tables that evening - seafood features strongly on all the menus here.
Among the selection we saw for sale were red mullet, tuna, baby sharks, sardines, pomfret, green-lipped mussels, octopus, squid and prawns both large and small. If you want you can buy some fresh to have cooked at one of the nearby stalls, but I've read that the hygiene at these is questionable and eating at them risky.
Among the trees that line the waterfront here (mainly rain trees and banyans) we came across the striking pink blooms of the cannonball tree, so called because its fruit is round and hard. It is also poisonous to both man and animals, so leave them where they lie!
Our guide proposed an extra stop to see the dhoby wallahs at Dhoby Khana, still using the traditional washing methods employed here when the Dutch Army established the facility in 1720 and brought in workers from Tamil Nadu and Malabar to wash their uniforms here - although the present-day facility was built in 1976 as compensation for land taken to be used as a public playground.
The clothes and household linens washed here come from both hotels and private homes - our guide told us that many who can afford it like to have their white goods washed traditionally rather than by machine.
The area where they work, the dhoby, is divided into three sections. In one are a serious of small stone cells, each numbered and for use by a specific dhoby wallah. Here they do the washing, the first task of their working day.
Beyond these cells is a field where the washed items are hung out to dry, the fabric twisted into the hanging ropes with no need for clothes pegs. The third section is a long open-sided stone room with stone slabs along each side, where the pressing is done, usually in the afternoon after the morning's washing has dried. Many of the dhoby wallahs still use the traditional irons which are very heavy at around eight kilos - we were invited to pick one up to feel the weight for ourselves!
Drying and ironing
You are allowed to take photos here but please do make a donation to their welfare fund in return, as suggested - there is a box near the entrance for this purpose.
Mattancherry - Jewish quarter
Returning to the car we drove to neighbouring Mattancherry, the other section of old Kochi. Here we visited Paradesi Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Kerala - and indeed in India and the whole Commonwealth. The synagogue was built in 1558, on land given to the Cochin Jewish community by the Raja of Kochi adjacent to the Mattancherry Palace's Hindu temple. Today it is used only by five families as the majority of Cochin's Jews left for Israel when that country was formed.
Unfortunately I can't share any pictures as photography inside is strictly prohibited. As at the church earlier we were asked to remove our shoes - not a religious practice but to preserve the beautiful 18th century Chinese floor tiles - all painted by hand in the willow pattern style and each one unique in its design. The synagogue also has glass chandeliers from Belgium and one of Murano glass.
Detail of building near the synagogue
From the synagogue we took a walk along Jew Street, clearly the tourist shopping mecca for the city. I didn't indulge, unsure what I most wanted to buy only one day into our trip and also unwilling to trespass too much on our guide's time and goodwill. Had I wanted to shop however I could have chosen from a wide range of clothing (the pretty white cotton tops in particular caught my eye), embroidery, jewellery both high-end and cheap, antiques, old coins, fabric bags, spices and much more. Don't think though that you are necessarily shopping local here - our guide told us that many of those selling had come down to Kerala from Kashmir where tourists are in much shorter supply these days. Do ask if the provenance of an item matters to you - some of the embroidery she showed us was very locally made, the work of a 93 year old lady, the oldest of the Jews that still live here.
On Jew Street
This palace was built by the Portuguese as a gift to the ruler of Cochin in the mid 16th century, but is today popularly known as the Dutch Palace because the Dutch carried out major renovation and decorative work in 1663. The Palace is now a museum devoted to the history of the royal family who used to live here. There seemed to be relatively few exhibits - most of the rooms only had a few, with the bulk of the displays consisting of information panels. But you don't really come here for the museum but for a couple of rooms which contain some beautiful old murals. The earliest of these date from the 16th century and depict a series of scenes from the Ramayana - the god's birth, marriage to Sitra, battle with the demon god. Those in a later room date from the 18th century, although they seemed to me to be in less good condition. The colours throughout are all natural, mostly reds, oranges, cream. There was no blue available to the artists who created these works, so sea creatures frolic at the bottom of each scene to denote the water. Photography is very strictly prohibited unfortunately, so you will have to take my word for it that these are really worth seeing! Although if you search for "Mattancherry Palace murals" online you will see plenty of photos by those who have chosen to ignore the rule and managed to circumvent the strict security.
Mattancherry Palace exterior detail
After our morning's sightseeing we returned to Killian’s hotel for a bit of R&R - a refreshing lime juice and ginger drink, a swim in the pool (which is a good size and well-maintained), and catching up on photo sorting, note-making and messages.
That evening we had tickets for a traditional Keralan Kathakali dance show. This form of classical Indian dance originated here in Kerala and, even more than other Indian dancing traditions, relies heavily on facial expressions and gestures, with relatively little in the way of body movements. The dancers use a sort of sign language, with dialogue expressed through hand movements known as mudras, while emotions and mood are expressed through facial and eye movements. The costumes and make-up are equally stylised and symbolic. Performances are based on ancient stories of the gods, and traditionally were very long, although those staged today for the benefit of tourists are much less so.
We went along early, as visitors are encouraged to do, to watch one of the performers apply his make-up - a painstaking task that took him almost an hour. Photos are allowed and indeed encouraged, although the ladies seating everyone didn't always take kindly to seeing guests vacate their assigned seats to take pictures nearer the front (even though during the make-up session this caused no problems that I could identify!)
Following the make-up session there was an English language only brief explanation of Kathakali. One of the dancers demonstrated a range of facial movements and gestures and we were told what each meant.
Finally it was time for the performance. We heard a resume of the story to be acted out, which of course involved gods and demons, and then the two dancers took to the stage with three musicians.
The dance itself lasted about 30 minutes and it was fascinating to see how the facial expressions in particular were used to tell the story. Hopefully my video gives you a flavour of what we saw:
At the end the dancers posed for photos, inviting audience members up on to the stage to pose with them. That's not really our thing so we left at this point to search out dinner.
Fort House Hotel Restaurant
I had read good reviews of this waterside restaurant opposite the venue where we saw the Kathakali show, Greenix, so we chose it for dinner after the performance - a good decision! The setting is lovely, with tables placed along a jetty that juts out into the channel. This is a busy working waterway so expect to see large containers ships, dredgers and fishing boats pass as you eat. There are mosquito coils along the jetty too and insects didn't seem to be a problem as a result. Prices are very reasonable here, the menu is interesting, the cooking good and we found the service (despite what a couple of online reviews said) to be well-paced as well as friendly. The only drawback is that they don't have an alcohol license, like many places in "dry" Kerala, but there is alcohol-free beer and some homemade soft drinks such as lime soda and ginger ale.
We enjoyed all the dishes we sampled - a shared starter of sautéed mushrooms with chilli and herbs; my Keralan style squid cooked with ginger and coconut; Chris's pork vindaloo. The latter came with Basmati rice and our only criticism would be that our waitress could have suggested that this would be enough for us to share rather than encouraging me to also order rice to go with my squid. So quite a bit of rice was left, but only so we could fit in a dessert, both opting for the spiced figs with vanilla ice cream - delicious! I tried the ginger ale (lovely) and Chris the lime soda. Our bill was around 1,500 rupees (not including service) - excellent value at less than £20. A good ending to our time in Fort Cochin.