I left Karnataka state with a bit of a heavy heart in all honesty. Some of my best times in India had been there; the serenity of Hampi, the unexpected awesomeness of Bangalore, the disappointment of Mysore and, finally, the calming, and re-energising district of Kodagu (Coorg). My first stop in Kerala was a little town called Kannur which, if not for logistical reasons, I’d have probably skipped. Don’t get me wrong, it was a nice, welcoming town, but there was little to see or do and I couldn’t wait to head further into Kerala. When ‘planning’ my journey through Kerala, Kochi was high on the list of places to see, so, after my brief stay in the north, it was my next stop. I hadn’t done much research into Kochi and, still trying to travel without expectations, I headed there without many ideas as to what it’d be like.
It turns out that Kochi is split between a couple of islands and the mainland; there’s Ernakulam (the main, cosmopolitan side of the city), Vypen island (quiet and reserved), and Fort Kochi (the ‘real’ Kochi). If you’re heading here, the majority of places to stay are in Ernakulam, the upper end places are in Vypen, and the old fashioned homestays are in Fort Kochi. Before I made my way to Kochi (or Ernakulam as it’s often referred to) I hadn’t really done much research into its history or what there was to do but, after consulting a local (always the best way), I realised that the real place to visit was Fort Kochi.
After catching the ridiculously cheap ferry across the river/lake (4r), I landed in an area just to the east of Fort Kochi called Mattacherry. Within minutes I was taken aback by the street; fifty metres from the dock I found myself surrounded by cart pushers, goats tied to gates, chickens in coops, and street sellers with freshly caught fish; it felt like a real working port; seemingly hundreds of years behind the rest of us. This was the moment I fell in love with the place…
Now, I didn’t know what it was about it, but within an hour I felt something, a kind of genuine connection. At first I wasn’t sure what it was but after spending a few hours wandering around (somewhat lost I must admit) I found that it was, to my shame, the ever present reminders of colonialism. The British rule – or to be more specific, the East India Company – has left its mark here. Now, you may or may not know that, as with many parts of India, Kochi has been colonised many times; the Portugeuse, the Dutch, and the British have all had a crack at it. This, above anything else, leaves its mark in the form of architecture: the streets here are lined with old workhouses, markets, shipping halls, palaces, synagogues and churches; it really is awe-inspiring from a historical and diversity point of view.
Though it’s been under Indian control for 70 years, there’s still a strong presence of former rulers; a former life if you will, and, apart from rickshaws and the occasional car, you get a real feel for the place. Image it in its prime: trade ships landing in the dock, flocks of people heading to the market fighting for the freshest produce, diplomats sat in their dusty offices slowly perspiring, and locals playing cards down back alleys; you really can see how it was a hundred years ago; most of the streets look like they haven’t changed whatsoever…it is perfect. The sight of untouched yet highly dilapidated buildings is strangely warming in a way; this area of Kochi has been left to it’s own devices. Of course there’s a few buildings that have been touched up, and there’s the odd luxury hotel but, the north of the island as a whole has barely been altered.
One of the first, and last, things I saw in Fort Kochi was the collection of Chinese nets (Cheena Vana); I got there around 8am and managed to see the local fishermen hoisting the nets and collecting their catch (which is modest really). If you’re into seafood you can cheaply buy straight off these guys and have a street vendor cook it for you within minutes; could it be any fresher? Watching the nets being hauled and lowered is pretty mesmerizing and if, like me, you enjoy sunsets, the nets are the place to sit and watch.
Also, whilst the sun slowly fades, you can watch as fishermen come in with their daily catch and sell to the local merchants; here I saw fish I’d never actually clapped eyes on before: swordfish, squid, shark; it’s all passed around and sold within half an hour; it’s a sight worth seeing and, with the now vanilla sky as a backdrop, I found it pleasing to no end. Like many times in India, I found myself genuinely happy. Yes, I was alone, but I wasn’t lonely; I didn’t need anything else besides those few moments.
There’s still a very welcome and genuine feel to Fort Kochi (unlike its metropolitan mainland) and it’s obvious to see that it’s still a working port, and a beautiful one at that.Walking about you will quickly notice that the cafes and guesthouses that line the inner streets have a well-aged feel to them, almost comparable to some of the older cafes you’d find in Paris or Barcelona. Along with these homely little places, one of the other things I found fascinating about Fort Kochi was the amount of history it has. Now, I won’t go into much detail, but colonial history stands out here a lot more than it does in many other places I’ve visited so far; the exception being Mumbai (or, whilst we’re talking colonialism, Bombay). This is easily noticeable in the many churches and religious areas; some of them being hundreds of years old (even dating back to the 1500’s).
One thing of note here is St.Francis church which, having been consecrated in 1503, is the first and therefore oldest European church in India. Though modest, this Portuguese church is quietly impressive and is still used regularly (unlike many of the other churches I’ve been to so far). It also has interesting history as it’s been converted to different forms of Christianity many times; starting with the Portugeuse, right through Dutch and British control, finally settling to south India rule.
Now, if you are in Fort Kochi and want to see all the sights, rickshaw drivers, annoyingly, constantly tell you they can give you a guided tour (the only time I’ve got really annoyed at a rickshaw driver was here). My advice is to not bother; Fort Kochi and Mattacherry are walkable places; even if you have only one day here you can see pretty much everything. There’s not really a lot to ‘do’ here I must admit. I mean, there’s plenty to see, but in terms of activities it’s pretty limited (though you can see local performances in a small theatre) although, if I’m honest, I kind of like that there’s not much to do. I feel sometimes that when you have a list of things to see and do, you feel a sort of pressure to see as much as you can whilst you’re there. However, in Fort Kochi, you can see and do what you want at your own pace; there’s no rushing about here and, if you arrive early morning and spend a full day here, you’ll leave as a very happy – if considerably dehydrated – person (the humidity here is unbearable).
During my travels in India I’ve actually enjoyed visiting some religious buildings (no, I’m not following any religion, though Hinduism and Buddhism are interesting) but I find the rich mixture of churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples hard to ignore and, as well as the architecture, the atmosphere is encouraging; I feel there’s a level of peace to India, a peace that can’t be found back in the UK and is something i think is affecting me (I actually got called the most patient man in the world the other day which, to those from home, is very laughable). What I’ve found in India so far is that, even without religion, there’s a strong sense of spirituality here. I’ve met many Indian people who don’t follow a particular religion, but still believe in some sort of otherworldly connection.
My time in Kochi was brief. I could’ve stayed an extra day or so but found that I’d seen what I wanted to see and left feeling content. As the first ‘proper’ place I visited in Kerala I must admit that I was overjoyed; Kochi, though not beautiful in the common sense of the word, was humbling really. The reminder of how much history a place has; a history that you could of course read about, but, until you witness it in person, is just found written in books (or blogs). I left Karnataka knowing that I had a lot to see and potentially feel in Kerala, but Kochi wasn’t a place I thought I’d feel a connection. As far as cities go, Kochi (or Fort Kochi really) is a little bit special. No, it doesn’t have the spiritual feel of Hampi, nor does it have the thriving atmosphere of Mumbai or Bangalore, but what it does have is a strong, unashamed history that it doesn’t feel it needs to cover up or even exploit. Fort Kochi is just, well, a remnant of the past…