The waves of the Arabian Sea crashed against the boulders which shone like black pearls as they reflected the rays of the early morning sun. We watched this tableau of nature, relishing our breakfast, seated in the open dining area of the Le-Petit Elephant hotel in Cherai, Kerala. We were in love with the place and were having the time of our lives. We were still in a state of euphoric exultation having been through some Zen moments, watching a stunning sunrise in the Kerala backwater boatcruise and a nirvanic sunset at Munambam Beach. We also had some fascinating moments visiting a modern and hi-tech Vypin Lighthouse with some amazing views of the sea and the lush green countryside. But more was to come. We were now looking forward to experiencing the sights, sounds and fragrances that the area popularly known as Fort Kochi nursed within its folds.
Fort Kochi which is a conglomeration of water bound regions near the mainland of Kochi in Kerala, has a history that at once fascinates and intrigues. We were looking forward to seeing a region that had been the theatre of many an invasion and war, a region that still echoed to the battle cries from the past. It was the Portuguese who first set their feet on the land that we now call Fort Kochi, to be followed and displaced by the Dutch. The Dutch in their turn were defeated by the British as the sun over the British Empire loomed large in the horizon. Another intriguing aspect of Fort Kochi is the fact that the fort being referred to in its name does not exist. The fort was completely destroyed by the Dutch when they wrested the possession of Fort Kochi from the Portuguese.
With such an interesting background, it was no wonder that Fort Kochi piqued our curiosity and interest and we were looking forward to get there, real fast! Before we embarked on our voyage of discovery in Fort Kochi we did check some travel guides to Kochi and mentally made a note of the must see places in Fort Kochi.
Come, join us as we explore Fort Kochi and its nuggets of history and culture. We hope this post gives you an idea of what to see in Fort Kochi and doubles up as a travel guide to Kochi.
We fasten our seat belts and the car sets off on a road that runs parallel to the sea for some time and then bends around taking us across a wonderland of lagoons and swaying palms towards our destination, Fort Kochi.
We soon approach a jetty of sorts and watch in childish glee as our car drives straight into a ferry that is moored on the pier. The ferry is crammed with people, some on foot and many on their bikes, who stand in mute monotony, obviously oblivious of the thrill that we feel. For them, it is just another day. They are on their way to work or study and this is part of their daily routine.
The ferry slowly moves into the sea as we watch a ship steaming away in the distance from our car window. The ferry ride is short and we reach the opposite shore within 10 minutes and our car ejects out of the ferry.
We can almost see the car preening itself for hitching a ride on the ferry!
We drive for a few kilometres and the driver gives us instructions in staccato bursts of what to see, where to go, etc., as he parks the car in an open parking area that lies behind the Palace. We clamber out onto a bright and sunny day and walk towards the interiors of Fort Kochi.
A narrow road leads us to our destination. As if by coincidence, the first thing that meets our eye is a desolate cemetery with an iron gate with a lock on it. We peep through the gate as we note that this is a Jewish Cemetery. Though a cemetery may not figure in the list of must see places in Fort Kochi for most people, we were intrigued by the place and wanted to take a peep into the place.
We looked through the iron gates at the dark grey tombstones, weathered by age. Green plants with colourful flowers provide a breath of life to the otherwise sombre surroundings. A board inside the cemetery apologizes for not allowing visitors. As we look at the tombstones, our minds seem to race to a time when those who lay buried underneath them walked the earth. They would have walked, run, skipped, jumped and laughed on the very land that we were standing on. Today, they lay motionless, transformed into dust beneath the cold and gray tombstones. As we turn away from the cemetery, we see a fading inscription on marble on the wall besides the gate. It proclaims that the compound wall and the shed within was built in 1898. We walk away from the cemetery, saying a silent requiem for the departed.
We walked through narrow but impeccably clean streets to reach our next destination which was the Paradesi Synagogue. This synagogue ranks as the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth. The synagogue was built in the year 1567 and stands juxtaposed with the Mattancherry Palace Temple and an 18th century clock tower. In fact the synagogue shares a common wall with the temple. Visitors are allowed inside the synagogue for a small fee, and can spend some time in its peaceful and historic environs. The synagogue houses artefacts with great historical value and these include golden crowns and a brass railed pulpit among others. The synagogue must indeed rank high in any travel guide to Kochi owing to its historical importance.
The small streets looked so quaint and the shops that lined both sides were so colorful and filled with antiques and curios that we could not resist sauntering around and peering into the shops. We saw an old clock that clutched secrets of a bygone era in its bosom, coat of arms, shields that may have once stood between the life and death of a warrior, figurines of clay, paintings by unknown and unsung artists, colorful dolls decked up as Kathakali dancers and many other fascinating items of intrigue. Some of the houses and doorways too looked so fascinating that we wondered as to what happened behind the walls!
A shop we entered and walked around in displayed a huge, round clay vessel which the sales assistant described as, “The World’s Biggest Varpu”. “Varpu means a cooking vessel”, she hastened to add for the benefit of ignoramuses like us. The Varpu is on exhibition in a shop named Crafters, and though it may not figure in any travel guide to Kochi, it is really worth taking a look at.
Colourful umbrellas, dresses, dolls, statues, Rangoli or coloured decorative powder painted a riot of colour on this quaint street of Fort Kochi. The stores with names like ‘Shalom”, showed the Jewish influence in this place that stood as a silent testimony to the seamless merging of myriad cultures from history.
We would recommend spending a lot of time in Jew town and going beyond the standard travel guide drill to have a really immersive experience of the quaint place.
Apart from curios and antiques, there were other shops too that sold everything from clothes to snacks and of course spices.
One end of the street is dedicated to the spice market. Spices bring alive the magic of Indian cooking. Our nostrils sniffed at the fragrance of cinnamon, cardamom, clove and other exotic spices as we approached this part of Jew town. Shops selling spices dot the area, reminiscent of a page of history that seems to be long forgotten when people from the distant parts of the world were drawn by the hypnotic fragrance of these very spices. As we were lost in the pages of history, a man pushing a cart filled with sacks of spices labored past, the sweat glistening on his sinewy arms.
We walked right into the precincts of police station that stood right in the middle of Jew Town. The Police Station was nothing like what we had ever seen earlier. Not that we have seen many of them! The friendly police officer explained to us that this was a unique Police Station. It was an International Tourism Police Station, set up as a help centre for foreign travelers. The Police Station offered various services like handling queries related to passports and visas, help in case of lost passports, provision of tourist maps, booking of cabs and boats, etc.. Inside the neat and compact Police Station itself, there is a museum which chronicles the fascinating history of the Police in Kochi from the colonial era to the present. Uniforms and weapons used by the force are on display. We felt that this indeed was a Police Station with a difference. The Police station is another place that may not figure in most of the travel guides to Kochi, but again its uniqueness makes it worth a visit.
We walked through the streets of Jew town and passed a narrow alley on the right hand side which featured some colourful street art that flanked a pair of archaic windows on our way to the Mattancherry Palace.
We arrived at an unassuming gate, which was the entrance to the Mattancherry or Dutch Palace. The Palace was apparently built and gifted to the King of Kochi sometime around the year 1555 by the Portuguese as an appeasement for having destroyed a temple in the vicinity. More than a 100 years later the Dutch renovated the palace and it came to be also known as Dutch Palace since then.
Having seen the grand palaces of Rajasthan and Mysore, the Mattancherry Palace looked simple and almost spartan in appearance. A steep flight of stairs took us up into the Palace and we brought our tickets at the reception room. Sadly, though we could carry our cameras, photography was prohibited inside the Palace. We moved through the palace, thinking about the royal family whose feet would have trod on the very same floor. We marveled at the colourful murals that adorned the walls. Murals which had stood the test of time and even today captivated the mind with their beauty and artistry. The murals depict scenes from Indian Mythology, primarily the Ramayana and episodes from the life of Krishna. The paintings are the highlights of the Matancherry Palace. Some of the rooms had large windows that were similar to French windows with large spaces to sit on. The windows, by design looked on to some refreshing waterbodies. We sat down on one of these to take a few minutes rest as we thought about the Kings and Queens who may have spent many a pleasant evening sitting there and enjoying the cool breeze.
This was a lovely museum situated in Fort Kochi. We found the museum to be a rich ode to the confluence of Indo-Portuguese culture. The charming museum is divided into 5 sections, namely, Altar, Treasure, Procession, Civil Life and Cathedral. The wonderful exhibits include sculpture, vestments and objects of precious metal. Some of the important exhibits include a piece of a 16th century altar made from teak wood, a 17th century silver and wood cross, and a coat of arms of the Franciscans.
Chinese Fishing Nets
They seem to rise like some divine apparition from the fringes of the sea, assuming a gilded form at sunrise and sunset. These are the Cheenavalas or Chinese fishing nets which have started to assume iconic proportions synonymous with Kochi. These are huge mechanical contraptions that are operated from the shore using a cantilever that can lower nets as wide as 20 metres into the sea for catching fish. These kind of fishing nets are unique to Kochi in India. They are however used across the coast of Southern China. A visit to Kochi remains incomplete without a glimpse of these mechanical contraptions shimmering against the waters of the sea. One can walk on the beach where one can find these nets, however we found the area a bit dirty for walking. We found a better place to watch the Fishing nets in Cherai against the backdrop of the rising and setting sun.
Fort Kochi Beach
It is not really much of a beach, but there is a promenade by the side of the sea. We walked on it till the edge jutting out into the sea. It was nice for a stroll, watching the waves crashing in monotonous splendour on the rocks. The boats and ships that passed by were an interesting sight too.
Just on the edge of the sea, near the beachfront, surrounded by high walls lies a decrepit cemetery known as Dutch Cemetery. This cemetery which was built in 1724 is among the oldest in India. We peeped through the gate into a world of gray and black tombstones of varying sizes and inscriptions in Dutch. The last person to be buried in the cemetery was a Captain Joseph Winckler in 1913. We moved away from the cemetery wondering about the Dutch and British nationals who lay buried in a land so far away from their homeland.
We found the maritime museum really fascinating. It presents a lovely tableaux of the maritime history of India right from 1612 when the Indian Marine too birth in the city of Surat in Gujarat. One of the things we really loved apart from all the interesting information about ships and the Navy were the 3D paintings that painted a picture that was almost lifelike. If you love ships and everything associated with them, you cannot afford to miss a visit to this museum. This museum definitely figures high in our list of must see places in Kochi.
St. Francis Church
The lovely church which is supposed to be the oldest one built by the Europeans in India, is really endearing in spite of its antiquity. The façade of the church combines with the tall trees in front to create a serene ambience that seems to beckon visitors to its fold. The interior of the church lives up magnificently to the promise made by its impressive façade. The wooden, carved pulpit enhances the pristine atmosphere inside the church. One of the historical spots within the church is the spot where once lay buried the famous explorer Vasco Da Gama. Vasco Da Gama died in Kochi and was buried in this very church. His mortal remains were however exhumed and taken to Portugal 14 years later. The place where he was buried is clearly marked in the church.
Santa Cruz Basilica
Not too far from St. Francis Church is situated a magnificent structure which seems to dwarf everything around it. The architectural masterpiece in Gothic style seems to have been designed with stones of sublime love cemented with the mortar of heartfelt devotion. The Basilica is the Cathedral Church of the diocese of Cochin. The building stands out boldly against the sky in spotless white splendour, with doors that open into a world of devotion and love.
Cochin Cultural Centre
A nice way to bring the day to a grand finale in the evening is to usher it in with the rhythmic and hypnotic beat of drums and gongs. This what we did. We went to the Cochin Cultural Centre to view a Kathakali dance performance. Kathakali is the famous dance form of Kerala which combines elements of Ballet, pantomime and many traditional Indian dances. The powerful dance performance which is based on stories from Indian mythology is sure to transport one into a different world. One important facet of this dance is the meticulous make up the dancers put on including the perfect face painting. We reached the place early and were able to watch the artists donning their make-up with wide eyes! This is an experience that will stay etched in ones’ mind for a long, long time as the rhythmic beats of the drums fade away.
Lunch in Fort Kochi
All the walking around of course needed to be fueled by calories, so we did have our lunch in the midst of our wanderings, There is a range of food and eateries to choose from when in Kochi that include the best in seafood, traditional Kerala cuisine, Chinese, Japanese and Italian, to name a few. We believe and live the adage of being Roman in Rome, hence we decided to have what is called Sadhya which is a traditional vegetarian meal that literally translates into Banquet in English. We found a small and neat vegetarian restaurant and soon we had a banana leaf in front of us. Portions of various dishes in exotic colours materialized on the leaf in front of our eyes. We were hungry and dug into the food. We were a tad disappointed as the food did not taste as good as it looked. But who cares, when the stomach is rumbling away to glory!
We had a wonderful 2 days exploring Fort Kochi, a lovely place where history unveils a surprise around every bend and corner. A place that reverberates with drumbeats of culture and resounds to the echoes of the sound of conches of history wafting across the sea of time. To truly have an immersive experience in Fort Kochi, we would advise to keep at the least a couple of days to savour the sights, fragrances and tastes of the place.
We have covered in this post the top things to see in and around Fort Kochi, Kerala. Hope you enjoyed reading our post and got a fair idea of what to see in Fort Kochi when you are in Kochi.
You might want to read our other posts on Kochi. Here are the links:
- Zen Moments on the Romantic Backwaters of Kerala
- How We Experienced Nirvana As The Sun Set In Munambam Beach
- All about a Tuk-Tuk ride and a Lighthouse
- Le Petit Elephant, Kochi – A Review
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