Solo Travel to India Kochi
I boarded the bargain two rupee (about five cents) public ferry in mainland Ernakulam. The waterfront was scattered with consumer culture—wedding saris, jewelry stores, and even waterfront billboards for shiny, high-rise condominiums. It was a short, fifteen minute ride to the Arabian port city of Kochi (also known as Cochi, or the former colonial name, Cochin). Kochi refers to the former princely Indian state, and sometimes the surrounding cluster of towns and islands, including Ernakulam, Mattancheri, Fort Cochin, Willingdon Island, Vypin Island, and Gundu Island.
Kerala was home to the ancient Cera dynasty (or Chera or Keralaputra), one of three major South Indian kingdoms. The ancient Greeks and Romans (known as Yavana, the word used for foreigners in early Hindu writings) knew of the Cera area for spices and Arabian and Chinese traders were engaged in the spice trade (sandalwood, cinnamon, cloves, pepper, and cardamom) from the beginning of the Common Era. The area was home to a diverse community of Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and a small Jewish minority by 600 AD.
Kochi gained significance as a world trading port and commercial center in the fourteenth century, when Kodugallur (Cranganore), a major port for Arabs and Chinese traders, was flooded and Kochi became the new port city. The Portuguese established the first European settlement in India in 1500, and explorer Vasco da Gama started the first Portuguese trading center in India in 1502 in Kochi. It was Vasco da Gama who discovered the sea route to India in 1498, thus bypassing those pesky pan-Asian silk routes, and pioneering the ocean route from Europe to Asia via the Cape of Good Hope. Da Gama died in Kochi and was buried in Kochi’s Saint Francis Church in 1524, before the Portuguese packed up his remains to Lisbon in 1538.
Over time, the city was controlled by the Portuguese (1503-1663), Dutch (1663-1773), Mysore (India) King Hyder Ali (1773-1814), and British (1814-1947). The Dutch colonial period was Kochi’s most prosperous time, when the city was the center of the Indian spice trade. It is reported that the Hindu majority, Muslim, Syrian Christian, and Jewish minorities benefited from Kochi’s prosperity.
The British destroyed the historic forts, but developed Kochi into a major harbor and created Willingdon Island, now the home of Cochin Port, Naval Airport, training center for the Indian Navy, and headquarters for the Southern Naval Command. Colonial rule ended in 1947, when India became independent.
Kochi is also a major tourist center—albeit one of India’s most picturesque and easygoing tourist centers. Like Pondicherry, Kochi is home to some splendid—albeit somewhat faded—colonial architecture, a glimpse into another era. I was completely unprepared for the volume of Americans—I know Kochi (and Kerala) receive a lot of travel press in the United States, but it was definitely the most Americans I had seen since leaving home.
Kochi was undeniably one of the most memorable culinary stops in India. Kerala was the land of spices and coconut palms, yielding soothing coconut milk curries and decadent tropical fruit, an amalgamation of diverse cultures, spices, and fresh, tropical ingredients—and fish! I enjoyed my first breakfast uttapam, a South Indian rice and black lentil pancake with onions, chilis, and cilantro, at my delightful homestay. Uttapam is reminiscent of idli, but encircled in a light, lacy crust and served warm, usually with a yummy vegetable stew.
Then there was spendy lunch—at least for my backpacker budget—a reckless 400 rupeees (just over $6 USD) at the terribly elegant Malabar House. Now, thali is typically served at common dhabas (roadside restaurants) and many sit-down restaurants, but this was the upscale version, the chef’s splendid interpretation of a traditional Kerala thali. This was not an ordinary thali—there were almost a dozen small bowls included an assortment of perfectly grilled, spiced fish, creamed chutneys, and Malabar coconut milk curries. It was truly one of my most memorable meals in India.
Sunset is a time for strolling, so I joined locals and tourists as they wandered the beach, taking in the warm, sunset glow over the Arabian Sea and the traditional Chinese fishing nets (cheena vala) that are rapidly disappearing from the Kochi coastline. The history of the cantilevered fishing nets is unclear—the nets may have been brought by the Portuguese from the Portuguese colony, Macau, or brought by Chinese explorer Zhang He. There were similar nets in the Kerala backwaters.
In yet another break from my backpacker existence, I enjoyed some evening entertainment, a kathakali performance, the classical dance drama indigenous to southwestern India. Kathakali iterally translates to “story play.” The tourist versions are about two hours, but traditionally kathakali performances last all night long. Drummers and singers accompany the fluid, dramatic, and colorful performers, who reenact stories, usually from the Hindu epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata, and the Puranas.
I cycled to the unfortunately named Jew Town, the historic center of the Kerala Jewish community, and Mattancherry, touring the very lovely Pardesis Synagogue (1568) and Mattancherry or Dutch Palace (1555). I never adjusted to the openly erotic themes in Hindu sculpture and paintings, but the Dutch Palace had some of the most erotic Hindu murals to date. It seemed Shiva had about eight hands and let us just say was tending to all the women around him. Even the deer had erections.
But onto the sacred. The Pardesis Synagogue was built by the descendants of Spanish, Dutch, and other European Jews and is still used by the very small Jewish community (just seven families, thirteen people total). There are a few versions of when Jews came to India, but I like the tradition of the Kochi Jewish community. They maintain that after the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in the first century, Jews were graciously received by the then Hindu ruler and were allowed to settle in Cranganore (Muzhiris to the Greeks and Shingly to the Jews). From the fifth to fifteenth century, the Jews in Cranganore had an independent principality until the Moorish attacks in 1524 and expulsion of Jews from Cranganore by the Portuguese in 1565 (all this after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492). After the state of Israel was created in 1948, many Jewish people emigrated from Kochi—a 1984 survey showed that the reasons for emigration were religious sentiment (i.e., being able to observe Jewish holy days and sabbath), lack of marriage partners, and employment opportunities.
Some friends wrote to ask how I was surviving—I was on the road a couple months now, the longest period of time in twenty years. Honestly, I loved the Kochi-style stops—so much to discover and the freedom to wander and experience at will. However, I was so sad I could not share it with D. Before I left home, I put a lot of photographs of D. and our cat, Squawk, on my phone. I spent a lot of evenings looking at those photos—they kept me grounded and reminded me of home, particularly those days I was ultra homesick and wanted to experience the road trip together.
It was one of those evenings for perusing photos from home.
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