This city in Kerala, India, is filled with fascinating sights and stories of the past, writes Loong Wai Ting
BEADS of sweat begin to form on my forehead as soon as I step out of the air-conditioned bus and into the heat in the Jew Town of Mattancherry in Kochi, in the state of Kerala in South India. Wiping the sweat off with the back of my hand, I wish I could stay in the bus and sip on my kapi or South Indian filter coffee. But then again, I have not travelled this far just to sip coffee in the 24-seater bus.
I am eager to join a group of journalists to explore the city of Kochi. We’re here as part of the Discover Port Muziris, A Tribute Portfolio Hotel Kochi international press trip. The hotel, which is under the Tribute Portfolio, is the first to be opened in South Asia. The hotel is one of the brands under Marriott International’s extensive line of properties.
Having just arrived from Kuala Lumpur the previous night, I still feel sleepy, making me want to hop right back into bed.
With the promise of some shopping action at Jew Town, a narrow street between the Mattancherry Palace and the Synagogue, I fight the urge and look forward to bargaining like a pro.
Like a place frozen in time, this tiny but busy street earned its name when the then-ruling Hindu Raja offered the Jews of Kochi their own independent rule for “as long as the world and moon exist”.
Throughout the centuries, the Jews of Kochi, a good number of them like the Paradesi Jews (Sephardic immigrants from Spain and Portugal, who migrated to the Indian subcontinent during the 15th and 16th century to escape prosecution), have enjoyed a good relationship with their Hindu rulers.
Although their numbers have since dwindled to a handful, descendants of Paradesi Jews have blended in adopting a language with words borrowed from Hindi, Tamil, Hebrew and Malayalam.
To get to the shopping district, I pass the 450-year-old Paradesi synagogue, with its all-white structure and tiny windows. A clock with a green face and Hebrew numerals is plastered on top of the synagogue. Old as it may seem, the Jewish community in the area still come to the synagogue to perform their Sabbath.
Next, I hurry past the synagogue to a place known as Mattancherry Palace. Famous for its long corridors and spacious courtyard, the palace was built by the Portuguese as a gift to King Veera Kerala Verma of the Kochi dynasty. In the latter years, the palace became known as Dutch Palace as it went through extensive repairs under the hands of the Dutch.
I love how the palace is surrounded by tall trees, which help to provide shade from the hot sun. Light reflects off the surface of the white wall, the overall structure a contrast against the clear blue sky.
Inside the palace, guards are placed at every corner to keep visitors from taking photos of the extensive collection of murals that depict the great Indian epics such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The colours on the frameless murals have faded a little but the details still stand out like snow in a desert.
Apart from the murals, there are also life-size portraits of the Kings of Cochin since 1864, and various royal instruments and personal items belonging to the royal family.
About 20 minutes later, the crowd, including myself, spill out of the palace like kids when school is let out and into the massive courtyard. Leaving the rest of the crowd behind, I follow a group of visitors from Japan to the main part of Jew Town, where shops selling antiques and spices line the partly tarred street.
I am drawn to a particular shop selling spices of all kinds. Inside the air-conditioned shop, a rarity in this part of the town, there are jars upon jars holding exotic-looking spices and teas. There are also rows of perfume that smell of everything out there lining the glass shelf.
Perhaps it’s the scent of spices mingling with the air inside the shop that make colours look brighter and sound clearer. Amused by my curiosity, a staff from the shop invites me to the back of the shop, where two pairs of old hands are working on a saree.
Sensing my arrival and briefly halting their work, two men look up before quickly getting back to their work. Bending down for a closer look, I observe in silence how the pair work: One unravels the tangled mess of cotton while the other form a thread by rubbing two loose ends together. This process goes on until it is done days later.
The more elaborate the cloth, the more time it will take to spin the thread and eventually these are woven into a saree.
Tired of shopping, I settle for a hearty lunch at the Ginger House Museum Restaurant, located just a stone’s throw from the spice shop. The menu includes seafood cooked in various styles, tasty curry dishes and vegetables. All these are served on banana leaf, just like how we have it back home. To sweeten our hearty meal, payasam, a delicious and sweet South Indian dessert, is served. I have two servings of it to satisfy my sweet tooth.
In the evening when the temperature has cooled down significantly, I take a slow stroll along the Vasco Da Gama Square (named after the famed Portuguese explorer who discovered the sea route from Europe to India) in Ernakulam, Fort Kochi, which is a 30-minute drive from Jew Town. Along the way, we pass by smaller villages and shops selling daily necessities.
Occasionally the sea comes into view and I can see huge Chinese fishing nets dotting the shoreline like big stingrays. The cantilever fishing net is set up against huge bamboo or teak poles before the net is lowered into the water at night.
The overhead spotlight will then be turned on to attract fish into the nets. In the morning, fishermen in the area will hoist up the net by using a single pulley system. The more savvy fishermen use engine-powered pulley that is fashioned out of old bikes.
A gentle breeze blows in from the sea, sending the frond leaves swaying to the rhythm of the wind. Stray dogs sleep by the beach, oblivious to the crowd who have arrived to enjoy the sunset. Couples hold hands as they stroll along the beach or lean on each other on the wooden bench.
The square is home to stalls selling souvenirs, arts and craft instruments, snacks, fruits and so on. There are also makeshift stalls selling various kinds of fresh seafood that the fishermen have just hauled off the Malabar Coast. This place, although not too big, reminds me of Gurney Drive in Penang back in the days before the beachfront view was lost to coastal erosion and later, land reclamation.
Before leaving the beach area, I cross the adjacent street to check out the St Francis Church, where the remains of Vasco Da Gama were originally buried when he died in 1524, on his third visit to India. Fourteen years later, his remains were removed and moved to Lisbon.
Till this day, the gravestone of Vasco Da Gama is still visible on the ground, on the south side of the church. There are other gravestones belonging to other Portuguese and Dutch nationals on the same side of the church. A cenotaph is also erected within the church’s compound in memory of the residents of Kochi who perished in World War 1.
As the evening draws to a close and nightfall begins to set in, the bell above the church begins to toll. As if on cue, we leave the square and the church behind in search of mouthwatering Keralan cuisine to fill our growling stomachs.