Kochi – A colonial heritage city with a hipster vibe
Kerala is a lush tropical state on the southwestern tip of India. This is the land of paddy fields and palm trees, winding backwater canals and mountainous tea plantations. It’s also where we began our sojourn into the motherland. For me, the term motherland is literal – my mother’s family originates from this part of India – so visiting had the added bonus of exploring my heritage.
We started off in Kochi, a major city facing the Arabian Sea. It was first occupied by Portuguese and then Dutch colonists starting in the 1500’s. Kochi was the first European colony in India, called Cochin by colonists, and was largely coveted for its prime spot as a spice-trading center. The colonial influence is evident throughout the old town, known as Fort Kochi, with European buildings interspersed among Indian temples and spice shops. We visited Basilica Santa Cruz and St. Francis Church, where the famous Portuguese explorer, Vasco da Gama, was first laid to rest.
At sunrise on the first day, we arrived in Fort Kochi beach (yay jet lag!) and caught sight of the local fishermen as they headed into the surf. We watched them spin and launch the nets into the water hoping to snag some traditional Kerala karimeen (pearlspot) fish to sell at the market.
We also saw the popular Chinese fishing nets as we walked along the shore. These elegantly constructed designs have become a major tourist attraction and can be seen throughout the coastline.
We happened upon a fish auction where locals bid on the catch of the day. It was fascinating to watch the puckered brows and brisk banter of the men as they haggled for the best deals. We also noticed a number of stray cats equally intent upon the outcome of the auction, perhaps bidding amongst themselves for the choicest morsels.
Nowadays Kochi is as much known for its art galleries and foodie scene as it is for its history. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an international exhibition of contemporary art is held here and was the first program of its kind in India. Artists from all over convene in Kochi every 2 years and the revitalized biennale buildings and galleries give the city a quirky modern twist.
We enjoyed chaya (the Malayalam word for tea or “chai” in India), strolled inland among narrow homes painted in jewel-toned hues, browsed various handicrafts in Jew Town (known for its markets and touristy wares), and breathed the aromas wafting from the many spices for sale.
That evening, we saw a Kathakali performance which is a classical Indian dance form originating from Kerala. This traditional art form is distinguished by its elaborate costumes, intricately applied makeup and graceful hand gestures. The performance is heavily reliant on facial expressions and symbolic hand movements to portray religious story lines, folk mythologies and scenes from the Hindu epics.
Kerala is an intriguing combination of colonial influences, old world Indian elegance and rustic simplicity all colliding into one diverse state. Its allure is undeniable and our first stop in Kochi did not disappoint.
Top Tips in Kochi
- Visit Fort Kochi (the old town of the city) as early in the morning as you can to see the fishermen at work and the city slowly come to life (maybe catch a fish auction!).
- Do see a Kathakali and/or Kallaripayattu (martial arts) performance – there are many options with daily performances; ask at your hotel or check out one of the places on this list.
- Hop the ferry to Ernakulam to see a totally different side of Kochi and go shopping on MG Road (jewelry, traditional Indian clothing, etc.) or head to Lulu Mall for some A/C (it gets hot in Kochi) and window shopping.
- Drink chaya (Kerala masala tea) and enjoy watching them pour the liquid from cup to cup with acrobatic skill.
Next stop – Aleppey – to board a houseboat and tour the scenic Kerala backwaters.