KOCH, BETTER KNOWN AS COCHIN, iS Kerala’s most cosmopolitan city. It is also its main trading centre for spices and seafood. Built around a saltwater lagoon of the Arabian Sea, Kochi is in fact a collection of narrow islands and peninsulas. While mainland Ernakularn boasts of concrete shopping malls and glitzy apartment buildings, Mattancherry and Fort Kochi have an old world charm, with their blend of Dutch, Portuguese and English bungalows and quaint narrow streets. The scenic location of Kochi’s natural harbour, surrounded by palm groves, green fields, inland lakes and backwaters, has enchanted visitors from across the globe for centuries.
The Mattancherry Palace, constructed by the Portuguese in the mid-1550s, was given to the ruler of Cochin as a token of goodwill in exchange for trading rights. It was later renovated by the Dutch, and so gained the misnomer, Dutch Palace. The two-storeyed structure, built around a courtyard with a small shrine to the goddess Bhagavati, is today a museum with a rare collection of murals and royal artifacts. In the central Durbar Hall, where coronation ceremonies were once held, is the portrait gallery of the Kochi rulers; it also displays palanquins and textiles. The adjacent bedrooms and chambers are renowned for their fine 17thcentury murals, representative of Kerala’s temple art. Painted in rich, warm shades of red, yellow, black and white, they depict religious and mythological themes as well as episodes from the Ramayana.
Nestling in a cul-de-sac at the end of a narrow lane, in the heart of Jew Town, is India’s oldest synagogue. The first Jewish settlers are said to have reached Kodungallur in the 1st century AD. Their settlement, then known as Shingly, prospered over the centuries.
However, persecution by the Portuguese in the early 16th century forced them to migrate to Cochin, where they settled on land given by the raja, and built a synagogue in 1568. Cochin’s Jewish community was divided into two distinct groups the socalled Black or Malabari Jews who claimed to be descendants of the original settlers, and the White or Paradesim Jews who came here from the Middle East, and after whom the synagogue is named. A third, smaller group was the Brown or Meshuhurarum Jews, descended from converted slaves, many of whom were in the spice trade. In 1940, there were 2,500 Jews in Kerala, but today only a dozen families remain, the rest having migrated to Israel.
The present synagogue, with its tiled roof and clock tower, was rebuilt in 1664 with Dutch help, after the Portuguese destroyed it in 1662. The synagogue’s treasures include beautiful silver and gold Torah scrolls, a multitude of hanging oil lamps and crystal chandeliers, and a superbly crafted brass pulpit. The floor is covered with exquisite handpainted blue willow-pattern riles, which were brought I rum Canton in the mid-18th 1 century by a powerful mer-chante , Ezekiel Rahabi. The narrow lanes around the synagogue are crammed with Dutch-style residences. ‘Today, most of these house antpique shops.
KOCHI INTERNATIONAL PEPPER EXCHANGE
This unique establishment reverberates with voices, seemingly raised in anger, as one ascends the stairs. However, nothing prepares the visitor for what lies within the small hall is lined with tiny cubicles, each with a man talking animatedly on a telephone. Theatrical gestures accompanied by a loud cacophony of sounds mark the drama of each clay’s pepper auction.
ST FRANCIS CHURCH
Established in the early 1500s by the Portuguese (who called it Santo Antonio) this is one of India’s earliest European churches, with a simple facade that became the model for later churches. Taken over by the Dutch and then the British, it is today affiliated to the Church of South India. Within are numerous gravestones with inscriptions, the earliest a Portuguese epitaph, dated 1562. Vasco da Gama was buried here in 1524 until his body was taken to Portugal 14 years later.
This man-made island, named after the viceroy, Lord Willingdon, was created in the 1920s out of silt dredged to deepen Kochi port. Situated between Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and Ernakulam, it has some good hotels, as well as the main harbour, the Port Trust building, the customs house and the railway station. It is also an important naval base.
A narrow strip of land, this beautiful island with breathtaking views of the bay, is the location of Bolghatty Palace. Set in 6 ha (15 acres) of lush green lawns, this palatial structure was originally built by the Dutch in 1744 and later became the home of the British Resident. It has now been converted into a hotel run by the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation.
ENVIRONS: Kochi’s bustling business centre, Ernakularn , is 10 km (6 miles) east of Fort Kochi. The Hill Palace at Thripwiithura , 10 km (6 miles) southeast of Ernakulam , was built in 1895 and was the official residence of the former rulers of Cochin. The palace, set in spacious grounds, is now a museum with a fairly good collection of paintings, manuscripts and royal memorabilia. The exquisite floor tiles differ from room to room, and the sweeping wooden staircases have a grandeur all of their own. The 10th-century Chottanildtara Temple, dedicated to the mother goddess Bhagavati, one of Kerala’s most popular deities, is 16 km (10 miles) northeast of Ernakulam.