Published: March 24th 2012March 16th 2012
Wash Stone and Canoe
Every house had at least one wash stone and a canoe.
KOCHI (COCHIN), KERALA, INDIA. Friday 16 March, 2012.
Kochi is a thriving, palm-fringed port city, with one of the world's finest natural harbours. It is located in the state of Kerala on the Malabar coast in Southern India. Kochi is a cluster of islands and peninsulas, lagoons and canals. We had arranged to take a tour with our tablemates, Dave and Irene and six others to the Kerala Backwaters.
After a reasonably painless clearance by the Kochi immigration officials we disembarked the ship and waited (and waited) for our tour. We asked a port official where the bus was likely to be waiting and he said that it would not be on the quay without a permit. He kindly offered to go and look for 'Best Shore Tours' in his car. We were about to give up on them when the wonderful port official returned with our (very flustered) guide who had been waiting outside since 8 am.
We drove for an hour and a half south of Kochi to the town of Allappuzha (Formerly Alleppey) 40 miles (64 km) away. The drive was very interesting and colourful. We passed an elephant with its mahoot who was on
an annual pilgrimage to every Hindu temple in Kerala. Our guide informed us that all the donations that are received in the Hindu temples are given to the government - an idea introduced during British rule! . This must be a nice little earner as 65% of the population of India are Hindu and it is the national religion.
One of the things that we really noticed on the drive was that there was not a lot of litter. In the Andaman Islands it was so bad as to be offensive, but here the streets were relatively clean. Our guide commented that here in Kerala the Hindu population do EAT (horror of horrors) beef. M commented that the cows definitely looked much more worried than they had in previous regions, where they just wandered aimlessly along the highway and knew you would avoid them as they are holy - hence the well known saying Holy Cow!
M asked the driver why all the two-wheeler drivers were wearing helmets but not the passengers. Apparently in some Indian States (but not all) it is mandatory to wear a helmet if you are the driver, but that it is not mandatory
for the passenger(s) to do so. Very strange considering most of the passengers were women and several children - yes all on the same two-wheeler! The women were also usually sitting side-saddle style. Wonder what the Indian RTA statistics look like?
We arrived at Allappuzha which is known locally as 'Venice of the East' and is made up of an appealing network of lagoons and backwaters. This was the starting point for our tour. The ten of us boarded our tour boat and sat on the top deck which was protected from the sun by a canopy. We sailed along the canals and lakes, past rice paddies and little creeks where small villages nestle below the trees.
Each village has a school, a temple and usually a small shop. Every house has a mooring point for their canoe which is the local mode of transport. Next to the mooring point are steps into the water. Here the villagers bathe, wash their pots and plates etc and do their washing. Every house has a wash stone at the top of the steps into the canal and we could see the women violently slapping the clothes on the stones to
get rid of the surplus water. M and D joked together about how the women would compare their wash stones. Some had two stones (twin tub?), some only one - granite or sandstone (Hotpoint or Hoover?).
There is also a regular ferry service which zig zags from bank to bank -although there are no timetables. There are plenty of ferry stops for the locals to get on and off. According to our guide, a trip to Allappuzha is a weekly affair for most to stock up on supplies. The chores (washing, cleaning etc) are usually done before lunch. After lunch is free time to watch TV, read etc. Apparently these seemingly primitive villages all have TV and landline telephone connections.
Just outside of Allappuzha on a large lake is the terminus where over 700 house boats are moored. These serve both as homes for locals and as 'hotels' for the tourist industry. Many Indians holiday here, either from elsewhere in India or abroad. It is very popular with honeymooning couples.
During the tour we were lucky enough to see a Snake Boat moored at the side of the lake. Every year on the second Saturday in August
famous Snake Boat Races are held on these waters, as part of Onam, the Harvest Festival. These races are thrilling to watch; gigantic boats 58 metres (190 ft) long, manned by 100 oarsmen, plus tourists, drummers and a cox, speed through the waters accompanied by chanting and drum beats. We also saw many communist flags and monuments as we sailed along the rivers and canals - there is strong support for the local communist party in this area.
After we disembarked the tour boat we were taken to Babitha Coir Works in Allappuzha. Coir (pronounced coyer) is a material made from the hairy bits from the husks of coconuts and the area of Kollam (Quilon) is the heart of this industry. It is used to make various items like rugs, carpets etc. In the UK we are familiar with it being used for doormats.
We reboarded the bus and set off in the direction of Kochi. This time instead of travelling along the main highway we took the coast road. Again we were surprised by how pleasant and clean the streets were.
We stopped next to a canal to look at some Chinese fishing nets hanging like
spiders' webs between the trees. These are fixed, cantilevered structures suspended over the water and operated from the shore or bank by teams of up to six men. They are counterbalanced with stones attached with ropes. The fishermen walk along the beam causing the net to dip into the water. After a few minutes the net is hauled up to land the catch. Next we crossed the road to the beach where there were brightly coloured fishing boats dragged up onto the sand, away from the ocean waves.
Next stop was Kochi itself. Our guide informed us that Kerala is known as 'God's Own Country' and these words are written on nearly every street sign in the city. First we went to Fort Kochi (a neighbourhood of the city where a fort used to stand). Next we went to the Church of St Francis. This was constructed by Portugese Franciscan friars in the early 16th century. The Portugese navigator Vasco da Gama died in Kochi in 1524 and was buried here. You can still see the grave but his remains were taken to Lisbon by his son in 1538.
Just south of Fort Kochi is the Jewish Quarter
in the part of town known as Mattancherry. The Paradesi Synagogue, which was closed as it was a Friday, was built in 1568, and is adorned with exquisite willow pattern Cantonese floor tiles. When King Nebuchadnezzar invaded Jerusalem in the 6th century BC many Jews fled to Kerala. Now there are only 9 Jews left in the city (six women and 3 men).
Also in Mattancherry is the Dutch Palace (also closed on Fridays - good planning by Voyages of Discovery Cruise Company!). This was built by the Portugese in 1557 and was enhanced by the Dutch after 1663. We took some photos of the outside of the palace and the synagogue before returning to the ship. Despite the frustrating start this was one of our best days yet.
There are more photos below