Published: September 17th 2008April 8th 2008
Kochin and the Kerala Backwaters
We awoke to yet another beautiful day although it did seem to be getting a shade hotter as the days went by. We had coffee by the Nilaya Hermitage pool and a large late breakfast before packing for our trip back to Cochin. Rami and Donna were staying one more night before returning to London so we made our farewells to them and to all the wonderful Nilaya staff and headed off for the airport.
Arriving in Cochin
in the early evening we were met again by the ground agent Biji, and by our driver for the next ten days, Narayan, who had driven over from his home in Chennai in a rather old Toyota Qualis SUV (the Indian version of a Kijang).
Lisa had as usual slept the whole way from Goa and was hungry, so we picked up some 75-Rupee take-away noodles for her at the Golden Dragon Restaurant on the way to the Brunton Boatyard
where we checked in again at about nine-fifteen.
As Lisa was feeling a little under the weather the next morning (the Chinese take-away?) I went off alone with a local guide, Naidu, to explore
the old historic centre of Fort Cochin. A short walk along the waterfront we watched the fishermen raising and lowering their “Chinese” nets
, and looked in at the small fish market selling the day’s catch from the offshore fishing boats (tuna, shark, barracuda, snapper, mackerel, prawns and squid, and others I didn’t recognise).
Close by we entered the pleasant, tree-shaded streets of the old town centre
that reflect its history as a centre of commerce for over six hundred years. The street names are redolent of the British Raj, however, since as the last colonial power they got the long term naming rights: Church Road, Parade Ground Road, Napier Street, Princess Street, Post Office Road, Rose Street and Tower Road were the ones I noted, and kudos to the State Government
for not jettisoning all these in favour of modern Indian names.
The streets are lined with 200-300 year-old Portuguese and Dutch Mansions and British colonial houses, all in various states of repair, and quite a few have been lovingly restored and converted into boutique hotels, or shops, or used as private houses.
The oldest European church
in India is here, built in wood by Portuguese Franciscans
in 1503 and rebuilt in stone about 50 years later. The church appears to have originally been dedicated to St Anthony but the name was changed to St. Francis when it became an Anglican church in the 19th century. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was buried here upon his death in 1524, although his son came to repatriate his remains to Lisbon fourteen years later. Not far away is the Roman Catholic Santa Cruz Basilica
built in 1506, but blown up by the British when the Dutch used it as an armoury, and rebuilt in 1902. An uninspiring exterior hides a delicately painted interior in pastel shades of pink and blue.
After lunch, Lisa was feeling up to an outing and we drove to Mattancherry, about 10 minutes from Fort Cochin, to see the Mattancherry (or Dutch) Palace
. It was built adjacent to some important Hindu shrines by the Portuguese in 1555 and given to the then Raja of Cochin, Veera Kerala Verma. Again, the exterior is not very imposing, but the glory of the place is its exquisite 16th and 17th century tempura murals of scenes from the Ramayana and other Hindu tales. Many of them are in
Jew Town, Kochin
Kerala: "God's Own Country"
beautiful condition despite the years that have passed since they were painted.
Just outside the Palace compound, and right behind the Hindu temple is the Pardesi Synagogue. There is said to have been a Jewish presence in Kerala
since almost 1,000 BC, but the community was decimated by Portuguese and Arab pillage in the 16th century. The Raja then gave them protection in Cochin and the synagogue, originally built in 1568 but destroyed in 1662, was rebuilt under Dutch rule. Its interior is very pretty with a Chinese tile floor, many Belgian glass chandeliers, and a brass-railed pulpit.
Today there are said to be five Jewish families
left in what is called Jew Town, with fourteen family members worshipping at the synagogue (although there may now be even fewer). Jew Town was originally full of spice traders, but these have largely moved to a nearby location, and the area around the synagogue is now dominated by some quite attractive antique shops and tourist stores selling some pretty reasonably made stuff.
Back at the hotel we took the Brunton Boatyard’s small cruiser for a sunset cruise around the waters known as Lake Vembanad, north of Fort Cochin.
In the morning, we left Fort Cochin around eleven to drive south for an hour and a half to (“the Venice of the East”)
where we boarded our houseboat, “Kerala Tours”, for an overnight cruise on the Kerala Backwaters
We saw many different sizes of houseboat (there are reputed to be more than 300 plying their trade here), but most have a rear-engined, wooden double-ended hull, wooden superstructure (or, now, fibreglass
) clad in woven reed matting and coir rope, and a forward steering position. Ours had three guest rooms (although it was booked for our sole use), with air-conditioning in the guest room and a quiet generator astern to run it at night. Up front was a large covered lounging and dining deck, and its overall length was about thirty metres.
We started up the Pampa River, lined with holiday resorts both large and small, and with many empty houseboats moored along the coconut lined banks. Soon we dropped anchor on a large breezy stretch of water and were fed with grilled fresh lake fish and several vegetarian curries served with large-grained Kerala rice and washed down with beer. It was all perfectly delicious.
After lunch we
cruised some of the narrower canals, flanked by village houses and with the inhabitants’ paddy fields often just behind the embankment. Everywhere we looked was a microcosm of daily life: women colourfully washing their hair or the family clothes; laughing kids swinging out into the canal on palm fronds; cows being milked and goats on ropes being led back home; some serious-looking teenagers doing yoga as part of their swimming training; men transporting river sand to their customers in large canoes; wizened old men fishing off the banks, their grandchildren keeping them company; canoes selling firewood by the kilo plying their trade.
In the late afternoon we strolled through one of the villages where we saw local smallholders bring their cows’ milk to be measured and recorded at the government buying station. Lisa bought half a litre for ten rupees (about twenty US cents). Everyone in the village seemed pretty laid back and certainly very friendly. Although the villagers largely seem to survive via rice farming, a handful of livestock, and very small-scale fishing, the houses all have electricity and access to telephone lines - many have satellite dishes, too. Perhaps they have other sources of income (remittances from
the many Keralans working overseas?); otherwise it’s a bit hard to compute.
At six we moored up beside a pretty church standing alone on the canal bank where we watched the sun go down, followed by dark clouds blowing in from the south-east. Soon there was lightning and rumbling thunder which heralded a heavy rainstorm, amidst which we were served another simple but excellent south-Indian meal.
We were lulled to sleep by the gentle flapping of the monsoon covers and the steady drumming of the rain on the reed roof.
Even though we awoke at six we were a little too late to observe the watery sunrise by the time we emerged. But we sat over coffee and watched the canal slowly come to life under a colourless sky: ferries bringing villagers to their fields or to their moored canoes; fishermen paddling out silently for a morning’s work; larger canoes setting off to harvest mussels or river sand. In all, it was a very soft and tranquil scene with which to start our day.
After breakfast we left our mooring and motored gently up the canal and out into Vembanad Lake on the shores of which
we ultimately reached our destination: the Coconut Lagoon
resort near Kumarakom. This is one “eco-resort” that actually seems to live up to its billing. Built largely of old materials or whole buildings transplanted from nearby villages, it sits on a grid-system of canals that are home to fish, insects and reptiles, and provide a ready food source for egrets, herons and cormorants. There is a butterfly garden and a fish sanctuary, and as the sun settles over the lake it is a cacophony of bird noises large and small. It would be a great place to chill out for a few days, do some fishing, take some walks, go canoeing, but unfortunately we had only a half-day, which we largely lazed away. Next ➤ ➤
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