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Published: April 10th 2017
Legend tells that Kerala was created when some dude called Parsurama, an incarnation of Lord Vishna, threw his battle axe into the Arabian sea. Why he did this isn't clear and equally unclear is why this should turn the sea into fertile land, nevertheless this is the legend and the state of Kerala has officially been a state of India since 1956.
The place I'm staying in for the first part of my tour around southern India is the Kerelan city of Cochin. This morning we are taken on a tour of Fort Cochin by our guide Sadjit. Fort Cochin is the colonial part of the city with influences from the Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Arabs and not forgetting the Empire building Brits! We start off in a square with massive trees we find out are rain trees, so named because the leaves close up when it's about to rain (also at night time, but I guess they had to stick with something when naming these trees). Just next to the square is the heritage zone, the buildings here protected from any changes being made to their facades. I guess that means the back of the buildings may be dayglow strip
joints but I don't check so can neither confirm nor deny this. We set off down Princes Street - anyone from my home city of Norwich will now understand the strip joint reference! It's full of hippy heaven shops, a throw back to the many genuine hippy tourists who first started the Indian tourism boost to this area in the 1970s. Now there are still enough young hippy wannabes to warrant their continued existence.
We are making our way to Saint Francis' Church, famed for being the first European church in India and built in 1506. We find out a bit of Cochin's history before we go inside. Apparently the 'co' bit means like and the 'chin' bit is China. So Cochin is like China is it? Now I've been to China and I can confidently say the two places are like chalk and cheese so I remain to be convincced on that one. Without getting too much into the complicated history of who fought who, suffice it to say everyone wanted a bit of the spice action. Kerala had spices and the world and his wife wanted them. Jews settled in the north and became the wheeler dealers,
the Arabs exported spices to the Chinese and the Portuguese? Well they seemed to want to have their fingers in all the pies! And so began the famous spice routes all the way from Kerala to the Mediterranean.
We eventually go inside the church and it's a shame the long strips of cloth fixed up on wooden frames with ropes going through holes in the walls aren't in working order, as despite being a church it's baking inside and these are fans that would have been worked from outside by punka wallas. I'd heard this term before but didn't realise the walla bit means 'does the job'. We renamed Sadjit 'Guide Walla'! We find out that although St Francis's Church changed denominations a few times over the years it is currently Protestant with two services delivered every day, one in English and one in Malayalam, the local language of Kerala.
Our tour continues and we pass the parade ground where British soldiers used to march up and down, probably in stupidly hot uniforms. Now the parade ground is having a bit of a smart and tidy ready to be used by FIFA. Football in this heat? I wouldn't
last five minutes never mind ninety!
We've reached the sea or estuary - it's brackish water anyway. Here we find the famous Chinese fishing nets. Huge nets are attached to poles lashed together in a square and counter weighted at the other end of a lever by a bag of stones. Today the nets aren't used by the Chinese but by groups of local Cochin fishermen who share the profits of their catch. The nets are dipped into the water for five minutes at a time to catch mullet, chub, tiger fish, catfish etc. This happens up to 250 times a day so you would think the fish would get wise to it and swim somewhere else, but it seems not.
We see some sculptures of fish with loads of plastic bottles attached and find out they are an art installation called 'Fish Cemetery' a comment on the threat to biodiversity from discarded plastic. As we walk along the shore unfortunately there are quite a few bottles and bits of other rubbish brazenly ignoring this sage warning. We also see a rusted old steam boiler preserved as a reminder of the maintenance work it carried out on the
Lady Willington ship that used to harbour in Cochin.
We meet some cheeky teengers hanging about and have fun banter with them. It's all good natured but they obviously find us tourists hilarious.
I see quite a few egrets hanging around the Chinese fishing nets hoping for some scraps. There's also a little magpie robin flitting about in the branches of a Flamboyan tree.
And so to the final part of our tour, a look around the Dutch Palace. Again we learn that a lot of the history involved warring between various factions culminating in a third of the fort area being destroyed along with all the Hindu temples. Eventually a treaty was formed between the new Raja (they'd killed the previous one!) and the Dutch who then built the palace as compensation for all the trashing that had gone on before. Inside we sadly aren't allowed to take photos of the amazing wall paintings. The paint was made using natural colourings from plants and vegetables. We find out from some of the information boards about previous inhabitants of the Dutch Palace. There are portrait paintings of the last twelve Rajas in all their finery. My favourite
is Maharaja Kerala Vam, in power between 1888 and 1895, who took a great interest in setting up a number of schools in his patch. He was also an early conservationist putting a ban on tree felling in his forests to give the trees time to recover from too much felling up to that point. He even appointed a forestry officer. Another fascinating aspect of life in the Dutch Palace is the royal garb worn by the women of the Maharaja's family. In contrast to his finery they were expected to wrap what looks like a plain white sheet around their chest and that's it!
We finish our tour with a crazy, bumpy tuktuk ride through the winding streets to get to our dinner stop where our pre-ordered special Keralan sandhya meal is waiting for us - tasty treats set out on a banana leaf. We eat it Indian style with our fingers which is a bit weird at first, especially mixing the hot food with the rice!
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