Discover Kerala: Kochi and Culture (II/III)

Oct/20/2019 / by Sharvan Kumar

In part two of our series on Kerala, we travel up the coast and focus on Kochi and culture.  Kochi (previously known as Cochin) is the commercial capital of Kerala, a bustling port that since 1341 AD has welcomed Arab, Chinese and European merchants. These traders arrived in search of “black gold,” or Pepper, which were as precious or more than the yellow variety.  Pepper was exported from this coastal city to Greece as far back as the fourth century BC, but the real “gold rush” of trade, particularly for spices, began in the first century AD. Recipes from rich Roman households attest to the popularity of the spice in ancient Rome. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, ginger, nutmeg, saffron, vanilla and other fragrant spices were also among the countless other culinary and medicinal spices that were traded. Today you can find these spices on the shelves of any supermarket around the world, but you will never be able to beat the freshness, aroma, and taste of the spices in Kerala. So, good luck recreating that magical Kerala curry in London, New York, or Los Angeles— you can come a close second but there is nothing like the original.

Pic courtesy: Sharvan Kumar; Common spices that usually find their way into Kerala recipes

The Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British traders who came to Kochi left their influence on the city, which is still evident today. The Chinese cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, the Dutch Palace (also known as the Mattancherry Palace), the Jewish Synagogue and St. Francis Church, which was built in 1503, all tell rich stories of the global past and imbue the city with cosmopolitan flair. The St. Francis Church is the first church in India and was a haven to the “untouchables” who were not allowed into houses of worship; this marked the beginning of Christianity in India. St. Francis is also where Vasco de Gama’s body was originally buried when he died in Kochi in 1524 during his third visit to India. His body was later moved to Lisbon. The history of the church reflects the struggle of European powers in India between the 15th and 20th century.

Pic courtesy: Sharvan Kumar; Chinese fishing nets (above); St. Francis Church, Kochi (below)

The most iconic symbol of the Dutch influence in the city is Dutch Palace. A fine example of Kerala style of architecture interspersed with colonial influences, this palace is worth a visit. This two-storied palace has a large and impressive collection of murals that depict great Indian epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata and the works of the Sanskrit poet Kalidasa.

The potpourri of cultures that have called Kochi home over the centuries includes “Jew Street,” a short walk from the Mattancherry bus stand in the Fort Kochi area. There you will see the Jewish Synagogue (sometimes called Paradesi Synagogue), which was built in 1568 by the Malabar Yehudans or Cochin Jewish community and is still in use. Inside the Synagogue, the Belgian glass chandeliers and the blue willow-patterned Chinese floor tiles are sure to catch your attention and further reinforces the mix of cultures.

Kochi is also a good place to experience aspects of the Kerala culture, especially Kalaripayattu and Kathakali, two art forms that are special to this region. Kalaripayattu, one of the oldest martial art in the world, is a pride of Kerala. Running, jumping, somersault and mastery of weapons such as swords, daggers, spears and sticks are an integral part of this art form which strives to develop ultimate coordination between mind and body.

Pic courtesy: Sharvan Kumar; Kalaripayattu performance for an audience in Kochi

One of Kerala’s most known artforms is Kathakali, a classical Indian dance unlike any other. The word Kathakali comes from Katha (story) and Kali (performance or art) and reflects the tradition of storytelling through dance and expressive arts. Folk mythologies and religious themes from Hindu epics typically form the basis for the “story” and music, vocals, and hand and facial expressions are coordinated to tell the story. Kathakali also incorporates elaborate costumes, head dresses, face painting and face masks and make-up is designed to depict gods, goddesses, demons, animals and story character. A Kathakali show is a “must-do” on any travel itinerary in Kochi.

Pic courtesy: Sharvan Kumar; A Kathakali artist painting his face and later on stage

While in Kochi, pamper yourself by staying in one of the beautifully-appointed spacious suites at the Taj Malabar Resort and Spa located on Willingdon Island. Enjoy a panoramic view of the Cochin harbor from your private balcony and relax with a refreshing drink to witness a spectacular sunset in the Arabian Sea. If you feel up to it, go down to the Mattancherry Bar and meet a few people while you sip one of their exotic cocktails and listen to a live piano performance. For dinner, visit The Rice Boat, perhaps one of the best seafood restaurants in Kochi. The restaurant is located on a traditional ‘kettuvalam’ or houseboat and showcases Kerala’s exquisite seafood delicacies like tiger prawn cooked with curry leaves and shallots or grilled white snapper in tangy tamarind and pepper sauce, wrapped in steamed banana leaves. A perfect way to finish the day and say bye to Kochi.