When Vasco da Gama, the great navigator, and his Portuguese ships arrived at Fort Cochin (now Kochi) in 1499 there were already Arab and Chinese spice traders here. For the first Europeans this place was of particular interest as it has a wonderful natural harbour and many spices were more valuable than gold.
Da Gama died and was buried here and in due course the Dutch arrived and continued the spice trade whilst building the fort and defences. I hope you’re paying attention, there may be questions later. Eventually, of course, the British arrived and whilst their squaddies drilled on the Parade Ground (now where local boys play football) they never really occupied the area like other parts of India, preferring to rule by “influence” through the local royal family.
Now you know pretty much all the local history that I do and all of that I learned today. History lesson over and as I’m on holiday I will spare you the test. So what did we do and see?
Our guide for the day, Sebastian, met us and first we headed off to see the local Dhobi Khana (laundry) where everything is still done be hand and is used by locals and things like supermarkets for their uniforms; hotels tend to have their own modern laundry, the Dhobi Khana is cheap and efficient.
In the first area men in little booths soak the laundry in detergent and then give it a good slapping on their slab
then give it a good rinse. The drying arrangements are entirely natural
and finally things are expertly ironed, here is Mrs Sixwheeler having an ironing lesson.
Incidentally the lady was tiny and the iron was very heavy indeed and filled with glowing coals to provide the heat! There is a separate area with a row of industrial sized spin dryers and indoor clothes lines that are only used during the monsoon period.
From here we visited the “Dutch Palace” which was in fact built by the Portuguese as a gift to the local ruler. It is built in very much the European style with heavy teak timber forming the roof. The walls are richly decorated with frescos showing religious stories bit these were added later. Today the palace is a cultural museum and very good it is too although no photography is allowed.
Next we moved on to the Jewish synagogue, the last one in use today. There had been a significant Jewish community here but most left for Israel at the time of Indian independence in 1949; today the Jewish population of Kochi is just seven souls which I find terribly sad. Again, this is a no photo area.
We then walked through some of the local streets that are mainly given over to selling tourist stuff of all varieties and quality. We did go into the Women’s Cooperative Spices Store though and it was excellent. The ladies running the shop were informative, knowledgeable and helpful; I also had the feeling that I was being teased the whole time I was in there.
We also visited St Francis church, the oldest church in India, it is still being used today. Vasco da Gama was buried here but later his remains were returned to Lisbon. The church is currently undergoing extensive repair and they are faithfully using the same building techniques as when it was originally built. Inside it has a very high roof and open window along the sides give excellent ventilation and this was originally helped by a row of Pankas (punkahs?) that were pulled by Panka Wallahs sitting outside; now they use fans, but here’s a panka.
Our final stop before lunch was the Chinese fishing nets that have been in use here since before Europeans arrived. Using a counterbalanced set of sheerlegs the operators pull the net up and lower it back into the water up to three hundred times a day.
Exhausted by all this and particularly by the heat and humidity we took a siesta after lunch and a little more gentle shopping later until it was time to go to a Kathakali show in the evening.
Kathakali is the traditional form of Keralan dance drama. It features very detailed and complicated make up and there is a complicated discipline of facial expressions and hand gestures with wonderfully exotic costumes. The plays are depictions of religious stories and a performance may run overnight and be up to ten hours in duration!
I do think that as visitors we should try these things but I have to say that it really wasn’t my cup of tea and I am eternally grateful that it wasn’t the full ten hours. In fact one hour was about forty minutes too long. Anyway here are some of the characters.
And tomorrow we go boating, so no WiFi.
18 March 2014