With our arrival in Cochin we were firmly back on the beaten track. Cochin is a fascinating town with a long and varied history. It was a possession of the Dutch, Portuguese and British at various times and was always an important port . Today it lives on in quiet decrepitude as the hustle and bustle of modern India takes place across the water in Ernakulam, the commercial city that has effectively replaced Cochin. Cochin feels like an open air museum now, catering mainly to the tourist trade. For the traveller, it is a relaxing respite from the tumult that is India and that is in itself a reason to go. More so, it has some fascinating sites.
During our first trip to India we had explored Cochin in some depth but had been frustrated by the fact that the famous Paradesi Synagogue, one of the highlights of the town, had been closed. The synagogue is one of the most famous landmarks of the city and in fact in India, and has been commemorated in Indian stamps.
The history of the Jews of Cochin is mired in legend, and basically tells of a group of Jews who escape the Babylonian conquest of Israel in 586 BC, arrive by ship on the Keralan shores and establishing a community with the blessing of the local ruler. Whether true or not, the fact is that the synagogue itself is nearly 500 years old, and foundation stones of even older synagogues are on show from other parts of Kerala. We were lucky this time – it was the festival of Sukkot and the synagogue was open for us to visit. The building is famous for its hundreds of Chinese ceramic tiles on the floor but what we found most interesting were the oil lamps. Most of the lamps appear to hav been donated by this or that wealthy family or benefactor. We were shown a lamp that was donated by a British Collector (a senior administrative position) who, while fleeing for his life from a mob of enraged locals, sought and received sanctuary in the synagogue. The lamp was his way of saying thank you.
Now, while we were in Kerala, the whole state was having its power cut by one or two hours every evening to conserve electricity. While we were in the synagogue, the lamps were all lit, and when the power was cut, we stood in this amazing old building illuminated by hundreds of oil lamps. This was perhaps our greatest experience in India – it felt as if we had been transported back in time a few hundred years. We had tickets that night for a Kathakali show – the classic Keralan dance theatre – but we missed it on purpose in order to prolong the experience in the synagogue. We’d seen Kathakali during our first trip and the kids would have enjoyed it, but nothing could come close to matching that evening for us.
Cochin is a fun place to wander around. Much of it is being restored for the tourist trade, but there are still corners where you can wander around and see amazing snapshots of the old and the new juxtaposed. We saw kids playing soccer on a field just steps away from a restored VOC building that had been converted into the headquarters of a very upmarket Indian fashion designer. VOC buildings are common in all former Dutch colonies and date from around the 1700’s. The letters stand for the Dutch East India Company, the trading company that was responsible for the colonisation of places as far apart as Cape Town in South Africa and Java and the Spice Islands in Indonesia. As a former Capetonian myself, I have seen many such buildings in and around Cape Town, which was established as a refreshment station for the Dutch ships on the way to Java. Clearly Cochin had been an important stop as well. Nothing much remains of the Dutch empire today except for buildings such as these scattered across the world.
When travelling with kids one often has to sacrifice conventional tourist sites – we skipped the Palace, as the kids were more interested in an old playground which had seen much better days, and in the fish that were being caught by the fisherman in the famous Chinese fishing nets. We did go see a performance of kalarippayattu, which is the Keralan martial art. The boys loved watching two guys leaping around seemingly trying to maim each other with an assortment of fearful looking weapons such as swords, knives and hacksaws.
We stayed at the Old Courtyard Hotel. A really old heritage building and popular with families and European tourists it seemed. The manager told us that she has to have the building painted three times a year because of the intense humidity.
There are plenty of good accommodation choices in Cochin – we were happy here, as we probably would have been in many of the other similar hotels in the town.
We saw plenty of other travellers in Cochin, from backpackers to package tourists. After a few weeks well away from the beaten path, it was good to see other western travellers again. We ate at a fish restaurant where we all had fish with the exception of Daniel, who wanted chicken. Big Mistake! He started throwing up in the night and was on his way to being dehydrated by morning, when Raja was due to pick us up for the next stage of the trip.
We learned an important lesson – don’t veer off the tried and tested – if there is a big crowd at a restaurant – eat there. If not, don’t go in. Likewise, if a place clearly caters to one kind of food, eat that. Don’t go for something different.
We were well equiped with an array of powerful drugs that we had brought with us, but Raja advised us to treat Daniel with a local remedy. Kerala is home to Ayurveda, an ancient medical system that is clearly preferred by locals to Western drugs. We saw many Ayurvedic pharmacies, carrying stocks of medicine totally unfamiliar to us. The local remedy for Daniel would prove to be simple and very effective.
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