Fort Kochi: Where Trade & Tourism Go Hand In Hand

This coastal paradise is not just a place for the old fashioned, but the modern as well
Indo-Portuguese Museum in Fort Kochi
Indo-Portuguese Museum in Fort KochiShutterstock

One rainy summer vacation evening in Kochi, as my bored cousins and I lay hither-thither on the red-oxide floor, hating with childlike intensity the power cut, the rain and the impending doom of our schools reopening, my grandfather told us the story of an umbrella maker from Alleppey. The man, affectionately called Kuda Vavachan, had made umbrellas in his backyard for 40 years. Vavachan believed that the essence of an umbrella is not its prettiness or colour, but its resilience against the governing elements of the Kerala sun and rain. He never steered away from the traditional model -- a black waterproof cloth wound tight on a metal frame with a hooked handle and a pointy head.

These umbrellas lasted for up to 10 years even when used as walking sticks. By the 90s, Vavachan's family had created the largest selling umbrella brand in India -- Popy Umbrellas. They had, by then, introduced pink and polka-dotted umbrellas.

At this point, my cousins and I broke into Popy's brilliant Malayalam jingle about dancing in the rain.

What my grandfather, responsible for every umbrella I've owned since childhood, was telling us was how indigenous the brand was to Kerala -- a family business in a town known for its backwaters and snake-boat races that manufactured a product Kerala could not do without. He wouldn't admit it, but he was also secretly proud that the umbrella revolution happened just 30 km from his home in Kochi.

"Here in Kerala, he'd say, there will always be old-fashioned sellers for old-fashioned buyers like me."

Unchanged Shopping List

For all his other old-fashioned needs, my grandfather went to Broadway market, in the heart of the city. When he took me along, he brought a shopping list that has remained unchanged umbrella, of course, but also cinnamon or pepper, an Ayurvedic medicine depending on what he thought ailed me that season, a potted herb and other assorted items he believed were top-quality only in Kochi. And only in Broadway.

Broadway is, first of all, narrow. It is Kochi's busiest wholesale and retail market -- a maze with treasures known only to regulars. My grandfather once took me through numerous alleys, hidden nooks and slabs-over-gutters to find the perfect pickle bharani (ceramic jar). It was apparently the only shop that still crafted traditional Malabar ceramic, the kind that is usually handed down generations. Such shopping information is so local that it's almost illicit in a tourist-friendly state like Kerala.

At the centre of Broadway is a grid-like vegetable market. Around it, a jungle of big and little shops compete for space, their entrances and signboards overlapping. At first glance, it looks like any other Indian market, selling salwar kameez, school uniforms, steel utensils, bags, mobile phones and bedsheets. But Broadway's backbone is shops that, by virtue of having been around for over a century, see no use in high-pitched marketing. They were, in my grandfather's words, old-fashioned sellers.

The densely populated settlements here are flanked by the canal
The densely populated settlements here are flanked by the canal

Behind a sprightly housecoat vendor, the dull blue board of New Guna Shenoy Tools & Hardware hangs over a crumbling two-storey house. Inside, a mess of metal is piled up to the roof sharp and blunt ends stick out threateningly. In a safe clearing, Suresh Shenoy leans lightly on a teak desk, eyes focused on a receipt book. Above him, jasmine garlands grace portraits of ancestors.

Shenoy is the fifth generation to run this 140-year-old hardware shop. "I'm part of a lineage of shrewd men doing the right things at the right time," says Shenoy. "During the British days, my great great granduncle got licenses from the Queen for export via sea. In independent India, my great granduncle won import licenses in the highly regulated market."

After that, he says, "The market opened up and so did competition." The Shenoy family owns theatres and real estate across Kochi, but the hardware store is still the mother company. "Demand for metal never dies," says Shenoy. When I ask about his children joining the business, he shrugs. "I don't think they'll want to sit in a shop," he says. "Even if it does do business in crores."

The shop stretches on longitudinally and seems to have tunnelled through at least six old buildings. The Shenoys had purchased houses on Jew Street, behind their shop, and simply knocked down separating walls, thus creating a long godown. This has left a rainbow of peeling paint and the uneasy feeling that in six different living rooms and bedrooms, metal has replaced people.

Little Evidence Of Jews Except 'Jew Town' Name

When a majority of Cochin Jews left for Israel in the 50s, many hurriedly sold off their property to shops like Shenoy and still others just abandoned them. Apart from its name, Jew Street seems to display no evidence that a prosperous community of about 2,000 Jewish traders might have worked, lived and prayed here. At the beginning of the road, a locked gate with Stars of David is overgrown with creepers. "No one comes to pray here, so it's shut," says a man parking a scooter in front of it.

At the last estimate, 53 Cochin Jews remain in all of Kerala, only 13 in Kochi itself. Along Jew Street, the impatience of Broadway seems to have annexed all Jew-owned buildings. They have bowed out to Ayurveda clinics, oil godowns and dry fruit marts.

As I turn the corner near Market Street to avoid a truck pouring aloe vera shrubs on the road, I spot a gate with a signboard that says, 'Cochin Blossoms' and under it, in bold, 'Kadavumbagam Synagogue.' A thin mud path, lush with vines and hanging plants on both sides, leads to a hexagonal building. On the porch, a middle-aged man with grey curls is placing two pots of rose shrubs on a scooter. When he notices me, he asks, "Buying plants?" When I shake my head no, he says, "Oh. Okay, feel free to look around inside."

Elias Babu Josephai is one of the last Cochin Jews left in the city. He is also the last remaining member of the congregation of the Kadavumbagam (Bay of the River) Synagogue, where he now runs an aquarium and flower shop. Inside, in what used to be the yeshiva, Josephai's employees scoop the fish into plastic water-filled bags.

Behind this blur of activity, is a door that leads to the synagogue. At the far end of the room, dusty and weak on its hinges, is the ark with its Malabari carved entablature that had once held the Torah scrolls. Upstairs, there's a large balcony with a latticework wall, behind which was the women's gallery. Colourful glass oil lamps hang by their last wires from a red ceiling. Benches are stacked on the side. An elaborate central chandelier looks frostily over the mess, as if refusing to be part of this sad ruin.

The Kadavumbagam synagogue was first built in 1200 AD and then rebuilt in 1700 AD as a replica of the First Temple in Jerusalem, with 10 windows to symbolise the Ten Commandments. After a series of burglaries, the synagogue closed in the 70s. By then, there wasn't even the quorum of 10 Jews required to keep it open.

The Last Of Cochin's Jews

"I get tired of introducing myself as one the last Cochin Jews," admits Josephai. "It's no fun being known for being rare." Being the last of anything is also a big responsibility. He now says his prayers are as much out of devotion as out of the need to remember the dying Judaeo-Malayalam language.

Josephai is trying to preserve the Kadavumbagam Synagogue by constantly using it, even if it is to sell bonsai and goldfish. He tells me that the locked gate I saw across the street was the Thokumbagam Synagogue, dead by indifference. "I could have also emigrated in 1953 to Israel when all 161 others from my congregation did," he says. But Josephai stayed, afraid that in the pace of Kochi's development, one of its oldest communities would be erased from history.

At the Ernakulam Boat Jetty the next morning, I hop on a ferry to Fort Kochi. Once there, I take an autorickshaw to Jew Town in Mattancherry, home to the Paradesi Synagogue. The auto leaves me near an odd museum about the Kerala police, which seems inappropriately enthusiastic about fashion trends in police uniform since the days of the Travancore Maharaja. As I stroll along the familiarly touristy cobblestone street crowded with art emporiums, Kashmiri curio shops and antique sellers, the synagogue's tall white wall sparkles from the far end.

As the only operating synagogue in Kochi, the Paradesi temple also serves as a museum to Jewish history in India. The first Jews to come to India had landed more than 11 centuries ago at Cranganore (an ancient port, now Kodungallur near Kochi). The Hindu king of Malabar granted them fundamental rights and privileges, written down on two copper plates. These are still preserved in the Paradesi Synagogue.

The synagogue gets its name from the white 'Paradesi' Jews, of European and Middle Eastern descent. They constitute 14 per cent of all Cochin Jews, but only five Paradesi families stay in Jew Town today. They run the synagogue with an entry fee of Rs 5 per tourist. The revenue is not enough to refurbish the floors and roofs, but as long as tourists show interest, the synagogue gets cleaned every day, the lamps changed and the Paradesi Jews stay relevant to Kerala. If business saved the Kadavumbagam Synagogue from being razed to the ground, tourism has saved the Paradesi Synagogue.

Tourism Saved Paradesi Synagogue

Paradesi Synagogue
Paradesi Synagogue Shutterstock

Tourism and industry have changed Kochi dramatically, especially over the last half decade. Fearing the erosion of Kerala's, well, Keralaness, in 2007, the tourism department conducted a year-long study on the effect of tourism on ecology and infrastructure. Ecotourism was one recommendation and the other was to preserve the culture of everyday life. No more wild excitement about tearing down ancient homes to make space for exclusive jewellery malls and no more menus invaded by generic tourist food cooked innocently in coconut oil.

A 10-minute autorickshaw ride takes me from the Paradesi Synagogue to Fort Kochi. This was always a tourist's dream come true -- Chinese fishing nets, the natural harbour, Dutch and Portuguese heritage and abundant fish. Wonderfully, it all retains a strong essence of Kerala.

After an early morning spent at the raucous fish auction, I leave at just about the time the cats have fainted in delirium. In a five-minute walk, I'm at Kashi Art Café, run by an American woman and her Indian husband since 1997. The traditional red roof tiles and red floor have been kept intact, but most of the walls have been torn down to keep the heat out. The café, popular among tourists and artists, is full of quirky art, the most permanent being the tables -- marble hoisted on discarded iron sewing machines. I order a banana pancake that leaves me tremendously satisfied. On a parallel street, a couple in a cubbyhole is selling charatta puttu (coconut and coarse rice flour steamed in coconut shells) with kadala (black gram) curry and fish fry. I do not resist.

A five-minute walk away, well-dressed people mill around St Francis Church. At the entrance, slippers and shoes are arranged neatly in rows. Inside, barefooted children and adults stand around chatting, eating pazham pori (banana fritters) and sipping on plastic cups of strong tea. The priest, in a heady post-mass mood, is guffawing loudly with a few middle-aged men. The scene seems to create a portrait fit to grace the cover of a book on contemporary Kerala Protestants. St Francis, however, is the oldest European church in India, built as a Roman Catholic church in 1503 by the Portuguese. Later, when the Dutch captured Fort Kochi, they converted it into a Protestant church. Now, it is run by the Church of South India. When the explorer Vasco da Gama died on his third visit to Kochi, he was first buried in the St Francis Church and, 14 years later, his remains were moved to Lisbon.

Walking ahead, I enter Princess Street, which still has European-style houses. Each one is a hotel today. The heavenly smell of fresh bread that wafts out from a posh bakery evokes the picture of a large oven in front of which a reassuringly portly European mother is slicing warm bread. Seen going into the bakery from its back entrance, however, is a gaunt lungi-clad man with a large steel tray stacked with loaves of bread wrapped in Malayala Manorama.

Remodelling The Past

Taking the bus back from Fort Kochi to Ernakulam, I wonder why Fort Kochi is supposed to be about Kochi's past, and the mall-proud Ernakulam about its present and future. One hides its newness and the other its age. But locals know that the old and new worlds have begun to converge beautifully in Kochi. With its modern charms, Kerala's most cosmopolitan city is successfully remodelling the past. Not just for the tourists, but also for itself.

The Information

Getting There

Air: There are flights to Kochi from Delhi and Mumbai every day.

Train: Kochi has two stations Ernakulam Junction (South Station) for long distance trains and Ernakulam Town (North Station) for intercity trains.

Bus: Several air-conditioned private buses ply every night from Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Thiruvananthapuram. However, once inside Kerala, roads are often bumpy. The last stop for most buses is the centrally located M.G. Road, Ernakulam.

Getting Around

Fort Kochi-Ernakulam A ferry can take you between Fort Kochi (6.15am-10pm) and Ernakulam (4.30am-9.30pm). Until 5pm, ferries also make a stop at the Mattancherry Jetty near the synagogue and the Dutch palace.

Fort Kochi: Most sights here are five minutes from each other, so walking's best (there are dedicated walkways too). But take an autorickshaw to the Paradesi Synagogue in Mattancherry. Fort Kochi is a lovely place for cycling too. Several tourist firms offer cycles and bikes on an hourly basis.

Where To Stay

Fort Kochi: This area has any number of charming hotels, some of them classics now. Malabar House, Fort Kochi's first boutique-heritage hotel, is meticulously designed by its German owner, combining antiques with a contemporary decor. Brunton Boatyard, once a shipyard, has been transformed into a sumptuous heritage hotel on the harbourfront. Another stunner is Le Colonial, which retains some of the 16th-century building's original features. A cheaper option is the Fort House Hotel built around a long, open courtyard lined with palms.

There are lovely new options too. Among these is the Old Harbour Hotel, located opposite the Chinese fishing nets -- a 300-year-old building that has been redesigned to stunning effect. Just around the corner is the Grande Residencia, housed in a 150-year-old Portuguese building with both a well-equipped Ayurvedic centre as well as a poolside restaurant. Neemrana's Tower House offers a choice of 15 rooms and suites.

Mushrooming Homestays

The last few years have seen a rapid proliferation of homestays in Fort Kochi, with every second family opening up their bungalows to tourists. The prettiest of the new ones is the Secret Garden, a classily restored 70-year-old building with a pool and four colonial-style rooms.

The Delight Homestay is one of the many homestays in Kochi
The Delight Homestay is one of the many homestays in Kochi

For budget accommodation, try Oys La Home Stay. An entirely new building, it offers six clean, comfortable rooms. Walton's, on Princess Street, underwent an overhaul and now offers nine stylish doubles with verandas and AC. For modest accommodation, try Biju's Tourist Home, Hotel Excellency and Hotel Aiswarya.

What To See & Do

Fort Kochi: This is the oldest European settlement and trade centre in India. Arab, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British seafarers had followed the sea route to the Kochi natural harbour and left their impression on the town. So most structures you see will be at least a hundred years old.

At Vasco da Gama Square, the Chinese fishing nets make great pictures. Said to have been brought from China by traders of Kublai Khan's court, they are used at high tide. Try to be there for the seafood auction in the fish market at around 6am. Soon after, you can purchase your choice of crab, shrimp or fish and have it cooked any way you want. The meal will be waiting for you by noon in a big-windowed restaurant by the shore. Use the time before lunch to stroll.

The Protestant St Francis Church (7am-7pm, daily), the oldest European church in India, stands on Church Road. Built in the early 16th century by the Portuguese, the unassuming church was later taken over by the Dutch and then the British. When Vasco da Gama died on his third visit to Kochi, he was buried in this church for 14 years, before the remains were taken to Portugal.

Five minutes from the church, opposite the Parade Grounds, is the moss-laden VOC Gate, the only remaining sign of the Dutch East Indian Company. It bears the emblem VOC (Verenigde Oostindische Companie) and is now the entrance to Cinnamon café.

Walk around Parade Grounds to see the 16th-century Portuguese Bishop's House -- from the outside, of course, because it's still the home of Kochi's bishop. Nearby, the Santa Cruz Basilica, is worth a visit for the beautiful murals on its ceilings. The Pierce Leslie Bungalow on Beach Road could be your last stop. The only surviving bungalow built in authentic Portuguese style, it was the home and office of a famous English merchant family, the Leslies. It is now Neemrana's Le Colonial boutique hotel, but the hotel management allows tourists to explore the exteriors and public interior spaces.

Mattancherry: Right opposite the jetty is the Mattancherry Palace (10am-5pm, Fridays closed), built by the Portuguese and presented to the Raja of Kochi in 1555 AD. It began to be called Dutch Palace after 1663, when the Dutch carried out extensions and repairs in the palace.

Behind the palace is Jew Town, which was once a village gifted by a Malabar king to the first Jews in India. It is now a cobblestone path with antique shops and emporiums. At the end of the path is the Paradesi Synagogue (10am-noon, 3-5pm, entry Rs 5, closed on Sundays and Jewish holidays) built in 1568 AD. The Great Scrolls of the Old Testament, the copper plates in which the grants of privilege made by the Kochi rulers were recorded and the exquisite Chinese hand-painted tiles tell of a long history. Photography is not allowed inside the synagogue.

Ernakulam: This is the business hub of Kochi and is 10km from Fort Kochi. Right in the heart of the city lies a large Shiva temple, where the idol of Lord Shiva faces the sea towards the west. Men have to take off their shirts before entering and women wearing pants will not be allowed in (wear skirts, saris or salwar kameez). In the first week of January, there is a massive festival with a 10-elephant parade and traditional Kerala percussion ensembles.

Behind the High Court Complex is Mangalavanam, a thick 80-acre mangrove forest located right in the heart of the city. More than 30 unique flora are found here and it is also a major bird sanctuary.

On the narrow palm-fringed Bolgatty Island is the Bolgatty Palace (9.30am-1pm, 3-5pm, closed on Sundays), built by the Dutch in 1744. It later became the seat of the British governors. Spread over 15 acres of lush greenery, the palace has now been converted into a luxury heritage hotel run by the state government. There is also a small golf course on the premises.

Places: Visit the biggest elephant-training centre (9am-6pm) in South India at Kodanad, 30km from Kochi. Wild elephants are first tamed in special cradles and then taken to the nearby training college. Elephant safaris are popular here. Take a cab there and make a stop at the Thotthuva river for a dip. Avoid going there in the monsoon, the currents can be strong.

About 35 km from Kochi, in Kodungallur, is the quiet Cheraman mosque (only for men, 6am-6pm). It is the first mosque of India and built entirely like a Hindu temple.

The recently cleaned-up Cherai beach is just 35km from Kochi and makes a great day trip on a cool day. It has a 15km-long coconut tree-lined coastline and, since it is shallow, is ideal for sunbathing and swimming.

Thattekkadu Bird Sanctuary is around 20km from Kochi. Dr Salim Ali, India's famous ornithologist, discovered it among Kochi's evergreen forests. The sanctuary houses indigenous and rare birds like the Malabar grey hornbill, woodpecker, rose-ringed and blue-winged parakeet, Ceylon frogmouth and rose-billed roller.

To take in backwaters and lagoons, go to Alleppey, called the Venice of the East. Trains are available every day from the Ernakulam Town station.

About 15 km from Ernakulam is Kumbalangi Integrated Tourism Village, an award-winning eco-tourism village. Tourists can explore local paddy cultivation, canoeing in a country boat, mangrove forests, learn traditional fishing or cook rural style food alongside the locals.

Where To Eat

A word of advice about eating in Kochi -- go local and you will never be disappointed.

Kashi Art Café: Perfect for breakfast (served all-day) or a cake-and-lemonade break from the unforgiving Kerala heat. Housed in an old Dutch building on Burgher Street in Fort Kochi, this restaurant has been refurbished with traditional flooring and also has a nice art gallery.

Kashi Art Cafe is housed in an old Dutch building on Burgher Street
Kashi Art Cafe is housed in an old Dutch building on Burgher Street

The History and Terrace Grill: These are the two restaurants at the Brunton Boatyard Hotel. Terrace Grill overlooks the busy Vypeen boat jetty and waterfront section, and you can spend hours watching the passing parade while you dine on the superb signature seafood platters filled with lobster, tiger prawns, scampi, squid and the catch of the day. The History, which has a wider choice of Kerala cuisine, borrows most of its recipes from the kitchens of Kochi families.

Tea Pot: On Peter Celia Road in Fort Kochi, this quaint place has tea chests for tables, tea paraphernalia as decor and 15 kinds of India's favourite brew.

The Grand Pavilion: This non-grand restaurant on Ernakulam's M.G. Road makes up in food what it lacks in ambience. It's always packed, so even if you book ahead, you may have to share your table. The signature karimeen pollichathu is a must-have, but the fried prawns and appams come a close second. A frustrating place for vegetarians, though.

Fort Kochi: Despite its name, this restaurant at the Casino Hotel on Willingdon Island is something of an institution. Tables are set around a huge banyan tree and the menu is scrawled on a blackboard. Choose from a range of freshly caught seafood and instruct the chef how you want it.

Modern Hotel: Opposite the Shiva Temple and near the High Court complex in Ernakulam, this small family-run restaurant serves the best charatta puttu (steamed coconut and rice flour) and kadala (black gram) curry. Make sure you get there before 11am. (Smile at the waiters and they might let you into the kitchen so you can see the wonderful contraption that makes the puttu)

Frys Village: This restaurant on Chittoor Road in Ernakulam is known for its aripathiri (rice flour chapattis) served with traditional Malabari curries.

Outlook Traveller