The flights from Varanesi to Cochi took most of the day as I had a long stopover at Mumbai. Intransit these days one could be anywhere in the world , the same set off uninspiring duty free shops with watches, sunglasses, clothes and jewelry, flogging overpriced middleclass aspirational trinkets. But in Mumbai there was something that stuck out , a scruffy Manchester United shop, full of outdated, last seasons football shirts at close to a months average Indian wage. I have done a minor unscientific survey over the last few years and most of these duty free items, can be found cheaper in malls and much cheaper online.
What I really needed was a chemist, but no nothing pratical here although I must admit the restaurants, offered good Indian food.
After buying my coupon for the prepaid taxi (absolutely essential for a peaceful life) I walked out of the Cochi airport terminal into a humdinger of a monsoon downpour.
My hotel The Cochi Palace is really an upmarket Indian businessman’s hotel, and all the better for it, excellent wifi and a really good restaurant, and no middle age tourists in lycra. So good that I spent most of the day looking forward to my evening’s meal and entertainment provided by a phalanx of waiters, I believe I had 5 hovering around making sure my glass was never empty or there were enough parathas. The food was the best so far in India.
I took the TukTuk over to Fort Cochi with darkening skies and a reasonably cool breeze to alleviate the incredible humidity. Strickly speaking Cochi is 2 towns, the new town, Ernakulum and Fort Cochi. Fort Cochi developed, for there was already an existing Arab/ Indian trading port here in the Lagoon created by ferocious fourteenth century storms, and the modern Ernakulum, where I was, the commercial and administrative centre for the region. We had to travel through atrocious traffic ond over many bridges to reach the old Fort Cochin.
As we arrived in Fort Cochi the feel changed from the hectic, noisy, traffic clogged modern city with it’s typically badly designed buildings to a quieter pace , full of old Dutch and colonial British architecture. These old colonial buildings were for the most part rather decrepit and covered in green..tropical slime and moss, but with gardens bursting out of it’s old wall confines with greenery and flowers.
Around the old parade ground and the Santa Cruz cathedral many new arrival Europeans had restored buildings and opened restaurants and small hotels for the burgeoning tourist industry.
The only tourists at this time of the year during the monsoon were Indian. As I walked around the sandy beaches on the Indian Ocean/ Arabian Sea side of the Island there were many tourists out enjoying the brief respite between monsoon downpours.
Cochi with it’s large lagoon as a harbour was an important port on the Malabar coast for centuries, with the export of spices, coconut oil and sandalwood to the Middle East, Europe and China.
The Chinese were trading here long before Europeans arrived and the famous Chinese fishing nets date from the early fourteenth century .
The Portuguese sent a series of Indian Armadas from 1498 onwards, perhaps a series of arrogant; self righteous marauding pirates would be more apt.
Calicut, north of Cochi was the predominant port before the Portuguese arrival, but the Zamorin of Calicut with a long term relationship with Arab traders was not prepared to bend to the aggressive will of the Portuguese interlopers. The Portuguese on the famous second Armada decided that if they couldn’t get what they want by trade, they would take by force, so after stealing Arab merchants cargos,burning their ships and killing the crew, then after suffering reprisals from the town where 50 Portuguese died they bombarded the town , killing up to a thousand of the native people.
The racist and religious prejudices of Europeans at the time, with their hatred of the ‘moors’ and their antipathy towards muslim arab traders in general, led to plundering and killing of arab seamen and traders for many years after.
After this unsuccessful attempt at a diplomatic encounter with Calicut the fleet headed south to Cochin, where the Raja of Cochin, in perpetual conflict with Calicut, was happy to sign trading treaties with the Portuguese allowing them to build a fort and the Portuguese factor to buy spices and other exotic produce . the Portuguese built a church and factories ( warehouses).
The Portuguese second Armada led to Cochin or Fort Cochin, as it was known, in becoming the most important trading port on the Malabar coast for three or four hundred years.
The Portuguese were surprised to find communities of Syrian Christians and Jews living and trading successfully here when they arrived. Fort Cochi still has a working Synagogue and out of the 25 odd languages spoken in Kerala, many of them only spoken by hill and forest people, there still exists a Judeo-Malayalam spoken by less than a hundredpeople here and in Israel.
Kerala was the first place in the world to elect a communist govournment , and although not in power across the state since 2011, Cochi has a communist mayor.
The CPI M is the second largest party after the Congress party. It would probably be the largest if it hadn’t split into factions.
But more likely The Communist Party of India Marxist, is the victim of its own success. The free education and health care introduced back in 1957 have produced the most educated population in India, and perhaps the least corrupt, but that wouldn’t be difficult.
Many of this educated workforce are now in the Gulf States sending remittances back to families in Kerala, who are now homeowners and small business people, and less likely to vote CPI.
Fort Cochi turns back the clocks late every afternoon when Tata trucks block the main road where the warehouses back on to the lagoon where in past centuriesthe boats brought in and took away the spices and other goods.
Today the place is still the centre of the regional spice trade and now it is the lorries that carry out the same function, delivering and taking away the sacks of produce, with the clerks in their small booths on the streets and the local tamil natives in their traditional Lungi mens skirts, humping sacks to and fro from the warehouses behind.
The lagoon has a resemblance to Venice or Istanbul in that there is a constant to and froing of little dilapidated ferries taking passengers at 10 pence a time, to the many islands. Here one noticed the true multiculturism of the region , with as many muslims as hindis. Very few muslim women covered up fully just a brightly coloured scarf for most. A stark contrast even to the muslim women in Istanbul.
I happened to be staying In Cochi during the festival of Onum, an ancient festival that has survived into modern times.
It is essentially a 4 day public holiday akin to our harvest festival, also it ties in with the ancient myth that King Mahabali visits from the underworld to see that his people are still living happily.. In the centre of town there are large marquees with a festival of books, another with clothes and regional foods and another with the latest consumer goods. The pavements were packed with clothes, saris and cloth sellers, hawkers with balloons and twizzle sticks.
In my hotel like many spaces the staff had created a floral carpet, known beautifully as a pookalam. The petals flowers were on sale all over town to make these carpets and to scatter around the many temples.
The walkway beside the lagoon on the new town side was full of families taking advantage of the public holiday, many taking pleasure boat trips. Unfortunately the monsoon rains soaked us all.
I stopped for a chai in a restaurant that was installing a special window with water ran down continually as if rain was perpetually beating down on the outside.In a place with a monsoon I just couldn’t understand why, a perpetual sunshine window ..yes. But it was also a monsoon town where I couldn’t find anywhere to buy a waterproof jacket for my trip to the Kerala backwaters the next day, but with rain forecast I did manage to buy an umbrella.
During the Happy Onum festival I was very especially taken with an exhibition of paintings at the Durbar Arts Centre of the latest works by the 90 year old K.G. Subramanyan. The brightly coloured paintings use mythology and traditional art in a striking way that many can easily understand, not dissimilar to African art.
Here there was no brochure, just the pictures with a title. Galleries in the west now use PR companies, that otherwise sell cars or political ideologies to write the press releases and brochures for modern artists using a language and phraseology if not entirely designed to obfuscate, certainly designed to attribute greater meaning to what is otherwise dross.
The boat trip in the Kerala backwaters was such a contrast to Cochi town. Just ten miles or so from the noise here was total silence, well except for some budding young Indian businessman who thougt he could talk loudly on his phone, before, to appluase from the other Indian tourists, I asked him politely to shut up or get off.
It was magic drifting silently with only the occasional splash of the pole that propelled us through this palm fringed series of creeks and lagoons.
Here from waterside villages people travelled on canoes. From our little covered flat-bottomed boat we drifted slowly past life little changed for many years.
But how long will this last. The boatman told me that these little plots of land, roughly an acre, were fetching up to £50,000 from workers in the HiTec industries of Bangalore to build second homes. Soon Cochicondos!
We stopped to drink fresh coconut milk from a villager who like all the rest supplemented all coconut products (rope, oïl, dried flesh) to their income from fishing.
Fort Cochin and the backwaters inland are fascinating places to travel around, with a history from the expoitation by the both Arabs and a rampant colony seeking Europe, with a modern political history where communism for the best part of 50 years actually worked and made a difference.
The next place is colourful and decorative temples of Madurai…….