Cochin is good place to start a tour of Kerala & continue on to Trichur & Guruvayyur, beaches of Alleppey, Temples of Kottayam, tiger / elephant reserve beside the Periyar Lake, & south to capital Trivandrum or Thiruvanathapuram...
Kerala is one of the most beautiful states of India. Situated on the south-western coast with several harbours like Cochin, its story is as ancient as the history of trade, merchants, pirates, setters, and conquerors. The geography and history of Cochin distinguishes it from any other city in India.
The mainland is marked by Ernakulam, the modern commercial center, shielded by two arms of the peninsula that protect the quite harbour. The northern arm is Vypin, the southern one Fort Cochin, where the city's early history is recorded in its buildings and monuments. Into the enclosed Vembanad Lake harbour-friendly dolphins accompany the large ships that come to dock right in the center of the city. Flowing into this sea lake are the freshwater streams of the backwaters which meander through a countryside rich in agricultural produce. Safe and reliable water travel by sail and rowing boat bring to the harbour the bounty of spices and timber that enticed early western sea-merchants to battle the great oceans in search of wealth.
Along the water's edge of Fort Cochin, on the narrow passageway to the harbour, are a line of Chinese fishing nets, the first visual symbol of ancient trade and age-old shared influences. Trade with the Far East was well-established in the early years of the Christian era. Southern Indian princes sponsored a huge fleet of ships to the coast of China in search of trade and wealth. The Chinese fishing nets still work (except in the monsoons), their fine nets, full of fish, are hauled up by a pulley weighted down by enormous rocks and boulders. They rise like giant butterflies, their wings painted with the vibrant colors of the setting sun.
Wandering past the line of Chinese fishing nets through the streets of Fort Cochin is a wonderful experience. This little Dutch colony has some lovely timber and masonry houses painted white, which have steep sloping roofs as a protection against the heavy monsoon rains which descend non-stop for days from May to July.
Cochin was the earliest European settlement in India. In 1500 the Portuguese, in search of trade contracts in pepper, landed in the harbour. Pedro Alvarez Cabral, the Portuguese adventure-explorer brought with him some Portuguese Franciscan friars who established a church and began their missionary work. St. Francis Church was originally built of wood, which was later replaced by stone in 1546. It is the oldest European church in India. Vasco da Gama, who traveled here in the mid sixteenth century, received permission to trade from the local ruler. Unfortunately he died on Christmas Eve in 1524 and was buried in this church. His body was later taken to Lisbon, but a railing and tombstone still remain in the memory of this brave adventure who opened the route to the Indies and became its governor. The church. Originally Roman Catholic, was converted into an Anglican one during the British period. It is now under the Church of South India and looks a little uncared for, but it modest proportion, simple lines, and form are suggestive of an elegance of those pioneering days when this little church offered refuse and comfort to those who chose to live in a strange land.
Moving a kilometer south into the Fort Cochin area is the Dutch Palace, now called Mattancherry Palace. This large but modest-looking is set in a grand, spacious compound. The palace was built by the Portuguese in 1557 and presented to the local Raja of Cochin who had granted to them several favours and trading rights. In 1663, the town fell into Dutch hands and the palace was renovated. It stands today a pale painted building with sloping roofs. The structure has two storeys and part of it is open to the public as a museum. There is a collection palanquins, costumes, and portraits of the Cochin royal family. Along the walls of the bedroom chamber and other areas are the mural paintings for which the palace is famous. The paintings belong to the seventeenth century and are large in scale and concept. The murals congested with figures inhabit the empty space of the museum. Enormous figures of Hindu deities, with exaggerated large breasts and thighs, peer out of the wall with lovely sensuous eyes. Painted in hues of yellow ochre, red, and green are scenes of Krishna, the divine lover surrounded by his female devotees, and of Vishnu and Shiva in dramatic poses.
On the eastern side of Fort Cochin, south of the main Mattancherry street, is an ancient area called Jew Town. According to local legend, trade flourished between the Middle East and Kerala even in the time of King Solomon of the Old Testament. Western trade was established five thousand years ago, as is evident from the remains of the Indus civilization excavated in ancient Mesopotamian cities. Following the great ocean winds, the seafaring boats from Arabia found their way to the west coast of India by the first century AD and from there proceeded to the Far East. These trading ships brought men of different faiths to the Indian shore, amongst them Jewish settlers. The Jewish quarter in Fort Cochin has charming old cobbled streets and rows of residential houses. There are still enormous stores and ware-houses in this area bursting with spices: pepper, cardamon, and cloves. It was this trade that first brought these early travelers. Later, in the sixteenth century, when the Inquisition drove the Jewish community away from Europe, some of them with their brethren from central Europe settled in Cochin. A large, white Jewish community inhabited the harbour region, established their trade, and received the protection of the royal rulers. Today only a small aging community of 'White Jews' continue to live here, many of the young having migrated to Israel. They marry within their community, mixing little with 'black Jew' converts of Cochin. They now speak the local language and eat local Malayali food, but have succeeded in preserving their customs and cultural identity after so many centuries of living isolation.
A Jewish Synagogue was built at one corner of Jew Town in 1568 (though renovated in subsequent centuries), and is the oldest in the Commonwealth. The building is so positioned that it is difficult to appreciate the external design except to see the clock-tower that peeps over the surrounding wall. Inside, the synagogue has a large hall lit with magnificent chandeliers and lamps, while daylight streams in through large open windows. The entire flooring is paved with white and blue willow-patterned Chinese ceramic tiles (each one said to be of different design). These were donated by Ezekiel Rahabi who brought them all the way from Canton in the mid-nineteenth century. A pulpit stands in the center of the room, and at one end is the holy tabernacle with gilded doors. Within are kept the great scrolls of the old Torah capped with golden crowns given by the Maharaja of Travancore and Cochin. Amongst the prize possessions of the synagogue is a copperplate recording a grant made to the Jewish trading community by Raja Ravi Varman (962-1020). The community has dwindled greatly in numbers, apparently to a mere twenty-five families (many have returned to Israel), and only when the obligatory quorum of ten male members is assembled can the service by properly conducted in this historic and very lovely synagogue.
What's In The Neighborhood
Across the bridge from Fort Cochin is Willingdon Island. This man-made island was made in the twentieth century and serves as the Neval headquarters, airport, and railhead serving the multiple needs of the commercial port of Cochin. From the tip of Willingdon Island one can see fishing boats and steamers. A lovely (motorized) boat ride around the Vembanad Lake will take you to see the little fishing colonies on the northern side and the lovely Bolghatty Island and the old British Residency. The building was built by the Dutch in their colonial style with deep set verandas, grand columns, porches, and sloping roofs, set in a garden that once was used as a small golf course. The Bolghatty Palace is now run as a Government Tourist Bungalow and, sadly, is not very well-maintained.
Longer boat rides (by motor or row boats) through the backwaters bring you in touch with 'real Kerala', lush green with wonderful bird life and a glimpse at the villages of the interior with its smiling, hard-working, intelligent people.
How To Get There
Cochin is connected by air, road, and rail to almost every part of India. There are several modest and expensive hotels in which to stay. Cochin is good place to start a tour of Kerala and continue on to Trichur and Guruvayyur (with celebrated temples, unfortunately open only to Hindus), the beaches of Alleppey, the temples of Kottayam, the tiger / elephant reserve beside the Periyar Lake, and south to the capital Trivandrum or Thiruvanathapuram. The best time of year in southern India is between October and March, before summer and the torrential monsoon rains set up.
Best time to visit Cochin and Kerala is September through January. The weather is better (not much rain and cooler temperatures) during these months. Also, in September, you can experience Kerala's Harvest Festival, Onam. In December, the Christians of Kerala celebrate Christmas.
Cochin, Kerala, Ernakulam, Fort Cochin, Chinese fishing nets, Christian era, St. Francis Church, Mattancherry Palace, Dutch Palace, Mattancherry street, Jew Town, Jewish Synagogue, Ezekiel Rahabi, Maharaja of Travancore, Raja Ravi Varman, Willingdon Island, Bolghatty Island, British Residency, Bolghatty Palace, Government Tourist Bungalow, real Kerala, Trichur, Guruvayyur, Alleppey, Kottayam, Periyar Lake, Trivandrum
This palace built by the Dutch is situated on the Bolghatty island. At present it is being used as a hotel. The island has a fine golf course and the panoramic view makes it an attractive picnic spot. Frequent boat service is available from the mainland.
Chinese Fishing Nets
The Chinese fishing nets found here are the only ones of its kind in India. It is believed that traders from the court of the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan introduced these nets here.
The Dutch Palace was originally built by the Portugese. Later, in 17th century, the Dutch modified it and presented to the Raja of Kochi. Coronation of many Rajas of Kochi were held here. The palace has a fine collection of mural paintings depicting the scenes from the Hindu epics Mahabharatha and Ramayana.
Fort Kochi beach
A stroll along the beach, particularly at sunset with the Chinese fishing nets and sailing ships in the background, is a fine experience. Many European style bungalows can be seen along the shoreline.
Built in the 19th century by Raja of Kochi, the Kochi province was ruled from here. The palace has been converted into a museum displaying a fine collection of articles used by the Rajas of Kochi apart from many archaeological findings.
The synagogue, magnificently decorated by Chinese tiles and Belgian chandeliers, was built in 1568. Giant scrolls of the Old Testament can be found here. It is located near the Dutch Palace.
Mangalavanam Bird Sanctuary
Believe it or not this bird sanctuary is situated right in the heart of Kochi city. It is the home of many exotic and rare varieties of migratory birds.
Museum of Kerala History
The museum has on display life size statues of many famous personalities and several paintings depicting Kerala History.
Palliport (Pallipuram) Fort
It is the oldest European fort built in India.
Parikshith Thampuram Museum
The museum is situated near the famous Siva Temple, Ernakulam. It houses a treasure of archaeological findings and relics including old coins, sculptures, oil paintings and murals.
St. Francis Church
It is the oldest church built by European in India. On his 3rd visit to Kerala, Vasco da Gama, the Portugese trader who reached India from Europe by sea, fell ill and died in Kochi. Later his remains were taken back to Portugal. In spite of that the exact place where he was buried has been marked out inside the church.
Air: Cochin is connected by excellent air network to all major cities in India. Cochin also has an international terminal.
Rail: Cochin is also well connected with all the major places in Kerala and India by Rail network. Cochin has three main railway stations, namely, Ernakulam Junction, Ernakulam Town and Harbor Terminus on Willingdon Island.
Road: Cochin, being an important commercial center of Kerala is very well connected and serviced by a network of National and state highways, connecting it to all major centers of the area.
The Brunton Boatyard Hotel: Near Aspinwall, Calvathy
Situated at the water's edge on the site of a bustling boatyard, this is considered by most to be Fort Cochin's most elegant hotel. A smart whitewashed colonial warehouse-style building with sloping tiled roofs, deep verandas, and terra-cotta floors set around a large open grassy courtyard, Brunton certainly captures the gracious ambience of a bygone era. An open-plan lobby -- decked out with a billiards table, antique furniture, and overhead fans -- spills into spacious passages that lead to the guest rooms, all of which overlook the busy harbor. Each room has its own balcony from which to enjoy views of the fishing boats and ferries that cruise between the islands; those on the second floor are better for views. Original and reproduction antiques include typical Kerala four-poster beds, high enough off the ground to make the footstools a necessity. A sunset cruise from the hotel's own jetty is a great way to kick off the evening. The only possible drawback to staying here is the hotel's proximity to the boatyard -- you are literally berthed steps away from the very active waterways, though others may argue that the low-level soundtrack lends an air of authenticity.
Malabar House Residency: 1/268, 1/269 Parade Rd, Fort Cochin, 682 001
Bright, vibrant colors infuse this 18th-century mansion with a contemporary edge, creating a boutique hotel that is charmingly arty without being pretentious. Conceived, converted, and run by Joerg Drechsel and his Basque wife, Txuku, Malabar House is a chunky white colonial British bungalow at the edge of the Parade Maidan, a grassy expanse for schoolboy cricketers and frolicking goats. Its tharavadu-style sloping terra-cotta roof is typically Keralan, while the tropical inner courtyard (trees, potted shrubs, and stone pathways) features a lovely plunge pool, wooden foldaway chairs, a small open-air theater area, and a covered restaurant. Rooms feature waxed black Kadapa stone floors offset by bright red or yellow walls and, in some rooms, a hint of turquoise. Each contains a selection of paintings, sculptures, and period furniture reflecting the cultural heritage of Kerala, while the beds, solid in every sense, are made from carved teak and rosewood. Discarded pillars from traditional 18th-century Tamil Nadu houses up the atmosphere ante and dramatically enhance the use of space in the generous suites. Five of the (marginally more) expensive guest suites have private roof gardens -- these are the best on offer in the main house; alternatively, book room no. 4. Best of all, book a room in the Trinity annex just across the street, with its own plunge pool and sun deck -- it's worth every penny, with tasteful designs and probably the best bathrooms in Cochin (large, open-air, beautifully painted, with sunken zinc shower, plants, flowers, and a shivalingam, a carved stone phallic symbol). Although you don't have views of the harbor, this hotel is better value than Brunton and scores high on privacy, class, and tranquillity. And if this doesn't convert you, it was also the first operation in India to be certified by Green Globe, the global environmental certification program for travel and tourism.
A hostel built for those traveling by steamship from England is today the Heritage Wing of Willingdon's only waterfront hotel, an elegant property that includes a more contemporary (and less desirable) pagoda-style low-rise Tower Wing. The generously proportioned Heritage Wing rooms feature wood floors, period-style furniture, and assorted knickknacks -- make sure to book one with a view of the channel. The chic Ayurvedic center in the Tamara spa occupies its own traditional-style building overlooking the gorgeous rim-flow pool. Enjoy sunset drinks on the pool deck or on one of the hotel's daily harbor cruises. Or -- for those who prefer privacy -- book Cinnamon Coast, the private yacht available for hire. Note that the Taj Malabar has two excellent restaurants.