Serene Kochi in Kerala has been drawing traders and explorers to its shores for over 500 years. Nowhere in India could you find such a mix: giant fishing nets from China, a 400-year- old synagogue, ancient mosques, Portuguese houses, and crumbling remains of the British Raj.
The result is an unlikely blend of medieval Portugal, Holland and an English village grafted onto the tropical Malabar Coast. Kochi, Kerala is a delightful place to spend some time and nap in some of India's finest heritage accommodation.
Mainland Ernakulam is the hectic transport and cosmopolitan hub of Kochi, while the historical towns of Fort Cochin and Mattancherry remain wonderfully serene-thick with the smell of the past.
Sights in Ernakulam
Kerala Folklore Museum
This incredible place is well worth the journey - on the southeast outskirts of Ernakulam. It is a private museum created from ancient temples and beautiful old houses collected by its owner, an antique dealer, over three years.
It includes over 5000 artefacts and covers three architectural styles: Malabar on the ground floor, Kochi on the 1st. Travancore on the 2nd. There are 3000-year-old burial urns 'nannangadi', in which people were buried in the foetal position.
Upstairs is a beautiful wood-lined theatre, with a 17th-century wooden ceiling, where performances (06.30-8pm Sep-Mar) take place nightly.
Look out for the owner's new cultural museum, which is due to open in Mattancherry in a vast old godown (warehouse) close to the synagogue.
Sights in Fort Kochi
(Also known as Dutch Palace)
Admission is a bargain to this interesting building. Presented by the Portuguese in 1555, Mattancherry Palace was a generous gift presented to the Raja of Kochi, Veera Kerala Varma (1537-61), as a gesture of goodwill. More probably, it was a used as a sweetener to securing trading privileges. The Dutch renovated the palace in 1663, hence its alternative name, the Dutch Palace.
The star attractions here are the astonishingly preserved Hindu murals, depicting scenes from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranic legends in intricate detail.
The central hall on the 1st floor is now a portrait gallery of maharajas from 1864. There is an impressive collection of palanquins (hand-carried carriages), bejewelled outfits and splendidly carved ceilings in every room.
The ladies' bedchamber downstairs features a cheerful, impressively multitasking Krishna, using his eight hands and two feet to engage in foreplay with eight happy milkmaids, whilst also managing to play the flute. Photography is prohibited.
10am-1pm and 3pm-5pm Sun-Thu (Closed Jewish holidays)
Originally built in 1568, this synagogue was partially destroyed by the Portuguese in 1662, and rebuilt two years later when the Dutch took Kochi. It features an ornate gold pulpit and elaborate hand-painted, willow-pattern floor tiles from Canton, China, which were added in 1762.
It is magnificently illuminated by chandeliers (from Belgium) and coloured-glass lamps. The graceful clock tower was built in 1760. There is an upstairs balcony for women who worshipped separately according to Orthodox rites. Note that shorts or sleeveless tops are not allowed inside.
The synagogue is smack in the middle of Jew Town, a bustling port area and centre of the Kochi spice trade. Scores of small firms huddle together in old, dilapidated buildings and the air is filled with the biting aromas of ginger, cardamom, cumin, turmeric and cloves, though the lanes around the Dutch Palace and synagogue are packed with antique and tourist-curio shops rather than spices. Look out for the Jewish names on some of the buildings.
Chinese Fishing Nets
At the tip of Fort Cochin sit the unofficial emblems of Kerala's backwaters: cantilevered Chinese fishing nets. A legacy of traders from the AD 1400 court of Kubla Khan. these enormous, spiderlike contraptions require at least four people to operate their counterweights at high tide. Unfortunately modern fishing techniques are making these labour-intensive methods less and less profitable.
9am-1pm and 2-6pm Tue-Sun
This museum in the garden of the Bishop's House preserves the heritage of one of India's earliest Catholic communities, including vestments, silver processional crosses and altarpieces from the Cochin diocese. The basement contains remnants of the Portuguese Fort Immanuel.
St Francis Church
Believed to be India's oldest European-built church, it was originally constructed in 1503 by Portuguese Franciscan friars. The edifice that stands here today was built in the mid-l6th century to replace the original wooden structure.
Adventurer Vasco da Gama, who died in Cochin in 1524, was buried in this spot for 14 years before his remains were taken to Lisbon - you can still visit his tombstone in the church.
Consecrated in 1724, this cemetery contains the worn and dilapidated graves of Dutch traders and soldiers. Its gates are normally locked but a caretaker might let you in, or ask at St Francis Church.
Santa Cruz Basilica
The imposing Catholic basilica was originally built on this site in 1506, though the current building dates to 1902. Inside you'll find artefacts from the different eras in Kochi and a striking pastel-coloured interior.
Kashi Art Cafe
The pioneer of Fort Cochin's art revival, Kashi displays changing exhibitions of local artists. There's another gallery on Bazaar Rd, which opens if there is an exhibition on.
Hill Palace Museum
Hill Palace is at Tripunithura, 16km southeast of Ernakulam, this museum was formerly the residence of the Kochi royal family and is an impressive 49-building palace complex. It now houses the collections of the royal families, as well as 19th- century oil paintings, old coins, sculptures and paintings, and temple models.
On Vypeen Island, 25km from Fort Cochin, Cherai Beach might just be Kochi's best-kept secret. It is a lovely stretch of as-yet undeveloped white sand, with miles of lazy backwaters just a few hundred meters from the seafront. Best of all, it is close enough to visit on a day trip from Kochi. If you plan to stay for more than a day, there are a few low-key resorts here.
To get here from Fort Cochin, catch a car ferry to Vypeen Island (per person ) and either hire an autorickshaw from the jetty or catch one of the frequent buses.
Parur and Chennamangalam
Nowhere is the tightly woven religious cloth that is India more apparent than in Parur, 35km north of Kochi, Kerala. Here, one of the oldest synagogues (9am-5prn Tue-Sun) in Kerala, at Chennamangalam, 8km from Parur, has been fastidiously renovated. Inside you can see door and ceiling wood reliefs in dazzling colours, while Just outside lies one of the oldest tombstones in India-inscribed with the Hebrew date corresponding to 1269.
The Jesuits first arrived in Chennamangalam in 1577 and there is a Jesuit church and the ruins of a Jesuit college nearby. Nearby is a Hindu temple on a hill overlooking the Periyar River, a 16th-century mosque, and Muslim and Jewish burial grounds.
In Parur town, you'll find the agraharam (place of Brahmins) - a small street of closely packed and brightly coloured houses originally settled by Tamil Brahmins.
Parur is compact, but Chennamangalam is best visited with a guide. Indoworld (Mob: 9447037527, Princess St) can organise tours: a day trip including guide and car. Buses for Parur leave from the KSRTC bus stand in Kochi, Kerala (one hour, every 10 minutes). From Parur catch a bus or autorickshaw to Chennamangalam.
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