In an age of e-mail and Facebook, I hadn’t stepped into a post office in years, but here I was at a PO in a small town buying a postcard. This one’s for me, so I write my own address on it and hand it back to the clerk. She smiles and stamps it—with a Star of David. I’m in Israel, right?
No, the stamp reads “682002”—a Kerala pincode. It’s Fort Cochin, just a short drive from the traffic snarls of Ernakulam, the state’s business capital. Yet this quaint place, where you hardly feel the hours slip by, has a lotus-eater’s lassitude.
Fort Cochin is still filled with untouched secrets. You find narrow lanes redolent with the scents of herbs, oils and spices—there’s even the world’s oldest pepper exchange (upstaged by the national commodity exchanges, it does little business today, so you can walk in and talk to anybody during business hours); antique shops piled high with bargains; treasures within the old Paradesi Synagogue, art galleries and churches; freshly caught fish cooked to order in the little stalls along the marina; backwater boat rides. It’s a small place, but you can’t fit its many facets into a single day.
Fort Cochin must be explored on foot, and slowly, to study its side streets and alleyways. This way I discover its old-world shops, cafés, stately bungalows and heritage structures, like the Dutch Palace with its fine elements of colonial and Kerala architecture.
It’s so called only because the Dutch undertook major repairs on it around 1665 AD. It passed from the Portuguese to the Raja of Cochin “to pacify and compensate him” for a temple that was plundered. Generations of Cochin rajas have had their coronations here, but this landmark had begun to deteriorate.
Monolita Chatterjee, an architect with the firm restoring the palace to its former glories, showed me around. The gleaming old wood floors stand revealed after layers of cement and plaster were stripped. Its walls glow once again with ancient murals. “We need to preserve what’s left without altering the structure, and showcase its original grandeur,” she explains, as we walk through the Queen’s Chambers, dominated by a huge painting depicting Krishna’s amorous exploits in vivid detail—one of the palace’s many mythological frescoes. It also houses heirlooms and royal portraits donated by Cochin’s royals. “When we finish, this will be a museum of local history,” says Chatterjee.
The Jew Town quarter is Fort Cochin’s star attraction. Kerala’s Jewish diaspora, legend has it, began arri-ving even before King Solomon’s day for trade in spices, ivory and wood. They have claimed proud descent from the lost tribes of Israel, but the Fort Cochin* settlement dates from the early 11th century when Bhaskara Ravivarman II, the Chera raja, granted Jews—already living in northern stated: “Please dress modestly” and “visitors wearing shorts, short skirts or sleeveless tops will not be permitted…” Luckily, I pass the dress code. I pause to chat to the young lady issuing passes—she looks remarkably like a Jewish girl I once knew during my schooldays in Kerala. Yes, she’s my schoolmate’s cousin—it’s a tiny world here for her community now. She tells me there’s been a steady exodus of Cochin Jews to the Holy Land and that their numbers here are now down to barely a dozen. “We do not have enough men now for the Sabbath prayers,” she revealed.
The floor inside the synagogue is covered with blue and white hand-painted Delft porcelain tiles donated by a Jewish merchant. “They were imported from Canton, China, in 1762,” says K.J. Joy, the synagogue’s caretaker for the past 25 years. The tiles feel cool, since we must walk barefoot. Along with Belgian crystal chandeliers, brass railings and the clock tower with Hebrew, Old Malayalam and Roman numerals on three faces, the synagogue is a repository of gifts over the ages. “There are also three ancient copper plates inscribed with details in Old Malayalam of privileges and land granted to the Jews by the raja,” Joy reveals. “But they are now locked away for security reasons.” Visitors may buy small replicas complete with the inscriptions.
In and around Jew Town is a warren of shops selling crafts, souvenirs and antiques—some genuine, many not. Go with a local who can identify genuine artefacts and head for the warehouses piled with carved wooden doors, window frames and furniture from Kerala’sancestral tharawad houses.If books are your addiction, you may offload old ones and re-stock on new reading at Idiom, which also has an excellent collection of Kerala books and prints. Ferreting here, I found a memoir I wanted in the main store, but bought the same title in the old books section for a fifth of the price.
Traditional Kerala kitchenware, easy to find here, is often very beautiful—like the kindi, a bell metal water vessel with a spout. There’s also the uruli, a shallow vessel that can be big enough to bathe in. These were used to cook food for large households or to concoct ayurvedic tonics. One shop displays a long boat, vallam, filled with spices, taking up much of the floor. Collectors may browse for hours among altarpieces and statues gleaned from old churches, Jewish candelabra, temple bronzes and old sepia-tinted photographs.
Cochin’s backwaters have always been a major draw. There are many boat tours on offer, both in small launches and large refurbished rice-boats (packages that range between Rs400 and 1200 per head, include a traditional meal. At Rs800, some throw in ayurvedic massage and yoga sessions too). Island-hopping on a government passenger ferry, which will do the rounds for not much more than Rs10, is a steal. You get the same views and routes as the houseboat trips and get to meet the people who live and work in the little islands dotted around.
Some of the splendid heritage properties and company bungalows in Fort Cochin have found a new lease of life as boutique resorts. Even if you don’t stay at any, it is worth walking into one of them for coffee or a meal, and asking to be shown around. The Old Harbour, Koder House, Le Colonial, Bolgatty Palace (a short boat ride away from Fort Cochin), The Tower House and Malabar House—where the seafood platter is especially delectable—are all lovely. There are also several simpler homestays and heritage guesthouses with charm and character.
As I drive away from Fort Cochin, the picture-postcard Chinese fishing nets along the shore look like giant spiders silhouetted against a crimson sunset. Life doesn’t get any better than this.
This article was originally published in Readers Digest.