THE best seller 1,000 Places to See Before You Die includes the staggeringly beautiful backwaters of India state as one of its don’t-miss Kerala destinations. The book also says a stopover in Kochi, the gateway to these interconnected lakes, lagoons and canals, is a must. But a quick visit is hardly enough.
Known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, Kochi has a multilayered colonial history, relaxing ayurvedic spas, colorful Kathakali dance troupes, stately rajah palaces and a laid-back way of life that is a welcome change from India’s typical frenzy. As I learned when my husband, Don, and I visited in late October, the people are friendly (“American? Can I take your photo?”), and the children go to school instead of begging on the street (Kerala has a literacy rate of 90 percent; the Indian average is 65 percent).
Kochi was a backpackers’ retreat even when it was called Cochin, the colonial name that was officially dropped 10 years ago (locals and visitors still use both names). But amid a blooming of new boutique hotels — two opened on the waterfront in the last year — Kochi is growing up fast.
“The number of international tourists is increasing every year,” said Dhania Us, the manager of the Malabar House, where we stayed. “Their high-spending habits mean other businesses are growing fast, too, like fashion boutiques and antiques shops.”
Chinese, Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch and British have serially dominated this port on the Malabar Coast, exporting tea and spices, and importing their own architecture, religion and cuisine. These influences are still represented, particularly in Fort Cochin, the historic district — from Chinese fishing nets (watch as hapless tourists try to work the giant wooden pulleys) to Dutch houses, Portuguese churches and English trading company buildings. And in nearby Mattancheri, there is a Jewish presence that locals date back to A.D. 72, just after the destruction of the Second Temple of Jerusalem.
The best way to get a sense of Kochi’s sprawling peninsula-and-islands geography is to take a boat tour. The Kerala Tourism Development Corporation has morning and afternoon sightseeing cruises, but Don and I opted for a private sunset tour (920 rupees for two, about $20 at 45 rupees to the dollar), arranged by our hotel with less than an hour’s notice.
The two of us and our two-man crew chugged around the busy container port, dry dock and Indian Navy base, saw the manmade Willingdon Island with its shipping company offices, warehouses and Taj Malabar hotel, and gazed toward the high-rises of Kerala’s commercial center, Ernakulam.
There was plenty to see on the water, too: ferries taking commuters home from work, party boats with lights flashing on and off to Bollywood music, and narrow fishing canoes with no lights at all.
When we returned to Fort Cochin, it was dark and quiet, except for American gospel songs coming from a Y.W.C.A. According to one guide, 45 percent of Kochi’s population is Christian, and the number of nuns on the streets makes that statistic believable. In 1503, Portuguese settlers built the oldest European church in India there, St. Francis, which briefly held the explorer Vasco da Gama’s remains.
To appreciate St. Francis and Fort Cochin’s other architectural highlights, ask at the Malabar House for a walking tour map. This handsomely eclectic 17-room hotel, on the colonial Parade Ground, is itself a historic 18th-century residence. Its sister establishment, the very hip three-room Trinity, is a former Dutch East India Company building.
In fact, most of Fort Cochin’s new hotels have stories. The all-suite Koder House, on the waterfront, is the former residence of one of the city’s most prominent Jewish families. The Koders, merchants who bought the property in 1905, were famous for their Friday night “open house” dinners.
About to open next door was the Old Harbour Hotel, which still bears traces of its Portuguese, Dutch and English past. Farther along the seafront is Brunton Boatyard, an elegant hotel built, as the name implies, on the site of a 19th-century shipyard.
To explore the other historic district, Mattancheri, take a 10-minute autorickshaw to Jew Town. At the synagogue, built in 1568, leave your shoes at the door, not for religious reasons, but to protect the 200-year-old, handpainted Chinese floor tiles. The youngest of the 13-member congregation, a 34-year-old woman, took the 2-rupee admission and answered questions (“No, we don’t have a rabbi”).
Nearby is the Dutch Palace, which the Portuguese presented to the Cochin rajahs in the mid-16th century. Its highlight: some of the most important Hindu murals in India, including a series that brilliantly relates the entire Ramayana story.
For a musical interpretation of Indian myth, take in a Kathakali performance. Two troupes present daily shows in Fort Cochin (about 135 rupees). It’s a good idea to arrive early and watch the performers apply their extravagant makeup; the dance-dramas that follow are cut-down renditions of the classics (the original versions last all night). At the Cochin Cultural Center, you might catch an introduction to Kathakali by a veteran interpreter, Kalamandalam Vasu.
The Hill Palace, built in 1865 for the Cochin rajahs, is about eight miles out of town — too far for an autorickshaw ride, so we hired a car and driver. “We call this our Buckingham Palace,” said a pleasant guide, who joined us at the entrance without being asked.
It’s an archaeological museum too. But the royal throne, palanquins, furniture, gifts and jewels — mainly diamonds, rubies and emeralds — make it worth the trip (admission 10 rupees; to use a camera, 20 rupees).
You can shop for your own bangles (or rugs, teak elephants, paintings or scarves) at dozens of tourist shops in Fort Cochin and Jew Town. At these places, the phrase “just looking” is not well understood; bargaining begins as soon as you walk through the door. Classier outlets, like Crafters, an antiques shop in Jew Town, and Cinnamon, a fashion-and-furnishings boutique on the Parade Ground, offer unique merchandise and less flexibility on price.
Most hotels either have ayurvedic spas or can refer you to one. Or you can follow the ubiquitous signs to the Agastyatheeram Ayurvedic Center in Fort Cochin; look for the giant banner with “Recommended by Lonely Planet, 2005.”
A 4,000-year-old holistic treatment, ayurveda is said to be good for rheumatism, insomnia, depression and even the common cold. After a consultation, practitioners will recommend a course of all-natural therapy lasting several days. But even a single massage, in which two professionals work medicinal oils into every pore of your body, will disengage your mind, relax your muscles and soften your skin.
After that, advised my practitioner, you’ll want to have something to eat and go to sleep. (There is only one real nightspot in town anyway, Loungevity, in the Avenue Regent Hotel in Ernakulam; 5-rupee cover). Plenty of casual restaurants line the Fort Cochin waterfront, with waiters echoing the pitch: “If you don’t like the food, you don’t have to pay.” Or you can buy prawns or snapper at one of the half-dozen fish mongers still open in the evening, and take your choice to a nearby shack, like Babbu’s, to be grilled or curried or fried to your liking.
Hotel restaurants are mostly reasonably priced, though their tendency is to prepare mild versions of the already delicate Keralan cuisine. (At the very least, you can ask for “medium spicy.”)
An article in New York Times by Ann Morrison