There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Kochi, a Second Visit: Part 16 of India's Deep South

We said goodbye to the Xandari Pearl Resort; we had enjoyed a couple of days of idleness beside the sea but that was about as long as we can cope with doing nothing.

The 45km journey to Kochi took us along the coast, an area with many Christians and Thomas proudly pointed out some magnificent churches. Most impressive was the Roman Catholic Basilica of St Andrew in the village of Arthunkal. The first church here was built by Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, but the current building dates from 1640. In 1647 a sculpture of St Sebastian pierced with arrows was brought from Milan and Arthunkal has since become a major centre of pilgrimage, particularly in the fortnight around St Sebastian’s feast day, January 20th, when the statue is carried in procession down to the sea. For some reason the pilgrimage attracts Hindus as well as Christians, but all are welcome.

St Andrew's Basilica, Arthunkal, Kerala
Further on, crossing one of the many waterways, we paused to photograph the 'Chinese' fishing nets (they are unknown in China). Although usually associated with Kochi they can be found all over the Backwaters.

'Chinese' fishing nets on a waterway south of Kochi
We reached Kochi around 9.30 and met local guide R in the Fort Cochin district.

The final day of our travels took us to Kochi
Our first stop was at the Church of St Francis. India's first European church was built on this site by the Portuguese in 1506. That wooden construction was replaced by the present building ten years later. When the Dutch took Cochin in 1663 the church converted to Protestantism and then, after the British arrived in 1795, it became Anglican.

The Church of St Francis, Kochi
We visited Kochi on our first Indian trip in 2009, and that tour also started here. That was pre-blog, but I wrote a post about the church and its empty grave of Vasco da Gama in 2011 (Kochi and Lisbon: The Two Graves of Vasco da Gama). It looked the same today, except for more scaffolding and fewer Gulf War generals.

Inside the Church of St Francis, Kochi
We told R this was our second trip to Kochi and he paused, looked at us and said ‘I thought we had met before.’ We too had been wondering, but that settled it, he was the same guide. ‘I'll find something different,’ he said.

But we could not miss the fish market which is the natural next stop after the church. Last time we were photographed with a small tuna,…

Us with a tuna, Kochi fish market, March 2009
…this time we photographed some pearl spots, tasty little fishes that make the perfect Keralan lunch.

Pearl Spots, Kochi fish market
The market is behind the most famous line of Chinese fishing nets. We did not go there with R last time, nor this, but in 2009 we walked there in the afternoon. In March little swims in this water and the operators are mainly fishing for tourists. For a fee, the net operators will allow you to do their job for them and we hung around until we were hooked and reeled in.

So called Chinese fishing nets, Kochi (march 2009)
The mechanism is more subtle than at first sight, large stones dangling from the ropes act as counterbalances so the net can be hauled up with relative ease, though the net captain kept telling us not to look up as we pulled.

Hauling up the Chinese Fishing net, Kochi (March 2009)
Our catch amounted to one small fish; with another small fish and a few chapattis we could have fed 5,000, but one small fish was only worth donating to a cat. He humbly showed his gratitude, as cats do - or rather don't.

Our catch disappears (March 2009)
Last time R took us straight to Mattancherry which is still home to the spice market, though on-line trading has removed the spectacle…

Mattancherry, Kochi
…and to the Pardesi synagogue which I blogged about in 2012 (Three Favourite Synagogues.)

Pardesi Synagogue, Mattancherry, Kochi
This time we lingered in Fort Cochin while R pointing out examples of Dutch and British architecture…

Dutch style? or British? I do not know, but not Indian, anyway, Kochi

 …(though we were not always sure which was which)...

Same caption as above
...and then took us to Santa Cruz Basilica, Kochi’s Roman Catholic Cathedral. There has been a church on this site since 1658, but Santa Cruz was dedicated in 1905 and was given Basilica status in 1984.

Santa Cruz Basilica Cathedral, Kochi
Cleaning work was going on and there were several No Entry signs but R marched straight past them, ‘My uncle was Monseigneur here for 25 years,’ he said as though this freed him from the obligation to observe signs.

The interior was more ornate than other Keralan churches we have visited…

Santa Cruz Basilica Cathedral, Kochi
…and having the Stations of the Cross painted onto the wooden ceiling was unusual.

Stations of the Cross, Santa Cruz Basilica Cathedral, Kochi
From here drove we through what R called the ‘Hindu district’ passing a small temple where donations of salt were apparently the norm (he had no explanation)…

Small Hindu temple and salt (no I don't understand, either), Kochi
 …past a small chapatti factory...

Small chapatti factory - or are they poppadums? Fort Cochin
…and on to the laundry. This is not the first laundry we have visited on our Indian travels. In Lucknow we had seen clothes washed in the Gomti River, here the washers thrashed and scrubbed in numbered booths.

Laundryman in numbered, Kochi Laundry 
The clothes moved onto the drying area, some on lines...

Drying clothes, Kochi Laundry
…others on the ground. We have seen whites dried on dirtier ground than this, but somehow they always come out looking immaculate.

textiles drying on the ground, Kochi laundry
Then to the ironing room. Most of the irons are electric, if ancient…

Ironing room, Kochi laundry
 ….but some are heated by glowing charcoal.
Not all irons are electric, Kochi laundry
Leaving the laundry we circumnavigated the vast Thirumala Devaswom Temple whose blank wall was forbidding…

Dull  and forbidding wall round  Thirumala Devaswom Temple, Kochi
…. and whose entrance bore a sign saying ‘Hindus only’. This is often the way in Kerala; Tamil Nadu temples are generally more welcoming.

The entrance to Thirumala Devaswom Temple, Kochi
The temple is on the boundary of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry, and we continued east to Mattancherry Palace, built in 1865 for the Maharajah of Kochi and now a museum. We visited in 2009 as well and on both occasions I totally failed to make it look remotely like a palace despite photographing various parts of the huge building from several angles. The Kerala style slatted windows and low eaves kept the interior cool but the elegance of the Kings of Travancore’s palaces at Padmanabhapuram and Trivandrum was entirely absent. It houses the Maharajah’s collection which includes some remarkable palanquins and a forgettable selection of paintings, sculptures, weapons and coins.

Mattancherry Palace
We said goodbye to R and turned towards the airport. At Kochi the Kerala backwaters reach the sea and the city consists of fragments of land separated by fingers of water. The city’s oldest parts, Fort Cochin and Mattancherry, lie on a peninsula and our route to Ernakulum, the modern city required us first to cross onto Willingdon Island.

Building a deep water port for Kochi required much dredging and the silt produced was dumped on a small rocky outcrop. By the time the port was finished in 1936 the outcrop had grown into an island 5km long and up to 3km wide, named Willingdon Island after the then Viceroy of India. A naval base and aerodrome were built and at independence these were handed over to the Indian forces. Further building has seen the island become part of the city’s commercial hub.

Over to Willingdon Island, Kochi
Rounding the end of the airfield we passed a couple of parked lorries with traditional paintwork….

Decorated lorry, Willingdon Island, Kochi
…and then left the island heading towards Ernakulum with the Cochin Shipyard to our left.

Over to the mainland by the Cochin Shipyard, Kochi
Ernakulum is a great place if you want to buy shoes or furniture, but not so good if you just want lunch. Eventually Thomas spied a small restaurant, one of a chain, he said, specialising in biryani. There was nowhere to park, but the management were so keen on our custom, they fetched the owner of a motorbike to shift his vehicle to let us could park outside.

We ordered Biryanis, mutton for Thomas and me, fish for Lynne. Biryani, of a sort, appears on the menu of every ‘Indian’ restaurant in Britain, but we had never before seen fish as an option. We ordered some water and as the waiter poured in the chilled drink Thomas’ glass exploded distributing itself and its former contents all over the table. We were a little taken aback, but the staff treated it as an everyday occurrence, moving us to another table and mopping up the one we had left. They need to change their glass supplier.

If this was a work of fiction I would finish on a stronger anecdote, but this being as truthful a record as I can manage, the exploding glass is all I have.

We ate our Biryanis (competent but not memorable) like condemned prisoners. It had been a memorable trip, but now there was nothing left to write about except the journey home.

A bucket salesman on the way to the airport provided one last picture, the rest was hard travelling but uneventful, which is as good as long-haul flying gets.

Plastic bucket salesman between Kochi and the airport
So our journey through India’s Deep South has come to an end. We had visited established tourist attractions, like Mysore and the Kerala Backwaters, and been to places where foreigners are rarely seen, like Rameswaram and Kanyakumari. I loved them all.

Finally Thank you….

To Pioneer Personalized Holidays of Willingdon Island, Kochi who made all the land arrangements with commendable efficiency.

And, most importantly, to Thomas Matthew who kept us safe through 1,600km of India’s often challenging traffic.

Thomas at Lamb's Rock, Coonoor
On two trips with Thomas (2010 and 2016) we have come to know him well. Cheerful and obliging, well informed about India and the outside world, a man of compassion who understands how things work and speaks better English than most ‘professional English-speaking guides,’ we have come to regard him as not just a driver but also a friend and travelling companion. I hope we will travel with him again some time.

India's Deep South


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