I had initially planned to find a place at Ernakulam. It has happens sometimes that finding a suitable accommodation becomes a nightmare. There was nothing close to where the bus from Thiruvanchikkulam dropped me. I walked in the mid-day sun all the way to Ernakulam Town Railway Station not finding a single place. Had I only crossed the line I might have seen that there are dozens of places to stay on the other side. I then took a bus to the main boat jetty. There are lots of hotels here but for some reason all were booked. I had a quick lunch at India Coffee House and headed to the main boat jetty.
The jetty terminal building is designed in the characteristic style of Keralan temples. The style somehow suits temples but not secular buildings as this. I am beginning to hate it in this context. Apparently I don’t have to wait long for the next boat. Frequency is good and tickets are cheap. Boats cross the Vembanad Lake to the jetty at Fort Kochi, previously called Fort Cochin. Soon I am sitting on a sheltered deck, the breeze blowing across my face and bow of the motorboat cutting the waters into transient tides. The salty air comes across like a constant companion to the sea. Without it, the sea would be incomplete.
It is a short ride. I get off at Customs Jetty. A few paces bring me to a road. Turning right, I would head to Fort Kochi. Turning left, I would head to Mattancherry. I take the latter. This is a place full of old buildings that reek of past commercial prosperity. The long street running parallel to the shore is packed with warehouses. Some warehouses appear to have closed down but there are many still doing business in the old way. In one warehouses, dried chillies are stacked up in gunny sacks. Elsewhere, workers are loading up a lorry with sacks of rice. Tea packed tight to preserve freshness wait to find their own pots and cups.
In days of old, spices used to thread their way through these ports on much longer journeys. Today I find in the old Spices Market an almost derelict two-storey building. I think the building is still in use but closed for the day. Only badge holders are allowed inside. A little later I find a small shop stocked up with different spices for purchase in small quantities by tourists. The spices either hang in sealed plastics or transparent glass jars. Their wonderful natural colours are quite inviting. I can almost smell them, taste them – cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, bay leaves, tamarind, nutmeg, turmeric, ginger, cumin, cloves, saffron, sesame, mustard, asafoetida…
The warehouses are old and photogenic. They make a statement about how Mattancherry still clings on to old appearances in a modern world. Sky blue wooden shutters catch the afternoon sun. Iron-grilled windows frame the darkness within. Red-tiled roofs wear the coats of many monsoons. Projected porticos with semi-circular arches frame the doorways. The buildings are from another period looking at the world, like old men and women sometimes do from their colonial verandahs.
As I walk at leisurely pace, I find a couple of men repairing lines at an electric pole. A half-open gate casts its sharp shadow on a cement floor. I enter to find myself facing a photogenic church. I wait and watch it for many minutes as the sun rolls in and out of the clouds. The church is in the same style as Goan churches. This church, Our Lady of Life Church, comes from the start of the 19th century. There is nothing remarkable inside. There is a nave, no aisles and an apse that goes round behind the altar. A statue of St Sebastian punctured with arrows stands in the apse. A lady is sweeping the floor. There is no one else around.
I hurry to the Mattancherry Palace before it closes for the day. As palaces come, it is a boring building. I believe India’s best palaces are in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Only a small part of the building is open for visitors as a museum. I climb up the entrance stairway to reach the first landing. The wooden ceiling is richly carved into neat panels. It is a beautiful work of art. Inside, the exhibits are nothing spectacular; or rather I ignored them completely because all my attention was on the famous wall murals.
These murals are executed in typical Keralan style. They are derived from the traditional murals found in temples. The best part of the murals in this palace is that each element of the canvas is numbered and explained for the benefit of tourists. The ubiquitous theme of Anantasheyana makes a marvellous mural. It is a still scene but the narrative is lively. Every actor begs close study. It appears that a single passing moment that may never come again is captured for all eternity. In that moment when reclined Vishnu is offering a lotus to the linga, everything happens in an eternal pause.
‘Can I go down?’ I ask a security guard. He has cordoned off the stairway leading downstairs.
‘Closed,’ he says.
‘But closing time is 5 pm. There are still fifteen minutes,’ I complain lightly. ‘I have come a long way from Bangalore for this.’
‘You can check with the curator outside,’ he points to the entrance.
Apparently, they have closed the section early due to large groups of noisy students from Tamil Nadu. The curator motions me to wait till closing time. He will allow me downstairs for five minutes after everyone is gone. I am going to enjoy this special attention. When everyone is gone, as promised, a man unties the twisted rope, slides open a trap door, climbs down a wooden staircase in total darkness and switches on the lights. The whole place is sort of a basement without windows but really it is at ground level. The first room has just outlines of scenes never to be completed. The second room has wonderful murals.
To the left are scenes that narrate the story of Lord Ayyappa’s conception, the legendary union of Shiva and Vishnu in the form of Mohini. Shiva gives away to the temptation of Mohini and her bewitching dance. Parvati looks away in disgust, a mood that is reflected in the eyes of the Nandi she rides. In this scene of sexual abandonment, every being of the universe is in its own act of copulation. The murals are full of energy.
To the right are scenes of Krishna flirting with the gopis. Krishna is naughty. With his fingers and toes he is fondling the gopis. The scenes are all erotic in nature. I wish I only had more time to admire these murals. Five minutes are just too short and life itself is not any longer for the world.
I walk to Jew Town. I expect something nostalgic and old, like Mattancherry. It turns out that Jew Town is a popular stopping point for passengers of cruise liners. There are lots of shops selling the same boring stuff found in all tourist towns across India – antiques, Tibetan curios, glazed door knobs and Kashmiri shawls. A shop displays among its prized possessions a sign that says, ‘No photographs.’ Another shops quotes, ‘Photography Rs. 25.’
At a dead end beyond these expensive, pretentious and un-Indian shops, is an old clock tower. I first saw this tower from the palace, which is just a stone’s throw on the other side of the wall. It’s a pretty clock tower. The blue clock face reads 1760. Above the pyramidal roof is a little belfry. Perhaps, at the stroke of every hour the bell will strike automatically. I wish I knew.
A posse of policemen is keeping watch at the entrance to an old Jewish synagogue next door. The synagogue is dated 1568. As far as I can remember, I have never visited a synagogue before. I am looking forward to it. But the place is closed for the day. I have to come back tomorrow morning. I may not come back really. I have other places to visit.
As I leave Jew Town, I meet Benny, a local artist. I step into his studio to admire some of his paintings, mostly acrylic on canvas. Many of his works are faithful copies from photographs or works of other famous artists. He is called away by a neighbour. I find him painting “STICK NO BILLS” on his neighbour’s white walls. He does it cheerfully but an artist of his calibre should have been destined for greater glory.
The question of where I would spend the night is still unsettled. I make enquiries. Someone says perhaps I should try the temple across the road. This is the Janardhan Temple. The temple is decorated. In the inner courtyard people are assembled for prayer. A spiritual discourse is underway. I find that a swamiji of the Shakaracharya Order is visiting. He is on a 60-day vrath of some sort. All I care about is getting a room here.
‘Where are you coming from? Why are you here?’ questions one of the temple managers.
‘I’m from Bangalore. Today I visited the temple at Irinjakada. I’m coming from there,’ I reply. ‘I came to see Fort Cochin… and this temple.’
‘Irinjakada? Where is that? Never heard of it.’
I am in a tight spot here and I have to convince him of this temple, ‘It’s a famous temple. Irinjakada is on the way from Thrissur.’
‘What god is there?’
It’s been a long day. I have visited so many places on the way to Fort Kochi. I am desparately trying to think of the deity’s name enshrined there. This is like a school test. If I pass, I’ll get a room. Perhaps.
Suddenly it hits me, ‘Irinjalakuda. That’s the place. Lord Bharatha is the deity in the inner shrine.’
I have enough supporters on my side, particularly the guy who had first ushered me into the office. The manager finally agrees to give a room. Problem is there is no room available. I am shown a hall where priests sometimes take short naps. A straw mat is brought out. This will do just fine. I am told that this space is to become a mandapa. The moolasthanam within has just been consecrated.
‘There is puja starting soon. Food will be served later,’ tells me one of the temple attendants. I find it strange that people are talking in Konkani. I ask him about it. I learn that many Goans came and settled in this part of Fort Kochi long ago. Konkani is the main language here. This area of town is named Amaravati.
I head out in search of the local beach. Instead I find Santa Cruz Basilica. It is one of the few Portuguese churches spared by the Dutch when they conquered Fort Kochi in 1663. The present 19th century building is in a mix of styles, the old one having been erased to the ground by the British. Fort Kochi is rich with history, having changed hands from one colonial power to another.
‘Kathakali performance. Only two hundred rupees.’
I turn around to see a man carrying some tickets and an old poster.
‘What time is the show?’ I ask.
‘But it’s already half seven.’
‘It’s okay. You buy ticket?’
‘Who is performing?’
‘It is kathakali. Very good dance.’
This is simply a tourist trap. I am not all that keen. An authentic performance can only be had in a village or a temple.
The seafront is still some way away. I find silent fishing nets disappearing against a darkening sky. I will have to come back to this place in the morning. Back at the temple, I have a simple dinner. I bid goodnight to my caretakers and hit the mat. Mosquitoes trouble me through the night. I switch on the fan to keep them at bay. At some hour in the dead of the night, some brahmin boys and temple helpers come inside. They spread their mats and try to get some sleep. I get up early, wash up and leave an hour after sunrise. There is a cloak room at the Government Boat Jetty. I dump my backpack and head out to see the fame of Fort Kochi.
Almost all tourist brochures of Fort Kochi will contain a sunset image of Chinese fishing nets dipping into the sea. I wonder if such nets continue to survive in China, if they survive in exactly the form seen here. If not, it would be proper to think of these as Kochi fishing nets. It is yet early in the morning but stall owners by the unattractive seafront are opening up their stalls and laying out their displays. Behind low walls, under the shades of wonderfully landscaped gardens, foreign tourists are having breakfast. They are attended by well-groomed waiters. Men in crisp uniforms keep watch at the gates. Fort Kochi sports a number of expensive resort style accommodation. Much of Fort Kochi does not feel Indian. It has been transformed into a tourist spot catering to rich foreign tourists.
These nets are operated by ropes and primitive pulley system. Large stones are tied to the ropes as counterweights. The entire stucture is built of wood and bamboo. When the net is dropped into the sea, they let it stand for ten minutes. I observe in one case that as many as six men are needed to raise the net. The catch is quite poor this morning but whatever the sea throws up, the men are quick to take it to the fresh market next door. Only a couple of guys control the market. A brisk auction ensues. In a matter of minutes everything is sold until the next catch. I consider it a privilege to witness these auctions. This is real Kochi, not the modern Kochi setup for money loaded tourists.
‘What time does this market open?’ I ask one of the buyers.
‘Six every morning,’ he replies. ‘It goes on till six in the evening.’
The nets make a poor perspective largely because the rest of the scene is not very picturesque. The fact is Fort Kochi is at the heart of commercial waterways. The water isn’t appealing. There is pollution on the margins. Beach does not exist. I have seen much better fishing nets in the backwaters on my way to Fort Kochi yesterday. Against of backdrop of coconut palms and wide waterways, they are quite beautiful in their nestled rural settings.
Just beyond these nets are the little ruins of the old Portuguese Fort, destroyed by the Dutch. It is just a rebuilt wall between land and the rocky shore. It isn’t much until you see it in the right perspective. This is the first fort built by any Eurpoean colonial power on Indian soil. It comes from 1503.
I start wandering away from here in search of an old Dutch Cemetery. Lots of signs point my way to the cemetery. One would think that there is something of importance here for tourists, perhaps the burial of some great Dutch general. When I finally reach the cemetery I find that entry is prohibited for all visitors. The gate is locked. Why did they bother with the directions, I wonder?
More history lies in wait at the St Francis Church. This is considered one of India’s oldest churches. Like many things, it changed hands from the Portuguese, to the Dutch and then to the British. The walls are buttressed simply. The facade has a semi-circular arched opening. The wooden pews inside are beautifully and the seats are caned. Most interesting are hand-operated fans all along the length of the nave. The cloths of these fans contain beautiful lacework. These are most probably from the British period.
It has been a nice relaxing morning. I head to retrieve my backpack from the cloak room. I am thankful for this useful service, for just ten rupees. I head to Customs Jetty and wait for a boat.