Escape to a sleepy India of times past
Avoid the bustle of India by visiting historic Cochin, now known as Fort Kochi, writes Brendan Shanahan
THERE are several things that surprise the first-time visitor to the ancient trading city of Fort Kochi.
For starters, those accustomed to the nerve-jarring guerrilla battle that is daily life in most of India’s cities will be taken aback by – perhaps even suspicious of – the old town’s remarkable placidity.
Where, you find yourself asking, are the deadly taxis, the kamikaze auto-rickshaws, the relentless touts, the beggars waving the stumps of diseased limbs with the relentless determination of the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?
Isolated by water, its streets populated by gnawing goats and sleepy barrow-men, Fort Kochi feels out of step with India’s demented daily grind.
Kochi, still called Cochin by many locals, is part of an archipelago of islands in Kerala, the state occupying a thin strip of India’s southwest coast.
Officially its urban footprint includes more than a million people, spreading out over the water to incorporate the unlovely, but not uninteresting, city of Ernakulam.
But most tourists will be content to confine themselves to the city’s old quarter, Fort Kochi ( also referred to as Fort Cochin).
Reached from the mainland by a hair-raising city bus ride or a scenic ferry with a truly Kafkaesque ticketing system, Fort Kochi is worth the effort.
An increasingly popular destination with foreigners and wealthy locals, the town offers a haven from India’s relentless freneticism and a cosmopolitanism and urban sophistication not easy to find outside of India’s big cities.
This atmosphere is not surprising given the city’s millennia of trade with distant corners of the world.
Although today defined by its striking colonial buildings of the Portuguese, Dutch and English eras ( in that order), Fort Kochi was once the centre of the Indian spice trade is to be transported to a time when Kochi was the furthest, most exotic point of the Western imagination.
Once numbering several thousand, Kochi’s Jews mostly emigrated to Israel and now number little more than one family. Their old neighbourhood is the location of many old spice warehouses – several converted to chic cafes and antique galleries – as well as Kochi’s 16thcentury Paradesi Synagogue.
Tucked away in an alley, the entrance to the synagogue is hidden behind ornate wooden doors. In the courtyard is a mouldy, eccentric museum staffed by a harriedlooking woman who seems to spend much of her time trying to stop the jostling tourists from taking photos.
Inside, all is calm in this jewel-box of a building festooned with dozens of crystal chandeliers and coloured glass lamps.
It is, however, a melancholy beauty. Although the last of the city’s seven synagogues still in use, there are no longer enough male Jewish adults in the city for the minimum of 10 required for a service, so backpackers are often roped in to make up the numbers.
Further north, along Bazaar Rd, many of the spice warehouses still operate. Some are open to tourists but most don’t seem to mind if you simply show yourself in.
Behind the carved doors of the warehouses, painted an array of candy colours, a gloomy but intoxicating world unfolds: the spice sacks lean like stumpy crayons; women in bandit face masks sift the peppercorns; fat men sit by tables laden with sample bowls of rice, sorted by colour and size.
For a moment Kochi seems, once again, very far from the modern world.