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

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - DISCOVER FORT KOCHI -

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.

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