A vital port in the days of the spice trade, Kochi (formerly Cochin) has the distinction of being an eclectic patchwork of cultural influences – Arab, Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese and British.
Ernakulam (the mainland) and Kochi (the port) are twin cities and between them lie islands like Wellington and Bolgatty all linked by bridges and ferries.
The main historical sights to be seen in a day are in the Mattancherry area of Fort Kochi.
St. Francis Church
Behind the simple facade and walls of the St. Francis Church lies the site of Vasco Da Gama's grave long after his remains have been shipped back to Portugal. Built in the 1500s, this church is one of the oldest in India.
Paradesi Synagogue & Cemetery
The synagogue and cemetery on Jew Street stand testimony to a once-sizeable community of Jews whose numbers are now dwindling. The synagogue, built in 1568, is the oldest in India. The adjoining clock tower was added much later, in 1760. Inside the Synagogue do notice the glass chandeliers above you and the Chinese hand-painted tiles underfoot.
Dutch Palace or Mattancherry Palace
Now a museum, this modest palace was built by the Portuguese for Raja Veera Kerala Varma in 1555 and renovated by the Dutch in 1663. It contains exquisite murals and a coronation hall.
Chinese Fishing Nets
Watch the local fishermen harvest their catch with Chinese fishing nets that have now become the visual symbol of Kochi. The best time to visit for a photo-op is at dusk – head to the beach at Fort Kochi or take a ferry to Vyapeen or Kumbalangi Islands. In most places, you could buy fresh catch, get a nearby eatery to cook it for you on the spot and have it served with local toddy.
NOTE: Kerala Tourism has a walking guide on its website for Fort Kochi. http://www.keralatourism.org/
Fort Kochi Jetty is the place to head to for boat rides and dolphin sighting in the afternoons. If time permits, opt for a leisurely ferry ride through the backwaters.
Soothe stressed nerves with a traditional Ayurvedic therapeutic massage. Most of the higher range hotels have facilities or can arrange for them.
A Kathakali dance performance is much like the Japanese Kabuki. Do watch the make-up application a couple of hours before the show. Call ahead for reservations to watch Kathakali as well as Theyyam, Kalaripayttu (traditional martial arts) demonstrations here:
- Greenix Village at Fort Kochi has performances as well as a cultural museum http://www.greenix.in/
- Cochin Cultural Centre has theatres both at Ernakulam as well as Fort Kochi http://www.
- Kerala Kathakali Centre at Fort Kochi - http://www.kathakalicentre.
Sadya is the quintessential Kerala festive meal served on a banana leaf. There are specialist Sadya restaurants, but no restaurant meal matches the simple pleasure of a home-cooked feast during Onam (a festival in September).
Fish is a must-try, especially the Fish Fry with local spices and the Karimeen Pollichathu (Pearl Spot steamed in banana leaf). The best restaurants to taste local fare in Kochi and Ernakulam are Seagull (near the beach), Grand (M.G. Road) and Shala. Kashi is a well-known cafe-cum-art gallery on Burgher Street that's popular among tourists. For a more exclusive dining experience, head to the Bolgatty Palace (Bolgatty Island), the Taj Malabar (Wellington Island) or the Brunton Boatyard (Fort Kochi).
Nestled alongside the ubiquitous Kashmiri curio shops, Jew Street is a hub of spices and antique shops. Pick up pepper, cinnamon, clove and cardamom here. But do authenticate antiques before buying them.
Culture Shoppe is the official agency of the Department of Tourism, Government of Kerala to promote Kerala souvenirs. http://www.cultureshoppe.com They have an office at Kochi, but you can simply order online for free delivery across India.
Visit Kairali, the state-run handicraft outlets at Mattancherry (Fort Kochi) and M.G. Road (Ernakulam) for typical Kerala items like brass lamps, wood carvings, miniature caparisoned elephants, decorative Kathakali masks and numerous products made from coconut shell and banana fibre.(An edited version appeared in Culturama's February 2011 Issue)