If we could recommend visiting only one port city in India, it would be Cochin, which consists of a group of interconnected islands and peninsulas. Set almost at the very southwestern tip of the country, this oldest European settlement in India is actually two cities: one very modern, with beautiful high-rise commercial buildings and apartments; the other, across a bridge on a neighboring island, a bustling old town with many historic buildings and a traditional way of life.
Cochin was for centuries the center of the world’s spice trade, especially pepper, which made it both prosperous and internationally famous. These days, the spice auctions that used to take place here are conducted on the Internet, just another example of how our romantic views of this part of the world have had to undergo some changes during this trip.
We’ve noticed that the further south we go in India (and the further away we are from Pakistan), the greater the religious tolerance and harmony. Although most Indians are Hindu, many are Muslim, and some are Christian or (even fewer) Jewish; and at least in Cochin, all the children attend school together, whether it is a Catholic school operated by an order of nuns or a state school. People of all religions work together in business, and there is no religious persecution in this part of the country. Jews came to Cochin as early as the second century B.C., fleeing the Roman occupation of Palestine, followed by Jews from other parts of the world escaping the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 and the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s. The center of Jewish life in Cochin was Jew Town, which is still a thriving retail area, especially for spice markets, although there are only seven Jewish families left in the city. After Israeli statehood, most of the Jews in Cochin left to make a new life in their ancient homeland, and only one of the seven synagogues that used to exist in Jew Town still remains.
In Cochin we finally found what we would consider a department store, although it featured only local arts, crafts, clothing, and jewelry. From the gorgeous silk Oriental rug on one wall to a room filled with hand-woven tablecloths and placemats to shelves of pashminas and saris, the entire place was filled with too much temptation for any American tourist to resist. We emerged without the intricately hand-carved chess set or the emerald necklace, but I did suffer a brief failure of willpower in the clothing department and came away with a diaphanous cotton blouse and a green silk caftan. Even outside the shop, though, we were offered a visual treat: a tour bus trying to maneuver out of the gate without running over one of the ubiquitous cows, who was lying comfortably next to the pillar with no intention of moving. Only in India . . .
Cochin has the distinction of having been occupied in accurate historical succession by the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the British, each of whom left distinctive marks on this scenic tropical coast. For example, St. Francis Church, built in 1503 by Portuguese Franciscan friars, is India’s oldest European-built church. Vasco de Gama, who died in Goa, was buried in this church; his remains were later taken back to Portugal, although his burial marker remains in Cochin.
One of the most interesting features of Cochin is the Chinese fishing nets lined along the seafront. This ancient method of catching fish was introduced to Cochin in the 13th century by Chinese traders from the court of Kublai Khan, and it is still in use today.
Four long wooden poles are tied together at one end and braced to form a square at the other, and a large blue net is fastened to the corners. Then the whole contraption is lowered into the water by means of cantilevered weights, left in place for ten minutes, and then lifted up, hopefully filled with fish. The nets are so beautiful that even if they aren’t very efficient any more, they ought to be – and probably are – retained for artistic value alone.
In fact, much of Cochin looks as if it was designed especially for travel brochures. The fishing boats are painted in brilliant colors, and the nets trailed from them are bright red or blue, with yellow and orange floats around the edges. The oldest buildings are pastel colors set among tropical foliage. Street vendors sell colorful woven cloth goods and hand puppets dressed in traditional costumes, as well as jewelry made from glowing glass beads. Brightly colored pedicabs roam the streets. And best of all (at least for me), there was a snake charmer with not one, not two, but three cobras in their straw baskets, all swaying to his pipe.
We took a harbor cruise on a large motorized boat made of local woods, with a woven bamboo ceiling and open sides, to view some of the other islands of Cochin, where small fishing settlements line the shoreline and fishermen sort their catch on the docks. We snacked on wonderful local roasted cashews and dried banana chips as we enjoyed the fresh sea breeze, a welcome relief from the heat and humidity in this part of the world. Fishermen on a brightly painted boat hauling in a huge red net chanted as they worked, waving and calling out to us as we passed. As always, everyone we encountered was friendly and polite, from shopkeepers to schoolchildren.
We agreed that this was our favorite stop of the trip – so far, at least – and that we’ll have some serious weeding-out of photos to do before we put together a pictorial record of our adventure. Cochin was a wonderful way to leave India, with the crowding and filth of Mumbai left far behind and the open hospitality of this delightful city as our final impression of India.
Laurie & Gerry