A Day in Fort Kochi

When you have 24 hours in one city, it’s early rising. But that’s okay because in India, it’s easy to say goodbye to those extra 2-3 hours you’d normally spend snoozin’. Sunrise is one of the most magical times of the day. Stirring to the rhythmic song of morning prayers, stretching your arms amidst the vibrant call of the roosters, opening your eyes to the stilted rays of the tangerine sun… There’s nothing quite like it.

Fort Kochi is a fishing village that lies at the Northern tip of Kochi proper in the state of Kerala, India. It was gifted to the Portuguese by the Kingdom’s Rajah in 1503 for their support in battle against the Kozhikode forces. Within this designated area, the Portuguese were allowed to build their settlement and put up a proper fort to protect it. It remained this way for 160 years, until the Dutch came and spoiled that stint. Although the Portuguese never got Fort Kochi back in their possession, karma worked in their favor and the British came and stole it from the Dutch’s hands in 1795.

Today Fort Kochi belongs to its home country, India. Walk down its crumbling cobblestone streets though, and you can still see its European influences in the steepled Catholic churches and scattered colonial architecture today.

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My husband and I arrived to Fort Kochi just after our lackadaisical trip down the Alappuzha backwaters. Those moments of serenity on the water translated to moments of restlessness on land, so we were ready to explore. Like sloth bears attracted to honey, the ocean’s tidal forces pulled us towards the water, and we started our day with a morning walk on Mahatma Gandhi beach.

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Darting between tide pools and trash, the beach held a peculiar sort of beauty. Half sand and half weeds, we balanced over fallen logs like tightropes and chased feral goats like wild geese. Distracted by our imaginary playground, we didn’t notice the weathered fishing boat until its crew’s excited cries superseded our own. As if caught by an invisible fishing line, they reeled us in with a bait of curiosity and before we knew it, we were grabbing their outstretched hands and hopping on board.

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We exchanged smiles and quickly learned this wasn’t a boat at all, but a rickety wooden platform suspended above the shallows that hosted a semi-mechanical roping device called a Chinese Fishing Net. Introduced to Kerala’s shore around the 1400’s, the whole process was designed around a cantilever system, with heavy rocks used as counterweights on one end and hammock sized pieces of net to catch fish on the other. For such a simple task it seemed a pretty big operation, and took four people to operate one net!

Stepping in for one of the fisherman, I joined the others in raising the rope to reveal our fresh catch of the day. Together we heaved, ho’d and at the end of a few minutes hard work came face-to-face with our fishy friends. While only a few of us spoke English, we all spoke the universal language of laughter and gave it another go, delicately dropping the net into the water and raising it once more to reveal our saltwater captors.

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After our plight with the fisherman we headed inland to the colorful umbrellas along the shore. These were the marks of the Kamalakadavu Fish Market, where the same anglers lugged their fresh catch to sell to perusing tourists and hungry locals. Mixed between the stalls of giant prawns and bright red tuna were brightly colored linens sold as beach blankets, day dresses and purses.

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After a hearty sidewalk lunch of big eyed shrimp and fish curry, we strolled back into the Fort towards our next (official) stop, the Indo-Portuguese museum. Our journey took us through teal alleyways and past stalls of chestnut spotted cattle – I admit, we may have purposefully darted through the unmarked streets just to get some extra sightseeing in. There’s so much beauty in this city though, it’s hard to stick to the course.

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The Santa Cruz Basilica met us halfway with its looming double spires and ornate golden craftsmanship. Built by the Portuguese during their moment of reign, it’s one of eight Basilica’s in Kerala. Its ironwood doors are still open as a place for devotion and gothic inspiration today.

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The Indo-Portuguese museum was constructed by Dr. Joseph Kureethra, the late Bishop of Kochi. It’s a fairly modest structure, with crumbled stone columns and weathered yellow paint that make it look more like a royal palace than a preservation of history. That was because this was actually part of the Bishop’s house, we learned, and he turned it into a museum in efforts to preserve the heritage of the local traditions and Portuguese culture that influences it.

Inside you can go from art to sculpture to ancient relics within the museum’s five sections: Altar, Treasure, Procession, Civil Life and Cathedral. To us, the building itself and the compound it rests on were just as interesting as its innards. My husband and I found ourselves slowly drifting down its spiral stone staircases and lounging on the grassy knoll far long after the standard tour.

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From there we flagged a tuk-tuk and headed the opposite side of the Fort, to a little slice of spice heaven within the heart of Jew Town. Before you even walk through the doors of Cochin Spice Market you experience the rich variety of colors, fragrances and flavors… The incense wafting throughout the street, an aromatic cloud hovering over the rooftops. This, this was the spice haven that Christopher Columbus had hoped to discover.

It was a day for ginger, thousands of pieces laid out to dry in the South Asian sun. While the spices satiated my nose the tribal colors satiated my eyes. Ginger, clove, turmeric. Red, yellow, blue. An intense ecosystem of senses, the feeling was almost supernatural.

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The evening concluded with the same varietal of hymns it began with. This time carried out for a watching audience instead of unsuspecting passerby’s who happened to catch its drifting melodies in the wind. A guttural sing-song of voices, this classic form of Indian performance relayed one of the major Hindu legends through dance, music and sign, its essence captured under the roof of the Kerala Kathakali Center.

Kathakali uses a combination of acting, costume and musical patterns to tell stories about Hindu mythology and spirituality. The most distinctive feature of this cultural art form are the elaborate ensembles the actors wear, from their make-up made out of local ingredients like rice flour and soot, to their parasoled dresses that take up half of the stage when standing. This art form is unique in that the cast is typically all male too, even for characters that would be considered female.

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Walking home amongst the fireflies that evening, the sun may have set but the vibrancy of the city did not. Our path lit not be street lamps but abundant piles of smoldering trash, the smoke whisked towards the open night and cascaded across the pot marked street. Wading through the haze, the phantoms of the past mixed with the illusion of today, a blend of heritage and progression. And even though it felt like magic, it had every aspect of something real.

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