Fort Kochi: Where we discover a colourful mix of cultures and stories
Sheets of rain tumble down as I take shelter in the 16th century St Francis Church, originally a wooden structure built by the Portuguese inside a fort. Now it forms the very nucleus of Fort Kochi. “There is no fort in Fort Kochi today but you can see the tomb of Vasco da Gama here,” says a guide. Centuries have passed since the Portuguese explorer breathed his last on Indian soil, but the locals take pride that he was buried here for 14 years before his mortal remains left for his home country.
It is the potpourri of nationalities and histories across timelines that creates the environs around Fort Kochi. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the British, the Jews and even the Chinese have left behind a little bit of themselves in this quaint touristy area. But if you look beyond the art cafes, the antique stores, the Kathakali performers and the milling crowds, you catch a glimpse of the erstwhile trading hub with its unique melange of cultures.
I wait for the fury of the rains to subside and listen to the history of the church. As it changed hands from the Portuguese to the Dutch to the British, the patron saints changed as well. I leave the guide to his story-telling and look for my usual art café, only to find it closed for renovation. “It is monsoon and some cafes are getting ready for the peak season,” says another cafeteria owner, as I settle for a strong cup of tea.
I take his advice and head to the wholesale market in Mattancherry and lose myself in the old architectural spaces of warehouses and shops. There is a sudden flurry of activity and crowds mushroom from nowhere. The local traders are a mishmash of various Indian communities and you see them hovering around piles of dry fruits, spices and tea. For a moment, my imagination takes me to the days where a medley of foreign merchants would probably be barking orders here.
Walking along the old Jewish quarter, I see Kashmir and Tibet rubbing shoulders in handicrafts stores. I lose myself in the aromas and antiques and see the Dutch palace, a temple and the Jewish synagogue almost sharing a wall.
It's the Dutch palace that turns out to be a showstopper. Built in typical Kerala style with a courtyard, it is now a virtual art gallery with colourful murals of scenes from the Ramayana. Local lore says it was gifted to the King of Kochi by the Portuguese after a soldier had destroyed a temple in the area. I walk towards the Pardesi Synagogue and gasp at its sheer beauty. The collage of hand-painted blue and white tiles made of Chinese porcelain blend with the brass columns and the Belgian hanging lamps. The synagogue is one of the oldest in the world and it takes you back to the days when this was a vibrant Jewish settlement. The Jews are still here but they are not interested in conversation. “We always have several curious journalists asking us questions,” says a lady at the entrance as I leave the premises.
The rain stops as I return to Napier House, my quaint homestay tucked away in a by-lane. As I walk towards Kochi’s quintessential landmark, the Chinese fishing nets, a piece of crimson peeps out from behind the nets, and the sun that has hardly made an appearance the entire day slowly fades away into the colourless sky.