“Aap logon ko Hindi nahin aati hai kya? (Don’t you know Hindi?)” Zahir’s comment catches us off-guard. We feel stupid. Zahir, a seaman-turned-shop errand boy-cum-rickshaw driver, tries to put us at ease as we ride from Fort Cochin to Willingdon Island. In fluent Hindi, he tells us of his trips to Lakshadweep, his early days at sea, how the once-busy Willingdon Island hardly sees any visitors now and why Onam means ‘big business’.
To Zahir, we are just ignorant tourists who believe Kerala’s only about blackwaters, spices and dark-skinned people who can’t speak the national language. We’ll learn soon, he hopes. And we do.
Like Mumbai, Cochin too is made of small islands – Willingdon Island, Fort Cochin, Vypeen, Vallarpadam and Bolghatty Island that are connected to the mainland Ernakulam. The airport is 30 kilometres away from the city. The ride in a prepaid taxi can take anywhere from 45 minutes to 1.5 hours depending on the traffic.
Born in a storm
“Cochin was born in a storm, nurtured in rivalry, and established as the crossroads of the Battling Empires of Europe: Portuguese, Dutch and British,” we read in a tourist guide. “In the 1340’s, torrential rains filled the Periyar River which broke through to the Arabian Sea and formed Cochin’s protected harbour. Trading ships soon sailed in and out,” the guide says. We look at the tall coconut palms bent over like old woman over the crisscrossing canals formed by the backwaters. This is almost Alleppy, we think.
Willingdon Island is where Cochin harbour is located. The magnificent Port Trust building with its rotating helicopter-like blades stands tall among other structures. Willingdon is like a ghost-town. It doesn’t have markets, shops and business centres. The old airport is now operated by the Navy and Harbour Station sees only goods trains. The commute to Fort Cochin via the 79-year-old Harbour Bridge takes about 30 minutes and costs Rs 50. But, auto drivers quote Rs 150, the tourist rate. Take it or leave it, they say. We leave it and opt for the boat. At Rs 4 a ticket, the 10-minute ferry ride through the backwaters seems like a good idea. But it takes us an hour to find the jetty to embark from as there are no signboards for help.
Since the 14th century Cochin has witness a stream of traders from Arabia and China. Chinese fishing nets are used till this day at Fort Cochin and make for a tourist attraction at sunset. European Jews fleeing persecution were among the first settlers at the Jew Town near the Mattanchery Palace. The Paradesi Synagogue, built in 1568, holds a unique record of Jewish presence in India. Every tile that makes up the synagogue’s floor bears a different pattern in blue. Though most Jews have left, the ones who remain still trade in spices and oil like their ancestors did with the Chinese centuries ago.
We search for traditional handicrafts in Jewtown’s shops only to find Kashmiri carpets, Rajasthani kathputlis and Kutchi embroidery.
In 1502, Portuguese seafarer Vasco da Gama came here seeking spices and converts. He found his spices, launched Europe’s great Age of Exploration and prayed in the first European church in Asia though his Roman Catholic Faith conflicted with Cochin’s ancient Syrian Christian religion (there are numerous churches dedicated to this faith). The Portuguese were ousted by the Dutch who then surrendered to the British who still continued trading in spices, coir, rubber and tea.
Spice, spice, baby
Looking for spices, we reach Mattanchery, the largest spice market in the city. We haggle with the storeowner of Kendu Spice Dealers to give us a fair price on cardomoms (Rs 1200/kg), black pepper (Rs 320/kg) and cloves (Rs 600/kg) ignoring the anises, cinnamon bark and saffron. We bargain hard, tell him we’re not foreign tourists. He gives us a discount, “Only Rs 25. Take it or leave it.” We take it this time.
Payasam, pappadam and pink water!
We are lucky to have been invited to a wedding feast. As we settle down in our seats, a man comes along with a steel bucket to serve us pickles and crunchy pappadam on our banana-leaf plates. He then brings to us avial, veggies, dal and chutneys. Next is rice and piping hot sambhar. A man pours pink liquid into our glasses. “Water. It’s pink because of cumin,” a co-diner tells us. Dessert comes in the form of lip-smacking jaggery-sweetened payasam (south Indian kheer).
The reception menu is simpler, a much informal affair. We eat rice, chicken roast, raita, sambhar and vegetables out of thermacol plates.
Hotel Casino’s Fort Cochin restaurant is the best bet for seafood. The restaurant offers no menu. They bring us the catch of the day in a tray and ask us to pick the fish and the spices. We opt for the local delicacy karimeen (black fish from the backwaters), delicious squid masala and prawns (all without the overpowering taste of coconut) with appam. The cost: Rs 1,480, but who’s complaining? In a place born of the sea, where its people live by it, it’s only fair if we eat off it too.