APTI, Day 9 – Cochin, Drive to Munnar

The Old Harbour Hotel, where we stayed in Cochin, was a gorgeous old character building, built during the Dutch period of colonization. During its two hundred year history, it has served a number of different roles, but the current owners have recently restored it and renewed it. They have done an admiral job of adding modern amenities without destroying the original character of the building. While our late arrival in the evening had given us little time to appreciate the building and the grounds, we had a bit of time in the morning to soak it up. The restaurant area boasts folding garden doors that open some twenty feet wide to the pool and garden area, sheltered by a fifty foot tall mango tree. The previous evening, during our late supper, we had heard fruit dropping from the tree, but we didn’t realize they were mangoes until the next morning.

Reception Area Garden view from the dining room Dining room from the garden

Old Harbour Hotel, reception area

Garden view from the dining room

Dining room, from the garden

By 9:30 we were packed up and ready to go. We met our guide, who turned out be one of the greatest assets of the tour, and spoiled us for guides for the rest of the trip. She spoke excellent English, knew both the history and the culture of her city, and conveyed her enthusiasm with energy and a sense of humour.

Because of its natural resources and the spice trade, Kerala has a long history of interaction with other cultures and other worlds. Long before Europeans arrived, its inhabitants had been trading with the Chinese and Arab world for centuries.

Then, at the dawn of the 16th century, Vasco de Gama and the Portuguese arrived and colonized the area. In fact, de Gama died in Cochin, and St. Francis Church, built in 1503, the oldest Christian church in India, houses his initial burial site. His remains were later re-patriated to Portugal, but the tomb site remains in the floor of the Church, which was one of our stops.

Original burial site of Vasco da Gama Pulpit, St. Francis Church

Original tomb of
Vasco da Gama

St. Francis Church

Unlike Goa, Kerala’s neighbour state to the north, which remained under Portuguese influence for centuries, Kerala was later colonized by the Dutch, and, of course, also by the British, so the level of western influence here is much higher than in Maharashtra, where Steven lives. Keralan culture reflects this. Whereas Maharashtra is predominantly Hundu, with a smaller population of Muslims, Kerala is 60% Christian, 20% Hindu, and 20% Muslim. Christian churches, both small and elaborate, dot the landscape both in the city and the country.

In addition, according to our guide, western influence extends into the Hindu population as well, with many Hindus eating meat, including, to our surprise, beef. Elsewhere, strict Hindus would eschew all meat and fish, even eggs (because they could become chickens), although this should in no way be confused with the totally western concept of veganism, which Indian vegetarians find bizarre. Indian cooking is laced with dairy products, including butter, curd/yogourt, milk, and paneer, a cheese used much like tofu is in eastern Asian cooking. Our guide confessed to being, in her own words, “a strict non-vegetarian.”

Essentially, flying the few hundred kilometers from Pune to Cochin, two provinces to the south, equates to travelling to an entirely different country. In most ways, Kerala shares less with Maharashtra than Canada shares with the U.S. From Pune to Cochin, almost all aspects of culture – language, religion, cuisine, dress and government – undergo significant shifts.

Virtually every state in India has its own language (or more than one), not just a different dialect, but an entirely different language, with different structure, vocabulary, script and lectors. In Gujarat, they would speak Gujarati, Maharashtrans speak (not surprisingly) Maharathi, Goans converse in Konkini, Karalans speak Malayalam, and the folks in Tamil Nadu fiercely defend Tamil as the oldest surviving language in India (older than Sanskrit). (Given our own Quebec experience with Bill 101, it was amusing to hear our guide speak of a Tamil protest against a national government initiative to expand the use of Hindi within the state. The Tamils responded by removing Hindi and English from all road signs in the state.) So, five adjacent states speak five entirely different languages, not including Hindi and English, the two official languages of India. In fact, our guide suggested that it is English, not Hindi, which binds the country together.

In addition to language and religion, states also differentiate themselves by their cuisine. Most often bread accompanies meals in Maharashthra, but rice is much more prevalent in Kerala. Even breads which bear the same name from one province to another may share few physical characteristics. A Keralan paratha is a buttery, flaky pancake that tends to fall apart in the hand, while a Maharashthran paratha is much more solid concoction usually filled with potatoes or some other vegetable. Maharashthran cuisine is predominantly vegetarian with a smattering of chicken and mutton; in Kerala, fish and cocoanut dominate the menus, and one has to search for the vegetarian options.

Dress also differs, particularly among men. In urban Maharashthra, men very much stick to western dress, pants and shirts, even though traditional Maharashthran dress, the kurta worn over the salwar, would be far cooler and more comfortable. But Keralan men consistently wear the dhoti a skirt which can be worn full-length, or rolled up halfway and tucked in at the waist to become knee-length. Historically women wore these as well, and both genders went topless – not a bad idea, considering the temperature this close to the equator and the humidity living beside the ocean. Alas, the prudish, Christian Portuguese put an end to the practice among women, who now wear the more modest sari, much like Indian women from other states. Some men still choose to go shirtless, and our guide assured us that in some Keralan Hindu temples, men must remove their shirts before entering the most sacred areas.

Finally, the most immediate difference one notices, right off the plane, is that Kerala is considerably cleaner than Maharashthra and appears to suffer less from the painfully obvious differences in level of income. If Cochin has slums that rival those of Mumbai or Pune, and I’m sure it has some, we didn’t see them. No doubt the state Communist government in Kerala would like to claim some responsibility for this, but I suspect it has deeper roots in the more abundant natural resources, which allow even the poorest a means to clothe and feed themselves.

Our tour of Cochin began with a visit to both St. Francis Church and Santa Cruz Basilica, the second oldest Christian church in India, having been built only two years after St. Francis (1505). While both were built as Catholic churches by the Portuguese, the Dutch converted St. Francis to a Protestant church, and the British changed it to an Anglican church, which it remains today.

Santa Cruz Basilica, Interior Chancel, Santa Cruz Basilica Santa Cruz Basilica, Exterior

Santa Cruz Basilica

Santa Cruz Basilica

Santa Cruz Basilica

We also visited the oldest Synagogue in the Commonwealth in what Keralans refer to, without disparagement, as “Jew Town.” Jews have a long and storied history in Kerala and were originally bestowed quite remarkable rights under the Rajas, including the right to levy taxes. However, when the less open-minded Portuguese arrived on the scene, they weren’t nearly so keen on this level of power and autonomy, and the Jews had to flee their original location and seek refuge next door to the Raja’s palace in Cochin. There they lived with relatively little disturbance until the formation of Israel called many of them to return to Zion, leaving only a small contingent in Cochin. At present, only thirteen members of the synagogue remain, most of these very elderly. Many of the buildings  of Jew Town have been converted to shops which take advantage of the flow of tourists generated by the synagogue and the nearby palace, much like shellfish take advantage of food brought by the ebb and flow of the tides.

As for tides, we had the poor fortune of missing the Chinese fishing nets in action because we arrived at low tide. These nets are remarkable, odd contraptions which look, at first glance, as if they were the first attempt of a boy scout troop in learning their lashing skills. They consist of an immense wooden tripod which leans out over the waters’ surface and from which hangs a horizontal, square net. At high tide, a team of eight or so men lower the net into the water for a few minutes at a time and then raise the net to discover what, if anything, they have caught. What makes the engineering of these nets ingenious is the rather sophisticated method of counterbalance which allows so few fishermen to raise them. Large stones approximately one foot in diameter are suspended from the rear of the tripod to provide this counterbalance. As the tripod moves nearer to vertical, which reduces the amount of effort needed from the fishermen, stones begin to land on the dock, thereby reducing the force of the counterbalance. The ropes suspending the stones vary in length in such a way that the counterbalance is continually adjusted appropriately as the net is raised.

Chinese fishing nets Chinese fishing nets Fish monger touts his wares

fishing nets

fishing nets

Fish vendor

After visiting the fishing nets, we strolled through the fish market, where we saw some amazing seafood, including tiger prawns the size of small rock lobsters. Later, at one of the restaurants we ate at, I decided to sample some of these. Four of them filled a plate and made for a perfectly adequate meal. We also stopped and watched a small fish auction. The fisherman dumped a small batch of fish on a tarp on the ground, and the auctioneer made short work of selling them to one of the local vendors. Irene remarked that all auctioneers sound the same, no matter what language they speak.

Our final stop was the Maharaja’s palace, modest by “Maharajan” standards, but nevertheless impressive for some of its ornate woodword and intricate murals, which depicted stories and characters from Hindu mythology. It had been built by the Portuguese and presented to the Raja as penance for some massive European blunder, I believe the destruction and/or desecration of a prominent Hindu temple.

Before we left Cochin, we stopped at a couple of craft shops, where we got to ogle over Kashmiri carpets and fine silks. We did manage to do some buying for ourselves and for souvenirs for folks back home, but we wished we had more time to spend in Cochin to see the sites and explore the shops.

Unfortunately, our itinerary called upon us to begin the 130 km drive from Cochin to Munnar, which our driver warned us could take up to five hours. How can 130 km take over four hours? Well, for starters Cochin lies on the sea and Munnar is perched 6000 ft above sea level. The roads are the second factor. The surfaces of roads in Kerala are generally in quite good condition, but in 130 km I seriously doubt that there was more than one or two stretches of straight road that exceeded 100 meters. The road hugs the mountain side. Irene claims never to have experienced motion sickness in her life, but she confesses knowing now what it feels like. The trip warrants preventative gravol.

By the time we arrived at our Hotel, we all needed an hour or two for our stomachs to settle before we could eat. While not the fanciest of the hotels we stayed at, the Copper Castle provided us with the best views of the trip. From its perch on the side of the mountain, we could see up and down the valley we had ascended to get here, which made the trip worthwhile.

One last view from our balcony in Munnar View from our hotel balcony

View from
our balcony

View from
our balcony

A Picture We Missed Taking

While in “Jewtown” in Cochin we missed the opportunity to take a picture of a rather remarkable juxtaposition. Two windows, side by side, one with the Star of David, and the other with a swastika. Sacrilege, you say? Not exactly. Within Hindu and Jain cultures, the swastika is a centuries-old symbol of good luck. The Jews of Cochin would recognize this, of course, and take no offence where none was intended. Among Hindus, however, there is certainly resentment for Hitler’s having usurped and sullied an icon that Indians have employed as a positive symbol since neolithic times.

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