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Timeless appeal
(From top): A traditional vessel at an antique shop in Cochin; a cobbled street winds its way through the town; Chinese fishing nets make for a pretty picture; the interiors of the Paradesi synagogue

Centuries old Chinese fishing nets on the beach and spanking new Japanese cars parked alongside; dark, fragrant spice shops next to displays of garish plastic flowers; the solemn Jewish synagogue within walking distance of the erotic murals in the royal bedchamber of Mattanchary Fort ' there’s something for everyone in Cochin. Perhaps that is why, over the centuries, it has attracted traders and travellers from all parts of the globe.

Earlier it was a cosmopolitan port for Jewish, Arabic, British, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese traders to trade in spices, specially pepper. Today, Cochin has a new set of colonisers ' the tourists, and the town has re-invented itself to suit their needs. Go to Fort Cochin and Mattanchary today, two of the many islands that make up Cochin, and you’ll find every second house advertising itself as a ‘charming traditional home-stay’. This is in addition to the huge number of hotels, many of which are heritage structures and have taken great pains to announce the fact. Posses of tourist police are everywhere, to ensure that tourists aren’t taken for a ride by touts. Tender coconut water sold literally off the trees it grows on, is so expensive that you’d probably pay the same amount for the life-giving liquid in Delhi.

Yet, in spite of such ‘touristification’, Cochin retains much of its old charm. Cross a couple of bridges (it’s almost metaphorical) from Ernakulam ' new Cochin, and you’ll find yourself transported from a land of skyscrapers, malls and traffic jams, to Fort Cochin, where the sense of history is palpable. For this is home to the Paradesi Synagogue and the Dutch Palace, the Chinese fishing nets and ancient Portuguese basilicas. With over 14 languages and dialects spoken on its streets even today, Cochin has the footprint of more cultures than most places I know.

The best place to begin one’s holiday is to go to the waterfront in Fort Cochin. Past the Chinese fishing nets, the old houses crumbling under the shade of the giant mahogany trees, and up to land’s end, where the quiet lake meets open sea. Ships twinkle on the horizon, and in the gentle, cool breeze (the rains have already arrived here) we sit quietly, enjoying the view. On the way back, we stop at the St Francis Basilica, where Vasco Da Gama was buried, and then walk up to see the Chinese fishing nets, busy at work.

Silhouetted against a lovely monsoon sky, the nets, known locally as Cheenavala, flutter in the breeze as fishermen lower them into the water and then haul them up, using a clever pulley system. They sound creaky, smell fishy ' but look so romantic, delicately cantilevered on bamboo frames. They say these nets originated from the court of Kubla Khan and were brought here centuries ago by trader ships from the Far East. Even today, these nets are found in only one place outside China, and that’s Cochin.

By the water, scores of pavement chefs get ready to grill, fry and curry the day’s catch, for evening time sees hordes of locals and tourists here. In the backdrop is the gentle creaking of the giant nets. “Look at the crabs!” my son shouts excitedly, pointing to a large vat crawling with them. Just then, a fisherman unceremoniously plonks one, still flexing his pincers menacingly, on the hot griddle. We move away hastily. It isn’t near dinner-time, and anyway, we have to go spice shopping first.

So we walk along the waterfront where pepper, tea, Ayurvedic roots, whole ginger, and betel nuts are dried and sorted in preparation for auctions. It’s said that Cochin has been the centre of the spice trade for over 3,000 years. We walk into an old shop, redolent with spices stored in wooden drawers. The shopkeeper crushes some pepper expertly in his palms and offers it to me to smell. Its aroma, so unlike the insipid pepper one gets out of supermarket packets, is heady. I buy lots of it, but only after I’m done sneezing.

A few kilometres ahead is the Dutch Palace, built by the Portuguese ' and where an Indian king once lived. The story goes that the Portuguese built it for Raja Veera Keralavarma of Cochin. Later, the Dutch moved in and carried out extensive repairs. Ever since, the place has been, rather unfairly, I think, called the Dutch Palace. Its simple fa'ade doesn’t prepare you for the opulence within. Now a museum, the palace offers some interesting insights into the lives of royals long gone. The public areas have murals depicting scenes from the Ramayana. After I return, I learn, to my regret, that the ones in the royal bedroom depict more earthly pleasures, and are generally kept off limits for the public.

The next few days are enlivened, not only by the places we visit, but by the people we meet. One of them is Sarah Cohen, whom I met while walking through the Jew Town, where Jews have lived since the 1st century A.D. I come across this old lady in a housecoat, distinctly Jewish in her features, reading the Torah by the light of her window in preparation for the Jewish Sabbath.

Cohen runs a small shop of hand embroidered goods in Jew Town, and has been born and brought up here. “I don’t know when my ancestors first came to Cochin,” says she, “but for me, this is home.” Today her community has been reduced to only 11 members, mostly in their golden years, all stubbornly clinging to their old ways. I leave her to resume her reading by the window, and walk ahead towards the synagogue.

Another day, we meet a young police officer who has spent most of his young career in Kerala. Over a fragrant local meal, he tells us that Kerala’s high standard of living (statistics show that the state has the maximum number of cell phone users and car owners in India) and 100 per cent literacy rate hide many disturbing undercurrents. “Few know that Kerala also has the highest per capita consumption of alcohol ' about 5.84 litres per month,” he says. A recent sociological survey has also revealed that Kerala has the most extra-marital affairs per population, and as well as the highest suicide rates in the country.

At the same time, there’s no doubt that Malayalees are, by and large, the most politically engaged species in the country. Their rate of newspaper readership is said to be amongst the highest in the world. And I believe it, for even the chap I buy coconut water from, has informed opinions not just on the current chief minister, but also his last 10 predecessors. Political arguments never end here, they go on and on. So do strikes. That’s why they say Malayalees are born with an umbrella in one hand (you never know when it might rain here) and a flag in the other.

Over time, this sleepy seaside port has seen many changes. Its name has changed to Kochi. Its sister city, Ernakulam, has morphed into a bustling urban metro. But its essential character, the sea, the fishing nets against the red gold sky, remains unchanged. The old buildings may have converted to hotels, the palaces to hotels. But they’re still there, being used. Cochin, or Kochi if you like, is serenely moving ahead, taking its past along for the ride. And that, to my mind, is where its charm lies.

Photographs by author

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