Cochin, Old and New
By Miriam Chacko
THEY SAY HOME IS where the heart is. If that’s true, Cochin, a port city lying on the western coast of the Indian peninsular has had my heart the longest.
Growing up in Cochin I spent many afternoons by the backwaters, beating bulrushes into oblivion and climbing coconut trees that grew horizontally before they took to the skies.
I visited Cochin recently after 2 years and on the drive from the airport my eyes were glued to the window and my neck craned to look up at the giant METRO columns in the middle of what used to be a road. Rising above the needs of the people, the columns made everything else seem small. The skeletal beginnings of Future Cochin drove the realist in me to pessimism and my only solace in that moment was a plan to visit Fort Cochin.
Rustic cafes, art galleries, boutique hotels, ethnic shops and heritage buildings keep the aesthetics of Fort Cochin alive. My first stop when I got in was St. Francis Church. Originally built in 1503 by the Portuguese, it stands to be the oldest European Church in India. It is also famous for having housed the remains of the legendary Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama who died in Cochin in 1524.
Surrounding the church are magnificent centuries-old rain trees that look spectacular in December, covered in fairy lights and other Christmas trimmings.
While reminiscing about the summers I spent here, I noticed grey clouds starting to loom over the trees. Not threatened by the likelihood of rain, I sauntered down alleyways littered with art galleries and beedi shops till I reached Teapot.
Inside, kettles belonging to different eras fill the shelves and dangle from the ceiling and hold hot exotic brews for those who care to order. Under the guise of a café Teapot provides refuge for writers, thinkers and conversationalists. Just as my order of tea and cake arrived, the rain began to beat against the tiled roof and run off into the alleyway and I retreated into its melancholy.
Time was flying by and I had one more stop to make: Jew Town. As the name suggests there used to be a Jewish settlement, a thriving one in Fort Cochin. The King of Cochin; Kesava Rama Varma took under his patronage the Castilian Jews when they were expelled from Spain in 1512 and the Jewish traders from Cranganore who approached him under the leadership of Joseph Azar in 1524 following Muslim attacks.
In the midst of intensified tensions between the Jews and the Portuguese, in 1568, he even permitted the Jewish traders to erect a synagogue adjacent to his palace. It was around the synagogue that the Jewish mercantile settlement eventually developed. The settlement, synagogue and the palace came to be known as Jew Town, Paradesi Synagogue and the Dutch Palace respectively.
Till today the Paradesi Synagogue holds regular service, and is open to outsiders for a nominal fee. Despite what the name might suggest, the Dutch Palace was in fact built by the Portuguese in 1555 and gifted to the King of Cochin as a gesture in exchange for trading privileges. About hundred years later the Dutch renovated and expanded the palace, thus giving birth to the name. Inside the palace, murals of Hindu mythology painted in vegetable dye and portraits of the Kings of Cochin adorn the walls. Displays of chariots, weapons and garments that belonged to the royal family also lie within the palace.
While I had been to Jew Town several times before, I had yet to explore the antique shops. With about ten to choose from I walked into the most promising one. The shop had several interconnecting chambers, which back in the day were storerooms for spices. Now, filled with monstrous dining tables, fountains, chests, larger than life sculptures of angels and exceedingly tall lamps, I could imagine the opulent homes and temples they came from. For an hour I wandered through the dusty storerooms, fully appreciating the value of the antique pieces and fully aware that I could not afford any of it.
The time I spent wrapped in history inherent to my forefathers helped me understand what was amiss in the blueprint for a Future Cochin. In the rat race to achieve metropolitan status, the developments sideline the aesthetics and value of existing structures. An informed infrastructural overhaul could save Cochin from arrested development but the ‘out with the old and in with the new’ approach is unnatural and unkind.
Miriam Chacko is essentially an environmentalist. After completing her postgraduate degree in Environment and International Development from the University of East Anglia, she got involved in projects promoting environmental awareness. Drawing on her experience, she has written articles on climate change and conservation.
A keen traveller, she has visited many countries in and around Asia and her love of the outdoors and interest in different cultures comes through in her writing.
Miriam has been writing for The Borneo Post SEEDS since 2013.