Kochi and the Kerala Backwaters

Why Kochi?

After attending the most epic wedding of my life, I decided to stay an extra 2 days in the Kochi area to do some sightseeing. After all, Kochi is one of the most popular places to visit in India.

June 7, 2022: Fort Cochin

I started the day by taking an Uber 45 minutes to Fort Cochin, the oldest part of the city (Cochin was the official name of the city until 1996 and is still used often). 

The West Coast of India has been a major shipping center for millennia. While nobody really knows how Kochi came to be, it was first documented as a port in 1341. 

In 1498, the Portuguese arrived in India and soon established a foothold on the subcontinent in Kochi by helping the local king defeat his rival. The Portuguese were given permission to build a fort which turned into the most important trading port in the region and the main center of European activity in India. 

In 1663, the Portuguese were overthrown by the Dutch who remained until 1773. They were then briefly overthrown by Mysore before the British took over in 1814. 

Today, the Europeans have all left Cochin, but their influence on the city´s architecture and institutions remains. 

My first stop in Fort Cochin was the Dutch palace called the Mattacherry Palace. Built in 1545 by the Portuguese as a present for the local king (known as a maharajah). It underwent a major renovation by the Dutch East India Company. The East India Company had so much influence over the monarchy that they were the authority that crowned the maharajah. Today, the palace contains a museum about the life and history of the royal family as well as an impressive display of religious murals. 

A few blocks away is the strangely named neighborhood of Jew Town. It turns out that Jews have been in Kerala for nearly 2,000 years. After the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 AD, the Jews spread all over the world in what is known as the Diaspora. Some Jews were sailing in the Arabian Sea and got shipwrecked in Cranganore just north of Kochi in the year 72. Over time, they created a Jewish kingdom. At some point they settled in Kochi too. In either 379 or 1069 (the date is still hotly debated), the maharajah of Kochi gave the Jews land rights and the right to develop their own community. 

The Jewish community remained isolated from the rest of the Jewish world until the Europeans arrived. During the Dutch period, more Jews arrived from Europe to escape persecution, as the Dutch were tolerant of the Jews. This is actually how Jews spread to many other parts of the world including Recife, Brazil and New York . Those Jews, known as Paradesi, founded the largest and most important synagogue in Kochi in 1568. After the formation of the State of Israel, most Jews left Kochi and all except the Paradesi Synagogue closed. Today, just a handful of Jews remain. 

The main street in Jew Town

While there were no Jews present at the time of my visit, the synagogue is active. It is also a very popular tourist attraction with Indian tourists. I asked the caretaker about the copper plates. He says that they still exist and are safely stored in bank vault. 

Exterior of the Paradesi Synagogue

As I walked towards the center of Fort Kochi, I passed by a Syrian Orthodox church, mosque and Jain temple which speaks to the pluralism and tolerance of Kerala. There are even markets for beef. This stands in contrast to some of the bad news of Hindu extremism coming out from other parts of India.

The center of Fort Kochi contains two of the most important churches in all of India. The first, Santa Cruz Cathedral, is the largest church in town and the seat of the Diocese of Kochi. The interior was beautifully painted and included a large replica of Da Vinci´s The Last Supper hanging above the altar. 

Interior of Santa Cruz Cathedral

A few blocks away was the St. Francis Church, the oldest European-established church in India. I use the term European-established because Christianity has actually been in India since the very start. St. Thomas, disciple of Jesus, established 7 churches in India including one that I visited in Chennai. The first of these churches was established in the year 52 AD- 26 years before the shipwrecked Jews arrived in Kochi! 

Interior of St. Francis Church

St Francis was built by the Portuguese in 1503, the very year the Portuguese were given permission to build their fort. The church is also famous for being the temporary resting place of legendary explorer Vasco de Gama who died of malaria on his third voyage to India in 1524. His remains were moved to a grand tomb in Lisbon 15 years later. 

Original tomb of Vasco de Gama

From the church, I walked past all the beautiful colonial houses shaded by enormous tropical trees. Eventually I reached Vasco de Gama Square, the main center of tourism in the city. I would think that the square would be packed on weekend, but during the midweek it was quiet and peaceful.

Center of town

There is a small beach and trash-riddled port. However, the main attractions are the traditional Chinese fishing nets. While I originally thought this was a tourism gimmick, it turns out that the Chinese fishing nets are still in use all over Kerala. 

While I could have spent more time exploring the cute town, I instead decided to catch a ferry across the harbor to…the Hyatt. There, I got to see the end of the final wedding event, a series of games played by the couple. This event was very small (by the standards of this wedding), but they still had an enormous buffet. Additionally, I got to spend 15 minutes chatting with Arisht. 

On the ferry

For the afternoon, I met up with my MBA friend Alex who also attended the wedding. We took an Uber to the Kerala Folklore Museum. This historic house has been turned into a museum of statues and art traditional artwork. The entire collection was collected by a single man! The first floor was littered in ancient wooden statues and artifacts. The second floor, much smaller contained artifacts for sale- they apparently have more items than they can properly display. I ended buying a couple artifacts including a 150-year old wooden mask!

Streets of Fort Cochin

For dinner, Alex and I went to the local mall to eat at a famous seafood restaurant called Paragon. It was funny that, despite having been in Kerala for 4 days now, we have not had any local food. The famous fish dishes were all spectacular and worthy of their hype around India. 

We then went to bed early. 

June 8, 2022: Alleppey Backwaters

The single most hyped attraction in all of Kerala is the Backwaters, a series of brackish waterways both natural and manmade that extend all along the southern half of the state. 

The most popular place to go is the town of Alappuzha (colloquially known as Alleppey), 60 kilometers south of Kochi.

To get there, I organized a tour from a company in Fort Kochi with my business school classmate Manu. After getting picked up from our respective hotels, the car took us down the coast. This took us past numerous palm-tree lined small towns. I was surprised by the number of large churches. 

After 90 minutes in the car, we reached the Alleppey town center where we boarded our boat. While many Indian families take large houseboats around on multi-day excursions, we opted for the cheaper motorized canoe. The canoe had a roof and some very comfortable lounge chairs that could almost be called day beds. The backwater trips seem to be big business as we passed by hundreds of empty houseboats that are probably all occupied on the weekend and in-season. 

With Manu in the boat

As we left the busy city, we were immediately greeted by the calm rural life of the canals. Men commuting to work, family members heading to see each other, workmen delivering jugs of bottled water. 

After passing through a big natural lake, we pulled into a tiny manmade canal. Here we passed by homes and even a Hindu temple which was blasting religious chants. The canals were raised up a few meters above the surrounding rice fields which made for spectacular views. 

We cruised for about 2 hours before stopping for lunch on a tiny island. There, we ate the local specialty of grilled fish plus the thali meal served in traditional South Indian style on a banana leaf. The other families dining at the restaurant were surprised to see foreigners here. 

A true South Indian thali meal served on a banana leaf

We then headed back to Alleppey to board our car back to Kochi. While beautiful, 3 hours was probably the perfect amount of time. Anymore and we would have been bored without more friends. 

Back in Kochi I had a quiet evening and another dinner at Paragon before my late-night flight to Pune. 

Final Thoughts:

Kochi is a well-rounded destination- it has history, culture, and nature. The two highlights are Fort Cochin and the backwaters. I think both are essential for a complete visit. One day in each is sufficient. 

I understand why Fort Cochi is such a big tourist attraction for Indians. They get a taste of European architecture, culture and history intertwined with their own Indian history. And unlike the British, the Portuguese and Dutch seemed to have had a generally positive synergistic relationship with the locals.

While Kerala is not the typical “India” that tourists expect to see, I think it is a great destination for first timers. The cities are relatively clean, the people speak English, and the people are more open-minded due to the religious pluralism. Additionally, Kerala gives travelers a glimpse into the incredible diversity of India that is relatively unknown to the rest of the world. 

Had I had more time in Kochi, I would have liked to venture to Munnar in Western Ghats mountains and see the hill stations and tea plantations. 

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