Easily the most cosmopolitan city in the tiny southern Indian state of Kerala, touted in tourist brochures as “Gods Own Country”, Cochin or Kochi as it is locally known, consists of several scattered islands. Strategically located on the coastline, Cochin is the biggest port in the city, its natural harbor forming a nucleus around which the city’s life revolves and lending to it the epithet “Queen of the Arabian Sea”. This is the commercial nerve center of Kerala, a bustling sea side city that is the preferred point of origin for travelers who want to explore Kerala’s much admired scenic beauty.
Cochin was created out of an act of nature about 650 years ago. Heavy floods in the area resulted in the formation of a bay which led in turn, to the creation of a harbor in what is now modern Cochin. Up until that point of time, Calicut and Kranganore were the main commercial centers in Kerala. The city’s name reflects its origins – the name came from the word “kocchazhi” meaning “new port”. Once the port was established, the city underwent tremendous growth, playing host to a number of merchants from across the seas who stopped at Cochin to trade in spices, pepper and rubber. These traders included Jews, Christians and Arabs as well as seafarers from China, England, Portugal and Persia. By the 13th century, Cochin had become a regional center for the trade in spices. The influence of all these visiting cultures still permeates the social and cultural fabric of the town while retaining the typical Malayalee flavor that makes the city so uniquely Keralite.
The uglier shabbier town of Ernakulam is connected to Cochin by bridges and is, for all practical purposes Cochins twin city. Cochin itself is located in Ernakulam district which has Ernakulam town as its center. In a nutshell, when people refer to Cochin they mean, the area that includes Cochin, Ernakulam city, Fort Kochi, Mattancherry as well as a number of nearby smaller towns and villages.
Cochin is divided into three areas –
Ernakulam, the mainland. It’s a typical Indian city- crowded and chaotic, but there are some great shopping areas and excellent Keralan restaurants. This is the base from where all the bus traffic to other parts of Kerala originates.
Willingdon Island. A bridge connects Ernakulam to this island, which houses the Port Trust headquarters, Cochins domestic airport and a few hotels. This is a bustling town, though the pace is not as frenetic as Ernakulam.
Mattancherry Island – Here, you’ll find the true spirit of Cochin. Here, you will find all the remnants of an intriguing history that make Cochin what it is - ruined forts, palaces, the oldest Jewish synagogue in the country, churches, giant fishing nets, all the stuff that’s on the post cards is to be found in Mattencherry.
Apart from the above three sections, there are smaller islands and villages that are connected by ferry to the mainland. Worth a look if you’re on an extended holiday.
The International Airport at Cochin, located 30 kilometers to the north east of the city, handles regular flights to and from Singapore and Colombo. The city has a sizeable Non Resident Indian population working in the Middle East and this accounts for the daily flights to all major Middle Eastern cities – Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Dammam, Kuwait and Riyadh. Many international airlines land here, prominent among them, Emirates, Gulf Air, Silk Air and Kuwait Airways. Like everything else about the city, the airport is exceedingly pretty, built along traditional Keralan architectural lines. Cochins airport is the fifth busiest airport in India and the only one to have been built through private investment. Once at the airport, book a prepaid taxicab at the desk in the arrivals terminal.
If you’re arriving in Cochin from within India, the city is serviced by an extensive rail network and an equally efficient system of state highways. Buses ply regularly between Cochin and Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai.
Transportation around the city is pretty straightforward and basic. Public transport buses are extremely cheap ways of getting around, but they have pre determined stops and won’t necessarily take you to your exact destination. The three wheeler auto rickshaw, a quintessentially Indian mode of transport is perfect for short distances in town. Hire a taxicab to explore areas farther from the city center.
Where to Stay
The state of Kerala offers what’s probably the widest range of accommodation in the country. You could choose a tree house in a tropical jungle, or maybe a fully outfitted houseboat in the backwaters. Wallow in luxury at the refurbished palaces of the rajas or check in at a good old fashioned five star hotel. If the above options sound too exotic for your wallet, there are plenty of budget options too in the form of affordable lodgings and hostels.
The Brunton Boatyard offers charming harbor front views. Facilities are on par with those of most five star hotels. An ethnic Keralan restaurant dishes up authentic old Cochin flavors from recipes coaxed out of long standing families in the region. Rates vary from $70 upwards. Also in the same price range is the Casino Hotel which does not come with a harbor view.
For the best views in Cochin head to the Taj Malabar whose corner rooms look out at the backwaters from one end and at the harbor from the other end. Rooms with such views are on the expensive side with a typical tariff rate of $110. Located in the not too impressive town of Ernakulam the Taj Residency does have a great Indian restaurant and you can enjoy a great waterfront view for reasonable rates of $50 upwards.
Where to Eat
The local cuisine is justifiably famous.
The Malabar Junction at the Malabar House Residency at Fort Cochin serves up surprisingly mild curries and seafood in an al fresco setting. Expect to pay between $6 and $13 for a main course, and more for a seafood platter.
The History is the excellent restaurant at the Brunton Boatyard Hotel and The Terrace is its al fresco dining section. While the History has a cyclical menu that is rotated every week, the Terrace dishes up only seafood platters –large plates of tiger prawns, lobster, crabs and fish.
Local cuisine can’t come more authentic than at the History - all the recipes have been gleaned from local kitchens.
At the Rice Bowl, a specialty restaurant at the Taj Malabar, guests dine within the renovated interiors of a rice boat. Select the catch of the day and watch as the chef stews it up into a curry for you. The restaurant’s spicy ice creams are an unforgettable treat.
What to See
Set in a corner of Jew Town, the Paradesi synagogue is the oldest synagogue in India. The first Jews arrived in Cochin as far back as 52 AD and the synagogue was built 1500 years later. Worth a special mention are the beautiful hand painted ceramic floor tiles. Each one is unique and no two ceramic tiles are alike. Old Torah scrolls are displayed in the holy tabernacle and there are beautiful Belgian chandeliers inside the Church. The Jewish numbers in Cochin are too few to sustain the running of the synagogue, so every Sabbath Jews from outlying areas gather at the synagogue for prayer and reflection.
This building was built by the Dutch and gifted to the King as thanks for trading rights conferred on them. This is the reason why it’s also known as the Dutch palace; no Dutch people have ever lived here. It’s a huge two storey building that displays royal clothing, memorabilia and portraits. The bedroom suite is particularly enchanted with erotic paintings of Krishna with his maidens, as well as other portraits of deities.
Chinese Fishing Nets
Offering a glimpse into ancient trade with the Chinese court of Kublai Khan, these gigantic nets are supported by teak and bamboo poles and are the only such fishing nets outside China. The entire mechanisms through which the nets are lowered into the water and then raised are fascinating to watch. Take a boat out to watch the action or observe from Vasco da Gama Square.
Santa Cruz Basilica
Built in 1558, this cathedral suffered massive damage at the hands of the British in 1795. It was rebuilt and declared a cathedral by Pope John Paul in 1984. The interiors feature exquisite stained glass and caryatids.
St. Francis Church
This church was originally built as a Roman Catholic place of worship, then became Anglican at the hands of the British. The explorer Vasco da Gama was originally buried at this church although his body was later moved to Lisbon. A gravestone still marks his former Cochin burial place. Services are held every morning at 8 am. Strangely enough for a church, congregators are expected to remove their shoes before entering.
Fort Kochi Beach
With a breathtaking backdrop of fishing nets and sailing boats, a stroll along this beach line is an uplifting experience. Grab a quick grilled fish meal at one of the many stalls that dot the stretch.
This was once the home of Vasco da Gama and also one of the oldest Portuguese houses in India. The house features European architectural features like stained glass windows as well as traditional verandahs.
Hill Palace, Tripunithura
The former seat of the Raja of Kochi and now converted into a museum, the Hill palace has an extravagant collection of royal treasures that include the throne and the Kings crown.
Culture and Arts
Your visit to Cochin wouldn’t be complete without a sampling of Kerala’s most well known art form – Kathakali. Kathakali performances are elaborate all night long musical and dance productions, dominated by the excessively made up performer who use eye expressions and mudras (movements of the hands and fingers to signify emotion). Such is the fame of these garishly adorned performers with their mask like faces that they have become almost an icon of the state of Kerala. Shorter productions featuring a tale from the Mahabharata perhaps, are put on for tourists. The Kerala Kathakali on River Road puts on daily two hour productions; an added plus- there’s an excellent sea food restaurant next door so you can make a complete night of it.
Believed to be the oldest defense combat school in the world, pre dating even Kung Fu, Kalaripayattu was apparently conceived by Buddhist monks for defense against attacking marauders. Visit the Shiva Shakti Kalari Kshetram for a demonstration of this acrobatic art form.
Must buys are handicrafts made out of coir, wood and sandalwood, an assortment of nuts and the spices that the city is well known for. The Kairali Handicraft emporium and Surabhi on M.G. Road are the best sources for antique treasures. The giant lamps that come up to waist length or higher are excellent buys. Eco friendly coir products like carpets and mats are cheaper here than anywhere else in the country. Wood carvings and metal handicrafts are also staples in every shopping bag out of Cochin.