Streetside chocolate

We’d met these chocolate shops in Munnar: small enterprises who make their own flavours. They are called home-made, but the quantities are too large for that. The word of hour is artisanal, but I don’t think the people here would like some of the assumptions behind that description. I will go with “home-made” with the scare quotes. Walking about Jew Town in Kochi, we saw this cart of “home made” chocolate. So what if it was much sweeter than what we normally eat? We were on holiday. We got a small quantity of dark chocolate with almonds and cashews, and ate them for the rest of the week as we walked about Fort Kochi. When traveling, eat local. Except that this local depends on a centuries old supply chain which spans the globe. Change that to eat traditional.

Art cafes of Kochi

Kochi turned out to be a wonderful place to have a relaxed holiday. The few square kilometers contains an unending supply of cafes to hang out in, art to admire, and sometimes the two together. Unlike many of our recent breaks, we decided to go with the flow: just two or three must-dos for tourists. The featured photo comes from one of our favourite relaxed places: an old bungalow turned into a cafe. Instead of asking for the espresso, we went with pots of tea as we sat and let any cares drain away. The fans kept a breeze flowing through the hall, and the lovely space compensated for the beautiful but not-so-comfortable chairs we sat in.

There are several famous art cafes in Kochi, but we found them too crowded to relax in. You can find any number of them; most have a good espresso, and many have good food. The squid was fresh in the first cafe we visited. The one you see in these photos was remarkable because of the number of masks on the wall.

I sent a couple of photos to a cousin who is quite a mask-collector, and we decided to take a trip together to this Mecca of masks. I think she’s still trying to identify the places where each of them comes from.

Another cafe had this remarkable Kerala mural version of the last supper. I don’t quite remember what we ate in this place, but I did spend some time admiring all the art on the wall.

The one time we went to one of the better known art cafes was just after lunch one afternoon, looking only for a coffee. Strange, isn’t it, to walk into a cafe for nothing but a coffee? Fortunately, it was a slack hour, and they didn’t mind us taking up a whole table for a while. I liked this space, although I could see that it would be standing room only in a while.

While on the subject of art for sale, how can one not end with the most iconic visual symbol of capitalism on the planet? We live under a shadow.

The Mattancherry Palace

There are many things about the Mattancherry palace of Kochi which one can write about: the integration of European proportions into a traditional Kerala architectural style, the beautifully worked materials used, such as the wood, flooring, and roof tiles, or the artifacts collected in the museum it now is. But every such description is incomplete because the main attraction cannot be shown; you are not allowed to take photos of the glorious murals on the walls. It is a loss in the description, but an opportunity to visit the palace and be surprised. When I stepped over the threshold of the entrance into the long rectangular anteroom, the first detail that I noticed was the intricately carved rosewood ceiling, and, through an arch at one end, the golden glow of the murals depicting the Ramayana that cover the entire wall of the king’s bedchamber

The palace was built by the Portuguese as a reparation to the king of Kochi in the mid 16th century CE, after they previous palace was looted and burnt. The overall style of architecture is traditional, the whole palace being built around a central enclosed courtyard. Visitors can look down at this from a covered verandah that runs around the inside of the upper floor. The materials used are also traditional: dark polished rosewood and fired clay roof tiles. The polished floor is specially remarkable, since it is not stone but a traditional composite material blended from charcoal, burnt coconut shell, egg white, and other ingredients. The arched doors and windows, the elongated rooms, and the external finish of the masonry is European.

The palace museum contains a gallery of several interesting artifacts including European-style portraits of the kings of Kerala. I was specially drawn to the palanquins on display. The alternation of carved and polished plain panels of the covered palanquin, and the ornate brass end-piece to the carrying-pole, were enough to tell us that this was for royals. The seal of the royal house confirms this guess. In contrast, the open palanquin lined with silk cushions would have seated a functionary. We wandered into the coronation room where the murals were being restored. Seeing us spend an abnormally long time examining the paintings, a gentleman from the archaeological survey interrupted his work and gave us a wonderful tour of the paintings in the room. We learnt from him how this room had been whitewashed in the 20th century, and how the underlying paintings are slowly being brought to light again. I can’t wait for the work to be finished so that I can visit this place again.

Paradesi Synagogue

Many years ago at the other end of the world, I met an Indian expatriate preparing a shabbat meal in a house that I’d been invited to. As the long evening began to draw to an end, just before she left for her own family shabbat, we exchanged a few words. She was a Cochin Jew. The northern lights in the sky that night that evening were no more exotic to me than my first meeting with a piece of India’s past. There is a tradition that Judaism arrived in Malabar after the scattering of Jews following the destruction of the second Judaic temple in Jerusalem by Romans in the 1st century CE. The first European Jewish travelers visited India in the 12th centuries and were surprised by the pre-existing Judaic tradition. After the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Iberia in the 15th century, some came and settled in Kerala, and became known as the Paradesi Yehudi (foreign Jews). When their first temple in Kochi was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, they were given protection by the king of Kochi, and land next to the palace to build what is known today as the Paradesi Synagogue.

One morning we joined a stream of tourists walking down a narrow lane to visit this synagogue. After most of the local Jews emigrated to Israel in the 1950s and 60s, this remains the only synagogue in the region which is in regular use. The clock tower that you see in this photo stands at the end of the lane and dates from the 18th century. I would guess that the clock is more recent, perhaps only a hundred years old. We bought entry tickets at a window next to the entrance. I did not realize that the lady who sold us our tickets was one of the last people in this community. It is strange to realize that old customs are coming to an end in front of our eyes, and we are often oblivious to them.

Opposite the entrance to the synagogue was this old gate embellished with stars of David and symbols of the menorah. Perhaps the garden behind the gate also belongs to the synagogue. In any case, it was out of bounds for tourists. At the entrance lobby we were directed to first see a little gallery which gave the history of the destruction of the first synagogue and the establishment of this one under the protection of the king of Kochi. Only after we’d seen this display were we allowed to take off our shoes and proceed to the main synagogue.

Meanwhile The Family had found a famous plaque (featured photo) from the first synagogue to be built in Kochi. Oral traditions say that this was founded three years after the ancient port of Muziris was swept away in a massive flood of the Periyar river. Interestingly, during the colonial period a clear distinction was made between European Jews and others. Cochin Jews were allowed to worship at this synagogue, but not allowed to be members. Descendants of black slaves brought by the Europeans were allowed to sit outside the synagogue during prayers. It was only in the 20th century that these barriers were finally removed.

No photography is allowed inside the synagogue. The floor was tiled with blue and white Chinese hand painted tiles, and a pulpit with brass railings dominated the center. A very large number of chandeliers were suspended from the wood paneled ceiling. A steep staricase, almost a ladder, led up to a wooden upper gallery at the eastern end of the room. The way up was barred. Polished wooden slabs, dark with age, provided benches at the windows. We were glad to sit for a while. The sky was overcast and the air was extremely humid, so the little breeze from the window was welcome. Back outside I took a couple of photos of the simple white-washed building.

Instagram food

We had some memorable meals in Kochi: Malabar biryani, a Dutch bread, and wonderful sea food. On our last night in Kochi we could go back to the place which we’d liked most till then, or explore a new place. We opted to explore something new which had good ratings. The reviews on various restaurant sites were good, and the photos of the dishes also looked good. It was only when our order came to the table that we realized that the chef spends all his energy on making the food instagrammable. The seared octopus that you see in the featured photo looked wonderful, and I took a photo before digging in. There was no seasoning at all. The dark grains were carbon. The crisp black and white wafer was sago granules in carbon. Talk of food turning to ashes in your mouth! The rest of dinner proceeded along the same line.

To the adage “Never judge a book by its cover” we must add “Never judge food by its photo”.

Where the first anti-colonial revolt happened

We had our first sight of this interesting Syrian Christian church when we walked into Kayees for a biryani for our first lunch in Kochi. We passed the St. George church of Mattancherry several times during the next few days. Finally, one morning The Family stopped at this place and led me in. Even then, we did not realize how important this site is in the history of anti-European protests in the world. It is a lovely modern structure, open to the air like so many of the traditional churches of Kerala. It was only later, when I started reading about it, that I realized that this place should be in every guidebook.

Bear with me for a moment while I paint in a background history which is not part of anyone’s textbooks. Christianity took root in the Deccan in the 1st century CE, the tradition being that it was brought by St. Thomas, who was one of the twelve disciples of Christ. The church of India was represented at the Synod of Nicea in 325 CE, which was the first gathering of Christian churches across the then-known world. Jesuit priests arrived in India with the Portuguese and began to Latinize the Malabar church, starting with the foundation of a diocese in Kochi in 1558. The revolt called the Coonan Cross Oath (Koonan Kurishu Sathyam), refers to a public oath taken by the Malabar Christian community in 1653 that they would resist the Latinization of the church, and would not recognize the authority of the Pope.

While I was still fussing about the coconut trees and the framing of the featured photo, The Family had discovered a cross at one side of the forecourt which seemed to be special. In retrospect I wonder whether this was the famous cross which was the famous leaning cross in front of which about 200,000 Christians took the oath of revolt against the Portuguese priest. I had discovered a dedication in another part of the forecourt which said that the foundation stone of the new structure was laid on 29th October 2005, and the church was consecrated on 3rd January 2006, to commemorate the 353rd anniversary of the oath.

I walked into a chapel with a large cross at its center, presumably the historic Coonan cross. A medallion at the center of the glass window behind it held a representation of the Turkish-Roman soldier who is today called St. George. This church holds some relics of the saint, and therefore could be considered to be among the most important churches dedicated to him. It is interesting that the stories of St. George had wide currency in the east, and even entered into Islamic theology as a prophet, but was carried to western Europe only after the crusades. This church overturned many of my assumptions about Indian, and the wider Asian, culture and history. I do wish that more people stop by here to see this site of the first Indian rebellion against European colonialism.

Vasco was here

On Christmas Eve we reached Kochi’s St. Francis church a little late. The church is a historic monument, being the oldest church built by Europeans in India. and not in use, and it was closed by the time we reached. The Portuguese style facade looked interesting, and we wondered whether it would be open the next day.

The church was not only open when we went back in the morning of Christmas day, but it was crowded. As we walked in through the open gate I realized that this was a pretty international crowd from the old world. Europeans on holiday spoke languages from the east, west, north and south of the continent, and there were Indian, Sri Lankan, Thai and Chinese tourists too. I hadn’t expected that Kochi would be such a widely appreciated destination.

The door was wider than it was high, not something I’ve seen before. Even if you include the height of the arch above it into the opening, it was still an unusually wide doorway. The current facade is certainly not older than 1506 CE, when the Portuguese were allowed to convert the wooden St. Bartolomew’s church, which had been built here in 1503, into a masonry and stone structure with a tiled roof. The facade and doorway probably dates from that rebuilding by the Franciscans in 1516, although the door looked modern.

The clock in the facade did not look very old either; I guessed early 20th century. It turns out to have been installed in 1923 in memory of a former managing director of the 56 year old Aspinwall and Company, which by then had begun to dominate trade in the Malabar region. The church, by then Anglican, was declared a heritage structure later the same year.

But this story is running ahead of itself. The Family had walked into the church while I was still gazing at the door. I followed her and noticed the worn flagstones just inside. Benches were helpfully placed here so that you could sit while you removed your shoes. If I’d seen the wood paneling of ceiling in Portugal I would certainly have said that this was in the Mudejar style. Here it was difficult to guess when this paneling was installed. The plain pillars which supported the ceiling gave an impression of great simplicity.

I moved into the main church and looked up at the upper story beyond the lobby area. This large balcony would probably have seated dignitaries in the days when the church still attracted them. The church was pretty bare inside. Was it always so bare, or had the Dutch occupation after 1663 responsible for its current looks? It seems that an altar and a gilded screen was removed after the Dutch occupation. A plaque at the entrance commemorates a renovation by the Dutch in 1779. The church was handed over to Anglican in 1804, and renamed St. Francis’ church.

The church, and the Dutch cemetery behind, is an epigraphist’s delight. I’m not one but I walked along the walls peering at the commemoration stones behind which various then-famous people are buried. A lot of them are from the late 17th century CE, and hence likely to be Dutch. Vasco da Gama was buried in this church exactly 495 years, to the day, before we visited. His body remained there for 14 years, until, in 1538, it was moved to Lisbon. His body is now in the Geronimos monastery outside Lisbon. A small railing surrounding a bare stone flag on the floor marks the spot where he was first buried.

In spite of the crowds, tourists here had been so orderly that I’d managed to take all the photos I wanted without having unwanted body parts in the frame. Now, as I left, I noticed the tiles on the floor and took a photos. These tiles were definitely installed by the Anglicans, because I found them elsewhere in Anglican buildings in Kochi. For the first time I noticed that a disembodied toe had entered the frame. Good, I thought, one way to tell that the place wasn’t empty.

Guerrilla art

You wouldn’t expect a sign for a toilet to be a piece of art but this mischievous piece that I saw on a wall in Fort Kochi brought a smile to my face. Just to eliminate other possibilities (“awful pun,” The Family assured me) I looked for the toilet, and it wasn’t there, This piece was exactly what I thought it was: a piece of deliberate fun. Not Guerrilla art really, more Guerrilla cartoon.

But Kochi does bring together two of its main cultural obsessions, politics and art, into true Guerrilla art. Who or what is Guess Who? Is it a person, or a collective? The style could be a single person’s, and the wit behind its political satire is evident. I could laugh out loud at the construction of a phallic symbol for censorship. The juxtaposition of an enormous mosquito and a comment on news could be interpreted as straight out Guerrilla art or as culture jamming, if you consider how TV news is now a brand, pitched at finely sliced audiences.

Some of the other pieces occupy a space between Guerrilla art and straight out graffiti. With so much energy on display, the underground art scene in Fort Kochi seems to be in great shape. Art of this kind is utterly ephemeral, so between the time you see this and you visit Kochi, the pieces will have changed completely. I hope a curator somewhere is putting together a web site of this most ephemeral of media.

I finally leave you with a piece of street art, not in the sense that it takes now, but in a more ancient sense. Once, the street truly belonged to the community living there. Its look and feel determined by local aesthetics. This little decorative panel, hidden between layers of posters is an earlier form of street art, with a longer life.

Kochi before Christmas

We walked through the brightly lit and festive streets of Kochi on Christmas Eve. We’d had a big lunch and were looking forward to a wonderful dinner, so this long walk was really necessary. About the time that the sun went down we tried to look into St. Francis Church, where Vasco da Gama was buried for a while, but it had already closed. We walked down the road to order the special bread called the breudher from a bakery which I’d located after some searching. The last part of this walk took us out of touristy parts of Kochi and into roads lined with houses which were lit up for the festival.

Almost a third of Kerala’s population is Christian, and most of them follow an Orthodox church. Some are counted as the oldest churches in the world, perhaps older than the church of Rome. The Indian church was represented in the Synod of Nicea in 325 CE, which was the first organized gathering of the Christian religion. What we see today, however, is also strongly influenced by later contact with Europe. The Indian Orthodox church celebrates Christmas, but I always wonder which part of people’s celebrations at home come through the original eastern line of traditions, and which were adopted later from the western traditions.

The Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica was gearing up for its midnight mass. The lighting scheme for Christmas was interesting. The Portuguese were allowed to build a church at this spot and its foundation stone was laid in 1505 CE. This was reputedly the first mortar and stone building in Kochi which was not a royal palace. It was declared a Cathedral in 1558, converted into an armoury by the Dutch in 1663, and destroyed by the British in 1793. The tall column in the foreground of the photo above seems to be mostly a modern structure, but the base could be part of a granite column from this old building.

Construction of a new church on the same site was started in 1887 by the Bishop of Kochi, but the building took some time to complete. It was finally consecrated in 1905 and declared to be a Basilica in 1984. A look inside showed it to be an exuberantly early 20th century construction: full of cast iron. If we ever go back at a less busy time I would take the time to look at the frescoes and paintings inside, but also a close look at this construction. One sees very few large churches from this era.