Knock knock, knocking on Kochi’s doors

Another week, and it is time again for a guest post in spirit by The Family. This time it is about the doors which she saw while walking about Kochi trying to spot its street art. The featured photo is an icredible chrysanthemum door: a work of art in wood. We stood in front of it, and as we admired it I couldn’t help thinking about how spice wealth must have flowed through this community even as little as a century back. This wealth would have nourished a school of craftsmen, builders and the wood workers who put these doors in place. Kochi is an art destination now, and was an unremarked art destination even then.

Doors within doors! That’s a specialty of Kochi. The decorative ceremonial doors sometimes get too large for comfort. For a person or two, why make the effort to open the big door? Cut another door into it, the size of a human, and you are done. This door wasn’t as immense as some of the doors that we saw; hardly big enough to admit a horse-drawn coach. What caught The Family’s eye here were the bright colours and the semi-pillars flanking the door.

There’s more than houses in the spice bazaar. There are also warehouses behind which boats could dock. Some of these business premises have moved down-market into construction spaces. If you cut openings into the wall near the roof for ventilation, then the vast interiors of spice warehouses can easily be turned into spaces for fabrication. Here was a gate to one of these places, inviting us to walk down a short road to look at the harbour. We hesitated, but then found that the place was busy, and decided not to ask for permission to walk in.

But there are warehouses which have turned to tourist trade. Some of them are now art galleries and cafes, just right for tourist who want to spend a day or four doing nothing useful. We thought that this brightly painted structure with lovely wooden doors would lead to something like this. It turned out to be a hotel. The landing stage for boats had been converted to a breakfast space; a peaceful way to begin the day. The large entrance to the warehouse had been converted into a grand lobby, with a vintage car gleaming as a centerpiece. I wondered about the rooms. If they were done well, those facing the harbour would be quite good. “We should keep this in mind for the future,” The Family said. I agreed and we resumed our hunt for more street art.

From door to door

The Family has been very excited about street art ever since Berlin. When she saw the remarkable example of street art in Kochi it was a foregone conclusion that we would stalk the streets looking for more. A beautiful example which combined all the tropes about Kerala is the one you can see in the featured photo. I liked the way the door has been just let be, like a panel separator in a graphic novel.

Walking about the streets of the Spice bazaar, I could not help noticing the other thing I love to take photos of: doors. The beautifully weathered example that you see above, showed me the reason for the choice of colours in the big mural of the elephant. This shade of blue is a characteristic colour for doors in this part of Fort Kochi.

Some of the heritage bungalows on the island have been turned into hotels. Near the Bishop’s House we found a bungalow standing in the middle of a lawn so manicured that it could have belonged to the army. But the gates stood open, so we wandered in and found that it was a hotel. The door was lovely, and the tinted glass above it was the blue of Kochi.

Other colours are not neglected though. This giant black door with white trim was impressive. The red post box hanging next to it made a nice picture. I wished the smaller inset door had been open; that might have given me an interesting view into the courtyard beyond. I suppose that the courtyard is surrounded by warehouses.

Not all doors were large and imposing. This little house on the side of the road was unusual, in the sense that it took up harbour-side space which could have been used for a warehouse. Perhaps there was a warehouse here earlier, and it has now given way to the cluster of smaller buildings of which this was one. The cream coloured wood of the outer wall was cheerful, and the wooden door with grills was exactly like the doors I’ve seen elsewhere in Kerala. It was not hard to imagine the people of the house standing behind it, chatting with passing neighbours.

An unexpected find was this cupboard pushed out of a house into a small verandah by the side of the road. It was not a discard. It was certainly still in use. I stood there and waited for something interesting to pass by so that I could have a photo to remember this odd thing by.

First impressions of Kochi

I’d expected to be charmed by Kochi, and I was afraid that I wouldn’t be. The fishing nets (featured photo) have been iconic tourist photographs for over half a century. A couple of decades back they began to be called Chinese fishing nets. Kochi’s brush with China came with the seven voyages of the Chinese Ming-dynasty admiral Zheng He. Did he bring the technology here? I couldn’t find any mention of these shore fixed nets which can dip into the water and back up as a fisherman walks along a suspension mast from any other part of the world. On the other hand, India excels at preserving ancient customs from the rest of the world. It will take a dedicated historian to find the full story of the nets. What I could see is that they are now only preserved as tourist attractions. The real fishing has moved off-shore as the coastal waters die. Two of our planned trips to Kochi had been cancelled before, once because of a strike, the other because of a flood. The third time everything worked.

We’d taken an early morning flight out of Mumbai, which involved getting up well before sunrise. Kochi’s airport is more than an hour outside the city. I nodded off in the prepaid taxi to our hotel, and woke as the driver was telling The Family that this being rush hour he would like to avoid passing through the center of Ernakulam. Good enough reason to veer north and take a ferry from Vypin to the tip of Fort Kochi. The ferry was crowded with office-goers on their motorbikes. The lanes of Kochi are so narrow that bicycles and scooters make more sense than the car we were in, as we would soon find.

The crossing was quick and the landing was smooth. We got out of the ferry stage quickly and lost ourselves in the little lanes of Fort Kochi. This was exactly what I’d expected: narrow roads, laid out in medieval times. But what I had not expected was the smell of spices everywhere, a reminder of the source of medieval wealth, and still a large component of the trade that passes through Kochi. I came back to the ferry stage a couple of days later and was surprised at how orderly it was. As soon as a ferry approaches the landing, people spontaneously clear the center of the road, and line up on the sides to board. There is no jostling; people and vehicles disembark first, boarding happens after this. The aggression and chaos of north India seem to be absent usually.

Driving on we passed interesting sights. The bright red facade of Los Angeles Cafe, with its white trim caught my eye. We spent a lot of time in Kochi’s cafes. The Family pointed out to me that one day we visited five cafes and two restaurants. “We can take it easy. We are on holiday,” was my wholly inadequate response. She wasn’t convinced, and the next day we exceeded this record by one. We never did enter Los Angeles cafe though. It was off on one side of the Spice bazaar, and although we passed that way more than once, it was always at an odd time.

The Spice bazaar was exactly what I’d expected it to be, only more so. Not only were there charming old buildings from which spice traders still operated, and large warehouses which were still in use, but there was also the smell of spices which filled the air. I could make out the warehouses which store cloves and cinnamon from those with dried ginger as I walked along the lanes here.

The one new turn that Kochi has taken is equally wonderful. In recent years it has been the home of India’s biggest art event, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. This was an off-Biennale year, but the signs of change were everywhere. There was the wonderful art on streets which we chased down while we walked between cafes, one striking example of which you see in the photo above. Street art is ephemeral, we found commissioned work like this, older fading works which will be gone by next year, guerrilla art stenciled on to walls, signs pasted on, the whole range. Some warehouses have been turned into galleries, and the art scene is becoming edgier. At the same time there is a whole range of food: from the many wonderful traditional Kerala cuisines to innovative restaurants which build on these. Kochi is a place to go back to.

An engine of history

We dropped our bags in the hotel and walked out into the back streets of Kochi. It was late morning. We’d woken up before sunrise to catch a flight which was no longer than the road trips which bracketed it, and now we were impatient to get out into Kochi. Our hotel was in Jewtown, close to the old synagogue, and just off the old spice bazaar.

The narrow street of the spice bazaar was hemmed in with warehouses and mysterious complexes lined up cheek to jowl. I’d imagined view of the port, completely forgetting that port areas, expecially ancient port areas, seldom give you a view of the water. One interesting door was invitingly open.

I wandered in hesitatingly. There was a strong smell of spices in the whole street, and it became stronger in this narrow corridor behind the door. There were scooters parked all along the corridor. As I hesitated, not knowing whether I was trespassing, someone came along, took his scooter and went out of the door. No glance at me; apparently wandering tourists were common place here.

I looked back at the area I’d just come through. A rickety staircase led up, but there was no balcony or corridor up there. The stairs led directly into a room, presumably internally connected with others. It was an odd kind of construction; solid masonry walls and stairs, held up by sturdy wooden beams, but the rest of the woodwork looked rickety. Light did not seem to be planned; the niche under the stairs formed a kind of gloomy entrance lobby just inside the outer door.

Some of the side doors were open. I peeped in. Sacks of spices were stacked up; some were split open to reveal the stuff inside. So these were the warehouses; once the teasure house of the fabulous riches of India. In late medieval times, a handful would have been worth several months of earnings for a master craftsman in the capitals of Holland or England. Spice traders seemed to be pretty careless about such fabulous riches. I could have picked up a couple of handfuls there; enough to last me a few months. I moved on instead, leaving these riches behind.

The handcarts in the courtyard ahead presented a nice photo op; strong diagonals to go with the horizontals of the offices behind. The colours were muted, so perhaps monochrome would be good. As I stood in that narrow space wondering how to compose a photo, a woman came out of the archway ahead of me, carrying a bowl of water. It was too good an opportunity, and I shot without further thought. Later, as I walked past the archway and came to the gate in the sea-wall (featured photo) I realized the logic of this building.

When it was built, small quantities of spices would be carted along the road, through the outer gate and into the warehouses. A set of office buildings above the landward gate would track the incoming dribs and drabs of spice. Material from the filled warehouses would leave by water; and the inner offices would monitor this outward flow. Boats would wait outside this last gate to be loaded, and they would transport the sacks to ocean-going ships waiting at anchor further out. I stood at the heart of an engine of history.

The ginger house

I’m used to lots of different spices in my food, and I suppose I smell them whenever I walk into our kitchen, without really paying attention to it. Walking through the roads of the spice bazaar of Kochi was a different order of experience; the wonderful smell of spices permeated the whole quarter. It is seldom that you think of the smell of a city, but Kochi engages this sense more than any place I’ve been to. I was clicking photos of the warehouses and their wonderful doors as I walked along, and I stopped here because of the elaborate doorway. But my attention wandered to the workers who were unloading sacks from the truck without breaking a sweat.

They didn’t mind when I followed them into the warehouse complex. As I passed through that grand doorway a wonderfully sweet smell hit me. This was a ginger warehouse, and the large courtyard was being used to dry ginger. That was when I began to realize that the famous spice trade also included things which I don’t even register as a spice; for example, the ginger that I so often throw into a salad or all into a soup. I was to find later that slightly more than a third of the world’s ginger is produced in India, and that is a big reduction from the monopoly it held in the medieval era. Out of curiosity I tried to check how precious it would have been then, and found the answer in a lecture given in the university of Toronto. Ginger was a major part of the spice trade in the middle of the 15th century CE, but the cheapest of them. Still, it would have cost almost 25 times as much as an equal weight of salt. In Antwerp and in London the average day’s wage of a master carpenter would have bought him 300 grams of ginger! No wonder that spices drove Europe across the world.

Ginger is produced in homesteads across the country, and the truck was unloading fresh produce. I guess it would be dried here and then sold. A foreman was happy to chat with me about the daily operations, the process, and the business as he knew it. The warehouse had wonderful light. I hope you can get a feel of it from the photos above. I found over the next days that many warehouses have been turned into art galleries for this reason. As I explored the art-city of Kochi, I got to love the masala chai infused with this lovely pungent but sweet aroma of dried ginger.

Five hours in Fatih

It was hard to say goodbye to Istanbul. We walked until the last possible minute and left the dealing with fatigue for the flight back to Mumbai.

Constantine’s column

Our last day in Istanbul started with a tram ride down the central axis that Constantine built for his new city: the street once called the Mese, now Yeniçeriler Cadessi.

We hopped off at the stop called Çemberlitaş. The square here is as old as the city; it was part of the Roman forum. The column is Constantine’s column, today called Çemberlitaş, meaning burnt column, The base has been raised over centuries, the old base lies well below the level of today’s ground. The mosque behind it was built by Atik Ali Pasha. The single minaret designates that the Pasha was not of the royal family. The sultan’s family was allowed to put up two minarets in mosques they financed, the sultan would normally use four. There’s a nice hamam right in front of the column, across the square from the mosque. One reason we need to go back to Istanbul is that we didn’t find the time to go to a hamam.

Nurosmaniye mosque

We were at the northern end of the square. At the other end we could see the Nurosmaniye mosque, one of the exemplary Baroque Ottoman mosques, and our second stop for the day.

I should write more about this grand 18th century structure, which may, quite deservedly, be included in the World Heritage list soon. Started in 1748 CE during the reign of sultan Mahmut I and completed seventeen years later in the time of his successor, sultan Osman III, the architect Simeon Kalfa built a structure bathed in light. I should write more about it, but, for completely different reasons, I must repeat the words of Evariste Galois, “Je n’ai pas le temps.”

Grand bazaar

Just outside the mosque was the covered bazaar which is the big destination for tourists. So many carpet sellers in the rest of Turkey had told us that their prices were much lower than we would find in the Grand bazaar, that we were looking forward to it.

The Turkish name, Kapalıçarşı, literally would mean covered bazaar, but grand is a good description. Its construction started immediately after the Turkish victory over the Byzantines in 1453 AD. This area stands just across a hill from the ancient port on the Golden Horn, and the end of what used to be Theodosius’ forum (now Beyazit square). So there must have been ancient market here even earlier. In the 17th century the Ottoman empire controlled trade between Asia, Africa, and Europe, and this market was deemed to be the biggest in the world. It remains picturesque even today. The Family and I could roam through this market for a full day, looking for carpets, ceramics, calligraphy, meerschaum pipes, and even food. So it was hard to walk through quickly in half an hour.

Streets of Fatih

The Beyazit mosque was under repair. On another side of the vast Beyazit square was Istanbul University (which produced two Nobel laureates and the founder of Israel). We walked up to the enormous ceremonial gate (featured photo), then detoured into the used-book market. The only planned stop in our walk after this was the Sulemaniye mosque. The rest of the time was for immersing ourselves into the life of Istanbul.

We walked past a few meyhane. My subconscious went into overdrive and reminded me that the Turkish hane is the cognate of Urdu khana, so meyhane is the same as the Hindi maikhana, a pub. They were closed now. Could it be because of Ramazan? Nerval had come to Istanbul in Ramazan in the 18th century, and described it as a fast and a carnival. We’d expected nights to be livelier than they were. Much has changed in the intervening years. Nerval’s friend, Theophile Gautier, walked through these streets (“labyrinth”, he called it) a few years later, terrified by snarling packs of dogs. The Turkish writers Yahya Kemal and Tanpinar followed in their footsteps in the 20th century and called then “ruined, poor and wretched.” Now, as we proceed beyond the beginning of the 21st century, the area is quite gentrified.

Egyptian bazaar (spice bazaar)

Our final stop was the spice bazaar, behind the in-repair Rustem Pasha mosque. The area outside the covered bazaar was truly a bazaar in the Indian sense; lots of little shops, a huge press of people rushing about, others, like us, holding up traffic by taking photos. But we would be back in such places the very next day, so we passed by familiar pleasures and walked into the Misir çarşısi, ie, the Egyptian bazaar.

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Located just behind the New mosque (Yeni cami), the spice bazaar had an astounding variety of things to eat. I was really taken by the balls of nuts held together by a gummy matrix like lokum, and bought a single piece by weight. Istanbullus are like people in any other city; shopkeepers are a little surly when you do things that no local does. But tis man sold me a weirdly small amount of food after a little grumbling. There was a lot of lokum on display, but I’d earmarked a special shop for the sweets I wanted to take back. Did I want rose water, or orange essence? No. “Time to move on”, The Family said. Indeed, we were back in Eminönü after a five hour walk. Time to leave Istanbul.