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.

A new world

The 4th of July is a good day to blog about Europe’s "Age of Discovery". This is commemorated in the immense memorial (above) raised in Belem area of Lisbon in 1960 on the 5th centennial of the death of Infante Henry (the Navigator). That is the figure in front holding a caravel.

The decay of the Mongolian empire and the subsequent rise of the Ottoman empire blocked the overland trade routes between Europe and Asia. Infante Henry tried to send ships down the coast of Africa to bypass the Muslim kingdoms and open new trade routes east. This was the beginning of Europe’s age of discovery. Islamic scholars had reasonably good maps of the region around the Mediterranean sea and Asia, where their trade links lay. In 1486, Portuguese sailors, under the command of Bartholomew Dias, rounded the Cape of Good Hope. The route to India, and the direct spice trade, was within reach.

The Italian seaman, Christopher Columbus, had petitioned the rulers of Portugal and Spain to finance his voyage to open up a western route to India. Estimates of the size of the globe led the Kings’ advisors to believe, correctly, that Columbus had significantly underestimated the length of the journey. With Dias’ achievement, Portugal was no longer interested in the west. Spain eventually financed Columbus, who serendipitously discovered something new in 1492. By 1494 the two European powers, Portugal and Spain, had divided the world amongst themselves: to the east of meridian 46 degrees west, everything belonged to Portugal, and the west belonged to Spain. By 1498 Vasco da Gama reached Calicut, with the help of a Gujarati pilot. Soon after, during the reign of king Manuel I, the Portuguese voyages of discovery came to an end.

By 1513 Balboa and his men had become the first Europeans to see the Pacific Ocean. Spain then financed the voyage of the Portuguese explorer, Ferdinand Magellan, which circumnavigated the earth, and was also the first European expedition to reach Tierra del Fuego and the Philippines. The geometry of the earth conflicted with the political resolution of 1494. Following skirmishes along the Pacific Ocean, a treaty of 1529 divided the earth into two hemispheres for the first time. The hemisphere to the west of 46 degrees west and up to 142 degrees east was to be Spain’s share, and the rest belonged to Portugal.

Weekend fishing near the Belem tower

The monument faces out on to the estuary of the Tagus river, through which the ships of the era of discovery passed. A short promenade connects it to the fortified renaissance style tower of Belem (the square tower in the background of the photo above). This was raised as part of the fortification of the river, first against the Moors, and then against Spain. As far as I can tell, it never served its real purpose. The only time it came under attack, in 1580, it fell within hours. Nevertheless, it is a major tourist magnet today. On weekends the promenade is full of people fishing for sport. I sat down at a cafe behind these people and had a coffee and an ice cream, without seeing a single one of them land a fish.

The Family had taken a bus to come and visit this area while I was at work. After dropping her at the airport for her flight back, I had half a day left for my flight out. I decided to come to Belem to see the tower, the monument and the Jeronimos monastery. The easiest way to get here by public transport is to take the Metro up to Cais de Sodre and then the local train to Belem. If you have loaded your Lisbon Viva Viagem ticket with the zapping option then the same ticket can be used on both.

Jeronimo monastery in Belem, Lisbon

The main thing to see here is the Jeronimos Monastery. It is said that before starting from Lisbon in 1497, Vasco da Gama spent a night praying at a church which earlier stood here. With the permission of the Pope, king Manuel I started building a monastery here in 1501. It was financed by a 5% cess on the spice trade, except the part which went directly to the crown. The enormity of the spice wealth can be appreciated even today, as you walk up to the enormous edifice, meant to dwarf anything on a normal human scale. What look like short queues from a distance eventually turn out to be pretty long by normal standards.

Inside the Jeronimo church in Belem, LisbonIt is possible to see the church free of charge. It is an imposing space (photo here), but the queues to enter are long. I decided not to take this option. The other options are to buy a single ticket to the monastery, the monastery and the attached museum, or a ticket to all the sights in Belem. The last is clearly the correct option.

The monastery is an impressive example of the style known as Manueline. It is ornate and rich, and incorporates complex sculptures and maritime themes. A view of the wings surrounding the central courtyard (photo below) shows how overwhelming it can be.The Jeronimo monastery from its courtyard I walked into the courtyard and spent time looking at each arch separately. There is an incredible amount of detail, making it worth your time to look at it carefully.

Detail from the Jeronimo monastery in Lisbon

The photo above is one detail which you may miss unless you take your time. On top of one of the arches is this sculpture of a Portuguese carrack. This is the type of ship which Vasco da Gama commanded in his voyage to India. His armada also had a smaller and more agile ship of a type called a caravel. I could not spot a representation of a caravel, but the monastery is large, and I may easily have missed something.

The next floor is equally complex and pays close viewing. Off to one side is a little gallery from which you can look down into the church. I spent a long time here with my camera looking at the details of the church so that I could avoid standing in another queue downstairs to see the same space from below.

Gold torc from the museum of Jeronimo monasteryThe museum attached to the monastery is also interesting enough. This is mostly about pre-Christian inhabitants of the Iberian peninsula. There was a section on the iron age settlers in the area. Some of the jewelery (see alongside) is spectacular.

Roman mosaic from the museum of the Jeronimo monasteryThere was constant contact with other Mediterranean civilizations: Phoenician, Greek and Carthage. Some of the artefacts in this collection come from these contact. The later Romans, however, left extensive remains. It was interesting to see that the Mithraic cult is widely represented in the Roman remains in this area. The mosaic alongside contains a central iconography of the slaying of a bull. It did not take me too long to walk through the museum, but it was worth it.

The area is full of tourists, and therefore contains all the little conveniences and annoyances which attend on them. I skipped the ride on a carriage, and the over-priced bottles of water. But I was snagged by a kiosk which sold artisanal beer. I tasted a lager, and went on to catch my train back to Lisbon.

Goa after christmas

Sao Jacinto

I spent the end of last year in Goa and returned home on the eve of the new year. Unlike my previous trips, I stayed entirely to the south of the Zuari. When most people visit Goa at the end of the year, they want to be shuffling in the madness of Sunburn or crowding some other beach in north Goa. If you are sure that you are not a sardine, you could try to head south of the Zuari. It has beaches, and it has more.

On my last evening in Goa I went with some friends to eat in a popular fish restaurant on the south bank of Zuari estuary, near the island of Sao Jacinto. The eatery is one of the places which runs more on the freshness of the fish than on the skills of the cook. The crabs are enormous and sweet, and the less the cook does with it, the better. After selecting one you have time to drink many shots of the wonderful local cashew feni (I like mine on the rocks, with ginger and lime squeezed into it) while munching on the superb Goan sausages. Unless you are careful you can be full before the crabs arrive. Many of the more popular restaurants will have a crooner who manages to make the angriest rock sound mellow. That’s one thing that Goa has in common with the north east of India.

Fisherman's house

After dinner we walked over the causeway to the charming island of Sao Jacinto. I’ve only been there at night, so I can’t tell you whether it looks charming in daytime. Late in evening, when most of the fishermen on the village have gone to sleep, it is quiet place with a serene charm. The causeway takes you to the church square, from where you can start your walk through deserted village roads. On this occassion, after Christmas and before the new year, all the houses were lit up with fairy lights, coloured porch lights, and illuminated stars.

Fresh prawns in Vasco

Earlier in the evening I’d driven out to Vasco on a borrowed scooter to buy a load of cashews to take home. Goa is as non-urban as a continuously inhabited stretch of beaches can be. Even the town of Vasco looks pretty spread out until you get to the old Portuguese center. I spent a fruitless ten minutes looking for Bebinca. Apparently tourists had bought all the stock, and the factory was closed for the rest of the year. I got my cashews, bought various things at the two bakeries I passed, and then wandered into the fish market. The fisherwoman put us down for cheap tourists, interested only in gawking at the fish they have been eating in restaurants. She was right, we were not there to buy any fish. The moment my camera came out, she stopped talking to us and started chatting in Konkani with the owner of the next stall.

Vasco town center

The central square of Vasco is a noisy and crowded place. If you dodge a lane of traffic to stand under the trees in the middle of the oblong “square” you can forget the bustle and look at the layout. It is decidedly not Indian. It is not hard to imagine that if the surrounding buildings were spruced up and painted, and the hoardings and signboards removed, the whole area could look like a charming European plaza, only with more sun and warmth. Some time in the future I hope people put an end to the blight of multistoried shops which has begun to take over, and put the emphasis back on the remaining street-level shops. That can only happen if tourists were willing to take some time off from beach-shacks and come for a coffee, or a drink and a meal in town. The local economy is not strong enough to make the turn-around on its own.