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.

A what-if of history

I’d quite forgotten a bit of history when I made my plans for Nanjing, but bits of it came back to me as I looked at the boats cruising the Qinhuai river in front of the Great Spirit Screen (photo above). After the Ming Yongle emperor consolidated his power, his attention turned to the west. The northern Silk Route through Gansu again became active as he began trading with Herat and Samarkand, where Timur’s successor Shahrukh reigned. Although the emperor moved his capital to Beijing, this place became the nucleus of a forgotten but grand era in Chinese history. The admiral Zheng He was ordered to build a fleet and sail down the Yangtze river into the Indian Ocean. The seven voyages took place between 1405 and 1431 CE. This was the first and last time before the 20th century that a Chinese navy ventured so far.

By day and night the lofty sails, unfurled like clouds, continued their star-like course, traversing the savage waves as if they were a public thoroughfare.
— Zheng He’s diaries, quoted by John Keay

What I began to remember in fragments was that the Qinhuai river became the site of one of the greatest shipyards of the 15th century. The shipyard was situated upstream, at the place where the Qinhuai river meets the Yangtze, not far from the present day Yangtzijiang tunnel. I had to look up the details later in the writings of Edward Dreyer. He estimates that the Ming treasure ships were over 130 meters long and with a beam of about 50 meters. Zheng He’s fleets contained between 100 and 300 of these ships, each with a displacement of about 20,000 to 30,000 tons. In comparison, Vasco da Gama’s flag ship, Sao Gabriel, had a length of 27 meters and width of 8.5 meters. His fleet consisted of 4 ships. Ibn Battuta reports seeing treasure ships during his travels. Even troop ships travelling with the fleet were as large as Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, launched in 1765. The engineering achievement of the shipyard of Nanjing was clearly ahead of its time. I wish there was something to see of this great shipyard, but apparently there is nothing.

We stopped at the usual civilizations: Champa, Java, Palembang, Semudera, Atjeh, Pahang, Malacca, the Maldives, Ceylon, Cochin, and Calicut.
— Zheng He’s diaries, about the voyage of 1417-19 CE

Zheng He’s ships visited Qui Nhon in central Vietnam, passed through the Straits of Malacca, anchored in Calicut, and sailed on to Hormuz, Aden, and, once, all the way to Mailindi. The Indian Ocean trade was at its height at this time, and Zheng He’s voyages managed to bring a lot of merchandise back to China. However, many at the court saw the shipyards and voyages as needless expense, and after the Yongle emperor was buried, the shipyards were closed and the voyages were forgotten. A large part of this is ascribed to Chinese factional politics, Confucian scholars and bureaucrats resented the power of the eunuchs, which included Zheng He. It was interesting to spend a few idle moments on the banks of Qinhuai thinking about the path not taken by China. What if there had been an active Chinese navy in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean during the age of Ottoman and European expansion? How different could history have been?

Nairobi’s shops

Eight hundred years ago, the Chinese admiral Zheng He launched expeditions to Africa which tried to link up with the Indian Ocean trade network. Six centuries ago, Vasco da Gama found the same extensive trade linking the Indian Ocean, and hired a Gujarati pilot to guide him from Kenya’s coast to India. Colonial militarism and the slave trade shredded these links in the subsequent centuries. In 1907, the British Imperial Under-Secretary of the Colonies, Winston Churchill, wrote an article which whitewashed the old history of this trans-oceanic trade. “It is the Indian trader who, penetrating and maintaining himself in all sorts of places where no white man would go, developed the early beginnings of trade.”

But this was a prelude to a statement of what he thought was a crucial problem, “The entry of the Asiatic as labourers, trader, and capitalist into competition in industry and enterprise not only with, but in, the Western world is a new fact of first importance.” It is hard to read this article today without coming face to face with the fundamental problem of empire- it is geared to maintaining the prosperity and privilege of the colonizer through brute force, hidden behind an invented moral justification which, for the imperial British, was racist (“These people are unable to govern themselves”). But I digress.

What was true eight centuries ago remains true today: East Africa is a microcosm of the world. The small Gujarati-run grocery stores, called duka (from dukan, the Hindi word for a shop) are common throughout East Africa. We stepped into one briefly to pick up some cheese and yogurt to take with us on the long drive to Masai Mara. The shop was bustling with the cosmopolitan inhabitants of Nairobi. Kenya’s economy has prospered by never descending into the populist distraction of Uganda’s infamous Idi Amin. The frame does not capture a Chinese couple, who were also in the shop. They are the newest entrants to the East African mix. If Indian labourers built the railways a hundred and thirty years ago, the Chinese are building today’s roads.

At the other end of the spectrum of shops was the infamous Westgate Mall. The terrorist attack of 2013 on this Israeli owned mall and subsequent scenes of looting seen on TV screens across the world, seem to be almost forgotten today. Almost, but not quite, since entry to every mall now requires you to pass through metal detectors and mandatory scanning of bags. We went in late, looking for an ATM, and then stayed to wander through shops. The Westgate mall has not recovered completely yet; many spaces were empty, unlike what we saw in other malls. Many see Westgate as a microcosm of everything that is happening in Kenya today. But one part of the story is clear; Kenya is beginning to boom. To Kenyans the story may not look simple with the ongoing hiccups in world trade, but malls are there to stay, as much as the duka, and the recovering trans-oceanic trade.