On a chilly January day in London I am inevitably dreaming of warmer climes. A place where the sun is shining; where a stroll through city streets delivers colour, warmth, a bit of excitement and a lot of interest.
Fort Kochi is the old part of Cochin in Kerala and has many of the city’s most interesting sights. We spent a day exploring with a local guide, Mary. I already described, in a previous post, the dhobi khana (public laundry facility) that we visited with her. Now I’d like to show you some of the other sights in the city. So join me please on a pleasant, sunny and belated Monday Walk.
St Francis Church
We started out at the first Christian church to be built in India. It is famous as the burial place of Vasco de Gama. However, his body only lay here for 14 years before being moved to the Jerónimos Monastery in Belem, near Lisbon. His tomb can still be seen in this church; it is a very simple and worn stone set in the floor on the right-hand side.
More interesting to look at are the wall-mounted gravestones, Dutch on the right-hand side, Portuguese on the left. These give a clue to the varied history of this church.
Contrary to what you might think, Mary told us, it was not the Portuguese who brought Christianity to this part of the world. Tradition holds that the first to convert people here was the apostle Thomas, who came to this coast just 29 years or so after the death of Christ. He brought the new religion to the educated upper classes; but it was the Portuguese, several hundred years later, who converted the lower caste groups. Perhaps these were the most receptive at that time, keen to shake off the traditions of the by-then prevalent Hinduism which dictated their lowly position in society.
This church was therefore built as a Roman Catholic one and would have been richly decorated. We owe its present sombre appearance to the Dutch, who when they conquered this part of India converted the church for use as a Protestant one. Later still came the British, and the church became Anglican.
One notable feature that remains from the days of British rule are the cloth punkah fans. They hang from wooden poles with ropes attached leading out through the side walls. There they would have been operated by men employed for the purpose, the punkah wallahs. Of course today there are electric fans to cool the congregation!
Photography is permitted inside but not video; and you have to remove your shoes as they are anxious to preserve the Victorian London tiles laid by the British when they took the church over.
Fort Kochi is a city that likes its art, whether in its small galleries (we loved the Kashi Art Café), its renowned Biennale or on its streets. We didn’t have time to seek out a lot of its street art; but we did see some great examples on our walk, which I’m including as a contribution to the Photographing Public Art challenge.
The famous traditional Chinese fishing nets (so-called because it was the Chinese who first introduced this style of fishing to Kerala) line the shore of Fort Kochi; while numerous small black boats are employed to get further out into the channel to catch the larger fish. These small boats are still made the traditional way, with planks of wood ‘stitched’ together with coir rope; although increasingly more durable plastic covered wire is used in place of the latter. The black colour comes from a mix of turpentine and sardine oil used to make them waterproof. We watched two men engaged in a repair job for a while before going over to take a closer look at the fishing nets themselves.
The Chinese fishing nets
If you want a detailed look at the workings of the nets you need to tip the fishermen. I felt the 100 rupees we paid for the two of us, at our Mary’s suggestion, was worth it for the photo opportunities we got and the better understand of the mechanism which came with having a go on the ropes ourselves! The heavy stones on the ropes provide the counterbalance as the large net is raised and lowered, which is done every few minutes. At the time of year when we visited, February, the catches aren’t usually great. The net we helped to raise held just one small fish and a crab too tiny to keep. The tourist tips help supplement the men’s income, which is another good reason to get involved!
Mary explained the economics of these small businesses. Each net is owned by a proprietor who pays a fee to the local government for their spot on the waterfront. The proprietor employs four men to work the net; they are not paid a salary but instead all get a share of the money made by selling the catch at the nearby market, as does the proprietor of course. With his share (which I am sure is the larger part) he must not only pay the government fee but also maintain the net and the working mechanism. As in so many places, it is becoming harder to attract young people to do this kind of work; there is a real risk that these traditional fishing methods will die out. Already several nets stand idle as their owner can’t get the men to work them.
The fish caught in the nets and by the small boat fishermen is sold almost where it is landed, at a handful of stalls that line the path here. Some will be bought by local bicycle salesmen who deliver daily to local families (our guide’s included); but the majority will be served at restaurant tables that evening.
Among the selection we saw for sale were red mullet, tuna, baby sharks, sardines, pomfret, green-lipped mussels, octopus, squid and prawns both large and small. If you want you can buy some fresh to have cooked at one of the nearby stalls; although I’ve read that the hygiene at these is questionable and eating at them risky.
From here we went on to visit the dhobi khana; and from there to another part of the city, Mattancherry, which I will save for a future post perhaps.
I visited Fort Kochi in 2017