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Kerala,  Monday walks,  Photographing Public Art

A walk in Fort Kochi, Kerala

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

Grey stone carved with shields and skull and crossbones
Dutch gravestone

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.

Punkah fans

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.

Street art

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 waterfront

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.

Fish stalls

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

35 Comments

  • wetanddustyroads

    Oh thanks Sarah, I just enjoyed a great Sunday afternoon stroll with you in India! Such interesting history of the church (love those material fans) and as always, you have great pictures of the fishermen!

  • Marsha

    Hi Sarah, I had to go back and look for the mermaid since Jo bragged about it so much. My eyes went right to the old man next to her and stayed there. When I scrolled back, I still saw him and not the mermaid. He was so arresting with those skinny, skinny legs. I’m willing myself not to go back and look at the street art one last time, but there is so much else to talk about in this post. The church information was very surprising. How rarely do we (as protestants, which I am) chase our ancestry back to the original apostles? I love the difference between the outgoing Peter – rock of the Catholic church and the doubting, questioning, more serious Thomas in this church. Isn’t that amazing to think that their very personalities could influence the buildings two thousand years later? Wow. The fish stories…my mind is whirling. Thanks for sharing with me, Sarah. 🙂

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you so much Marsha 😀 To be honest I don’t see a mermaid when I look at that other painting – I see a girl with birds in her hair and a dream catcher with feathers! And as to the Catholic heritage behind Protestant churches, my husband is a Catholic and he never tires of mentioning, whenever we visit a historic church or cathedral over here, that ‘this used to be one of ours until it was stolen’!

      • Marsha

        Funny. My husband was raised Catholic, but I don’t know how serious he was. He and I go to one of the stolen churches now – not really, LOL, it’s a relatively new church. 🙂 I’m glad you didn’t see the mermaid either, I’m not as blind as I thought. I was still distracted, though. 🙂

  • thehungrytravellers.blog

    There’s a terrific people shot in this post, you will know the one I mean. So many of those words from the sub continent came into common usage in England (dhobi, wallah, nobi etc) but sadly they seem to have slipped away somewhat. My Dad said “dhobi” instead of “wash” till the day he died! Great post, we definitely have unfinished business in India and this has reminded us just why.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Yes, I’m pretty sure I know which you mean – one of my favourite shots ever, I have to say! I guess the use of those words belonged to a certain time, and have slipped away as we tried to distance ourselves from that period in our history? My father lived in India as a very young child (his father was in the army) but I don’t recall him using many Indian-origin words other than those we all use.

  • Prior...

    Hi – this was my favorite post of the year so far – and It remained e of why I like blogging – because I learn so much about culture! The punkah fans are so interesting. – and the church story sounds like my mother’s change – she went from Catholic, to Presbyterian, to non-deonomination (or something like that) – but truly a rich history of that church and I can see why they want to presser the tiles and everything else (and glad they left up the punkah fans)
    also interesting to learn about the fishing nets and cheers to being generous with the tip – it really is important to support them while also getting some pics to share
    🙂

  • Oh, the Places We See

    What a great post filled with information and new words that now mean something to me. I love the punkah fans — fabric, installation, use. Would have loved a video if it had been permitted. And you’re right about the amount of money you paid to see the fishermen and photograph the activities. Worth it totally. Thanks for another post rich with information and engaging photos.

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks so much 😀 I’m not sure a video would have added much to the info about the fans actually, as we didn’t see them in action. It’s possible they’re too old and fragile to be operated now in any case?

  • Teresa

    What a great story. I had just a week’s break and I saw that I missed reading a lot of your blogs already…so I had to go back to them.

  • restlessjo

    So much to enjoy here, Sarah! Loved the mermaid street art, and great to hear the history of the church and actually see the cloth fans, and to learn about the fishing technique. Sounds like you had a great holiday. What was your itinerary?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thanks Jo, glad you enjoyed the walk! This was quite a short trip. We started in Cochin, then went inland to the tea-growing area around Munnar. From there south to Periyar which I’ve written about previously and then finishing on the coast near Kovalam which I also wrote about (the fishermen). I’m sure I still have material for several future posts!

  • Annie Berger

    Loved your photos of the church and Chinese fishing nets at Fort Kochi as they brought back great memories of our too brief time there on mid March of 2019. Steven and I had arrived on the last in plane to enter India from Sri Lanka on what we’d hoped would be a four- month trip. Unfortunately, after just a few of days in Cochin, the pandemic caught up with us we had to fly home.

    We were so, so bummed and still hope to return to visit far more of Kerala and the other destinations from that trip when we can.

    As we never had a guide, I learned so much more about the background story behind the nets from you. Your photo of the turbanned fisherman should be framed – it’s a great shot.
    Didn’t know about the laundry you referenced. We did visit the Jewish cemetery, though. Did you?

    • Sarah Wilkie

      What a shame you had to cut your trip short like that. We were lucky – we were in South East Asia as the pandemic started but we flew home in late February just before things got really bad.

      We didn’t spend a lot of time in Cochin either – we were on a relatively short trip, just getting away from the English winter for a couple of weeks. We didn’t get to the Jewish cemetery, unfortunately. That photo you mention is one of my own favourites, I have to admit. It’s pure coincidence that his turban matches the colour of the nets but it does help to make the shot!

  • maristravels

    As usual, your pictures tell the story so well. I eat hot food at local street markets as I am always convinced the fish is very fresh (I don’t eat meat there) and as it is cooked and served very hot it is better than some 5* restaurants where it has been pre-cooked and left waiting for the orders. I always avoid buffets for the reason that the food has been cooked long before it is laid out for the guests. So far I’ve managed to avoid any serious illnesses in parts of the world where it’s easy to get stomach bugs. I remember our amazement in 1972 Pattaya some American servicemen on R & R from Vietnam telling us not to eat bananas as they were very suspect unless one was in the USA (!) but then they invited us to a Mexican restaurant where they ate indescribable mixed up meats!

    • Sarah Wilkie

      Thank you Mari. I know what you mean about hot food at street markets, but I normally avoid it if specifically warned to do so. Having said that, the French owner of our riad in Marrakesh told us not to eat in the Djemaa el Fna night market and we ignored her! We had no problems after eating there (we were careful to choose dishes we could see being cooked in front of us) but ironically I was a bit ill after eating one of the dinners she prepared for us! As for bananas, they’re my go-to food when I’m feeling a bit rough abroad 😀

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