This article explores Kochi, the coastal city of Kerala, its streetscape, culture, and architectural beauty.
Reaching the Ernakulam railway junction early morning, we started in an auto-rickshaw towards the boat harbor. My travel companion and I have been planning to explore these famed islands of Kochi with its well-known Dutch architecture. We set out early to catch the entire evolution of the character of Fort Kochi, throughout the day. Even though the city was yet to wake up from its slumber of a weekend night, the harbor was bustling with people, a lot of them travelers and explorers with a few who work in tourism across the lake in the islands. A 20-minute ride in the boat brought us to Fort Kochi harbor, which was of humble size, best fitting this small town. We walked out into the streets that were lined with small corner stores and paved with grey stones that are dulled now by the constant passage of vehicles. The Jew streets, as they are known, slowly grew into character in Mattancherry, with antique shops, overhanging lanterns, thick walls of its iconic architecture, with green vines growing over them.
The oldest Jew community in India exists in the island towns of Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. Among them are both Pardeshi Jews and the Sephardi Jews of Spain and Portugal, who immigrated during the 15th century, and Malabar Jews of Indian descent. The essence of the community runs deep enough for a new dialect of Malayalam (the local language of the state) to have developed with time- the Judeo Malayalam. The cultural undertones of this community had also influenced the architectural style of the area. The synagogues that exist today are well looked after and are preserved as an identity of Kochi.
The Pardeshi synagogues, constricted in the 1500s are the oldest Jew synagogue in the commonwealth. From the exterior, it’s a plain white painted structure with blue windows and a central large clock. But the interiors are adorned with specially crafted chandeliers, lamps and a display of various antiquities. Each of these parts, brought in from various countries, creates a beautiful mix of ornaments for the sacred space.
With the passing of Sarah Cohen, the oldest member, the dwindling numbers of the Pardeshi Jews have come to the concern of the community. Hence taking care of the synagogue has become crucial for holding on to the Jew history of Kochi.
Walking through the zigzagging alleyways of Mattancherry, we reached a temple, built entirely of white stones that stood out from the temples of the region. This well-known Jaina temple marked the beginning of the long extending Gujarati Street, which stretched till Kappalandimukku. Although known for its Jew streets, the town holds numerous communities within its two and a half square miles.
A video project of this old island had been making rounds on the internet recently- a story about a man who wanted to see the world but ended up in Mattancherry. But with time, he saw the ‘whole world’ there as it unfolded within the town, gradually. Having been a busy trade harbor for centuries had brought traders to Kochi from all over the world. The various exotic spices that the region produced were another reason why people traveled to this port. From many of these groups that visited the place, several families and individuals stayed back, captivated by the charm of it. They settled in various parts of the island, making it one of the most culturally diverse places to exist.
A striking feature of the town is the colors it has taken on itself and the shades it changes into, as the sun moves through the day bestowing its rays. Every street you walk into, every nook has been imprinted with a mark of an artist, graffiti, a painting, or poetry.
The movie Charlie that came out in the year 2015 had portrayed Fort Kochi beautifully, capturing its artistic character to its full zest. The region played a crucial part in making the movie come alive. Metaphorically, the main character- ‘Charlie’ was synonymous with the town. Charlie was free-spirited, happy go lucky, cheerful, and lived his life to the fullest. He was artistic, loved colors and never shied away from wearing any of the shades, and neither did the town.
The Mattancherry Fort Kochi island town is a Mecca for photographers. With all of its picturesque backdrops, interesting facades, and antique shops, they form treasure-troves for focused pictures. Artists and writers flock to the towns for a muse, and with the presence of so many art cafes and laid back eat-outs, the area becomes a perfect place for indulging into your creative side.
The usually moderate weather, which occasionally brings in quick showers, added to the beach and the breeze, prepares a haven for a leisure vacation away from the bustle.
The Kochi Muziris Biennale
Every two years, the town undergoes beautification with paintings, installations and landscape designs, to welcome the event of the Muziris Biennale– the first of its kind international art installation exhibition event of India. Started in the year 2012, the event was taken under the board of Kerala tourism and has thrived since. Art and cultural enthusiasts, architects, and common visitors fill the towns during the 4 months-long events. The establishment of the Biennale was a well-planned event to revive the dying layers of crafts and arts of the communities of Kochi, and it has been immensely successful, to say the least.
Along with all the other layers, the twin sleepy towns are sustained by people with a radiating spirit. Every small holiday is acknowledged and every culture embraced. Another famous event is the New Year carnival when people from all over Kerala come over to this island to set fire to an iconic ‘papain’ statue of the Santa Claus and welcome the year in. The natives here are known for being carefree and celebrating each moment of their lives, and this energy is what binds the world to this small island above all.
Melva Joseph is a young, passionate architecture graduate from TKM College of Engineering, Kerala. Being extremely curious and adaptable made her an extensive reader, avid traveler, and a good conversationalist. She holds close the belief that the existing gap between architecture and the common man should be bridged.