Over 600 years ago, a great flood carved out a sliver of land from the southernmost state of India, leaving open a port for traders, merchants and explorers from around the world. The Chinese, Arab, and Jews came in droves to trade in pepper, cardamom, and other spices for the price of gold. A city born in storm, Kochi thus, became the stronghold of the spice trade in India and prospered for centuries to come. It was also here that the imperialists—the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch, and the English—first arrived and began the colonisation of India. This intriguing medley of influences left their lasting impressions on the heritage, architecture, culture, and way of life of the people, moulding Kochi into what it is today—quirky, charming, and an absolute delight to explore. By Satarupa Paul
TAP THE PULSE
History thrives in the lanes of Kochi, and presents itself through interesting architectural influences, while a modern metropolis rises high across the breathtaking backwaters.
The 1568-built Paradesi Synagogue still stands tall in Jew Town, featuring ornate brass bema, coloured glass lamps, hand-painted Cantonese floor tiles, and magnificent Belgian chandeliers. The narrow colourful lanes of Jew Town today are lined with antique and handicraft shops.
In 1497, the famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived at the Malabar coast, set up a trading post, and built a fort and a settlement around it, which today stands as the charming neighbourhood of Fort Kochi. Here, you’ll find the St. Francis Church—the first European church in India. After 160 years, Fort Kochi was captured by the Dutch, who rebuilt the famous Dutch Palace (Mattancherry Palace), and then 112 years later, the British took over, and restored a 16th-century Portuguese church into the imposing neoclassical Santa Cruz Basilica.
India’s largest contemporary art event and an exhibition of international repute, Kochi Muziris Biennale is held in spaces across Fort Kochi, Mattancherry, and Durbar Hall in Ernakulum. Kerala Folklore Museum is housed in a typical Kerala-style building and displays artifacts, such as masks, costumes, musical instruments, traditional jewellery and more. The Kerala Kathakali Centre in Fort Kochi is the most popular venue to watch traditional classical dance forms, such as Kathakali and Mohiniattam, as well as the incredibly skilled martial art form, Kalaripayattu.
Home to the traditional Ayurveda treatments, Kochi is dotted with massage centres offering a range of services that benefit the body and mind, such as Abhyanga, Shirodhara, Nasyam, Pizhichil, and Kizhi. Ayurville, Agastya Ayurveda, and Ayurveda Sanctum are a few of the highly-rated traditional massage centres.
Kochi’s culinary scene is a heady mix of indigenous flavours and foreign influences.
Fine Dine With A View
Designed in the style of a traditional kettuvalam boat, Rice Boat offers the best seafood in a fine dining setup in Kochi. Housed in the premises of the Taj Malabar Resort & Spa on Willingdon Island, the restaurant affords splendid views of the backwaters and the historic Mattancherry town to its diners. Signature dishes made from fresh catch include tiger prawns in coconut oil, white snapper in banana leaf, and lobster bisque.
Located off the maze of quirky antique shops of Jew Town is Kashi Art Café, which doubles up as an art gallery and artist residency. This fashionable space has a Zen-like vibe, with a vertical garden, wooden tables spread out in a shaded courtyard, and plants and contemporary artworks casually sprinkled around. Home-baked cakes, French toasts, and sandwiches complement the strong, organic coffee served here.
In the midst of a beautiful Portuguese courtyard, stands Malabar Junction, one of the prime places in the city to try local delicacies. It offers dishes made of locally sourced ingredients, with flavours that borrow from the land and the sea. Beside a range of authentic preparations, their speciality includes a degustation menu of local dishes, such as fish pollichathu, varutharacha koon curry, and payasam.
Shaken & Stirred
An elegant lounge housed in the premises of The Avenue Regent hotel, Mezzo is often packed with evening revellers—both tourists and locals. Warm hardwood floors, and comfortable couches in white and silver add to the inviting interiors. An array of European and oriental dishes complement a selection of wines, even as you engage in easy banter with your company.
WHERE TO SHOP
From treasured antiques to spices and saris, Kochi is a shopper’s dream.
Antiques & Handicrafts
Jew Town is a hub of shops selling antiques, handicrafts and local art works. Crafters offers antique household items, such as carved doors, metal knockers, and bronze urulis, whereas Heritage Arts is a beautiful store that houses a snake boat, family heirlooms, and planters’ chairs. The Ethnic Passage (Jew Town, Kappalandimukku, Mattancherry) sells antiques and furniture as well as clothing and jewellery.
Saris & Jewellery
Jayalakshmi Silks is one of the largest textile stores in Kochi, whereas Seematti is a favourite for embroidered saris in silk. Both the stores sell Kerala kasavu saris and mundus in pure gold zari. Bhima Jewellers is known for recreating classic designs, while Alapatt Jewels handcrafts traditional designs in platinum, gold, and silver.
One cannot possibly visit Kochi, and leave without buying a sample of the spices. The Mattancherry Spice Market is lined with centuries-old shops selling pepper, cinnamon, bay leaves, and other spices. The government-owned Spices Board in Palarivattom, retails organic spices, spice mixes as well as essential oils.