Cochin, a major harbour and naval base in south India and Kerala’s thriving capital city, is spread over a few small islands and a long coastal strip. Now, almost all the islands are connected by bridges but it is still quicker and more pleasant to get around by public ferry. We stayed on Fort Cochin island which is the historic centre. Colonized successively by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British, seeking to profit from the spice trade, each has left their mark. There are Christian churches of various denominations, temples, mosques and even a Jewish synagogue. The catholic church, St Francis, built in 1503 is reputed to be the oldest church in India. It still has long poles above the pews, from which hang long strips of heavy cloth about 2 feet wide. The poles are attached to ropes leading to the outside which when pulled, create a breeze to fan the people sitting below. In the old days before the advent of electric fans, there would be punkah wallahs outside, operating the fans during a church service. The popularity of Christianity was amazing to us with trucks bearing names like St George, St. Joseph or Jesus, and cars sporting slogans like ‘Gift from God’ or ‘Kerala is God’s Own Country’. This must be one of the few places where new churches are still being built.
The tip of Fort Cochin is dominated by Chinese fishing nets introduced by traders of Kublai Khans court and still in use. Huge cantilevered nets operated by weighted pulleys, it is fascinating to watch them in use. Walking by them, you can buy fresh fish, giant tiger prawns, and crab. Some vendors are associated with restaurants and offer to have the fish cooked for you to your liking. Unfortunately, we could not explore this tempting option as it was too early for lunch when we passed by. Spices such as pepper, cinnamon and cardamom, are still grown in abundance and brought to Cochin for packaging and sale. India is still the world’s largest producer of pepper most of it grown in Kerala. Kerala gets its name from ‘kera’ which means coconut in Malayalam, the language spoken in Kerala, so as you can imagine, coconuts abound and the food is spicy and coconut based.
Cochin is also the centre for Kathakali performance, a Kathak dance-based play performed by an all male cast with their faces heavily and stylistically painted to represent mythical figures. It was fascinating to see them getting their faces made up for a performance. All the hand and eye movements represent some action and having all this explained to us beforehand made the performance riveting.
Another unexpected spectacle was the inauguration of a new Hindu temple which was heralded by musicians and three heavily decorated elephants walking in procession down the street.
Women beautifully dressed in their finest saris, children in their best clothes, babies with their eyes outlined in kohl.
We were standing close to the elephants fascinated by them, when suddenly the largest elephant spread its back legs and released a vast stream of pee and a giant mound of poop, both at the same time. It was the most incredible sight.
Having grown up in Africa, I’ve seen many elephants in my time but I must admit that I had never in my life seen an elephant penis. What can I say? A picture is worth a thousand words!