India: Kochi of many colours

By Liz Light

Michael, the auto-rickshaw driver, sings opera as he drives us to Santa Cruz Basilica. Great trills and crescendos are louder even than the putt, putt, putt of his three-wheeler's little motor.

I ask him why he's happy. "This is my own air-conditioned Ferrari and I have a beautiful nine-year-old daughter and a lovely wife. My life is good and I love to sing," he says. He leads while my friend, Karen, and I sing along to a couple of songs we all know - not opera. When he drops us outside the church we have had such a great ride we tip him handsomely and he buzzes off, in his little yellow Ferrari, singing loudly.

The outside of the hundred-year-old Santa Cruz Basilica is nothing special but inside is an Indo/Romano/Rococo crazy combo of all that is bright and God-gaudy.

Faux architectural features include a grand stairway to heaven painted behind the altar with a blue neon cross shining at the top of the stairs, bricks painted on the columns and renderings of fancy Venetian tiles painted on the walls.

Paintings of Mary and now deceased but much-loved past priests feature, there are little shrines around the walls, decorated with bright artificial flowers and in the middle of the church Indian women kneel in prayer, chanting as they work fingers around rosaries.

Fort Kochi, in Kerala, like this church, is a bright happy hodgepodge of numerous different cultures melded together in a uniquely Kochi way. St Francis Church, just down the road, the oldest church in India, is less visually fanciful but has more stories to tell.

Vasco Da Gama landed on this coast in 1498 and one of his explorer colleagues, Pedro Alvares Cabral, with settlers in 10 ships, arrived two years later. They built St Francis, in Portuguese style, in the early 1500s and Vasco da Gama was buried here in 1524.

It became a Protestant church under the Dutch when they ousted the Portuguese, in 1663, then an Anglican church when the British booted out the Dutch in 1795. Since Indian Independence, in 1949, it has become affiliated with the Church of South India.

Today Onward Christian Soldiers is played ponderously on the organ by an amply proportioned woman in a luscious lime-green sari. The choir is having a hard time singing slowly enough. It's light and austere, in comparison to the Basilica, with just a simple blue and scarlet cross-shaped stained glass window at the head of the church. Colour comes from the choir where women wear saris of vivid rainbow hues.

It's not just the Europeans who have left their mark on Kochi.

Some of the folk have sturdy Arabic noses and others, with dark skin and tight curls, have African ancestors.

Kochi is the biggest and safest harbour south of Bombay and has been a magnet for traders for thousands of years.

Trade between King Solomon's kingdom and India's Malabar Coast was well established before the birth of Christ. Jews arrived on the coast in 587 BC after fleeing the occupation of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. They traded spices and became respected members of Keralan society and were given land by the Raja of Kochi.

Their synagogue is directly behind the walls of the Raja's Mattancherry Palace.

The giggling, chatting queues of Indian school children lined up to visit the palace are off-putting so I wander around the block to the synagogue. It was built in 1568 and has had various whimsical modifications since then. The floor is paved with hundreds of blue and white Chinese tiles, 20 oil-burning crystal chandeliers fill the ceiling and, along with a row of green and pink glass candle holders below the mezzanine, give it a fantastical look akin to a vintage lighting shop.

Towards the front there is an elaborately carved ark housing the Torah-scrolls, encased in gold and silver, set with gems. Most Jews left Kochi at the time of Independence they were given free passage to Israel and there are only seven families left, hanging on to their place in history.

The area around the synagogue is still called Jew Town and is an important centre of the spice trade. Dilapidated warehouses run parallel to the sea, though these days the spices arrive by truck.

Bazaar Road is filled with ornately painted trucks from which men in hitched-up dhotis unload sacks of chillies, ginger, cardamom, tea, turmeric, cloves and onion and push them around in sturdy wooden trolleys. Further along the old spice shops have given way to antique shops, art galleries, chai shops and a market selling cheap knick-knacks to Indian tourists.

I love shopping in India, when I have time to enjoy the process. In Kochi the specialities are brassware, woodcarving, stonework and antiques. I browse, select, ask the price, bargain, leave, have another chai, return, bargain again and then the deal is done.

And all with great good humour and lots of warm banter, "Madam, this is my best price, a special price just for you because your country's cricket team is so bad." We're back at the hotel by midafternoon and hungry.

The Brunton Boatyard is on the water's edge, and the restaurant overlooks the harbour entrance and ferry terminal. The ferries from Vypeen Island and Emakulam come and go, and huge container ships and a stealthy silver-grey Indian Navy destroyer steam past while we linger over a late lunch.

The head chef, Jerry Mathew, is also a culinary historian and the menu is a poetical gastronomic history book. Karen goes for grilled tiger prawns marinated in yoghurt and coriander, a legacy left by Arab traders, and I opt for a Portuguese-influenced seafood stew with tomatoes, kidney beans and freshly ground spices. We rehydrate with cold Kingfisher beer.

From Jerry's history-book menu I learn that pepper, turmeric, ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon grew in lush profusion on the Malabar Coast for eons but Arabs introduced fenugreek, cumin, mustard and coriander, along with a taste for dried fruits, nuts and rich dishes like biriyani.

Chinese traders bought nutmeg and cloves from Indonesia and the Portuguese introduced chilli, from Central America, forever changing the character of Indian cooking. Though tea came from China, and it was the British who first propagated it in India, Indians adapted it to their taste, the iconic sweet milky spicy chai that I adore. And we have the Brits to thank for Kingfisher.

In the late afternoon we stroll along the seawall above the beach.

Chinese fishing nets, introduced by Chinese traders in the time of Kublai Khan, hang in the water.

These enormous nets, something like inside-out umbrellas, are suspended from intricately cantilevered poles and are lowered and raised by a series of leavers and weights.

Fishing boats are being hauled up the beach. Kingfish, mullet and squid are loaded into baskets, weighed, quickly auctioned and then raced off to restaurants. It's all hustle, bustle and busy man's business and fish doesn't get much fresher.

Further along, the sprat market is similar but smellier and less full of big-fish importance. Here smaller hand-paddled harbour boats and ocean-going sailing vessels pull in with their catch.

Men wander around with basins of slushy ice, little fish are sold by the pail from the bowels of boats, then loaded into plastic boxes tied to the backs of bicycles, which wobble off down the road leaving a trail of fishy drips.

Our next adventure is finding a wine shop. The hotel wine is imported and expensive and we fancy local: India produces cheap but credible reds. We enlist the help of the first auto-rickshaw driver in the auto-stand line.

His mates crowd round being humorously helpful, "Madam, your driver is Joseph, he's Christian and because of this he can charge 10 rupees more." But Joseph looks after us well.

The liquor store is 2km away and because we are the only women, and an embarrassment to everybody, he escorts us to the head of the queue where we select a dusty bottle of Indian red.

Back at The Brunton we sit on the veranda, drink wine and eat spiced Keralan cashew nuts. The sky turns inky blue, boats pass like shadows and we toast a happy day in the multicultural masala of old Kochi.

Liz Light visited Kerala with help from Singapore Airlines.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies to Singapore every day from Auckland and Christchurch, connecting with Silk Air, its sister airline for flights to Kochi in Kerala. Kochi is half an hour taxi ride from Fort Kochi.

Where to stay: The Brunton Boatyard is harbourside and built on the site of an English boatyard. The reception retains the sparse, spacious boatyard character. The rooms have traditional ambience but modern conveniences and are tastefully uncluttered. Even if you can't afford to stay there, eat there; head chef, Jerry Mathew, is a fanatic gastronome. Email: bruntonboaty@cghearth.com.

When to go: The temperature in Kerala is moderate (22 to 30C) all year. The wet season, June and July, is best avoided.

Further information: See the Kerala Tourism website.

- NZ Herald

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