India: Real beauty underestimated

By Belinda Henley

Children playing cricket in Kochi, Kerala. Photo / Daniel Grade
Children playing cricket in Kochi, Kerala. Photo / Daniel Grade

I went on my first trip to India with a whole bagful of pre-conceptions. It was going to be noisy? Check. Hot? Check. Crazy? Check. And I was going to eat my body weight in spectacular curries? Check. But what I wasn't prepared for was the spectacular beauty of the country and the warmth, kindness and hospitality of the people. I was visiting the Kerala (meaning 'land of coconut trees') region, in the south west of the country. In particular, the city of Kochi, or Cochin as it is also known.

Kochi is the commercial and industrial hub of the region flanked by the western Ghats on the east and the Arabian sea on the west. It's a relatively small city by Indian standards with recent estimates putting the population at around 1.8 million.

Being a port city, it has been indelibly shaped by the influence of those who have passed through, namely Arabs, British, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese. Geographically the city is made up of a series of three islands, connected by two bridges. There is the old town, 'Fort Kochi' the industrial centre, Ernakulam and Wellington Island.

The Kochi tourism sites claim it is one of India's best kept secrets, and it certainly seems to be that way. In the five days I spent there I only saw a handful of tourists, despite National Geographic magazine recently listing it as one of the 50 must see places to go.

We were staying in the stunning Ramada Resort, overlooking the famous Kochi backwaters on Ernakulam. The hotel has one of the best pools I have ever had the pleasure to dip my toes into, almost 100 metres long, curving around lush, heavily scented gardens of magnolias and tropical plants.

It offers Aruveydic spa treatments and a restaurant specializing in south Indian cuisine. Make sure you try the 'chicken hot pot' a mildly spicy soup; the Kottu Baradha, made from mince, chopped naan bread, onion, tomato and egg; the grilled fish caught right outside the hotel and cooked Indian style; the excellent vegetarian daals and the local bean dish Achinga Thoran.

The hotel also has their own swanky speedboat, which they pull up to the private jetty to take you on a tour around the spectacular Kerala backwaters. It is the ultimate way to explore the region, (ideally while singing along to T Pains I'm on a Boat.)

Up the road is the equally lavish Le Merdien hotel, currently home to the Kochi Tuskers Kerala, the newest team in the Indian Premier League 20/20 cricket competition.

Other than being an enthusiastic tourist, my mission was to film a story on some of the New Zealand cricketers making a small fortune playing in this highly lucrative competition. Cricket is religion in India, and for that reason, the players are largely prisoners in their hotel, unable to leave for fear of causing a small, or in fact reasonably large, riot. But luckily, there are far worse places to be holed up!

Kochi is an interesting juxtaposition of these lavish resorts and a more accurate reflection of 'real' India. It is only a short drive away from these properties to Fort Kochi, the historical hub of the city to get a sense of what this place is really about.

Going anywhere in India feels like you are taking your life into your own hands, the drivers seem to have no peripheral vision, they map a path in their head from A to B and off they go, letting no scooters, trucks, pedestrians, animals or women and children riding side saddle in their saris stand in their way.

The first few trips I had decidedly white knuckles, but it didn't take me long to realise that despite hundreds of seeming close calls, I was probably, bizarrely, safer on the road here than at home. There is no yelling, plenty of tooting but no road rage, and this attitude to the road and their fellow drivers is perhaps summed up in the motto of the local police force 'polite but firm'.

On the way to Fort Kochi we get a sense of what makes this place tick, commerce, industry, and how they live their day to day lives. It is the weekend and it seems like every spare patch of dirt has been taken over by groups of young men tossing a cricket ball around, they may be barefoot, with the most basic of equipment and on a dusty pitch, but some of them are highly skilled.

The waterfront of Fort Kochi is first port of call, our incredibly well spoken and knowledgeable guide Arnold takes us to see the local fisherman work their Chinese Fishing Nets (the only place outside China you can see this). It is believed that traders from the court of Chinese ruler Kublai Khan introduced these nets.

With five men working each net, they slowly lower them into the muddy waters, with no bait and then manipulate huge levers and pulleys to raise them up again - hopefully full of mullet, crabs, prawns and sardines. The fishermen make around 400 rupees, roughly $11 NZD a day, in line with the average wage for a mason or carpenter.

It may seem like little by our standards, but the Kerala region has untypically high standards of living with wages, employment, education levels all well above the national average.

While there is not the haggling culture of some Asian destinations, the waterfront of Fort Kochi is the place to go if you want to indulge in some banter with well meaning salespeople and pick up some souvenirs. There are some stunning scarves, bags and locally made jewellery to be bought, but, like anywhere be careful who you buy from.

Our second destination is the St Francis church, the oldest European church in India.

On his 3rd visit to Kerala, Vasco da Gama, the Portuguese trader who reached India from Europe by sea, fell ill and died in Kochi. He was buried in St Francis church but later his remains were taken back to Portugal. However, his burial spot inside the church has been clearly marked out and is still regularly visited.

The church was once a lavishly decorated baroque style place of worship, much of the ornate detailing has now been removed, but it is no less impressive. The day I visited, the congregation were celebrating Sunday service in the local 'Malayalam' language.

St Francis church is surrounded by stunning trees, many of them hundreds of years old, including one of India's most precious trees, the Sandalwood. Previously used to carve thrones and furniture, it's rarity and worth now means it is used only for carving religious idols and crucifixes and for its scented oil.

Kochi is also home to the oldest Jewish synagogue in the Commonwealth. Built in 1568, it is magnificently decorated with individual hand painted Chinese tiles and Belgian chandeliers.

Many years ago, Kochi was a hub for almost five thousand Jewish families who fled to India to escape persecution at home. Sadly, the Jewish community has now almost completely dispersed and there are now just four Jewish families left in the city. This mix of religions and cultures has shaped the patchwork of Keralan society. Arnold tells me it is these influences, which has made the region one of the most 'worldly, welcoming and hospitable' places in India to visit. I'll certainly be back.

Belinda Henley's trip was aided by Singapore Airlines, Kerala Tourism Board and the Kochi Ramada Resort.

- NZ Herald

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