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Kochi: Kerala’s City of Spice and Chinese Nets

2 February 2015
Chinese fishing nets in Kochi

Ancient Chinese nets and India’s oldest Jewish community, Kochi is a city that both seduces and fascinates. One of our stops on the inaugural India’s Cup route, we decided to see what this famous Keralan city was all about.

Up bright and early, Hindipendent Racing and the Sarriors were impatient to get off to Trivandrum to explore Kerala’s beaches and backwaters on the way, as well as making it to the hotel early enough to enjoy a couple of drinks by the pool. Rabbit Adventures said goodbye to yet another beloved member of India’s Cup, Viki, who had to fly back to Budapest, leaving only Attila and Balázs to plough on up to Chennai.

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Before we headed off to Trivandrum, we decided to hop back to Fort Kochi, with a little bit of Jewtown thrown in for good measure. The rickshaw drive was shorter this morning, and the sight of the elaborate Chinese nets spreading out across the waterfront transformed the minimal experience we had by night.

Fisherman still pulled at the intricate shore-operated lift nets when we got there, although most of the day’s catch was already on display. This curious technique dates back at least 400 years, where one story of origin says they came from China via Macau, which, like Kochi at the time, was also a Portuguese colony. Other historical accounts even link the nets’ origin to traders in the 14th and 15th centuries from the court of Kubla Khan, while a local legend credits Chinese explorer Zhang with bringing the Chinese nets to Kochi.

Despite the glassy-eyed catches showcased on the stalls meters away from the nets, the method is a dying trade in Kerala, and one that is not financially sustainable.

Today the Chinese nets are more of a tourist attraction if anything, and while they’re still a part of Kochi’s legacy, it’s one that is in decline.

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Kochi is a city of many secrets. It was one of the very first European colonies in India, being occupied by Portugal in 1503, but before it was one of the major spice hubs in the region for centuries, known to the Greek and Roman civilizations, as well as having been a core trade hub for the Arabs and the Chinese. However, a visit into the district called Jewtown around the 16th Paradesi Synagogue, we discovered a unique Jewish community made up of the Sephardic Jews, who came with the Portuguese and the Dutch, and the Malabar Jews, the oldest group of Jews in India!

The Malabar Jews came to Kerala after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD, arriving at Cranganore near Kochi. The first synagogue in the city was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, but rebuilt by the Raja, and under his protection despite the Portuguese rule. Today, the Paradesi Synagogue is still active in Jewtown, and is also one of Kochi’s main attractions.

Jewtown is a 15-minute rickshaw ride away from Fort Kochi, and the infusion of spices in the air hit us the moment we rode into the neighbourhood. Its narrow lanes carry a nostalgic feel of Europe, but the smell of cinnamon, pepper and ginger infuses the air, and echoes of Kochi’s spice trade flourishes here around the synagogue.

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The synagogue itself is a whitewashed building marked by a clock tower that was built at a later date. The Paradesi Synagogue shares a wall with the Mattancherry Palace Temple adjacent to it, and is tucked in a comfortable corner at the end of the street. Inside, it’s a small place of worship, lined with white and blue Portuguese tiles on the floor. Light streams in through the narrow windows, offering a glimpse to the stone tablets in the courtyard etched with Hebrew letters.

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Winding back through the spice traders, one of the side streets led out to the Jewish Cemetery, a quiet place closed off to the public, where you can only catch a glimpse through the bars to the tombstones and laundry hanging in the distance.

As time ticked on, we grabbed a rickshaw back to the hotel to push onto Trivandrum.

The route down from Kochi took us parallel with Kerala’s famous backwaters. Winding in around a dirt track in Alleppey, we lost our way to the boat house jetty, but found ourselves driving through a rice paddy to a shack by a canal, to a quieter jetty (although we were swarmed by children in the first five minutes of arriving).

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The view looked out onto the palm shaded backwaters where rice boats drifted down. After snapping a few photos we continued on our way, eager to make it to the hotel after hearing from the other teams there was a rooftop pool and bar.

Jennifer

I'm a writer based in Budapest, Hungary. After a sordid past involving a career in Nuclear Physics, and after completing a painful PhD, I decided to throw both caution and physics to the winds to follow the cliché expat writing dream. I'm a compulsive traveller and I have lived in the UK, Hungary, Spain, Germany and Georgia. I love making up stories, the arts, surrealism, underground culture, dilapidated buildings, languages, travel, getting lost and having adventures off the beaten track.
Jennifer