The one time burial place of famous Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, and an ancient trading centre, Kochi, in Kerala, southern India, is a colourful city where past and present exists side by side.
Kochi, in south-western India on the Malabar Coast, stirs the senses. As with most cities in India, Kochi’s roots reach back far into the past. Recorded history reveals that after severe flooding of the river Periyar in 1340AD, which destroyed the trading city of Cranganore, the forces of nature carved out a new natural harbour at Kochi. The city quickly became the epicentre for a lucrative spice route, including cardamom, cloves and cinnamon, among other spices. Many different cultures based their trading operations in Kochi, including the Arabs and Chinese, then later the British, Portuguese and Italians. Each at one time governed the city, resulting in a cultural melting pot of architectural and culinary influences. Each culture found something to remind them of home there, to the extent that the British called Kochi “Mini England”, the Portuguese called it “Mini Lisbon” and the Dutch called it “Homely Holland”.
Indeed, such was the prominence of Kochi that one explorer, the Italian Nicolas Conti, wrote that, “If China is the place to make your money, then Kochi is the place to spend it.” So where can you spend your money in modern-day Kochi? From touring flea markets and taking boat trips on the backwaters, to visiting numerous sites of historical and cultural significance, there really is something for everyone in this charming town. Bearing in mind that the whole region has been visited over the millenia by traders from countless countries, it makes sense that cuisine reflects a very diverse range of cultures. This is a land famous for its spice production and Kochi earned international fame because of the production and export of these precious spices.
Today the city occupies an important place in the global spice market. It is worth taking a trip round the city to visit the various spice markets. You will quickly notice the pungent aromas of different spices as you wander through the streets of Kochi, and it is an oddly comforting feeling when you realise that these same smells permeated the nostrils of people who lived and worked here hundreds of years ago.
Out and about
Kick off your shoes and feel the sand between your toes in a stroll along the beach. Sunset is a magical time, and be sure to look out for the Chinese fishing nets and boats against a sunlit horizon. Many European-style bungalows have been built along the shoreline. After a brisk walk, you are bound to be hungry so be sure to visit one of the numerous stalls which sell mouth-watering traditional fish dishes. A stroll along the long tree-lined coastal pathway that lines the backwater is also a good way to pass a morning or afternoon. Cherai Beach is ideal for swimming, and is situated at the north end of Vypeen island. The beach is lined by coconut groves and paddy fields. Vypeen is one of the numerous small islands which can be reached by boat. A boat ride through the backwaters is a great day out. Be sure to take in Bolghatty Palace on Bolghatty Island. The island also has a small golf course and superb views of the port and the bay.
Inspiring art and culture
A great way to pass a morning and an afternoon is to soak up some local history and culture. A good place to start is at the Mattancherry Palace, which was built by the Portuguese, and then converted by the Dutch in the 17th century. Many Rajas of Kochi held their coronations here. The palace has a fine collection of mural paintings depicting scenes from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana. The palace is located in Mattancherry. When you are done touring there, take a trip to the 19th-century Hill Palace in Tripunithura, 16km east of Kochi. It was built by the Raja of Kochi and indeed served as the seat of the Raja of the Kochi province. The palace was later converted into a museum housing an impressive collection of archaeological findings and art.
For a fun, educational and entertaining afternoon, it is worthwhile visiting Kalamassery, and spending some time browsing through the Museum of Kerala History, which has fun audio-visual exhibits depicting the history and culture of Kerala. Another beautiful museum which affords a glimpse into the grandeur of yesteryear is the Parikshith Thampuran Museum, which has a large collection of old coins, sculptures, oil paintings and murals.
Once you are done learning all about the history and culture, now it is time to take in the natural beauty of this exotic destination! Situated 48km north-east of Kochi, on the banks of the river Poorna, Kalady is the birthplace of Sri Adi Sankaracharya, the eighth-century Hindu philosopher. The shrine is a must-see for visitors. Elephant Kodanad is 30km north-east of Kochi situated on the lower ranges of the Western Ghats on the banks of the river Periyar. The wildlife reserve is famous for the elephants and the largest elephant training centre is situated here. The reserve also features a mini zoo. If you are keen to keep your children amused, then make sure you set aside some time for South India’s largest amusement park, situated just 14km from Kochi. Veega Land has many fun attractions, such as mini-castles, water parks, Ferris wheel, rides, slides, shows and fountains.