Kochi (Cochin)

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Spreading across islands and promontories between the Arabian Sea and the backwaters, Kochi (long known as Cochin) is Kerala’s prime tourist destination. Its main sections – modern Ernakulam and the old peninsular districts of Mattancherry and Fort Cochin to the west – are linked by bridges and a complex system of ferries. Although some visitors opt to stay in the more convenient Ernakulam, the overwhelming majority base themselves in Fort Cochin, where the city’s complex history is reflected in an assortment of architectural styles. Spice markets, Chinese fishing nets, a synagogue, a Portuguese palace, India’s first European church and seventeenth-century Dutch homes can all be found within an easy walk.

While the majority of visitors use the city as a base for day-trips into the surrounding backwaters and satellite villages, there’s nothing to stop you doing the opposite, basing yourself in quiet backwater locations out of town – such as Vypeen Island to the north, or Kumbalanghi to the south – and travelling in to see the sights by bus, taxi or auto-rickshaw. There is some outstanding homestay accommodation in Kumbalanghi village.

Getting to Kochi

By plane

Kochi’s international airport – one of India’s most modern and efficient – is at Nedumbassery, near Alwaye (aka Alua), 29km north of Ernakulam. A prepaid taxi into town costs around ₹800 and takes 45min or so, traffic permitting. Modern, comfortable a/c airbuses also cover the route more or less hourly, running to Fort Cochin.

By train

There are two main railway stations, Ernakulam Junction, near the centre, and Ernakulam Town, 2km further north. The Cochin Harbour Terminus, on Willingdon Island, serves the island’s luxury hotels. Ernakulam Town lies on Kerala’s main broad-gauge line and sees frequent services to and from Thiruvananthapuram via Kottayam, Kollam and Varkala. In the opposite direction, trains connect Ernakulam and Thrissur, and Chennai across the Ghats in Tamil Nadu. Since the opening of the Konkan Railway, a few express trains travel along the coast all the way to Goa and Mumbai. Although most long-distance express and mail trains depart from Ernakulam Junction, a couple of key services leave from Ernakulam Town. To confuse matters further, a few also start at Cochin Harbour station, so be sure to check the departure point when you book your ticket. The main reservation office, good for trains leaving all the stations, is at Ernakulam Junction.

By bus

The KSRTC Central bus stand, beside the railway line east of MG Rd and north of Ernakulam Junction, is for state-run long-distance services. Reservations for services originating here can be made up to twenty days in advance. There are also two stands for pricier private services: the Kaloor Stand (rural destinations to the south and east) is across the bridge from Ernakulam Town railway station on the Alwaye Rd, while the High Court Stand (buses to Kumily, for Periyar Wildlife Reserve, and north to Thrissur, Guruvayur and Kodungallur) is opposite the High Court ferry jetty. The Fort Cochin bus terminus serves tourist buses, local services to Ernakulam and the airport bus.

Getting around Kochi

By ferry

Kochi’s dilapidated ferries provide a cheap and relaxing way to reach the various parts of the city. The most popular route for visitors is the one connecting Ernakulam’s Main Boat Jetty and Fort Cochin/Mattancherry’s Customs Jetty. Also leaving from Ernakulam are ferries to Bolghatty Island and Vypeen Island. The latter has two routes – one direct, and another slower service via Willingdon Island. From Fort Cochin’s Government Jetty (10min walk west of Customs Jetty), you can also hop on a flat-bottomed vehicle ferry across the harbour mouth to Vypeen Island. Tickets should be purchased prior to embarkation from the hatch (separate queues for ladies and gents).

By bus

KSRTC is in the process of upgrading its ageing fleet with new, state-of-the-art, low-floored Volvo buses, coloured bright green or orange. The new vehicles – used on prime routes such as the run between Fort Cochin and the airport – are cleaner and more comfortable, but there remain plenty of the old rust buckets in circulation and they’re invariably crammed to bursting point. Frequent services run throughout the day between Ernakulam and Fort Cochin, though the ferry is a lot more enjoyable. If you miss the last boat back at 9.30pm, don’t wait around for a bus (departures are sporadic and horrendously packed at that time of night); jump in an auto-rickshaw instead.

By motorbike

I-One’s-Two Wheelers, at 1/946-A Njalipa-rambu (the lane opposite the entrance to the Kerala Kathakali Centre, near the Basilica in Fort Cochin) has Enfields for rent, as well as a few automatic Honda Activas. You’ll need to leave your passport as security.

Accommodation in Kochi

Most foreign visitors opt to stay in Fort Cochin, with its uncongested backstreets and charming colonial-era architecture. There are, however, drawbacks: room rates are grossly inflated (especially over Christmas and New Year), with few options at the budget end of the scale. Ernakulam may suffer a dearth of historic ambience, but it’s far more convenient for travel connections and offers lots of choice and better value in all categories. Wherever you choose to stay, book well in advance.

Eating in Kochi

Foreign tourists tend to congregate at the pavement joints along Tower Rd near the Chinese fishing nets, drinking warm beer disguised in teapots. Your rupees will stretch further in Ernakulam, where you’ll find some of the best traditional food in all south India.

Shopping in in Kochi

While serious shopping in Ernakulam tends to be focused on MG Rd and the mega malls to the north of the city over in the tourist enclave of Fort Cochin, a combination of lookalike Kashmiri emporia (best avoided) and more individual boutiques, handicraft and curio shops cater for the passing foreign trade; the Ethnic Passage next to the synagogue in Jew Town has a number of these under one renovated two-thousand-year-old roof. Jew Town is also the hub of an established antiques scene, with some of the largest and most spectacular showrooms in India – a legacy of the post-1960s exodus of the district’s Jewish population to Israel. Some approach the scale of small museums, with chunks of temple masonry, carved wood pillars, religious sculpture, doors and windows. Original art by local painters also features prominently in the galleries of Jew Town.

Kochi’s shopping malls

Kochi’s massive shopping malls are prime leisure destinations for the city’s well-heeled middle classes. On Ernakulam’s MG Road, Centre Square has a food court and the eleven-screen Cinépolis, plus the usual international, air-conditioned stores. Some 7km north of the centre, around Edapally Junction and spread over six storeys, the Oberon used to be the high temple of modern Keralan consumerism until it was usurped by the colossal LuLu Mall, a sixteen-acre complex 2km further north, with a seven-screen multiplex, eighteen food outlets and parking for three thousand cars.

Old Kochi: Fort Cochin and Mattancherry

Old Kochi, the thumb-shaped peninsula whose northern tip presides over the entrance to the city’s harbour, formed the focus of European trading activities from the sixteenth century onwards. With high-rise development restricted to Ernakulam across the water, its twin districts of Fort Cochin, in the west, and Mattancherry, on the headland’s eastern side, have preserved an extraordinary wealth of early colonial architecture, spanning the Portuguese, Dutch and British eras – a crop unparalleled in India. As you approach by ferry, the waterfront, with its sloping red-tiled roofs and ranks of peeling, pastel-coloured godowns (warehouses), offers a view that can have changed little in centuries.

Closer up, however, Old Kochi’s historic patina has started to show some ugly cracks. The spice trade that fuelled the town’s original rise is still very much in evidence. But over the past twenty years an extraordinary rise in visitor numbers has had a major impact. Thousands of tourists pour through daily in winter, and with no planning or preservation authority to take control, the resulting rash of new building threatens to destroy the very atmosphere people come here to experience. That said, tourism has also brought some benefits, inspiring renovation work to buildings that would otherwise have been left to rot.

Fort Cochin

Fort Cochin, the grid of old streets at the northwest tip of the peninsula, is where the Portuguese erected their first walled citadel, Fort Immanuel, which the Dutch East India Company later consolidated with a circle of well-fortified ramparts. Only a few fragments of the former battlements remain (the outline of the old walls is traced by the district’s giant rain trees, some of which are more than two centuries old), but dozens of other evocative European-era monuments survive.

A good way to get to grips with Fort Cochin’s many-layered history is to pick up the free walking-tour maps produced by Kerala Tourism. They lead you around some of the district’s more significant landmarks, including the early eighteenth-century Dutch Cemetery, Vasco da Gama’s supposed house and several traders’ residences.

Walking around the old quarter you’ll come across several small exhibition spaces and galleries – evidence of Fort Cochin’s newfound status as one of India’s contemporary art hubs. The scene takes centre stage between mid-December and March when the Kochi-Muziris Biennale draws artists and collectors from across the country with its mix of film, art, performance art and new media hosted by half a dozen different venues.

Mattancherry

Mattancherry, the old district of red-tiled riverfront wharves and houses occupying the northeastern tip of the headland, was once the colonial capital’s main market area – the epicentre of the Malabar’s spice trade, and home to its wealthiest Jewish and Jain merchants. Like Fort Cochin, its once grand buildings have lapsed into advanced states of disrepair, with most of their original owners working overseas. When Mattancherry’s Jews emigrated en masse to Israel in the 1940s, their furniture and other un-portable heirlooms ended up in the antique shops for which the area is now renowned – though these days genuine pieces are few and far between.

Ernakulam

With its fast-paced traffic, broad streets and glittering gold emporia, Ernakulam has more of a big-city feel than Thiruvananthapuram – despite the fact it’s marginally smaller. Other than the contemporary art on display at the small Durbar Hall Art Gallery on Durbar Hall Road, and the remarkable folklore museum on the southern outskirts, there’s little in the way of sights – if you spend any time here, it’ll probably be to eat at one of the area’s famous Keralan restaurants.

Running parallel to the seafront, roughly 500m inland, Mahatma Gandhi (MG) Road is its main thoroughfare, where you’ll find some of the largest textile stores, jewellery shops and hotels.

Kerala Folklore Museum

Ernakulam’s one outstanding visitor attraction is the Kerala Folklore Museum, on the distant southeast fringes of the city. Housed in a multi-storey laterite building encrusted with traditional wood- and tile-work, the collection of antiques includes dance-drama masks and costumes, ritual paraphernalia, musical instruments, pieces of temple architecture, 3000-year-old burial urns, cooking utensils, portraits and ancestral photographs – to name but a few of the categories amassed by founder and avid antiques collector, George Thaliyath.

Its crowning glory is an exquisitely decorated theatre on the top floor, decorated with swirling Keralan temple murals and dark wooden pillars. It’s only open for exclusive, prearranged kathakali performances.

Around Kochi

While the majority of visitors use the city as a base for day-trips into the surrounding backwaters and satellite villages, there’s nothing to stop you doing the opposite, basing yourself in quiet backwater locations out of town – such as Vypeen Island to the north, or Kumbalanghi to the south – and travelling in to see the sights by bus, taxi or auto-rickshaw. There is some outstanding homestay accommodation in Kumbalanghi village.

Backwater trips

Coir-production, rope-making, toddy-tapping, fishing and crab-farming are the main sources of income in the backwater villages south of Kochi. Easily reachable via the national highway, they’re scattered over an expanse of huge lagoons and canals, flowing west behind a near-continuous beach.

You can dip into the region for a day on one of the popular trips run out of Fort Cochin by KTDC, or with a community-based tourism initiative based at Kumbalanghi village – an award-winning project where proceeds are shared among the locals. The cost of the latter tour is ₹1400 (or ₹800 without lunch). You also have to budget for transport to and from the village. The trip is most easily done by auto-rickshaw; if travelling by bus, head for Perumamapadappu, aka “Perumbadapu” on Google maps, and catch an auto from there for the remaining couple of kilometres.

Thripunitra

Some 12km southeast of Ernakulam and a short bus or auto-rickshaw ride from the bus stand just south of Jos Junction on MG Road, the small suburban town of Thripunitra is worth a visit for its dilapidated colonial-style Hill Palace, now an eclectic museum, as well as its fabulous temple festival, held in October or November.

Cherai Beach

The closest beach to Kochi worth the effort of getting to is Cherai, 25km north on Vypeen Island. A 3km strip of golden sand and thumping surf, it’s sandwiched on a narrow strip of land between the sea and a very pretty backwater area of glassy lagoons. Chunky granite sea defences prevent the waves from engulfing the ribbon of fishing villages that subsist along this strip. Nowhere, however, is the sand more than a few metres wide at high tide, and the undertow can get quite strong. Even so, Cherai is gaining in popularity each year, and a row of small resorts and guesthouses has sprung up to accommodate the trickle of mainly foreign travellers who find their way up here from Fort Cochin.

Top image: St. George Marthoma Church on the streets of Kochi, India © Vladimir Zhoga/Shutterstock

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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