The dawn of August 26 was clear and fresh after the long and heavy monsoon in Kerala. A gentle wind and patches of white moving clouds adorned the sky. Five of us started towards Fort Kochi & Mattancherry for a heritage walk about 8 am. Kochi can be divided as a twin city. The new town & the old town. The old town can be further viewed as a twincity- Mattancherry & Fort Kochi, each with distinct characteristics.
Just after we passed the Venduruthy Bridge at the Naval Base we slowed down to take a glance at the huge Bat population. 1000’s of bats could be seen hanging on the huge trees there. We stopped at Willington Island. This Island was reclaimed by Sir. Robert Bristow who was a British Harbor Engineer. The entire W. Island is owned by the Port Trust of India. There is no private land in this Island. The Island has many corporate offices, banks & hotels; all leased from the Port Trust. W. Island has an old village called Vathuruthi. The residence at the Vathuruthi have inhabited this village way back at the start of the modern development of Kochi. Their first language is Tamil.
When we were entering the outskirts of the old town, we could see a draw-bridge which was originally built by the British. It still looks sturdy and intact. It is now kept inactive to preserve its monumental importance and value as a historic engineering masterpiece.
We reached Fort Kochi after enjoying a wonderful drive. As we got out of the car something caught our attention. It was a road sign. A speed warning sign that was molded out of concrete. There is no doubt this could very well be one of the oldest road signs in Kochi. Please see the attached photograph from Vasco square.
Walking towards the beach, we were greeted by the imposing and elegant Chinese Fishing Nets. These nets have found its place in every book, website, calendar or advertising materials related to Kochi. It has become the most recognized symbol associated with Kochi, especially Fort Kochi. The history of these fishing nets date way back to the Chinese traders who came here in AD. 1341. The mechanism is believed to be Chinese, though these are now mastered by local fishermen who are experts in the art of fishing; using these nets. There is precise know-how involved for using these nets. The fishermen who work these nets have years of experience working together as a team with timing and physical strength as key factors. One crew with a large net invited us on to their wooden platform so that we could see their skill up close. The mechanism is based on the cantilever technique. The nets are lowered to fall flat under the water balanced by heavy stones which lift up at the other end. The weight of the stones act as a cantilever while lifting the net up. We waited for them to lift the net. They could land only a few small fish the first couple of times. The third one was better. They caught a few mullets & a fairly large Red Snapper. We were told by the fishermen that the operation is based on the water flow or tide; as it is at the mouth of the sea. No bate is ever used. These nets at Kochi are the largest of its kind, compared to the nets in other parts of the world. All through the shores there are small shops that sell and auction fish. You can buy fish from these small shops and hand it over to small restaurants that would cook them for you on the spot, the way you like. We thanked the fishermen for their demonstration, and moved on.
We then walked through the park where we came across mostly English & Dutch buildings. We saw the residence of S. Koder an old Jewish settler who became a very prominent successful business man in Kerala. When we turned the corner on Princes Street we could also see his large warehouse. All through this area, we experienced eclectic architecture on both sides of the street.
Passed Pierce Leslie Bungalow, a mansion which was the office of the coffee merchants, Pierce Leslie & co. founded in 1862. This building reflects Portuguese & Dutch influences. We then passed the Old Harbor House, an old bungalow built in 1808, the Delta Study and Loafer’s Corner/Princess Street. Loafer’s Corner is a traditional meeting place and hangout of the fun-loving people of the area.
A few blocks of walk brought us to the Elite Hotel. It is a very popular shop for tourists and locals. A wide variety of freshly baked bakery goods were on display. We enjoyed banana muffins & tea. The place was clean and neat.
We walked ahead and came to Peter Celli street. This street hosts a variety of restaurants, houses, home stays and small boutique shops.
From there we came to Cuiero’s street. Here we stopped at the popular Niraamaya, the ayur vastra shop featuring a variety of clothes made with 100% organic cotton. We walked further through the small streets with very small shops, old houses etc. Eventually it took us to Vasco House where Vasco Da Gama once lived. There was such an air of nostalgia around this place.
Then we came to the oldest European Church in India. The St. Francis church at Fort Kochi is truly one of the foremost historical monuments at Fort Kochi. The history of this church is fascinating. The Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover the sea route to India when Vasco Da Gama landed at Calicut in 1498. Two years later, they visited Kochi (Cochin) and the Maharaja of Cochin permitted them to engage in trade. Their first permanent erection was a church for divine worship. The new church was completed in 1503 and dedicated it to St. Antony. Vasco Da Gama died during his second visit to Cochin in 1524 and was buried in this church. 14 years later, his remains were exhumed and shipped to Portugal, deposited at Vdigveria where it remained until 1872. It was later moved to the monastery of Jeronimos in Lisbon, its present abode. The original tomb site can still be seen inside the St. Francis Church. When the British captured Cochin from the Dutch in 1795 they permitted the Dutch to retain possession of the church for a time. In 1804 the Dutch voluntarily surrendered the church to the Anglican Communion. We spend a good amount of time inside the church. The nostalgia was overwhelming.
Our next stop was VOC. This used to be Dutch East India Company’s office. Nearby to this office stands one of the oldest Trees in the entire Kochi area. We then came to Napier street, where we could see more of the old Colonial type houses. This street leads one to the beach. Here we stopped by the old Dutch Cemetery. It was getting too warm and sunny by this time, to stay at the beach. So we moved on and started walking through the bazaar road. Before surface transportation started this used to be a street filled with a variety of warehouses. In those days it was mainly water transportation. This entire area is a mix of Colonial and Indian architecture. Then we headed to Mattancherry. On the way we saw the Holy Cross Church. It is a landmark and a church with immense historical relevance. It is a very small church which retains all its old world charm. It was established way back in 1550 and the Oath took place on 3-1-1653. We spent a few prayerful moments at the church.
It is about1.30 pm. We were all hungry. Time for lunch. We had reserved our seats at a famous restaurant.
It is the old Biriyani Specialist restaurant named Kayees Rahmathulla Café’ at Mattancherry. They have been doing successful business here for over 60 years. Their specialty is Mutton Biriyani, but their menu features a variety of cuisines. It used to be a simple old local building. Lately it has been remodeled, but they have been successful in maintaining some of the nostalgic feel.
We were surprised to see some M.F Hussain drawings on the wall. The owner Mr. Musthafa told us that this was a gift from him when he visited the restaurant some time back. We ordered the Mutton Biriyani. We didn’t have to wait long. Our order came, and the flavor was exquisite. As we started, my instant response was-‘just spiced right, and tender meat’. The real flavor of the mutton was highlighted, as the spices were sort of subdued. My usual experience with Biriyani is that it is over indulged in spices. In other words, the spices overpower, and the meat flavor gets diminished. This Kayees recipe is just perfect. We were rather hungry from walking around. We finished our serving of Biriyani. My friends asked if I could handle one more serving. I have never had 2 servings of Biriyani at one sitting. But this is different. This taste is rather compulsive. I said Yes!
When we finished, we asked Mr. Musthafa’s permission to visit the kitchen. He readily complied and escorted us to the kitchen. The kitchen was practically clean and organized, for a busy place like Kayees. The chef explained to us how this special Biriyani preparation called Dhum Biriyani is made. Marinated mutton and pre-soaked special Biriyani rice is mixed in a very large round vessel with a flat lid. The edges of the lid are then sealed off with kneaded wheat flour to make it airtight. This locks-in the flavor during cooking. Another interesting feature about the cooking is that the vessel is subjected to equal heating from the top and the bottom. Finally Musthafa wanted to share some important factors about his success. We were told that he never uses any artificial colour or preservatives in food. Only natural ingredients. He also brings his goats to his personal compounds the previous nights before the slaughter, to prevent unethical practices like feeding steroids and liquids to increase the weight of the animals. He added that in the near future he is planning to maintain a farm outside the city where he will be raising his own chicken, goat as well as vegetables.
We also met ‘Selvan’, who has been mixing the Biriyani servings at Kayees for the past 25 years. It takes a special skill and immense experience to get the servings correct each time. The ratio of rice to meat is crucial.
The manager gave us some insight into their serving times.
Opens at 5:15 am- Breakfast starts.
From 9:00 am to 12:00 noon.
Mutton curry with Porotta, manipathiri, idiyappam, pathiri, chicken curry, egg curry & beef roast are some of the delicacies.
After 12:00 the main lunch is featured.
Tea specials from 3:30 pm.
Kayees closes at 8:30 pm.
After lunch we walked through the Gujarat road housing the famous Jain Temple. The road further took us to the Palace road where we saw the Brahmin’s Street with a few local restaurants and shops.
We then proceeded to Mattancherry. This place is an elaborately painted canvas of the cultural heritage of Kochi. The architecture, the street, shops; all tell stories of the past. Here I had a special goal. To pay a visit to one of the last left Jewish community members at Mattancherry. Reema Aunty is one of the nine Jews left here.
Reema Aunty lives about 100 meters down the street from the synagogue. She has become old and fragile since the last time I saw her, but she displayed an excellent memory. Her daughter living in Canada now, used to be our family friend when I lived in Canada. We chatted for a while, when it started drizzling. So we had to wait. Gave us more time to talk. When the drizzle cleared, we said good bye to Reema Aunty and started walking through the streets of Jew Town.
Jew town in Mattancherry has a number of shops both South Indian & North Indian. Some were antique shops carrying some unique collections. In one of the large shops a real Chundan Vallam (Snakeboat) is displayed.
There are also a few good restaurants and coffee shops at Jew town. They used to be spice warehouses initially. At the outskirts of Jew Town also, we saw interesting architecture and many old spice warehouses.
At the heart of Jew Town is one of the oldest Synagogues in Asia. It is my ardent suggestion that anyone visiting Kochi must spend a few moments here. It is recorded by historians that Jews started to visit this coast as early as the days of King Solomon and they formed one of the earliest links binding the East and the West. In the early centuries of the Christian era, some of them left their homes for good and finally settled themselves in Cochin.
This famous Synagogue of historic importance here at Mattancherry is not only a place of worship, but also a standing monument of the religious toleration and hospitality that prevailed in this part of the country from time immemorial.
It was evening. We decided to head back to the city after a marvelous indulgence in to history.
This visit turned out to be real special for me, because unlike earlier times, we parked our car and walked through the streets. Having done that, I strongly recommend taking a stroll through this entire history rich venue; so as to absorb the true spirit of a precious bygone era. Having lived in the city of Kochi for the past 20 years, spending a full day here at Fort Kochi and Mattancherry opened my eyes to see and feel the startling contrast. Without exaggeration, experiencing Fort Kochi and Mattancherry is like being in a different world. Everything there; the trees, creepers, architecture and monuments tell amazing stories by defining history. At the end of the day I kept thinking: ‘I just finished visiting a special land without having to take a passport or visa!’
Having said that, I think a genuine approach to experiencing Fort Kochi and Mattancherry is to wander around with no preconceived notions. Try to forget about what you have read or seen in websites, including this one. An open mind should help you to enjoy these places better; that goes for the rest of India as well. For example, the Chinese fishing nets at Fort Kochi are practically clichéd. Yet no two days are the same there. No two sunsets are the same there. You are guaranteed to experience a compelling nostalgia at Fort Kochi and Mattancherry that you won’t experience in the rest of Cochin. A visit to Kochi city will never be complete without spending some quality time at Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. As a matter of fact, I feel it should be the other way around. First spend as much time as possible in these places of rich cultural heritage and then visit the city of Kochi. Do bring your camera.Blog