Kochi (anglicised name: Cochin) is now an inclusive name for various towns, including the district of Ernakulam. It is an important port city of Kerala. Though the newer parts of Kochi are like any other bustling metropolitan city, my wanderings in the time-warped Fort Kochi reminded me of the time I had spent in Ubud, Bali or in Montmartre, Paris. Like Ubud or Montmartre, Fort Kochi also has the visibly overpowering presence of arts and artists. Since the entire state is coastal and is perennially damp, the moss and algae-covered walls of the main square here are no deterrent for the artists. They charge on regardless, and cover these walls with their awe-inspiring art.

The entire area exudes an aura of medievalism and Europe – quaint cafés; streets lined with thick, solid, aged trees; ancient churches; and stunningly green creepers adorning the walls. Boutique hotels and elegant eateries doubling up as art galleries, now also dot these streets, which were once just a peaceful abode of affluent natives.

While many a bollywood producer has preferred the narrow lanes of Bunol or Saint-Paul-de-Vence for their song-and-dance sequences, I chanced upon an ad-agency shoot complete with its own Bollywood star (Ranbir Kapoor and his air-conditioned caravan), in these narrow streets replete with character. Intelligent decision, I must say. Why spend a fortune when you can get a similar or a better locale closer home.It wasn’t my first visit to the city. I had been here many times earlier, but for work. This time the agenda was purely photography. The city confused me a bit, the culture seemed an amalgamation. Upon doing some reading, I realised that the city was an amalgamation of Portuguese, Dutch and British influences. If you look around carefully, these influences will leap out at you. Interestingly, you’ll also find houses where instead of cars, boats will be parked outside. And the local transport would include ferries along with buses. You will also spot well-maintained waterfront cafés with pleasing views.

And that is not all. The city is the home to the oldest church in the country. St. Francis Church in Fort Kochi was built in 1503. This church was the original ‘final resting place’ of Vasco da Gama when he died in 1524, till his body was finally taken back to Portugal fourteen years later. A stone’s throw away is Santa Cruz Basilica, another church from the same era (built in 1505). Close by, within the same precinct, a set of period buildings house the Indo-Portuguese Museum and the Bishop’s house.

When I planned a trip to Kochi, my friend Chanchal, who was hosting me there, suggested that I should visit when the Onam festivities were on. Typically, these festivities last around 10 days. I took his suggestion, and though it rained quite frequently during my visit, the visual delight called Kochi managed to keep my mood and morale on a high.

The big day during Onam festivities is ‘Thiruvonam’. Legend has it that Mahabali, the Asura King who was tricked by God Vishnu to go underground (Paataal) since gods were jealous of an Asura king making his people and subjects prosperous, comes back on this day to meet his subjects. The various activities that mark Onam celebrations are an elephant procession, floral decorations (floral rangoli or pookalam), temple Kathakali performances, boat races, the traditional nine-course strictly vegetarian Onam feast or Onasadya, and Pulikali (Puli = Tiger; Kali = Play).
With a bit of time juggling and commutes to nearby places, I managed to catch most of these activities. Though the big boat races are considered to be the ones in Kottayam, Aranmula and Alappuzha, I caught one in Kumarakom, just 62 kms from Kochi. For me, a first time viewer, the entire atmosphere was electric. The backwater stream was lined with people, many small boats were flitting around near the banks to catch a better glimpse of the action, couple of decked up boats ferried the officials and other VIPs around, loudspeakers were blaring with an on-going commentary in Malayalam, and the biggest excitement of all was the presence of a ‘Chundan Vallam’ – the longest of the snake boats which is normally rowed by 101 oarsmen. Overall, a delight for the senses, I would say.

My host had organised an elaborate spread (Sadya) for lunch on Thiruvonam. The following day, I made my way to Andhakaranazhi (an estuary in Chertala Taluka), and subsequently to Cherai Beach not far from Kodungallur (anglicised name: Cranganore). The beachfront now boasts a few luxury properties hosting visiting tourists. Along the way, I came across the largest number of Chinese nets I had seen installed in a single location.

I wrapped up my visit with a short trip to Thrissur (74 kms). This was to experience the celebration called Pulikali. There are Pulikali teams that represent various localities. Through elaborate make-up and masks, the members of the teams are made to look like tigers. These teams then dance their way through various routes, congregating in the city centre, where the entire city assembles. A jury judges them and gives them prizes – based on the ovation and reception they are accorded by the crowds gathered in the city centre. The make-up of each of these participants takes up to 3 days. To say the least, the sight was colourful and chaotic, yet culturally rich.

A vacation to this city is surely recommended as it offers long stretches of clean beaches, modestly priced exotic food, a vibrant cultural visual extravaganza, and some great heritage places that definitely merit a visit. You’ll find few other places that offer such diverse, yet rich, experience.

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