Kochi

Overview

Introduction

Known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea, Kochi, India is home to beautiful lagoons, lakes, islands and greenery that offer a lovely setting for a stay of a few nights.

Located 670 mi/1,080 km southeast of Mumbai, Kochi was once visited by King Solomon, and it was the intended destination of Christopher Columbus, who thanks to the wind actually landed a few miles north along the coast at a place called Calicut (now Kozhikode). A marker denotes the spot where he actually arrived on shore on 20 May 1498.

Long famed in the history books, Kochi (formerly known as Cochin) offered refuge to fleeing Jews more than 2,500 years ago. (Descendants of those Jews remain in the region today.) Jew Town also is home to a number of craft and antiques stores. Most allow you to buy a large shipping container that can be filled with merchandise and then shipped back to your home. The area is also known by another popular name, Spice Town. There used to be a pepper exchange that traded in the stocks of spices; even today, a faint scent of pepper hangs in the air.

Also worth checking out is the Pardesi Synagogue. Built in 1568 and rebuilt in 1664, the interiors of this place of worship are attractive, if a bit gaudy. The floor is paved with hand-painted, willow patterned blue and white tiles brought from Canton, China, by Ezekiel Rahabi. Each unique, they tell the story of a mandarin's daughter who fell in love with a commoner. Suspended from the ceiling are 19th-century oil lamp glass chandeliers imported from Belgium. Opposite the entrance, a delicately shaped ark with elaborate carvings houses four scrolls of the Torah encased in gold and silver. All of this finery points toward the wealth of the Jewish community amassed from the spice trade.

The first European colony in Kochi was founded by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and their influence can still be detected. They were followed by the Dutch and, eventually, the British. The cosmopolitan mix of cultures makes the city fascinating. See the tombstone marking the original burial place of Vasco da Gama at St. Francis Church (his remains were later sent to Portugal), and visit some of the city's other churches, temples and mosques.

Two academies teach and give demonstrations of Kalaripayatt, believed to be one of the oldest martial arts, or check local arts listings to attend a Kathakali play, the traditional story-plays of Kerala performed by men in elaborate painted masks. To learn more about the culture of Kerala, take the 6-mi/10-km ride to Edapally to visit the Museum of Kerala History.

At some point in your stay, take a small launch to Bolgatty Island to view the British governor's residence, which is now a hotel and a nice place for tea or dinner. It was originally built by Dutch traders in 1744.

If you're interested in shopping for rosewood, shell handicrafts or spices, go to Mahatma Gandhi Road. We also thoroughly enjoyed our half-day boat trip on the canals to nearby Alappuzha.

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