Sharing the South with God
Enthralled with thoughts of warmer weather, sunlit beaches, verdant islands, palm trees, and above all, the calmness of an area (it’s even relaxing in the airports), I flew to Kochi, formerly called Cochin, in the State of Kerala which is often described as the “land of coconut.” Setting down in a landscape replete with spice and exotic plants; seeing men walking around in short sleeve shirts, I removed my jacket to enjoy the sunshine in this city made up of lagoons, islands and inlets divided by narrow waterways.
I have wanted to visit this region that stretches out along the blue Arabian Sea because I wanted to observe the cultural remains of past migrations to India---the route taken by the first humans out of Africa thousands of years ago. It is also a region that will attract the well-traveled client: one who has been to India perhaps, or a first-timer with time enough to see both northern sites as well as adding the south for an unforgettable combination. This is a region that will attract special interest clients -- those interested in Jewish heritage, or honeymooners, for instance.
Kochi, often called “Queen of the Arabian Sea,” and slightly smaller than Switzerland, is the epitome of India long ago. A port-of-call for traders for thousands of years, the Arabs began trading way before Islam. The earliest mosque in India is said to be the pretty old wooden prayer hall at Cranganore, north of Kochi.
European Settlements and Occupations
Occupied by the Portuguese in 1503, the city was the site of the first European colonial settlement in the country and remained the capital of Portuguese India until 1530 when it moved to Goa. Kochi was later occupied by the Dutch and the British and was the first princely state to willingly join the Indian Union when India gained independence in 1947.
The Jews, it is said, traded with Southern India in spices as far back as King Solomon, and it is in Kochi where one finds the oldest Jewish enclave in this nation of 1.3 billion. The Jewish community has been a part of the Indian mosaic for more than two millennia.
Very early on, Near Eastern Christians settled here on the Malabar coast where Kochi stands only 170 miles from the southernmost tip of the Indian subcontinent. The city is proud of the country’s oldest European–built church, St. Francis, erected in 1503 and a popular sight. Vasco da Gama, the first European to reach India was buried here for 14 years before his remains were transferred to Portugal. The tombstone remains inside the church now used by the Church of South India. Sunday services are held in English at 8 a.m.
Kochiites, as the residents are called, are an important element of South Indian culture, certainly influenced by different foreign settlements.
Walking the streets, one can easily see the diversity in people’s faces: Tamils, Gujaratis, Jews, Sikkimese, Anglo-Indians, Konkanis and Tuluvas. They speak Malayalam, the main language of communication and medium of instruction, although nearly everyone speaks English in this state, a state my excellent guide P. Ghopal proudly tells me has the highest literacy rate in India.
Within Kochi and outside the city, visitors will marvel at the splash of traditional Keralan dress, a marked contrast to western clothes. Men wear colorful long white cotton lungi, a long piece of cloth wrapped around the waist, with batik patterns. South Indian women wear saris.
Heading to Mattancherry, a part of old Cochin City , specifically to Synagogue Lane in what is called Jew Town and one of the centers of the Kochi spice trade, I notice that shopping is in full swing. Alongside small houses, kiosk-type stores and booths dot the area. Crowded, busy, lively, friendly salespeople in a section known for bargaining and antiques.
On Synagogue Lane, we met Sarah Cohen in her souvenir shop, sewing yarmulkes (skull caps) for tourists. “We’re happy,” she said, referring to Cochin Jews, but perhaps “happier when our people were here.” Most Jews of Cochin emigrated to Israel after the Jewish state’s independence in 1948. Sixty years later, only about a dozen Jews live near the synagogue and another 50 reside in Ernakulam, another section of Kochi.
All the guides, tourist brochures and maps highlight this synagogue built in 1568. The original building was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1662 and rebuilt by the Dutch two years later. Scrolls of the Old Testament and a number of copper plates inscribed with Hebrew scripture are preserved in this house of worship at the end of Synagogue Lane.
Stunningly bedecked with chandeliers and colored glass lamps, the synagogue has been declared a historical monument by the Indian Government. Hand-painted China tiles highlight the floor of this Paradesi Synagogue; they were shipped from Canton in 1762 and no two tiles are alike. Outside this place of worship, which has the distinction of being the oldest surviving synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations, looms a graceful clock tower built in 1760 and displays dials in Hebrew Malayalam and Roman numerals. This prayer house, which is open Sunday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to noon and from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., stands on the ground near the palace of the Maharajah of Cochin overlooking a Hindu shrine.
Beyond Bazaars and Bargains
If bazaars and bargaining are not your client’s style, they can travel to the bustling town of Ernakulam to textile stores such as Seematti located on Mahatma Gandhi Road, and near the Taj Residency hotel. Seematti is a multi-story textile shop, though I am told those interested in pashminas are apt to find better deals up north.
Guide P. Gopal points out the Kairali Shop, also on Mahatma Gandhi Road, known for exclusive products such as wood-carvings, metal, cloth fiber. The Kerala State Government runs the shop; no bargaining permitted. In fact, there’s no “negotiating” price in any shop in Ernakulam, according to Gopal. Not too many tourists arrive; no parking facility. However, a short 20 minute walk from the Taj Residency can bring one to Kairali.
Incidentally, because shopping is such an integral part of tourism, Kerala holds an annual Grand Kerala Shopping Festival in December.
Among the must-sees in Kochi: Koder House at Fort Kochi, the first European town. Built during the British period, Kodae House is a heritage hotel with a fine restaurant.
Kochi has a population of about 600,000 but an extended metro-area counts 1.5 million. Visitors notice the economic boom taking place here, the high rise apartment buildings and offices, the likes of which reflect that India is on the move with a nine percent economic growth rate and the world’s fastest growing major economy after China.
Kochi, where even the streets are calm, remains a place that you can indulge yourself,---especially after visiting the 19-million-mega-metropolis of Mumbai. Boat rides are very popular here. For example, guests at Taj Malabar and Taj Residency hotels can take a harbor cruise which starts at 5 p.m. and concludes at 7 p. m. Sailing around the islands in the backwaters and watching the city skyline from a slow-moving boat can bring about that peaceful interlude that one occasionally needs on this sub-continent.
Those lucky enough to be in Kochi during August /September, can witness elongated snake boats in the Vembanad Lake.
For the very high-end traveler, Taj Malabar is a heritage, five-star hotel located at Wellingdon Island. Old World charm reigns here; the name of the swimming pool is “Infinity.” From the pool, visitors enjoy the sunset and slow moving ferry boats, ships, and even single-oar canoes.
I also found the four-star Taj Residency, to be sophisticated and extremely comfortable for American tourists as guestrooms are spacious. Don’t overlook a super buffet, a view of water scenery and the evening entertainment.
Not to be missed is the Bolgatty Palace, located on Mulavukad Island that was built by the Dutch in 1744. A bridge connects the island to Kochi. Once a mansion of the British Resident, this structure now stands as a high-end hotel managed by the Kerala Tourist Development Board.
Ah, Goa, the trendy in-destination, especially for honeymooners. The “hedonism of its sun, sand and sea,” calls to me and like thousands of tourists who still want to stay south of Mumbai, but who love the civility found in Kerala, we head north.
But not too far north; even though I am an intrepid traveler, I want to stay close to the safe, natural harbors I found in Kochi, a corner of “God’s own country.”
Traveling with Land Experts
Raju Banerjee, business development manager of award-winning Indus Travels, agrees with this writer that “ the south is nature at its best.” She went on to say that the area “is totally different” from the north of India ---especially “the culture and the influences of the Christian missionaries.” Indus is selling a new tour called “Classical South India.” Call 866-978-2997;www.industravels.ca
Anshuman Khanna, a travel consultant at SITA World Travel in Encino, CA., highlighted SITA’ s “Silks and Spices” 15-day deluxe tour, that travels through the backwaters of southern India with stays at a lodge or resort on Lake Vembanad. The tour starts in Mumbai and goes to Bangalore, Chikmagalur, Mysore, Cochin, Kumarkom, Periyar City, Madurai and Chennai. Call 800-421-5643; ext.1507; www.sitatours.com
Sky Bird Travel and Tours has launched Sky Vacations with the eight-day, “Classical South India” tour, from Chennai, to Kancipuram, Mahabalipuram, Madurai, Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, Kumarakom ending at Kochi. Call 877-666-3113; www.skyvacations.net
Picasso Tours’ 12-night “The Exotic South” tour, travels from Chennai, to Tanjor, Madurai, Ponticherry, Cochin, a journey which ends in Mumbai. A three-night extension to Goa is offered. Call 888-463-4249; www.picassotours.com
STI Travel LLC located in New Jersey announced a new portfolio of FIT & Group Tours to India. Two years ago, STI inaugurated its new office in New Delhi, India, which operates inbound and outbound tour packages to several destinations in the Middle East, China, South America and Europe and India from the U.S.
In early 2009, STI Travel will roll out its “Signature Journey Series” to India, which was designed to appeal to special interests such as: Wellness, Royal Retreats, Eco-Tourism, wild Life and others. Call 800-570-0304; or visit www.sti-travel.com
For Agents Only
So Many Flights to India
Air India offers 41 direct flights from the U.S. and Canada, and also flies daily non-stop from New York to Delhi and Mumbai. Delta Air Lines has launched ( a new daily nonstop flight between Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Mumbai, although it has discontinued its flights from New York to Mumbai.
Continental Airlines flies non-stop from Newark to Mumbai and Delhi. Lufthansa has grown in the India market and counts 45 non-stop flights weekly from Frankfurt and Munich to six gateways in India.
Within India, this writer can attest to Mumbai-based Jet Airways, India’s largest privatized airline that is in the midst of a massive global expansion.
My flights on Jet Airways, from Delhi to Mumbai and on to Kochi and back to Mumbai were convenient and reliable.
For information, contact the India Tourist Office, 800-953-9399; 212-586-4901 (E. Coast), or 213-380-8855 (W. Coast), or visit www.incredibleindia.com