Tuesday 22nd November 2016
Fort Cochin: 1 day, 1 night-Happy Camper
Quaint Fort Kochin offers a bizarre mixture of colonial history, all nestled into a small fishing town in the backwaters of Kerala. Portugese churches surround an ancient synagogue and remains of the British Raj, leading to the port that boasts huge Chinese fishing nets. As you meander through the small town streets by bike, you pass through the humble jew town full of the aroma of spices. I have never experienced such an eclectic mix of culture all in such a beautiful little town.
As our last destination in the beautiful Kerala, we based ourselves in Fort Cochin just outside the town of Kochi. I have noticed that in India it becomes very confusing having the old and new names for each town, in this case Cochin and Kochi. We decided to spend one full day in this quaint fishing town, giving us plenty of time to experience what it has to offer. Staying in the fantastic hostel ‘Happy Camper’, the friendly manager Girish drew us out a map of the town to explore by bike for the day. So after our dosa breakfast at the great local Sri Krishna cafe, we set off on our adventure. We first began at the very understated Dutch Mattancherry Palace, which although seemed a far cry from a palace on the exterior turned out to be a fascinating display of artefacts and Hindu mural artwork based on the tales of the Ramayana, which I continue to love. I still can’t ever comprehend how much influence the British had on India. It was here that I learned that the women originally fashioned bare chests, and it wasn’t until the British came over that they deemed it inappropriate. Sadly I feel like this had a negative impact on the future of Indian culture. You wonder how society would be now if this hadn’t been the case. A little less overly-conservative I am sure. The female body is such a taboo in this country and is deemed as highly sexual, hence the need to cover up everywhere you go as to avoid unwanted attention. There is definitely a strange relationship with sex in their culture; it is incorporated into religion as a strong influence, however the men of India still approach the subject very immaturely. They are fascinated by our sex culture, when their own is so intense but incredibly warped. Sex and the art of love making is engrained into their ancient teachings of the Kamasutra, after all. Speaking to our hostel manager, he explained his practice in Tantric Yoga, which puts lots of emphasis on sex and the body. Sounds like more of an orgy to me! After the palace we cycled through to the jew town, which was a lattice of quaint yet gorgeous streets littered with shops and spice markets. It was here that we found the humble synagogue, that was built when the jews fled to India from Palestine. It felt quite odd to experience a jewish sector in India, this is in fact the most active synagogue in the whole of India, with around 15% of Indian jews residing in Kochi. Like many of the important buildings in this town, it was originally destroyed by the Portugese and renovated by the Dutch when they colonised the area. The interior of the synagogue houses around 20 chandeliers all brought over from Belgium; it is an eclectic collection that makes this place rather captivating. Many old paintings within the synagogue depicted scenes of the trade from India many centuries ago. “Teak, Ivory, Spices, Sandalwood and Peacocks” were the main exports by the East India trading company; there was something about this that I found so romantic. As we found our way out of the Jew town, after buying mounds of spices and perfumes, we came across the gigantic Chinese fishing nets which have been used by the legacy of traders since 1400 AD. The large weighted wooden structure is lowered into the water by several men. As it began to rise I was expecting to see a net full of frantic fish, however the outcome seemed a little measly and I couldn’t understand how this was still used with all of the modern fishing methods being a lot more productive. Waiting for the catch were groups of local men gathered around the pots, along with tabby cats hoping the fishermen would drop some of the produce. We then decided that the fruit market was definitely on the menu, discovering fruit we had never tried before like sakku and casda apple! The day ended with dinner at the well known and highly rated Dal Roti restaurant. For the first time I tried a Katti roll which was a south Indian meal of paratha bread with paneer and vegetables wrapped inside. Stuffed and satisfied after our jam packed day, we boarded an overnight seat bus for the long journey to Mysore in the state of Karnataka.
Waking up to a man leaning over me and realising the location of his wandering hands was one of the most frustrating situations I have had in India yet. Batting them away for several times after that, as I continued to sleep, I began to get very angry and eventually confronted them, which they both seemed very embarrassed about (strange). This is one of the major dangers and annoyances you face as a female traveller in India, however I ultimately wish I had not listened to many peoples advice and travelled this country alone, like I enjoy to the most. After feeling pretty frustrated, the sites of the majestic Mysore city emerging through the bus window, began to catch my attention. I had initially intended on leaving Mysore off the itinerary, however after deciding to meet some friends there it seemed like a good mid-way point between Kerala and Hampi. I was relieved that I had made this decision.
Mysore: 1 day-Masala Guesthouse
“If you haven’t been to Mysore, you just haven’t seen South India”, may be a slight overstatement on Lonely Planets part, however this ancient city of fairytale architecture is something I was so glad I hadn’t missed. Rivalling the opulent cities of Rajasthan, it was a nice surprise to experience another flamboyant Indian city with the Southern relaxed atmosphere. Beyond the royal heritage and magnificent markets, Mysore is known for its production of silk, sandalwood and incense, along with making a mean masala dosa and it’s expertise in yoga.
Due to our sleeper bus leaving for Hampi that night, we dumped our bags at the quaint guesthouse where Hattie and Suzey were staying and decided to take a rickshaw tour around the city with the interesting character ‘Master Blaster’. Beginning our tour in the ‘real India’, we were taken down hidden backstreets to see the beautiful handicrafts of the locals. Craftsmen were producing stunning wooden tables with cut out inlays of maharajas and scenes of royal processions, all in teak, sandalwood and rose wood. We watched each stage of process and learnt that each table takes months and months to finish. They are such stunning pieces of art that I would someday love to have in my home. We were then shown the production of the small beady leaf cigarettes, which was one man sat on the floor of his house rolling out thousands of these natural tobacco smokes every single day. Further round the corner we were taken to where they produce incense and scents. We were seated and given chai, whilst they explained all of the natural healing qualities of each oil. Also known as ‘Sandal City’, Mysore is the birth-place of Sandalwood and one of the most expensive oils in the world. We then ventured to a silk shop, which we were told would be the factory, where we swathed ourselves in beautiful jewel coloured silk scarves, and I somehow managed to resist buying them all. This is my one quarm about rickshaw tours, they always take you to shops where they will get commission, which often takes time out of seeing the real sites. Before we stopped for lunch, I was told to visit the Mahalaskshmi sweet shop and try the famous Mysore Pak sweet. Within the shop were shelves of Indian sweets, all highly sugary but completely scrumptious. We obviously decided to try most things until we felt a little sick!
The Maharaja’s Palace, is undoubtedly the grandest and most fantastical palaces that I have ever seen. I thought the Rajasthani palaces were beautiful but this one made me feel like I was in a fairytale. You wander through room after room of beautiful decor with royal murals, chandeliers and stained glass depicting peacocks, to the upstairs which is a huge hall of public audience full of turquoise pillars decorated in gold paint. The whole palace floor is tiled with mosaics, there is no cutting corners here. There is strong evidence of the renovations done by English architect Henry Irwin in 1912, with beautiful mahogany furniture, french glass dressing tables and wrought iron staircases. Unlike most of the palaces I have visited in India, this was less like a museum with artefacts in glass cabinets, and more of about the incredible decor that does not end. I could have explored this extraordinary place for hours on end. The grand exterior matched the interior decor. I will definitely be coming back to the magnificent Mysore.