Indian Tales 7 – Fort Kochi

Next morning after a Keralan breakfast of fresh fruit, veg curry and chapati, we wandered down to the beach. Fort Kochi was once a small fishing village, and it is still known for its fishing nets, which drew us down to the coast this sunny morning.

We first strolled along the path; even though it was just after ten, it was hot. Indian visitors were sat in the shade of giant trees, whilst they watched traders on the path sell their pineapples, gifts, fish, clothes, snacks and water. Dinah decided to look through the colourful patterned dresses and shirts and I walked back to the nets to get some shots of the fishermen’s activity.

I climbed over seaweed and litter to a far corner of the bay, then turned for the view of nets stretching down the coast. I created a few photos and then one of the men on the large pontoon that supported the first giant net, beckoned me over. He invited me to walk out onto the wooden platform, down to the front, where he was preparing to drop the net. Egrets, poised and ready, awaited his catch.

“The Chinese made these,” he said.

I looked up at the massive net, twenty metres across, ten metres high, supported by giant stone counterweights and wondered why the Chinese had been in India. I later discovered they were some of the earliest explorers, before the Europeans, in the fourteenth century.

Dinah spotted me, white haired men in India are a rare sight, and joined us on the pontoon. To walk to the front, you had to traverse beams that were a foot across. No health and safety here. Our host demonstrated how the net dropped, ensuing that bodies were away from the descending beams. It was fascinating to watch the boulders, used as counterweights, gently meet the deck, one after the other as the net rose back up. It was only in the sea for a few minutes and the catch was meagre, a dozen fish at most. These would be sold minutes later on the path alongside.

We shared a few rupees for the fisherman’s time and walked back down the path. We agreed to take a tuk-tuk tour on the town and embarked on a relaxed ramble around the churches, temples, museums and spice shops. Vasco de Gama, the great Portuguese explorer, had lived in the town for several years. His life was commemorated in one of the Catholic churches, with a display and claims that it included his bones. Close reading under the headline revealed that he died in Fort Kochin from malaria and although first buried there, his bones were later transferred back to Portugal. What is true is that he opened up the trade route from Europe to India, and as such invited the Europeans to dominate the country.

The Portuguese arrived first, using the port as an entrance to India. They built a huge fort, hence the name, and developed trading arrangements with the local powers. They built churches, monasteries and schools, many of which were destroyed by the Dutch when they conquered the area. As the powers of the Dutch East India Company waned the British took over. The town is now a mix of Catholic and Protestant architecture.

We accepted the invitation to visit the Jain temple, with its swastikas and bossy tour guide. She was a character; tall, severe and authoritative. She herded her charges about the grounds like a primary school teacher, shouting, “No photo. Look here. Look at this. Come on. You look at the temple. No Photo.”

Escaping her clutches we made our way to a women’s cooperative spice market. Established in the, now empty, rickety old wooden food market. The room was ablaze with colourful packets of fresh spices and smelt of your favourite Indian restaurant. We bought a few examples, but it seemed expensive, especially for India, and I resolved to visit our local Indian supermarket to expand my spice collection. The food we had eaten had alerted me to the need to buy whole spices; including cinnamon, black cumin, cloves and star anise.

I forget what we did about lunch, but before the evening meal we visited the nets again hoping to get some sunsets shots. Unfortunately, it was hazy and not as golden as it might have been. Never mind, there was beer to be had.

We made a habit of seeking out beer, and often walked hot evening streets, dodging the inevitable scooters and tuk-tuks, to arrive at an establishment with a selection of Kingfishers. Although this local beer is known to us in the UK, the four varieties available in India, were a bonus. We soon had a favourite. The red labelled strong was far tastier, with a vague alcohol content of “5 to 8%”; a significant possible variation!

Our beers always arrived with snacks. Spicy and salty, they encouraged consumption. But it was in Kerala that we first received sliced raw carrots alongside the spicy crunch. Bizarre, but common from then on.

Later, back at our homestay, the owner confirmed that a driver had been booked for our day trip tomorrow. We were off to the tea plantations around Munnar.

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