Friday, May 14, 2010
Kochi (Cochin) and Kozhikode (Calicut)
(The Chinese fishing nets along Kochi coast look like elaborate apparatus to do something more than simply catch fish, but this is one of the many living artifacts that have survived and become a part of everyday life here.)
Nora's first time visit to India started with us taking a fast-short trip to Kerala, specifically to two very beautiful town-cities Kochi and Kozhikode with travelling Sahil as our host, translator and glocal guide. This was my first trip to Kerala and had the best time.
A continuous blanket of dense tropical cover growing over red laterite soil, every now and then sparing space for houses, roads and small town centres that occur with calculated uniformity throughout the state get purged together by the heavy humid air that seems to blur boundaries between forest and the city. The two cities mostly lay hidden among the multi-storeyed emerald green foliage anchored to the sky by coconut palms and towering over a lush ecosystem inhabited by purple crested, yellow winged, orange bottomed birds, lizards and mammals all chirping, hooting, singing and laying equal claims to this "gods own country" and all spotted, classified and explained in precise detail by Sahil. The climate and soil lay the stage for fertility and its worship, nature grows and devours at the same pace that all man made gets eroded, corroded, mossed over adding to the green that seems to envelope and seep through just about every thing.
Kuttichira Jami Masjid in Kozhikode with its skew that changes the axis of the street.
(Sahil explained that this mosque, one of the many old mosques present in Kerala built by the Arab traders who were then provided to settle and have families here by the then ruler the Zamorins comes up in a time when Islam has not formalised its Islamic Architecture and so these mosques look completely different from present day mosque. Moreover the architecture of these mosques is also influenced by the local artisans and craftsmen more at comfort with making boats & Asian temples.)
Both the cities are port cities and have their genealogy influenced by global trade that assured their place in stories by travellers, map makers, explorers and historians. A place visited by Arabs, Chinese, Portuguese, Jews and many more people from different places which hadn't become nations, belonging to faiths that hadn't become religions and all in search of places that hadn't been seen on world maps. These two cities certainly took roots in a time when the world had a place for curiosity and cultures mixed more seamlessly, with one of the oldest Jewish synagogues having its floor adorned by Chinese tiles, some of the oldest mosques having pitched roofs and ornamentation done by Hindu boat making artisans, Portuguese churches responding to tropical climate, fishermen using Chinese fishing nets and Indian spices unifying all these differences, that got traded and bartered along the silk route.The experience of seeing oldest institutions, housing typologies, neolithic carvings, endemic flora and fauna and many other artifacts from a stage where man, nature and civilizations were swimming in primordial soup of forming our present is no short of magic, like an archeologist's dream of time evidenced by living fossils.
(The pedestrian path to the Jewish synagogue presently serves as a flea market for tourists but has very interesting shop and house typologies that contain elaborately carved and conserved smaller artifacts like wooden posts, statues, doors, windows, brass handles etc.)
The Jewish synagogue is a very good example of one such architecture formed out of mixing of historic and cultural narrative. The synagogue was originally built around 4th century by the Malabari Jews who had come to be a prosperous trading community in Kerala. This synagogue was destroyed by the Portuguese in 1500s. The second synagogue was built through Dutch patronage and with protection from the Raja of Cochin and so came to be known as Paradesi synagoge which translates as foreign synagogue.
(A houseboat on the Kochi backwaters.)
The Backwater is a labyrinth of lakes, canals, dykes, islands, rivers all separated and connected by nature and man strategically to channel tidal sea water and inland freshwater to form a very unique ecosystem of fantastic natural beauty. This was one of the highlights of the trip, that allowed us tourists to voyeur into this ecosystem while the locals went about their everyday lives.
P.S. Somewhere out there in Kerala is a grandma who makes the best prawn pickle, which I prescribe as the top of the list food that you pack in case of a nuclear winter, apocalypse, or in everyday life. Happiness guaranteed even if you don't see the sun for the rest of your life!