When we go to India on a buying trip we try to fit in a few days of relaxation – and, of course exploration, somewhere other than Delhi and Jaipur which is where most of our sourcing is done. This year we went to Cochin in Kerala and even sneaked in a couple of days on the beach – but more of that later.
Cochin is a fascinating city – spread across several islands, the historical centre spreads out from Fort Cochin and faces the Lakshadweep Sea. An important spice trading centre since the 14th century it was the first city in India to be occupied by the Europeans and remained the seat of Portuguese India until 1530. Its long and tumultuous history has left its mark – the architecture is a fascinating jumble of Dutch, Portuguese and British influences. Many of these beautiful old houses are sadly left to decay but a lucky few have been restored and turned into atmospheric small hotels.
It is a cliché – but it really is a melting pot of religions. It’s rare in India to witness so many different religions – Hindus, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Buddhists and Jews all living and worshipping peacefully side by side. At one point Bazaar Street came to a standstill with Christians on their way to the huge Holy Cross Chapel just as the call to prayer summoned worshippers to the ancient mosque a few hundred yards away.
Sunday afternoon felt very much like it does in an English seaside town but with all the senses heightened – families parading by the sea, children darting in the waves, hawkers and fruit-sellers, chai wallahs and street food stalls – the salty breeze carrying the sound of Bollywood ballads blasting forth from a music stall. Cochin is famous for the fishing nets – huge contraptions designed originally by the Chinese in the 13th century using a cantilevered system to haul huge nets of fish out of the sea.
Away from the main centre, the narrow, winding streets lined with old painted houses, the red roof tiles overhanging are a great invitation to explore. Jew Town with its beautiful synagogue is also a profusion of shops selling antique (and not so antique) Indian furniture, copper pots and jewels – but sadly for us not many textiles – or none that we found in the short time we were there.
Spices remain at the heart of the old city – the pungent aromas wafting from the warehouses. Inside we found great sacks of cloves, cumin, turmeric, pepper in red, black and white and heavenly green and black cardamom. Our spice racks have certainly been revitalized!
A highlight of our visit – and this is an odd thing - was a visit to the Dobhi Khana (community laundry) – an institution in Cochin where around 40 Tamil families still handwash the clothes from local hotels, hospitals and houses in much the same way as they have been for 120 years. It’s dying out as few young people want to continue this way of life but talking to 85 year old Murrugapan whilst he ironed the last of his pile for the day with an ancient charcoal heated iron, I was struck by his dignity and the pride he took in his work.
Driving south out of the city towards Marari, we wound our way along sleepy, sun dappled roads, the Arabian sea on our right and palm fringed backwaters to our left. Kerala rather grandiosely calls itself God’s Own Country – but I think they have a point. There is something sybaritic about the landscape – it is another face of India where it seems that even those with very little material wealth are able to live relatively contentedly. This is undoubtedly not the case for everyone but it is certainly a softer, easier pace than in the North.
We spent two glorious days at Flamingo’s – a tiny boutique hotel with four lovely rooms nestled by a canal only a short canoe ride away from the magnificent and unending Marari Beach. The act of taking a canoe to get to the beach only added to the allure and along the way we spotted a rather perfect little empty house that might make the ideal local headquarters for Samarkand Design!