Things to do and see in Fort Kochi, Kerala

Fort Kochi happens to be that quaint corner of Cochin or Ernakulam, which has now become one of the busiest cities of Kerala. Wrapped in centuries of history, Fort Kochi stands there as a melting pot of various European cultures and the existing native population. This port town, which was called Muziris in the ancient times, attracted hordes of merchants and visitors from Rome, Persia, China and Arabia till it was destroyed by a devastating flood in the 14th century. Much later, in the 16th century, this trading hub, now turned in to a fishing village, was visited by the Portuguese, who built a fort by the waterfront for their own commercial purposes and thus Kochi got rechristened as Fort Kochi. However, this fort was destroyed by the Dutch invasion in 17th century and later Fort Kochi also witnessed the arrival of the British in the 18th century. The British controlled Fort Kochi till India got its independence in 1947.


This place has still retained its old world charm in its sidewalks lined by trees laden with colourful bougainvilleas, bungalows with long winding driveways and porches, houses and buildings displaying European architectural style, large wooden doors and windows taking you back to the description of colonial era from history books and black & white period films. This place is laden with history, architecture, culture and much more. I spent about three days there in the beginning of the year and tried to soak in as much of it is possible at a leisurely pace. I started off with the two important churches, followed by couple of cultural shows back to back at the Kathakali Centre, an art exhibition of world repute, a palace, a synagogue, gorged on some aromatic, finger licking seafood, which happens to be an integral part of their local cuisine and the iconic Chinese fishing nets. Kerala massages and a few yoga classes early in the morning will really relax you up. 


Given below is a list of places I saw and activities, I indulged in :

St. Francis Church

This exquisite piece of history happens to be the oldest European church in India. St. Francis CSI Church in Fort Kochi has been the silent witness of the European upheaval in the Indian subcontinent right from 15th century. The church originally constructed by the Portuguese, eventually came under the possession of Dutch and later British. An old Dutch baptism and marriage register, which dates back to late 17th century is preserved in this church. Many Dutch citizens visit the church to trace their family roots from the register. The church also has a similar British register.


What is more interesting is the fact that the great Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama was buried inside the church for about 14 yrs till his son decided to take his mortal remains back to Portugal. The small cenotaph in the lawn of the church, which has been erected in the remembrance of the Kochiites who laid their lives in World War I, reminds us of the test of time this quaint little structure has withstood. .

Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica

Originally built by the Portuguese, the Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica at Fort Kochi is one of the 8 basilicas in Kerala. This is one of the finest and most impressive churches in India. The interiors are richly endowed by the Gothic style of architecture and pastel colours. The main altar was decorated by the famous Italian painter Fra Antonio Moscheni, the columns are decorated by murals and frescoes and the beautiful stained glass windows simply add to the artistic grandeur of the place.
By the way, don't miss to notice the painting of Last Supper hanging on the top, which is modelled on the famous painting of Leonardo Da Vinci?? This basilica displays 7 such large canvas paintings on the passion and death on the cross.

Kathakali Dance Performance

You visit the God's own country and give Kathakali shows a miss?? Not just possible, right?? After all we have read about dance forms from various parts of the country in our social studies text books. So, no matter how much you know what to expect in such shows, catching one of those while in Kerala gives you the right essence of the place and culture. Kathakali Centre, in Fort Kochi houses these cultural shows. One can walk in to the centre and procure the tickets or can ask for the same at the reception or front desk of your respective hotels and home stays. These dance and martial art shows are conducted every evening without fail. 

While I knew what a Kathakali performance will be like, yet I was taken by awe when they let us witness all that goes in to the make up and face mask of the Kathakali Dancers. Before the performance starts, the performers peacefully lie down and submit themselves in the hands of these extremely skilful artists, who with absolute expertise and finesse, play with colours on the face and fix the pieces of the mask with natural adhesive. The colours used are all natural colours and not the artificial ones bought from stores outside. Coloured stones are rubbed on a hard surface to get these colours of their choice. Such is the precision that in no time this whole mask and face paint gets over while the spectators look on and a perfect Kathakali dancer is ready to perform before you.

Like any other dance forms of Indian classical dance art, this too includes vocal performers, music, foot and hand work, facial gestures to express ideas. What sets this dance form apart is the elaborately colourful make-up, costumes and face mask wearing actor- dancers, who have been traditionally male performers.

Kalaripayattu

Kalaripayattu - A martial art form originated as a style in Kerala, southern India almost 3000 yrs back. The word Kalari has been used in literature to describe battlefield or combat arena. The techniques used in it are typically adopted from the ones used by various animals to hunt or protect themselves. There was a time when man had to depend on his own strength, reflex and ability to protect himself from all sorts of physical danger. It saddens me to see such an ancient art form is gradually dying and currently is practised by only 6 families out here. However, it is only recently that a 73 yrs old lady, Meenakshi Raghavan, who is practising and promoting this dying art form is recognised and awarded Padma Shri, the fourth highest civilian award in India.


Kathakali Centre conducts Kalaripayattu shows every evening. Tickets can be procured from the centre directly or from your respective hotels or home stays. I was staying in a quaint and cosy travellers' hostel, from where I got my tickets of both Kathakali Dance performance and Kalaripayattu show. The evening was entirely free for me. So, watched both the shows back to back. I am putting a video of one of the pieces from the show, I watched. This, I would like to believe, is my small effort and contribution to spread the word about this very ancient, traditional, precious but dying art and thus prevent it from getting lost in the oblivion. 

Mattancherry Palace

This extremely modest looking structure is also popularly called the Dutch Palace and houses quite a few well kept Kerala murals depicting portraits and exhibits  of the Royal family of Kochi. The detailed narrations give you a detailed and rich insight to the times and life of the age it was built in. This palace was built by the Portuguese in 1555 and gifted to the king of Cochin. There are a couple of temples inside and outside the courtyard of the palace. The one inside the courtyard is dedicated to the family Goddess of the Kochi royal family.

Paradesi Synagogue

This place is at a walking distance from Mattancherry Palace. The road to the Synagogue goes through the Jew Town, which is a bustling market place teeming with curios, incense sticks, colours, handicrafts and artefacts. In the busy yet picturesque alleys of Jew Town in Fort Kochi, the shimmering decor of the alleys can really keep you busy while walking past. Check out the knick knacks or the antiques displayed on both sides of the queer lanes.

'Paradesi' is a commonly used Indian term for foreigners and this synagogue gets its name from the fact that it was built by Spanish speaking Jews, who came to Kochi centuries back like many other foreigners and the then King of Kochi, Rama Varma was kind enough to allot a land for the construction of a synagogue pretty much adjacent to his own Mattancherry Palace. Today this happens to be the oldest functional Synagogue in the Commonwealth of countries.

Chinese Fishing Nets

Wondering what are these oversized hammocks doing by drooping themselves on the water?? Well.... these are the hallmark, which represents Fort Kochi on the tourist map. These huge cantilevered nets are called Chinese Fishing Nets or 'Cheenavala' in local Malayalam language. Once a simple fishing accessory has now become a tourist bait in this quaint little town. These are believed to have been introduced to Kochi by Chinese explorer Zheng He from the court of Kublai Khan and got established here in the beaches of Kochi between 1350 to 1450 AD. The Chinese nets suspended in mid air and standing in line by the beach at Vasco Da Gama Square in Fort Kochi, give you beautiful photo moments if silhouetted against the sunset. It's just a little walk away from St. Francis Church but it is advisable to visit this beach either early in the morning during sunrise or in the evening during sunset. This makes up for an ideal evening walk but stay little wary of the touts around, who are always on a lookout to fleece you by offering to help you operate these huge contraptions.

Kerala Massage

While you are making the most of it by walking all over Fort Kochi, you can't simply stay away for a relaxing Kerala massage. These Ayurvedic massages can be so rejuvenating, relaxing and absolute value for money. I picked up Ayurville from a list of so many. It was little difficult to find the place but was well within walking distance, in Bishop Garden behind a chapel. What I liked about this place is the warm, homely and welcoming atmosphere of this place unlike the usual commercialised places. They patiently explain to you the kind of massages they have to offer and then they take utmost care to ensure your muscles are all relaxed and the fatigue of walking and exploring for hours is completely gone by putting the right amount of pressure all over. It is advisable to call them beforehand to fix an appointment and then visit. The details of this place can be found at their website www.ayurville.com.

Yoga and cooking classes

If you happen to have time, then you could attend these short crash courses of yoga and cooking. I attended a yoga class in the Kathakali Centre itself where I had to show up early in the morning at 6 am. Anitha and Ramesh, the husband-wife duo teach you a few asanas, along with the proper techniques and benefits, which you can practice on a regular basis for your overall well being. 

Talking about Kerala and not mentioning food, can be considered sacrilege. Hence, I tried out all that I could in that short a time and the seafood there is to die for. The spices they use and their cooking techniques are something, which you might want to smuggle off. So, there are lot of cookery classes conducted for the tourists and culinary enthusiasts thus giving them an insight to the gastronomical delight. Depending on your interest and time you can choose between the elaborate or crash courses that are offered.


I had a lot to take away from my 3 days trip to Fort Kochi. Apart from all that is mentioned above, I was fortunate enough to catch the prestigious Kochi-Muziri-Biennale. For those who haven't heard of it before, this happens to be an international exhibition of contemporary art, which takes place every two years and runs for couple of months in various prominent and beautiful venues of Fort Kochi. So, I spent about half a day browsing through the beautiful paintings, sculptures and structures of art displayed in various sea facing and waterfront heritage properties like Aspinwall, David Hall, Pepper House etc. They had Durbar Hall of Ernakulam also as a venue but I didn't go there. If your travel schedule ever coincides with Biennale then you shouldn't give it a miss. People travel from far off cities in Kerala and even from other states to experience and be a part of this elaborate and prestigious exhibition. 


Quick tips :

1. Try to stay indoors during the middle of the day as it can get really hot and sultry during the day.
2. While most of the places are close by yet it is advisable to keep your vehicle handy or get hold of an auto for commuting within the Fort Kochi area.



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