Sunday, February 17, 2008

Fort Kochi

Having gotten our fill of the party life, we headed down to Kerala, Goa’s tamer and more pious younger sister. Gone were the liquor stores on every corner, and back were the days of illicit beers served in tea pots that we had first come across in Rajasthan. But, change is good and Fort Kochi – a beautiful coastal city with lots of character - welcomed us to the state with open arms.

Cochin was another Portuguese colony and the old town retains a lot of its historic charm, with a handful of attractive Cathedrals, including the oldest in India. But the Portuguese were not the only foreigners to leave their marks on the city – there is a Dutch cemetery, fishing nets borrowed from the Chinese, and even a handsome synagogue in the area know as Jew Town. Today the city also has a thriving Muslim community, and of course, lots of tourists from the far corners of the world.

Although Fort Kochi’s biggest industry these days is tourism, it is still a working fishing town, with a series of large Chinese fishing nets strewn along the shore. It takes 5 people to work these devices and while the catch looks pretty meager, they are still in operation at daybreak and sunset. The fishermen who take to the sea on boats seem to have better luck hauling in a substantial load of squid, fish and crab, and auction it off to the highest bidder immediately upon arriving at the shore. Fishmongers also line the sidewalk nearby, selling seafood by the kilo that you can bring to any of the local restaurants to have grilled for a small fee. Delicious.

Jew Town today is little more than a relic from history, as nearly all of the decedents of the original refugees who were welcomed here by the Kerala Maharajas a thousand years ago have returned to Israel. But the neighborhood has reinvented itself, with antique dealers and local artisans selling reminders of Southern India’s glorious past, such as intricately carved wooden doors and silver-plated swinging chairs. Alongside the antique shops are several art galleries showcasing a much more contemporary vision of India. As a burgeoning center for modern art, Fort Kochi is home to many talented young painters, sculptors and photographers.

A more ancient art form – Kathakali theater – is also practiced today in Fort Kochi. Events from the Hindu epics Mahabharata and Ramayana are acted out by incredibly costumed characters who use animated facial and hand expressions, rather than words, to tell stories through dance. On sacred occasions the storytelling goes on all night, and actors must study for nearly a decade to become proficient.

Fort Kochi’s modern day cousin, Ernakulam resides across the bay and is a modern city in India’s most progressive state. Kerala is run by the Communist party and boasts the highest literacy rate of any area in the developing world. But, its politics have also hindered outside investment and economic growth has lagged behind some other parts of India. Fortunately, the tourism industry – catering to both newly moneyed Indians and foreigners – is helping to bring some much needed opportunity to an educated populace that has historically had little career potential. While there appear to be both benefits and drawbacks to a highly socialized state, there continues to be strong ongoing support for the current political leanings, with red banners and posters saturating the towns we passed on our bus ride south.

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