Walking out of St Francis church, I see a tour guide escort a group of British visitors into the building, leading them to a flight of steps to sit on and remove their shoes in comfort. "In India, it is customary to remove shoes before entering any temple," he informs them solemnly, in a thick Malayalam accent. It is interesting how India swallows centuries of influence and regurgitates them -- churches become temples and English takes on the twang of our numerous local dialects and accents.
It's not just foreign languages that have found a home here in Fort Kochi. Almost five centuries ago, the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama died during his third visit to India. He was buried in St Francis Church, which he helped build. Later, his remains were shipped to Lisbon and today, the church contains Da Gama's empty burial vault.
Withstanding the test of time
The Chinese, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British have all been here and left their mark. And that defines the essence of Fort Kochi today, along with its Hindu, Jewish and Christian flavours.
It was in the early 16th century that the Portuguese built Fort Immanuel and established Fort Kochi (an insignificant fishing village at the time) as one of India's primary trading spots. The Dutch took over from the Portuguese a century later and Fort Kochi continued to flourish under them, as it did, later, under the British. When I enter, carpenters are renovating the church. The high wooden ceilings and brilliant stained glass windows have clearly withstood centuries of such well-meaning restoration.
Trapped in the net
Fort Kochi has centuries of history and culture squeezed tight within a few square kilometres of narrow lanes, all of which lead to the sea. As I get out of the car at the main Vasco Da Gama Square, I catch sight of idle Chinese fishing nets, waiting for tourists and the tide to begin their descent into the sea.
These picturesque nets operating on a simple cantilever system came along with the first visitors from the court of Kublai Khan in the early 15th century. Many of them lie broken today, and my driver says that few local fishermen know how to repair them. The ones in good condition are a major attraction, cleverly trapping fish and tourists alike.
There are stalls right behind the nets ready to cook the fish caught fresh: "you buy, we cook". A couple of fishermen notice me looking at the nets and offer a demo; they are taken aback when I bargain with them in Tamil and quickly bring down their price to "for you only madam, Two Hundred Rupees ".
The other side of town
On the other side of Fort Kochi is Jew Town, home to several generations of Jews who first came to India to trade during the time (or so it is believed) of King Solomon's reign in Israel. Most of their descendants have left India. The few that remain think of Malayalam as their own language. Today, Jew Town is known for its array of antique shops with eye-catching displays spilling on to the street. There is a statue of the Goddess Lakshmi in a bright red sari standing on a pink lotus, Ganeshas of various shapes and sizes stand beside her, boxes of spices and exotic Indian perfumes, bronze utensils, travel guidebooks scattered carelessly -- most of the stuff is kitschy and utterly fascinating.
The oldest synagogue in the country, built in 1568 and decorated with incredible blue Chinese tiles and Belgian chandeliers lies in Jew Town, but most of it is off-limits to visitors. The adjoining Mattanchery Palace (or the Dutch Palace) however is open to all. It doubles up as the local museum with rare photographs and notes about the long history of this tiny island. For an entry fee of Rs 2, I spend an hour gazing at the vast collection of arms and coins, and the murals in the first floor and the basement, most of which depict scenes from the Ramayana. The murals are breathtaking, with their rich vermillions, vibrant ochres and deep reds of vegetable dyes. The blues and indigos, a feature of mural work in the North and West, especially Rajasthan, are missing; only one solitary figure of Vishnu is painted dark green.
The basement has another room depicting what can only be described as the Kamasutra of the gods; Siva playing with Vishnu-Maya as Parvati looks on in anger and envy, in one; Siva playing with Parvati herself seated on his lap, in another. And Krishna in rasa leela. As I walk up the steps into the fresh air, I take a moment to utter a silent prayer in gratitude that these have endured the test of time. Like everything else in Fort Kochi.