Visiting Vasco in Cochin: Part 2

Cochin Synagogue
Late Sunday afternoon was time to go on our guided tour of Cochin. After a stop to view the shore, some shady rain trees, and the Chinese fishing nets (a row of big nets attached to cranes that were once used to mine the Arabian Sea for fish), we moved on the Mattancherry Palace, the former home of the Maharajahs of Cochin.

The palace had some of the accoutrements one would expect the Rajahs to have, including incredibly dark teakwood ceilings, royal portraits, swords, fancy costumes made with gold and silver thread, palanquins (man-handled carriages for rajahs and ranees) and howdahs (elephant carriages) and a mural series depicting scenes from the Ramayana. The paintings were very detailed and very colorful, but they left me a bit depressed because I felt that they weren’t being kept in the best of conditions. Photography wasn’t allowed within Mattancherry, yet windows and doors were left open so that the heat and humidity could flow right in. I suppose those are the conditions that Mattancherry has always existed in, but I got the sense that my friends who work in art and art conservation would have been appalled.

Visiting Vasco in Cochin: Part 1

One of my favorite dialogues from Seinfeld has to be the one where Jerry and George discuss their favorite explorers. [mp3] Jerry likes Magellan. George likes DeSoto:

Jerry: What did he do?
George: Discovered the Mississippi.
Jerry: Like they wouldn’t have discovered that anyway!

Well, I’ve always liked Vasco da Gama. Columbus may have discovered America, but he was supposed to be going to India. Da Gama actually set out to find a passage to India, and he found it! I have always really liked his name, too. It has a nice ring to it. I’m sure if he were alive today, he’d probably be designing shoes for Barney’s.

Nevertheless, when we booked our Kerala trip, one of the sights I knew I had to see was Vasco’s former grave in Cochin. He was buried in the city’s St. Francis church for 14 years before his remains were disinterred and moved to Lisbon.

On another note, I was also intent on seeing Cochin’s Synagogue, the oldest one in India (and, quite possibly, in Asia). Anthony and I had been lucky enough to stumble upon a photography exhibit on the history, culture, and dwindling population of the Jews of Cochin in Washington last spring. There are quite a few links about the community online, but I wish I could remember the name of the photographer whose pictures and videos set our trip itinerary in motion.

Kerala: Boating on the Backwaters

Kerala Kettuvalam (aka houseboat) The second leg of our Kerala weekend took place aboard a Kettuvalam, or houseboat. Historically, Kettuvalams were used to transport rice, coir, or other products down the Keralan backwaters. But most of the ones you’ll see these days have been reincarnated as houseboats for tourists. For the most part, the Kettuvalams are welcomed by the locals, as they are somewhat eco-friendly (at least those with inboard (rather than outboard) motors) and they help to add money to Kerala’s growing tourism coffers. On the other hand, their presence ? and, more importantly, their passengers’ presence ? creates an unspoken tension between the haves and have-nots. In such situations, it’s hard not to feel guilty.

Both guilt and awe came from the scenery that passed us by as we sat in amazingly ergonomic cane chairs on the upper deck of our boat. We boarded right at the resort, so our first sight was of the red-tiled bungalows receding in the distance. Then, it was just inky water and coconut palms. We were also able to get a better view of the long-neck ducks that had been migrating to the area. Those ducks were divers, and their heads looked pretty serpent-like when they bobbed on the water waiting for bugs or minnows.