They say no visit to Fort Kochi is complete without seeing the Pardesi Synagogue.
And, on our day trip to Kochi last December, my husband and I shot around the old port town trying to “see” as many places as we could. And when it was almost time to leave, we realized we had somehow missed the synagogue.
“But we have to,” I told my husband, imploringly.
And so we did, backtracking to where it all began some 400 years ago.
The Pardesi Synagogue was built in 1568 on the land gifted to the Cochin Jews by the Raja of Kochi. It still stands tall (despite a Portuguese attack in 1662) and remains to be the only functioning one among the seven other synagogues which dot the Jew Town in old Cochin. The area, bustling with activity—car-filled streets, antique shops and old offices housed in crumbling buildings—is evocative of the times gone by: the air is thick with humidity and a sense of nostalgia about a community who lived there centuries ago.
The synagogue, maintained by the World Monuments Fund, in association with the Jewish community of Cochin and the National Culture Fund, is a white building, two storeys tall. A brief walk around the place, and I was glad we had made the extra effort to come back here. The interior, bedecked with glass chandeliers and floors made from 18th century oriental tiles (no two tiles were alike), was a striking reminder of the once prosperous Jewish community of Cochin.
We didn’t get as much time as we would have liked in Jew town, and as I left I made a mental note of the places I didn’t see: the old cemetery, the Mattencherry Palace…all the places I would see when I came back.
We set off on our journey back to Vasundhara Resort, our hotel in Valayar. We had been there for a week now, and only two days back did we find out that they organized customized day trips in and around the region as well: to the local village, to the toddy shop on the island nearby, and to Fort Kochi! Images of Chinese fishing nets and old churches came to mind. “And yes, the Biennale is on too,” the receptionist informed us. So Kochi it was.
When we arrived that morning, we headed straight for Aspinwall House, one of the main venues for the ongoing Kochi Muziris Biennale. India’s first and only Biennale, founded in 2012 by the artists Bose Krishnamachari and Riyas Komu, the 108 day long show was spread across a number of venues (from galleries and halls to heritage houses and buildings in disrepair) across town displaying works by the best names in contemporary international art. While we aren’t certified connoisseurs of art, most of the works on display were indeed fascinating. And as we walked out of Aspinwall House—a sea-facing heritage building—fifty installations later, my mind was swirling, just like the Anish Kapoor installation we saw in there; of a live, walled whirlpool (called Descension), dark and endless, intimidating and compelling in equal parts.
The energy of the biennale was all-encompassing and permeated out of the exhibition spaces to the rest of town, which seemed to have turned into a giant canvas of sorts. There was colourful graffiti on street walls, the landscape visibly altered to celebrate the event. One would find “art” in the unlikeliest of places: from the beach to the back of an auto-rickshaw. We had lunch at Kashi Art Cafe, famous for its cups of frothy coffee as much as its art-filled canvases, and then headed off to the Kerala Folklore Museum. Three storeys tall, the museum is a typical Kerala-style wooden house and has over 4,000 artefacts, all collected and curated by the owners themselves. The museum, which was built over seven years, also has a performance space where local artistes frequently put up Kalaripayattu, Theyyam and other folk art performances.
As we drove out, I realized that Kochi was one of those rare places in India (and probably the world) which was a ‘melting pot’, in the truest sense of the term. We passed the huge cantilevered fishing nets installed along the northern shore of Fort Kochi brought all the way from China 500 years ago, old Portuguese style bungalows and ancient churches, and heritage home stays (names of which I efficiently jotted down for future reference). Almost halfway through our journey, we stopped for a chai break. It was then that I spotted a sign that said “Museum of Kerala History”.
Across the road, by the ticket booth, we were surprised when asked for Rs 50 (each) as the entrance fee—pretty high for a government-run establishment. But later, as we delightfully discovered, the Museum of Kerala History was a privately run show and a treasure trove of contemporary Indian art. Needless to say our five-minute chai break turned into a fifty minute one, as we browsed through halls of art which had works of all the known names, from Nandal Bose to MF Hussain. The Museum also had other wings including a visual arts gallery, a space devoted to miniature art, and a dolls’ museum.
It probably requires a lifetime to really get to know Kochi. We had to live the lifetime in one day and while it certainly wasn’t enough, we now had an excuse to come back. Until next time, Kochi.