Fort Kochi : Culture Vultures hover in God's Own Country
Kochi Travel Blog› entry 248 of 268 › view all entries
February 17th, 2010 – by: Stevie_Wes
It wasn't in Fort Kochi (Cochin) that I took my first footsteps in 'God's Own Country' having visited friends in Kovalam to the south beforehand. But this shall be my first broadcast from Kerala state. A state 'As Close to Heaven as it Gets' as another favourite Kerala Tourism Department road sign slogan often enthuses.
Kerala, one of India's most densely populated states, is from many perspectives an Indian success story. Not entirely of course. Infrastructure development (better roads etc...) is seen to unduly lag behind owing to Socialist concerns about displaced, adequately compensated peoples from such projects for one example.
The unfortunate truth of course is that the only analyses of 'success' that ever seem to matter to those who matter are those viewed in purely economic terms. But whilst its commercial vital statistics may not prove as exciting to the bean counters as they might like, Kerala has crafted itself over the years into a real jewel in India’s rich tourism treasury, and this is where it enjoys present success and looks to the future to keep a strong economic pulse.
The relationship between money and culture is often a problematic one. Tourism often the go-between the two. A grubby pander for the former and pimp to the latter. It would be over simplifying to state that money, chasing culture like some colourful or rare, prized game creature eventually hunts the latter to near extinction or a worse fate. But undoubtedly there’s something of the scenario of cultural captivity whereby traditions, social customs and curios often suddenly find themselves continuing to exist only in proscribed 'unnatural' environments. Neutered, domesticated, docile and often dumbed down for the continued and more comfortable digestion of those with an appetite for, but no longer the will or energy to hunt such things out anymore. The culture vultures.
But anyway, forgive me, I digress before I've even commenced today. Fort Kochi right? Once you escape the bland modern grot of new town Kochi, Ernakalum and spirit yourself to the old Fort Kochi area you will find yourself most comfortable within your quaint new surroundings. Fort Kochi is an easy place to spend some warm, fuzzy, cosy, no-hard-decisions days. Luxury only ever half a step away for those in need. It's an exceedingly charming destination albeit the kind of charm that's become a little over-ripe or varnished by its attempts to keep the Big Dollars, Big Euros and Package Pound Sterlings happy as they flood through buying spices and memories and juicy bite-size chunks of Culture served up on a platter.
There are the photogenic Chinese Fishing nets strung along the old harbour wall whose most fruitful catches here these days seem to be the shuffling squads of Japanese, American and Euro tourists ushered onto their wooden platforms to 'help' haul up the impressive and impressively fishless nets. These do look attractive at sunset with their silhouettes etched against reflected watery gold. Pulling back from the harbour front, behind the small park area and a line of the spectacularly gigantic trees that erupt from the peninsula's soils like humungous furry spiders of coral, you find a series of streets populated almost entirely with semi-to-very fancy cafes and restaurants, hotels, internet cafes and your first experience of the countless 'antique' shops that are to be found in Fort Kochi selling tacky replicas or actual reclaimed pieces of Kerala's remaining physical heritage to be exported out of the country.
Fort Kochi is famous for its historic role in the fledgling international spice trade. It seems strange at such a remove that the fates of so many nations were stitched together by the fight over table condiments. Salt and pepper wars. As Cochin was one of so many focal points in the East for the fierce competition to gain control of this lucrative market all those centuries ago. The crushed, aromatic, powdery spice silvers and golds of the Malabar Coast.
A stroll along the northern periphery road that runs from the Old Harbour area will bring you to the district of Mattancherry where even today the export of spices remains an important facet of the local economy. Ignoring most of the buffed up shops claiming to be the 'Kerala' or 'Fort Cochin Spice Market' interesting glimpses of the old broken down, but still functioning spice warehouses can be had although some of these too cater to tempt and please the cameras and wallets ushered in by organised tours and rickshaw drivers.
Just follow your nose in Mattancherry. A trace of saffron or nutmeg in the air. The ever present punch of ginger. The cracked dry sweetness of cinnamon. I stop in a small tea house for some delicious black-pepper tea and a bottle of ginger beer that nearly fizzes my nose off like a firework. Mattancherry does not possess any sense of the frenzy of the international trading post that it once must have been. Somewhat cowed and calm, comfortably ramshackle and collapsed in its old age.
With some peering behind these many broken, rust studded wooden doors that front the old shops and warehouses you might get a lucky hand-waving invitation in to inhale at closer quarters the real sweat and labours of the local Spice Boys. I follow a trail of peppery aroma that coaxes my nose across the street.
I take a stroll away from the road in search of the waterfront.
Come evening, back at the old harbour area besides the now dormant Chinese fishing nets, the last round of fisherman return to shore to auction off their more successful catches. Chief amongst the prey are the large silvery-blue King Fish whose chunky white meat is not unlike the Brit favourite Cod. These are hoisted from the boats by the tail and then lain out on a tarpaulin mat where a man rapidly auctions them off one by one, a stream of breathless hyper-syllabic Malayalam gushing from between his lips, to the local fish stall holders or restaurant chefs. You can negotiate the purchase of your own fresh choice sea food from the harbour seafood market stalls and take your 'catch' to any of a number of restaurants nearby who will cook it to your order.
The majority of the fishermen here are Muslim. A small pocket of Muslims amidst a strongly Catholic Christian community. Not unusual. The work of a fisherman often being frowned upon as dirty, unrewarding work by Hindus and Christians alike in India. Employment to be reserved for the poorer classes/ castes even in communities as profoundly connected to the sea as Kochi. Cuttle fish are being crated up in vast numbers too. A man lifts and wrings them out, tentacles down, one after the other like sopping sponges to expunge the excess defensive ink that proved no help against nets.
One of my most enjoyable experiences in Kochi is attending one of the many truncated Kathakali performances that are put on to pep up peoples' visits with a little Kodak moment of colour and culture in Kochi (and indeed throughout Kerala). Kathakali translates as 'Story' (Katha) 'Play' (Kali) and is a long-standing traditional form of art performance in Kerala.
For time and attention-span strapped tourists though the usual fare is a three hour program the first hour or so of which is an observance of the careful, almost ritualistic application of the performers' makeup, a half hour crash-course demonstration and explanation of basic Kathakali facial and body language and then an hour or so excerpt performance from one of the corpus of 101 tales that Kathakali draws from.
The theatre stage is composed entirely of varnished wood. Possibly teak? The backdrop a carved house porch entrance in the classical Mayali style, the door criss-crossed with brass bands and studs. Three small brass bells and two oil lamps are suspended from the structure. The crowned effigy of a Kathakali performer sits at the apex of the entrance and shortly before the performance a man lights diya lamps along the stage front and draws white-powder rangoli patterns upon the ground. A stocky gentleman in a burgundy mundu (or lungi) approaches and sets himself down front centre stage.
Not content with their cosy seat in the cosy close little theatre with their mega-zoom lenses for assistance, many of those with cameras are up and out of said seats, shuffling their bums past everyone to break free and flood towards the stage - the closer one gets to Culture the better right? - like a school of voracious photographic piranhas snapping away. They thrash and flash up against the stage where Prince Bhima has since been joined by two fellow performers one of whom is busy smearing gobs of ochre and peach foundation all over his head, the other applying black and red geometric patterns to his visage in a clear forerunning of Star Wars' Darth Maul.
The Kathakali performance is one of the most interesting and enjoyable things I witness in 'God's Own Country'.
It's a tension and a threat that one encounters and ponders time and again whilst tramping the tourist trail.
It's several weeks after having these first thoughts and leaving Fort Kochi that I set to re-reading, ten years on, The God Of Small Things by the Keralan author made famous by its publication, Arundhati Roy. Even more rich and beautiful in its descriptive dexterity, imagery and luscious linguistic inventiveness to my mind now than a decade ago, and enriched of course by my immersion into the physical and cultural Keralan landscape it blossomed from, I am arrested by a couple of passages that touch on the subject I have in hand.
'But these days he has become unviable.
She, through the eyes of her twin children protagonists Esther and Rahel describes their dancing alone in the temple grounds for the shame and humiliation they feel and for the forgiveness of the gods they seek for what they do. What they must do to survive. To eat, and to support their families. 'Their truncated swimming pool performances. Their turning to tourism to stave off starvation.' Their becoming not much more than a 'Regional flavour'.
This reality is echoed in one of the nine extended interviews of William Dalrymple's latest book on India (and the last one I read in the country) Nine Lives : In Search of the Sacred in Modern India. A book that concerns itself with this idea of the fate of belief and tradition in the face of modernity and within which the author spends some time with a Keralan theyyam dancer. Theyyam another ancient regional tradition (one I do not witness), whereby the dalit or 'untouchable' caste performers are believed to become possessed by the Gods and become temporarily capable of acts of prophecy and bestowing blessings and healings. A tradition recognised as Intangible Cultural World Heritage by UNESCO (a sure enough sign that something's going down the chute).
Whilst it's a sad admission it's one that must be conceded from the point of view of those Kathakali performers given to nightly satisfying the grinning tourist masses and their 'imported attention spans' (to quote Arundhati once more), it's a living, and a very good one at that compared to some of the alternatives modern India might offer them.
So there we have it folks. Yet another 'What the f**k is this guy rambling on about when he's supposed to be telling me about such-and-such a destination?!' blog entry. But there you are. And you're getting used to me by now, right? Besides, at the time of writing ( 22/03/2010) this particular little culture vulture is in Sri Lanka and supposedly on a self-imposed 'holiday' from blogging, a promise to myself that these 8 pages, whatever their merit or not, prove I'm incapable of sticking to! ;)
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