Fort Kochi : Culture Vultures hover in God's Own Country

Kochi Travel Blog

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Malabar Coast Gold
'Preserve our culture for posterity' - Kerala Tourism Department

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.
The fantastic trees that erupt out of the island soils of Fort Kochi (formerly Cochin)
  The only state in the world to speak a palindromic language, Malayalam (i.e. reads the same backwards or forwards) and the first state in the world ever to democratically elect a Communist government.  One that still presides (bar a few brief oustings) fifty years or so on.  Painted blue and red hammer and sickle symbols of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) adorn many an unguarded surface in this and other states, vying for your attention and allegiance with the images of the upheld open-palm blessing gesture of the Indian National Congress party.

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.
I just love the bonkers Malayali cinema posters :)
  Such ’concerns’ have proven off putting in the past to potential inward/ foreign investment into the states economy.  But Kerala bucks many of the depressing trends that contribute to keeping India placed 134th (out of about 183 nations) in the UN Human Development Index, having an admirable health care system, a life expectancy 10 years higher than the national average and the highest male and (perhaps more importantly) female literacy rates in the developing world.  A 91% female literacy rate I believe I read somewhere and you know what they say about the importance of educating mothers I’m sure.  

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.
Peeking behind opened doors in Mattancherry
  There might be an argument to be made that the world has been tamed more successfully by tourism than by any other human endeavour or folly.  It’s a good/bad, happy/sad situation and I’m as much a part of the problem/ solution merry-go-round as the next member of the camera toting mafia.  So what’s a tourist-cum-traveller to do?   

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.
Signs and Colours

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.
The Ginger Women
  Shops such as 'Crafters Collection : The Art of Identity', 'The Jewel Mine' or 'Royal Heritage Arts and Crafts Emporium : Where Art is Treasure and Jewellery is a Custom'.   For the right price Everything Must and, it seems, can Go.

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.
Traditional (I think Karnatikan?) textiles work [detail]
  The usual colonial leap-frog of international warfare and politics saw the Portuguese here first to be superseded by the Dutch and they in turn superseded by the British through the efforts of that Empire's most notorious of conduits, The East India Trading Company who had one of their very first ports in India and its markets here on the Keralan, 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.
The 'driftwood aesthetic' of the old spice district of Mattancherry
  I cringe at the periphery of a group of French tourists as we all guiltily snap at three women, smiling and seemingly happy in their labours, bent down to the dusty ground sorting piled stems of sun-dried, pressed ginger from a mountain of the stuff that rises up behind them.   An entire courtyard of it lies baking under the midday sun outside.

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.
Mattancherry, Fort Kochi street scene
  The old partly broken down boys sit in their lungis and chat in the shade of old partly broken down buildings and doorways.  Aged bones propped up by aged architecture.  Traces of the wooden finesse of Dutch era buildings buried irretrievably deep beneath over-layerings of paint and neglect or worn by weather and time to the appearance of driftwood, marine salvage architecture.  Everything held together (or not) by decades of accrued rusted metal bolts, locks, braces and bars.  An appearance appealing in its own way.    

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.
Locks 'n' wood (abstract)
  Inside one small warehouse men in their coloured, patterned lungis sweat away in the close, spiced atmosphere weighing, bagging up and machine-stitching shut large white nylon sacks of black pepper corns.  These little char black spheres are scattered all over the floor.  The air in here is spiky and seductive.  One of the labourers has a sneezing fit.  Well, if you will work in a pepper store!  It's the task of three sinew-strained men to heave the full sacks onto their heads, carry them outside and stack them onto to the long two-wheeled carts that it will be some other chaps job to haul, with the two wooden pole grips beneath his arm pits to a larger store house or dock later on.        

I take a stroll away from the road in search of the waterfront.
Boat jetty
  A moment away from the antique shops and craft art galleries of Jew Town and the precincts of the Dutch Palace.  ( 'How do they all survive?' )  I scurry alongside a warehouse building and break out onto a small concrete jetty at the end of which bobs a well weathered boat named the Ajimon-2, it's coloured reflection splicing apart in the rippling waters.  The sound of crows and metal sheeting being hammered somewhere overwhelms the gentler lapping of water momentarily.  A boy lies asleep inside the cabin upon the control panel of the boat.  A livelier deckhand waves me over to watch as his friend in a shallow two-man canoe pulls up a modest drop net they'd earlier set out around the boat.  He pulls along in front of the prows of other slumbering boats; the Jesus and the Nithiyam amongst them.
No fish for supper today :)
  The catch is not good.  Just one tiny flickering silver fish in the whole net.  I have to turn away in case this one paltry prisoner wriggles free, drops back into the sea and completes this minor tragic scene.

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.
Thrashing spices in Mattancherry
  Weighing anything up to 10 kilograms or more the going rate for King Fish is apparently about 300 Rupees (£4) per kilo wholesale.  Most boats seem to bring in four or five of these glistening beasties.  The rainbow shimmer of their bellies trying to defy their deaths with colour.  

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.
Spices and pepper bagged up and ready to spread their aromas in the wider world
  Their iridescent tiger-striped bodies beautiful though now sad and lifeless, like the King Fish, in all but their fading-bloom colours.  Squashed modern art compositions of flesh and tentacle and oversize eyes, haphazardly arranged in the ink-stained red plastic boxes they are hauled to the weighing scales in.  200 Rupees (£1.25) for a fish or 2 kilos.

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.
Communist Party of India (Marxist)
  It is notable both for its incredibly flamboyant costumes and makeup and for the fact that the entire language of performance is in the form of sign and body language.  Tales of heroism, conflict, love and loss imparted via an extremely complex and subtle lexicon of hand gestures and facial expressions.  These accompanied and sometimes dictated by the rhythms of drums and percussion.  A genuine Kathakali performance, traditionally performed within temple grounds for a local village populace during the three month 'dancing season' (Mid Jab- Mid March) can last for anything from 6 to 8 or more hours and it takes at least 12 years of specialist training to attain the various skills and the right to perform.  

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.
Street Wall (detail)A
  Tonight we have the slaying of the evil demon 'black hearted' Baka at the hands of Prince Bhima, the most renowned of the five Pandava brothers who feature at the heart of India's Mahabarata epic.

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.
rickshaw ride in 'God's Own country'
  He takes up a hand held mirror and with a fine slip of wood like an extended cocktail stick starts to flash, dab and apply strips and eventually blocks of colour to his face.  The transformation into Prince Bhima has begun.

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 wall of image hungry, culture-greedy photographers blocks any conceivable view of the stage from the majority audience who remain respectably in their appointed places.  One fellow in particular clearly thinks that in crouching low enough besides the stage his clicking will be acceptably inconspicuous and un-invasive.  However he happens to be possessed of the most monstrous shock of bright orange hair and a horribly unkempt beard to match, both of which flare up bold in the flashlights of his fellow piranhas.  He really is quite a distraction and I’m considering going up and having hot words with him when I realise it’s myself I’m looking at from behind this pen and so am forced to restrain my irritation out of fear of hypocrisy :)

The Kathakali performance is one of the most interesting and enjoyable things I witness in 'God's Own Country'.
Forgive me,I forget the name of this cathedral/ basilica in Fort Kochi
  But it's an enjoyment laced with a familiar twinge of discomfort.  The whole experience rekindling my internal discourse on the relationship between cultural integrity - call it sanctity - and financial necessity.  Pay-per-view bite size portions of tradition served up to uncomprehending, and often indifferent foreign culture vultures.  The feeling resurges once more when I go to see a dryly choreographed circus display of the ancient courtly martial art of kalaripayattu in Kumily.  Cultural acts and rites dislocated, extracted and somewhat dissected from the important and meaningful context of the seasons, belief structures, histories, purposes and peoples of which they were born.  

It's a tension and a threat that one encounters and ponders time and again whilst tramping the tourist trail.
Kathakali Man prepares the early stages of his makeup, to transform into Prince Bhima
  Cultural Threat Vs Cultural Survival.  In this era of overbearing economic priorities, rapid social and technological change and the attendant spread of cultural homogeneity the two are sadly inextricably linked.  I still recall the savvy ethnic minority Hmong women of the North Vietnamese hill regions of Sapa now deriving most of their family's income from tourism trade and tours whilst wearing their fabulous traditional clothes, texting each other on mobile phones and asking me to tag them in Facebook photos whilst offering me tea in their mud-floored homes.  And part of the tension comes from the need to acknowledge that whilst tourism undoubtedly plays its part in bastardising these once (and still in India) greatly venerated traditions and rituals, finger by finger, the hands of the New Generations living in the New Indian Society are letting these things slip, losing their cultural grip in being forced or enticed away from taking up the brightly coloured mantle of Kathakali and other such vibrant cultural practices in favour of potentially more profitable, modern and mundane career paths.
Prince Bhima in all his fine array and magnificThe 'ence
  In an age increasingly devoid of the power structures of artistic patronage that once demanded and sustained such traditions there's an argument (though one I'm uncomfortable in confessing) for the fact that some of these cultural practices, given another generation or two might well all but disappear were it not for the 'supply and demand' scenario of modern tourism - which includes indigenous tourism too of course. These cultural forms are under threat of extinction tourism or no tourism and culture dies by the blows of many a hand.

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.
black hearted' demon Bhaka or 'Darth Maul' :)
  Passages about Kathakali dancers that may as well have been written in Malayalam for all they meant to me ten years ago now speak powerfully of this idea of a culture dying or being debased.  She speaks of 'The Kathakali man' [ for it is a male only art form ]that 'most beautiful of men.  Because his body is his soul.  His only instrument.  From the age of three it has been planed and polished, pared down, harnessed wholly to the task of story-telling.  He has magic in him, this man within the painted mask and swirling skirts' but speaks of his emasculation by modernity :

'But these days he has become unviable.
Lobster attempts Kathakali makeup ;D
  Unfeasible.  Condemned goods.  His children deride him.  They long to be everything that he is not.  He has watched them grow up to  become clerks and bus conductors.'  

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'.
'HEAVE HO!" - fisherman raise their Chinese Fishing net

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).
King Fish laid up after sale at the evening auction
  Theyyam dancing is a role of great heritable honour but Dalrymple's interviewee presciently observes 'I hope my two boys will take on my mantle when they are older [...] The only worry is money.  Both my boys are at school, and if in the future they can earn more money by learning some other skill, who knows whether they will carry on the family tradition? [...] As our people rise up and become more educated, I fear for the future.' 

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.
King Fish
  One they can rely on for at least three quarters over the year too and not just for a scant few months before returning to other less rewarding employment elsewhere as is the fate of the dalit theyyam dancers.

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! ;)
RBatra says:
Posted on: Sep 16, 2014
99seconds says:
buddy, I dont know you. I am a malayalee and born and brought up in the state all my life. I really appreciate your blog and the true genuine approach in trying to understand a place, culture and people. Well done! am sure this kind of closeness to details and information only comes with keen passion for traveling and experiencing difference. Wishing you great luck exploring the rest of the world too.

Posted on: Nov 04, 2012
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Malabar Coast Gold
Malabar Coast Gold
The fantastic trees that erupt out…
The fantastic trees that erupt ou…
I just love the bonkers Malayali c…
I just love the bonkers Malayali …
Peeking behind opened doors in Mat…
Peeking behind opened doors in Ma…
Signs and Colours
Signs and Colours
The Ginger Women
The Ginger Women
Traditional (I think Karnatikan?) …
Traditional (I think Karnatikan?)…
The driftwood aesthetic of the o…
The 'driftwood aesthetic' of the …
Mattancherry, Fort Kochi street sc…
Mattancherry, Fort Kochi street s…
Locks n wood (abstract)
Locks 'n' wood (abstract)
Boat jetty
Boat jetty
No fish for supper today :)
No fish for supper today :)
Thrashing spices in Mattancherry
Thrashing spices in Mattancherry
Spices and pepper bagged up and re…
Spices and pepper bagged up and r…
Communist Party of India (Marxist)
Communist Party of India (Marxist)
Street Wall (detail)A
Street Wall (detail)A
rickshaw ride in Gods Own countr…
rickshaw ride in 'God's Own count…
Forgive me,I forget the name of th…
Forgive me,I forget the name of t…
Kathakali Man prepares the early s…
Kathakali Man prepares the early …
Prince Bhima in all his fine array…
Prince Bhima in all his fine arra…
black hearted demon Bhaka or Dar…
black hearted' demon Bhaka or 'Da…
Lobster attempts Kathakali makeup …
Lobster attempts Kathakali makeup…
HEAVE HO! - fisherman raise thei…
'HEAVE HO!" - fisherman raise the…
King Fish laid up after sale at th…
King Fish laid up after sale at t…
King Fish
King Fish
Cuttle Fish Quarry (abstract)
Cuttle Fish Quarry (abstract)
Sad Tiger Stripes (Cuttle fish cat…
Sad Tiger Stripes (Cuttle fish ca…
The photogenic Chinese Fishing net…
The photogenic Chinese Fishing ne…
photo by: Stevie_Wes