sea

The magic of Malabar

Travel and Places

 

Though few people know this, the northern part of Kerala has as much to offer a traveler as its southern counterpart. Ask anybody about Kerala, and you are likely to hear about its backwaters and houseboats, its swaying palms, its beaches (especially Kovalam) and the dance form of Kathakali. Someone slightly more knowledgeable about the place would probably tell you about Fort Kochi and its old-world ambience (including Jew Street, which is the last remnant of a once-strong sub-culture of Kerala), the Ona Sadya (a traditional feast served during the festival of Onam) and the annual boat races of Alleppey. Over the years however, few visitors to Kerala have bothered to look at what lies North of Kochi.

You’d be amazed at all Malabar has to offer—mountains, rivers, untouched beaches, forts, old-world towns, bazaars, museums, temples—there’s something here for everyone. Malabar is the region that starts from Malappuram (just north of Palakkad) and stretches right up to the northern-most tip of Kerala. A princely state till 1956, this is where Vasco da Gama first set foot in India in the 15th century, thereby laying the foundation for the globalisation of Kerala. Through the centuries, commerce has always flourished in the region, but when it comes to tourism, Malabar has always eluded tourists. The next time you think of visiting Kerala, add Malabar to your itinerary, and you’ll come away charmed.

Kannur 

The magic of MalabarPhoto by:  freebird (bobinson|ബോബിന്‍സണ്), Creative Commons Attribution Licence

Kannur was the seat of the Kolathiri rajas and the Arakkal dynasty. The main attractions here are its beautiful beaches, temples dedicated to Muthappan (Lord Shiva in his incarnation as a hunter) and the enthralling dance form of theyyam. Angelo Fort, a couple of kilometers from the centre of town, is a legacy of Kannur’s earliest foreign settlers, the Portuguese. The sprawling fort is rather well-maintained and offers a stunning view of the sea from its ramparts. Out of the beaches, the beaches of Muzhappilangad and Thottada are secluded and definitely worth a visit. Visit a handloom weaving centre for some great bargains, and if you’re culturally inclined, take in a theyyam dance performance at a local Muthappan kaavu. Round off your stay in Kannur with a visit to the Arakkal Museum, which is a repository of royal possessions from the days of the Arakkal Dynasty.

Kozhikode 

For most tourists, Kozhikode is a jump-off point on the way to Wayanad, or a snacking halt during the long haul over the mountains to Mysore or Bangalore. But pause a while and look around, and you will see that Kozhikode throws up a mélange of flavours. For centuries, it has been the bustling capital of commerce in Malabar, and is one of the oldest ports in Kerala. The older sections of the city are known for their bazaars and wholesale markets—you can buy a bewildering variety of spices here at extremely reasonable prices—and the city is dotted with beaches like the Kappad beach (the exact spot where Vasco Da Gama landed in Kerala), Kozhikode beach and Payyoli beach. When you have had your fill of the sea, head over to the bountiful hills for a dose of trekking and a bath in the Tusharagiri Falls. Sightseeing aside, Kozhikode is a great place for foodies—head to Hotel Paragon on Kannur Road for some excellent Malabar biryani, appam and kadala curry—and indulge your sweet tooth with some delicious Kozhikode halwa.

Bekal Fort 

Between the towns of Kannur and Kasaragod lies Bekal Fort. Around 300 years old, it looks like a giant key-hole when seen from above. Abutting the Arabian Sea, it stands like a proud sentinel—which indeed it was in the olden days—guarding the city from marauders approaching from the sea. Thankfully, it has been well-preserved, and exudes oodles of atmosphere. You can see the tall observation towers, from where huge cannons used to be fired during battles.

Nilambur 

Nilambur is practically hidden from the eyes of the world. Situated off the trunk route, it is a charming little town with an undulating terrain. Though its tree cover has reduced over the decades, it is still green enough to send you into a trance. Teak plantations abound, and so do old mansions. You can find the oldest teak plantation in the world—called Conolly’s plot—here, and there’s even a teak museum on the premises. In Keralan history, Nilambur has always been known for its kovilakams (stately manors that were once the residences of princely families of yore). Built according to traditional norms of architecture, kovilakams are beautiful structures of wood and laterite, with inner courtyards, intricate etchings on the ceilings, and extensive slat work. The forests of Nilambur are home to a number of elephants, and trekking along the elephant corridors is a delight. There’s a large variety of accommodation to choose from, although you should plump for the homestays—which offer a good combination of beautiful architecture, old-world hospitality, solitude and good food.

 

History through art: Chennai to Kochi

Travel and Places

A town that becomes a canvas for artists.

This story first appeared in Mint on January 19, 2017 under the section ‘Weekend Vacations’.

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Aspinwall House. Photo courtesy Ganesh Vancheeswaran

Aspinwall House

 

Fort Kochi is not a place you visit just once in a lifetime. This former Portuguese and Dutch colony offers experiences at multiple levels, inviting you to find meaning and solace time and again. And for those who love a dose of history and culture by the seaside, this is a great bet. Which is perhaps why, when I wondered about an ideal solo travel destination for the weekend, Fort Kochi automatically came to mind. Especially since the art festival, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, was back in town.

An overnight train journey from Chennai took me to Ernakulam. There, I hopped on to the ferry across the backwater channel that lies on the fringes of the city. Ernakulam (also known as Kochi) is the main city and commercial hub. Lying close to the mainland, but joined by bridges, are the small islands of Willingdon (mostly government offices), Fort Kochi and Mattancherry (the travel hub), Bolgatty and Vypeen. The boat took me past leafy Willingdon Island, busy Thoppumpady and medieval Mattancherry, before dropping me off at Fort Kochi. The shimmering waters, the local people and the fishing boats bobbing up and down the gentle waves kept me company. What an atmospheric journey for just Rs. 4!

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

Dumping my bag in my room, I had a quick shower and headed out. Hunger pangs led me straight to Kayees (also known as the Rahmathulla restaurant). Several decades old, this simple eatery has been a favourite for a Kerala breakfast. After a few appams (rice pancakes), idiyappams (rice noodles), kadala (chickpea) curry and a cup of strong tea later, I found myself at Aspinwall House on Calvathy Road. This is the main venue of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an art festival that is held once in two years (Kochimuzirisbiennale.org). Into its third edition this year, the biennale, which began on 12 December, is on till 29 March.

The decision to revisit this festival was an inspired one. Unlike most art shows, the biennale does not take place in an air-conditioned hotel or a posh gallery. Instead, it takes place all over the township—in old spice and timber yards, local art galleries, and mansions that are two-three centuries old.

Wall art in Fort Kochi. Photo courtesy Ganesh Vancheeswaran.

Wall art in Fort Kochi. 

All day, I moved from venue to venue, studying the stunning paintings, etchings and installations on display. In this, my fourth visit to Fort Kochi, I felt like I was seeing the town for the first time. I took in Brij Mohan Anand’s dissentive art at the Greenix Village cultural arts centre and the brilliant paintings on the history of immigrant Jews at the Kashi Art Gallery. Elsewhere, I found exquisite cloth tapestries created by cutting old clothes and re-stitching them. I was told by another visitor that several local tailors had been involved in this project. The day ended with stimulating INK Salon talks at Cabral Yard.

The next morning, I strolled through Jew Town in the satellite area of Mattancherry. With its cobblestone streets, timber-framed houses and a 16th century synagogue, it evoked a different, historical era. Shops selling authentic antiquities vied for space with those selling spices, essential oils, tea and handmade soaps. At a store called Crafters, I found what must surely have been one of the largest vaarpus (a traditional Kerala brass vessel used to cook at feasts) in the world.

By afternoon, my feet gave up and I headed to the Seagull restaurant. I sat on the deck abutting the estuary and sipped my drink. Waves lapped at the deck, seagulls glided silently and a balmy breeze caressed my face. A mammoth ship hooted as it passed close to the shore.

I sighed in contentment.

 

 

 

 

Going Dutch in Galle

Travel and Places

This story first appeared in Khaleej Times on November 17, 2017.

European influence, strong maritime connections and relaxed vibes make this Sri Lankan city a winner.

‘Parawa Street’ – proclaims the name board. It intrigues me, because I can’t understand what it means. All morning, I have seen boards that said ‘Church Street’, ‘Rampart Street’ and the like. Fed on this simple diet, my brain finds it difficult to process ‘Parawa’. A closer inspection of the board tells me that the term refers to fishermen and traders who immigrated from south India and settled in Galle centuries ago. During their time, the Dutch, the main colonisers of Galle, renamed this street ‘Parruastraat’.
Parawa Street is one of the several narrow streets that make up the old settlement inside Galle Fort. Clean and well-paved, the streets are lined on either side by elegant structures. Many of these are a century old, while others go back two centuries or more – when Galle was under Dutch occupation. Many houses have a small portico and a wicket gate, and are painted in brilliant hues of blue, red, orange or yellow. Potted plants hanging from their sloping tiled roofs enhance the mood of cheer.
It is past 9am on a weekday, but most of the shops and boutiques are still closed. I ask a passerby when they will open and receive a smile in return. “They will open, they will open,” she says and moves on.  Traffic is mild, mainly comprising pedestrians or those cycling. The town of Galle is not in a hurry at all. The general understanding seems to be that things here will happen in due course. It, therefore, seems fitting that Galle is our last port of call in a weeklong tour of Sri Lanka. While we entered the country in high excitement, we shall leave it in a state of quiet contentment.
From medieval times to the 19th century, Galle was an important port town near the southern end of the teardrop shaped island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka). Like in India, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to colonise Galle. When the Dutch overran the settlement in the 17th century, they strengthened and expanded the erstwhile mud fort and many of the buildings within its confines. Also, they erected several of the beautiful timber-stone-cement structures that are standing strong even today. The British came later and added a few lovely churches to the landscape.
The wife and I amble along the ramparts of the fort, stopping to take in the view now and then. We get panoramic views of the sea and at one point, of the grassy expanse of Galle International Cricket Stadium. Passing close to the historic Meeran Mosque, we stop to admire its pristine whiteness, arched windows and architectural symmetry. Inside, the beautiful floor tiles and the stained glass windows catch our eye. Close to the mosque lies a small Buddhist temple, also pristine white. After two hours of walking, we come a full circle to where we had started from: the fort gates. Feeling hungry, we hurry over to a small shack nearby that is serving hot food. We wolf down kothu rottis (a native dish made of wheat or wheat flour, stuffed with a spicy mash of vegetables, fish or chicken) for lunch.
Back at our home-stay, we lounge in the sea-facing balcony with our books. Since this is not the tourist season, the crowds are thin. Come afternoon, many of the smaller shops in the fort settlement close for a few hours, as their owners catch some shut-eye after lunch. When the sun’s rays start slanting, we head out again. Drumbeats and strains of the guitar lead us to a quadrangle near the courthouse, where a local band is performing on the sidelines of a literary festival. The songs are in English and Sinhalese, and are received with energetic applause. As darkness settles, we leave the music behind and seek out the sea again. The lighthouse, built in 1939, looms up in the darkness. Right next to it, lies the old magazine room of the Dutch Navy. Sitting on the ramparts with our legs swinging over the drop to the ocean, we look at the glowing moon and the white foam slamming into the rocks.
At dawn the next morning, I leave my sleeping wife and venture out with my camera, eager to frame the beautiful town in the soft sunlight. I walk over to the fishermen’s wharf and watch the day’s catch being unloaded. Several people are buying fish fresh off the boat. Every day, fishermen put out to sea hours before dawn and return with their first catch by 7am or so.
The winding alleys are quiet, with most people still abed. I am happily surprised to see that Galle has not let its built heritage go to seed, unlike many other places around the world. Supported by a grant from the Dutch government, most of the old buildings have been lovingly restored and repurposed into cafes, art galleries, boutiques and hotels. Today, these are symbols of the chic tourist destination that Galle has become and proof that conserving heritage can be truly profitable for all the stakeholders.
My wife joins me for breakfast at the home-café run by an old man of Moroccan descent. Galle’s Moroccan connection is a thread hidden deep inside the cultural fabric of this town. A small community of Tamil-speaking Muslims, seventh- generation descendents of traders from Morocco, resides inside the fort. Many of its members run small grocery stores or cafes from the courtyard of their homes.
Meal over, we take in the wonderful exhibits at the National Maritime Museum. A nod to the long seafaring traditions of Lanka, the museum houses maps and intriguing tales of shipwrecks alongside jade jars from China and several European memorabilia. Later that day, we take in the antique furniture, exquisite stained glass, tombstones and silence at the Gothic-style All Saints Church. As we walk back to our homestay, the eager shouts of boys playing cricket rend the air. Daytime cricket on the wide ramparts of the fort is a way of life here.
Decidedly, Galle is a great place to celebrate the slow life. The rhythms of this fort settlement are gentle. The cobbled-stone streets, old buildings, bookstores, cafes and the timeless nature of waves crashing into the rocks lull you into a state of peace. The frenetic sounds and movements of the big city stand out by their absence. Conversations are more like soothing murmurs. Nobody seems to be in a hurry to do anything.
Though I hold several striking memories from my time in Galle, the one that dominates my mind is that of the breakfast on the morning of our departure. Our hostess served us appams (sweet-salty rice pancakes with a thin crust and a fluffy middle), spicy chickpea curry, fragrant stew, toast, butter, marmalade, coffee and slices of juicy pineapple. Sitting in the balcony facing the ramparts of the fort, we gorge on the delicious homemade fare for what seems like hours. Yonder, the sea rustles like sandpaper and gulls swoop down.
This memory stands out because that breakfast is the best metaphor I can find for the town itself. Galle is like a wonderful repast: it offers a sumptuous spread, invites you to dawdle over it, stimulates your palate and ensures that the after-taste remains for a long time.

NEED TO KNOW
Galle lies 77 miles south of Colombo, from where you can take a bus, taxi or a train named Queen of the Sea. The route hugs the coast and runs past several beautiful villages. Accommodation options are aplenty, from posh hotels to tiny guest houses, and straddle a wide price range. Since Galle Fort is perfect for walking, take along a pair of comfortable shoes, sunglasses and a bottle of water.
wknd@khaleejtimes.com

Five reasons you should go to Fort Kochi right away

Travel and Places

Fort Kochi, the most interesting part of Kochi city in central Kerala, deserves your attention. To me, it is one of the most interesting parts of Kerala, infinitely more interesting than Ernakulam, its cousin across the bay. Ernakulam is your regular Indian city, forever caught in an urban tizzy. It has lost much of its cultural identity and sanity over the past two decades.

Fort Kochi, on the other hand, is a different world; an oasis of cultural and historical riches that soothe the soul of the discerning traveler. Here, you will find a co-mingling of several histories, because a number of dynasties and communities have left their imprint on this tiny piece of land.

For many centuries, Kochi was ruled by several native Malayali chieftains and kings. It is a documented fact that Kochi state was formed in 1142 AD, when the kingdom of the erstwhile ruler Kulasekhara, broke up. Not much is however known about this kingdom until the late fifteenth century, when Vasco da Gama landed on the coast of Calicut.

Fort Kochi came into existence only after the arrival of the Portuguese in India. A few years after they made landfall on the Calicut coastin 1498, they ventured south and built a settlement on a land parcel gifted to them by the then king of Kochi. Their interests lay mainly in trade. They were keen to ship back pepper and other spices. Soon after they reached Kochi, they fortified it with permission from the Kochi Raja and named it Fort Emmanuel. When the modern city of Kochi was formed much, much later, Fort Emmanuel was renamed Fort Kochi. Except for a bastion and a cannon (which you’d be hard put to find), nothing remains of the fort today. But the town has emerged into a vibrant tourist destination.

I give you five specific reasons why you should go there right away.

One: the Portuguese heritage and the churches

The Portuguese were aggressive conquistadors. At the same time, they were prolific builders too. Wherever they went, they put up all manner of beautiful structures – including stately mansions, churches and forts. Fort Kochi is a superb example of the architectural legacy of the Portuguese.

I love two things the most. The first is the way in which they beautifully blended Portuguese and European sensibilities with the native Keralan architectural style. And so, you will find tall columns, arches and gables in houses that are roofed with local tiles. And since no house in Kerala is deemed complete without a backyard and a well, you will find a lush backyard and a deep well too.

Stroll along the streets of Fort Kochi and you will see what I mean. Several of these buildings have been converted into cafes, art galleries and guest houses, which is great. It means that tourism is being built on the strong foundation of a heritage conserved. Bishop’s House, Cabral Yard, Bastian Bungalow and several hotels around the Vasco da Gama Square are fine examples of Indo-Portuguese architecture.

The other thing I love about the Portuguese are their churches. Here, you will find solid masonry, tall spires and belfrys, exquisite stained glass, unshakeable wooden furniture and beautiful murals and frescoes.

Fort Kochi has the best collection of medieval churches in India, all within a few miles of one another. From the church where Vasco da Gama was first interred after his death (St. Francis Church, 1516 AD) to Santa Cruz Basilica (1505 AD), Our Lady of Life Church (1650 AD), Our Lady of Hope Church (Vypin, 1605 AD) are some of the best churches I have been to. It is a pleasure to sit in the pews in silence for a bit, then gaze up at the murals, take in the liturgical furniture and finally, stroll around in the church yard. I get goosebumps when I find tombstones dating back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Speaking of churches, Fort Kochi has one of the most intriguing museums I have ever seen. The Indo-Portuguese Museum is located inside the compound of Bishop House and contains a number of rare artefacts from the Portuguese era. With one important twist: these artefacts are all liturgical in nature; which means, they pertain to the history of the Catholic Church in India. From medieval versions of the Bible, chalices, crosses, altars and vestments, they are all on display here. If you love love the intersection of history and religion, you will love this museum for sure.

Two: the beaches

Fort Kochi is located bang by the sea. It is home to a few lovely beaches where the sand is golden brown and very clean. Apart from what is known as the Fort Kochi beach, there is a beach in Vypin and another in Cherai. Fort Kochi beach does get crowded in the evening, but you can still have a lot of fun. The crowd is never troublesome. Cherai and Vypin beaches are lesser known and therefore, much less crowded. You have to be very careful though, because the waters are very rough. We have built sand castles, jogged on the wet sand and played Frisbee here.

Being on the West coast, these beaches give you great views of sunset. Finish frolicking in the water by 5:30 pm or so, and then settle down on the sands. Watch the sun slowly sink into the horizon.  The orange and pink glow it casts on the waters is magical indeed! Words have no place at moments like these. I love basking in this fading glow. At times like this, I truly feel one with the universe.

Three: the food and the restaurants

Where there is the sea, there is bound to be excellent seafood. And so it is with Fort Kochi. Eateries here offer you a wide variety of fish, in addition to prawns, squids and crabs. And you can have them fried or curried, cooked in one of several ways in the traditional Kerala style.Pair these dishes with the flaky, crisp Kerala porotta or dosaiand you will reach heaven in this life itself.

Or, you could order a naadan (‘country/local/traditional’ in Malayalam) meal, which is served on a plantain leaf, and ask for a non-vegetarian dish on the side. The meal, known as ‘oonu’ in Malayalam, typically consists of two or three vegetable preparations (such as avial, thoran, kaalan, etc.), sambar, rasam, spiced buttermilk, papad, banana chips and pickle, all this to be eaten with nutrient-rich parboiled rice. Some restaurants add a few other items to this ensemble.

My preferred place for lunch or dinner is a sea-fronting restaurant with excellent views of the harbor and the bay. To eat and drink while watching boats and mammoth ships pass by is an interesting experience, to say the least. Seagull Restaurant on Calvathy Road is my all-time favourite for a beer and meal.

For breakfast, stick to delicious local food options like puttu, appam and dosai, served with kadala curry, meen curry or vegetable stew. My kind of breakfast is eaten steaming hot at a street cart, with the aroma of the food mingling with the chatter of locals who are digging in before plunging into their workday.I love to end the meal with a cup of strong Kerala style tea.

Though some eateries serve Continental food and noodles too, I give these a wide berth, because they don’t make it well. It just seems to be a pretence to serve foreign tourists.

Four: the atmospheric hotels

Nowhere else (at least in India) have I seen so many lovely, centuries-old buildings that have been converted into hotels, B&Bs and guest houses. And each one of these buildings has many tales to tell. Koder House, for instance, belonged to a Jewish family in the 19th century, before it was sold by the last descendent. It is now the lovely hotel with a red façade on Vasco da Gama Square. Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel was the site of the old lighthouse of Kochi and the residence of a senior official of the British empire. The Old HarbourHotel belonged to the Dutch way back in the eighteenth century. I could go on like this.

These hotels are high on history and atmosphere, something you’d not find in a regular hotel.

Five: the native art forms of Kerala

Take in a cultural performance at the Kerala Kathakali Centre, located in a tiny winding lane near the Santa Cruz Basilica. A few months back, I spent an enchanting evening watching a Kalaripayittu performance, an ancient martial art form of Kerala. The Centre hosts vocal and instrumental concerts and Kathakali recitals also.

Another venue for such performances is Greenix, which has two auditoria. One of them is located near the bus stand and across from the boarding point for the ferries to Vypin (don’t ask me why, but these ferries are called ‘Jhankar’). Greenix’s second centre is located onCalvathy Road, near a landmark building called Pepper House.

 

When you are there….

  1. Hop onto the large motorized barge, locally known as ‘Jhankar’ and take a five minute ride to the island of Vypin. Once there, take an auto or a bus to the lighthouse and beach.
  2. From Vypin bus stand (which is close to where the Jhankar will drop you), you can take a bus to Cherai junction and from there, hop into an auto to go to Cherai beach. If you don’t like buses much, you could take an auto from Vypin bus stand itself. The ride to Cherai will take between half an hour and 45 minutes. Cherai beach is unspoilt, clean and not crowded on most days.
  3. From Vypin, you could take an auto or bus to Vallarpadam island and visit the beautiful medieval church there.
  4. If you are interested in railway history and trivia, you should visit Cochin Harbour Terminus on Willingdon Island. Until about 1997, long distance express and freight trains used to ply from here. But dwindling business on this route sealed the fate of the terminus. Today, this small abandoned railway station holds a thousand memories and stories. An old weighing machine, fare lists, train schedules, railway tracks, a ticket window…..all these stand mute witnesses to the passage of an era.
  5. I’d also recommend a visit to the Cochin Marine Museum (Willingdon Island), Jew Town and the spice market (both in Mattancherry).
  6. And of course, of course, you must visit the Chinese fishing nets. If you go about 5:30 or 6 am, you can watch the fishermen operate it and cast their nets. It is believed that Chinese traders erected these cantilevered nets a few centuries ago. Little would they have guessed that these nets would one day become the most iconic symbol of Fort Kochi.

 

The vitals

Getting there: Fly to Kochi International Airport and take a taxi to Fort Kochi from there. Or, take a train to Ernakulam from wherever you live. From Ernakulam, take an auto or a bus for an overland ride to Fort Kochi. A more interesting way, however, is to take an auto to the Ernakulam boat jetty and hop onto a public ferry from there.

Shacking up: Like I mentioned earlier, Fort Kochi doesn’t want for accommodation options. From backpacking hostels to luxury hotels, you will find everything here. I think the most interesting way of experiencing the place is to plump for a seaside luxury hotel (high priced, obviously) or a homestay (mid-priced). The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel is one of the best luxury hotels I have stayed at. A sea-facing restaurant, an al-fresco lounge, a swimming pool and lovely old-fashioned rooms make this a charming place. The food and service are very good too (in particular, the enormous breakfast that is part of the room tariff).

From many forays to Fort Kochi though, I know that the following are also excellent options:

Koder House(luxury; not seaside, but near the sea and the Chinese fishing nets)

The Cochin Club (mid-priced, but very comfortable and almost luxurious)

Tower House Hotel (luxury; not seaside but near the sea and the Chinese fishing nets)

Brunton Boatyard Hotel (luxury, seaside)

Vintage Inn (at Jnaliparambu Junction; low-priced, but clean and comfortable)

Happy Camper (at Jnaliparambu Junction; a backpacker’s hostel)

Grub

Here is some more dope, beyond what I have told you above. A couple of my favourite eateries here are:

Seagull: seaside restaurant and bar, best known for its Kerala style food. Try to go at around 5:30 pm and catch a table on the re-purposed boat pier. Sit back for the next few hours and watch myriad interesting sights as you guzzle cold beer and enjoy your food. It is not everyday that you get to have a beer watching a glorious sunset or a mother of a ship pass close by.

Shanu’s food cart: This is where you should go, for a cheap, authentic, delicious local-style breakfast. The cart is permanently stationed adjacent to the Tower House Hotel on Vasco da Gama Square. You will invariably find a crowd here from say 6 am every morning. Gorge on puttu, appam, kadala curry and meencurry. Once you reach the Square, ask a local to direct you to Shanu’s thattukada (‘thattukada’ is Malayalam for food cart).

Getting around

This settlement is small enough (and of course beautiful enough) to cover on foot. This is how I move around whenever I am there. Other good option is to hire a cycle or scooter by the day. Auto rickshaws (known as tuktuks in certain countries) are available too.

Since Kerala is a conservative state, please cover up adequately.Since the weather is extremely hot and humid for six months a year, light, summery clothes would be your best bet.

With the influx of foreign tourists, some local eateries/bars.auto drivers have started acting snooty towards Indian tourists. Which is sad. I have encountered such specimens a few times. So, if you are an Indian visiting this place, be warned. Remember to not take it personally. If you find someone behaving unreasonably, just give him a piece of your mind (politely, but firmly) and move on to another auto, eatery, hotel. There are plenty of options.

When to go

The heat here is torrid from March to June. If you go during these months, you can roam around in the morning and evening, and retreat to your room in the afternoon.

The best time is from mid-June to mid-August (when the place is drenched by the monsoon rains) and from November to February (when the weather is somewhat pleasant).

Luxury by the sea – a review of Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel, Fort Kochi.

Travel and Places

 

Picture this. A British engineer is brought to India from London, on the express commission of building the Cochin port. This man accomplishes this task with the help of a large team that includes native Indians. Over the years, he makes Cochin a port to reckon with. With the arrival of the port, the railways too came to the area (the imported goods had to be carted away from the port, right?), and the Cochin Harbour Terminus was established in neighbouring Willingdon Island. The engineer is lauded by none less than Lord Willingdon, the then Governor of Madras and is decorated by the Queen.

In 1928, this man, who answers to the name, Robert Bristow, builds a sprawling mansion for himself by the sea and lives there until his return to Britain in 1941. The parcel of land he picks offers choice views of the untamed sea, of boats and ships passing by and of glorious sunrises and sunsets. But it has something more than all this too – a piece of maritime history. Because on this very same plot of land stood the old Cochin lighthouse, the guiding lamp for ships passing through the bay.

Fast forward by ninety years. The bungalow by the sea is now the Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel, a boutique hotel. A couple of sit-outs with awnings, a lawn, a swimming pool and two rooms have been added to the compound. Modern fixtures have been fitted too. But the core of the mansion remains as it was all those years ago. The wooden floors and stairs, the large wood-framed windows, solid wooden doors and tiled roofs are all there and in superb nick.

 

We stayed at this hotel for three days recently. We were treating ourselves on the tenth anniversary of our hitched life. Sitting on the terrace that gives on to the sea, I remember thinking that ‘hitched’ would be a wrong word to describe our married life. On the contrary, ‘liberated’ would be the apt word, because I found my soul mate in my wife. Someone who shares my love for life and believes in letting me live the way I want to, rather than imposing ifs and buts on me. I really started leading an unfettered life only after I came to know her.

 

 

We are given the only room in the hotel that has a private terrace. I look at the nameplate outside the room (The Bristow Suite) and realize that this is the same room that Robert Bristow used to occupy all those years ago. Apart from the terrace, the suite has a spacious room and a roomy bathroom. Most of the furniture has an antique look, right down to the brass dial telephone in which the earpiece and mouthpiece are different. This instrument is the source of much excitement to us over the three days, with each one of us taking turns to make calls on it. If the hotel staff are surprised to find so many calls coming from our room, they do not show it.

 

 

 

Our typical day was like this. We wake up at about seven and settle down in the terrace with a cup of tea to watch the sky come alive. The sea breeze caresses our faces as we drink in the sights and sounds. On the tiny beach next door, people are already riding the waves. Our cuppa over, we head over to the beach for our own share of frolicking. An hour later, we tramp back to the hotel, totally drenched and with sand all over. A large grin is plastered on our faces. We wash off the sand (but not the grin) at the outdoor shower, change clothes quickly in our room and come down for some much-needed food.

 

Breakfast is sumptuous, with a few Continental and Indian dishes on the menu. Apart from cornflakes, fruits, a variety of fresh juices, toast and eggs, there are a few Keralan dishes on offer. We see a changing menu of dosas, idlis, uppuma, puttu and appams, with chutney, sambar, vegetable stew, kadala curry and peas curry to go with them. Over the next hour and a half, there is total silence at our table, as we treat the food with the devotion it deserves. Sitting back with a belch and a contented sigh, we move on to a cup of hot South Indian filter coffee. In between all this, we chat with the genial wait staff, gleaning details about their life, the hotel, the town and sundry other things. They are hardworking people who help a lot in giving us a great experience.

 

 

 

We then drag ourselves out of the hotel for a bit of exploration. If we take in the little-known Indo-Portuguese Museum and the St. Francis Church one day, we visit the Vasco da Gama Square and the quaint little streets around it the next. One morning, we take off to explore Vypeen island and the beach in the tiny hamlet of Cherai (separate pieces on all this to come soon on the blog). Later, we down a beer somewhere and lunch at a sidewalk café or a thattu kada (mobile food vending stalls that serve authentic local food in Kerala) before returning to the hotel for a snooze.

 

Late afternoon finds us in the lovely pool, letting the water cool down our heated bodies. Afterwards, we lie back on the deck chairs and read awhile.

 

 

Come evening, we take a table on the sea-facing lawn and gaze out at the churning waters. Over the three days, we got used to seeing boats big and small, and ships so massive, your jaw’d drop. Some banter with fellow-guests follows. And soon, the great orange disc in the sky starts dipping towards the sea. There are few sights in the whole world that rival a sunset in sheer beauty and simplicity. Even a sunrise pales in comparison, I think. Words seem not just out of place, but positively intrusive at this time. A cloak of silence invariably descends, as all the guests and even the hotel staff submit to the mesmeric beauty of the moment. Slowly, we watch the fireball inch its way towards the great waters on the horizon. And then, finally, it touches the sea and melts into it.

 

 

We wend our way to our room and take our place on the terrace. Uncorking the bottles, we sit down to enjoy a few drinks. Sometimes, we talk. At other times, we fall silent. The mind wanders into fresh pastures. A pleasurable hour or so later, it is time for dinner. We choose one of the lovely cafes that are housed in bungalows nearby. Bungalows that are at least two hundred years old; some built during the Portuguese rule, some during the British time. In all of them, you can see colonial architectural influences beautifully merging with the native style of Kerala.

 

 

Returning to the hotel, we read or star-gaze on the terrace. A few guests are dining on the lawn below, their conversation punctuating the silence. Gradually, the neighbourhood falls silent. The diners go back to their rooms. The last revellers leave the beach and go home. After that, it is just the sea, the breeze, the swaying trees, the moon, the stars and us. And then, late into the night, very, very reluctantly, we leave the terrace and get back into the cozy room. Tonight, will it be the four-poster queen-sized bed or the bay window that is wide enough and comfortable enough to sleep on?

As we hit the sack, there is a sense of peace and quiet satisfaction. It has been a wonderful day. Lazy, yet productive. And sooner than later, we surrender to blissful sleep. A glorious tomorrow awaits us.

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P.S. I doff my hat to the management and staff at The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel for giving us a supremely memorable stay there. The room, the property, the food and the service were all first-rate.

We paid for the room and food. Our stay was not sponsored by the hotel or any other company/person.

Hotel fact file

  • The hotel is located on Beach Road, near the INS Dronacharya naval base. Most locals in Fort Kochi know it as the ‘old lighthouse bungalow’. For more details, visit the hotel’s website: http://oldlighthousehotel.com/
  • From Kochi airport, you can take a taxi to Fort Kochi and then ask for the hotel. From Ernakulam railway station, you can either hop into an auto (anywhere between Rs. 150 and 400, depending upon your bargaining skills, the mood of the auto driver and whether or not there is a bandh on that day), take a bus (Rs. 10 or thereabouts for a pleasant ride) or take the ferry (ask someone for the ferry to Fort Kochi; fare in single digits.)
  • Depending upon what kind of room you choose and the season, the tariff is upwards of Rs. 7000/- per night, including breakfast. Taxes extra. For the exact tariff, contact the hotel through the website.
  • The hotel is child-friendly. We took our six year old brat along and he had a great time too.
  • The food here can be termed ‘bland’ by Indian standards. So, if you like your food spicy, request the staff to up the ante while placing your order.

The Lighthouse Effect

Travel and Places

I have a thing for the past. And the ‘paster’, the better. Events, buildings, houses, towns, things, people, stories….anything. In my travels, I often visit places that have a strong hangover of the past. In a country like India especially, it is easy to find such places because they are practically everywhere. There, I find myself spending hours browsing antiquities, looking up old bookstores, gazing at old mansions and forts…even seeking out old people with faces crinkled like walnuts to chat with.

Why is this so? For one, because there is simply so much beauty, grandeur and harmony in things from the past. Most things from the olden days have an exquisite design aesthetic, a robustness and a caliber of craftsmanship that is difficult to find these days. But also, the past reminds us of our roots, our beginnings and the paths we have trodden to come this far. The living remnants and accounts of the past tell us of another way of life, another worldview altogether. They tell us about how we had thought, spoken, acted at one point of time. And if you aggregate these remnants and accounts, you get a cumulative view of the history of mankind. After all, all that we have today has been built on the past (often, on the debris of the past).

But, of all things that embody another time, the one that moves me the most is the lighthouse (again, the older, the better). No curio, no fort, no ancient temple or mosque comes even close to it. From the minute I clap my eyes on a lighthouse, I itch to explore it – even touch and feel it. Even if I spot one from afar (say, from a bus or train), my gaze remains locked on it till it fades out of view.

 

 

The lighthouse instantly calls to mind the several generations of seafarers, for whom the sea was the only way to travel to far-flung places. These were the bravest travelers of all time, foraying into uncharted waters and finding unmapped lands. Braving extreme weather conditions, illness and frequent paucity of resources, they managed to go where nobody else had gone before them.

For them, lighthouses were crucial navigational guides, like lamp posts in the sea. And often, the presence of a lighthouse made the difference between life and death to them. In that sense, they were one of the earliest friends of travelers.

 

 

All these thoughts rush through my mind whenever I see a lighthouse. I have seen several of them over the years – in Daman, Kannur, Vypeen, Vizhinjam, Chennai, Galle (Sri Lanka) and other places. And the effect they have on me hasn’t changed over the years – if anything, it has only intensified.

As soon as I arrive at a seaside town, I enquire about lighthouses. And, if I find that there is one in those parts, I invariably end up visiting it. I enjoy rooting about their base, looking for identification marks (like inscriptions and metal plates) that can help me anchor them in a specific time period. I then sit down on a rampart or rocky coastline next to it for a while, gazing into the sea. If I find the caretaker of the lighthouse, I spend a few minutes with him in delightful conversation.

 

 

 

But what exactly I see in a lighthouse also depends upon my mood-of-the-moment. When I am in a deeply reflective mood, I think of what would have happened, had there never been lighthouses in history. That would surely have set back our progress and our understanding of the world by a few centuries.  When I feel buoyant, I see it as a beacon of hope and safety – a pathfinder and a sanctuary. When I am feeling a little low, I can’t help thinking of it as an extremely desolate place, eyes eternally cast over an equally desolate sea that is vast and unchanging over millions of years. At those moments, I am invariably reminded of a short story called ‘The Foghorn’, that I read in school. ‘The great deep cry of our foghorn shuddering through the rags of mist…’ and the answering call of the creature of the sea, deep-throated in its loneliness are forever etched in my memory.

No matter what my mood, lighthouses have left an indelible impression on me. In my book of travels, they occupy a very special place.

What effect does a lighthouse have on you?