Kerala might just be India’s most beautiful state and its capital, Kochi, is its historically cosmopolitan centre. The port city’s identity was formed from converging villages and, later, Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese and British influences. Yet Kerala’s stunning beaches, hills, forests, plantations and backwaters make the lifestyle strikingly unique across the state.
To begin understanding Kochi’s cosmopolitan past, explore the historic areas of Princess Street and Jew Town. Princess Street is flanked by handsome colonial buildings and is the place to go for top cafés, restaurants and interesting shops. The old Jewish quarter, meanwhile, is bustling with colourful shops selling antiques, spices, handicrafts and souvenirs, although its centrepiece is the 16th-century Paradesi Synagogue.
For further insight into Kerala’s religious traditions, be sure to tour its many notable places of worship. The Sri Chottanikkara Bhagavathy in Ernakulam (which borders Kochi) is an important Hindu temple, while the Santa Cruz Basilica, Vallarpadam Church and the Church of St. Francis are just some of the churches serving Kochi’s significant Christian community. Perhaps the most beautiful religious site, however, is the Dharmanath Jain Temple. Afterwards, head to the Kerala Kathakali Centre to enjoy a traditional dance show.
People and Traditions
Most Kochiites follow either Hinduism, Christianity or Islam, but most hold their secular, cosmopolitan home in high regard. They are generally welcoming, although some visitors might find the constant hustle in the tourist areas a bit overwhelming. The people are increasingly adopting Western fashions in their daily lives, but you’ll get to see them dressed in more traditional attire during celebrations like the Onam summer harvest festival and Vishu (Kerala New Year) in the middle of April.
Temperatures in Kochi are fairly consistent year-round. Lows rarely dip beneath 20ºC and daytime highs average around 30ºC. The only thing to watch out for is monsoon season, which lasts from June to September.
The most integral part of Keralite culture is its landscape. Life here revolves around the water, and the banks of its many lagoons and rivers – not to mention 600km of pristine coast – are home to many of the state’s most enchanting landmarks. In short, a cruise along Kerala’s scenic waterways is a must, or at the very least a visit to its beaches. Among the best are the golden shores of Varkala in the south and the more serene Kannur in the north. Kochi’s own beaches are also an interesting sight, if not really pleasant places to soak up the sun. Fort Kochi Beach, for example, is home to the city’s iconic Chinese Fishing Nets.
It isn’t just life on the water that will take your breath away, but also Kerala’s exuberant hillsides. Munnar is South India’s largest tea-growing region, and a trip there will reveal immaculate green hills and plantations. Arguably more beautiful still – and certainly more diverse – is Wayanad. Here you can travel through rice paddies and fields of bamboo, ginger, cardomom and coffee until you reach its glorious forest reserve.
The Kerala Folklore Museum boasts a collection of over 4,000 artefacts providing a comprehensive overview of the state’s history and customs. It’s built like an ancient temple inside and out, which adds a wonderful dynamic to the experience. Alternatively, get a feel for the region’s contemporary art revival at the Kashi Art Gallery. It has rotating exhibitions from local artists and one of the best cafés in town.
Mattancherry Palace is commonly known as the Dutch Palace, although it was originally built by the Portuguese. It doesn’t look like much, but few other places offer such an in-depth analysis of Kochi’s colonial past. If you’d rather visit something more spectacular, then leave the city and head east to the Hill Palace of Tripunithura. Built by the Maharaja of Cohin in 1865, it’s now the largest archaeological museum in Kerala and its grounds are also home to a heritage museum and a deer park.