With less than 50% Hindus, and as much as 30% Muslims and 20% Christians in addition to minority religions such as Jainism and Buddhism, Kerala is India’s most religiously mixed state, and the best place to notice this may be Cochin, where the different religions display their distinct tokens on a limited space.
Hindus can often be identified by a point, a line or several lines on their forehead, the usage of Swastikas on their houses, or an occasional Ganesh figure in their car. “Veg only” restaurants are also likely to be Hindu-run.
The Muslim population appears to stick to themselves in Muslim areas, with a distinct business structure focusing on perfume oils, spices and Muslim clothing, and food joints offering Halal food. Men sometimes wear the typical Muslim hat, and women, though rarely properly veiled, make more use of their head shawl than their Hindu counterparts. Contrary to their parents’ conservative clothing, little girls are sometimes spruced up with swank short dresses which make them look like little presents (which I found a bit kinky, being reminded of the practice of underage marriage, although I am not sure if there is a relation in this case).
During Christmas season, Christian households can be most clearly identified by their star-shaped lanterns, which sometimes make the foreign visitor feel like one of the three kings having found his destination. Inside the houses and cars, their religious belief becomes more obvious by the kitsch paintings of Jesus, Maria or both. Maybe a bit like the South American Catholics, who are also a result of European colonialism, Indian Catholics appear to be much more devout than their European counterparts.
Our homestay was a typical example of this clear display of religious references that can often be found in Kerala, maybe precisely because of its religious mix: Its name “Green Woods Bethlehem”, its stars and many depictions of Maria did not leave any doubts. The house even smelled of incense, and I began to feel afraid that I would be involuntarily baptized catholic by so much holy surrounding (forgetting that I already am, also involuntarily of course).
Until not too long ago, jews also used to be part of the Cochin Melting Pot. Today however, only the famous district “Jew Town” with its antique trading reminds of this heritage, as nearly all jews left Cochin after Indian independence in 1947.
Cochin’s diversity is a result of its strong trading history and the many waves of colonial and non-colonial migration associated with it.
Being an island surrounded by the Arabian Sea, Cochin’s location makes it an ideal trade hub. In fact, Cochin’s history as a trading point supposedly goes as far back as to the ancient Greeks, when Cochin was already known for trading spices. Since then, Cochin has been frequented by Jews, Chinese and Arabs, and later colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch and English. All these encounters have left their marks: Cochin has Portuguese Catholic churches, Dutch residential houses, a British-built harbor, Chinese fishing nets, a synagogue and an Arab mosque.
The resulting mix is one reason why Cochin is so attractive to tourists today. (Other reasons are certainly the touristic infrastructure that has developed in the last decades, the nearby international airport and Cochin’s large modern twin sister Ernakulam on the main land.)
So, we could have visited heritage buildings, museums, visited dance shows or concerts, or simply explored the many different districts Cochins has to offer. Instead, our favourite activity in Cochin was to shop for presents for our friends and family back home, disguising it as a necessary and selfless activity. After having complained about the lack of cultural content in Alleppey and Kannur, this behaviour could only be called consistent if one interprets “cultural” as “tourist shopping”.
Of course, I was entirely innocent! Having been to Cochin already twice, I can hardly be blamed for my lack of interest, and I even initiated our sole activity in Cochin, a trip to Vypin Island. (Luckily, neither my family nor the reader is aware of the fact that even on my previous trips to Cochin, my cultural programme had been superficial).
Anyway, thanks to the ignorance of my family, I was forced to shop for perfume oils, perfume flacons and presents for the three new-borns in my circle of friends. Needless to say, I secretly much enjoyed it.
My mother and me actually made a sport out of spotting the best shops and bargaining for prices, and my brother and his girlfriend were happy to finally fulfill the actual mission of their holiday – equipping every single friend and family member with a souvenir.
Our trip to Vypin Island being the only activity, I shall recount the details of this rare happening.
Somewhat similar to Bombay’s original geography, larger Cochin actually consists of several islands and the mainland city Ernakulam, though – as so often in India – there is some ambiguity as to what Cochin is and how it is spelled: To begin with, Cochin’s modern name is actually Kochi, but both names are used. Then, it is really unclear what Cochin refers to – some say it’s only Cochin Island, others use it for larger Cochin, which also includes Ernakulam, Willington Island and Vypin Island. Anyway, what I am trying to say is that we visited part of what I consider to be Cochin: Vypin Island.
The reason for that was the fact that I had come across several nice resorts at on Vypin Island on Tripadvisor, and was curious to see the area, and in particular the well-known Cherai Beach. There was an extremely cheap ferry going every 15 minutes, and so it was worth giving it a try. We felt quite happy with ourselves about the way we were taking a local ferry with local passengers, feeling very authentic and all, and were quite disappointed when we spotted another group of whiteys (as my boyfriend calls them) on the boat. We soon arrived at the run-down ferry station on the other side of the strait and, filled with adventurous enthusiasm about our sudden surge of activity, decided to get in a bus, which all other passengers seemed to be taking. I just heard a quick “Cherai Beach” from the driver and that was enough information for me. That went well, I thought. The bus was so full we had to stand, but I did not mind it for the sake of the adventurous experience, and was confident we would reach soon. After about 20 minutes, I began wondering, and to make things worse, my family seemed to have an unshakable trust that I knew what I was doing. I began regretting the spontaneous experiment and told myself that there was a good reason why I normally plan my ventures well. I finally asked another passenger and was told that we would be driving for another 25 minutes.
All the responsibility lay in my hands and my family relied upon my judgment, so what was I to do in this difficult situation? As we had not been to the beach since 2 days already, my family had been keenly looking forward to Cherai Beach – how could I let them down, would they ever forgive me? But I did not back away from my responsibility! In one quick move, I drew my mobile and checked Google Maps for the next nearby beach. And alas, fate was good to me – the beach that would eventually become Cherai Beach would start in a few hundred meters only, and we were driving parallel to it. If we got down at the next stop and then walked across for a few minutes we would get our beach and save time, while all other less informed passengers would keep on driving until the end of the world, just to squeeze in on a probably over-crowded beach. I was quite happy with this ingenious decision and ordered my family to get down at the next stop. Following Google Maps, we would soon be at the beach.
Starting on the main street, we took a left to cut across, walking in the sun on an unpaved road. After some time, my brother and me had the following conversation:
“Do you know when we will be there?”
“Soon. I think this line of trees over there is the beach promenade”
After we had passed the trees with no beach in sight, my brother said: “Why don’t you check your mobile to see how far away it is?”
Annoyed, I replied “Well I did that already on the bus while you were still disoriented and thinking what to do. It’s just a few hundred meters”
“But we have already walked a few hundred meters”
I sighed instead of replying, and finished the last drop of water in my bottle.
“Doesn’t Google Maps show a scale, so we know exactly how far it is?”
“No it doesn’t”
“Strange, it does on my mobile”
“Well, it doesn’t on mine. Why don’t you check for yourself, smartass?”
I handed him the mobile and we stopped, while he pressed some buttons on my mobile. After a few seconds, he said: “It is still about 2 km away”
“What?! No way! I had checked it!”
“But didn’t you say that you did not see the distance?”
“Well, I did not see the exact kilometers, but looking at the proportions of the map I estimated…”
“…you estimated the distance between the main street and the beach based on your non-existent knowledge of the proportions of Vypin Island?!”
After it had been established that I was a fool we decided to take the next auto riksha that would come our way. It took a while, but it came, and so we jollily continued our trip on wheels. When we reached the beach and no one was around, not even an architectural structure of any kind, it dawned upon us that we may have troubles getting back to the main road, so I tried to convince the driver to come back for us in about half an hour. But unfortunately he had to fetch his children from school, which apparently was the only reason he had taken the remote road he had found us on.
Like abandoned children, we got down and tentatively walked around on the beach. After we had enough of that, we sat down and started talking about how to get away again. Since our arrival, we had not seen a single riksha driving by. While we discussed, a group of youngsters accumulated about 50 meters away, curiously peering at us and giggling. We considered paying one of the youngsters to somehow drive us to the main street, but that option soon vanished when they went away and left us behind in our lonely misery. Walking back was not considered feasible, and so we felt more and more desperate.
Running out of options, we had just stopped discussing, each of us lost in their own thoughts, contemplating the cruelty of the alluring waves of salty water and the mercilessness of the burning sun, when we heard the faint, but clearly recognizable sound of a riksha motor. My mom jumped up, grabbed her bag, and used all her remaining energy to sprint to the beachside road. We all followed suit, filled with exhaustion and hope. Almost miraculously, we were not disappointed and even got a drive to the ferry station. Back in Cochin, we spent all evening proudly recounting the events of the day, while having beers in an all-white restaurant.
But my report would not be complete without mentioning the delights of Green Woods Bethlehem. Hidden away in a small lane in Fort district, surrounded by trees and chirping birds, and hosted by a lovely couple, the homestay was a real find. The rooms were airy and tastefully furnished in dark brown and green, and there were cozy common rooms and sit-outs with nice views. The top floor was split into a roofed breakfast and a sunbathing area, which particularly made my brother and his girlfriend happy. The aforementioned incense in the air gave everything a homely, esoteric touch. OK, the chirping birds turned out to come from a tape, and the constant handholding with the hostess was a bit odd. But overall we were very happy with our choice.
Of course, it was not close to an actual homestay. Just like most other Keralan “homestays”, it was an owner-run guesthouse with a clear separation between the owners’ rooms and the rest of the house. And the artificial bird chirping and the incense were not exactly typical characteristics of an Indian home. Nevertheless and in line with my theory on tourism, we loved it.
After two weeks of intense travelling from north to south, to beaches and backwaters, to cities and villages, Cochin was our last destination. We had not experienced much of its historical and religious diversity, but had chosen to focus on the latest addition to its melting pot: its tourist culture. Anyhow, our stay in Cochin had been a nice conclusion and allegory for our Indian adventure: Fun when it was touristic, but somewhat lost when it tried to be authentic.
Freshly retired and suddenly benefiting from the otherwise rare combination of time and money, my mom had given me the task to organize a family holiday in India, a country that I had visited often enough to act as a tour guide. My favourite state Kerala was set, and I added Bombay for a city experience and Goa as a classic tourist destination on the way. Starting in Bombay, we would work our way South to Goa, Kannur, Alleppey and Cochin.