Discovering Kochi During Onam

With Onam around the corner, I am sharing this article – Discovering Kochi During Onam – that was carried in December 2013 issue of Smart Photography. While the article is about my discovery of Kochi during the Onam festivities of 2013, the action stays relevant even today.

Discovering Kochi During Onam
Remarkable Street Art

Kochi, or Ubud?

Kochi (colonial name – Cochin) is now an inclusive name for various towns, including the district of Ernakulam. It is an important port city in Kerala. Though the newer parts of Kochi are like any other bustling metropolitan city, my wanderings in the time-warped Fort Kochi reminded me of the time I had spent in Ubud, Bali or in Montmartre, Paris.

Discovering Kochi During Onam
Street Art on Moss-covered Walls

Like Ubud or Montmartre, Fort Kochi also has a visibly overpowering presence of art and artists. Since it is on the coast and is perennially damp, the moss and algae-covered walls of the main square here are no deterrents for the artists. They charge on, regardless; and cover these walls with their awe-inspiring art.

Discovering Kochi During Onam
Newly-tarred road with Centurion trees

An air of Europe

The entire area exudes an aura of medievalism and Europe – quaint cafes; streets lined with thick, solid, aged trees; ancient churches; and stunningly green creepers adorning the walls. These days, boutique hotels and elegant eateries, doubling up as art galleries, also dot these streets that were once just a peaceful abode of affluent natives.

Discovering Kochi During Onam
Ranbir Kapoor on location for a two-wheeler ad

While many Bollywood producers have preferred narrow lanes of Bunol or Saint-Paul-de-Vence for their song-and-dance sequences, I chanced upon an ad-agency shoot, complete with its own Bollywood star (Ranbir Kapoor) and his air-conditioned vanity van, in these narrow streets replete with character. An intelligent decision, I must say. Why spend a fortune when you can get a similar or a better location closer home.

Discovering Kochi During Onam
Singer’s house converted into a boutique hotel
Discovering Kochi During Onam
Exotic fare for South India

A mishmash of diverse European gestalt

It wasn’t my first visit to the city. I had been there many times earlier, but that was for work. This time the agenda was just photography. The city confused me a bit. The culture seemed an amalgamation. Upon doing some reading, I realised that the city was a mishmash of Portuguese, Dutch and British influences. If you look around carefully, these influences will leap out at you. Interestingly, you’ll also find houses where, instead of cars, boats will be parked outside. And the local transport would include ferries along with buses. You will also spot well-maintained water-front cafes with a pleasing view.

Discovering Kochi During Onam
Bishop’s House
Discovering Kochi During Onam
Dutch cemetery
Discovering Kochi During Onam
A boat in the parking
Discovering Kochi During Onam
A waterfront cafe

That is not all. The city is the home to the oldest church in the country. St. Francis Church in Fort Kochi was built in 1503. This church was the original ‘final resting place’ of Vasco da Gama when he died in 1524, till his body was finally taken back to Portugal fourteen years later. A stone’s throw away is Santa Cruz Basilica, another church from the same era (built in 1505). Close by, within the same precinct, a set of period buildings house the Indo-Portuguese Museum and Bishop’s house.

Discovering Kochi During Onam
Santa Cruz Basilica
Discovering Kochi During Onam
St Francis Church

A visit during Onam

When I planned a trip to Kochi, my friend Chanchal, who was hosting me there, suggested that I should visit when the Onam festivities are on. Typically these festivities last around 10 days. I took his suggestion, and though, it rained quite frequently during my visit, the visual delight called Kochi managed to keep my mood and morale on a high.

Discovering Kochi During Onam
Procession of Temple Elephants
Discovering Kochi During Onam
Pukallam or Floral Rangoli

The big day during Onam festivities is ‘Thiru Onam‘. Legend has it that Mahabali, the Asura King who was tricked by God Vishnu to go underground (Paataal) since gods were jealous of an Asura king making his people and subjects prosperous, comes back on this day to meet his subjects. The various activities that mark Onam celebrations are an elephant procession, floral decorations (floral rangoli or pukallam), temple Kathakali performances, boat races, the traditional Onam feast or Sadya, and Pulikali (Puli = Tiger; Kali = Play).

Going after local attractions

With some bit of time juggling and commutes to nearby places, I managed to catch most of these activities. Though the big boat races are considered to be the ones in Kottayam, Aranmula, and Alappuzha, I caught one in Kumarakom, just 62kms from Kochi. For me, a first time viewer, the entire atmosphere was electric. The backwater stream was lined with people, many a small boat were flitting around near the banks to catch a better glimpse of the action, couple of decked up boats ferried the officials and other VIPs around, loudspeakers were blaring with an ongoing commentary in Malayalam, and the biggest excitement of all was the presence of a ‘Chundan‘ – the longest of the snake boats which is normally rowed by 101 oarsmen. Overall, a delightful view, I would say.

Discovering Kochi During Onam
A 101-Oarspower Chundan (Snake Boat)
Discovering Kochi During Onam
Chinese nets

My host had organised an elaborate spread (Sadya) for lunch on Thiru Onam. Following day, I had made my way to Andhakaranazhi (an estuary in Kodungallur Taluka), and subsequently to Cherai Beach. The beachfront now boasts a few luxury properties to host visiting tourists. Along the way, I came across the largest number of Chinese nets I had seen installed in a single location.

Pulikali – the cherry topping

Discovering Kochi During Onam
Colourful Pulis (tigers)

I wrapped up my visit with a short trip to Thrissur (74kms). This was to experience the celebration called Pulikali. There are Pulikali teams that represent various localities. Through elaborate makeup and masks, the members of the teams are made to look like tigers. These teams then dance their way through various routes, congregating in the city centre where the entire city welcomes them. The judges judge them and give them prizes – based on the ovation and reception they are accorded by the crowds gathered in the city centre. The makeup of each of these participants takes up to 3 days. To say the least, the sight was colourful, chaotic, and yet culturally rich.

Discovering Kochi During Onam
Finishing touches to a Puli’s makeup – fixer being sprayed

A vacation to this city is surely recommended as it offers long stretches of clean beaches, modestly priced exotic food, a vibrant cultural visual extravaganza and some great heritage places that definitely merit a visit. You’ll find few other places that offer such diverse, yet rich, experience – more so, during Onam.

In case you wish to check out Kochi’s scenic countryside, you may click HERE

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