Monday, 25 June 2012

Fort Kochi - Tracing the colonial past

Fort Kochi, once a seaside fishing village on the Western coast of India was ruled by the Zomorins, the Rajah of Kochi.  This seaside village has come a long way since then having been ruled over by the Portuguese, Dutch and British for over 400 years. In the process it earned the sobriquet of 'Little Lisbon'  for the Portuguese, 'Mini England' for the British and 'Homely Holland' for its Dutch rulers. The heritage city today commands respect among the discerning travelers keen to enjoy a relaxing getaway from the hustle bustle of the today's world. Fort Kochi or Cochin is a charming small island town which has retained its unique architectural heritage and the natives protects its glorious past with vengeance. Kochi 's journey has been quite eventful - from having the distinction of being the first European colony in India; city which had a prosperous Jewish community and a strong Syrian Christian population; and a city which was sacked by Father and son duo of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan, the great South Indian rulers. The town was used by the Arabs, and Chinese traders for sourcing pepper, cinnamon, cardamom. cloves, sandal wood, etc from Kochi region. Extensive interaction between the Arab traders, the local zomorins shaped the culture and heritage of the region including the town of Cochin.The town is dotted with centuries Portuguese, Dutch and British bungalows, mansions, godowns, churches, synagogues, and halls which had fallen into desuetude now resurrected through renovation, rebuilding and enhanced by the suave owners and businessmen by converting these into heritage hotels, boutiques and spas. The Fort Kochi waterfront and its adjoining streets are dotted with these living mansions which even today continue to enchant visitors and promise one of its kind of experience of living in homes which have been witness to the Portuguese, Dutch and English cultures and Arab influence. Kochi's colonial past still survives in its mansions and street names. 

Chinese Fishing Nets and fishermen
The Chinese fishing nets at the crimson sunset is the earliest memory of Cochin that I have. My father who was an established photographer in Calcutta had traveled to Kerala in the early 60's and he had displayed in his studio this amazing black & white photograph of beautiful sunset at Cochin with Chinese Fishing nets . It was my childhood wish to experience this sunset which was getting fulfilled when we traveled to Kerala last summer. The drive from Ernakulam to Fort Kochi was a usual manoeuvring through the busy streets of a bustling Indian city, as we crossed the bridge from Ernakulam and drove into the island of Fort Kochi, we could sense the sudden change in the landscape - gabled streets, fewer cars, more of people walking, low rising old houses, old canopied trees and streets names that seemed unlike any other city in Southern India. The pace of life seemed to have taken a pause! Leaving behind Mattencherry, the old bazar part of town, we moved further towards the Fort area and could feel and smell the sea nearby. 

Our abode for 3 nights Tower House, a Neemrana property has quite an amazing colonial past. It is a 17th century twin house with scallop wall and looks like a ship. The sheer joy of stay at Tower House Bungalow (Formerly Peirce Leslie Bungalow) at stone throw distance from the famed Chinese fishing nests is a journey into the history of spice trade of this port city and an introduction to the good life lived by the foreign traders in the last 4 centuries. The generous arched doors welcomes one to step in to the another world where time stretches, pauses to watch the sun set and move over so lightly towards dawn. The welcome area displays multi-religious art and antiques in honor of its Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Christian ancestry.  The thick wall, teak stairs leading to the first polished floor covered entirely in fine teak that have with-stood the vagaries of nature and the general wear and tear looks steady enough to last few more centuries. The large salon on the first floor with high vaulted ceiling is designed to  provide generous circulation of air which helps in keeping the place cool even in summer months. Long veranda opens in the inner courtyard and overlooks the green lawn and an inviting cozy swimming pool is ideal for enjoying a favourite book over a cup of tea. The rooms are in various sizes and named after its colonial masters - Noronha, Wayermah, Mateu, Souza, Mascarenhas , Mossel, Pacheco, Cunes and Menezes. Most of the rooms have large four poster beds, and windows that have views of the trees or the sea depending on where they are located.

The furniture here is an eclectic mix - rosewood, teak and ebony period furniture blends with cane and rattan pieces and informal sofas and settee. Light pours in through the windows, skylights and the vastness of the indoor spaces makes for an unforgettable experience. Tower House takes you back in time, moods and memories woven together create a fabric that is strong but sits ever so lightly. 
Tower House, view of the inner courtyard

Tower House, as seen from the piazza 

The Mateu Suite
Mateu Suite

The Noronha Suite
Noronha Suite
Fort Kochi is best experienced walking! All you need is to be comfortably dressed in cool cottons, comfortable walking shoes and a straw hat to shield from the harsh sun. The mansions, cafes, synagogue, churches, Fishing nets, museums and enormous antique shops are spread over the Fort Kochi and Mattencherry. Most of the places are at a short walking distance and the sights and sounds are best experienced at a leisurely pace here. Our walk covers the River Road, Calvathy Road, Bazaar Road and culminates at Jewish Synagogue.  The entire distance covered is approx 5 kms (one way). 
As we step out of the mansion we are on the charming Princess Street, clean road with freshly painted mansions and welcoming antique shops looked very inviting, but we walked along past the park with huge old trees that covers the entire promenade. One has to be careful while walking under these trees for we witnessed large branches breaking off and falling underneath when strong wind blew. Walk past the Fort Kochi bus stand. One can catch ferry to the Vypen Island from the ferry located across from the bus stand. Brunton Boartyard another landmark mansion hotel stands by the water next to the ferry. The waterfront side is lined with old mansions, warehouses and native houses some converted into boutique hotels and some serving as government establishments. 
Soon, we are on Calvathy Road, with old Calvathy mosque on the right. The area has mix of muslim and Hindu population and their culture is on full display here. Further down is Calvathy ferry convenient for ferry to Wellingdon island and Ernakulam. Post the Canal we are on the Bazaar Road, the spice hub of Kochi. The area is know for spice trade with enormous warehouses and shops stocked with the finest kerala spices - exotic fragrance of fresh cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, garlic, ginger and pepper engulfing the atmosphere in a heady aroma. Traders do brisk business here, deals are stuck and spices transported to far off lands. The street right up to the Jew Town Road is full of these enormous warehouses and trading shops with spices spilling over all around.   
On the Bazaar Road further down is The Anchor House a hotel by the waterfront famed for its multicuisine waterfront restaurant-cum-coffee shop with variety of dishes and a view to behold. 
Past the Mattencherry police station lies the Mattencherry Palace or Dutch Palace as it is called. This place was built by the Portuguese in 1557 and gifted to the Raja of Kochi. It is a simple and unpretentious structure housing rich heritage of Cochin's glorious past. Built around a quadrangular structure in the traditional Kerala Nalukettu style of architecture with a courtyard in the middle. A small temple of Pazhayannur Bhagavati', the protective goddess of the Cochin royal family stands in the courtyard. Sections display musical instruments, local handicrafts, murals art, royal robes and weaponry in wooden galleries which are covered under beautifully carved wooden ceilings. The glory of the palace rests on the large number of murals, executed in the best traditions of Hindu temple art, which are religious, decorative and stylised. The murals have been painted in rich warm colours in tempera technique. The king's bedchamber or Palliyara, on the southwest corner of the Palace, is noteworthy with its low wooden ceiling and 300 sq ft of wall surface covered with 40 odd paintings depicting various stories from Ramayana. The paintings are believed to have been created by Veera Kerala Verma.  The palace is open from 10 am to 5 pm, Friday being the weekly closure day. Fee. Rs. 2/- photography is not allowed inside the palace.
Past Mattencherry Palace, the hustle and bustle of a tourist enclave starts and spills over to the Jew Town Road. The Keralite Jews once virtually occupied all houses here in Jew Town, now these residences lie vacant and shut as most of the Jew traders have migrated to Israel  leaving behind their residences which wear a forlorn look. The antique and curio shops and spice souks on Market Road, however, continue to thrive.This stretch of road about 1 kms long is the hub of shops and warehouses selling antiques and enormous varpu (copper vessels). Both sides of the streets have shops cramped and filled with antiques (and antique looking) crafts, furniture, wooden idols, wooden spice holders, old clocks, wooden fairies, copper trunks and vessels, bells and figurines, prints and photographs. This is perhaps the antique paradise of India! Do not get fooled by the tiny entrance to the shops, for you will be drawn into the carnivorous back rooms with never-ending stock of antique goodies, which you would be tempted to buy. 
The best place to shop for the antiques here is Crafters Antique Shop, owned by the John and Sunny Malayil, enterprising Syrian christian family, Crafters has an amazing ccollection of antiques and not so old, curios, handicrafts, souvenirs and memorabilia in wood, metal and porcelain from all across India. Rare antiques like Hindu and Christian religious artifacts, stone sculptures, old brass-embedded wooden   jewel boxes, Kerala’s celebrated traditional uruli (vessel), Chinese jars, ceramics, clocks, glass bottles and jars in myriad colors and shapes, classic furniture including old wooden doors, pillars and frames, and murals. They are also credited with crafting world's largest Varpu (vessel) which is on display in one of their outlets near the Police Museum on Jew Street.

We stopped for a cool and refreshing meal at the Cafe Crafters. This cute little cafe on the first floor of Crafters, the antique shop overlooking the tri-section leading towards Pardesi synagogue is a fun place as one can sit in the balcony overlooking the street and savor fluffy signature appam with kerala stew. 

One can also witness fierce trade bidding at the nearby Cochin Oil Exchange functioning since 1935. The lane by the exchange leads to the 400 years old Pardesi Synagogue, the last of the seven synagogues that once graced this street and the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth. Its interior holds curved brass columns, an intricately carved teak ark, Belgian crystal chandeliers and Torah crowns of solid gold set with gems. The floor has hand-painted porcelain tiles from Canton, each tile has a different pattern.  The synagogue also houses two copper plates with details of rights granted to the Jews during the reign of Bhaskara Ravi Varman in the 10th century. One end of the synagogue has 45 feet tall clock tower with four clock dials. Once there were dials with numerals in Hebrew, Latin, Malayalam and Arabic. Now, replaced only with Hebrew and Latin dials - perhaps a symbol of the intolerant times that we live in! 
Synagogue is open to all between 10 am to noon and 3 to 5 pm. Entry is through ticket priced at Rs. 2/- Closed on Fridays, Saturdays and Jewish holidays. Photography inside the synagogue is not allowed.
Apart from the antiquated synagogue what caught my eyes here is almost extinct Jewish 
community in Kochi - only few families survive here, Yaheh Hallegua, the ticket seller at synagogue is the last female Jew of child-bearing age here. And when their population would become extinct in Fort Kochi, we would be reminded of this enterprising community that had migrated to India several centuries ago from Iraq, through their legacy of the synagogue, the street called Jew Town, and also perhaps the  exquisite embroidery work that the surviving Jewish families promote from the houses lining the lane by the synagogue. Fine embroidery is crafted on kerala cotton napkins, table-wears and towels. These are crafted by families who have been trained by the Jewish families. These crafts are painstakingly created and are much in demand with boutique hotels and foreigners. I was told they participate in Christmas Mela at foreign embassies in New Delhi every year.  Their small houses painted in green and white with Star of David and Jewish symbols on windows and name plate in Hebrew on the door perhaps remind the Jewish community here of their glorious days! 
Embroidered napkins and towels displayed in the Jewish shop opposite the synagogue  
Jew Street. The crossroads
We strolled into the nearby Fort Kochi Police Museum and Tourist police station, the first of its kind in the country. The police station-cum-museum  offers services and facilities to the foreign travelers like clarifying their doubts on passport and visa, registering complaints and grievances on lost passports and expired visa, hiring taxis, boat booking among others. One can also obtain  tourism brochures to different tourist destinations in the State. The Police museum has fine display of evolution of Kochi police through the ages. The display exhibits police uniforms, weapons and armory through the years from the colonial period to the present. 
The street ahead leads to few large spice shops and the Jewish Cemetery. We decided to turn back and return to Fort Kochi for that is where all the elegant colonial mansions of Kochi still shine gloriously. Auto-rickshaw is a good option to return quickly to Fort Kochi as theses are quite handy in negotiating the back streets. 
Fort Kochi Walk  
Our walk of Fort Kochi begins starts from Tower House on Tower Road, the hotel faces the thick canopied piazza which extends right to the seashore where several fresh fish stalls witness buzz around the day more so in the morning and afternoon when the natives descend here for their daily fix of fresh fish at some very down to earth price. Boutique hotels and restaurants also pick up their stock of fish and crab from here. 
Fort Kochi is a maze of small streets and alleys all displaying their colonial names proudly through the street signage - Rose Street, Burgher Street, Peter Celli Street, Princess Street, Residale Street, Santa Cruz Road, Parade Road, Napier Street, Lilly Street and Beach Road. In fact, it would not be off the mark if we say that the colonial Fort Kochi is primarily closeted on these streets beyond which the place is distinctly like any other small town in Kerala. These lanes and bylanes displays strong colonial influence in the build architecture and merchandise sold and the cafes and restaurants caters mostly to the travelers. 
As we step out from Tower House and turn right towards Princess Street the mansion next door is boutique Old Harbour Hotel, set around a square courtyard, an old mansion restructured to provide modern upper crust facilities in the medieval surroundings. The hotel looks inviting and deserves more elaborate mention in later post. While we are still there, the next door Koder House demands attraction. The heritage boutique hotel once owned by the Jewish Koder family. The three storied hotel was actually built by the Koders to accommodate families of their three sons. It is believed to have been structured and gabled in Europe and shipped to Cochin. Its windows are said to be made of imported Belgium glass. The red brick facade with wooden arch on the top looks inviting. The intersection of Tower Road and Princess Street has rows of private residences brightly painted each has its own idiosyncratic signage, name plate or even a warning sign which would certainly elicit a broad smile from even a sober soul.

On Princess Street, colonial buildings with their peeling walls and window sills laden with flowerpots look very inviting. Down the street are mansions and residences converted into hotels or cafes and shops lined on both sides. Kochi Books is a landmark bookstore with wide range of books and periodicals. One can browse at leisurely pace and once satiated one can saunter down on to Peter Celli Street where the amazing Cafe Teapot awaits with its cheery mustard facade. This is one landmark cafe that I would love to go back again and again and would not get bored. The decor is simple yet classic and truly a tea house, since the interior displays hundreds of tea pots and cups from all corners of the world displayed on all four walls and even hanging from the ceiling are pots all around. One can place oneself on the ground floor or climb up the stairs for a machan-like upper seating area. The tables are recycled tea chests and one massive table has an old tea-tree for the table base. Their tea collection and chocolate pie are great any time of the day. For lunch we simply loved the Kerala Mustard Fish, a simple curry served with rice or appam.
Cafe Teapot serves wide varieties of tea. Great for no-fuss breakfast and meal

Round the corner of Princess Street one of the earliest streets to be laid in Fort Kochi and Peter Celli Street with its European style residences still retains its old world charm. The best view of this quaint street can be had from Loafer's Corner, the traditional meeting place and hangout of the jovial locals. One can meet and engage in some wholehearted conversation with locals here.  
Not too far from the Loafer's Corner near the Cafe Coffee Day are few small tailoring shops who would stitch up cool and casual kurtas, tops and pyjamas in Kerala cotton in few hours. Ideal  casual clothes for the summer of Kerala. 
Further down few yards at the intersection of Rose Street is Vasco Homestay. An old mansion which is believed to be the house where Vasco de Gama stayed while he was in Kochi. Vasco House has the typical European glass paned windows and balcony-cum- verandas characteristic of the 16th century. On the right corner is the famous St Francis Church, built by Portuguese in 1503. Believed to be the oldest European church in India. Vasco de Gama was originally buried here in 1524 before his remains were shipped to Lisbon.    
Adjacent to the St Francis Church flanked by Napier Road and Residale Street and spanning upto Parade Road is the Parade Ground spread over 4 acres, the largest open area of Fort Kochi. This was used as a Parade ground by the colonial occupants of this island. Their defense establishments operated from the mansions that surround the ground. One comes across groups of young men enjoying game of football or cricket here. Some of the finest boutique hotels are located around the Parade Ground.
Further up towards Pattalam Road is Bishop House, bbuilt in 1506 as the residence of the Portuguese Governor, the Bishop’s House stands on a little hillock near Parade Ground. The facade of the house is characterized by large Gothic arches and has a circular garden path winding up to the main entrance. The building was acquired by Dome Jos Gomes Ferreira, the 27th Bishop of the Diocese of Cochin.
Further up is Oceanos, a seafood and Mediterranean cuisine speciality restaurant where the fresh catch of the day is cooked exactly the way you want it to be. One can take to the small lane going past this cafe and move towards the Beach Road through the lanes well covered by thick canopy of tall trees lining the lane. We come across private residences which continues to attract attention of citizens of metropolitan cities, where box like monstrous tall structures are mushrooming in the name of modern architecture. When would the designers look inward and recreate replicas of such fine built heritage?
Soon we are on the Beach Road and could hear the sea waves crashing against the boulders on the shore, the area around this part of the beach is under the Indian Navy hence can not  access the beach from here and one has to walk upward towards the east to get an access to the beach. Here on the left is  The Old Lighthouse Bristow Hotel is situated right on the beach. Surrounded by abundant greenery on three sides and facing the Arabian sea on the other. This property has served as residence of Sir Robert Bristow, the architect of modern Kochi port in the 1920's. 
Further up standing majestically atop the cliff by the sea shore is Thakur House, private residence of the famous tea-trading Rai Bahadur Thakur family, thus the name Thakur House. This was built over the site where once stood the Gelderland Bastion and was originally built by the Dutch East India Company as a club and community centre for its officers. Perhaps this explains the often talked about private tunnel which leads to far off place. The polished wood floors, high ceiling ed spacious rooms and enormous bay-windows are true representations of the Dutch architecture. For film buffs, it is interesting to note that the Ismail Merchant film 'Çotton Mary' straring Great Sacchi, James Wilby and Madhur Jaffrey was shot at Thakur House.  
As we walk further ahead, we reach a cluster of beautiful quarters, private residences and shops around Lilly Street and Napier Street. It is a very quite part of the town with slate roofed single or double storied mansions dot both sides of the street. Literally taking one back to the much leisurely days in the colonial era. One could imagine, horses pulling the buggy carrying the Dutch, English or the Portuguese officers to one of those mansions. Fab India has opened their store on Napier Street, while Dal Roti on Lilly Street serves almost authentic North India cuisines from its high ceiling dining hall enclosed in a seemingly tiny house. The Malabar House hotel, a part of the Trinity group is round the corner from here. It is known for its upper crust luxurious ambiance, perhaps a bit too much of antiques and art and craft. However, they run an excellent multi-cuisine restaurant and equally good spa here.   
Few yards away towards the back yard of the Malabar House is Dutch Cemetery where rests the mortal remains of the valiant Dutch officers are army men who braved the vagaries of nature in this far-off land in the dark continent. 
The Durbar Hall is built on the Parade Ground Road across the ground. It served as a Durbar Hall (court house) of the Maharajah of Kochi. Built over 150 years ago, now  converted into a heritage art gallery and being readied to be the focal point of The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an international exhibition of contemporary art in  Kochi. The exhibition is set to be placed in spaces across Kochi, Muziris and  surrounding islands. Indian and international artists are expected to exhibit artworks across a variety of mediums including film, installation, painting, sculpture, new media and performance art. A cafe is also attached to the gallery. 

Further down adjacent to St Francis Church is the oldest colonial mansion dating back to 1506. The Le Colonial, was home to the Portuguese Governor for almost 150 years and then was lorded over by the Dutch for another 140 years. St Francis Xavier is also said to have lived in the house which has also called the "St Francis Bungalow”. Sold to the British in 1795, it was acquired by J Thomas, the legendary tea traders. The mansion has combined colonial history of 500 years, now converted into  a boutique hotel under the Neemrana fold, the mansion has not only retained its architectural heritage but also added modern amenities for its discerning guests. The hotel is adorned with many art objects, prints, paintings of Raj and the days before relieving its colonial past. It has 7 tastefully decorated rooms named after Jan Van Spall, Vasco da Gama, Major Petrie and Tipu Sultan among others.   
  Le Colonial 

Walking along and on to Napier Street, we are now heading towards Vasco de Gama square, an ideal place to watch fishermen catch fish with the large Chinese fishing nets along the beach. It is a narrow promenade with thick canopied old trees standing tall. The square has many stalls selling fresh water fish, tender coconuts and snacks. One could also sit on one of the stone benches on the promenade and watch sea waves crashing at the shore and containers ships moving in and out of Cochin harbour. One could also see two large steam boilers of cranes used in Cochin Dock some 50 years ago, now let to rust. These boilers look fantastic against the backdrop of the setting sun and an old tree which sheds its leaf in summers.
The Chinese fishing nets known as 'Cheena vala' is said to have been introduced to Kochi by the Chinese explorer Zheng He. Though some attribute this to Kublai Khan. These are stationery nets installed by the seashore on a platform. These are cantilever structure with nets suspended over the sea. Large stones are suspended from ropes at the other end as counter weight. To operate the net a dozen odd fishermen drop the net into the sea water while one person walks along the main beam to let the net descend into the water. Once the net is under water, fishes get entangled in the net. After a certain time, the 5-6 fishermen pull out the net by pulling the ropes from the water in vigorous motion with loud chorus. Once out of the net, the fish is immediately auctioned off to the nearby fish stall owner. These nets are an object of interest for visitors and one usually ends up pulling the rope along with the fishermen (they cajole you to do so!) and once the rope is pulled and you had your share of fishing thrill, and strained arm muscles, the fisherman would ask for 'bakshish'. You help them catch the fish and also pay for it, strange!  

Karimeen, the much liked fish of the Malyalis
This is where I had the most amazing fresh fish bar-be-Que meal. It is amazing to know how reasonably priced are fresh fish here. I took 1 kg of salmons and 750 odd grams of large prawns all for just about 250 odd rupees from one of the stall. Handed the lot over to one of the Ýou Buy We Cook' stalls across the promenade opposite Delta School. They cooked the fish according to my liking and served hot with coriander chutney and onion salad all for 100 rupees. So here we are eating up almost 2 kgs of fresh fish nicely cooked and bar-be-Que all for less than 500 rupees.  
We round-off our Fort Kochi walk with visit to the Santa Cruz Basilica, a 16th century Portuguese church standing tall on Rampart Road. The Gothic structure with tall spires has tall windows decorated with stained glass arrangements depicting scenes from the Bible. The quaint confessional boxes are worth a watch.  
Fort Kochi offers wide stay options, one can pick from top end heritage boutique hotels, the modern hotels operated by famous hotel groups in India as well as home stay options. For me heritage boutique hotels or even a home stay options here are more personalized. Kochi also offers wide range of food inspired by Kerala cuisine as well as the the English and French. Fort Kochi's stay options and food deserves separate posts. That and much more in the next post.        
Places to Stay

Boutique Hotels
Malabar House            1/268 - 1/269 Parade Road, Near - St Francis Church, Fort Kochi      Phone: 0484 2216666
Tower House                 1/320, Tower Road, Fort Kochi    Phone: 0484-2216960-62, Mobile: 9895693716
Old Harbour Hotel     1/328, Tower Road, Fort Kochi      Phone : 0484-2218006, Mobile: 09847029000
Le Colonial                    1-315, Church Road, Vasco de Gama Square, Fort Kochi. Phone: 484-2217181/2217182                
Brunton Boatyard       Calvetty Road, Fort Kochi     Phone: 0484 2215461/ 2215465

Koder House                  Tower Road, Fort Kochi     Phone : 0484 2218485 / 2217988
Walton's Homestay    1/39, Walton Hall, Princess Street, Fort Kochi . Phone: 0484 2215309, Mobile: 9249721935
Fort Heritage                1/283, Napier Street, Fort Kochi. Phone: 0484 2215333 / 221 5455
Old Lighthouse Bistro Beach Road, Next to INS Dronacharya, Fort Kochi. Phone: 0484 3050101 / 3050102
Grande Reseidencia    1/373 Pricess Street, Fort Kochi. Phone: 0484 2381122 
Fort Castle                      Rose Lane, Fort Kochi. Phone: 0484 2216810 / 2216811. Mobile: 9846036977  
The Old Courtyard Hotel Princess Street, Fort Kochi. Phone: 0484 2216302 / 2215035
Bolgatty Palace              Mulavukadu, Bolgatty Island. Phone: 0484 2750500 / 2750600 / 2750457
Bernard Bungalow           Parade Road, Fort Kochi. Phone: 0484 2216162. Mobile: 9847427999    
Spencer Home               Parade Road, Fort Kochi. Phone: 0484 2215049. email:  
Modern Hotels

Vivanta by Taj - Malabar    Willingdon Island, Kochi. Phone: 0484 6643000 / 6643182
Trident Kochi                   Willingdon Island, Kochi. Phone: 0484 3081000 / 3081002T
Casino Hotel                        Willingdon Island, Kochi. Phone: 0484 2668421 / 3011500
Bolgatty Island Resort Mulavukadu, Bolgatty Island. Phone: 0484 2750500 / 2750600 / 2750457
Credit: Some of the photographs have been borrowed from website of Neemrana Hotels.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Srinagar - The Eternal City

Srinagar is a popular hill destination in India famed for its lakes, waterways, centuries old gardens, and a town that is still rooted in rich heritage and where traditional crafts flourish. Once a favorite destination, Srinagar went through 2 decades of political unrest which led to this becoming a minefield of terrorism in the 80's and 90's. It is only now that the normalcy seem to have returned to this valley. The People here are welcoming and extend warmth to the visitors and extend the old world courtesies to one who cares to visit this ancient land.

The romance with Srinagar starts from the moment your plane hovers over the snow peaked mountains and green valley. The sight from the plane window brings wide smile and twinkle in the eyes of the traveler. The clean and renovated Sher-e-Kashmir International airport replicates the chaotic air facilities available in India.   Yet, no one seem to minds long wait for the luggage to arrive. For they know beyond the chaos of airport lies salubrious  weather, glorious sunshine and rounds of ride on the placid lake water on the Dal, numerous rounds of savoring 'Kehwa' (Kashmiri saffron tea) sitting on the patio of the Houseboat on the Dal Lake.

The flower sellers on Dal Lake are a charming lot, they would be seen rowing their flower laden boat moving from one houseboat to another in search of a customer for their beautiful flowers. Their call to prospective customers "Phool lena.. phool ka beej lena" (take flowers, take seeds) rings in the air every morning. These beautiful flowers tempt one in buying a bunch of them. Curiously, every flower boat is name - Mr Wonderful Flowerman. 

The serenity of the morning on Dal Lake is one of the best that I have experienced. The morning cal, mist covered lake, mist floating over the nearby Zabarwan hills, boats languidly moving on the water, kingfishers watching over the water attentively for its catch and water hen diving deep into the water to catch its meal. The sparrows creating ruckus in the bushes. flower-seller calling out to the tourists and menfolks rowing to the nearby market for the morning buy of fresh bread.   

Viewed from top the city presents a great vista of a medieval town with tin roofed brick and wood houses spread all over the ground dotted with trees and tall minarets of its mosques and khanqah (mausoleums), river Jhelum meandering through the city and several bridges spanning over it.

Lotus is a much sought after flower in Srinagar and Kashmir. It is cultivated not only for offering to the deity during the puja (prayer) by Hindus but also it is consumed extensively by the Kashmiris. Lotus roots called 'Nadru' is a Kashmiri delicacy. One can see lotus being commercially cultivated on the Dal lake. Three varieties of lotus is cultivated here - yellow, white and pink.

Srinagar is dotted with several mausoleums of the Muslim saints. Mausoleums dedicated to them are ornately decorated with the designs and embellishments in form of papiermache, miniature painting and khatambund woodcraft, the traditional craft of Kashmir. The Khanqah-e-Maula near Zainakadal bridge (above) flanked by traditional brick and wood houses on river Jhelum is a must visit. This mausoleum is dedicated to Shah Hamadan, the Persian saint who is said to have introduced and propagated Islam in India.

A tribe of Kashmiri fishermen live on the boat in all seasons. The tiny boat is their home as well as important to their trade of fishing. The family usually a husband and wife live on the boat - fish, eat and sleep. They spread the net in the evening and collect their catch early in the morning. The female member then carries the catch to Fatehkadal in Downtown to sell the fish, only to return before the evening to spread the net for another night and for another catch.    

Kashmiri spices are known for its flavour and robust colour. Kashmiri Red Chillies are much in demand in India for its deep red colour which comes out very vividly in any cuisine. The fennel, cocks-comb flower add that local flavour to the Kashmiri cuisine. Saffron however, tops the list as the most prized Kashmiri spice. These spice-sellers in Zainakadal spice market are bunch of happy locals whose favorite pass-time is smoking (through the hooqah) and reminiscing about the "good old days" and worrying about the "Indian occupation of their land". But they are hopeful about the future and yearn for peace and normalcy. They have witnessed enough bloodshed in the last two decades.
Taking the sight of the lake aboard gaily painted Shikaras (water taxi-boats) on the Dal lake is a must do thing when in Srinagar. The sight of happy families enjoying that calming ride on the water spreads most joy and I begin to wonder, what went wrong in Kashmir that its men, women and children  had to face so much of hardship due to militancy. This also tells me that it took almost 20 years for a whole new generation of Indians to savor the experience called - Kashmir.

Placid waters of Dal lake is not only home to hundreds of Houseboats, shikaras but also it is home to thousands of families who have not known another home. This is their home, trade centre and their farm. The floating vegetable farms on the Dal produces some of the freshest vegetables. Every morning a temporary floating vegetable market springs up around the sun-rise, witnesses quick deals and offloading of sold vegetables onto the empty boats of buyers and make way towards the boulevard for onward transporting to the downtown Srinagar. This farmer is heading back home after selling off his stock.

The Fisherman collecting his catch early in the morning

The tranquility of misty morning
Shikaras moored by the boulevard. These boat-taxis have funny names, one of these is named '- Facebook Deluxe

One of my favourite shikara. 

Top 10 Must Do's at Srinagar

Stay on the Houseboat

Spend a night or two in Houseboat on the Dal Lake or for those who prefer to be away from the hustle and bustle may opt to stay in houseboat on Nagin Lake. Each houseboat is self contained, spacious and well furnished with most of the requirements for a comfortable stay available on board. A typical houseboat has three bedrooms with an en suite bathroom, a spacious Living room, a dining room, pantry and a front lounge. Some houseboats have adjoining small garden or a on the water deck, where one can sun bathe or just relax.   The houseboats are richly furnished with carpets, kashmiri handicrafts and ornate woodwork designs on the ceiling and walls of any houseboat is a must. Houseboats are classified from Super Deluxe to D Category depending on the amenities available on board. Pickup a houseboat moored after the Nehru Park for atmosphere, scene and tranquility. These houseboats are closer to Char Chinar, Dal Market, Floating vegetable market, lotus farms, Kabutarkhana and Nishat and Shalimar Gardens.

Where to stay:

Tunda Palace            Accessible from Ghat # 16 and 17     Contact - Ghulam Ahmed Tunda  9622427780
Prince of Vale           Accessible from Ghat # 16 and 17     Contact - Salim Tunda
HB Teheran              Accessible from Ghat # 16 and 17     
HB Bostan                Accessible from Ghat # 16 and 17
Cheerful Charlie       Accessible from Ghat # 16 and 17     Contact - Aslam Donglu

On Nagin Lake one can choose to stay at Gurkha Houseboats  run by Welcome  Group  of Hotels.
Shikara ride on the Dal Lake

Take a tour of the Dal lake and Nagin lake on a Shikara. See the Kabutarkhana (pigeon house of former Maharaja of Kashmir, Char Chinar (4 Chinar trees) on a tiny island, Dal floating market behind Nehru Park, Floating vegetable market, visit Papier Mache factory and watch process of papier mache crafts, lotus farms, or visit Shalimar and Nishat Gardens. The Shikara wallah would also show you HB Cheerful Charlie, where the famous song 'Bhumro, bhumro.." of hindi film Mission Kashmir was picturised on Preity Zinta and Hritik Roshan. Must do on shikara is a trip of the backwaters of Dal where you see the villages and the non-touristy Dal Lake. Contact Ashique (9419011042), the owner of shikara 'Facebook Deluxe'at Ghat # 16 for an enjoyable ride.

Floating Vegetable Market

Early morning visit to the floating vegetable market must be on top of your agenda even if you are not staying on a houseboat on Dal lake. The market settles down around sunrise on a vast patch of clear water in the backyards of the lake where farmers from lake carry freshly picked vegetables. Buyers from downtown Srinagar pick up these boat loads of vegetables and clear away by 8 am.

Boat ride on Jhelum River

The river Jhelum was once lifeline of Kashmir before advent of vehicles and mechanized transport, hence the city of Srinagar also settled on the two banks of the river. Century old brick and wood houses still stand tall on both flanks. Recently started speedboat ride is a good way to see the stretch of river from GPO Park upto Zainakadal. On the way one sees the old wooden bridge of Zainakadal which is unique in form, the khanqah-e-maula, the raghunath temple are some of the important buildings that you would come across during this journey. It takes about 70 minutes for a round trip and cost approx 960/- for the full boat which  takes 8 persons. One can pick up the speed boat from Grindlays Ghat or the covered boat from Pirzoo Garden across the GPO on Bund.
Caution - These speedboats do not have life jackets or life saving equipments.

Mausoleum Visit

Srinagar is home to the mausoleums of famous muslim saints - Shah Hamadan, Peer Dastageer and Makhdoom Saheb. These mausoleums are magnificent examples of Kashmiri architecture and craftsmanship. Ornately decorated interiors would mesmerize any visitor.

Hazratbal Mosque

The white marble Hazratbal mosque glistens in the daylight across the Dal Lake beyond the backwaters. Apart from being a magnificent structure, it houses the sacred hair of the Prophet Mohammed (saw) which is displayed to the devotees only on select few dates during the year. Green lawn sprawled up to the edge of the Lake with large Chinar trees standing tall is a great place to relax and contemplate about life and its meaning.

Mughal Gardens

No visit is complete without visit to the Mughal Gardens - Chashma-e-Shahi, Nishat and Shalimar and Pari Mahal nestled on the foothills of Zabarwan Hills flanking the eastern shore of the lake. Pari Mahal was a Buddhist structure, before it was converted into a Madrasah by the Mughal prince Dara Shikoh. The tiered palace provides a panoramic view of the Dal Lake.
Chashma-e-Shahi (Royal fountain pavilion) houses a natural spring which cascades down from the hills. The adjoining garden also provides good view of the Dal Lake.
Nishat Garden is a magnificent garden laid out in the charbagh style of mughal architecture, with cascading fountains and waterways flowing right into the lake in the olden days. Green lawns are well tended which reflects in many varieties of flowers in full bloom. JK Tourism has recently started a coffee shop on the lawns of Nishat. One can savour Kehwa with Kashmiri naan while resting on reed-mat with gaily covered bolsters to rest ones tired body.
Shalimar Garden is the most beautiful of all. The tiered garden with flowers in full bloom all across, cascading fountains and tall shadowy chinar trees is a feast for nature lovers.

Ariel view of the Dal Lake, houseboats can be seen moored in neat rows with Hari Parbat (Hari Fort in the distance).

Shopping in Downtown

Srinagar is a shoppers paradise for traditional crafts of Kashmir. Unfortunately, Kashmiri crafts are more female centric with very few options for men. One can pick Pashmina, Jamawar and Kani Shawls, stoles and mufflers, Embroidered dress, papiermache products, carpets, crewel and chain-stitch upholstery fabrics and dress materials; floor wares - namdas and gabas; wall hangings; copper-ware samovars and traditional bowls, glasses and pots; wicker baskets and lamps, walnut wood carved desks, tables, jewellery boxes; dry fruits, Saffron and spices.     

Visit Maharaj bazaar and market near Habbakadal bridge, Lal Chowk for dry fruits and saffron. Zainakadal for spices and copper ware; For carpet, chain stitch wall hangings and floor wear visit one of the outlets on Boulevard near Nishat and Shalimar Gardens. Ghulam Mohammed Joo at the crossing of Residency Road near Bund is an excellent option for quality carpets. Tiny little shops at Nauhatta are great bargain places for crewel stitch fabrics, namdas and gabbas. The shops at Residency Road have touristy rates which are much on the higher side. Go to shops where local residents shop for clothes. G M Shah on Residency at the intersection of Polo View is a treasure trove of Kashmiri embroidered dress and dress materials, furnishing fabrics, shawls and upholstery. Lanes near Hazratbal mosque are great to pickup some of the finest wicker ware baskets, lamps and wicker decorative items. Persian Dowry on Dal Lake behind Nehru Park is a treasure trove of famous papiermache craft. 

Dinner at Ahdoos  

Visit to Srinagar is incomplete without enjoy feast of Kashmiri Wazwan cuisine. Though the full wazwan feast consist of more than 30 courses which can only be had at a Kashmiri wedding. One can sample some of the wazwan dishes at the Ahdoos, a landmark hotel and restaurant on Bund. You can savour the red gravy Rista (mutton ball curry) or Gushtaba (mutton ball curry in white gravy), Tabak Maaz (lamp ribs deep fried), Kabab (seekh and boti), Nadru (lotus stem curry), Chemen (Paneer curry). These go well with the plain rice or dry-fruit rich Kashmiri Pulao. Round it off with Phirni followed by hot and invigorating cup of saffron kehwa. 

Alka Salka, few blocks away from Ahdoos is another good option for wazwan. The much touted Mughal Darbar near GPO is a disappointment though. For foodies who do not care much about the ambience but want to gorge on kebabs then Khayam chowk is the kebab paradise in Srinagar. About a dozen small eateries serve kebab, rista, gushtaba with rice or roti late into the night. All very reasonable priced.
Coffee and Pasta, Pizza at Cafe Arabica

Post militancy, the first Cafe to spring up to cater to the needs of much aware Kashmiri youths is Cafe Arabica housed on Polo view located at Hotel Broadway. This excellent cafe serves among others, pastas, pizzas, Chinese, Arab and American dining cuisine. This atmospheric cafe is a hangout of Kashmiri youths who live with the times - informed, enlightened and tech-savvy. Open all day, till 10 pm on Polo View Road.

Stream on the boulevard near Dal gate is a newly opened restaurant is a good option in the Dal area for Lunch and dinners. There is also a Cafe Coffee Day in the Hotel Malik Place compound on boulevard, but beware of the snacks. I was served stale sandwiches!

Useful Information

Places to stay - Hotels

Vivanta by Taj                Zabarwan Hills, Boulevard                 Vivanta by Taj Srinagar
The Lalit Grand Palace    Boulevard                                         Lalit Grand Palace
Broadway Hotel              Polo View, Maulana Azad Road       Hotel Broadway
Ahdoos                           Maulana Azad Road                          Ahdoos
Green Acres                    Rajbagh                                            Green acres
Malik Palace                   Boulevard
Grand Mumtaz                Polo View, Maulana Azad Road       Grand Mumtaz
Shahenshah Palace          Boulevard
Centaur Lake View         Boulevard                                        Centaur Lake View
Hotel Heemal                  Boulevard
Hotel Madhuban             Boulevard                                         Hotel Madhuban     
Hotel Shah Abbas           Boulevard
Hotel Zabarvan               Zabarvan Hills
Almond Villa Mahindra Homestay                                           Almond Villa        
Hillscape Inn                  Nishat                                               Hillscape Inn
Mahatta Homestay          Rajbagh

Visit to discover Indian blogs

To the Travelers

India as a travel destination is exotic and raw, rooted in ancient history, generously endowed with natural beauty, peppered with exotic cuisine and culinary diversity, embellished with traditional crafts still created manually by craftsmen following the tradition for generations. 
Most of the Indian cities are not much of a great and wholesome tourist destinations baring few of them. Yet even these cities offer quite a feast for the senses. Being a predominantly non-city nation, Indian destinations beyond its cities offer travelers with a bouquet of exotic and offbeat options spanning over the sublime mountains and hills, deserts, seas, rivers, backwaters, forests, ancient and historical cities. These destinations offer the best of Indian crafts, art, culture, cuisine, music, traditions in the backdrop of mountains, deserts, villages, seas, rivers and backwaters.

This blog intends to bring to its readers the offbeat Indian destinations which I hope would help them in making an informed decision while planning an Indian holiday. Happy travelling to India!