Monday, March 21, 2011

Cochin – diversity city

It is scarcely my place to judge or pretend knowledge of a place after one day but can record my impression – which as you will have gathered was very positive.

This was a very different India than I had seen before or now, in Port Blair.
In Cochin now it is apparent that there is an increasing prosperity and with it the place has become much more comfortable to those of us spoiled in the West. Mumbai remains uncomfortable. Cochin a few years ago was worse off than it is now. It comes down to the call centers, trade as a large port and products ie spices.

The way people live varies widely. In the same street you can see beautiful architect designed houses and those in disrepair. You see old houses that have been restored and you can see what is behind the façade. We were able to look from the top story of a store across the roofs of Cochin and down into peoples back yards.
If we had to talk about Indian food we would think of spicy and poppadums – we went to the spice markets (as I mentioned yesterday) and saw how the locals buy their spices – a beautiful array of colors and smell – and we visited the Brahmin district which is where the ladies are allowed to make the poppadum – here she is drying what she has made in the sun, on a sack.

Education is important in this state – they are proud of their literacy rate of 93% and all the people we saw have some English. Liked this sign – which offers education in English and Medical – look at the acronym of the enterprise “triumphant institute of management education” ‘TIME’…….got to love it

Passed an Indian Pharma company – brought 42nd street back to me – they warehouse the basic for Indian medications here and the retailers buy it then formulate it themselves

The other side of Cochin highlighted another aspect of its diversity – religious. Hindus represent a slight majority in this city. We saw a variety of Hindu temples – some were small and very colorful with the deities shown in striking color; others were a bit more forbidding – only Hindus allowed; and the Jain temple – built by the incredibly wealthy Jain family – we all I am sure know a member in the States somewhere – was a peaceful place that was less decorative but allowed entry but no photos. Note the Swastikas by the way – they were an Indian symbol long before they were adopted by the Nazis.

We visited two churches – it was Sunday and services were in full swing. 30plus% here are Christian – predominantly Catholic – maybe the Portuguese heritage . This is St Francis Church – where Vasco De Gama was briefly buried before going back home.
The more elaborate church is Santa Cruz.

Most interesting to me though was the Jewish community of Cochin. The history is a bit vague but apparently Jews have been commercially involved with trade on the Malabar coast since the time of Solomon but a community fled here at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 72AD – at the time of the dispersal.
The Jews that came to this part of India, a ways away from the present Cochin, then had the usual history – they were welcomed, received substantial recognition by the local leaders and were commercially very successful. For many years – even centuries – they prospered; then came the Portuguese and the Inquisition and the community was attacked, dispersed and barely survived by coming to Cochin.

Again in Cochin they were welcomed and were granted property in Jewtown and built a synagogue – in 1568. They received official warrants of property and rights from the Rajah and all was going well until the Portuguese arrived here – second verse same as the first. Very few survivors. Then the Dutch came and the cycle continued – good times returned; the Portuguese briefly defeated the Dutch who landed up in Ceylon finally returning and providing peace and stability that lasted through their leadership, that of the British and Indian independence.

We visited the Jewish area and were able to get a glimpse. The Jewish Cemetery is overgrown but is still there; in fact a recent visitor decided he wanted to be buried there and they were preparing his grave as we looked through the gate. 

The area consists of one street that is lined by houses 300 – 400 years old – most of them converted to tourist shops. The street is a cul-de-sac with the synagogue at its end. We went into the Synagogue which is beautiful. Chinese tile floor; upstairs for the women – entre not allowed because its rickety; lovely lights and a decorated Ark. Only five elderly Jewish families remain in Cochin so they don’t get a minyan anymore unless tourists come.

We met Sarah Cohen who still lives in her husbands family home – its 300 years old. We were not able to meet the Halleguas – they take a rest at lunchtime which was when we were there. I knew someone of the same name in New York. So strange. All the rest of the community have moved to Israel post – independence. The history of this community was on display in the Cohen house in photos that were absolutely fascinating and documented in pamphlets that we bought.

It was after our visit to Jewtown that we returned to the ship; profoundly affected by our visit here.
As we sailed out at 5pm on our way to Mumbai the new Cochin was on our Starboard side – lovely modern highrise buildings; the old city and fort were on our port side.. For once I can really say I the old was better!


  1. Im so sorry i havn't been able to post but i have been following u guys all through india! and im not shur if i would want to know my grave was being dug with out me being dead yet like the guy at the jewish grave yard

  2. Michael, I am impressed with your memory of all the historical facts once you return to the ship and then blog. You really give out a lot of detailed information. And now I don't have to travel to India!!

  3. In this economy, US citizens are going to witness a lot more of the class dichotomy with which the Indians are so familiar.