I have long been interested in colonialism, and in particular the history of British India. Perhaps it was being raised in a culture that – although it no longer celebrates colonialism and, in fact, often looks back with shame – still venerates certain products of the era, like Rudyard Kipling and his beautiful stories from the subcontinent. Or perhaps it was because I studied history at university. Although it goes without saying that I cannot support the occupation of one country by another, there is still something oddly romantic about that time in history, and I often find myself thinking about it. I have travelled a great many of Britain’s former colonies, from the United States to Myanmar, and from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka. I always find myself wondering what it was like back then.
Of course, it was not just Britain that had an empire, and it’s easy to forget that when looking very briefly at history. We tend to think of “British India” and of pompous white men in pith helmets and absurd mustaches teaching the “natives” cricket. Yet the French were here, too, and the Portuguese. The Dutch, naturally, had their own outposts, and even the Danish tried their hand at the colonial game. In fact, the British were merely the winners in a scramble for influence and power in a part of the world that was already being contested by various forces.
One can feel this mix of history in Kochi, formerly known as Cochin, and sometimes even known as Ernakulam. Its role as a port city, from which India’s bountiful supply of spices were shipped out to the world, goes back centuries to trade with the Arab states. In 1500, the Portuguese showed up, and three years later they took Kochi by force. It wasn’t long until the Dutch leveled the city and took it from the Portuguese, and later the British sent the Dutch packing and took it for their own – or rather, they manipulated the local rulers to make it essentially a vassal state. The result is, at least in the historical center of the city, a bewildering mix of cultures and monuments to the past. There are mosques, churches, temples, and synagogues. There are Muslim districts and a long street called “Jew Town.” There is British colonial architecture and a Dutch Palace that is neither a palace nor was it even built by the Dutch! It is schizophrenic town, a place with serious personality disorders, and yet it is absolutely charming.
My arrival in Kochi came after – you guessed it! – a long bus ride. By now I was very much used to these sorts of journeys and I actually quite enjoyed watching the scenery as we zigzagged through Kerala, a state that calls itself “God’s Own Country.” I arrived on the outskirts of town and needed to transfer via a local bus and a ferry just to get to the historic old town, where my hostel was located. Again, I was beginning to enjoy the hassle as a means of seeing more of India. At the ferry port, I was treated to the sight of a man beating a two meter long snake to death with a bamboo pole in front of a group of stunned children. Only in India… or to put it in a more modern way, #indiaproblems
After checking in, I set out for a stroll along the waterfront, first admiring the huge Chinese fishing nets at the north of the island, and then watching the sun go down over the Laccadive Sea. Brought to India centuries ago by Mongolian traders who passed through China, the fishing nets are lowered by massive wooden levers into the water just off a small beach. It takes several men to lift them back out of the water, even if there are no fish inside. They are still operational, although it doesn’t seem like they actually catch many fish. Several operators charge tourists to help out with the lifting as a way of making some extra cash. “Come do my fishing for me, white man! It’ll make a great selfie for your Instagram!” Tourists cluster to take photos, although the background now is of a giant oil refinery, which rather ruins the ancient allure of the scene.
On the beach, people all pose for photos. I hate to sound like a crotchety old man, but I don’t understand why photos are now the point of any excursion, rather than a happy by-product of it. All across India, as well as most of Asia, it seems people now simply go to a beach or a park in order to take photos of one another. I watched a group of ten young men pose for more than an hour before leaving. They did nothing except take photos of each other. Half the time they were pretending to walk along the beach while a friend shot this nonchalant image, and yet no one actually bothered to do any walking just for the sake of walking! Back in Kodaikanal I saw families putting their children on trees and taking photos that will look oh so fucking adorable on Facebook, but it was all set up to make it look like they just caught the kid playing on the tree and captured the moment. The kids never actually got to play on the trees, though. I read recently that we are now in an “experience economy” where rather than collecting things, people collect experiences. This all sounds true until you realize that they aren’t even experiencing anything; they’re just getting photos to show off on social media the same way the previous generations bought new TVs and ornaments for their house.
The next morning I took a stroll around the town. Kochi is very different from other Indian cities in that its narrow streets are rather clean and quiet. They are not clean and quiet compared to, say, most cities around the world, but they are more relaxing to explore than most of this hectic land. Having already seen the northern tip of Fort Kochi, I ventured into the middle of the island and then over to the eastern shore. While the north is very touristy, most of the rest is just a normal town and most of the buildings are occupied by companies that deal in small-scale manufacturing. Halfway down the east side is an area called Jew Town, centered around Jew Town Road. I thought the name was rather offensive, myself, but then perhaps that is my delicate liberal sensibility. It just seems like they could’ve gone with something more neutral, like “Little Israel” or even “the Jewish Quarter.” Jew Town sounds a bit blunt to my ears.
At the top of Jew Town is a rather non-descript building called the Dutch Palace. I wasn’t hugely interested, but when I saw that entry was only five rupees – incredibly, it was the same price for both foreigners and Indians – I ventured inside. It was now a museum, but once upon a time it was built by the Portuguese as a gift for the local nobility. (That’s right, the Portuguese; not the Dutch. They just restored it many years later.) This was intended to keep the peace between the Europeans and the locals, after the Portuguese and looted a temple and pissed off the Kochi maharaja. The building then is a mix of 1500s European and Indian architecture and art, and while it looks like a contender for World’s Most Boring Building from the outside, inside it is rather charming. It is also furnished with enough information, displayed in three languages, to keep you there for an hour or more, even though it is quite small.
As I walked around, I noted how each of the Kochi maharajas became less and less powerful as European influence grew. In the beginning, the Portuguese were eager to appease the local powers, but by the time the British came onto the scene, they had figured out how to play the politics game, and soon had the royals fighting among themselves while clamoring for British support. In the portrait gallery and other photographs, you can see how the royals became more influenced by British trends until, in the late nineteenth century, everyone took to wearing British clothing. It is funny that this actually occurred after the notorious Indian Mutiny, and not long before the move for independence began to take hold. It seems that the Brits were reluctant to Anglicize and Christianize India, and yet that’s exactly what happened, even after they took an official policy to avoid it happening. Independence has only sped up the process. Looking around India today, or at least the south where I have travelled, one could be forgiven for thinking that it is a Christian country more so than a Hindu one.