Chennai to Fort Kochi: History through art

A town that becomes a canvas for artists


Aspinwall House. Photo courtesy Ganesh Vancheeswaran
Aspinwall House. Photo courtesy Ganesh Vancheeswaran

Fort Kochi is not a place you visit just once in a lifetime. This former Portuguese and Dutch colony offers experiences at multiple levels, inviting you to find meaning and solace time and again. And for those who love a dose of history and culture by the seaside, this is a great bet. Which is perhaps why, when I wondered about an ideal solo travel destination for the weekend, Fort Kochi automatically came to mind. Especially since the art festival, Kochi-Muziris Biennale, was back in town.

An overnight train journey from Chennai took me to Ernakulam district. There, I hopped on to the ferry across the backwater channel that lies on the fringes of the city. Ernakulam (also known as Kochi) is the main city and commercial hub. Lying close to the mainland, but joined by bridges, are the small islands of Willingdon (mostly government offices), Fort Kochi and Mattancherry (the travel hub), Bolgatty and Vypeen. The boat took me past leafy Willingdon Island, busy Thoppumpady and medieval Mattancherry, before dropping me off at Fort Kochi. The shimmering waters, the local people and the fishing boats bobbing up and down the gentle waves kept me company. What an atmospheric journey for just Rs4!

Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint
Graphic by Ahmed Raza Khan/Mint

Dumping my bag in my room, I had a quick shower and headed out. Hunger pangs led me straight to Kayees (also known as the Rahmathulla restaurant). Several decades old, this simple eatery has been a favourite for a Kerala breakfast. After a few appams (rice pancakes), idiyappams (rice noodles), kadala (chickpea) curry and a cup of strong tea later, I found myself at Aspinwall House on Calvathy Road. This is the main venue of the ongoing Kochi-Muziris Biennale, an art festival that is held once in two years (Kochimuzirisbiennale.org). Into its third edition this year, the biennale, which began on 12 December, is on till 29 March.

The decision to revisit this festival was an inspired one. Unlike most art shows, the biennale does not take place in an air-conditioned hotel or a posh gallery. Instead, it takes place all over the township—in old spice and timber yards, local art galleries, and mansions that are two-three centuries old. 

Wall art in Fort Kochi. Photo courtesy Ganesh Vancheeswaran.
Wall art in Fort Kochi. Photo courtesy Ganesh Vancheeswaran.

All day, I moved from venue to venue, studying the stunning paintings, etchings and installations on display. In this, my fourth visit to Fort Kochi, I felt like I was seeing the town for the first time. I took in Brij Mohan Anand’s dissentive art at the Greenix Village cultural arts centre and the brilliant paintings on the history of immigrant Jews at the Kashi Art Gallery. Elsewhere, I found exquisite cloth tapestries created by cutting old clothes and re-stitching them. I was told by another visitor that several local tailors had been involved in this project. The day ended with stimulating INK Salon talks at Cabral Yard.

The next morning, I strolled through Jew Town in the satellite area of Mattancherry. With its cobblestone streets, timber-framed houses and a 16th century synagogue, it evoked a different, historical era. Shops selling authentic antiquities vied for space with those selling spices, essential oils, tea and handmade soaps. At a store called Crafters, I found what must surely have been one of the largest vaarpus (a traditional Kerala brass vessel used to cook at feasts) in the world.

By afternoon, my feet gave up and I headed to Seagull restaurant. I sat on the deck abutting the estuary and sipped my drink. Waves lapped at the deck, the seagulls glided silently and a balmy breeze caressed my face. A mammoth ship hooted as it passed close to the shore. 

I sighed in contentment. 

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets from @theholehog.

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