Nothing like starting the today with a fresh, steaming, fragrant cup of masala chai. Totally fell in love with this beverage on my first trip to India – I even make it from scratch at home – which is a bit time consuming. I also bought a pre-mixed masala powder to speed things up when I want a cup quickly. Either way, NY masala chai is still not even close to the fresh brewed I enjoyed in India. I prefer the non-sugared cup so I can really taste all the marvelous spices – which vary depending on cook’s choices. Starting with a black tea, or Assam or Darjeeling, these spices are cooked in:
Basic masala chai can have the above, but can also include any of the following: nutmeg, , fennel, rose, mint, lemongrass or saffron.
We received our first cup of the day at a local Kochi chai shop – and since there are no coincidences I knew that the chai would be great (note the name of the store):
Fortified and with my tuk tuk partner/guide further providing positive vibes by singing to me the Gayatri mantra, we began our early morning journey through Kochi.
Before we get to the fishing village I want to note that you will see different spellings and pronunciation of this town – Kochi, Cochin, etc. Here is a brief explanation of the history of the name from the Kerala Tourism website:
It was Ma Huan, the Chinese traveler, who first mentioned Kochi in his books of early 15th century. Nicolo Conti, the Italian traveler also talks about the place in his records of 1440. From then on, the name appears in many travelogues and records of various travelers and traders from across the globe as Cocym, Cochym, Cochin, Cochi and so on. It has also been mentioned in some records as ‘Balapuri’, a Sanskrit name that means small town.
Some scholars are of the opinion it was the traders from the court of the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan who named the port city, after their homeland and. Some others believe that the name is a corrupted version of the Sanskrit word ‘Go Sree’, which means ‘prosperous with cows’.
According to one scholar, the name Kochi was derived from the word cocha, which indicates the Biblical term Cohen.
Kochi is also believed to be derived from kaki, which means harbour in Tamil; from the Malayalam word, koch-azhi meaning ‘small sea’ and from its earlier name Kakochi that was preceded by the name Kochim, used in the Portuguese records of the 15th century, etc. Some still refer to the place as Cochin, though it is now known as Kochi.
Back to our visit – being a fishing village, the ideal time to see it in action is EARLY – just as the sun is rising. And the most iconic sight to see is one of the Chinese Fishing nets shown at the top of this post.
These huge fishing nets are believed to have been brought by traders between 1350-1450. either from an envoy of Kublai Khan, or a Chinese explorer, or by the Portuguese. They are significant symbols of the exchange of culture and ideas that existed in the Indian subcontinent at the time.
The nets are set up on bamboo and teak poles. The Chinese fishing nets are about 33 feet high and spread to 66 feet over the water. The cantilevered net is so delicately balanced that the weight of a man walking along the main beam will cause the net to drop into the sea. The net is left underwater for about four to five minutes and while the catch might not be huge it gets sold almost instantly owing to its supreme freshness.
While one might expect a coastal area to have fisherman and nets, one fact I was not expecting is that Kochi was at one time considered the home of the oldest diaspora community of Jews outside of the Middle East. Only a handful of Jew still remain today with most having moved to Israel but there is still an active synagogue in town, appropriately called the Paradesi Synagogue.. Photos in a moment – let me first give you a brief history.
There are a number of notions on how and when Jews arrived along the Malabar Coast.. One version suggests that the first Jews were traders from King Solomon’s kingdom and came to Kerala due to the lure of India’s spice trade sometime between 970-930 BCE. Another theory suggests the Jews arrived from Israel between the 6th century BC and 1st century AD or from Majorca in the 5th century AD.
However, the specific “Jew Town” where the synagogue us located came to exist through the arrival of Sephardic Jews between the 15th and 16th centuries due to the Edict of Expulsion enacted in Spain. The Jews that settled in Kochi were known as “Paradesis” (foreigners). As they flourished, their culture came to be embedded in Kochi’s social fabric–the Paradesi Synagogue, considered one of India’s oldest and Kochi’s first, is a symbol of seamless assimilation. What a miracle to find a welcome home for a group of people who have spent millennia under persecution – still existing today.
Here is the synagogue – while most today are austere, this one is ornate and filled with color befitting a Southern India locale:
A final fascinating fact – the synagogue has a clock topper with four faces.. Three sides have a clock with respectively numbers in Hebrew, Maylayam and Roman:
The fourth side is blank. There are many notions as to why – but I will leave you to think about it.