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Cochin: Backwater Tours, Traditional Dance, Chinese Fishing Nets and Jew Town

Carrie and I on our backwater tour in Cochin
Carrie and I on our backwater tour in Cochin

Our march south continued with a stop in Cochin in the state of Kerala, which is one of the most romanticized cities in India. Occupied by the Portuguese and Dutch for hundreds of years before moving to British control, the city has a European feel: especially in the architecture and religion. Everywhere you look there are churches, crosses and images of Jesus, as nearly 90% of all residents in Kerala are Catholic. In fact, according to a local, at any given time more than 50% of all Kerala residents are living out of the state preaching Catholicism around the world. As for Cochin, the biggest draw has to be a backwater tour.

Our oresman who manually pushed our boat with 8 people through the backwaters of Cochin
Our oresman who manually pushed our boat with 8 people through the backwaters of Cochin

Imagine a luxury boat ride through the Louisiana bayou except you are in a small leaky canoe with seven other people being propelled gondola-style by a skinny yet muscular Indian man with a six meter bamboo stick. Check out a video here. The waterways are narrow and filled with trees, plants and both poor and rich houses lining the canal. For nearly three hours we glided through the waters with several stops along the way to learn all about the various uses of coconuts. We saw how the fibers of the shells are put together to form ropes and how the shells are then dried out for use in factories and in creating essential oils. We also stopped for some fresh juice right out of the just-opened by machete coconut…which I declined as an avid hater of coconuts.

Another highlight of the canoe trip was seeing the plants that supply many of the spices we use on a daily basis: especially the different types of pepper. After a local lunch served on a bamboo leaf, we switched transportation modes to a larger houseboat where two oarsmen pushed 20 passengers for two hours with the same bamboo sticks. At least half of us fell asleep for a while in between taking in the beautiful scenery of the rivers of Kerala: all in all an extremely relaxing experience.

The Chinese fishing nets of Cochin
The Chinese fishing nets of Cochin

Cochin is also famous for its Chinese fishing nets, which are giant wooden structures with rock-based weights suspended from large poles. Using a series of pulleys and levers, at least four men are required to raise and lower these nets into the water in an effort to catch seafood. While taking photos from the shore, Carrie and I were invited onto one of the structures to actually operate the nets with the locals (for a requested donation, of course). It was fun to do once or twice, but we couldn’t imagine doing it hundreds of times a day.

We also saw a traditional Kathakali performance depicting the Kiratham chapter of the Mahabharata: the epic Indian poem that teaches core values. The actors are all exquisitely made up to depict gods, demons and mortals and the show has no words: only live music and pantomime lead the audience through the story. Check out a video demonstration of the technique here…and a clip from the show’s dramatic dance finale between Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvathi and Arjuna here.

The characters of the Kathakali show we saw in Cochin depicting the Kiratham chapter of the Mahabharata. From left to right, Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvathi and Arjuna
The characters of the Kathakali show we saw in Cochin depicting the Kiratham chapter of the Mahabharata. From left to right, Lord Shiva, Goddess Parvathi and Arjuna

On our last day in Cochin we took a trip to Jew Town, which has the country’s oldest synagogue and was once the home to a thriving Jewish population until most of them left for Israel within the last 60 years. Founded in 1568, the actual synagogue was modest on the outside and beautifully decorated on the inside. It was also most notable as the only glimpse of of Judaism during our two months in India. The final sight of note was the Mattancherry Palace, which is a exquisite but run down example of Portuguese and Dutch architecture. There is a museum inside that cost about 4 cents to enter and was mostly under construction…which is quite typical outside of major cities and a reason we avoid most museums.

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