The first time I visited Kerala I was eighteen years old, half a lifetime ago. I can still recall the red-tiled roofs in the Portuguese quarters and the charming boutiques and cafes lining the labyrinthine lanes. Naturally, so much has changed over the years, though incredibly, so much is still the same. Tourism in India has exploded over the last decade and as a traveler, I often feel as though the authenticity of the places I have visited has been replaced with a watered-down version at astronomical prices.
However, a stroll through the old market of Mattancherry brought the days of old alive for me. Starting out from Fort Kochi, it is a 2-kilometer walk towards the Mattancherry Palace, with a vague sense of the port waters stretched out beyond the crumbling colonial architecture. Palatial heritage hotels and hip cafes transform into the realm of merchants, traders, and laborers, all dependant on ancient local industries for their livelihoods. Kerala’s spice trade dates to the third millennium BC, and Mattancherry’s spice market is still a hub of activity today. Most notable exports from this region are tea and spices, much of which is grown on the slants of the Western Ghats. However, one can also find varieties of rice, jute, and a plethora of antiques.
Decaying photos of ancestors cling to the peeling paint of centuries-old shops, a constant reminder of their lasting legacy. Day labourers still earn wages transporting heavy satchels of produce bound for the far seas. With the exceptional amount of tourists that Kochi sees each year, some stretches of the Mattancherry Spice Market appear to be business-as-usual. That is until you reach the Jewish Quarters. This is where the crowds are. And this is also where Kashmiri shops outnumber local businesses.
Busloads of tourists stand in the hot sun waiting to get into the Pardesi Synagogue, an active place of worship for the remaining Malabar Jews who have called this place their home since the 4th century. Every nook of this neighborhood is crammed with history, the air is literally peppered with the scent of it. There is something for everyone here. Whether it is art and designer boutiques, a tour of Kerala’s gastronomical delights, or a whiff of the cardamom-scented streets of Mattancherry, Kochi has got you covered.