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Jew Town, Kochi (India)

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It has been known that Jewish settled in Kochi as early as 700 BC for trade and commerce. The population rose and the reigning Hindu king gave them a whole area for their own town.

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      05.01.2013 13:39
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      A very pleasant place for a good wander

      ~Taking things easy~

      The first five days of our holiday in India last year had been pretty intense and when we got to Kochi (formerly Cochin) we were determined to take things a bit easier. After six days of non-stop travel we were keen to not go very far and decided to spend our day in and around the district known as Jewtown. I can almost hear the collective intake of breath at the name but there is nothing pejorative about the term - it's purely descriptive. This is the area of Kochi where the Jewish community lived close to the famous Paradesi Synagogue since the 1500s. I say 'famous' but it's probably only a bit of Indian history that you'll know about if you've actually been to Kerala.

      The Jewish community was one of two in the area and as a result of a refusal to intermarry, the population in Jewtown is down to just a few dozen, mostly elderly people. There's just one woman left of child-bearing age and she refuses to marry either of her cousins so the end of the community is just a matter of time. Just as tourists used to flock to the Galapagos to see Lonesome George, the elderly tortoise who was the end of his line, there's a morbid fascination that draws people to Jewtown in hope of seeing members of this rare group as they slowly head towards the inevitable self imposed extinction.

      If you're planning to go to Jewtown it helps if you don't do the stupid thing we did and go on a Friday when the synagogue is closed - though surprisingly, that turned out to be a good thing for us as we had the place pretty much to ourselves.

      We have been to the synagogue before, during our first visit to Kochi and at that time we managed to get into the building. Whilst I don't recall a lot of details about the place, I have a lingering impression of lots of glass chandeliers, lots of fabulous tiling and a general sense of awe. If you get the chance and aren't so silly as to turn up on a Friday, I definitely recommend a visit. The second thing I recalled about the area was that the shopping was really good and we went in search of a lazy day, cool drinks on verandahs, a bit of chatting to shop keepers and a healthy dose of people watching.

      ~I would fail my girl scout navigation badge~

      The first task was getting there. Our homestay was not a great distance from Jewtown - perhaps a mile or a mile and half - but my sense of direction is famously lousy and we didn't have a good map so we decided to take an autorickshaw. We had received a useful tip from a shop keeper the day before that in India's most communist state (though currently Kerala doesn't have communist party control) the drivers tend to be unionised and will not undercut each other to get customers. That's admirable but not much fun. The first driver we stopped offered us a silly price so we sent him on his way when he wasn't willing to negotiate. The next offered us a price that was about half that of the first so we accepted his offer and didn't argue - in fact I think we rounded it up and gave him a pretty good tip. Before we got in, we took note of the local landmarks in a hope of being able to find our way back again.

      We were dropped in the centre of Jewtown close to Crafters Cafe and headed down the narrow road to the synagogue where we realised our mistake in turning up on a Friday. To compensate we went for a drink and then followed the old adage "When the going gets tough, the tough get shopping" and spent an hour or two drifting in and out of the shops. We soon realised that the shopkeepers were mostly as alien to their surroundings as the original Jews must have been half a millennium ago since the majority were not local men but came from Kashmir in the far north of the country. For them the heat of the south is almost as oppressive as it was for us and we had a lot of chats about how they'd had to adjust to the area. Many of the shops in this area are so-called 'fixed price' outlets and they attempt to reduce the normal amounts of haggling - presumably because during the busy season they just don't have the time to argue with customers. We found most of the prices to be really quite reasonable.

      ~Sipping tea, talking cricket corruption~

      There are a few shops which are traditional Jewish businesses selling religious items whose use we could only guess but most of the shops offer the same kind of handicrafts you can find in shops all over the country. We have been to India so many times now that we're actually pretty good at not buying things. Our opening gambit in any shop is to ask to be shown whatever is really local and to demonstrate that we know where the rest of the stuff comes from. When business is slow - as it was during our Friday visit - most of the shopkeepers were happy to just sit and chat, give us tea and chat about the cricket. The court case for the Pakistani match fixing case had just been completed and was a source of good conversation wherever we stopped to talk. One shopkeeper was quite excited that I had a geological and mineralogical background and had fun testing me on which of his necklaces were the good ones and which the cheap versions - I did pretty well and I think he enjoyed it as much as I did. He also asked to have his photograph taken with my bear and there was much amusement taken in my husband having a smaller bear buttoned into his top pocket.

      Strange as it might sound, we spent most of the day just wandering, talking, drinking tea and having fun with the shopkeepers. Yes, we bought a few bits and pieces - lots of spices from a place on Jewtown Road and a few trinkets for our annual search for the most garish items in each shop. We had lunch on the balcony of a pleasant restaurant above an antique shop and spent our time just watching people wandering about. As well as the quite classy shops, there are also cheap stalls on the side of the streets on Jewtown Road and you can access the coast from a path that runs through a small market. Whilst it was one of the less activity laden days of our trip, we really needed a quiet day and we found plenty to see and do just wandering around the area. You could see the whole area, take in the Mattancherry Palace and possibly knock off the churches and fishing nets of Fort Cochin all in one rather busy day, but sometimes it's nice to slow things down and take it easy.

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