A brief Malabar adventure

Aditi Sengupta | Updated on January 31, 2020

Old-world charm: Lunch at a fisherman’s village — complete with red rice, fish fry and avial — was the cherry on the Muziris icing   -  ADITI SENGUPTA

A visit to the restoration project site of an ancient harbour in Kerala, steeped in history, is peppered with anecdotes and delicious local fare

Curiosity was Lila’s middle name. A little girl — her age is a matter of conjecture — she was always on her toes, flitting around her house and that of others like a butterfly. And when she found the indoors boring, she headed for the maze of streets of Muziris — a name that belonged to an ancient harbour on the Malabar Coast — in search of history, adventure and stories.

I felt a bit like Lila as I stood at a boat jetty at Paravur, about an hour from Kochi’s solar-powered airport. It was a humid September morning, and the taste of tender coconut water, with a sprinkling of lime juice and basil seeds, was giving a whole new twist to the idea of a welcome drink.

Also like Lila — the imaginary little girl who is the inspiration behind Marriott’s Port Muziris hotel in Kochi, my home for two nights — I was full of questions for the tour guide of the three-hour water taxi ride along the backwaters.

Behind us — around two minutes from the jetty — was one of the oldest Jewish synagogues in Kerala. The Paravur Synagogue, built in the early 17th century, was the first stop of the morning. The house of worship is a mix of traditional Kerala and Jewish architectural styles. Of particular interest to me was the elevated wooden pathway that women used to access a pavilion at the main prayer hall. The synagogue, like many others in parts of India, is rarely used for prayer these days. But tourists are trickling in, thanks to the heritage project run by the Kerala government.

I imagined that Lila, too, would have approved of the restoration of churches, synagogues, forts and palaces as well as the construction of museums along the water route. And the added charm of lunch at a fisherman’s village — complete with red rice, fish fry and avial — was the cherry on the Muziris icing.

The route to that delicious lunch was peppered with several quick stops at restored sites, the most significant of which is the Paravur Synagogue. About two hours later, I found myself at the remnants of a fort that I had first encountered in a chapter in a history textbook. The Cranganore Fort, a reminder of the subcontinent's long relationship with colonial powers of Europe, was built by the Portuguese in 1523. It stayed with them for 140 years, giving the colonisers a strategic view of all the traffic on that stretch of the Arabian Sea. The fort then fell into the hands of the Dutch and, several twists and turns later, the royal family of Travancore.

The only people who benefited from the tussle between colonial powers in the Muziris area were the Paliathu Achans, prime ministers to the kings of Kochi. They often sided with the foreigners, winning wealth, land, titles and power in the process. The Paliam Palace at Chendamangalam, a sprawling structure in white, is proof of the opulence that loyalty to the powerful can bring.

The boat ride on the lazy green backwaters, lined with coconut trees and several reading rooms, gave me ample time to absorb the bits of Muziris I had set out to explore. Along with the history came the realisation that just two nights were not enough to do justice to the port that absorbed cultures and influences from different parts of the globe.

Traces of the same social fabric were on display at the Lila’s Kitchen dinner menu that night. The homemade beef pickle, straight from the chef’s mother’s table, was the star of the show for me. The wok-fresh appams soaked in the flavours of stews and fish curries. And the mutton biryani, made with short-grained rice, was a slice of paradise for the pepper lover.

The atrium demanded a post-dinner cuppa. The hibiscus in the tea did fairly well in putting my reservations against flavoured brew to rest.

Back in the room — which was a smart combination of trendy and traditional — I soaked my feet in a warm tub and admired the charcoal drawings on the walls. The illustration of a bicycle seemed most appropriate for Lila’s abode. I was sure she too was looking forward to the next adventure: A visit to the thundering Athirappally Waterfalls.

(The writer was in Kochi at the invitation of Port Muziris, A Tribute Portfolio Hotel)

Aditi Sengupta

Published on January 31, 2020

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