Sunday Musings by Shekhar Nambiar
This is Onam time in Kerala. The state is buzzing with activity. Commerce is trying to make the most of it. This is the time of the year when most purchases are made. Be it gold for the daughter’s wedding or brand-new clothes, sarees, dhoties and kurtas for the rest of the family. This is also the time when the rains stop and there is all round happiness as the sun peeps out of the clouds more pronounced and shining bright after months of hibernation during the pounding south-west monsoon. The granaries are full and nature’s bounty is for all to see.
Once upon a time floods used to be a rarity in Kerala, at least until the 1970s. Call it unsustainable development, manmade causes or the effect of climate change, today things have changed and floods have become a part of Kerala life.
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In the past, elders will affirm that the only place where floods made periodic or regular appearances was Kuttanad in Alapuzha, Kerala’s rice bowl. And this is not surprising given its topography – flat below-sea level plains, waterbodies, lakes, backwaters and rivers skirting it, the coast being at an elevation here. On the east are the steep mountains of the Western Ghats.
Floods are becoming regular
Floods affect Kuttanad when the four rivers – Pampa, Achenkoil, Manimala and Meenachil – swell and overflow during the monsoon.
According to a 1989 study, Kuttanad floods have a “recurrence interval of two, five, 10, 25 and 50 years.” Floods that return every 10 years and above can be intense, while those that return every five years are less severe.
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It goes without saying that floods are becoming a regular occurrence all over the small state, north to south, and Kochi is no exception. This season has seen water enter the streets of Ernakulam, used interchangeably with Kochi. The inundation not only disrupted traffic and rail movements but also entered houses in several parts of the city and neighbouring Thripunithura among other places.
My understanding, simplistic it may sound, is that during torrential rains, water finds it difficult to drain itself off, due largely to the concrete structures and buildings that hamper and choke their natural flow into the channels. Kerala being one big contiguous urban/semiurban state, there’s development all around and this compounds the problem during heavy rains.
Floods play havoc with people’s livelihoods leading to distress and displacement of families. Dr MS Swaminathan’s 2007 report to the Union Government said that while floods are essential for Kuttanad’s ecology, their increasing intensity and frequency are a matter of concern. The report cited lake encroachments, unscientific construction of roads, bridges and culverts as being some of the causes for water being blocked, thereby preventing it to drain off into the Arabian Sea.
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My excitement knows no bounds
Moving on to pleasanter times, need I emphasize the good times in Kochi. Everytime I approach Kochi or Ernakulam my excitement knows no bounds. My heart misses a beat and pulse begins to race.
Road or rail, as you head to the city, what strikes most is the green cover, the thick lush vegetation if it’s post monsoon as it is now, and the flowing rivers and water bodies, the latter being extensions of the backwaters further down south. These are a veritable feast for the eyes.
The flight into Kochi’s airport at Nedumbassery is spectacular. The airport is modern and ever welcoming. The architecture is partly old – in the Kerala tradition and style – with the newly-built adjacent terminals aesthetically blending with each other.
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There’s something about Kochi that is mesmerizing. My impression about the city, since the first visit way back in the mid-seventies through to the present, has remained the same. Beautiful, vibrant and welcoming! The city never ceases to amaze.
It’s the state’s most happening place. It is Kerala’s boom town and counted among India’s top growing cities. From metro rail to the water metro, the city boasts a reasonably efficient public transport system. There are performances of Kerala’s traditional art forms, film-based shows, and western and Malayalam pop and rock bands. What’s more, the Malayalam film industry has moved to the city with actors shifting their base here. Popular film icons can be spotted on billboards on roads hawking high-end brands and jewellery of course.
Most visited place on earth
Historically, Kochi’s importance is significant. Its syncretic present is a legacy from the past. The areas surrounding it are where the first Christian and Muslim places of worship came up, thanks to the benevolence of then Hindu rulers. The historic Muziris port was where Kerala began trading with the Arabs and others. Historical evidence points to a flourishing trade across the Kerala coast, from Kochi to Calicut and further north. Reading history and visiting places around Kochi do transport you to times different. The simple lifestyle, temples, churches and mosques, and the culinary traditions are very much in evidence even today as it will have a century or two ago. Tourists from all parts of the world find it a unique experience of the cerebral and beauty laced with the mystic, spiritual, religious and the culinary traditions. Small wonder, then, Kerala is one of the most visited places on earth.
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All port cities have something about them: Sydney, Singapore, San Francisco, Hong Kong, Manhattan in New York and Mumbai. But Kochi’s natural harbour is more beckoning.
If the approaches to Sydney and San Francisco from the air are spectacular, Kochi’s is more breathtaking. Flying in from above the high mountains into the green fields, a lot of water and the mighty Periyar snaking its way past the northern extremity of the runway are all delightful sights.
If you ask me, the old airport at Willingdon Island, now exclusively used by the navy with its base just adjacent, is more charming with landings and takeoffs providing the full view of the harbour. The huge cranes of the Cochin Shipyard on the northern side of the channel, with the Venduruthy bridge spanning the two banks, can be seen for miles around. For years, the bridge, from the Ravipuram side, has been the lifeline linking Willingdon Island and then onwards south to mainland Fort Kochi over the Thoppumpadi.
Launch of INS Vikrant
The recent launch of the massive INS Vikrant aircraft carrier from the dockyard made headlines with India joining the big league. But we are yet to acquire a blue water navy, something our more powerful neighbours have and make a show and dance of, every now and then. What if we are not a great power, we can aspire to be one. We certainly are a middle power.
There’s nothing historic about Willingdon Island except that it used to be the largest and oldest manmade island in India. The port is around the island and a section of it hosts the naval base and warships. The giant cranes of the Vallarpadam International Container Transhipment Terminal stand tall on the opposite side of the channel facing the impressive Cochin Port Trust building in the island.
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There are luxury hotels within the island, the most famous being the Taj Malabar. Next to the hotel is the jetty from where boats ferry passengers to Lakshadweep off the Kerala coast. The island has offices of several old companies and export houses. The Willingdon Island Terminus, the old rail head, still exists awaiting a heritage status tag.
Thripunithura, the seat of the former royalty of the Cochin State, is a small town and a suburb of Ernakulam with some interesting places to see, including the palace and museum. For the spiritually inclined, there is the SreePoornathrayesa temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu, considered the protector of the Kochi Kingdom.
Ferry ride is a must
The ferry ride from Ernakulam’s Marine Drive walkway to Mattancherri and Fort Kochi is a must for all visitors. One end of the walkway is the boundary wall of the Shipyard while the other fringe is close to the big Kochi International Convention Centre and the flashy Hyatt, one of several hotels in Ernakulam. I prefer to stay in the simple and less ostentatious Bharath Tourist Home (BTH) overlooking the Ernakulam Shiva Temple, or Ernakulathappan Temple, the presiding deity of the city. And can one avoid MG Road, Kochi’s fashionable shopping district, only now somewhat overshadowed by Lulu Mall, touted as Asia’s biggest. And one big shopper’s paradise it is!
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Fort Kochi is rich in history. I love to soak it all in. The Jewish quarter with the synagogue, one of the earliest Christian churches where lay buried the seafarer and explorer Vasco da Gama, and whose body was exhumed and taken away to Portugal. The ideal place for antiquities from old furniture to wall hangings and decorations, the Fort area offers something for everyone. Art decor buildings, boutique hotels – including the Brunton Boatyard Hotel, Forte Kochi and the economical Cuckoo’s Nest and other inexpensive homestays – are worth exploring for a couple of days’ stay. A special attraction is the Kochi Muziris, the Biennale that attracts artists and art lovers from around the world bringing their creativity to this spectacular setting.
Fish is the staple and if you relish the varied cooking styles – from fish fries, barbecued to delectable finger licking curries, this is the place, and true to tradition, you should not settle for anything less.
The all-pervading smell of fish freshly caught off the channel or further deep from the open sea can make you wait for food to be served as long as they want. The wait is worth its weight in fish.
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