Kochi, India

With an eclectic mix of colonial architecture, Muslim mosques, Jain and Hindu temples, Catholic churches and even a small Jewish community dating back 2,000 years, Kochi is one of the most relaxed and interesting cities in South India.  It is also one of the few cities in India where you are able to walk leisurly through the winding streets, admiring the historical architecture without the fear of stepping in shit, breathing in pollution or getting hit by an auto-rickshaw.  Kochi boasts a vibrant art community with dozens of galleries scattered throughout town.
Chinese Cantilevered Fishing Nets are a Common Sight Along the Waterfront of Kochi.
A Woodcarver on the Streets of Kochi.  This Particular Master Woodcarver has Personally Helped Renovate Dozens of Historical Hindu Temples.
We were fortunate enough to attend a live sitar concert by Pandit Ajit Singh (Pandit is a title given to someone who has achieved excellence and distinction in a chosen field) at a local art cafe.  Pandit Ajit Singh is famous throughout India; he comes from a long line of talented musicians and is close family friends with Ravi Shankar (the man credited with introducing sitar music to the Western world).  We are both avid music fans and were familiar with sitar music before spending two intimate evenings listening to Pandit Ajit Singh.  However, we had absolutely no idea of how spiritual and moving a live sitar concert could be.  The setting was perfect - The Kashi Art Cafe (a small art gallery) with mats on the floor (maximum seating capacity of 20 people), a coconut oil lamp for lighting, a slow ceiling fan stirring the warm air, a tabla (twin drums) player and Padit Ajit Singh.  Pandit Ajit Singh started by playing a slow raga (basic musical patterns designed for personal interpretation) and introducing his listeners to the complexity of the sitar, a 13 stringed instrument. 
Pandit Ajit Singh after his Amazing Concert at the Kashi Art Cafe in Kochi, Kerala.
His concerts consisted of three or four different ragas each conveying a different emotion (hope, melancholy, love, happiness, etc.) and would grow in sophistication throughout the evening.  Not only is he a master of the sitar but he is also a master of reading the audience's emotions and intensifying those feelings through his playing.  On the first night, the audience was in a very mellow, meditative state of being.  At the end of the concert, there was an extended silence, a few people wept and everyone was visibly moved.  On the second night, the audience was in a more upbeat and jovial mood and the music reflected those feelings.  A few days later, we met Pandit Ajit Singh in an internet cafe where he informed us that he does indeed feed off the audience and that the audience is as vital to the performance as his playing.  He humbly declared that the gods have given him the talent to play the sitar and he is simply the messenger, no more.  We left his concerts feeling inordinately peaceful and elated.  Now we know this sounds like some 1960's, spiritual, hippy India stuff but India is a spiritual place even in the
new millennium.  Religion plays a significant role in everyday life in India.  Riding on a public bus, you will often see images of Hindu gods and goddesses next to pictures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary next to pictures of the Ka'bah Mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.  Kochi is a perfect example of this melting pot of religions.  Wandering through the streets of Kochi, you pass by numerous mosques, Jain and Hindu temples and Catholic churches.  One of the finest examples of Catholic churches in Kochi is the St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India.  It was here that Vasco da Gama, the great Portugese explorer, was buried in 1524 for fourteen years before his remains were transported to Lisbon, Portugal.  Kochi is also home to the oldest Jewish community in India.  Two thousand years ago, Jews fleeing persecution in Palestine settled on the Malabar Coast of South India.  Due to emigration to Israel and intermarriage with the Indian community, the Jewish population of Kochi has diminished to approximately a dozen people.  However, the Pardesi Synagogue stands as a permanent testament to the influence and importance of the Jewish presence in Kochi.  Built in 1568, it is the oldest synagogue in India.  An interesting feature of the Pardesi Synagogue are the hand painted Chinese floor tiles brought to India by Ezekial Rahabi in the 18th century.  Each tile is unique.  Although the scenes on the tiles look similar, no two are alike.  These tiles play an integral part in one of our favorite books, The Moor's Last Sigh by the eminent Indian writer, Salman Rushdie.  As lovers of literature, it is exciting for us to visit the places described in the books that we love.  Surrounding the Synagogue are dozens of warehouses specializing in the spice trade.  The Jewish community played a dominant role in the spice trade throughout the past several hundred years.  To this day, spices such as cardamon, ginger, black peppar, garlic and tumeric flow in and out of the warehouses of Kochi providing a heady aroma while exploring the fascinating streets of town.
Broken Jewish Gravestones Standing Outside the Pardesi Synogogue.
St. Francis Church Where Vasco da Gama was once Buried.
The Intricate, Hand Painted Chinese Floor Tiles of the Pardesi Synagogue. The Interior of the Pardesi Synagogue with an Array of Crystal Chandeliers.
Yes, We Really Liked the Chinese Tiles.  You have to Read The Moor's Last Sigh.
More Floor Tiles.
The Faithful Going to Afternoon Prayers at One of the Many Mosques in Kochi. A Jain Temple, Another Example of the Religious Diversity Found in Kochi.
Chilis, Garlic, Onions and More.  All to be Found in the Spice Market of Kochi.
Warehouses Along the Waterfront Specializing in the Spice Trade.
Kerala is one of the friendliest and most laid back states that we have visited in India.  We met three wonderful brothers, Dipu, Shyam and Anoob, who run a rooftop restaurant at the Park Avenue Hotel in Kochi.  After getting to know us, they realized how much we love the local cuisine and every morning they provided us with a traditional Keralan breakfast.  They enjoyed introducing us to their culture as much as we enjoyed partaking it it, especially when it came to food.  They were generous enough to invite us to their home to celebrate Anoob's 21st birthday.  Upon arriving, they introduced us to their parents and neighbors, gave us a tour of their spacious home and enthusiastically showed us their father's exquisite coin and stamp collection.  Some of these coins date back 700 years to the Chola Empire and their father, seeing how interested we were, gave us a couple Chola coins as a gift.  We were then treated to a home cooked Keralan vegetarian thali meal.  Spicy, pungent, sweet, delicious!  These people were not satisfied until our right hands were completely coated in food (you eat vegetarian thali with your right hand, no knives and forks here, baby).  After the filling meal, and a little piece of birthday cake, we happily went back to the hotel to sleep off our gluttony (and our hangovers caused by a previous night's drinking with these same brothers).  We are and will forever remain their spicy sister and brother, a special nickname we earned due to our love of spicy food.
Brian and Karen Celebrating Anoob's 21st Birthday at his Father's House with the Family.
A Home Cooked Traditional Keralan Vegetarian Thali Meal Served on a Banana Leaf.  This was one of the Best Meals we Ate in India.
A fun game that we like to play on our travels is, "Could we live here?"  Undoubtedly, Kochi is a yes.  Kochi offers unlimited entertainment with its vivacious art and music scene, movie theaters (a short ferry ride to the main land city of Ernakulum), quick and cheap internet access, a wonderful variety of food and incredibly interesting people.