Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Old World Charm of Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi with its mixture of Kerala, Portuguese, Dutch and British traditions, and flavoured by an enchanting sea coast, is one of the most charming places in South India. Staying in Fort Kochi is pleasantly disorienting - a traditional mix of Indian culture, colours and spices is transplanted against the backdrop of colonial architecture.

This first part of a post on Fort Kochi focuses on general information, seaside and religious places to visit. The second part of this post will look at art, culture and day-trips opportunities in Fort Kochi.

Brief History of Kochi

The Malabar coast in the western side of south India was a famous maritime centre even before the Roman empire. Artifacts from 2500 BCE found in what was ancient Sumer, mention the famous port of Muziris on the Malabar coast. Kochi (Cochin) is a part of that maritime tradition. In its culture and in its people, it carries the signs of intermingling of people from distant lands over thousands of years.

Kochi was the site of the first European settlement in India when the Portuguese arrived here in 1503 and were given permission to establish their trading post. Gradually, over the next decades, the Portuguese became very powerful and came to control even the king of Kochi.

In 1663 Kochi came under the Dutch rule. The Dutch were defeated by the Mysore king Hyder Ali in 1773. In 1814 Kochi came under the British and remained under them till India's independence in 1947.

Sea trade of spices was an important part of activities of the Europeans. They all created their trading warehouses in Fort Kochi and in the neighbouring Mattancherry, small seaside areas in the city of Kochi.

Staying in Fort Kochi

Fort Kochi with its colonial architecture, old houses and quaint streets is a fascinating place for holidays. It is full of small and big hotels as well as home-stays.

Restaurants here offer a wide variety of eating choices. And, the seaside promenade offers leisurely walks along the sea. My favourite places for eating out in Fort Kochi included Annapurna near the bus stand for vegetarian food, Rossetta Wood Castle on Rose street for north Indian and Tandoori cooking, and the Tibetan restaurant near Santa Cruz Basilica for their momos (dumplings), noodles and soups.

However, if you like a beer with your food, the choices are rather limited outside the big hotels. The only place for a beer that I discovered was the XL restaurant on Rose Street near the sea. There is a wine and liquor store behind the XL restaurant, but it is a seedy looking place.

Kochi international airport is about 50 km from For Kochi while the main railway station is in the twin city of Ernakulam. The most convenient way to reach Fort Kochi from the airport is to take the orange-coloured AC bus of KSRTC starting from the airport.

Seaside Walk and Monuments

The huge cantilevered Chinese fishing nets along the sea coast are a symbol of Fort Kochi. These were introduced in Kochi around the end of 14th century. I have also seen similar home-made systems of fishing nets in Assam in the north-east of India. With seagulls and other birds hoping to get some of the fish caught by the fishermen, this area is usually full of persons clicking pictures.

Close to the Chinese fishing nets starts a promenade along the sea-coast, where you can admire the sea waves breaking against the boulders, beautiful sunsets and a refreshing breeze for most of the day. At the same time, you can also admire the seaside colonial houses, many of which have been restored beautifully.

Along the seaside promenade, you can see some remains of the old Fort Emanuel built by the Portuguese in the 16th century. An old canon marks this place (in the image below).

A little further down from the ruins of Fort Emanuel, there is the Dutch cemetery. The place looks abandoned and the cemetery gate is locked. However, along the cemetery wall, some persons have placed some stones, from where you can still see inside the cemetery (in the image below).

Along the seaside promenade, there are a couple of small beaches, usually very crowded on the weekends. However, the sea is often very rough and swimming here is not advised. Though some persons do take bath here but they usually stick close to the beach.

Along the seaside promenade, there is a beautiful art installation called Fish Cemetery to create awareness about the environment and pollution (in the image below).

Along the promenade, in the evenings, the local families come out for a walk. Roadside stalls along the promenade sell ice creams and trinkets, as well as, pineapples and mangoes dipped in spicey sauces.

Churches, Temples, Synagogues and Mosques of Fort Kochi

Christianity in Kerala dates back to Roman times. The old Christians have their own traditions rooted in the local culture and include groups like Syrian-Malabar, Jacobites and Orthodox Syrians. For example, the image below shows a traditional Christian shrine at Mattancherry, not far from Fort Kochi, that shares some symbols and rituals with other Indic religions.

The European colonizers brought their own churches to Kochi. St. Francis church is very close to the seaside in Fort Kochi. On this place, the first church was built by St Xavier in the 16th century. The Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama was buried here for a few years, before his body was exhumed and taken to Portugal. This is one of the most important pilgrimage centres for Christians (in the image below).

Santa Cruz Cathedral, about 250 metres inland from St Francis church, is a beautiful building in neo-gothic style (in the image below). Its old 15th century building was destroyed and the present building is from late 19th century. The paintings behind the altar of the present building are by Br Antonio Moscheni from Bergamo (Italy).

The Santa Cruz Cathedral includes an outer chapel painted in Turkish-blue colour.

Fort Kochi also has some traditional Syrian-Malabar and Orthodox churches like the St. Paul church shown below.

The most important Hindu temples are at Mattancherry along the sea, a few kilometres from Fort Kochi. Till the 1930s, entry to the traditional Kerala temples was restricted to Brahmins. Now, all Hindus are allowed inside the temples, though there are areas where non-Brahmins can not visit.

All visitors have to remove their shoes and sandals to enter the temple. Men have to enter bare-chested in the traditional temples, thus they are also asked to remove their shirts. Inside these temples, no photography is allowed. Non-Hindus are also not allowed inside the old temples.

The image below shows the Bhagwathi temple in Mattancherry (the image below was clicked from outside the temple)

Malabar Jews are the oldest groups of Jews in India. Some say that they came here during the time of king Solomon. There are 12th century documents confirming the presence of Jews in this area. Another big group of Jews arrived here in 16th century after their expulsion from Spain. Now most of the Jews of Fort Kochi have migrated to Israel. However, Mattancherry near Fort Kochi still has the Jewish Synagogue surrounded by the old houses of the Jews.

The clock-tower of the Jewish Synagogue has four clocks - each with the numbers written on it in different styles (in the image below).

Fort Kochi also has a number of beautiful Muslim mosques.

If you look out of the window of the Dutch Palace in Mattancherry you can see a Hindu temple, a Jewish Synagogue and a Muslim mosque, all located close together.


I loved my holidays in Fort Kochi. In a way, with its ambiance, it reminded me of my visits to different seaside towns across the world. I loved taking long slow walks on the seaside promenade, sitting near the sea and talking to strangers or reading or simply soaking in the lovely breeze. I am looking forward to going back there.

This first part of the post on Fort Kochi focused on general information, seaside and religious places to visit. The second part of this post will look at art, culture and day-trips opportunities in Fort Kochi.


Monday, April 17, 2017

Easter in Art & Sculpture

The Christian festival of Easter is about the crucifixion and death of Jesus, followed by resurrection. In this post, I am looking at depiction of the Easter in the art and sculpture from different parts of the world.

Easter in Art

Most of the examples of art and sculpture about Easter that I could find in my image-archives are about the crucifixion and death of Jesus expressing his suffering and the grief of his family and followers. Art and sculpture about resurrection are much less common.

Probably it is because pain, death, sorrow and grief are stronger and deeper emotions compared to the joy and happiness, and thus are preferred as themes for art and sculpture.

Crucifixion in Art & Sculpture

First take a look at three sculptures of crucifixion. All the three sculptures are in wood and are from the Metropolitan Art Collection of Bologna (Italy). The sculptors of these statues are not known. All the three are from medieval period and from churches around Bologna.

The first sculpture has an older and patrician looking Jesus, his face is serene and his body is well-filled out.

The second sculpture has an older looking and emaciated Jesus. His face is lined with pain, his ribs are visible and the way his hands are placed, it underlines his suffering.

The third sculpture has a younger and pale looking Jesus with a wisp of beard. Though his face looks serene, the thick rope like red blood falling down from his body is reminds me of the violence shown in Tarrantino films.

Thus, though all the three sculptors depicted the same theme, the personal sensibility of each of them influenced the way it was done. The three sculptures evoke slightly different emotions.

Grief of the Family & Followers

After the death of Jesus, his body was brought down from the cross. His mother Mary and his friends and followers including Mary Magdalene surrounded his body, stricken with grief. They prepared his body for burial. This scene has been imagined and depicted by sculptors and artists numerous times.

The first is a detail from a 1335 altar-piece painted in Jacopino-style from the National Gallery of Art in Bologna. It has the crying Mary dressed in black like a nun, holding the body of her son with blood on his forehead, a reminder of the crown of spines that was put there.

The second is a 1462 altar-piece by Michele di Matteo from the National Gallery of Art in Bologna. In it, Mary holding the dead body of Jesus is in the centre. A black shawl with a blue border covers Mary's head and body while her dress is blood red. Both Mary and Jesus are shown as old.

The third is a 1506 painting by Lorenzo Costa from the National Gallery of Art in Bologna. It has two men who are preparing the body of Jesus for the burial. A young looking Mary, her face more serene here, seems to be telling them to be more careful.

The next is a group of early 16th century terracotta statues by Alfonso Lombardi at the St Peter's church in Bologna. The sculpture is called "Compianto" and shows mother Mary and other persons standing around and looking with sorrow at the dead body of Jesus.

The last image in this group is another "Compianto". This one is from Santa Maria della Vita church in Bologna. This group of seven terracotta figures is from 15th century and is the opera of sculptor Niccola dell'Arca. This is one of my favourite sculptures.

In this work the women, especially mother Mary and Mary Magdalene, are showing their grief openly, both seem to be screaming. Among the local persons in Bologna the two figures are known as the "Ugly Marias of Bologna". I like this sculpture because it is rooted in more human emotions.

Pieta of Michelangelo

The most famous depictions of the death of Jesus is in the marble sculpture "Pieta" by Michelangelo. Sculpted in 1499 for the funeral monument of a cardinal, it is now housed in the St Peter's Cathedral in the Vatican. The sculpture has a very young and beautiful looking Mary holding the body of Jesus in her arms. In the triangular shaped sculpture, with the tip of the triangle at Mary's head, the body sizes are not very proportionate. The marks of the crucifixion-nails on the body of Jesus are small and easy to miss.

"Pieta" was taken to New York World Fair in 1964. It was severely damaged by a mentally disturbed person in 1972. Though I had seen it from close in 1982, at that time I had not taken any pictures of the statue. Some years ago it was placed behind a bullet-proof glass and is difficult to photograph now.

However, there are different copies of Pieta in different countries - below I am presenting some of those.

The first is a small replica of Pieta from a tomb in Verrano cemetery of Rome.

The second is an exact official replica of Pieta from the Cathedral of Brazilia in Brazil. Made for the visit of Pope John Paul II in Brazil in 1989, like the original it is made in marble. It is 1.74 metres high and weighs around 600 kg.

The third is 8.8 metres high giant replica of Pieta from the Cathedral of Kohima in Nagaland in the north-east of India.

The last is another replica of Pieta from a church in Munnar district in Kerala in south India. This picture was taken from a moving bus.


Easter and the resurrection of Jesus are usually represented in symbolic way through the Easter eggs, Easter bunny and Easter doves. Compared to the crucifixion and death of Jesus, art and sculptures about his resurrection are not less frequent.

The next image is of a 1450 painting by Antonio Vivarini from the National Gallery of Art in Bologna. It shows a pale looking Jesus with blond hair, standing up in the coffin, showing the marks of the crucifixion nails on his body. Behind him the blue skies with white clouds and the greenery on the hills suggest the joy of the nature at his resurrection even if the overall mood of the painting is somber.


To conclude this collection of images of art and sculptures related to Easter, the last image of this post is from the Holy Sepulcher church in Jerusalem. This church is made at the place where Jesus was crucified (Galgotha) and later, buried. The image shows the "stone of anointing", where the body of Jesus was laid out and prepared for the burial (also shown in the image on the wall behind the stone).

For the examples of art and sculpture from Italy, most of the images are from Bologna (Italy), where I have lived for many decades.

Wishing you all a Happy Easter.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Castle by the Sea

Miramare Castle is a tiny but beautiful castle on the cliffs overlooking the bay of Trieste in the north-east of Italy. Just a short distance away is the Italian border with Slovenia and Austria. This post presents the castle and its wonderful gardens that are full of sculptures.

History of Miramare Castle

The castle was built in 1857 by Archduke Maximilian, the younger brother of the king of Austria. Maximilian was married to Charlotte, the only daughter of Leopold I, the king of Belgium. The castle was built as one of their family homes.

Shortly after the completion of the Miramare castle, Archduke Maximilian became the emperor of Mexico, for Napoleon III of France. Maximilian was killed in 1867 while Charlotte lost her mental balance and became paranoid. She spent the remaining years of her life in Miramare castle and in Meise in Belgium.

Thus, the castle of Miramare is seen as a symbol of the tragic love story between Archduke Maximilian and Charlotte.

Reaching Miramare

Trieste is well connected to the rest of Italy by trains and the highway. The Miramare castle is located on the cliffs of Grignano, just outside the city to the south. It is close to the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICPT), a renowned research centre on astronomy and cosmology.

If you are coming to Trieste by train, you can get a city bus to reach the castle (bus n. 6 or 36 going towards "Miramare-Grignano"). You can also take a local train to Miramare railway station, from where the castle is a 15 minutes walk.

Inside the Castle of Miramare

Inside the castle, the rooms, the furnishings and the furniture of the royal family have been maintained.

With rich brocade covered walls, beautiful four poster beds, elaborate wood work and beautiful art objects from different parts of the world, it looks like any other royal house.

The building has many pictures and portraits of the royal couple, their family members and their important guests.

The objects displayed in the castle include a portable royal toilet that is made like a wooden chest with a round cover for the part where the royal highnesses sat down to do their daily needs. Probably this meant that at that time they did not have a proper toilet on the first floor.

The windows of the different rooms overlooking the bay showed wonderful panoramas. A beautiful corridor with neo-classical pillars runs along the side facing the sea on the ground floor of the castle, again giving opportunity for beautiful panoramas of the Bay of Trieste.

Terraced Gardens of Miramare

In front of the castle, there is an open square. On one side the stairs go down to terraced gardens and a boat-port.

There is another big garden of 22 hectares in front of the castle. Creating such a rich garden on the barren cliffs of Grignano was hard work. Tons of rich soil were brought here for creating these gardens. Plants were also brought here from different parts of Europe and from other parts of the world.

The eastern part of the garden has been designed like a forest with winding paths and open spaces with fountains.

On the south-west side, there are Italian gardens in rigorous geometric shapes, leading to a "Koffeehaus" (first image at the top).

There are different glass-houses for keeping the plants and trees from tropical countries and are used as plant nurseries. All the different parts of the gardens are embellished with beautiful sculptures made by the Berlin company Moritz Geiss.

Nature Around Miramare

There are scattered rocks rising out of the sea all around Miramare castle where you can admire different species of birds.

You can also see the city of Trieste spread over the surrounding hills and on a clear day, you can also see the Croatian coast to the north and east.


If you love nature, arts and culture, you will like visiting the Miramare castle. With beautiful trees, flowers and gardens on one side and the wonderful views of sea crashing on rocky cliffs on the other, the visit to the Miramare castle will require at least a couple of hours.

The gardens are at different levels and can be tiring in summer, so remember to carry some water and nourishment with you. The castle itself is not so big, but still it is also worth a visit to get a glimpse of the royal lives in mid-nineteenth century.


Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Magnificent Temples of Ayutthaya

The ancient city of Ayutthaya in Thailand carries the legacy of Ayodhaya (India), the kingdom of Lord Rama, the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana. Ayutthaya is known for some of the most beautiful and evocative Buddhist temples in the world.

Ramayana in Thailand

Hindu epic Ramayana had a profound impact in East Asia, from Myanmar and Thailand to Indonesia and Vietnam. Even in China, the stories of Sun Wukong seem to be inspired by Hanuman in Ramayana.

The two Indic religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, travelled from India to ancient Siam (Thailand). The influence of Hinduism was earlier, leading to the popularity of Ramayana. Thus the kings of Siam took the name of Lord Rama, considered to be an Avatar of God Vishnu. Rama's kingdom was in Ayodhaya and thus, the capital of Siam kings was also named Ayotthaya.

Thailand shows the combined influence of Buddhism and Hinduism, where the two Indic religions have blurred boundaries. Many traces of this ancient Hindu influence are visible in the Buddhist temples of Ayotthaya today, like the statue of the God Ganesha at a small shrine in the Wat Phra Si Sanphet temple below.

Apart from the names of the capital city and the king, many traces of Ramayana continue to be strong, including the representation of Ramakien (Ramayana) in the different art forms of Thailand. The image below shows the statue of Garuda, another character from Ramayana, from the Wat Ratchaburana temple in Ayutthaya.

Brief History of Ayutthaya

Ayutthaya, located in the valley of the river Chao Pharaya, was the old capital of Siam (Thailand) till about 150 years ago. The city was founded in 14th century on a river island. The Autthaya kingdom had different wars with the Burmese kingdom. After one such war in the 18th century, the city was destroyed.

Visiting Ayutthaya

I was in Thailand for work and had only a few hours free to be a tourist. I decided to visit Ayutthaya, even if I knew that I will have little time to visit it properly.

I took an early morning mini-bus from the North Bus Stand in Bangkok and the journey took around an hour and a half. I only had about 2 hours for my sight-seeing in Ayutthaya. I decided to focus on visiting a few Buddhist temples in the area along the Muang river as it goes and joins Chao Pharaya river.

I had got down from the mini-bus near Chao Phrom market. There were elephant-tours to visit the city but I didn't have the time for a leisurely elephant tour. So, from the market I walked to the Uthong road, near the Muang river, where I rented a bicycle.

With a map of the old town in my hand, I started on my bicycle towards Wat Maha That temple. "Wat" means a Buddhist temple. Wat architecture includes spires (Prangs), Stupas (Chedi) containing sacred relics, and statues of Buddha and Bodhisattvas.

Suddenly on the right side of the road, I saw the ruins of an old Wat, which was not shown on the tourist map. It had a tall chedi and the broken head of big Buddha statue in front of it. I thought that it was very beautiful.

Wat Maha That

Wat Maha That is located to the east of the Grand Palace. At one time it was the royal temple. Buddha relics were enshrined in the main Chedi of this temple. The supreme patriarch of the Buddhist monks resided in this temple.

Its construction was started in the 14th century during the reign of king Phra Borommarachatthirat I but was completed 20 years later during the reign of Uthong king Ramesuan. Its main Pagoda had collapsed in early 17th century and was rebuilt some years later by king Prasat Thong.

The monastery and the temple were destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century. Thus, almost all the Buddha and Bodhisattvas statues at Maha That temple are headless and broken in different parts.

Wat Thammikarat

After Maha That temple, I went towards Wat Thammikarat. This temple area includes different buildings, old ruins as well as, a working temple. Some parts of this temple pre-date the establishment of Ayutthaya city, when it was known as Wat Mukaraj.

One of the first buildings of this complex is a bell-shaped Chedi with an octagonal base. It has a row of 52 royal Singhas (lions) all around it.

Opposite the Chedi are the ruins of a Viharan (hall) called "Harn Song Dhamma" used by the monks for prayers. It has a Buddha statue and a shrine for prayers.

A distinct mark of this Viharan are statues of roosters, brought as offerings by the faithful. There is a legend of a cock-fight competition between a Burmese and a Thai prince associated with this Viharan. It seemed to be a very popular religious place for the Thai people, though I could not find someone who could speak English to explain its significance to me.

Finally behind the ruins is the still active Buddhist temple Wat Dhammikaraj which includes the golden statue of a monk. On one side of the Chedi, I saw a shrine with a blue coloured Buddha covered with yellow wrap, I thought that it was beautiful.

Wat Phra Si Sanphet

This was the most important temple of ayutthaya before its destruction in the 18th century by the Burmese. However, it did not start as a temple, rather it started as the first royal palace when Ayutthaya had become the capital in 1351. After about a hundred years, the royal palace was shifted to another building and this place was converted into a temple.

It was a royal temple and no monks lived here.

A 16 metres high Buddha statue covered with gold was installed in the Viharan of Wat Phra Si Sanphet in 1499. Most of the temple, except for some bell-shaped Chedis, was destroyed by the Burmese in the 18th century. Just across from Si Sanphet ruins, a new building hosts a new giant statue of Buddha today.


My visit to Ayutthaya was very brief. I could visit only a small part of the temple-ruins present in this beautiful town. The ruins of broken Buddha and Boddhisattva statues had a strong emotional impact on me.

The Burmese were also Buddhist, so why did they destroy the Buddhist temples of Ayutthaya? I don't know the answer to this question. Perhaps it was just for looting and not because they did not like the Thai religious ideas.

I wish one day to return to Ayutthaya and spend a few days there, going around the town, and soaking in its atmosphere of beauty coupled with destruction and timelessness.

If you like old ruins of Buddhist temples, visit Ayutthaya, it has wonderful atmosphere and the old ruins of the temples declared as world heritage by UNESCO are unforgettable.

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