Photographing in God’s Own Land
They call it ‘God’s Own Country’ and when you approach it from the air, you begin to see why. As the plane banks, a vast swathe of emerald green swings into view; thousands upon thousands of palm trees stretching to meet the cobalt blue waters of the Arabian Sea.
Where land ends and sea begins, a narrow strip of white sand runs like a ribbon struggling to contain the extreme southern tip of the Indian subcontinent.
This is Kerala, centre of the spice-trade since antiquity – a gloriously fertile sliver of land with over 500 Km of coast and a millennia-old tradition of trade. Lush, tropical, exotic ‘Keralam’ (from the Sanskrit Kera, meaning ‘coconut’, and the Dravidian word Alam, or ‘place’), which Hindus believe emerged from the sea when the sage Parashurama – an incarnation of Vishnu – stood on the mountains of the Western Ghats and threw his battle-axe into the sea, making the waters recede. Kerala: a photographer’s paradise if not, as National Geographic Traveller put it, “one of the ten paradises of the world.”
On our portfolio of photographic journeys since 2006, the Pepper Coast Photoraphy Expedition is one of our most popular workshops. The itinerary takes us across Kerala’s three main climate regions, from the lowlands of the coastal plains, which encompass the town of Kochi as well as the Backwaters, to South India’s highest peak in the rugged eastern highlands of the Western Ghats, via the jade-coloured valleys of the Cardamom Hills in the central midlands, on a journey that entwines a unique range of photographic opportunities.
Our first stop is the port-town of Kochi, the legendary ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’, a cultural hotspot where goods and ideas have been exchanged since antiquity. Here, amongst many other treasures, we find the oldest European church in India, cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, a 500-year-old Portuguese Palace, and an atmosphere unlike any other place in India.
For centuries, this tiny spec on the Malabar Coast was one of the most important trading ports in the world. From the Egyptians onwards, every sea faring people seem to have landed on this stretch of coast in search of that most precious currency: spices.
Known to the Arabs as the ‘Pepper Coast’, the Malabar Coast was a flourishing trading center as far back as 3000 B.C. In the ancient world, the Egyptians, who used pepper for embalming mummies, the Phoenicians and later the Romans, who paid for pepper in gold, came here to acquire cotton, ivory, sandalwood, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and other spices.
The ships that carried them sailed in the rain-laden monsoon winds from Africa, and then onto Arabia, from where the precious cargo travelled overland to the markets along the Mediterranean.
In 1498, the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama, the first European to set sail for India, rediscovered this ancient route and sailed the Sao’ Gabriel to present day Calicut (Kozhikode), some 220 Km north of Kochi. The Eastern spice trade remained in the hands of the Portuguese for over a century, until 1663, when the Dutch gained its control. The last invaders of this rich land were the British, who ruled until Independence in 1947. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, in 1957 Kerala went on to become the first state in the world with a freely elected communist government.
Today, it is one of the most progressive states in India and boasts the highest literacy rate in the country, as well as health and welfare indices close to those of developed countries.
To this day, Kochi’s variegated history is compellingly visible -.as we walk down its narrow streets where the air is filled with the pungent aroma of spices, the centuries seem to unfold. A stroll in Jewtown, still the center of Kochi’s spice trade, takes us past scores of antique shops filled with the most extraordinary array of objects from Kochi’s wealthy and illustrious past.
An original 18th century wooden altar, complete with multicoloured statues of saints jostles for space with a life-size replica of an elephant in walnut and a baldachin bed covered in small effigies of the Madonna, a memento that this has long been a melting pot of religious beliefs.
The first European settlement in India, Kochi still retains a distinctly ‘colonial mood’ with many Dutch, Portuguese and British-built structures painted in ochre. Along the waterfront, several of the huge spice warehouses from which the goods would be transferred onto ships are still in use today, their dark cavernous spaces giving way to bright sun-lit courtyards where ginger and other spices are dried and bagged, ready for transport. The only International Pepper Exchange in the world, an organisation that deals with the global trade of black pepper, is found here and the trading that goes on in the streets around it is a hectic and extremely colourful affair that keeps us busy with our cameras for most of the morning.
Our exploration of Jewtown culminates with a visit to the Paradesi Synagogue, the center of a once thriving Jewish community that traced its origins to the settlers who fled Palestine 2000 years ago, but which now numbers less than 20 individuals. The Synagogue’s floor is paved with 18th century, hand-painted Chinese tiles representing a story of forbidden love between a Mandarin’s daughter and a commoner. Standing barefoot on the cool tiles, we are reminded that the Chinese also made it here; their most visible legacy being the Chinese Fishing Nets that famously line the Northern shore of Fort Kochi, the heart of this venerable city. The nets, which require at least four people to manoeuvre their complex system of levers and weights, are still in use today, their silhouettes dipping into the harbour waters at high tide.
At dusk, when the breeze lifts off the waters of the Arabian Sea, the sea-side promenade behind the nets swells with sailors from the nearby Headquarters of the Southern Naval Command of the Indian Navy and local families, the women’s saris swaying in the wind in stark contrast to the sailors’ starched, white uniforms. The nets, where a small fish market is held at dawn, are a stone’s throw away from our base in Fort Kochi and we return to them time and again, to capture the excited and nostalgic atmosphere that in turn unfolds around them.
Perhaps nowhere else in India is the fusion of East and West, of Asian and European so clear and intriguing. Nearby St Francis’s Church, India’s oldest European-built church and Vasco Da Gama’s resting place before his remains were returned to Lisbon, is the Kerala Kathakali Centre where we catch a performance of Kerala’s 500 year old dance drama. Originally performed in temple courtyards, Kathakali is based on episodes from the Sanskrit epics the Ramayana and Mahabarata, India’s best-known legend, and enacted by rigorously-trained actors and dancers.
Only men can become Kathakali dancers but theirs is more than a profession, it is a life-long calling. Every aspect of this ancient form of theatre is highly ritualized, starting from the meticulous application of make-up – derived, like all else in Kathakali, from natural materials such as indigenous plants and minerals – to their symbolic gestures and movements on stage.
We have been photographing the Kochi troupe of Kathakali dancers for many years now and when we enter their newly-built theatre, they greet us warmly. The early evening is taken up with photographing the make-up session and the performance that follows it and by the end, we are all ready for some supper and head out to one of India’s best seafood restaurants for a veritable feast of fish and seafood cooked in the freshest spices in the world.
So, in Kochi, in the space of two days we have been witness to a mode of fishing which derives from the court of Kublai Khan, captured a ritualized performance that sinks its roots deep into Hindu mythology, admired the complex iconography of some of India’s most stunning mythological frescos – the 16th century murals which decorate Mattancherry Palace, in the predominantly Muslim area of town by the same name – soaked in the colonial atmosphere of one of India’s most cosmopolitan towns and eaten some spectacularly wonderful seafood. It’s enough to keep us here for much longer, but it’s time to move on to the next leg of our journey and head inland to the Western Ghats, the mountain range that divides Kerala from the rest of the subcontinent.
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