Friday, March 02, 2007

The Bishop's Garden

Talia and I (just like the Brits) enjoyed cooling off in Ooty, but four days of cold showers in a cold room were enough. Early one morning we got on a bus. A four hour ride brought us down from the heights and deposited us at a train station; after three lazy hours of daydreaming next to the window of an unlit, uncrowded sleeper car, we reached Ernakulam, a little city with a distracting name. I tried those syllables several ways during my stay in the area, and it never sat right. Ernakulam: it refused to signify a place, instead it suggested others words (eureka, vernacular, irk, immaculate) or other meanings (a growth on the foot, an accumulation of interest on an obscure type of investment, a decorative motif on the base of an ancient column). But it is, in reality, a place, a place that has a dock that hosts a ferry that goes to Fort Cochin; after disembarking from the train, we hired a rickshaw to the ferry terminal. The driver's first offer was 200 Rupees. We argued him down to 80. On the way he told us that the last boat for Fort Cochin had sailed, but he could take us over the bridge for another 100 Rupees. We tried our luck with the boat instead; 20 minutes and 5 Rupees later, we disembarked at the ferry terminal on the other side. When we left the fort a few days later we went back to the Ernakulam train station, where I finally heard a local say the name; all my renderings were wrong.

Fort Cochin residences and resident

Fort Cochin is situated on the northern end of a peninsula, but I had to go all the way to Wikipedia to find that out. On the tourist maps it looks like a little toe, stranded out there in the ocean without its foot, because the rest of the peninsula is not included on the map. It's a quaint little setting, but the price of its picturesque appeal, and the shelter it offers from the realities of India, is artificiality. A setting in the sense of a table lain for a dinner party with prospective investors, only polished and un-chipped dinnerware is included, and all the dirt is swept out into the backyard. The pedicured peninsular tip, including Fort Cochin on the north, some unnamed stuff in between, and Mattancherry, slightly south, is an impressive collection of Portuguese, Dutch, British, Chinese, and Jewish influences, not to mention the usual Hindu and Muslim presence. Many of the buildings of the two settlements have been carefully preserved, refurbished, and turned into shops, restaurants, and hotels, while the thirty minute walk from one to the other leads past buildings of the same age still in everyday use, a bustling rice and spice market decaying at the usual rate.

I have forgotten the name of this church

Paradesi Synagogue, Mattancherry

Although I know nothing about Portuguese riffs on Christianity, it was immediately apparent that a more demonstrative power than in Ooty or even Goa held sway in these parts. The curving facades of churches that I learned were typically Portuguese insistently called to mind the undulations of Venus' hair and hips in Botticelli's depiction of her birth, and the wood-carven, painted saints at the Indo-Portuguese Museum display a sensuality and mythical scale that's new in my experience of Christian artifacts. This variability of adoration interests me; how can all these ways of worship have the same root. All claim the same savior and assign him different attributes, like a group of siblings arguing over their memories of a deceased parent, each having individual experiences and all missing the essence through inevitable self-reflective emphasis.

Indo-Portuguese Museum

Holy Water Vessel, Indo-Portuguese Museum

The history of St. Francis, said to be India's oldest church, bears witness to the expansion of the western world. It was Roman Catholic from 1503 to 1663, during the Portuguese era, then Dutch Reform from 1664 to 1804, then Anglican from 1804 to 1947. Now, as that story peters out and we flounder around for another one, it is a landmark, a tourist attraction, and less and less frequently, a sanctuary. The old place was locked every time I walked by, but Santa Cruz Basilica, right down the street from our guest house, was full of life. Songs with familiar tunes in an unfamiliar language regularly tumbled out of the open doors of the sanctuary. I strolled through one day during hours of visiting rather than worship, but there were plenty of parishioners kneeling in pews. The sanctuary, a long, deep rectangle, is attended on the sides by columns painted in pastel hues, saints in glass-fronted cases, circled with blinking lights, placed on wooden tables covered with candles, at their bases. Worshipers kneel toward the main altar, with its own sublimely elevated, lusciously colored statues, or approach the glass encased figures on the sides, crossing themselves and muttering, while huge forms from instructional scenes along the walls and ceiling look on, rendered in a solid style that's a cross between Adam in the Sistine Chapel and Socialist propaganda paintings.

Santa Cruz Basilica

Walking across the broad yard between the sanctuary of Santa Cruz Basilica and the road, I saw two gold vinyl thrones outside an ancillary building. A man sat in one, chatting on his cell phone. The scene was so incongruous that I went over to inspect it. The man in the chair told me that the building was for social functions and the chairs had just been used for a bride and groom at their wedding reception. As I left the church grounds, the details of the overall impression left by my visit reminded me of something, but I didn't know just what. A while later, it came; the color and character of the whole place, the frilly, blue pavilion to the side of the church, an area dedicated to the Virgin Mary, the gold chairs with backs recalling an Aztec sun, the saints strung with Christmas lights, reminded me of nothing more than the decorated dashboards and tattoos of Los Angeles Latino culture.

In the literature produced by the Fort Cochin tourist desk it says that Santa Cruz Basilica was built by the Portuguese and "elevated to the Cathedral by the Pope Paul IV in 1558." Some other things happened to it, like destruction and reconstruction and then "consecrated in 1905, Santa Cruz was proclaimed a Basilica by the Pope John Paul II in 1894." Aside from those quotes being totally confusing in linear terms, I always thought the distinction between a cathedral and a basilica was a matter of architecture, not proclamation. I checked it out, and it turns out the word "basilica" has both senses; it's a type of Roman architecture and an important church given special rites by the pope. I guess I really do need a church field guide.

Mother Theresa on the side of the road

another sidewalk saint with scary spikes

If the Bishop of the Diocese of Cochin had been receiving when I stopped by his house, I'm sure he could have helped me out. As it was, the residence and attached sanctuary behind the row of Gothic arches sheltering the porch were both locked, but the Bishop's gardener had plenty of time. Rightly proud of the fruits of his labors, he gave me the name of the trees around the circular driveway, a decadent tongue of fragrance rolling from each white petal of the fleshy, yellow-centered flowers on their branches. He beamed at my appreciation of the delicate, white and violet spotted orchids embracing the frangipani trunks with their papery roots, pointed out the breadfruits, jack fruits, and bougainvilleas, and took in the whole circle in the middle of the drive, a of multitude of blooms and a statue of St. Joseph, with a proprietary gesture.

St. Joseph

Kerela is a fecund state, and it's also the richest and the most literate in India; in Fort Cochin, this manifested in the sophisticated marketing and resulting expense of the place, and after 3 days, both Talia and I were ready to leave. The walks were charming once or twice, but the best of the buildings had already been converted into hotels or restaurants far out of my price range, and overly preserved facades, the cost of care putting them out of the sphere of use for most people, are often lifeless , one-dimensional, as if the historical board had somehow vaccinated the past, with an application of plaster and paint, from infection by the present. I left feeling much the way I do about the "historical" sections of American towns; they're nice for a few hours, but there's only so much shopping, plaque reading, and eating I can take.


Post a Comment

<< Home