For those who don’t already know my story, I live on a boat with my partner Jamie, and our cat Millie. During the past six years we have tended to move around, never staying in one place for longer than a few months. Until we arrived in India a year and a half ago and tied up on an island in the busy port of Kochi, opposite the commercial district of Ernakulam. Cochin – as most people who live here prefer to call it – is home to the only marina in India, so for reasons of security, safety and convenience the yacht has not budged. There have been a couple of trips back home to Blighty, and we have had lots of adventures around the Indian mainland, but we have learned to call Bolgatty Island home. Kerala has the highest density of Christians in India, and Ernakalum has the highest in the state. Here you’ll find a variety of denominations: Syro-Malabar Catholics and Syro-Malankara Catholics; Churches of the Jacobite Syrians, Marthoma Syrians, Nestorians and Anglicans; Pentecostal churches; The Church of South India; The Salvation Army and Seventh-Day Adventists. Sadly (inevitably?) India’s entrenched caste system flourishes even among Kerala’s sophisticated Christians, who tend to be middle class, from the higher castes and demonstrably the best educated. Some say that when St Thomas arrived in India in 52 AD he converted the local Brahmin families, and many modern day Syrian Christians believe they can trace a straight line back to St Thomas’s original converts.
Untroubled by the reign of Akbar the Great and his Mughal descendants, southern India took its influences from China, Africa and Europe, with Christianity arriving at the same time as it trickled into Britain. Nowadays there are around 25 million Christians in India.
Vasco da Gama first arrived in Fort Cochin in 1498 and in 1524 returned to die on Christmas Eve. He was buried in the church of St Francis, the first European church to be built in India. This humble airy building – all whitewash, smooth stone-slabbed flooring and shuttered windows – still stands amid the banyan trees and cricket greens in the prettiest part of the port (unlike Vasco da Gama whose remains were removed to Portugal).
At the end of November, outlets crammed with gaudy decorations and carved coconuts mushroom throughout the district. Among the tinselly wonderland of its narrow lanes, Cochin’s Christmas shoppers remain relentlessly upbeat in the fevered atmosphere.
On Christmas Eve they ratchet up the party mood with the seven day Cochin Carnival, marking the end of the year with a lengthy and extravagant firework display. There is plenty to enjoy: an elephant procession, fancy dress parades, folk dancing, children’s games, mountains of freshly cooked street food, general revelry and a million smiling faces.
But before we join the madness, and far from the human stew of Ernakulam, we hope to be indulging ourselves on Christmas Day in the restrained opulence of the Taj Malabar Hotel. After lunch we’ll roll over to its infinity pool, where we’ll float the hours away under palm trees, and fall asleep on soft, fat towels. Then we’ll take the water taxi home to our boat for an evening of cheesey Christmas films and a few tots of single malt whisky.
Merry Christmas everyone, wherever you are.