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New Delhi, India
June 16, 2013
If you’re walking from the Chinese Fishing Nets, passing St Francis’s Church, you walk down towards the Bishop’s House, which nestles on a slight rise, in a garden full of mussanda loaded with peachy-pink blooms; bougainvillea; palm trees—and a life-size painted plaster statue of Christ with an infant in his arms. Within the extensive grounds of the Bishop’s House is the Indo-Portuguese Museum. This was established by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (Lisbon) in 2000, and is aimed towards (according to the plaque near the entrance to the museum) "Towards the preservation of Indo-Portuguese heritage in India".
We had arrived at the museum at about 10.30 in the morning, shortly after it had opened for the day. As it happened, we were the only people in the museum at the time. The person who doubled as ticket-seller and docent was a very neat, gentle and friendly young man named Joseph. He sold us the entry tickets for the museum and let us know that while we could take photographs in the basement section of the museum, no photography is permitted elsewhere in the building.
Having bought our tickets, we went down the staircase to the basement—and were rather surprised, because as it turned out, this wasn’t a gallery full of artefacts: it looked like the foundations of a building. Joseph, who seemed to be free since no-one else was around, came downstairs a couple of minutes later, and told us what this was: the excavations of part of the original ‘Fort Cochin’. The Portuguese, he added, had arrived in Kochi in 1500 AD (Vasco da Gama having made landfall at Calicut in 1498). Since the Portuguese had been granted padroado in the East in the 16th century, they swiftly set about building churches in Kochi; the first one, made of wood, was on the site of what is today known as St Francis’s Church.
Simultaneously, the Portuguese also built a stockade, also of wood and bamboo, later (after a treaty with the local ruler of Kochi) strengthened and made into a citadel of masonry. When the Indo-Portuguese Museum was being built on this site, excavations to lay the foundations of the building revealed the remnants of that original fortress. Joseph pointed out to us the tops of the old walls, including the top of an arched doorway.
Having seen this section—there’s really not much here, sadly, in the way of labeling or explanations about what this is, so if Joseph hadn’t come downstairs, we might never have realized what we were seeing—we headed upstairs. The actual collection of the Indo-Portuguese Museum spreads across several interconnected rooms on the ground floor. Joseph went off to sell tickets to a couple of visitors who’d just arrived, so we began to have a look at the exhibits on our own. As it was downstairs, so it is upstairs: the labeling is rather inadequate. True, each exhibit does have a basic description and time period ("wooden candlesticks, 17th century", as an example), but it doesn’t go into more detail.
On display here are dozens of items, beginning from the 17th century, collected from churches across Kochi. Joseph, who got free in the middle of our round of the museum, came over and told us that when the Dutch conquered Kochi in 1663, they destroyed 31 buildings constructed by the Portuguese; Santa Cruz and St Francis’s were the only two that were spared, and were converted from Catholic places of worship to Protestant. The Dutch had no use for the ornate decorations that had been part of these churches during Portuguese rule, so proclamations were made, informing the Catholic population of Kochi to take whatever they wished from the churches. The decorations, therefore, spread out to different churches across the city—and these, brought back now to a centralized location, are what form the collection at the Indo-Portuguese Museum.
Neatly arranged in glass display cases across the museum are the exhibits: exquisite old missals and prayer books, painted wooden statues of the Madonna and various saints (especially St Sebastian ad St Francis of Assisi), monstrances (highly decorated vessels used to display the Eucharist during its benediction), and all the paraphernalia associated with processions: banners, processionals, and even parasols. The parasols, Joseph informed us, are an interesting borrowing from Hindu tradition, where a king (or, in a religious procession, the idol) is shielded from the elements by having a large and ornate parasol overhead. To depict this usage in modern-day Catholic processions in Kerala, there’s a large photograph of a local procession, showing the crucifix, the statues—and the parasol.
Also on display are ballot boxes, chasubles, stoles, and other vestments, mostly from the 19th and 20th centuries. There are some interesting little odds and ends, too. One that we found very intriguing was a chalice, its exterior decorated with oval cameo-like pieces of enamel, each depicting a particular element of the Passion: three nails; the torn garments of Christ; the thongs used to whip him; and so on—about a dozen different elements in all.
Another especially interesting artifact was an old, very ornate and very large iron lock for a door. Joseph explained that this was a Kochi antique that represented the harmony between different religions in Kochi. He pointed out different religious symbols built into the intricate craftsmanship of the lock: a crucifix, a crescent moon (to represent Islam), a trident (for Hinduism) and seven candle-like projections that represent a Jewish menorah.
Pride of place in the museum is held by a beautiful teak wood altarpiece. Joseph explained that when the Dutch took over St Francis’s Church, this altarpiece was one of the decorations that was taken away from the church by local Catholics to keep it safe. Today, decorated with equally old (but not from St Francis’s) painted wood candlesticks and wooden representations of vases filled with flowers—the latter an attractive and interesting way of decorating an altar with ‘flowers’ that lasted for years!
The façade of the altar contains a tabernacle, its lid decorated with a painting of two crossed arms—one being Christ’s, the other (also showing stigmata) that of St Francis of Assisi. Joseph also explained to us that most Indians tend to associate ‘St Francis’ with St Francis Xavier, who had been very successful as a missionary in 16th century India and is still highly venerated. The ‘St Francis’ of Kochi—after whom St Francis’s Church is named, too—is, however, St Francis of Assisi.
The Indo-Portuguese Museum is a modest size; even if you loiter over its exhibits, you probably won’t spend more than an hour here. But what it lacks in size, it makes up for in the charm and historicity of its exhibits. It’s well-maintained, clean, well-lit, and generally very pleasant. My only quibble would be with the inadequate labeling—but with someone like Joseph around to explain things, that ended up not really mattering.
The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 AM to 5 PM. Entry tickets are Rs 10 per person. Photography is allowed only in the basement, where the excavations of the fort can be seen.
From journal Four days in Kochi
January 31, 2006
The Indo-Portuguese Museum is well worth a visit and, as with most places in India, has a really cheap admission charge. It’s set in the superb, although somewhat limited, grounds of the well-kept gardens of the Bishop’s House. This is a semi-formal garden with many interesting religious-based statues. Admission to the garden is free and the museum is cheap (free on the first Thursday of each month).
We were well received by the single member of staff and both got the impression that we were probably the first and only customers of the day. He was keen to show off “his museum” and also to introduce us to the museum shop. This had a variety of oils on sale, and this sideline was “gently pushed” at us. I’m not sure if these concentrated oils were a good value, but we had to gently explain that although they were interesting, we were not likely to buy. The curator continued briefly with a soft sell, realised we meant what we said, and then took us around the museum exhibits.
Despite the fact that many churches were destroyed in the many battles that took place in this area, the museum has managed to amass a good-quality selection of Christian artwork and church architecture. In pride of place is an amazing 16th-century carved teak altarpiece, intact and almost in pristine condition. There’s a fascinating section dedicated to processional regalia, including a 17th-century silver and wooden cross (an impressive piece). Beautifully carved iconic items are well displayed, and if you want to take photographs, there is no restriction. Indeed, I felt that the curator was particularly pleased if I took photos. There was an impressively ornate lock on display, and we could only imagine that a set of large well-carved doors would be needed to “carry it off.”
Our guide gave us interesting insight into town life over the ages and described Cochin as a truly Cosmopolitan with at least six religions (Hinduism, Islam, Christian, Jewish, Sikhism, and Buddhism) living in close harmony. There have been up to 13 different cultures in the town, and families share that mix in their birth heritage. He proudly told us that his name was “Robinson.”
In recent excavations, archaeologists stumbled across the base of a huge building. This can be viewed in the museum’s cellar, and it’s believed that it was originally a food warehouse. The curator expressed surprise at the building's site because this area regularly floods and he surmised that the river would have originally been nearer the building. To me that made sense--a warehouse next to the river ideal for unloading cloths or spices as they were transported down the river.
Although this is not a massive museum, there’s plenty to interest the inquisitive and we were certainly entranced by the history of Cochin, as described by the guide, with its strong influences from China, Portugal, Holland, and England. An informative visit!
From journal Chilling Out in Cochin