When I was Fort Cochin this year I randomly entered Sofi Arts & Crafts, a small shop on Quiros Street. I ended up staying and talking to the owner a long time and I bought some beautiful scarves. The owner, Sofi, is a 28 year old Kashmiri. He surprised me with his honesty and the different (not pushy!) way in which he worked. This was certainly a relief from most shops and sellers!
Sofi is starting up his own business this year. During summer he travelled al through Kashmir and bought his stock directly from the families who make the scarves, wall hangings and other arts and crafts that he wants to sell in his shop.
In Fort Cochin there are a lot of shops selling scarves and other Kashmiri arts and crafts. Why is this one different? Because Sofi is his own boss and is trying to start a business. He does not work for commission and he does not get told of when he doesn't sell anything. Because Sofi only sells quality, nothing bought from factories. And most of all, because Sofi will not lie and rather sells something too cheaply than for a rip off price.
What to pay: Hard to say, Sofi sells small silk scarves for a few hundred rupees, but also beautiful delicate woollen scarves for thousands of rupees.
To start with, the shop is in an old warehouse with a lovely little space to sit outside under a mango tree. Most of the display furniture is recycled using old tyres, wooden doors and window frames, fruit boxes etc.
You will find a nice selection of natural incense, soaps, essential oils, perfumed sachets, anti-mosquito products and Spirulina.
There are bags, raw silk scarves, bangles, bindis, greeting cards and postcards, T-shirts and recycled goods.
You can re-fill your plastic bottles with filtered water for INR 5 per liter to save on that plastic waste.
Some of the products are sourced from NGO’s or associations and a percentage of their sales helps an NGO working to help destitute children.
There is also a giant chess board in one corner of the shop which can be played on.
What to buy: The natural and bio products are always good to buy. If you want to cover your body in mosquito repellent for example, it's better to have a natural product than something chemical even if you have to pay a little extra.
Also most of the products are from South India and use local produce which is good for the environment.
What to pay: I think nothing exceeds about INR 600 and that's for the silk scarves.
There were plenty of opportunities to shop. I was interested mainly in buying local crafts, spices and textiles. We were strongly cautioned against buying food to eat "on the hoof" but I could not resist fresh coconuts.The milk was deliscious and there were no ill effects.
As well as properly organised road side stalls there were also many hawkers and pedlars selling trashy "gift" items and dubious strings of spices.
We were directed to a busy shopping street on the way to the Jewish quarter where there were lots of shops of all description.
We found a large emporium run by the Kerala Handicrafts Development Society where I found everything I Wantedat reasonable marked prices - no haggling!
There are a whole load of antique shops around the synagogue in an area known as Jew Town. They're more like museums that shops with items such as furniture, ornaments, masks, doors, statues on display. One had a 100ft, 100 year old snake racing boat down the entire length of the shop!
This shop, like Idiom Books, do have a very good selection of books. Books on India, Kerala, Cooking Books, but it seems that they have a very good selection on the Religions practiced in Kerala and Cochin (eg Judaism in Cochin).
There are many shops along Bazaar Rd, selling spices, pulses etc. I found that it was much cheaper to buy here than in Jew Town, where everything is more tourist-orientated.
Some are actually whole-salers, but there are plenty shops selling small quantities.
What to buy: Black pepper, chillies, cardomom, cassia, etc
What to pay: Inexpensive
Warehouses and shops in Jew town are packed to the rafters with antiques and curios.
They attract collectors and interior designers from around the globe as well as the tourist looking for an unusual momento of their visit. Carved panels reclaimed from churches and other grand buildings jostle with pottery and other articles of Chinese/ Portuguese/ Dutch/ British origin.
Spice boxes, jewellery and masks make popular gifts
What to buy: Antiques
What to pay: Bargaining is expected. - as little as You want, to What You and Your Bank Manager are happy with!
All the books on India and Kerala you could possibly want. No hassle to buy anything but the owner was very helpful when asked for assistance. You get a nice raffia bag with the shop's logo to take all your purchases home in.
What to buy: I bought a couple of books from Idiom but my best purchase was a print of one of the wall paintings from Mattancherry Palace. The shops had a large stack of prints available from the Palace and it was great to be able to take home one of the paintings I had admired the previous day.
Indian markets are an experience: bustle, noise, colours, smells, all stronger than you thought possible. I rarely buy anything, preferring to just soak it all in, but Cochin was an exception. The main market area of the Spice Capital of India features many hole-in-the-wall spice shops. No need to look for them, the wafting aromas will guide you there....
What to buy: Star anise, huge blades of mace, big strips of cinnamon, fresh black pepper, big red chillis and exotica like kodampoli (a souring agent used in Kerala dishes - can replace lemon juice or tamarind).
What to pay: Saffron and cardamom are expensive. Compare prices and bargain – traders know what an attraction their spices are to foreigners.
Buy saffron strands, not powdered saffron - it’s always adulterated.
There are several shops along MG Road in Ernakulam where you can buy textiles, silk and sarees. There is a much bigger variety compared to Fort Cochin, and also cheaper. It is here where the locals do shopping, thus no inflated prices.
What to buy: Silk and other textiles
There are 2 branches of this book store in Fort Cochin. One off Napier Street and the other just as you enter Jew Town.
This book store has a fantastic range of books on India, and especially Kerala.
What to buy: Books on Kerala, including arts, architecture and cooking.
There are a lot of places in Fort Kochi that offer stitching in an hour. The hour usually refers to kurtas, simple drawstring trousers, and the like. This place stitched me three salwar trousers overnight, which was pretty impressive. The stitching was good and the size was correct (I had left a sample), and although the inside seams weren’t all finished they haven’t come apart after a dozen washings. Cost was Rs350 per pair, including material, which I thought was reasonable. The people in the shop were very nice and accommodating. They have a selection of ready-mades too.
The streets leading to the Pardesi Synagogue are lined with antiques stores – heck, there are antique stores and warehouses all through that area, and a few near Vasco de Gama’s house, and more at random places all over Fort Kochi. It looks like every piece of antique anything in India has made its way here. (You have to wonder how, and what could possibly be left in the rest of India.) You can buy elaborately carved walls, entire ceilings, a real snake boat, or any of millions of little items, from wall brackets to spice boxes to tiny bronze and carved wood temple offerings.
Wandering through the stores is a lot of fun, most of the time. There are a few where browsers are tailed by overly “helpful” employees, and more than one tried to pass off a reproduction as something much more valuable. A couple of tips: 1) legally, you can’t take anything out of India that’s more than 100 years old; 2) if a shopkeeper claims something is more than 100 years old and still tries to sell it to you it’s probably a reproduction (unless you’ve identified yourself as a real collector or an interior decorator). If you don’t know what to look for, refrain from buying.
Most of the shops are not locally owned nor are the merchandise ( kashmiris selling rajasthani jewelry for instance), btu with a little bit of persistence you would come across local owners and stuff from the houses and tarawads being torn down to make way for boutique hotels. i was able to buy these two hanukkias- lamps for hanukka. the moslem owner knew it belongs to the jews but was unable to put a history to it. both of them are with me now, hopefully in 5767 i would be able to use them in the city of lights or as planned, on the first night of hanukkah of 5767 in Cochin itself!
He has been selling postcards in Jew Town for a long time, right in front of Sarah Cohen's house. Each time i stock up on a few, especially of the synagogue to send to friends. I didnt expect him to remember me but was very surprised on him greeting me as i came out of sarah's house. Sir, have not seen you around here for a while. Flabbergasted! good memories in the hearts of simple people who reward you with a smile when you are kind to them.