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The charming and captivating state of Kerala will make your next holiday a memorable one
After landing on its shores, I don’t take much time to realise why Kerala, the land of kera, coconuts, is touted as ‘God’s own country’. Tucked away in the southernmost tip of Indian peninsula, the land edged by the Arabian Sea in the east and Western Ghats in the west, can be described as nothing but beautiful and serene.
Renowned for its serene sandy beaches, lush green vegetation, array of coconut groves, fascinating rivers and canals, rolling hills and valleys, spiced perfumed air and a likeable culture that has adopted all faiths from Hinduism and Islam to Christianity and Judaism, Kerala represents a classic microcosm of India. Perhaps that’s why National Geographic Traveller lists it as one of the top ten paradises of the world.
There is so much to see and experience in Kerala, from fascinating historical memoirs, religious shrines and nature’s bounties to artistic splendours, traditional treatment methods and epicurean delights that it’s rather impossible to cover all in one visit. I attempt to collect a broad sample of some of the major offerings.
The scent of spices dotted Kerala on the world map as early as 3000BC. Initially the Phoenicians monopolised the trade. They were followed by the Arabs until the Europeans, the Portuguese, Dutch and British, marched in after Vasco da Gama established the epical route from Europe, sailing around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. These traders from round the globe established a cultural melting pot in Kerala, some leftovers of which can be sampled at the quaint harbour settlement of Fort Kochi, referred during its zenith as Queen of the Arabian Sea.
The citadels, catholic churches and hordes of colonial buildings flanking tree lined thoroughfares tell stories of the European masters who enriched the land with their taste and style, Fort Immanuel, Bastion Bungalow, Bishop’s House, St Francis Church and Santa Cruz Basilica are a few impressive sites from the long list. Both the churches were built by the Portuguese in the early 16th century. Vasco da Gama was initially buried inside St Francis Church which is considered as India’s first European shrine. Soaked in sea breeze, I amble aimlessly along shady alleyways and smell nothing but past until a fishy smell overpowers when close to the Chinese fishing nets. These were erected by traders from the court of Kublai Khan in the 14th century.
Nearby quaint quarter of Mattancherry was once the home of Kerala’s flourishing Jewish community who migrated from the Iberian Peninsula in the 16th century. Still few of them live there in dilapidated bungalows bordering narrow streets dotted with antique and curio shops. A timeworn synagogue and a clock tower lends a medieval feel to the place. Mattancherry is also the epicentre of Kochi’s spice trade. I whiff strong aroma of cardamom and ginger while walking to the Dutch Palace, a royal residence gifted by the Portuguese to the Raja of Kochi in 1555. A later restoration of the palace by the Dutch links to its current name.
If history dominates waterfront Kochi, then scenic beauty and unspoilt wilderness govern Munnar and Thekkady.
Green is the colour that bands the lush mountain slopes of Munnar, Kerala’s answer to the fabled Darjeeling. Located 110km inland from Kochi at the confluence of three mountain streams, hilly Munnar, nestled at 1600m above sea level, was once the summer retreat of the erstwhile British in Southern India. Sprawling tea, coffee and clove, cinnamon and cardamom plantations, winding laneways through patches of them, picturesque human nests and cool climate makes it a popular sanctuary for urban dwellers. Looking at the surrounding greenery and the engulfing tranquillity it’s nothing unusual to imagine the quarter as an ideal hideout for gods.
Not far from there is Thekkady, the sound of the very word conjuring images of herds of elephants, sambars, bison and other wildlife wandering on the banks of Periyar Lake. Few tigers are said to be hiding inside this bushland, but chances of spotting them are same as winning lottery.
A major highlight of any Kerala odyssey is cruising its idyllic backwaters, which comprise of an extensive network of placid lagoons, lakes, estuaries and canals, on a luxurious houseboat, locally known as Kettuvalloms. I get into one for a magical day-night journey from Alleppey. The passing panorama reminds passages from Arundhuti Roy’s award winning novel The God of Small Things, where she eloquently captured Kerala’s rural sumptuousness.
Being autumn time after the rains, the waterways are overflowing and the surrounding vegetation is viciously green, the water though appearing brownish with floating flora and fauna adding colour. We go past several villages, see children dressed in starched uniform walking to their school, villagers on bicycle riding along the red dust road to work while women using the water to wash their utensils and clothes. Something common among all of them, none forgetting to smile and wave at us as we sail past them. It reflects their friendliness towards visitors. We hop into couple of villages, meet some locals and learn about their routine and traditions. Kerala has the highest literacy in India, so most them are educated and can converse in English. Being the world’s first democratically elected communist state, their social consciousness is strong and logical. The entire journey is relaxing and slow paced to shake off any curbed urban stress. A dreamy sunrise break over the serene marshlands at dawn is most notable.
Kerala is the home of Ayurveda, a thousand years old Indian recipe of natural treatment and wellbeing that has surpassed through generations and has survived all foreign influences. The holistic medicine is generally produced from herbs and plants, Kerala’s tropical climate being ideal for it growth. I learn more about this healing method at Somatheeram, the world’s first Ayurvedic resort, in Kovalam, world famous for its sandy stretch edging the blue sea water.
A massive rocky promontory on this beach has created a beautiful bay of calm waters ideal for sea bathing. The leisure options here are plenty from sunbathing, swimming and body toning massages to special cultural programmes and catamaran cruising. Life on the beach begins early in the day and carries on well into the night.
Close to Kovalam is the state’s capital city Thiruvananthapuram. It’s modern and fitted with contemporary elements from plush hotels and restaurants to shopping malls and fashion outlets. Padmanabhaswamy Temple is one site there that no visitor give a miss.
Finally, friendly Keralite people with their welcoming attitude, cultural emblems and cuisine delicacies makes my journey complete and most rewarding.
Getting there: Fly internationally with Singapore Airlines (www.singaporeair.com) and Silk Air (www.silkair.com) to arrive in Kochi. Alternatively, fly IndiGo (book.goindigo.in), India’s most acclaimed domestic carrier, famous for being on time, to fly into Kochi from major Indian metropolises.
Accommodation: Kerala offers an array of options to suit your budget. Highly recommended are Eighth Bastion (www.cghearth.com) in Fort Kochi, Ambady Estate (www.ambadyestate.com) in Munnar, Spice village (www.cghearth.com) in Thekkady and Somatheeram Ayurveda Resort (www.somatheeram.in) in Kovalam.
Houseboat: Spice Routes (spiceroutes.in) offers luxury houseboats for the best backwater cruising experience.
Tour operator: Marvel Tours (www.marveltours.in) are expert operators to show you around Kerala.
More info: Check www.keralatourism.org.