The wonders of Kerala

Stephanie Pearson

This enchanting corner of India offers a mixture of exuberant chaos, hidden backwaters, and rugged mountain treks

Each autumn, residents of the southern Indian state of Kerala celebrate Onam, their ten-day harvest festival. It commemorates the return of the legendary king Mahabali, who is said to have given every Keralan—whether Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Sikh, Buddhist, Jew, or other—equal rights and prosperity.

I bumped into Mahabali in the city of Vaikom. As I attempted to cross the street, a parade of hundreds following a bejewelled man with a giant belly came along. Mahabali handed me a piece of candy, while a TV news reporter stuck a mic in my face and asked: “What do you think of Onam?”

“It’s a happy time!” I stammered. When I made my plans to travel to Kerala, I knew nothing about Onam. All I knew was that I had always wanted to see the vivid beauty of this vast country but was intimidated by the volume of humanity—India is home to 1.21 billion people. In Kerala, I had heard, one could still experience the diversity of India, yet also find quiet beauty, tropical ocean beaches, and cultural festivals that attract visitors from around the world.

 

After a few days of exuberance, I can attest that Keralans know how to celebrate. At the Coconut Lagoon eco-resort, I feasted on the traditional Onam meal known as sadhya. The 26 vegetarian servings included ash gourd, masala curry, sambar, papadums, and mango pickles.

kerala river boat tourA houseboat tour through the backwaters of Kerala

On the festival’s last day I attended the Aranmula Boat Race, a 700-year-old contest that starts at the Aranmula Temple on the River Pamba. Hundred-foot-long palliyodams, or snake boats, from 48 villages went head-to-head in front of thousands of spectators. The race had the pomp and circumstance of the Olympics.

During the race, one of the boats capsized, and the revellers gasped as the paddlers swam toward the opposite shore. A motorboat packed with men impersonating foreign tourists with devil masks, fake boobs, and blonde wigs speeded past.

"Plant anything here and it will grow, from coconuts to mangoes to ginger"

If this raucous festival was an accurate representation of life in the state known as God’s Own Country, then, I decided, God must thrive on chaos and fun.

“In Kerala, many things make sense and many things don’t,” said my guide, Rajesh “Raj” Padmanabha Iyer Ramakrishnan, a 36-year-old Hindu priest and yoga instructor. On our nearly 620-mile car and train journey across the state, he chanted a melodic devotion to Lord Shiva, one of Hinduism’s primary forms of God.

“It boils down to a plea for victory over death,” Raj said of the prayer. Which makes sense—I don’t have a seatbelt, so I’m trusting Shiva for safe passage through the rolling countryside of rubber tree and banana plantations, Hindu and Christian shrines, goats, cows, people, and tuk-tuks.

 

Kerala is smaller than the Netherlands but has about twice the number of people— 35 million. Despite the masses, it is intensely beautiful. In the west, 360 miles of sandy coastline hugs the Arabian Sea. To the east, the mountainous Western Ghats rise up to the 9,000 ft summit of Anamudi. Herds of wild elephants and solitary tigers roam the Ghats through the sprawling Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve.

In between are the “backwaters,” an interconnected waterway of lagoons, canals, and lakes near the Arabian Sea. Plant anything here and it will grow, from coconuts to mangoes to ginger.

kerala water elephant splashAn elephant bathes in the Periyar River at Kodanad Training Centre in Kerala

“Kerala can not only be a great recuperation place after a big Himalayan trek or expedition, but a destination in itself,” says Mandip Soin, a mountaineer, founding president of the Ecotourism Society of India and the owner of Ibex Expeditions. Together, we mapped out an itinerary between Kerala’s five national parks, 17 wildlife sanctuaries, hundreds of miles of forest, and endless beaches.

As the epicentre of the world’s spice trade, Kerala has endured as a largely independent, multicultural society for centuries.

“Kerala is perhaps the only place in the world able to produce both a practising Catholic and an agitated Communist,” says Jose Dominic, the managing director of CGH Earth Hotels, a group of eco-resorts and properties in southern India.

Yes, Kerala has Communists. In 1957, the state became the first in the world to democratically elect a Communist government. The Communists enacted a major step in land reform in 1970, making Kerala one of the first Indian states to end the feudal system.

Drawing on a long history of enlightened Hindu rulers and Christian missionaries, the Communists and successive parties made education a priority. Today, about 94 per cent of Kerala’s population is literate. It also has affordable universal healthcare, the lowest infant mortality rate in India, and a life expectancy of 74.9, seven years higher than the national average.

That isn’t to say that Kerala is without struggles, including occasional outbursts of political violence, strikes, and one of the highest rates of alcoholism in India. And in a state where there are 2,200 people per square mile, my Western notions of wide-open spaces may need a little adjusting.

 

Raj and I are kayaking on Meenapally Kayal, a wide, beautiful lake and an important link in the backwater ecosystem. It’s also a popular backdrop for Mollywood blockbusters (Malayalam-language movies), because of its impressive expanse and uncluttered shoreline ringed with coconut palms.

Known as “the rice bowl of Kerala,” the backwaters are one of the few places in the world outside of Holland where land is cultivated below sea level. Small villages line the canals and are surrounded by rice paddies, banana leaves, and gardens of spinach and long beans. Lavender houses, women in brightly coloured saris, and men in plaid dhotis pop out of the foliage in brilliant relief.

kerala boat menFisherman cruising on a boat the way from Kollam to Alleppey

This is the land of Arundhati Roy, who spent part of her childhood in the village of Aymanam, where she set her haunting novel, The God of Small Things.

Normally Raj leads trips through the backwaters on kettuvallams, rice and spice trade boats that are now motorised party barges for tourists. But to reach the remote channels, a kayak is required, which is why we’re with Binu Joseph, a 26-year-old local guide.

“They are not experiencing the backwaters,” Binu tells me as we paddle past kettuvallams belching diesel fumes.

We stop at an open-air restaurant for a breakfast of appam, which is like a coconut pancake, accompanied by sambar, a South Indian lentil stew, and some fresh toddy, a fermented coconut alcohol. It’s a little sweet, a little tangy, and it goes down smoothly. Next we paddle past a Hindu temple and the local Communist Party headquarters before heading into peaceful Muslim, Christian, and Hindu neighbourhoods, where orchids grow with abandon, kids race our boats in wooden canoes, and kingfishers, egrets, and cormorants dart.

Most everything needed to sustain life can be found along the waterways, including a floating medical clinic, churches, schools, mosques, temples, and supermarkets. At one point the canal is so narrow and choked with water hyacinths that it feels like we’re on a path of no return. But after a while, the channel widens and spits us back into the lake.

Binu is married and has a bachelor’s degree in business from Kerala University. His family hopes that he’ll go to law school, but, he tells me, “I don’t want to go to the court. I like my life.”

I can see why. I felt the pull of the backwaters a few mornings earlier when I awoke to a driving, predawn monsoon at a family-run inn called Philipkutty’s Farm. Crickets, frogs, and roosters chirped, croaked, and crowed the world to life. Minutes later their cries were drowned out by the staccato blast of firecrackers, a Hindu offering popular during the Onam festival. By 6am, a melodious hymn wafted over the water. Believers at St. Mary’s Church in Kudavechoor were already celebrating mass.

 

“Do you see this? It’s Spanish Lady, we use it to treat kidney stones,” says Renjith Hadlee, a wiry 28-year-old in an elephant T-shirt. “And this is camphor basil. We use it to treat cold and flu. This is an African tulip. The bark is good for treating malaria.”

I’m at 1,500 feet near the hill station of Munnar in the Western Ghats. Hadlee, who runs a trekking and mountain-biking company called Kestrel Adventures, is leading me up and down a moss-covered path through a shola, or tropical mountain forest. It’s hard to believe that this mist-shrouded mountain landscape, filled with wild pharmaceuticals and exotic birds, is in the same state as the backwaters.

Hadlee sees this shola as a medicine chest for Ayurveda, an Indian healing practice that dates back 5,000 years. I have yet to experience a treatment, but it’s evident that these hills are alive with healing powers.

Over the next few days I visit three more hill stations, including one near Periyar National Park, a tiger and elephant sanctuary, and Nagarhole National Park in neighbouring Karnataka state, which has one of the highest tiger densities in the world. The big cats evade me at both, which isn’t surprising—they are solitary and nocturnal. But at Nagarhole, I see a bull elephant, wild peacocks, a gaur, and a crested hawk eagle.Between stints at the hill stations, we take a short detour to Marari Beach. Even as temperatures were pushing the high twenties [Celsius], the long stretch of white sand was nearly empty, save for a woman in a black burka chasing a toddler, a few Indian honeymooners, and a dozen fishermen launching a boat into the sea.

Most Keralans seem to have a distant relationship with the ocean. “It is not part of our culture,” a Keralan businessman tells me later. “The ocean means a lot of sun, and we don’t need the tan.”

As much as I want to shed my long skirt and long sleeves, seeing the burka reminds me to stay covered in a conservative culture that doesn’t easily tolerate women in bathing suits.

 

I have an early-morning appointment with Sony Sumi, the first woman in a long family line of male doctors to practise Ayurveda, at her office at Spice Village, an Ayurvedic spa on the edge of Periyar National Park.

“How is your bowel movement?” she asks. “How is your appetite? Your immunity power?” After the rapid-fire Q&A, Sumi, who is wearing an elegant gold salwar kameez, takes my pulse. Behind us is an ornate copper lamp. Its flame, Sumi explains, illuminates the presence of God.

“Before and after the treatments, we pray to God. God resides everywhere,” she says.

Hindus believe that Ayurveda was handed down from Brahma, the god of creation. Its premise is that we are a mixture of three doshas, or energies. If our doshas are out of balance, disease, depression, and physical pain set in. Balancing the doshas requires a stringent routine of diet, exercise, massage, meditation, and often less pleasant detoxifiers such as enemas, bloodletting, and vomiting.

“In modern medicines, they treat the particular symptom,” Sumi tells me. “In Ayurveda, we treat the disease from its root.”

Diagnosis and treatment can take up to three weeks, but I have only a day, so Sumi diagnoses my primary dosha as vata. “Basically, the quality of vata is movement, very fast acting,” she says, which is no surprise, considering that I’m a restless wanderer and chronic insomniac. She gives me a long list of foods to eat (like maple syrup and avocado) and to avoid (chocolate and raw garlic) and recommends a sirodhara Ayurvedic treatment.

After a rigorous scalp and body massage, I lay on my back on a traditional teak Ayurvedic treatment bed while a clay pot that swings a few feet above me drips sandalwood-infused sacred oil across my forehead, directly over the third eye.

The steady drip relaxes the nervous system and relieves migraines, insomnia, stress, and fatigue. It puts me in such a relaxed trance that I wonder if Shiva himself is reaching down to erase my worry lines. 


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