By Caroline Robertson ND
Having traveled the width and breadth of India there’s one area that keeps calling me back -Kerala. Within this 580 km stretch of coast lies a diverse landscape ranging from coconut fringed beaches, wildlife reserves, mountain spice plantations and a maze of soothing backwaters. Add to this people who are as warm and ‘balmy’ as the tropical weather and you have a fascinating holiday destination.
My first uncertain visit to Kerala remains fresh in my memory… “If I don’t get a break I’m going to break down.” I moaned. Six months of Calcutta chaos left me drained and depressed. The heart rendering poverty, constant haggling and heavy exhaust fumes were suffocating. I had to escape before joining the ranks of the unfortunate people I was attempting to assist.
“Take a breather on a Kerala beach”. Came my friend’s suggestion. I was thinking more of Tahiti. “You’ll love Kerala. It is much mellower than the rest of India.” She coaxed (eager to rid herself of my winging presence.)
Though skeptical, I’d heard good things about Kerala. With an impressive health, education and welfare record that far surpasses the rest of India, it’s like a different country. Kerala boasts the India’s lowest birthrate, lowest infant mortality, highest marriage age and a dubious l00% literacy rate. However – good statistics don’t guarantee a good holiday spot. Only trial by travel would reveal whether Kerala really was “God’s Own Country” as promoted in the glossy travel brochures.
Departing from Calcutta’s aptly named ‘Dum Dum’ airport I was primed for anything. Arriving at Kerala’s capital Trivandrum, now referred to by it’s tongue twister title–Thiruvananthapuram, I was happy to see that the airport was relatively less disorganized than other Indian airports though still a far cry from the moving walkways of western airports. It retained that distinctly Indian ‘conspicuous absence of common sense,’ leaving foreigners with a perplexed “why” expression on their travel weary faces.
Why are three officials crammed into a tiny booth unconvinced that my short hair passport photo matches my current longhaired Kali-look? Why is the security guard motioning with his WWI rifle for me to shift from the moving baggage carousel to one that’s not operating? Why are the currency exchange outlets having a bidding war to give me the best rupee rate whilst standing under a ‘fixed rate’ sign?
Ahh… the eternal mysteries of India. This quirkiness is disarmingly hysterical and exasperating but how you tackle these inevitable incidents can make or break your Indian odyssey. It helps to humor your way through, go with the flow (rip!) and keep it all in perspective whilst dodging the archaic bureaucratic systems whenever possible by feigning ignorance.
Alternatively you can react as the man behind me did- with an acute case of Sahib’s disease. Red faced from yelling, rolling his eyes condescendingly, pointing out the relative inferiority of everything Indian – he was doing an uncanny impression of the Major in “The Jewel in the Crown.” This hypertensive effort to incite efficiency simply made things worse. Met with a barrier of bemused resistance the officials delighted in escalating his comedic frustration by employing the passive aggressive techniques that toppled the British Empire. Karma can bite back quickly in India and as writer Ruth Prawler Jhabvala noted
“…it does so by finding your weakest spot and pressing on it!”
Though rough and rude at times I found that Keralites generally made an effort to extend sincere hospitality to friendly foreigners, after all they have a long history of playing host to visitors. Over centuries spice traders from Portugal, Holland, France, Italy, China and England came there to access coffee, cardamom, cashews, coconut, cloves and pepper. In return they left their cultural mark still evident in the Chinese fishing nets, Roman Catholic churches, Synagogues and Communist leanings. But as I left the airport I had set my sites on much more profound interests, namely shopping, eating and vegetating. Feeling like a memsahib in the antiquated ambassador taxi we bumped and honked through Trivandrum’s wide streets. Through the sepia tinged light a bull with coloured horns crossed our path. “Auspicious omen” smiled the driver as he swerved. “Lucky Bull” I sighed with relief. I found getting from A to B on Kerala’s pot-holed roads quite wearing. Negotiating the oncoming traffic, sharp turns and narrow country roads all to the constant blaring of horns is not for the faint hearted. Nowadays I find train travel is much easier on the nerves and gluts.
Every place has a distinct aroma. Entering Trivandrum a heady scent of jasmine and coconut oil enveloped me – a combination designed to keep one cool headed in weather that can drive one troppo. Booking into a bland and basic hotel typical of Kerala, the action packed city beckoned. Though I’m with Gandhi when he said “the real India is to be found in the timeless villages”, the cities have their high points, especially if you like to shop ‘til you drop. Spiritual searching aside, the experience of India’s bargain shopping can awaken the avaricious materialist in even the most confirmed renounciate. After all, enlightenment doesn’t come cheap but everything else does! Anyway, as far as religious experiences go, the closest thing to heaven for me was visiting one of Trivandrum’s palatial multistory fabric emporiums. Enjoy playing Maharaja/ Maharani by draping yourself in the swirling fantasia of endless colours and fabrics. At a ridiculously low price you can buy fabrics and get them made into anything within days. Alternatively the ready-made women’s salwar-kameez (pants and top set) and sari or the men’s Kurta (shirt), munde (sarong) and punjabi (shirt and trouser set) are cool, comfortable and stylish in a Jemima/Imran way. Entering as a black and white, bedraggled pigeon you’ll emerge a flamboyant peacock, barely conspicuous on India’s colourful streets.
Time to try Kerala’s culinary delights. The only dilemma in Trivandrum is that there are so many restaurants, so little time. As the closest thing to pure Ayurvedic cuisine in India, the traditional Kerala diet is very healthy. Just ask them to go easy on the oil and chilli “mulaka venta” as that is what often causes ‘runny tummy’. One thing you can’t avoid is coconut. Keralites love it, adding its flesh and milk to practically every dish. A typical meal, known as a thali, consists of 3 mild vegetable curries, rice, pappadams, pickle, dal, yogurt, sweet vermicelli and buttermilk to boost digestion. It’s a vegetarian’s paradise and all for around $3 Australian. Other specialties to tantalise your taste buds include the savory dosa pancake, idli rice dumplings, avial coconut curry and sweet rice payasam. So don’t be surprised if you go home carrying a little excess bodily baggage.
After a day in the city I was ready to hit the beach. Kovalam is a popular seaside village only one hour from Trivandrum. Busy during the European holiday season but relatively quiet at other times, it is full of good standard hotels, restaurants and curio shops. The surf is usually clean and gentle but can get wild adding to the slapstick entertainment of watching Indians getting dumped in shin deep water. Prices are a little hiked up but comparatively cheaper than western rates.
Kovalam is one of the many places you can see traditional Kerala dance and martial arts. Preservation of indigenous culture is a high priority in Kerala in contrast to other areas of India where it is rapidly dying out. The two main dancing styles are Kathakali and Mohiniyattam. Performances depict the eternal struggle between good and evil through epics such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Kathakali is a garishly colourful dance performed by men with the story are conveyed through costumes and hand gestures known as mudras. Mohiniyattam literally means the ‘dance of the enchantress’. Reserved for female dancers this style is more delicate and subdued than Kathakali.
Kerala’s martial art, Kalarippayattu is India’s best kept secret. Believed by historians to be one of the oldest martial arts in the world it is fitting that it thrived in Kerala, home of India’s warrior class, the Nairs. The speed, agility and skill of its exponents is astounding. Training for years without weapons, once proficient enough, they learn to use a spear, sword, dagger, stick, shield and deadly vital points called marmas. They also learn the moral code of Yoga and the healing art of Ayurveda. With muscles shining from oil, jumping meters high, spinning and wielding weapons, a Kalarippayattu display is a memorable spectacle. Seeing these healthy, robust bodies I was inspired to address my withering body’s needs. What better place to do this than at an Ayurvedic retreat. No holiday in Kerala is complete without the luxurious pampering offered by Ayurveda, India’s ancient healing science. Ayurveda has perfected the art of relaxation, purification and rejuvenation. There are many high quality retreats to choose from but I selected one at Kulakkad, near Trichur which had the isolation and expertise I yearned for. Hibernating in my private sanctuary for two weeks I gratefully soaked up the daily herbal oil massages, enemas and internal medicines. The silence, solitude and treatments left me feeling serene and revitalized, ready to float away down Kerala’s famous backwaters.
Dubbed the ‘Venice of the East’ you can explore Kerala’s 48 rivers and over 1,000 canals run over thousands of miles of backwaters from Cochin to Alleppy and back to Cochin. The perfect vehicle to explore these are the traditional houseboats called Kettuvallams. These unique boats are made without nails and span up to 80 feet long. The standard one includes a deck with a day lounge, bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen complete with your personal chef. The main houseboat areas are Kochi, Kollam, Kottayam and Alleppy.
For just $40 to $100 a day you can glide down Kerala’s veins, enjoying the pulse of activity in the passing villages. Like Cleopatra down the Nile I drifted down the dreamy waterways as the lush riverside canopy casts cooling shadows on my reclining figure, dipping a finger in the rippling water from the floating day bed. Occasionally stirring from this relaxed stupor I would lazily motion the driver to set down anchor and stretch my land legs. Attractions to explore included restaurants, ashrams, impromptu parades, temples and village shops. Its fun to strike up conversation with the locals also. Their unbridled curiosity about foreigners draws out the social animal in even the most introverted tourist. Most Keralites have very proficient English and love to practice it with favourite topics such as cricket, world politics, philosophy and any personal tidbits you’re prepared to share.
But I was always keen to get back on board and soak up the setting sun over a cup of sweet milky chai. This is the magic time when temple elephants would take their evening bath or a band of monkeys swung through overhead trees. Dusk chants filled the air and a deep peace settled in my soul.
As the saffron sky silhouetted the riverside landscape against the silvery water I marveled at nature’s vibrant canvas. The promotion of this land as ‘God’s own country’ didn’t seem so far fetched after all, with God’s grace smiling on so many aspects of Kerala life. Despite the madness of “modern progress” in the world Kerala offers a sanctuary that reminds visitors of the value of natural beauty and the sweet simplicity of a spiritually based culture.
Its charm entices me back year after year because fortunately time hasn’t made a significant mark on this extraordinary place and its gentle people.
Along with her husband Rama Prasad, an Ayurvedic physician from Kerala,
she offers consultations, courses and South Indian Ayurvedic tours.
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