Dr Rama Prasad

Sweetness and spice
July 17, 2010 taken from THE AGE

Punting through the Keralan Backwaters.
Photo: Orien Harvey/Lonely Planet

In 'God's own country', Helen Anderson cycles among pepper warehouses and drifts on the tropical backwaters of Kerala.

Past St Jude Coffin Works and the Little Flower Church, past the Beautiful Beauty Parlour (''Discretion, by arrangement'') and the Hi-Tech Driving School, past Pradeep's Cool Bar sweltering in 30-degree heat at dusk, down an alley opposite Dream Dentistry (''tooth-whitening in an hour'') there is a saga of love, jealousy and tragedy unfolding.

This tale from the great Indian epic, Ramayana, is a celestial soap opera. We know it will end in tears (the goddess's nose and ears will be chopped off, sparking a terrible counterattack by her demonic brother), yet I am transfixed less by the story than by the extraordinarily, comically mobile faces of the god and goddess - both parts played by heavily made-up men - a little like Jim Carrey, only much funnier.

This is a brief introduction to kathakali, the unique theatre of Kerala, a 17th-century tradition that still thrives in the tropical heat of this south-west state of India. Our kathakali primer covers nine facial expressions, from love (coy tremors, glances from beneath winged brows) and valour (imagine a face like the prow of a ship facing mountainous seas) to disgust (something unspeakable) and quivering compassion. We're shown 24 hand gestures, which combined with the facial expressions would create an entire world of action and emotion if you understood the codes, yet are hugely entertaining for a novice audience on the level of pantomime. The actor, dazzling in wig, extreme make-up and layers of bling, becomes a ''bee sucking nectar from the lotus flower'' and a moment later is a convincing new moon rising.

Kathakali is one of the unique traditions of a state rich in live cultural traditions. It has a song-based form of classical music called carnatic and a complex form of shadow puppetry, tolpava koothu. I rise at dawn to watch kalarippayattu, an ancient regimen of martial training, thought to precede all other martial arts, and submit to deep-tissue therapy developed to treat limbs bruised during jousts with swords and spears.

From the moment I arrive one steamy midnight, Kerala feels like India - but not as I know it. At least, not like Goa or Mumbai, Delhi or Rajasthan, which I have visited several times. The sign sitting on the baggage carousel is vintage India - assuring passengers that ''complaint redressal'' will be taken to ''the highest levels'' - but the airport at Kochi is large, modern, orderly and spotless. Though the city is Kerala's commercial capital, with a population of only 1.6 million there's an unhurried big-town ambience that is most un-Indian.

There's a lot to like about Kerala - ''God's own country'', according to all the street signs, in English and palindromic Malayalam. It has India's highest literacy rate by far and its women, in particular, are highly educated by any standards; it has been ruled periodically for the past 50 years by the world's first democratically elected communist government; and everywhere there's the beauty and fecundity of the tropics. For a traveller, Kerala has all of the exoticism of India but fewer of its challenges.

I'm a nervous city cyclist but Fort Cochin, the historic quarter of the city, is as sleepy in the mornings as a village. It's a perfect size for walking, or cycling, although almost any foot traffic will be shadowed by the cheerful drivers of tuk-tuks, the ubiquitous three-wheeled auto rickshaws. There's a clutch of them lined up outside Malabar House, where I'm staying, and no matter how early or late, it's impossible to step outside without being greeted by a singsong chorus of ''Good day, madam! Tuk-tuk for you?''

Used by spice traders, tea merchants and bankers, Malabar House is Fort Cochin's first and finest boutique heritage hotel, with chic vintage interiors, an air of Ayurvedic calm and a breezy courtyard restaurant for sensational degustation meals and breakfasts of lacy appam pancakes and idli dumplings.

I sneak out early on one of the hotel's bicycles, before the humidity gets soupy. Already there are scores of boys playing cricket and football on the dusty old British Parade Ground in front of the hotel. Even before I've broken into a sweat I'm in the middle of a film shoot, where the crew and stars of a Tamil thriller named Suzul, which roughly translates as ''vicious circle'', pause between takes to greet curious passersby. (Later, the tall leading man, Anoop, drives past and cries ''Join us for lunch!'')

At a stately pace I cycle past four-square colonial-era homes, schools and churches, built by the Portuguese, the Dutch and, after them, the British, their whitewash going mouldy. One of them, St Francis Church, was the burial place of the great Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama in 1524 (his remains were later shipped to Lisbon). Inside are long rows of rope-operated punkahs, or fans, suspended above the pews, the hand-made lace drooping in the heat. I cycle under vast spreading rain trees, feathery tamarinds, laden mango trees and jackfruit trees, unmistakable with their curious testicular fruits.

A waft of old fish reaches me before I see the harbour. Fishermen are fiddling with ropes and pulleys on cantilevered nets that crouch on a muddy shoreline. Said to have been introduced by Mongol invaders long ago, these wooden contraptions are framed for a half-hour of irresistible photo opportunity every evening as the sun turns blood red and falls into Kochi harbour.

My nose leads me further along the harbour to the spice warehouses, where dried ginger sits in a thousand sacks, alongside cardamom and turmeric, cloves and cinnamon, nutmeg, tamarind and pepper.

Near the international pepper exchange and at the heart of the spice markets is the startlingly named Jew Town. I buy a ticket from a young woman, the youngest of Cochin's 10 remaining Jews, and enter the synagogue, 450 years old, where a mass of antique Belgian chandeliers and coconut-oil lamps illuminates 1100 hand-painted willow-pattern floor tiles brought from China. Outside the alleys are lined with lace shops (''Madam! Please examine our lace - the best you can find in Belgium is made by our ladies''), tailors (my favourite: ''Efficiency Tailor - for Ladies and Their Inner Wear''), purveyors of essential oils and Ayurvedic medicines and dark antique shops filled to the rafters. Here one can buy a 110-man wooden snake boat or a Dutch-era cuckoo clock, a kumkum box carved from teak or a luminous tanjore painting on old glass.

If the best way to get around Fort Cochin is bicycle, the most sybaritic way to get around Kerala's watery interior has always been by boat. Certainly, the roads are a challenge - ''If you can drive in India, you can drive anywhere,'' my driver, Suresh, says cheerfully as he swerves around potholes, holy cows and through berserk pick-a-lane traffic on the way south to a houseboat jetty on the shore of Vembanad Lake. Kerala's famous backwaters fringe the coast and spread far inland, a labyrinth of lakes and lagoons, canals and cul-de-sacs, and they're alive with boats: from simple mango-wood canoes paddled by fishermen to thatch-roofed, four-bedroom houseboats converted from kettuvallams, or rice barges.

Veni, the captain of the two-bedroom Rainbow Gold kettuvallam, says there are 1715 licensed houseboats in the backwaters, which gives some idea of how ubiquitous a sight they are. He welcomes us with necklaces strung with jasmine and marigold and I sit beside him on the open deck as we head into Vembanad Lake, as big as an ocean. There's no land on the horizon, just the shore we left, bristling with coconut trees. In a shallow spot we see a boat and six men diving to catch a prized table fish called karimeen - by hand, without nets, hooks or spears. We pass boats piled high with rice fibre, for cattle feed, and barges filled with coconuts - everywhere in Kerala there are coconuts. We cruise into Round Lake, then into a river lined by houses and rice paddies, glistening with water only a few metres higher than the waterway we're plying at an unhurried 14 knots.

All around there's much activity but no haste: women thigh-high in the river, pounding their washing on steps, knots of children playing on the banks and waving at us, the flash of saris among mango and coconut trees. Fishermen in dug-outs grasp the sides of our kettuvallam and hitch a ride. The fastest vessel we see is a snakeboat, 12 men paddling in unison.

Venu, the chef, has produced a feast on two burners in the galley while we've been watching life slide by: fried fish (the karimeen we saw being caught by the lightning-quick divers); bitter gourd; green mango raita; a salad of cabbage, grated coconut and mustard seeds; sambar; spicy chicken; and twice-cooked Keralan rice.

It's mid-afternoon by the time we finish and we've slid under a rickety footbridge and entered a canal. A couple of fishermen are waiting for us and we step gingerly into their five-man mango-wood canoes, causing them to rock wildly. We're slung low on the water, low enough to pass beneath coconut palms levitating almost horizontally over the water and to hear snatches of conversations in riverbank gardens. We paddle deeper into the quiet, clogged artery of the canal. There are occasional rafts of water hyacinth in Vembanad Lake but the upper reaches of these canals are choked. Veni says dried hyacinth fibre is used as an upholstery stuffing and much of it dies during the monsoon when salt water flushes the backwaters, but it can't be eradicated.

Like many villages in the backwaters, there's only one way to get to Coconut Lagoon, Kumarakom's heritage resort and Ayurvedic retreat. We take a 10-minute ride on a jaunty little ferry, past a big sign saying ''Prevent pollution, Preserve Lively Hood''. Coconut Lagoon takes this seriously - it's the only resort I've come across where tours of the water- and waste-treatment plants and ''biomass digesters'' are encouraged. My distinctive wooden bungalow, a restored traditional tharavad house, comes with its own small cow, which I find mowing the lawn under a hammock strung between coconut trees. It's one of the last of its line, a rare Keralan vechur cow being bred at the resort. There's a delightful earthiness about the place - the staff are local people with genuine warmth, the food is organic and local, strict environmental principles govern its operation and guests are urged to observe a Noah's Ark of birds and butterflies, fish and fowl.

The other dreamy preoccupation here is Ayurvedic treatment. Much more than a spa, it has a clinic with a team of doctors and therapists diagnosing conditions and prescribing herbal poultices, powders and plasters and specific massages. My doctor, Indira, prescribes elakki thirummu - a two-hour, four-handed ''hard'' massage based on the deep-tissue therapy used to treat Keralan martial artists. It's deep, it's thorough and it's intimate - there are no secrets after elakki thirummu. It finishes with some time spent perspiring in a strange wooden ''sweat'' cabinet, with my head poking out the door, and a body wash of ''seven secret herbs and spices''.

The early-evening humidity is as heavy as a blanket when I emerge. Tonight is a special date on the Hindu calendar and there's a temple festival in the village nearby, with a much-anticipated appearance by a temple elephant. (The village and resort appear in Arundhati Roy's celebrated novel The God of Small Things.)

I follow a rainbow of saris along the riverbank in the direction of the drums and we pick up pace as the beat gets wilder. Suddenly, we're in a crowded temple square lit by fire, dripping with sweat, fascinated by an old bejewelled elephant carrying half-a-dozen men holding Mary Poppins umbrellas and drumming furiously. I swim against the crowd, towards the stalls selling coconut juice and cheap geegaws that have a magnetic effect on the village children.

I feel a tug on my hand and there's a girl with liquid eyes and her best pinafore looking up at me. ''Hello madam, how are you?'' she says with the kind of cut-glass accent you'd hear in Buckingham Palace. ''What is your name and are you enjoying this fine evening?'' ''Oh yes,'' I reply, as the elephant passes by.

Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of Wildlife Safari and Singapore Airlines.


Getting there

Singapore Airlines flies to Kochi for about $1320; to Singapore (7hr 30min), then SilkAir to Kochi (4hr 30min). The fare is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. Australians need a visa for India for stays up to six months. Apply at www.vfs-in-au.net.

Touring there

Wildlife Safari has a seven-day Malabar Coast private journey from $2995 a person, twin share, including two nights at Malabar House, two nights at Windermere Estate on a cardamom plantation in the Western Ghats, two nights at Coconut Lagoon, touring by private vehicle with a driver, full-day kettuvallam cruise on the backwaters and a private tour of Fort Cochin. Phone 1800 998 558,

see www.wildlifesafari.com.au.

Staying there

Malabar House, a member of the Relais & Chateaux group, has rooms from €135 ($195) a night with breakfast. The hotel is part of Malabar Escapes, which includes Trinity (apartment-style rooms in Fort Cochin), Privacy (a bungalow retreat on Vembanad Lake), Serenity (a hilltop estate) and a houseboat named Discovery. A seven-night package in these properties costs from €1400 for two, see www.malabarhouse.com.

Coconut Lagoon has bungalows with breakfast and activities from 5750 rupees ($140) a night for two. Pool villas cost from 10,925 rupees a night for two. Accessible only by boat, it's about 10 kilometres from Kottayam and about 45 kilometres from Kochi airport.

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