Kerala, India – Feb. 2006

This was our 5th visit to India. Each time we have gone to a different part of India, and on each visit we are reminded that every state in India is unique with its own language, customs, and attractions; as varied as the many countries in Europe.

Kerala is different from every other part of India we’ve seen, in just about every possible way. The coastal area is tropical and lush, whereas other parts of India we’ve been to are dry and arid. The mountains of the western ghats are covered in tea “topiary”, which while similar to what we’d seen in the tea growing areas of Darjeeling in northern India, although it seemed much more lush here. Kerala is approximately 30% Christian, so there are ornate churches throughout. Although Hinduism is the dominant religion in Kerala, the Hindu temples are far less ornamented than anywhere else in India we’ve visited. Kerala also once had a significant Jewish community, the descendants of families that came here with Phoenician traders before the destruction of the second temple. We saw vestiges of this community in Cochin; although most of the community has emigrated to Israel. The large Catholic community is from the arrival of the apostle St. Thomas, who came to Kerala in 52 C.E. The British later converted many of the lower caste Hindus, and all now live in this area with a high degree of harmony. That feeling of harmony exists today.

We began our trip in Mumbai (Bombay), the frenetic economic center of India. We had been to Mumbai before and were familiar with the city’s highlights and shopping. We spent a day re-orienting, going to some of our favorite shops (including a scarf merchant and a paper crafts store), ordering eyeglasses and buying pharmaceuticals, quickly filling a suitcase for our return visit. We visited our favorite snack shop in Colaba to enjoy samosas and lassis as the perfect way to ease back into Indian food. The manager of the shop remembered our love of his Punjabi samosas, and saved some for us on each of our repeat visits. That afternoon our friends, the Craddocks, arrived from England, and we left the next morning for Kerala.

Our first stop was Trivandrum (Thiruvananthapuram) (most places in Kerala have 2-3 names, stemming from the original Malayalam, the British Raj, and recent changes away from Anglicized names. This caused lots of confusion when planning the trip!) Trivandrum had some interesting attractions, including a huge Kerala-style palace, filled with dusty artifacts from the last Maharaja who had lived there. Next door is the Shree Padhmanabhaswamy Temple. We were immediately struck by how modest the temples in Kerala are compared to the polychrome decorations in neighboring Tamil Nadu. As we drove around, we also immediately noticed that Kerala seemed relatively prosperous compared to other Indian states.

After one night in Trivandrum, we continued on to Quillon (Kollam), located on the Malabar Coast, with access to the wonderful Backwaters area of Kerala. Boat tours on the backwaters are a big attraction for Indian tourists, especially honeymooners. Historically, this area is famous for its spices, coconuts, rubber plantations, and as a crossroads of over two millennia of trade. Our tiny hotel, Valiya Vila, was a small guest house with only 4 rooms, dramatically located on a peninsula within Ashtamudi Lake – with delightful breezes, and romantic views. Houseboats passed by, fishing boats with Chinese-style sails rifted past. A coconut-wallah served us fresh coconut as we relaxed on the porch. We were told that dolphins were cavorting near the fishing docks, but our trip out there found that their dinner hour had unfortunately passed.

Choosing a hotel that was outside of the city proved a very relaxing way to start the trip. Much of India is heavily populated, and as a traveler, one gets to see many cities. The penchant for using the car horn as sonar, combined with a lack of road infrastructure (and too many things using the roads), makes many cities initially appear the same. But the Malabar Coast was very different. It’s rural, tropical, lush, and outside the cities, very quiet. This specific area represents a view of India that is rare.

We toured the backwaters from Kollam on a Sunday – in a 25’ hardwood hand-hewn pirogue, poled by a local boatman. While the backwaters are renowned for their serenity, on Sunday it was especially quiet. We were the only tourists (a very different experience from those who visit the backwaters from the north) and saw fields of rice, men repairing boats made of hand-hewn hardwood, and rope-making. Our guide stopped for a coconut break , while we spotted many species of birds in the fields. Because there are no roads into this section, the area is exceptionally quiet , and unlike many rivers that flow through heavily populated areas, quite clean. We knew we couldn’t safely swim in it though – there is no sewage system in the backwaters other than the rivers.

From the backwaters, we traveled inland to the Western Ghats, the mountain range that runs from north to south through southern India. We welcomed the drop in the temperature and humidity – and admired the scenic rolling hills, covered with topiary-shaped tea plantations. Because only the top leaves of tea plants are harvested, and picking occurs approximately every 15 days, each bush is beautifully pruned, and the acres and acres under cultivation provide a beautiful smoothed sculptured landscape. We imagined them to be rolling hills like the Catskills – but the mountains are dramatic and much larger than we expected. At 6000ft, it’s not enough to cause shortness of breath, but perfect for refreshing cool air.

We chose to visit Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary based on visions of abundant wildlife. We booked rooms in the grossly overpriced KTDC-run Lake Palace hotel in the middle of the park to ensure sightings. However, being a government run hotel in India, we were bumped at the last minute for some “VIPs”. The next morning, despite being on the first boat of the day, we saw no wildlife other than a few birds. This was in spite of the fact that several elephant herds, and even a few tigers, have been reported in the sanctuary. We were quite disappointed, as our other experiences in Indian wildlife sanctuaries were extremely rewarding. Additionally, Periyar is on the road from Madurai to Kochi, and the town was amazingly touristy. Our advice is to skip Periyar entirely, although we enjoyed the lovely hotel (Wildernest) that we ended up in, and found many good shops and restaurants in the town.

From Periyar we headed for Munnar, also in the ghats and a former British hill station off the usual tourist circuit. It was delightful. A trip to a tea processing plant could have been another tourist trap – but it turned out to be very interesting. The other tourists were Indian, in fact we saw almost no non-Indian tourists on our entire trip in Kerala except at Periyar and Kochi. Other sites, like the park with the “wild” mountain goats were fun and provided the opportunity for short hikes through beautiful mountain terrain. On our way back from Munnar, we visited Kodanad Sanctuary, an elephant orphanage (kraal). There was one baby elephant and a few young elephants. These are elephants born in the wild who get separated from their herd. Usually found by villagers, they alert the state-run orphanage who rescues them and cares for them and then sells them as work elephants. There were some stories in the local paper about the government not paying the keepers enough, so the life of an elephant in Kerala is not always an easy one.

After leaving the Ghats, we returned to sea level and heat at Trichur (Thrissur). Trichur is a center of Hindu festivals, and we timed our trip to coincide with some of Kerala’s Hindu “Pooram” festivals. Just getting this information was a task; it seems that the year’s calendar isn’t set until a few months prior to the beginning of the year. We chose the Thai Pooyam Festival in Koorkanchery, a suburb of Trichur, and the Kuttiyankavu Temple in Suresh, about 8km from Trichur. We also stopped for another festival about 1km from Kuttiyankavu Temple.

Each festival consisted of music, dancing, decorated elephants, and giant brightly colored kavadis (giant brightly-decorated conical wooden structures). The elephants are part of competition called ‘Kudamattam’, the swift and rhythmic changing of brightly colored parasols along with the raising and lowering of venchamarams (cheerleading-style pom-poms). The festival is dedicated to Subrahmanya, son of Shiva, the presiding deity of the temple (Shiva has two sons in the south of India: Subrahmanya/Murugan and Ganesh). The festivities take place in rhythm with a Pandimelam (traditional orchestra). It’s somewhat incomprehensible to the untrained spectator, (we couldn’t figure out what the competition was based on) but amazing to watch. We were honored to be invited to sit in the VIP section. Since it was (a.) sitting and (b.) in the shade, we jumped at the chance! At one point, when we left for lunch, we were told that they had prepared a lunch for us – which we politely declined.

The music was a loud combination of horns and drums, bordering on cacophony (actually, it crossed that border and became painful at times). The devotees were celebrating, drinking, and just watching the celebration. The whole experience was exuberant, fantastic, and was the highlight of our trip.

The second Pooram featured 14 elephants that s-l-o-w-l-y marched to within 100 ft of each other – then quickly retreated. During the march, workers were busy laying a field of fireworks. Never having seen or heard Indian fireworks, we were unprepared for the ensuing onslaught. The goal of these fireworks was not a visual display. There seemed to be only one goal: deafen anyone within 100 miles. The mahouts (elephant keepers/trainers) tried to get clear of the deadly assault and very suddenly turned their elephants to exit, in spite of the crowds of people behind the elephant line (now we knew how people get trampled at these events). The sound was staggering. We moved away as quickly as we could, and even as we got to about ½ mile away, it was still painful to the ears.

Thrissur itself offered a minor museum and intriguing zoo. The town center was hot and dusty, but did offer a great supermarket.

After 3 days and nights of festivals and fireworks, we continued to our last destination in Kerala, Cochin (Kochi). Cochin is on the coast. The city is divided into 3 sections: Fort Cochin (the old city), Mattancherry (the newer city), and Ernakulam (on the other side of the harbor). We chose to stay in Fort Cochin.

Ernakulam is the business center and forms the main land – it’s also where the larger hotels are. The small hotels and the historic area are in Fort Cochin. The tourist area is so concentrated that it was difficult to find any Indian food – the restaurants instead offering western fare. But despite being in an area that catered only to euro-tourists, the area was preferable to the modern metropolis of Ernakulam.

Having the best harbor and road connections of the Indian cities on the western coast, Cochin is the center of the Indian spice trade. It’s been occupied by the Dutch, Portuguese, and British – and has benefited from trade with just about every country between England, the Mideast, and China. The influences are clear, and the remnants of their amazing history is evident. But Cochin is choking under the weight of traffic, and the ferry routes don’t seem to be taking off any pressure – despite the very low fare.

The City’s well-known landmarks include the Dutch palace built in 1555, the Jewish synagogue built in1568 and located on a street that still houses the 14 Jews left in Cochin, St. Francis church by the Portuguese, Santa Cruz Basilica, Bolgatty palace, and the Chinese fishing nets at Fort Cochin water front. We saw a spectacular performance of a traditional art form called “Kathakali”, which was preceded by a 90 minute demonstration of the actors putting on their elaborate makeup.

On our return to Mumbai, we again visited Elephanta Island. (link) The incredible art in the caves there impressed us as much as it did on our first visit there. We also managed to do more shopping, including finding a table that we were able to take home in our luggage.

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