It wouldn’t be India without a festival, a chance for people to pick the softest flowers and sweetest fruits to take as offerings to the Lord Shiva temple. Inside the humble sanctum sanctorium in a small village temple near Alleppy, the son of Shiva smiles beatifically. It’s been busy here since 5am and women are dressed in their finest clothes, hair garlanded with jasmine, as they come to pray for good fortune. The temple priest presents us with a delicious confection of rice puffs, bananas, dates, candy, coconut and dried grapes on a palm leaf that tastes like nectar of the gods. Created to sweeten life and make people feel happy, we give away what we don’t eat for good karma.
Kerala is both a state and a state of mind, a place of colourful contradictions. The Arabian Sea takes on a purple tint as bells peel in pastel-hued churches, the faithful are called to prayer at their mosques and gods and goddesses are garlanded at hundreds of temple shrines. Rich in literature, arts, festivals and with India’s highest literacy rate, Kerala is a cosmopolitan concoction, its past populated by Portuguese and Dutch traders, Jewish merchant princes and great Hindu kings.
This verdant landscape of dazzling contradictions, (Kerala freely elected a communist government in 1957), has been luring travelers for the past two decades, most particularly to its tranquil backwaters. Isolated from the rest of India by the rugged Western Ghats mountain range, much of Kerala’s history has unfolded along 547 kilometres of curving coastline set on a narrow strip of land on the south-west coast.
Hauling on coir ropes, fishermen work the graceful 14th century Chinese fishing nets that perch like giant praying mantises along Cochin’s lively waterfront. Fish slither onto tarp-covered ground to be noisily auctioned off to the highest bidders. A group of young women ask where I’m from and “what is my good name?” their friendly curiosity genuine. A man wanders slowly past crying ‘chai’ which he dispenses from a container on the back of his bicycle.
Spices and religion converged here during the 16th century when Portuguese maritime explorers sought the king of spices, Kerala’s black pepper. Following the monsoon winds, Vasco da Gama arrived in Cochin in 1503 living in Vasco House opposite St Francis church where he was first buried in 1524.
Vasco House is one of a number of atmospheric Portuguese and Dutch mansions made-over into luxurious homestays, restaurants and chic boutiques. Built in 1506, Hotel le Colonial is not only Cochin’s oldest house but an exquisite boutique hotel, restored and furnished with museum-quality artifacts and fine paintings.
While the Europeans were jostling for position to dominate the Spice Route, the Indians were creating Kathakali taking stories from Hindu mythology. Performed only by high caste men and acted out in mime, drama and music, all human emotion is distilled through facial movements. We take our seats early at Cochin’s Kerala Kathakali Centre to watch the make-up artist transform man into a work of art. Applying strips of white paper and viscose rice paste he creates a menacing jaw line. Using colours to depict aspects of human nature, he dramatically paints the face green indicating a divine character.
Cruising Kerala’s iconic backwaters, the air has the fragile enchantment of early morning. Thousands of people live on impossibly narrow peninsulas that fringe Vembanad’s lake and lagoons but at this moment, still waters only reflect gilded palm fronds. As we enter one of India’s most luscious rural landscapes of coconut groves and rice paddies, the pace is idyllically unhurried. Modest cottages line the water’s edge, small one-cow homes almost within arm’s reach allow a glimpse into a fascinating way of life that follows its own gentle rhythms. At the water’s edge, women wash clothes under poovaress trees, others clean the cooking pots and brass temple oil burners. Men punt past in heavily laden kettuvallams, the traditional barges with curved woven roofs that now ply the waterways carrying tourists rather than spices, rice and coconut fibre.
At Kumarakom, a handful of luxury resorts including Coconut Lagoon and Kukarakom’s Lakeside Resort nestle discreetly along the shoreline. Both showcase Kerala’s heritage architecture which has not only been recreated but includes century-old masterpieces which have been rescued from dereliction and relocated. The eye is captivated by rich dark timbers, ancient locks on intricately carved doorways and handsome craftsman-built furniture.
At Coconut Lagoon, the sonorous voice of the yoga master exhorts us to relax and apart from the waking colonies of water birds, there’s little to distract us from this task. Many guests come here just for the twice-daily yoga sessions and Ayurvedic treatments. Sanskrit for the study of prolonged life Ayurveda, India’s ancient healing science, is estimated to be 3,000 years old and as lightly scented herbal oils are worked into my skin with long firm strokes, the healing combination of touch and oils slough away stress.
Who wouldn’t want to prolong life in a place of such beauty?
For an insider’s guide and best private tours go to www.indiaunbound.com.au
Accommodation Options include www.le-colonial.neemranahotels.com
Please look above at In The Picture and get a pictorial flavour of this month’s edition.