Kerala Calling

By | Category: Travel destinations

It’s no wonder that Sir Paul McCartney hailed Kerala as being ‘truly God’s own country.’

Treasured temples, palm fringed, pristine beaches, verdant vegetation, brightly coloured saris, happy herds of elephants… It could be a cliché, if it wasn’t all true, but it’s all here in India’s most southern state. Kerala has a purpose beyond petrol, extravagant cars and air conditioned shopping malls. It’s no wonder then, that Sir Paul McCartney hailed Kerala as being ‘truly God’s own country.’

Adventures abound all over but as a first port of call Kerala’s capital, Trivandrum, is as good a place to start as any. Temple addicts will want to seek out the Shi Padmanabhaswamy temple, which is still controlled by the Travancore royal family. The temple – closed to non Hindus – is a medley of architectural styles; indigenous Keralan styles are juxtaposed alongside the Dravidian, Chola and Pandya. Also of interest is the nearby Puttan Malika Palace museum; a beautiful two storied palace home to Keralan artifacts and paintings. Site seeing should continue with a visit to the Public Gardens which contain two of the capital’s best museums; the Napier Musuem and Shri Chitra Art Gallery. Highlights at the former include fifteenth century Keralan woodcarvings, while the latter – with its attractive toiled roof and cool verandas – houses some splendid paintings by Indian artists as well as those from China, Tibet and Japan. However there are few absolute ‘must sees’. The key to the city’s appeal is its overall effect and the best way to get an initial take on Trivandrum (still without a single Starbucks or Gap), is to stroll the length of MG Road on foot; every corner has something of interest, for the bustling thoroughfare is alive with rickety tuk tuks and vibrant roadside stalls selling everything from art and jewellery to batteries, bananas, spices and other seasonings.

Once you’ve got the city out of the way, most travellers tend to head south to the coastal village of Kovalam. A mere 20 minutes away, it offers a welcome change for travellers tired of city life. No longer undiscovered, the beaches of Kovalam have seen more tourists than many would have imagined three decades ago. Nonetheless tourism hasn’t entirely swamped the village like atmosphere, which – particularly in the low season – still fits the idyllic holidaymakers image. Kovalam consists of three beaches – Kovalam, Samudra and Lighthouse. The latter is a lively place to stroll overflowing with fruit sellers and art and curio shops, where you can pick up innovative keepsakes that aren’t mass produced. Clothes, carpets, lamps, accessories et al are not only a steal (so much so that you’d be nuts not to indulge), but their quirkiness makes the perfect antidote to the identikit goods found in the chain stores that dominate the UK.

If however, the ever-increasing commercialism of Kovalam proves too much escape to Varkala, 54km north. The enchanting clifftop area is a haven of palm thatched cafes and a peaceful place to unwind. It’s also the spot to spend a few relaxing hours calming the mind and cleansing the body in one of Varkala’s many ayurvedic centres – nearly as common as stalls selling banana chips which can be found all over the state. The traditional Indian medicine of ayurveda is ingrained in Keralan society where people adhere to a strict ayurvedic lifestyle, and embraces diet, exercise, yoga and massage; the range of treatments is mind boggling, but all involve the pouring of hot herbal oils and medicated milk over the body in a special manner. Ayurveda aside, Varkala is a temple town and down in the village you’ll find the Janardhana temple, said to be more than 2,000 years old.

From Varkala, take a train three hours up the coast to Kottayam. Kottayam itself is nothing to get excited about, but serves as the gateway to the lush Kumarakom. A train journey is one of the great experiences in India being rich in local colour and providing further points of contact with local people. Whatever you do, travel with a big appetite; vendors patrol the length of the carriages proffering their wares which range from piping hot tea (listen out for the unmistakable cry of ‘garam chai’) served in a plastic cup, to patties and packed meals. On arrival in Kumarakom make for the Kumarakom Lake Resort (KLR); there’s something magical about the resort with its infinite rice paddies, dramatic water background and slightly sleepy atmosphere. The feel of the place is rustic right down to the traditional villas (made up from parts of old Keralan houses) with their ‘illam’ interior and ‘open to the sky’ bathrooms.

Voluntary waking up at 6.30am while on vacation might be something of a first, but at KLR chances are you’ll find yourself doing so in order to partake in a yoga class (India is the land of yoga and meditation), before padding along in flip flops for a bountiful breakfast buffet at Ettukettu restaurant. Kerala is famed for its food and justifiably so; from delectable breakfasts of tasty dosas (pancakes) to iddli sambar (lentil and vegetable sauce accompanied by rice cakes) to the traditional hearty curry. And if you’re mad about mangoes, you’ve come to the right place. The mango is king in Kerala and is embarrassingly abundant as are tropical fruits such as succulent pineapples, small, sweet bananas, guava, papaya and coconut. Most dishes seem to involve copious amounts of coconut, hardly surprising given that Kerala means ‘land of coconuts’.

One essential – no matter what your budget – is to take a memorable boat cruise on the backwaters. A backwater tour allows visitors an intimate glimpse into the lives of local people completely hidden from the road. As you meander through miles of waterways (think lakes, canals, rivers and green swaying stretches of paddy fields), expect to see trails of underwear, washing lines and villagers cleaning both themselves and their clothes in the water.

Essentially India isn’t for the faint hearted. It can be a challenging (if pot hole roads and the odd hole in the ground toilet encounter aren’t for you, stay put), and patience testing place for even the most seasoned traveller. Take crossing the road, something best described as pedestrian purgatory. Traffic is chaotic and aggressive and pedestrians occupy the bottom rung in the hierachy of Kerala road users, below bicycles, buses, tuks tuks and cars. But perserveer and the rewards are unsurpassed. For every ‘this is driving me barmy’ moment you might experience, there’s a quintessentially charming situation or gesture that will make you want to book your flight back. Possessing culture and character, Kerala is more than just its stunning natural scenery. Tourist brochures will tell you that the best time to visit is February and not now when the monsoon season is approaching. However the monsoon period is a great time for those tired of tourists, tourist menus and the inevitable tourist price hikes. Explore, enjoy and go now before everybody else does…

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