India's Paradise Found
India’s Paradise Found
India’s most diverse state has attracted travellers for more than two millennia. With its vibrant landscape, tongue-tingling cuisine and fascinating culture, Kerala continues to beckon.
Kerala is an ode to colour: lush green fields of tea, pepper and cardamom trees, fiery red face paintings and fish curries, the cobalt blue sea, briny silver backwaters and golden beaches.
More than that, the southwestern state represents the source of foreign interest in India. Pinched between the Arabian Sea and Western Ghats, Kerala is where Vasco Da Gama landed, where Chinese explorer Zheng He led his armada, where the Dutch and British wrestled for control.
Kerala’s Beautiful Backwaters
Life along Kerala’s legendary backwaters does not seem to have changed much since the days of the spice trade. From Kochi to Kuttanad and beyond, across a 900-kilometre network of brackish blue-green canals and lakes, villagers wash vivid saris against stones and children cannon-ball into the palm-lined water as historic houseboats called kettuvallam idle past.
The kettuvallam are Kerala’s most famous symbols. These 30-metre houseboats were created thousands of years ago to haul workers, rice and spices. Eventually, roads and railways were built, and kettuvallam fell out of practical use. But the boats did not disappear.
Kitted out with courtly furnishings, kettuvallam became luxurious living quarters for Malayalam royalty vacationing outside their palaces. Today, the houseboats cater to holidaymakers.
Touring the Tranquil Tides
Out of all the lakes, lagoons and canals that run parallel to the Arabian Sea across Kerala, the backwaters of Alappuzha might be the best known. Lord Curzon, the Viceroy of India in the early 20th century, dubbed this region the ‘Venice of the East’, and it is easy to see why.
From Alappuzha, the boats cruise past clusters of islands, taking in farmers plying rice paddies in Kuttanad and the tranquil beauty of Vembanad, the largest backwater in Kerala. The boats continue past Fort Kochi, arriving at Bolghatty Island, where an old Dutch palace still stands.
Modern-day Kerala was shaped by thousands of years of foreign influence. As the spice trade took off, merchants from across the Old World landed on India’s southwestern shore, introducing architecture, religious customs and products that Keralans would embrace.
Later, when the Brahmins began to settle along the Malabar Coast, they brought with them Hinduism and Sanskrit. The religion became dominant, and the new dialect would eventually blend with the local tongue, giving rise to the Malayalam language that is used today.
A Melting Pot of Religions
As far as back as the 4th century B.C.E., Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups settled alongside Buddhist and Jain communities. Today, Kerala is rich with the relics of its disparate religions.
After Saint Thomas the Apostle travelled to Kerala to carry out missionary work, Christianity slowly took root. Now nearly 20 percent of the population practices some form of Christianity, and important churches remain pilgrimage sites for the devout, including the St. Thomas Syro-Malabar Catholic Church in Malayattoor, founded in 52 C.E. by the saint for whom the church is named, and the St. Francis CSI Church in Kochi, the first European church built in India.
Islam, meanwhile, arrived during the time of the Prophet Mohammed, and the first mosque built in India – the Cheraman Juma Mosque, in 629 C.E. – can be found in Methala. Dating back to 1567, the Paradesi Synagogue in Kochi – across the street from the Portuguese-built Mattancherry Palace – is the oldest active synagogue in the Commonwealth of Nations.
During festivals, native traditions integrated into Hindu customs go on brilliant display.
In northern Kerala, an ancient ritual known as theyyam brings tribal beliefs into modern times. Combining dance, miming and music, theyyam features one person dressed in flamboyant red attire, wearing elaborate face painting and performing a ceremonial dance to native music.
The artist, representing a god, tells stories that have been passed down since before Hinduism existed – although, over the years, the art form has incorporated elements of Hinduism and Islam. There are more than 400 different theyyam. In the winter months hundreds are performed at temples across Kerala each day, all breath-taking in their own right.
Theyyam is not the only unique performance art woven into Kerala’s cultural tapestry, either. UNESCO-recognised Koodiyattam combines ancient Sanskrit drama with a Tamil art form called Koothu, fusing it with the local language and instruments. Kathakali, a major form of classical Indian dance, originated amongst Kerala’s Hindu communities. And Margamkali unites Christian ideology with Indian dance, with roots that may trace to both Jewish and Brahmin customs.
A Feast for the Senses
The trade winds carried over ingredients such as cassava, cashews and tomatoes, while merchants brought new recipes, peppering Keralan cuisine with foreign touches.
European-inspired stews (ishtu) pair with coconut and rice flour pancakes called appam. Malabar matthi curry, or fish head curry, reflects the Chinese preference for making curries with fish. Even the biryani brought over by Arab traders has been transformed: in Thalassery, beef biryani is made with short-grain Khaima rice, giving it a distinct taste and texture.
Thanks to its diversity, Kerala is the only region in India without dietary restrictions. Beef and pork appear on menus, and vegetarian cuisine is just as prevalent. At Hindu festivals – such as Onam, an annual event honouring Vishnu – traditional sadhya (meals served on a banana leaf) feature a range of vegetarian curries, topped up time and again until guests are full.
The cool highland region of Munnar produces some of the best tea in the world, and the mist that hangs over its emerald fields of tea and cardamom presents a postcard-perfect keepsake to commemorate one’s time in Kerala.
Where Life Springs Eternal
In the 14th century, Sir John Mandeville claimed Kerala contained a fountain of youth.
Leisurely sailing palm-lined canals in a kettuvallam, or witnessing theyyam in a rural temple, or strolling along Kappad Beach, where Vasco Da Gama is believed to have come ashore, that statement would seem to ring true: life has thrived for thousands of years in Kerala, nurturing a heritage unlike any other in India, and it continues to bloom.