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INDIA - The Kerala Way

India is a federal union of states comprising twenty-eight states.

Kerala state, located in the south-west along the Arabian Sea, is the only state with more women than men (1,084 women per 1,000 men in 2011). Bordered by the state of Tamil Nadu to the east, and the state of  Karnataka to the north, Kerala is most famous for its history and arts (most notably in the town of Kochi), the tea, coffee, and cardamom plantations in the Western Ghats mountain range, the wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves, the Kerala backwaters along the Arabian Sea, and of course the tropical beaches.

This trip in September 2012 kicks off in the historical town of Kochi, formerly known as Cochin, which is a major port city on the west coast of Kerala along the Arabian Sea. With a city population of over 600,000 people (which is part of an extended metropolitan region of about 2.1 million), Kochi is the most densely populated city in the state.  Its rich history includes being the centre of the Indian spice trade, the Kingdom of Kochi which came into existence in the early 12th century, the colonial rules of the Portuguese, Dutch and the British, and being the temporary burial place of the Portuguese explorer, Vasco Da Gama, who died here on Christmas Eve of 1524 after earlier sailing around Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. However, Vasco is no longer resting here as his son came in 1539 to take daddy's remains back to his birth-land of Portugal where Vasco was re-interred in a casket decorated with gold and jewels in Vidigueira (southeast of Lisbon).  The Portuguese rule was followed by that of the Dutch who gave Kochi to the British in 1814, until 1947 when India gained independence from Britain.  Several Dutch graves can still be seen near the St. Francis Church.

Kochi is a colourful place and some of the highlights includes the old area referred to as Fort Kochi where you can see the "Chinese fishing nest" in operation. These large structures were introduced by Portuguese Casado settlers from Macau.  Other highlights include the old, though severely decaying colonial buildings, the St. Francis Church, Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, Bolgatty Palace, Hill Palace, the Mattancherry Palace also known as the Dutch Palace, and a few nearby islands. 

Probably the most interesting attraction is to attend a Kathakali performance at the famous Kathakali Theater.  Kathakali means `story-play’, and is a dance-drama which originated during the 17th century here in Kerala. Kathakali is thought as a fusion between many types of Indian theater represented by Koodiyattom and the indigenous tradition of folk dance forms.  The performance starts with an demonstration of how facial expressions can be used in lieu of verbal dialogue. Once you understand these facials, you can easily follow the unspoken dialogue of the performance. If you miss a performance here in Kochi, catch one at the Mudra Kathakali Center in the town of Kumily when you visit the Cardamom Hills near Thekkady.

Next a 4-hour trip by private car and driver went to the hill station of Munnar in the Western Ghats range of mountains known for its tea, coffee, and cardamom plantations. The picturesque town is at the confluence of the Madhurapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundaly rivers and while its a pleasant town, the most recommended accommodation is a home-stay at one of the many tea plantation estates.  Most visitors to Munnar come for the cool mountain breeze, good Kerala food, and for hikes around the tea, coffee, and cardamom plantations. The misty mountain peaks are covered in lush vegetation and some primary forests. In the sylvan valleys are placid lakes, meandering streams, some wildlife such as the Nilagiri tahr (a rare breed of mountain goat), wild pigs, and porcupines. Beautiful orchids can be seen in spring. Munnar is famous for the wild Neelakurinchi orchid which blooms once every 10 to 12 years which turns the valleys into violet shades.

Munnar is probably most famous for having the highest tea estates in India. The British settlers during the colonial times introduced the tea plantations and cultivation to Kerala and today the rolling hills are covered in green pruned tea shrubs (Camellia sinensis). Walking around the tea plantation you can smell the pleasant aroma of the tea leafs. During early morning and late afternoon women carrying a basket behind their backs pluck the first two leaves along with the bud from each shoot. Only the youngest leafs are used for making tea - broadly classified into Green Tea, Oolong Tea and Black Tea. Cardamom plantations are second most prominent to the tea plantations and are often seen sharing the hills with the native trees and shrubs. These plantations are highly valued as cardamom is the world's third most expensive spice by weight (trailing saffron and vanilla which are both locally grown).

From Munnar south to the pleasant town of Kumily surrounded by tea and cardamom plantations, the nearby area of Thekkady, and the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Kumily is a border-town (Kerala state and Tamil Nadu state) in the Cardamom Hills and is the gateway to the Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary at Threkkady. The Trekkady area is a heaven for natural spices such as black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Kumily town is quite interesting and worth a day or two. Walk around the spice markets and visit a Kathakali dance performance at the town's Mudra Kathakali Centre. The Indian Martial Arts performance called Kalaripayattu at the Kadathanadan Kalari Centre is spectacular.

The Periyar Tiger Reserve is spread across 777 square km, of which about half is dense evergreen forest. It was declared a Tiger Reserve in 1978 and in 2010 it was estimated that 53 tigers roam the park. About 1,000 Indian elephants also live here, in addition to the sambar (horse deer), barking deer, mouse deer, the gaur ox, dholes (wild dogs), foxes, mongoose, giant squirrels, an unknown number of leopards, and the very rare Nilgiri langur - a type of Old World monkey which I was fortunate to see twice during my hiking in the sanctuary. The sanctuary can be explored through hiking, boating and jeep safaris.

Then back to the Arabian Sea for the highlight of the trip: A live-in boat house cruise from the town of Alappuzha around the Kerala Backwaters. Alappuzha, also known as Alleppey, is a town along the Arabian Sea and is best know as the gateway to the Kerala Backwaters.  Malayalam is the most common language, while Hindi, English and Tamil are also widely spoken.  The town itself does not have much to see. Attractions in and around town are limited to temple festivals (at the right time of the year), St. Mary’s Church (established by St. Thomas),  the 9th century Karimadi Kuttan statue of Buddha, Sreekrishna Swamy Temple, and the Marari-beach.  However, the main reason why people arrive in town is to find their boat for a few days of relaxation on the Kerala backwaters.
The "backwaters" of Kerala connects Kumarakom and Kochi towards north and Quilon to the south and is a chain of brackish lagoons, inlets, rivers, and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast (known as the Malabar Coast).  Lord Curzon of Kedleston (11 January 1859 – 20 March 1925), a British Conservative statesman who was Viceroy of the Indian Empire, described the Alleppey backwaters as the "Venice of the East". 

Get your snacks, drinks, and friends and walk along the canals to choose the best boat. A two-day-one-night will be great, though a three-day-two-night should be superb. At various location the boat will stop at your request at which time you can get off and mingle with the locals, take photos, and do some shopping in the markets. At sunset the boat will dock at some peaceful spot under the coconut trees at which time you will enjoy a cocktail followed by dinner prepared on board. The keyword here is relaxation and meeting the wonderful local Kerala folks. Happy sailing! 

The final segment of the trip was to Varkala Beach. Also known as "Papanasam beach" (which literary means 'washing away your sins'), Varkala Beach is the only place in southern Kerala where cliffs rise up along the Arabian Sea. Most of the accommodation, restaurants and shops are perched on the high cliffs so you are safe against any possible tsunamis. Swimming is great though the best time of the day is late afternoon to watch the colourful sunsets over the sea while sipping on a cocktail.  After sunset, many restaurants along the top of the cliffs come alive and offer the day's catch any way you like it - the Kerala Way! Alternatively you can choose to sit right on the beach at the northern end of the cliffs. 

Other than staring over the ocean, a few other attractions are worth visiting such as the 2,000-year old Janardana Swami Temple (a Vaishnavaite shrine), also referred to as Dakshin Kashi (Benares of the South). The temple is close to Papanasam beach, which is considered to have holy waters to wash away sins - afterwards get a nice Ayurveda treatment too. The famous bell shaped Sivagiri Mutt (built in 1904) is situated at the top of the Sivagiri hill near Varkala. Sree Narayana Guru, the social reformer, was enlightened and also buried here. Its a major pilgrimage centre that attracts many  devotees to the Guru's Samadhi (final resting place).

Varkala beach is 180km by train from Kochi (140km from Alappuzha) and makes a perfect spot to stay over for a few days enroute to Kerala's capital, Thiruvananthapuram, from where flights go to many towns in India, as well as (currently) to the Middle East, Singapore, Maldives and Sri Lanka. 

Check out my new book: INDIA - The Kerala Way, available by end of April 2013.