Feature

Charming India: Kerala

G Magazine

Outlandishly tropical and fringed with silky backwaters, Kerala in India's south soothes the senses with sedating charms.

Kerala

A wooden canoe is the ideal way to explore the languidly beautiful waterways of Kerala.

Credit: Melissa Rimac

Kerala 2

Colourful street scenes abound in Kerala.

Credit: Melissa Rimac

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When viewed from a teak canoe, India can take on surprisingly serene tones. Birds hitch rides on buffaloes, coconut husks are woven into coir and worshippers thread towards churches and temples that stand sentry over luminescent paddy fields studded with egrets. Goats and ducks wobble over bamboo bridges while commuter traffic consists of tiny timber ferries and canoes laden with produce, bikes, and people enjoying the shade of umbrellas and outstretched saris. As they have for centuries, Kerala's watery highways throb with trade, transport and traditional life.

India typically evokes images of frenetic chaos and pulsating noise. Kerala, however, is a world apart. Stretching along India's south-western tip, lushly tropical Kerala - distinctive for its vast necklace of backwaters and relaxed ways - serves up hassle-free travel with a vibrant culture, un-reconstituted heritage and a laudably diverse ecology.

Home to the world's first elected communist government, progressive Kerala, which tops the nation when it comes to literacy and the status of women, is emerging as a showcase of eco-aware, socially beneficial travel. Instead of pursuing premium-pricing strategies, the focus has been on prioritising environmental and social concerns whilst catering to a range of budgets. In this way the benefits spread throughout the community. The bonus for mindful travellers is a plethora of eco-conscious accommodation and atmospheric travel experiences best enjoyed on foot, bike or boat.

Kerala's sleepy charms are embodied in the labyrinth of lakes, rivers and canals surrounding slumbering Alappuzha (formerly known as Alleppey), the landscape that forms the luscious backdrop of the novel The God of Small Things. Intact rows of Raj-era reminders are criss-crossed by canals lined with giant mango trees, where electric blue kingfishers swoop onto lotuses. There's a strong sense that haste is unseemly and, fittingly, Alappuzha's ancient gems and quirky distractions are best savoured by sauntering about on two legs or a bike.

To explore the many regional attractions, the most atmospheric and eco-friendly option is the network of candy-coloured ferries. Strikingly scenic journeys include historic Kottayam, crammed with spine-straightening churches dating to the late 1500s and nearby villages (such as those near Akkarakalam Memoirs homestay) set amid fluorescent rice fields, where walking along the water's edge takes you up close to timeless rituals of village life. Most ferries accept bikes.

Between December and March, it's common to pass elephants - and revellers - resplendent in full festival regalia. Thiruvathira, a Hindu women's festival, is celebrated in December and January and Sivarathri (Feruary-March) is held on the banks of the Periyar River at Alwaye.

The heart of the backwaters is Lake Vembanad, a wetland that's home to the Kumarakom Bird sanctuary. Nearby is Coconut Lagoon Heritage Resort, a unique backwater accommodation experience accessible only by boat, and a short paddle from wetlands brimming with birds.

Coconut Lagoon is comprised of traditional mansions and cottages, many over a hundred years old, rescued from abandonment and destruction and now reviving the livelihood of carpenters skilled in traditional no-nails methods of construction and maintenance. These delightfully tactile ancestral homes feature breeze-coaxing inner courtyards, teak interiors and cooling lime-blend floors; alleviating the need for air-conditioning.
Munching contentedly outside bungalows are Vechoor cows, once nearly extinct, now nurtured at the property. Complimentary yoga sessions take place in a pavilion whose netted walls nudge the wetlands, allowing for views of graceful descents of waterbirds and raucous frog concertos. Each evening, local musicians and performers of traditional arts, such as Kathakali drumming and dancing, entertain guests.
The tangerine sunsets and birdsong symphony along the narrow, palm-fringed canals are best savoured by hopping aboard one of the wooden canoes provided for guests.

Thanks to a kaleidoscope of scenery - think beaches, backwaters, mountains carpeted in both savannah and rainforests - crammed within compact distances and the fact that Kerala was originally comprised of independent kingdoms, short journeys reward with sharp shifts in culture, architecture and landscape.
Only a few hours inland are the fragrant foothills of the Western Ghats mountain range, where pepper, coffee, cardamom and vanilla flourish and many of the plantation houses now welcome guests. The growth in 'homestay' accommodation has been credited with enabling farmers to stay on their land while preserving notable heritage architecture and ways of life.

Many of these manor homes have remained untouched since the rubber boom and feature genuine antiques and dance hall-sized bedrooms. Homestays offer an uncontrived opportunity to experience rural life, feast on home-grown food and learn of the area's history directly from the people who have lived it.

Further towards the crumpled, densely forested mountains that divide south India is Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, a highland nature reserve that's home to herds of wild elephants, monkeys, countless bird species and several dozen tigers. Indigenous tribal people, formerly poachers, now have a sustainable income as guides taking visitors trekking and rafting.

Kerala's backwaters spill into the Arabian Sea at laidback Kochi. The town's ambience and scale render it perfect to explore by bike or on foot.

At Mattancherry, Kochi's oldest district, crumbling Dutch and Portuguese era storehouses embraced by strangler figs look out onto a working harbour where you can spot dolphins amid cargo ships, fishing boats, canoes and ferries.

Plumes of turmeric, chilli and clove dust waft from hessian sacks being carried into spice shops bearing early 1700s inscriptions. It's impossible not to linger at the 16th century synagogue and the tangled lanes redolent of perfume and lined with antique and handicraft shops.

Back in the day, the merchant and military elite dallied in exquisite style at Fort Kochi, whose wide streets are canopied by oversized frangipani and tamarind trees. Centuries later, the facades of grandiose Dutch mansions and the clubhouses of 'the Britishers' lining the streets still ooze attitude.

'Fast food' here means aromatic snacks or chai delivered by bicycle vendor. Along the seawall promenade, cheenavala, the giant fishing nets said to have been introduced by Chinese traders over 400 years ago crouch on the horizon like gargantuan bugs. Happily, Kerala shows no signs of going commercial.

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The author travelled with the assistance of Kerala Tourism and Wendy Wu Tours.