Less than 30 years ago Kerala, a tropical region on the west coast near India’s southern tip, was an anonymous footnote to the glorious reputation for history and modernity held by the northern cities among tourists the world over. Today this lush stretch of Malabar coastline is one of the fastest growing destinations in the world, and the phrase ‘God’s Own Country’ has graduated from promotional tagline to being synonymous with Kerala, recently also named among the 10 Paradises of the World by National Geographic Traveller magazine. 2006 alone saw a 24% increase in annual tourist traffic, with 8.5 million visitors welcomed; the boom shows no signs of abating.
Far from being the mere invention of ambitious tourism promoters, Kerala’s traditional culture and varied demographic, not to mention its reknowned ecotourism initiatives, make it well worth its glittering reputation, with something for every kind of traveller, from the sun worshipping beach dweller to the knowledge thirsty and solitude seeking alike. In a region populated by Catholics, Hindus and Muslims, where passions range from cuisine to communism, the local coffee and coconuts are as good as any in the world, and events as diverse as the Nehru Trophy Boat Race and the Thrissur Pooram elephant festival sit side by side, you are guaranteed a uniquely authentic Indian experience when you visit Kerala.
Explore Kerala’s abundance of natural beauty:Chill out under blazing sunshine on the resort beaches of Kovalam, Cherai and Varkala or seek out some of the endless stretches of virtually ‘undiscovered’, palm fringed, white sands in Marari & Chety; trek through the hill stations of Munnar, Vagamon and Wayanad in the high ranges of the Western Ghats; discover the world-class wildlife sanctuary at Periyar, the fertile tea, coffee, rubber, spice, fruit, and nut plantations and the Eravikulam National Park.
Then there’s the world famous tropical ‘backwaters’ region, a spider’s web of natural and man made waterways such as Vembanad Lake – India’s longest – and the canals of Alleppey – ‘Venice of the East’. With cities as bustling as the port of Kochi, heritage sites as dazzling as Mattancherry Palace and produce as intriguing as the world’s largest jack fruit (weighing in at 25kg!), Kerala just might be ‘God’s Own Country’…
From Kovalam in the South, to Kannur in the North, Kerala has an abundance of world-class coastal beauty. Kovalam will satisfy those looking for the trappings of a resort holiday while further North you’ll find the undeveloped sanctuaries of Arthingal, Chety, and Marari beaches with traditional fishing communities. Bring a good book and a hammock.
The seemingly endless and intricate waterways that make up the Kerala Backwaters are one of the regions big draws. Set sail on your own private Kettuvalam – a traditional rice barge converted into a luxury houseboat – and drift lazily through this unique tropical paradise witnessing the traditional waterside culture of this unmissable area. If you’d prefer to mix with the locals, and save a few rupees, you could explore using the extensive network of ferries, country boats, canoes, and anything else that floats, to get around.
Kerala’s tropical climate, and range of altitude, makes it perfect for a wide range of cultivation. At sea level you’ll find lush green rice paddies and an unbelievable amount of coconut palms. The word Kerala is said to come from the Malayalam words Kera and Alam meaning Coconut Palm and Land respectively. Rising in altitude into the foothills of the Western Ghats we find Rubber, Coffee, Spices, and Tropical Fruit plantations. Higher still into the high ranges and cool climate of the Ghats are the surreal and beautiful landscapes of huge tea estates. As well as for the stunning scenery, a visit to these areas provides a fascinating insight into the origins of products we use every day and an opportunity to delve into the colonial history associated with the plantations.
Nature lovers will not be disappointed. The sanctuaries of Wayanad and Periyar provide the opportunity to see Elephants, Leopards, Gaur, Sambar, Cheetal, Barking Deer, Hanuman Langur and Slender Loris. The reserves are also home to a small population of Tigers; a bewildering variety of birds, butterflies and insects; and the endemic King Cobra, the largest venomous snake in the world. For the more energetically inclined, these areas are also excellent for trekking with a plethora of trails to walk and peaks to climb.
Cochin/Kochi, Trivandrum/Thiruvananthapuram, Calicut/Kozhikode, (colonial/up-dated Indian, or pronounceable/unpronounceable, names), are Kerala’s main cities. Those familiar with cities elsewhere on the sub-continent will find them relatively clean, affluent and cosmopolitan. Cochin provides the commercial heart beat of Kerala, Trivandrum is the political capital, and Calicut is the Northern hub. They are all coastal, with good beaches and an eclectic mix of influences (modern, traditional, Eastern, Western, Muslim, Hindu, Catholic) that make them interesting places to visit. Transport between the cities and major towns in between is also relatively easy and efficient. The railway network is a good option for those who don’t mind being tied to a timetable and the buses provide a regular service for those who want more flexibility. Whichever you choose make sure you opt for an Express (train) or Super Fast (bus) service if you’re in a hurry.
Culture vultures will find a dizzying array of options to explore and experience. Let’s start with the most important – Food – with a capital ‘F’. Kerala hospitality centres around food and the people are very hospitable. If you don’t want to put on weight get into the habit of eating small amounts of everything whenever it’s offered. You won’t be allowed to say no, and neither will you want to as it’s all mouthwateringly delicious. Infused with expertly balanced spices and flavours every mouthful from starter to sweet is a real treat. You will not be disappointed if you’re vegetarian as you’ll be joining the majority in Kerala who have invented a staggering variety of vegetable delicacies. Fish, seafood and meat are also very much on the menu and invariably fantastically fresh.
A Kerala ‘must see’ is Kathakali dancing. Performed by men in elaborate make-up and flamboyant costumes, it tells traditional stories through rhythmic movement and intricate facial expressions. Each meticulously choreographed movement, down to every finger and facial twitch, is part of the story. The atmosphere at a performance is a heady mix of evocative music and dance. The performances last up to five hours which, to the uninitiated, is a little on the generous side so go with a good excuse to leave when it all becomes a bit too much.
Another ‘must see’ is a Kalaripayattu demonstration. This is a spectacularly acrobatic, and frankly very dangerous, ancient martial art.
Ayurvedic medicine and therapies are becoming a popular attraction to the state. Most visitors encounter Ayurveda via a relaxing massage but many are exploring its benefits to treat a wide range of symptoms. Western pharmaceutical companies are now clamouring to put patents on ancient Ayurvedic medicines that they once tried to discredit as superstition.
There are a bewildering choice of festivals to check out throughout the year. Here are a few of the main ones…
Onam in Aug/Sept:
This festival is towards the end of the monsoon and is celebrated with enthusiasm throughout the state. It’s a 10 day celebration in honour of the mythical King Mahabali and is a time when Kerala families get together.
Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race on the 2nd Saturday in August:
The largest of many Snake Boat races in August and September. It attracts quite a crowd to cheer on the hugely impressive 30 metre snake boats racing through the Backwaters near Alleppy.
Thrissur Pooram Apr/May:
A spectaclar procession of elaborately decorated elephants and people. Not to be missed if you’re in Kerala while it’s on. Bring a camera.
Ernakulathappan Utsavam Jan/Feb:
The eight day festival of Cochin climaxes in a fervour of fireworks, music and an impressive procession of elephants.