Friday, 23 November 2007


This feature was written in the aftermath of the 2005 tsunami when I visited the Southern Indian state of Kerala and found it peaceful & relatively unaffected.

As the dreadful events of Boxing Day unfolded on television I was growing increasingly anxious about going to India. I was also deeply concerned that people and places that I knew in neighbouring parts of Asia had been wiped out. I was experiencing nightmares that threw me towards a dark depression yet I knew that by going what little money I would spend might directly help the region’s already depleted tourism industry.

En-route to Dubai my wife sat next to a softly-spoken, middle-aged Sri Lankan, a UK resident since his childhood. He was a psychiatrist returning to his birthplace to help counsel tsunami victims. He expressed a pronounced anguish over what he would face and was concerned about how his own mind would react to the heart-rending situations he would encounter. As a trained specialist he feared the lasting psychological damage he might be exposing himself to and suspected that in time the counsellors would themselves require counselling to prevent the brain from shutting down. As we met our connecting flight, international rescue workers had gathered on the airport concourse en-route to Colombo, a stark reminder of the disaster’s close proximity.

Locally they call Kerala “God’s Own Country”. It shares the most southerly landmass of India with Tamil Nadu to the east and a communal border that continues towards the very tip of the sub-continent. Trivandrum, the Kerala state capital, lies towards the foot of the Malabar Coast near the point where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea. This stretch of coastline had been savaged killing over two hundred fisherman and pilgrims who were worshipping in the sea as the great wave struck. Kerala faces south west and apart from the most southerly part the majority of coastline was sheltered from the tsunami’s direct path. This spared small fishing communities from total annihilation. Abnormal tides had swept the beaches but they failed to venture far enough inland to cause damage but it did deter many visitors from venturing onto the magnificent white sands. Fewer still entered the sea. Fearing the tsunami might return, some fishermen had already sold up and bought auto rickshaw taxis (phat-phats) with their limited funds.

Religion in Kerala dominates often to the point of obsession. Many locals, Hindus, Christians, Muslims, even Jains commonly agreed that it was “God’s will” that had spared them from disaster. In reality their location was their saviour but it was easy to imagine what a direct hit from the tsunami could have done to the ecosystem around Vembanad Lake and the district’s intricate network of meandering backwaters. These waterways are essential to Kerala’s economy in so many ways not least tourism. The vast lake (204 sq km) one of 34 throughout the State, acts like a hub to 1900kms of peaceful backwaters that links small communities of inland fishermen, farmers, shell collectors and rice growers. Three hundred houseboat operators depend entirely on backwaters tourism to survive. The English language newspaper “The Hindu Times” reported that cancellations and a drop in bookings for 2005 had already diminished their trade by up to 40%. Although Kerala hasn’t the widespread gross poverty that is found elsewhere in India, a reduction in tourism could force many boat owners to go bust. Thankfully the State is rich in natural produce such as rice, fruit, nuts, vegetables, tea, coffee, and spices. These resources provide a steady living for some but this is of little consequence to the houseboat operators. They are well aware of their vulnerability so they are pushing the government to campaign overseas for more tourism in an attempt to save their livelihoods.

The houseboats, known as kettuvallom, are converted rice barges, comfortably equipped; some part solar powered, with a crew of two boatmen and a cook. An overnight stay on a kettuvallom is enchanting even though failing to book an air-conditioned boat was a mistake that made for a very sticky night beneath a constricting but essential mosquito net. A noisy electric fan became the sole means of distributing the humid air. But the boats do have basic en-suite facilities and a restless night is a worthwhile sacrifice when you awake to be rewarded by the sound of the dawn chorus and the prospect of a few more relaxing hours of the cruise still remaining. Nothing could diminish the outstanding pleasure of watching everyday rural life pass by as you sit in a comfortable armchair on the sundeck sipping chilled Kingfisher while the crew attends your needs. I’d heard that the curries created on board are without comparison. Two sensational meals confirmed this to be a true culinary experience that no British take-away could match for taste! Freshwater fish cutlets, vegetable curry, perfectly flaky boiled rice and chapatti for lunch taken at anchor surrounded by bird life on the motionless waters of Vembanad Lake. Afternoon tea arrived as we traversed the water hyacinth strewn backwaters beneath a lofty canopy of swaying coconut palms while lone fishermen trawled their nets from narrow wooden canoes. Dinner was a maharaja’s feast of spiced fried chicken, crispy bitter gourds, okra, fried rice, green beans, dhal and potato curry.

A narrow green divide separates the canals from the lower level of the rice fields where farmers worked their small holdings using bullock-drawn wooden ploughs as their forefathers had done for centuries. Others worked knee deep in mud harvesting rice. At times it felt we were viewing rural life through a kaleidoscope and we’d become an integral part of a Discovery Channel documentary. Farms, small shops, houses, village schools and temples competed for space on these medians, often no more than forty feet wide. Daily life is enthralling, people watching became a pre-occupation. Smiling children in blue uniforms waved from long, tightly crammed boats that criss-crossed the waterways taking them from village to school. Women rinsed their waist length black hair and bathed fully clothed, some used a finger to brush their teeth as others washed clothes in the communal waters of the canals. On land, lop-eared goats were milked while small groups of elders passed time doing precious little. The backwaters also have their own unique sounds. At times the tranquillity was broken only by the low purring of the houseboat’s outboard motor or the occasional deep-sounding throbbing diesels of fast moving waterbuses that distribute human cargos at stopping points spaced either side of the main arteries. Some times nature alone disturbs the silence with the sound of wild birds taking flight, a black crow screeching or the distant rousing call of a cockerel. Overhead, the graceful shapes of white headed eagles circled in the warm thermals. At dusk and dawn the sound of Hindu prayers chanted in Malayalam, the local dialect, permeated the air from a temple dotted within a tiny community. Perhaps this was as near to an earthly form of heaven as you might find!

Kerala is one of earth’s most densely populated rural areas. Nearly 32 million people cram into 38,863 square kilometres, an area smaller than Switzerland. Wallowing in the sleepy atmosphere of the backwaters this statistic can easily be overlooked. It is not even overly apparent within the dusty confines of a busy town. But look inside the churches and temples or along the main highways and it seems this is where life is gathered. During late morning a church in the town of Alleppey was overflowing. People queued for access while several hundred devout Catholics, mostly women in bright saris, were already seated on the floor inside worshipping. Christianity arrived with St Thomas the apostle in AD52 and continued as a legacy of the Portuguese (1498), Dutch (17th Century) and British (1806). Kerala (then called Malabar) has been an important trading centre from the 1st century BC when the Greeks and Romans came in search of spices.

Hinduism remains prominent and from before daybreak the spiritual sound of prayers carries on the tropical air from distant temples. Holy festivals that can last for days are a regular occurrence and in the hours before dawn highly revered elephants are led along the main highway as they are moved between temples. It is haunting to see their broad shapes silhouetted in the headlight beams of oncoming traffic. Apart from a swinging reflector hanging from their tails they have no other safeguard from being hit from behind. Indian driving standards lack common sense or any kind of discipline. Last year 3066 died on Kerala’s roads (13,000 injured). Jokingly we were told that a similar number die from being hit by falling coconuts!* The day we arrived 59 perished when a crowded bus plunged into a canal; seven died in a head-on accident two days later. The most venomous are the horn blowing bus and truck drivers who hog the crown of the road at high speed bullying others to move aside. Motor cycle riders rarely wear crash helmets, car drivers seldom bother with seat belts. I watched a family of four aboard a small moped. The father was helmeted, his young son and wife riding side-saddle behind nursing a baby had no protection. The drivers assigned to foreigners maybe slightly less crazy but they too manoeuvre dangerously into the smallest gaps between moving trucks and overtake blind. Everyone nurses a burning desire to get ahead of all other traffic regardless. Visitors are generally transported in Ambassadors, big heavy cars, still made in West Bengal to the 1948 design of the Morris Oxford. They are basic, seriously underpowered but built like tanks and well suited to the Indian environment.

One night spent on a houseboat is generally sufficient especially when combined with a visit to other parts of India or a stay in the old city of Cochin. A few nights at a magnificent Vembanad Lake retreat or a little longer at a relaxing beach resort can also provide a well earned break from travelling around the historic cities of India. The State Government has launched an eco-Kerala programme that is successfully encouraging hotels to become environmentally friendly. The cost of accommodation, meals and drinks can be high by Indian standards but considerably less than at many comparable hotels elsewhere in Asia. The state authorities claims almost 100% literacy rate for Kerala, the highest in India and unemployment is low by national standards. The extremely friendly people are proud of the history, cuisine, wildlife, deserted beaches and a good climate that the state offers. In view of the tragic circumstances in Sri Lanka and Thailand, Kerala is now well placed to capitalise by attracting visitors who might otherwise have gone to the tsunami affected countries.
• During 2002 George Burgess the director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Shark Attack File claimed in a speech that “Coconuts kill 150 worldwide each year, 15 times the number of fatalities attributed to sharks”.

When to go
The best time to visit Kerala is between November and late February. The monsoon comes later in the year and the pre-monsoon heat can be stifling between late April and mid-June. This is followed by the monsoon rains of June to August but seasonal fluctuations can mean that the heavy rains fall later in the year. September and October also tend to be very humid.

For much of the time there are religious festivals of one sort or another taking place but the major ones honouring a particular god are the Sabarimala Festival (January – February) Pongal (4th January) Thaipuram or Thai Pussam (January – February) Shivratri (February – March) Onam (August – September) which includes boat races at Alleppey, the ten day festival of Krishna at Guruavayoor and the Pooram (April – May) at Thrissur where elephants decorated with gold are paraded, carrying colourful parasols to a background of fireworks and drumming.

Consuming pleasures
Keralan cuisine is delightful and is quite removed from most Indian food found in British restaurants. It is generally more gentile and full of taste. Coconut in various forms is used in many dishes together with local spices. The different religions have an influence in the way that dishes are prepared but each culture offers a wide choice of vegetarian dishes including okra and gourds that are usually served with rice or lentils. Fish, often cooked in coconut based curries, is also widely served and mutton, duck and chicken is popular. Beef is eaten by the non-Hindus. Malabar Biriyani is fish or meat cooked in rice with an Arabian influence. Local breakfast specialities includes a sponge like pancake, Appam, made from rice or puttu a popular dish made from rice-flour dough. A reasonable Indian wine is available in hotels but Kingfisher beer is widely available.

Kerala is also the home of Ayurveda and this form of herbal therapeutic massage and medicine is available in all of its’ forms inexpensively at centres and hotels throughout the state.

Bazaars and markets sell all kinds of locally grown spices, saffron being a particularly good buy, cashew nuts, Indian tea, silver jewellery, fabrics, cooking utensils, wood carvings and crafts from other parts of India. It is illegal to take genuine antiques out of Indian without a license but plenty of reproductions can be found in larger towns.

State of the Nation
Kerala is the most literate state in all India and there is less obvious poverty than elsewhere. Kerala was made a state in 1956 when the princely states of Travancore and Cochin joined with Malabar, a province under Madras state. It has 20 seats on the Lok Sabha, the national legislative assembly. Hindus are in the majority but Christians form a quarter of the population. There is also a sizeable Muslim following. The people are exceptionally friendly and visitors should feel safe and at ease although there is the expected gentle harassment from hawkers around popular tourist attractions. Malayalam is the local dialect but English is widely spoken.

Web Sites
The official state tourism site that contains much general information about almost anything a visitor would wish to know. The content, photography and graphics are very professional and the site includes a diary of events that includes information on festivals and other activities. This is very well organised site that even offers audio, video and stills photography links.
Informative site that contains most of what you need to know about the old city and port of Cochin. It lists useful links to all kinds of travel information including timetables and is equally useful to visitors and locals who live in the city.

Surprisingly there are very few books about Kerala available in the UK although there are some excellent local books about Kerala life and culture available within the State.

South India – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Goa – A travel guide
By Philip Ward. Published in 1991 this is a journey through the history, culture, wildlife, art, architecture, landscapes and communities of these three states. Knowledgeably written and illustrated with maps and black and white photographs that are now quite dated.
Thomas Cook Guide to Goa & Kerala
By Anil Mulchandani. This is a modern guidebook split into two sections, one for each state, and gives good, practical advice and information about towns and other places of interest to visitors. It also has useful feature articles on items such as the cuisine and architecture, arts and crafts, mammals and Ayurveda. The book is illustrated with good colour photographs and maps throughout and it comes with a useful mini-CD Rom that provides further information and web links.

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