In God’s own country
But that’s not all, Emirates Inflight has also rated it as one of the 10 hot spots of the millennium, while Cosmopolitan, more coyly, branded it one of India’s 10 love nests.
For one, Kerala knows how to sell itself and is probably India’s only state that projects a polished, international image for well-heeled adventure tourist. The state-run Kerala Tourism has an excellent website in English, French and German (keralatourism.org) and provides a wealth of well-written literature about its unspoiled trekking trails, wildlife parks, Ayurvedic health centres, silvery beaches and idyllic backwaters, as well as its cultural and historical attractions. Its promotional slogan ‘God’s own country’ was a stroke of genius and the travel exhibition, which attracted hundreds of buyers from all over the world, has been the organisation’s most ambitious venture to date.
But, to be honest, most people can’t really tell why one earth is this narrow strip of land between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats, tucked away in south west corner of India, attracting so much world attention. I was one among the horde till I landed in God’s own country. Kerala means Land of the Coconuts, and this is stunningly revealed while landing at Kochi International Airport.
Looking out all you see is a thick canopy of green through which streaks of mist rush through as if playing hide and seek. Once on land, it’s even more impressive: the landscape is pure evergreen, miles and miles of coconut trees, paddy fields, rubber, pepper, cardamom and vanilla plantations.
To walk on the wilder side, try negotiating the waterfalls-laced Western Ghats, where drivers routinely negotiate dozens of suicidal hairpin bends with a studied nonchalance that belies their danger. Or the Wayanad wildlife sanctuary, one of the 14 parks nestled within the Ghats, and home to elephants, tigers, panthers, jungle cats, bison, deer and the like.
As for me, I decided to head to the idyllic island of Kumarakom, with swaying greenery accompanying us all the way to the Coconut Lagoon Heritage Resort. Hidden among the palm trees on the eastern shore of Vembanad Lake, at the mouth of the Kavanar River, the Coconut Lagoon is set within a coconut plantation. It has been designed to give visitors an authentic insight into Kuttanad life, which literally means “the land of the short people”, a reference to the fact that farmers working in Kerala are often knee-deep in paddy fields.
To get to the resort, we boarded a ferry from one of several mainland embarkation points, by which time I was pretty sure I was entering a tropical paradise, the likes of which I have never seen before. Skinny boatman poled long canoes or kettuvallams, which have arched palm frond-covered canopies and curved, double-ended prows in perfect visual harmony with the surrounding countryside.
Dreamy lagoons, curved waterways, damp paddy fields and eye-catching greenery caught my attention as we approached the resort. We were greeted by the sight of pretty tharawads or cottages, which are traditional wooden homes, some of which date back to the early 1700s. Painstakingly dismantled and brought to this location from various sites in the surrounding countryside. tharawads have been reassembled piece by piece in accordance with thachu shasthra, the ancient rules and rites of carpentry and interspersed among the coconut grove’s well-manicured network of irrigation canals. Each ancient building is a veritable museum unto itself, and each has its own tale to tell.
My single-level cottage was situated near a meandering stream and retained the charm of an original family home, with thick solid doors, intricate window carvings and terracotta tile floors. The lamp stands, for example, in each tharawad have been crafted from old wooden door hinges.
Other forms of accommodation include the Heritage Mansions, which are two storeys, with the upstairs bedroom gallery offering magnificent views of Lake Vembanad, and which are perfect for families to stay in. One can partake in a host of leisure activities, but the thing I enjoyed most was the romantic sunset cruise aboard the resort’s beautifully-restored kettuvallum, which has been converted from a transport vessel expressly for this purpose.
Punted by two boatmen equipped with long bamboo poles, the boat glides silently out across the water as flocks of teals and other migratory and resident birds return to their lakeside roosts in such thick formations that they cloud the evening sky. Drinks are served on board and an extraordinary stillness descends as the sun, a vivid orange orb in its final few moments, slips rapidly below the horizon. One cannot help but feel one with nature.
For those who prefer not to venture beyond the bounds of the resort itself, there are plenty of things to do. The free-form pool, slightly elevated to give a commanding view across the lake, is popular with everybody, including those who swim there in the early evening to the sounds of Indian classical music drifting across from the Garden Café.
A relaxing boat trip through the maze of canals adjacent to Coconut Lagoon is a fascinating experience, and a delightful way to get a closer look at life in the backwaters. One- or two-hour trips can be arranged in any one of the several motor launches or, for the more adventurous, the hotel has two local-style canoes or vallams, which guests can take out on their own.
Eating is a big part of Indian culture, with great emphasis placed on both quantity and quality and Kerala is no exception to this rule. Hotels and restaurants lay out lavish buffets as standard, with an array of mouth-watering vegetarian and non-vegetarian cuisine. Various rices, piping-hot idlis (rice cakes), puttu (powdered coconut with rice), spicy fried mussels, jumbo prawns, sambars, succulent fried kari meen (an extremely bony black fish) will keep you running back to the table for more, or reaching for the Digel, if you have a fragile tummy.
I never got round to experiencing an Ayurvedic massage at the resort, though. Nevertheless, I did submit to an invigorating oil massage at Le Meridien Cochin Hotel and Convention Centre’s ‘Le Revive’ Ayurvedic Centre, which practises this 3000-year healing system in the most traditional way.
Famed for its natural harbour, one of the finest in the world, Kochi has earned the sobriquet “Queen of the Arabian Sea”. It is one of India’s most interesting cities and because Kerala is a crossroad of faith and the place where Christians, Muslims and Jews put down their first markers in India, it is full of churches, mosques and temples. The oldest church (St. Francis Church) in India is located here. It was built in 1503 by the Portuguese and Vasco de Gama was buried there in 1524 before his mortal remains were moved to Lisbon, Portugal. The tombstone still remains.
Since time immemorial, Arabs, Chinese, Dutch and Portuguese seafarers followed the sea route to Kochi and left their impressions on the town. One of the highlights of my visit was a sunset cruise from the Taj Malabar hotel, which is situated on Willingdon Island and has a magnificent view of Cochin harbour and the city’s beautiful backwaters. The hotel, combining old-world elegance with modern-day convenience, was a delight to stay in.
And, finally, a word about the weather. Kerala has a tropical climate, which does not go above 32 deg C in the summer and lower than 22 deg C in winter. And, of course, during the monsoon it pours, which is an added attraction for those starved of rain, and, more importantly, the best time for Ayurvedic rejuvenation. So if you’re are looking for your very own personal coconut grove at prices that don’t cost the earth, try God’s own country for, pardon the cliche, a taste of paradise on Earth.