|The friendly face of Kerala, India|
This young lady is carefully weaving strips of screwpine (pandan) leaves into a durable mat, used in the village homes, and just like the completed roll to one side. Village handcrafts are a vital aspect of life in southern India - but more of that a little later.
Ask a visitor to describe Kerala, and the first word they'll use is 'green'. It's true, too.
Travel through it, as we did recently by coach on a tour, and it seems everything has been coated with a broad brush liberally dipped in a deep emerald colour. There's a reason for this. Kerala has the highest rainfall of any Indian state and its rich soil creates the ideal environment for any vegetation to grow crazily.
Little wonder it is called 'God's own country'.
The other word people use about Kerala is 'friendly'. And there are plenty of opportunities to test this for yourself.
It is the people that make Kerala such a welcoming and fascinating place to visit, like this group of students (above) enjoying the waterfront when our cruise boat docked in Alleppey. Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India (over 90 percent) and although English widely spoken, I do love to sidle up and listen when people begin to talk in the local language, Malayalam. It is a wonderful rolling tongue that sounds delightful, even if you can't understand it.
India's 13th-largest state, Kerala, formed in 1956, is located on the south-western coastline of the tip of India. With its 35 million or so inhabitants it is three times as densely populated as the Indian national average. Which makes for a lot of people, and sometimes chaotic traffic - but few signs of road rage. I guess the locals learn early that when you must rub shoulders with so many people on a daily basis, you have to develop patience and good humour, and that is what we found.
(Pic: Gordon Hammond)
Please meet Mr Raman, a visionary rice farmer who you'll encounter further on in this page.
Meanwhile, see some more friendly faces of Kerala here...
Not all the friendly faces belong to people, though. This fellow was waiting for us on the paving outside our room at Windflower Resort in the hill station of Wyanad, northern Kerala, just after we had crossed the border from the adjoining state of Karnataka.
It's a misty place and, at 900 metres altitude, it can be chilly - a welcome reprieve from India's tropical heat. The mountain views are stunning as you overlook plantations where tea, coffee, rubber, pepper and cardamom mix with sub-tropical forests.
And you have to love a breakfast buffet that cares so deeply for the guests' health that they offer sprouts and count calories for you too!
One of the keystones to modern tourism in Kerala is introducing visitors to the wide range of village crafts, and responsible tourism. This was a major initiative underlined at the Kerala Travel Mart which we were invited to visit later in the trip in the capital, Cochin.
Before that, though, we were privileged to experience a wide range of activities, and meet some truly inspiring people.
Next day we visited a tribal village where Mr Govindan generously shared the secrets of the local hunting skills with visitors. Archery is vital for hunting for food, as well as protection from marauding animals, and weapons like this arrow are the answer.
The bows are made from timber and bamboo, and are made in a variety of shapes to suit the use they are needed for. A keen eye and a strong arm are necessary, and while it looks easy, hitting the bulls-eye proved almost impossible, except for one member of our group - Gordon!
What you can't see in this picture are the pepper vines, cardamom, ginger, turmeric and cinnamon growing nearby, as important as any meat for the local kitchens, and vital to Ayurvedic treatments.
Kerala is also called the Spice Garden of India. Ports near what is now Cochin were visited from as early as 3000BC by the Babylonians, Egyptians, Assyrians, Arabs and Phoenicians - and later by the Greeks and Romans – all desperate to trade for this exotic produce. It remained the main spice source until the 1400s when Indonesia became more popular.
The local clay is slippery to walk on we found as we slithered down the path to this pottery, but it is invaluable to this man. The speed with which he can create a useful bowl or pot is amazing, but as you can see it is very much hands-on work.
The local youngsters understand the rules for this game which seem to be all about flicking a disk into a hole.
It's something like a cross between marbles and billiards and certainly keeps them occupied.
Tea bushes grow well at higher altitudes, but picking the tiny topmost shoots is a never-ending job.
Here the views are good, although it is doubtful that she can spare the time to look.
Tea bushes are planted so that there are small paths between them for the tea-pickers.
Some shade is needed and often Australian eucalypts are planted to protect the bushes from the harshest sun.
Tea dust is just that - the final parts of the dried tea leaf. It makes a good strong flavourful tea, and may be chosen in India by tea stall owners, just for that reason. It is not necessarily inferior and can have a good flavour depending on the variety of tea bush it comes from.
Sweet amla is made from an Indian gooseberry. This list is only some of the wares on offer here. We bought preserved ginger to nibble as we travelled on.
Perhaps no plant in Asia is more versatile and valuable than bamboo, but can you imagine spending every working day splitting lengths of it?
It can be used to create everything from furniture to whistles like these.....
....or woven into mats on looms like this one, standing idle for a while in this bamboo factory, supported by Uruvu a non-government community organisation.
Back, now to Mr Cheruvayal Raman, and his lifework with Responsible Tourism and agriculture. This is his home, with walls made from clay and cow dung which insulates it so well that no temperature control is needed. Behind it is his small coffee plantation.
Mr Raman's organic paddy farm has become a model for other local farmers, showing what they can produce if they move away from using toxic chemicals on their crops, which many have been using for decades. Not only is the product better, but the farmers' health is protected as well.
This man has spent his working life preserving rice grains from ancient paddy fields, returning many natural varieties into use and, as he says, 'preserving not only the seeds, but a complete culture and lifestyle'.
To encourage others to farm this way, he has a clever scheme. He gives each farmer two kilograms of grain, for free, with only one requirement. After harvest they must return to him another two kilograms of seeds. And so the cycle continues.
And then there was this! Yes, you are correct - that is a swimming pool below, on the next level. This is the honeymoon suite at Vythiri Resort, 1000 metres elevation, lost in the mists and so much cooler.
An internal staircase connects with the pool below and it is totally private.
In case you are wondering about that floor (I was!) a sign on the wall reassures guests that three layers of tempered glass have been laminated together with polyvinylbutyral and it is designed to take weights of 510 kilograms per square metre.
While this was quite spectacular, there is even more. The resort also has a number of treehouses, some of them at 25 metres. In this untouched world of wild beauty, it seems so natural, somehow.
Next morning we descend from the heights - altitude and luxury - to the coast, to take a train from Calicut, further south to Kottayam. Our tickets allowed us to wait for the train in the 'upper class passengers lounge'. Class is still very much in evidence in India.
However, being India, there is always food too, either being carried on trays on the platform, or on the train itself. As we travelled, every few minutes there would be a vendor walking through, tray on his head, calling out, 'Coffee, coffee', 'tea-tea-tea', 'Biryani, biryani...' or some other local favourite food......
.... or even at one stop, some vada, a delicious local fried pastry, here, being sold right outside my window.
And of course when you want to board or leave a train, what easier way than just to nip across the tracks?
Our destination for that night was Zuri Resort and Spa at Kumarakom on the edge of the Alleppey Backwaters.
These eye-catching boats are former rice barges, once used for the transfer of rice harvests from the surrounding paddy fields via the backwaters to the port for export.
With rail and better road connections, finally they were no longer needed for their original use, but have now been restored and are in use as stylish houseboats.
This deceptively pretty plant, the water hyacinth, is actually a pest that is clogging many waterways in the south. As ever, the resourceful locals have found uses for this weed which they harvest and then use as mulch for other crops, or turn into fibre to make a wide range of products. It is now also providing a new green fuel source.
Ten minutes away by boat, Coconut Lagoon which began in 1992, and its bird sanctuary, transported us into another realm. Part of the CGH Earth Group of hotels, it is also committed to ecology, community and culture it is clearly setting a very high standard in the area.
The gardens in the resort must be a butterfly's delight....
...and their presence a valuable part of nature's cycle.
It was easy to see that guests, too, would be equally delighted with this view from their deck.
We did not have to travel much further before seeing some of 'old' India too. Elephants have long been used in India as beasts of burden, to take part in festivals and religious ceremonies and, more recently as a tourist gimmick.
These gracious and beautiful creatures are revered but not always well-treated, even though many mahouts are devoted to their charges.
In one museum we saw a picture of a one-tonne gold palanquin large enough for several royal family members to be seated inside, and designed to be carried on the back of an elephant. Think about that.....
A cruise along the backwaters of Alleppey has to be one of this world's greatest pleasures. Kerala has 41 rivers that flow through the backwaters into the ocean. In the 1990s these boats began to be used for tourism and have become very popular.
As the driver slows the engine to dawdling speed, you can relax and watch the daily life of the waterfront, and wave to people on other boats also enjoying their cruise. Music wafts from passing watercraft, and occasionally you might hear chanting from a temple hidden in the trees.
Bathing and laundry....
...and worship too.
In Kerala, Christianity is more popular than in most other states of India, a largely Hindu and Islamic country.
For those who stay overnight on a houseboat like this, dinner and breakfast is provided by cooks who travel onboard. On even a four-hour cruise, lunch will be provided - and just look at the variety - as well as an afternoon cup of tea and a snack. Ours were irresistible banana fritters!
Too soon it all comes to an end and, back on shore, you will be met by many fans!
(Pic: Gordon Hammond)
In a country where an appreciation of aesthetic beauty seems to have been handed out at birth, one of the finest forms is this style of dancing. Part mime, part athletics and facial expressions, it is mesmerising to watch, and none better than this solo dancer at Marari Beach Resort. Kathakali dancers have even more elaborate makeup, exaggerated facial expressions and very exact hand and foot movements.
As part of its core emphasis of ecology, community and culture, the kitchen relies heavily on produce from the farm garden.
There is a butterfly garden here too, where dozens of colourful tropical butterflies are lured by plants which are specifically grown to attract them.
For the guests, these hammocks seem positioned just right to catch the cool breezes from the nearby seafront.
And several cows are tethered on the sweet grass, some of them adorably shy.
For pickle lovers, next to the buffet, there is a huge selection of additions to the meals which seem extensive and complex enough on their own.
The 20-year-old property with 62 villas has won many awards.
Temples are an important part of village life, and here at Vaikom is the Shiva temple built in 1594. It is notable as the venue of the Vaikom Agitation for achieving for the lower castes the right to walk on the roads surrounding the temple.
Canals are still an important way to transport people and goods between villages, and a canoe ride is the ideal way to see life on the backwaters at close range. The village we are headed for is of special interest as it welcomes tourists and showcases a number of daily activities.
If you thought getting dinner is time consuming, try this! First you have to pound the whole rice grains to remove the husk, using these heavy poles. Then the chaff has to be winnowed away, before more pounding, a hot task even in the shade.
If you want some string, you don't go to a shop. Here coconut husk fibre has been teased out of the dried husk by hand and now is being pulled out and twisted. It's fun to watch, but imagine doing that all day and how rough it would be on your fingers.
Remember the woven mat at the beginning of this story? This was being made nearby in the same village. More details of other Village Life Experiences......
Yet despite the homespun side shown to tourists, Kerala has a glamourous side. At the Kerala Travel Mart, one booth promoted its hotel as an ideal honeymoon destination.
In Fort Cochin (or Kochi as it is called too) we stayed at The Malabar House, a colonial-style building, walking distance from the water. Its history dates back to 1755, when a Dutchman bought the property from Mathew Henrich Beyls. Subsequently owned by spice traders, tea traders and bankers, in 1996 it became Fort Cochin's first boutique heritage hotel.
Malabar House is known for its fine cuisine, with an emphasis on seafood. Dinner may be eaten in the outdoor courtyard while a trio of musicians provide authentic local music.
The hotel has collected a range or artworks and antiques and these appear around the grounds as well as inside the building. It is regarded as an art hotel, the home of a carefully curated collection, highlighting Kerala's composite culture as a passage between east and west.
Within easy walking distance is one of Cochin's major tourist attractions, St Francis Church, known primarily for the fact that it was the first resting place of the body of noted Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama, after he died here in 1524. There is still a plaque in the church, but his remains were transferred to his home country in 1538.
For trivia lovers, the waters here do not belong to the Arabian Sea, which is further north, but to the Lakshadweep Sea. Sometimes called the Laccadive Sea, it also washes the coastlines of the Maldives and Sri Lanka.
As always where people congregate for work or simply to wander, there are small stalls set up to sell everything from plastic pasta machines (yes, really!) to hats and handbags and something many cannot resist - their name carved into a grain of rice.
For others, the aroma of peanuts roasted in black sand is irresistible. The newspaper beside that pan will be formed into a cone, the sand sifted away and the hot nuts spooned in for instant satisfaction.
Many people also come to see the Chinese fishing nets. These huge horizontal nets measure 20 metres and it takes the efforts of six or more men to lower them into the water and then to raise them again with their haul of seafood. Stalls along the waterfront sell the glisteningly fresh catches.
Kerala - is a green state, in more ways than one. Ecology is becoming more of a priority, village life and crafts has caught the interest of visitors, and traditional arts are appreciated and preserved.
Namaste....is a greeting with a slight bow and hands pressed together, palms touching and fingers pointing upwards, thumbs close to the chest. What does it mean? Spoken or silent it means: I bow to the divine in you. We said it often as we travelled this green and friendly state.
Many people believe that Kerala is certainly God's Own Country. This beautiful moment from the Marari Beach butterfly garden brings it to life.
Ask Marvel Tours for details of their Southern Explorer tour.
Text and images: ©Sally Hammond 2016 (unless stated otherwise)
Video: © Gordon Hammond 2016
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