Kerala a dozen ways

India's surprise package 

A couple of years ago we revisited one of Kerala's southernmost states. Instead of being shown the same-old sights, we found so much more to see and experience in these amazing regions. 

Come on - join us on this surprising trip!



Surprise #1: World-class accommodation

Before leaving the state capital Cochin (or Kochi as it is now called) on our tour of Kerala, we spent a relaxing night at the Grand Hyatt, Kochi, on Bolgatty Island: world-class accommodation accented by Indian splendour.

What could be a better send-off than a giant breakfast like this?

It would have been extremely difficult to leave this sumptuous and delightful place...if we had not glimpsed our itinerary. Now, we could hardly wait to begin to explore up-country Kerala, its mountains, lakes and rivers - and food!


Before we begin - let's see how much you know about this southern Indian state.

Here is a Kerala tick-sheet : 

  • What does the name, Kerala, mean? 
  • Does Kerala have a nickname? 
  • What is Kerala's population? 
  • What language do the locals speak? 
  • Which currency is used in Kerala? 
  • What is the best time of year to visit Kerala? 
  • When did Kerala become a state of India? 



Surprise #2: Let's get on the road...

Caveat: Indian traffic is hectic. You need to wipe out all the road rules you were ever taught, and simply go with the flow.

That said, Indian drivers know what they are doing. Having grown up as fearless pedestrians, crossing crowded roads with poor surfaces, and enduring buses jammed full of passengers, once they become drivers, themselves, they still manage to navigate with the minimum of angst or blaring horns.

Our driver, Sabit, was from Kerala, of course, and seemed to take all this in his stride. We did notice, though, that he did not speak once in five days - and we tipped him well for his diligence.

To give you an idea: This photo (above) was taken from our mini-bus window. Notice the bus shelter and three other forms of transport, visible within touching distance of our vehicle! Between all this, there could well have also been a few people threading their way across the road. 

Little wonder the buses go for a little divine assistance! (see above). I reckon that Sabit (whose name I later learned meant 'firmly in place, stable, unshakable') saved our lives a thousand times on that trip!

Seen elsewhere, one bus had chosen 'Jesus Helps' as its motto!

Seen from the bus again (of course) - so who cares that when you have to make a delivery (or maybe some shopping) the road is ideal for parking!



Surprise #3: The mix of cultures

How does a country acquire a multi-ethnic population? Simply by being in the right (wrong?) place and making the best of the mix.

Located on the rich and fertile cross-hairs of the Equator and the land and shipping routes of the world's earliest traders, of course more than just produce was shared on the subcontinent.

People, languages, religion, ideas, affected the population of the day and of course money changed hands, marriages happened, while legends and behaviours were affected - for good or bad.

At Rumi Restaurant - an Islamic cafe on the coast about halfway to Kozhikode (often called Calicut, and our stopping point for the night) we gladly enjoyed a mid-morning coffee while our driver had a well-earned break.

The name, Rumi, means  'peaceful or good' in Turkish, and suited well this colourful place.

Christianity is also widely observed (religious names often feature on buses, as we have seen!) and the churches, large and prominent buildings in many towns, are built to seat hundreds of worshipers.

Of course Hinduism accounts for over half of the population, while Islam has a quarter, and adherents of Christianity about 20 percent. Keralan religion has a fascinating history and, if you are interested, read more here...



Surprise #4: High-end accommodation in the highlands

Kerala was still recovering from the state's worst monsoon floods in decades, so the drive, hampered by roadworks, was made longer. The fact that it was Sunday, and there were long queues at a toddy-shops didn't help either.

Just so you know, Toddy, is a white, sweet, low-alcohol drink, that is made from the fermented sap of palm trees, and is extremely popular in India.

After this long drive you can imagine our delight when we saw our room at The Raviz Kadavu (above).

We were even happier with this...

... and this, when it appeared on our table for dinner!

Relaxed and beautiful environs certainly make the Raviz Kadavu a peaceful place for a getaway vacation.



Vythiri Village in the clouds

To arrive at the next hotel, our driver gave the road his absolute full attention as we wound up and up and UP, hairpin after hairpin, to reach our destination for the night, the high altitude (750 metre high) hill station on the Western Ghats.

Once there, we discover that we are in Vythiri Village, a rainforest resort village spread out within the jungle, crossed by rivulets - and with an impressive swing bridge and zip line.

To reach various parts of the resort, we need to summon an electric cart for a transfer, and we do this to the Spice Bowl for lunch. The Village has something for everyone, and we would have stayed much longer, if our itinerary would have allowed it!

And, for those special moments when you just need to sit down, relax - and have your toes nibbled by fish! - even that is possible.



Surprise #5: We hit the markets

After a day of travelling, just five hours north of Cochin, in Kozhikode (aka Calicut) the second-largest city in Kerala, we still wanted to hit this popular open-air night market. 

This is not a tourist market. The locals come in hordes to buy good items at vastly reduced prices.

Indian women have a particularly keen eye for colour, and buying material for a new sari or other garment is not something to be hurried.

The salwar is favourite for women's clothing - a loose dress over skintight leggings, showing the minimum of bare skin, while still turning the men's heads.

Just look at this picture. What seems different to Western culture? 

That's right! The men are every bit as interested, and as active in haggling and buying, as anyone else in their family.

Unlike many Western countries where flowers are chosen because of scent or colour, in India they are selected to send traditional messages.

Learn more here...

Often they are used for special occasions, using blooms threaded together to create colourful garlands.

All ages visit these textile shops...

...and the staff need to be patient and understanding as their customers want to be sure they have selected exactly the most appropriate pattern and colour.

Understandably, in such a hot climate, cotton is often chosen for saris and other clothes.

Find out more about this beautiful women's garment...



Surprise #6 Art and culture

As in many countries around the world, in India authors are highly regarded, not least because their works often define a country's heart. This statue, in Manachira Road in Calicut, is of renowned Keralan author, SK Pottakkad, who was an Indian writer of Malayalam literature, as well as a politician.

It seemed appropriate to see him here at the entrance to the night market which attracts so many people from around the world, because he was a writer of strong social commitment and ideals, possessing an individualistic vision. In addition he is reported to be the pioneer of the genre of travelogues in India.

Close by was this wall, a fine piece of art, underlining old and new in this country.




Surprise #7: Street shopping

While the night market was fascinating, street shopping in many towns is much more common than a supermarket. Vendors set up a stall - many serving snack-foods - and work from there, often until late in the evenings when the temperature drops and more people are likely to be out and about. 

Streetside shopping is popular too...

Notice that the advertising boards are at the right height to catch the attention of passengers in passing buses.

Also take note of the use of English. In Kerala, English is spoken by 20 percent of the local population, and is often their first language.



Surprise #8: Meet the locals

One VERY hot day, we stopped enroute for a hotel lunch, hurrying inside, gasping-in the chill of air conditioning. Not so for this man doing his job outside - shaded only by his hat and brolly.

Travelling in a smaller group has advantages. After an hour or so coming up into the Western Ghats we stopped at a scenic outlook, and met these people, locals doing just what we were - gathering memories.

This fellow (no, not the one in the checked shirt!) did not seem to want to share the view.

In fact, I think he was saying that he wanted another banana - you can see the skin from the last one in his hand.



Surprise #9: tropical foods

Many equatorial plants grow well in this tropical state, with its heavy rainfall and high temperatures.

Heading north, even higher in Wayanad, we stopped occasionally to learn more about the local food-plants, assisted by local growers.

Love your coffee? Darker the better?

These are the way all our coffee beans begin - bright green and nothing like the roasted dark brown ones we see in packets.

This lush land is tended by local people who do everything from tilling the ground to harvesting the produce when it is ready.

Kerala is known for its tea plantations. Mild and light oolong, black and green teas are grown and harvested year-round in the highlands of southern India.

In Kerala, the coconut tree is called as Kalpa Vriksham, meaning that all parts of a coconut palm is useful some way or other. Cocus nucifera dominate the landscape in many parts, rising to a height of 25 metres, and bearing, on average, over 50 coconuts a year. The tree (above) has a rich amount of seed pods.

Have you ever seen this fruit?

This is a mangosteen, found in many equatorial countries, and sometimes known as 'the queen of tropical fruit'. The skin is thick and the fruit easy to eat. You can tell the number of segments inside by looking at the number of 'petals' on the cog-like base on each fruit. 

Despite the name, it is not related to a mango.



Surprise #10: The cuisine

One day we visited Pranavam Homestays, a family-owned property in Pozhuthana, 40 minutes south of Wayanad. Their home was surrounded by coconut trees, and one of the workers shimmied up to bring back coconuts so that we could each drink the refreshing water inside it.

The family welcomed us warmly and, best of all, offered to show us how to make one of their favourite dishes, pineapple pachadi. 

Despite the number of ingredients it was quite a simple dish, ideal when served over pachadi a traditional South Indian pickle. 

See the recipe here...

A parting gift from the owner was this tropical almost-too-good-to-be-real flower, which I carefully tucked into the back of the bus seat in front of me.



Surprise #11: Village skills and crafts

Let's start with the skills. Look closely and you will see that this man is using his T-shirt to promote local white-water sports. River rafting is very popular in parts of Kerala and you can find out more here...

This says it all - bamboo is vital to buildings and crafts in Kerala.

Then, there are the many crafts that use bamboo, to make a wide range of products.

Much of it is done by hand, often from a person's own home or in a small village area. It is extremely time-consuming, and very hard on the hands.

The results are beautiful, though, and worth buying to take home from a trip as a lovely (an useful) souvenir.

Some bamboo articles are further enhanced by painted decorations like this...

...and this.

If bamboo is not on your shopping list, then a carved coconut might make a good gift for someone.

And then there are the age-old skills that local people have used for many generations. This man was very patient as he helped us all have a chance to hit the bullseye. Some did, but I was not one of them!



Surprise #12: Inland waterways

It's easy to think of Kerala as only having lush jungles and rainforests, and not realise that it also has many rivers and lakes, as well as backwaters and beaches.

Kalpetta is a town in the mountainous Wayanad region, a gateway to Neelimala Viewpoint, which overlooks waterfalls and forested valleys.

On the second-last day of our trip, we were brought to Vistara Resort - south-east of Wayanad, close to a series of lakes and reservoirs.

This lovely resort overlooks Karapuzha Lake and is close to Ambalavayal village. This is also a leisurely stroll away from the historic Edakkal 'Caves' at Wayanad.  

After a long morning travelling, the freshly-prepared lunch here was much appreciated.

After lunch we were taken for a quick look at the resort's rooms, and immediately put this at the top of our list of 'places we must spend more time in' on our next visit to Kerala.

I can tell you, that by the end of this busy trip around some of India's finest hidden gems, that list had developed into a very long one!


Finally it was time for the long drive back to Kochi. Our driver, Sabit, as always, carefully (and bravely) took on the traffic that became more and more busy as we neared the capital.

Too soon it was time to say farewell to our fellow-passengers - but we did it knowing that we had seen places many others do not, and ones that would be shared with all our friends at home.


As they say in Malayalam, the melodic native language of Kerala:

ñaṅṅaḷ vīṇṭuṁ kaṇṭumuṭṭunnat vare - 'until we meet again'.

ഞങ്ങൾ വീണ്ടും കണ്ടുമുട്ടുന്നത് വരെ


As promised, here is the completed Kerala tick-sheet.

How much did you know about this southern Indian state? 


What does the name, Kerala, mean? Cherna-Alum (added land)

Does Kerala have a nickname? Land of coconuts.

What is Kerala's population? Around 35 million

What language do the locals speak? Malayalam (and English)

Which currency is used in Kerala? Indian rupee

What is the best time of year to visit Kerala? Avoid the June to August heavy monsoon season.

When did Kerala become a state of India? 1958


© Words and photographs: Sally Hammond 

©Video: Gordon Hammond

Sally and Gordon Hammond travelled courtesy of Marvel Tours on this trip. All opinions are their own.


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