Window on Kerala

There are T-shirts for sale hooked onto the trunk of a massive rain tree on a roadside in Cochin (Kochi), capital of the state of Kerala in south-western India, and once known as the Queen of the Arabian Sea.

The tree stands next to the sunny yellow church of St Francis where 16th-century Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was initially buried in 1524. His body was later repatriated to his homeland, but it's still worth going into the church to see the commemorative plaques.

Two things are important about this souvenir: the elephants, which really do appear in many places around Kerala, and the use of the word 'God'. 

As we travel around over the next ten days we are to discover that Christian churches are bigger and more evident than temples and mosques in Kerala.

However we are also to discover that Hindu temples are a lot of fun. Noisy, colourful, energetic – and popular. Especially when you are lucky enough to encounter a festival in full swing.

Our guide let us in on his secret for knowing where these celebrations are happening. "Look in the newspaper," he advised us. "They are always listed there." Our tip is to pick a good guide, and Robin, Shikhar Travel's choice for us, turned out to be one of the best.

The elephants? Their role seemed purely decorative and they were kept absorbed by bundles of bamboo branches that they systematically stripped of leaves which they then stuffed into their mouths, using their trunks.

WATCH THE VIDEO (above) to feel part of the action.

 

Back on the street we discover more souvenirs - and an insistent salesman who serenaded us for blocks.

After experiencing a few of these sales-pitches, it was with relief that we spotted this sign in the Jewish quarter. And yes, the proprietor was true to his promise, but his offers were so persuasive that somehow money changed hands and we came away with a purchase.

This is a colourful part of Cochin, full of stores selling delicate lacework, others with open bags heaped with spices at their doorways, and some selling every imaginable shade and weight and design of shawls and pashminas, scarves and blouses.

Kerala's menus are rich with many sorts of seafood, and at the waterfront, near to the famous cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, we find stalls selling the morning's catch. Bright-eyed and glossy with freshness, it was hard to resist them, yet as a traveller without a kitchen, there was no option. 

One evening we travel across the city to see a traditional Kathakali cultural dance production. By arriving early we're able to sit in on the preparations. Here one of the stars is being made up, a time-consuming process which includes not only face painting,but also the glueing on of prostheses to his jawline. Notice the mirror in his left hand. He kept a close eye on the changes as the session progressed.

Here he is at the finale of the hour-long performance. Not only was was it a colourful and entertaining show, retelling stories from Hindu legends, but before it began the actors showed the audience how emotion and much of the essence of the story is conveyed by carefully choreographed eye and hand movements and facial expression. 

One thing which is noticeable about the cuisine of Kerala is its diversity of dishes, and the use of coconut to flavour dishes rather than onion which is used much more in the north. Spices feature, of course – well, this is India after all! – but they are used in conjunction to provide a fragrant platform for the other ingredients. 

This breakfast plate is just one example of the variety available. If only you could smell and taste it!

Kerala is known also for its fruit and other produce. Here we overtake a truck laden with jackfruit. This fruit can grow to be even larger than these - sometimes weighing as much as thirty kilograms. It is eaten fresh, but more often used in curries.

Quick growing and prolific, bamboo is a major material. Here a roadside artisan shows just some of its uses.

As we head east from Cochin towards the mountains, a market in the town of Munnar has these purple eggplants, tomatoes, beans, and potatoes. Notice the newspaper. One of the delightful things about travelling in India  is that English is so widely spoken and understood.

Munnar is the entry point for the tea plantations of this hill region, and a delightful place to stay is Fort Munnar, about half an hour east of the town.

Our window overlooks a lake in the distance....

...... and we're told that at dusk elephants come to the lake to drink. Here is where they cross the road, no doubt following an ancient elephant trail.

Of course we take a tour of a tea plantation and are mesmerised by the marbled texture of the tea fields, as they stretch endlessly over the hills.

Our guide, Prateesh, (below) shows us something we have never seen, the delicate blossom of the tea plant...

...and he also tells us that tea bushes can live for well over a hundred years, sometimes to 300 years.

The leafy tips need to be picked every 12 days and picking is still mainly carried out by women. Most teams live in villages on the plantation and the men work on other, heavier tasks, associated with tea production.

Later, in a nearby spice plantation we see these well-known spices, a surprise to see in this colour rather than the black they become when dried. Cloves of course!

But do you recognise this one? The brown part is nutmeg, hidden inside its fruit, and the brilliant red covering is mace.

There is so much to see and do. As we descend to Thekaddy the air becomes warm and humid. For this reason we leave our hotel early for a several-kilometre forest walk. They say there are tigers in the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, but we saw only guar, the largest and possibly the most dangerous of wild cattle, butterflies, birds and frogs.

And it was here too that we visited the end destination of the tea which is also grown in this area. In the dusty, noisy factory the leaves are withered, dried and turned into the black tea we all know so well.

One of the delights of visiting other countries is to find something which you did not know exists. Above, is appam, a popular Keralan bread, often served at breakfast. It is made using a fermented rice flour batter and is like a light crumpet. Its texture makes it ideal for mopping up the creamy coconut sauces of the local curries.

This fellow is prime suspect for stealing a bag of snacks I was carrying on the forest walk. He had been watching me, assessed that my bag was open and made a flying leap for the 'mugging', hardly touching me in the process.

An afternoon boat trip was popular, with each boat carrying a hundred or so passengers. For about an hour and a half we cruised Lake Periyar close to where we had walked that morning, sighting sambar deer, mongoose, wild boar, turtles, cattle and a dozen sorts of water birds and hawks.

 

Throughout Kerala, while the roads are jammed with scooters, buses, trucks and bicycles, the old forms of transport still persist.

The state of Kerala is as lively as the spices it uses so freely in its dishes. There is an upbeat sense of prosperity and hope for the future. Yet, turn a corner and the old ways are still evident, a fitting reminder of the history of this lovely region.

(to be continued)

More information about Kerala....

 

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