God’s own country

by Jeff Kingston

Special To The Japan Times

Everywhere around Kerala in southwest India there are signs emblazoned with the state motto: “God’s Own Country” — and certainly no supreme deity could have chosen a better place to call home.

There is much to explore, incredible natural beauty, more temples than anyone would want to visit in a lifetime, incredible culture, glorious beaches and the food is divinely inspired and subtly spiced as befitting one of the world’s oldest great spice entrepots.

Keralans are not shy about the virtues of their homeland — and they have good reason to be proud.

Kerala tops the human-development index in India, has a 95 percent literacy rate, is rated the least-corrupt state in India and has five of the nation’s best cities to live in. It is also relatively prosperous, as remittances from Keralans working in the Middle East have fueled what is called the Gulf Boom. Consequently, there are some Muslim villages where elegant mansions have been built on Arabic lines.

Unlike in the north of India where religion tends to be much more polarizing, here in the south there is a more laid-back tolerance, although Kerala is not free from incidents involving its Muslims (24 percent), Christians (19 percent) and Hindus (56 percent).

Of course caste remains strong, and it is one of the themes in Arundhati Roy’s Booker Prize-winning 1997 masterpiece, “The God of Small Things.” She is from, and the novel is set in, Kerala. It is a story written in a very distinctive style that explores many facets of loss, and none more poignantly than what happens as a consequence of forbidden love that crosses caste lines.

Kerala’s coastal areas are flat and criss-crossed by brackish estuaries, lagoons and canals that constitute the Backwaters, where tourists often hire houseboats for lazy cruises into wetland areas ideal for birdwatching. Kingfishers are a common sight, and if you are lucky you might even spot an owl.

Along the state’s eastern border are the Western Ghats. These highlands that run all the way down from Mumbai help keep the rain in as it arrives on prevailing westerly winds from the Arabian Sea — which is why Kerala is so lush and Tamil Nadu on the rain-shadow side of the highlands is so dry.

In that mountainous terrain there are lovely plantations around Munnar that retain some of the British colonial heritage, and there are, too, extensive trails and reserves for walking and game-spotting.

To witness the state’s famed theyyam trance-dancing festivities you need to go to the northern Kannur region that can be reached by a comfortable train service that departs from near Cochin Airport, a main hub with flights via Singapore.

Tellicherry of pepper fame is a good base for the dance, and from there it is only a few hours’ drive up into the unspoiled northern Wayanad hills where a good guide is essential for jungle trekking and exploring the massive national game reserves where elephants and wild water buffalo wander in herds and the odd tiger is sometimes seen.

Traveling southward into the more developed Wayanad region near Sultan’s Battery is to tempt yourself (and hopefully succumb if funds permit) to stay in some of the evocative colonial era bungalows that have been converted into elegant accommodations. There, the air is crisp and tranquility reigns for walks by waterfalls and through plantations with stunning views down toward the plain.

With all Kerala’s natural attractions there is no compelling reason to visit any of the cities, but Fort Cochin is a charming colonial gem in which to happily wander back-alleys by many dilapidated houses and some impressive restorations. Walking along the harbor, cameras are sure to be trained on the massive Chinese nets — an impressive sight, although I am not sure about eating the fish they catch from the busy port waters.

Cochin offers all mod cons — Internet cafes, bookstores, Apple repair, good food at reasonable prices — and it is a convenient place to start or end a trip. There, you can hire a pedal cab to take you around the major sights in an afternoon for a few hundred rupees — don’t miss the Jain Temple or the Jewish quarter — and it is a good way to get oriented and beat the sometimes oppressive heat.

But be prepared — Fort Cochin is an anachronistic oasis surrounded by a modern and charmless bustling city that carries on with the commerce that at one time helped fund some of the crumbling colonial palaces in the old quarter.

Charming places to stay in Kerala

Green Lagoon: Nothing can quite match being whisked from Cochin Airport and crossing the lagoon by boat under the stars to this boutique resort on its own island. It is a superb oasis of tranquility for unwinding and lazing while contemplating the next meal. If the noise from the loudspeaker of the Hindu temple across the water gets too much, the manager sends a man over who pays the temple a modest sum to lower the volume! The German owner has collected Keralan antiquities over the decades, and has a small museum in situ and interesting pieces are scattered over the enchanting grounds. You won’t want to leave here (www.green-lagoon.com).

Kannur: If you are going for the theyyam dances, one of the best options is Ayisha Manzil (ayishamanzil@rediffmail.com), where C.P. Moosa is the likable host and his wife cooks some of the best food you will ever eat. He can help with theyyam information and arrange local tours.

Wayanad: Fringe Ford is a spartan former cardamon plantation lodge in a remote location perfect for trekking, bonfires and star-gazing, and has unexpectedly good food (www.fringeford.com).

Fort Cochin: The Old Lighthouse Bristow is a recent renovation in a superb location overlooking beach and harbor. The distinctive colonial exterior and modern interior makes for a very comfortable hotel with superb al fresco dining looking over the Arabian Sea. Don’t miss the magic fingers of Kanon the masseur, who ensures guests are relaxed and happy throughout their stay (www.oldlighthousehotel.com). Sanchari Holidays (www.sanchariholidays.com) is an excellent local travel company that can tailor a trip to your interests and budget.