God’s Own Country... an outrageously ambitious tag-line for the southern Indian state of Kerala conjured up by a wizard at an advertising agency for the state’s tourism department. Surprisingly, this epithet really fits this tiny but beautiful state and has resulted in huge numbers of people coming here to discover for themselves the charms of Kerala. How can one even begin to describe the amazing natural beauty of Kerala? Lush green hills, their slopes covered with verdant forests bearing unique medicinal herbs and plantations of the most aromatic exotic spices – cardamom, cloves, ginger, pepper, nutmeg, mace as well as coffee and cashew nuts. Kerala boasts of a coastline with an ancient legacy – from the time of the Romans to the Arabs, Portuguese, Dutch, and British, there have been major trading ports located here. Kerala is home to endless rice paddies, tender green at first and then changing to a burnished gold as the rice ripens. And then of course, Kerala is synonymous with the ‘Backwaters’ – those languid channels of water that run parallel to the Arabian Sea where the brackish sea water and fresh-waters of rivers meet.
Journey Through India, the latest offering by Smithsonian Journeys allows for a fascinating exploration of the many aspects of India and culminates in Kerala, God’s Own Country. After twenty days of being in North and Western India, we flew from Mumbai, the bustling financial capital of India to Kochi, one of the major cities of Kerala. As the aeroplane flew low over the city, one could see hundreds of coconut trees in every direction. No wonder, this state was named Kerala for kera means coconut. After landing in Kochi, we transferred to a coach which was to take us to the backwaters. Driving through the countryside was fascinating – Kerala is amongst one of the most developed states in India with a high standard of living and this really shows in the grand shopping malls, majestic apartment complexes and fancy homes we passed as we drove along.
Soon, our bus got off the main highway and onto a narrow country road. We stopped near a village surrounded by verdant green rice fields and the ubiquitous coconut palms. A few minutes of walking got us to our astonishing quarters for the next two nights – an impressive rice-boat cruising down the beautiful palm-fringed placid backwaters. We get on-board and are led to a beautiful open to the sky deck where hot tea and snacks await us. Even as we are drinking in all the beauty, it is time to set off. We watch a beautiful sunset and all the Smithsonian travelers get out their cameras to capture the beauty of the backwaters in the glow of the setting sun.
The rice boats that ply on the backwaters are known as Kettuvallams and are made from a local wood called anjali, planks of which are tied together with coconut coir ropes coated with a mix of cashew and fish oil. Once upon a time, these boats were a popular way to transport rice but today, rice is shipped by road and these boats have been converted to host tourists and take them down the waterway offered by the backwaters. Sitting on the deck, watching the stars in the clear sky, our group of travelers relax, the calmness and quietness of the balmy night seeping into our souls. We dock for the night and it is time for a lovely dinner cooked on board by the gracious staff.
Next morning, after breakfast, we set off, the coconut and banana fringe on the edge of the backwaters parting now and then to reveal brightly painted homes. We watch people begin their day at the water’s edge – washing their faces, bathing, washing dishes, hanging up washed clothing, filling up water, chasing birds from their fields, walking to work, praying and meditating. There are groups of neatly dressed school children waiting for their boat ride to school – sure beats a boring school bus any day. On the backwaters, fishermen ply their narrow boats, checking on their nets and transporting their catch. Churches appear along the shore, impressive in their soaring height, offering some competition to the tall coconut palm and betel nut palm. A temple or two announce their presence with religious music.
Soon it is time to dock and go for a village walk, the sight and sounds so different from what we have seen so far on this Journey Through India. The villages are more prosperous here, the money being repatriated by people from Kerala working in the Gulf countries and elsewhere. Houses are painted in bright shades and have beautiful verandahs that offer respite from the bright sun. The local flora is fascinating – the flowers, spice plants, medicinal plants and fruit trees in the home gardens offering a glimpse into the reasons why Kerala has been in the forefront of the spice trade and the centre of the ancient Indian healing tradition of Ayurveda. Back to the boat and some more cruising along the backwaters till we reach an ancient church – there is a baptism going on and the Smithsonian travelers are delighted to view the proceedings in the beautiful church.
After a splendid lunch of traditional Kerala cuisine on the boat, it is time to soak in the sun on the breezy deck and swap stories of travel. We dock at a boat-building yard, which makes for a fascinating visit. There are new boats being built and old ones being repaired – we see for ourselves the ropes that tie the boat together and how they are water-proofed with the different oils. The boat-builders are very skilful, not stopping for a minute as we walk from boat to boat, the rhythmic sound of their hammers and saws a nice accompaniment to our tour of the yard. Back to the boat in time to catch yet another gorgeous sunset.
All the travelers are relaxed and refreshed, going over pictures of the places we have seen so far, making plans for other travels. We tuck into another delicious meal and it is time to go to bed for we travel to Kochi next morning. Kochi with its delicious amalgamation of native Kerala traditions and Arab, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences is a story for another time. For the moment, the backwaters and the rice-boat cast their spell and we enjoy every moment of the leisurely languorous mood here.
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