by Uma Gokhale
I have been in India almost my whole life but until now I truly hadn’t seen anything as beautiful as Kerala. The word Kerala is made up of two parts – ‘Ker’ which means coconut trees and ‘Alay’ which means home, making ‘Kerala’ home to coconut trees.
My husband & I started our journey from Kanyakumari, the south end of the country and traveled up to Kochin visiting several breathtakingly beautiful destinations along the way. I’ll tell you about my favorite ones.
First on our list was of course the Vivekanand ashram which is in the sea. Vivekanand is considered a key figure in the introduction of Indian philosophies of Vedanta and Yoga to the “Western” World, mainly in America and Europe and is also credited with raising interfaith awareness, bringing Hinduism to the status of a major world religion during the end of the 19th century C.E. — from Wikipedia. The ashram has a nice meditation room along with, as you can see, an amazing view.
Very close to the ashram is the Thiruvalluvar Statue which is a 133 feet (40.5 m) tall stone sculpture of the Tamil poet and saint Tiruvalluvar, author of the Thirukkural.
Next we visited Trivendrum (the political capital of Kerala state), Kottayam & Periyar. At Periyar we stayed at the Periyar house, the (comparatively) low cost accomodation provided by the state government which was undoubtedly the best Indian government accomodation I have ever seen with comfortable and clean rooms and good food.
Periyar is also home to a National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary where we enjoyed a speed boat ride and spotted animals like antelopes, wild boars and more. We met this nice Swiss couple at the Periyar house who were visiting India for the first time and were surprised by how nice & honest people in Kerala were, after having heard stories (prior to their visit by friends who’d already visited) on how they needed to be careful and stay away from people that rob foreigners all the time! Having lived in this country, it really was a pleasant surprise for me too to come across the very kind, polite, simple, honest and helpful local people in Kerala. Not once did anyone try to take advantage of us using our lack of knowledge about their language (because people in this state we noticed usually speak no Hindi and very less English. Most speak only their language, Malyalam) and location.
One of the most important attractions of Kerala is the houseboat. They charge anywhere between Rs. 4000 to Rs.9000 per night and the boats are well furnished with a couple of bedrooms, a living room out on the deck, & bathrooms. You even have your own butler to enjoy local delicacies like coconut gravies, Appams & more on-board. Houseboats are the best way to enjoy the scenic backwaters of Kerala that are full of coconut & other exotic trees & plants.
The second attraction is the Ayurvedic massage. Shirodhara is a form of Ayurveda medicine that involves gently pouring liquids over the forehead (the ‘third eye’). It was developed by vaidyas (practitionars of Ayurveda) in Kerala, India for use in sukhachikitsa (restorative therapy) and can be one of the steps involved in Panchakarma. – from Wikipedia. Ayurvedic massage is a deep tissue massage that’s rejuvenating and relaxing. The generous amount of oil that is used for the massage is completely flattering.
Massages start from about Rs.1200 and take about 45 minutes to finish. They are usually followed by an Ayurvedic steam bath which involves getting inside a small body suite kind of a thing that has a steamer inside.
Next we visited Guruwayur which has the famous elephant sanctuary with about 37 elephants brought in from various places in the country. Guruwayur is also an old temple in the city. What’s interesting is all elephants in the sanctuary have been donated to the Guruwayur temple by followers. A single Kerala elephant can cost up to Rs. 1,00,00,000. Others can cost between Rs. 25,00,000 to 50,00,000. This time of the year is their mating season so we were warned not to go too close to them to take pictures as during the mating season they tend to go wild and end up attacking first their trainers (!) and then the guests to the sanctuary. This was a really unforgettable experience watching all these elephants so close moving around pretty much minding their own business.
Next we visited Munnar which is colder than the rest of the places we visited. We stayed at a hotel called ‘Silver Tips’ which used to be a cinema hall! Not only that but the person who took over the cinema hall and turned the property into a hotel, had maintained the hotel’s theme as ‘movies’, respecting its history. The walls of the hotel are all filled with pictures of old and new Hollywood as well as Indian and South Indian film actors. To add to the fun, each room has a specific movie theme. For example, the ‘Lord of the Rings’ room will have pictures and posters from that movie inside. Even the lights in the room were made to look like lights that are used a light up a film scene and there were very old movie cameras in the corridors giving it a retro look. This was the first cinema hall in this area to ever run a weekly Hollywood movie show since the owner was married to an American. Staying here was a very memorable experience in itself.
In Munnar, we went to the famous tea museum owned by the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company (previously owned by TATA) and enjoyed watching the entire process that tea leaves go through until they’re ready to be packed as tea powder. This company is the only company in the country where 98% of the company shares are owned by the local workers that helped make this company a success.
Since tea plants live longer than a 100 years, they are technically trees and not plants. The oxidization process that the leaves go through turn their color from green to brown. Green tea does not undergo oxidization. We also learned about white tea which is made from a special inner part of the tea leaf and is the most expensive. At Munnar, we brought a range of special Kerala spices that smell so delicious you just don’t feel like leaving the spice store!
Our last destination was Cochin, the commercial capital of the state. I loved this city because when you take a look around you see tall commercial buildings, the airport and other developments and right on the side of the buildings your see boats floating around in the backwaters. Its the perfect blend of nature & civilization.
Here we also enjoyed the local dance form called ‘Kathakali’ wherein every male dancer wears jewelry about 45 kgs heavy and every female dancer, about 25 kgs. This is because jewelry and make-up play a very significant part in this dance form that highlights facial expressions. The make up itself takes about 3 hours. To become a Kathakali dancer, artists get up at 3 in the morning and practice for years before becoming eligible to present a performance.
In every aspect, it really did feel like we visited God’s own country! Definitely well worth a visit if you’re visiting the country.
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