Walk the streets of historical Kochi, hike the tea and cardamom plantations of Munnar, spot tigers in the Periyar Tiger Reserve near Kumily, then relax for a few days in a houseboat on the Alleppey backwaters and the fine beaches of Varkala.
India is a federal union of states comprising twenty-eight states. Kerala state, located in the southwest along the Arabian Sea, is the only state with more women than men (1,084 women per 1,000 men in 2011). Bordered by the state of Tamil Nadu to the east, and the state of Karnataka to the north, Kerala is most famous for its history and arts (most notably in the town of Kochi), the tea, coffee, and cardamom plantations in the Western Ghats mountain range, the wildlife sanctuaries and tiger reserves, the Kerala backwaters along the Arabian Sea, and of course the tropical beaches.
A great start to experiencing the Kerala way of life is of 1524 after earlier sailing around Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.
However, Vasco is no longer resting here as his son came in 1539 to take daddy’s remains back to his birth-land of Portugal where Vasco was re-interred in a casket decorated with gold and jewels in Vidigueira (southeast of Lisbon). The Portuguese rule was followed by that of the Several Dutch graves can still be seen near the St. Francis Church.
Kochi is a colourful place and some of the highlights include the old area referred to as Fort Kochi where you can see the “Chinese fishing nets” in operation. These large structures were introduced by Portuguese Casado settlers from Macau. Other highlights include the old, though severely decaying colonial buildings, the St. Francis Church, Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, Bolgatty Palace, Hill Palace, the Mattancherry Palace also known as the Dutch Palace, and a few nearby islands.
Probably the most interesting attraction is to attend a Kathakali performance at the famous Kathakali Theater. Kathakali means Mudra Kathakali Center in the town of Kumily when you visit the Cardamom Hills near Thekkady.
Next, a 4-hour trip by private car and driver goes to the hill station of Munnar in the Western Ghats range of mountains known for its tea, coffee, and cardamom plantations. The picturesque town is at the confluence of the Madhurapuzha, Nallathanni and Kundaly rivers and while it is a pleasant town to stay, the most recommended accommodation is a home-stay at one of the many lovely tea plantation estates.
Most visitors to Munnar come for the cool mountain breeze, good Kerala food, and for hikes around the tea, coffee, and cardamom plantations. The misty mountain peaks are covered in lush vegetation and some primary forests. In the sylvan valleys are placid lakes, meandering streams, some wildlife such as the Nilagiri tahr (a rare breed of mountain goat), wild pigs, and porcupines. Beautiful orchids can be seen in spring. Munnar is famous for the wild Neelakurinchi orchid which blooms once every 10 to 12 years and turns the valleys into violet shades.
Munnar is probably most famous for having the highest tea estates in India. The British settlers during the colonial times introduced the tea cultivation to Kerala and today the rolling hills are covered in green pruned tea (Camellia Sinensis) plantations. Walking around the tea plantations you can smell the pleasant aroma of the tea vanilla which are both locally grown here in Kerala).
KUMILY AND THEKKADY
From Munnar travel south to the pleasant town of Kumily surrounded by tea and cardamom plantations, the nearby area of Thekkady, and the Periyar Tiger Reserve. Kumily is a border-town (Kerala state and Tamil Nadu state) in the Cardamom Hills and is the gateway to the Periyar National Park and Wildlife Sanctuary at Thekkady. The Thekkady area is a haven for natural spices such as black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon and cloves.
Kumily town is quite interesting and worth a day or two. Walk around the spice markets and visit a Kathakali dance performance at the town’s Mudra Kathakali Centre. The Indian Martial Arts performance called Kalaripayattu at the Kadathanadan Kalari Centre is spectacular.
The Periyar Tiger Reserve is spread across 777 square km, of which about half is dense evergreen forest. It was declared a Tiger Reserve in 1978 and in 2010 it was estimated that 53 tigers roam the park. About 1,000 Indian elephants also live here, in addition to the gaur ox, dholes (wild dogs), foxes, mongoose, giant squirrels, an unknown number of leopards, and the very rare Nilgiri langur – a type of “Old World” monkey which I was fortunate to see twice during my hiking in the sanctuary. The sanctuary can be explored through hiking, boating and jeep safaris.
HOUSEBOATS ON ALLEPPEY BACKWATERS
From Kumily head back to the Arabian Sea for the highlight of the trip: A live-aboard boathouse cruise from the town of Alappuzha around the Kerala Backwaters. Alappuzha, also known as Alleppey, is a town along the Arabian Sea and is best know as the gateway to the Kerala Backwaters.
Malayalam is the most common language, while Hindi, English and Tamil are also widely spoken. The town itself does not have much to see. Attractions in and around town are limited to temple festivals (at the right time of the year), St. Mary’s Church (established by St. Thomas), a 9th century Karimadi Kuttan statue of Buddha, Sreekrishna Swamy Temple, and the Marari-beach.
Unquestionably, the main reason people arrive in town is to find their boat for a few days of relaxation on the Kerala backwaters.
The “backwaters” of Kerala connects Kumarakom and Kochi towards the north and Quilon to the south and is a chain of brackish lagoons, inlets, rivers, and lakes lying parallel to the Arabian Sea coast (known as the Malabar Coast). Lord Curzon of Kedleston (11 January 1859 – 20 March 1925), a British Conservative statesman who was Viceroy of the Indian Empire, described the Alleppey backwaters as the “Venice of the East”.
Get your snacks, drinks, and friends and walk along the canals to choose the best boathouse. A two-day-one-night trip will suffice, though a three-day-two-night should be superb. relaxation and meeting the welcoming local Kerala folks.
Conclude a great trip through Kerala state with a few days relaxing at Varkala Beach. Also known as “Papanasam beach” (which literary means ‘washing away your sins’), Varkala Beach is the only place in southern Kerala where cliffs rise up high along the Arabian Sea. Most of the accommodation, restaurants and shops are perched on the high cliffs so you are safe against any possible tsunamis. Swimming is great though the best time of the day is late afternoon to watch the colourful sunset over the sea while sipping on a cocktail. After sunset, many restaurants along the top of the cliffs come alive and offer the day’s catch Alternatively you can have dinner right on the beach at the northern end of the cliffs.
Other than staring over the ocean, a few other attractions are worth visiting such as the 2,000-year old Janardana Swami Temple (a Vaishnavaite shrine), also referred to as Dakshin Kashi (Benares of the South). The temple is close to Papanasam beach, which is considered to have holy waters to wash away sins – afterwards get a nice Ayurveda treatment too. The famous bell shaped Sivagiri Mutt (built in 1904) is situated at the top of the Sivagiri hill near Varkala. Sree Narayana Guru, the social reformer, was enlightened and also buried here. devotees to the Guru’s Samadhi (final resting place).
Varkala beach is 180 km by train from Kochi (140 km from Alappuzha) and makes a perfect spot to stay over for a few days enroute to Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, from where flights go to many places across India, as well as (currently) to the Middle East, Singapore, Maldives and Sri Lanka.
Have a wonderful stay, The Kerala Way. It just may be the best trip you have ever done!
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This 216 glossy page book is packed with photos of Kerala State, India, to introduce the reader to living life “the Kerala way.”
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