Perceiving Kerala

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Asia, India, South
Exploring the Backwaters of Kerala

Life in the Kerala Backwaters

Chapter 3, Part 3

“If you go to India you have to visit Kerala!”

“Why?”

“Because it’s God’s Own Country.”

Back in 2011 a business consultant from Kochi who worked in Jakarta said that to me over lunch with an evident sense of pride. She might have quoted Kerala’s own tourism slogan, but she might as well have been inspired by the uniqueness of her home state. Four years later, I find myself on a plane from Bangalore descending towards Cochin International Airport amid endless verdant hills and pastures of Kerala.

Upon arrival, a large billboard claims the airport to be the first in the world to be fully powered by solar energy. Revolutionary, I thought. Then come the ground staff who are all female, the only airport where all the ground staff are women as far as I can remember. Unlike other places in India which I have been to, cows are conspicuously absent from most of Kerala’s streets. This is presumably because of the high consumption of beef among the Christians and Muslims who together constitute up to 45% of the state’s population.

Kerala is also known as one of the most progressive states in India. In the latest nationwide census the state has the highest Human Development Index, the highest literacy rate, and the highest life expectancy of all states in the country. Another intriguing thing one will notice from the streets across Kerala is the ubiquitous hammer and sickle symbol, a global emblem of communism and a very stigmatized graphic identity in several countries including Indonesia.

Communism in Kerala, however, has evolved from the one practiced in the Soviet Union or China during the Cold War as it doesn’t alienate religion, among other things. A Muslim woman wearing hijab who is a member of the communist party and running for the state legislative election particularly catches my attention. Her posters vie for space on walls and fences all over the state with other candidates from a multitude of political parties – some bearing easy to recognize logos: a sewing machine, a television, an LPG canister, a faucet, a clock, a pair of glasses, a ladder, and many other mundane things.

Backwaters

An Inquisitive Boy and His Mother

Houseboat

One of the Houseboats that Ply the Backwaters

Backwaters Chapel

Kerala Has a Sizable Christian Community

Dogs

Even Dogs Take In the Tranquility

Smiling Kid

A Friendly School Boy

Virgin Mary

Virgin Mary in Our Boat

Political Parties

Communist’s Hammer and Sickle, among Television Party

In Kumarakom, more than 50 km away south of Kochi, our backwaters exploration begins. A combination of centuries of monsoon rains in the Western Ghats, the constant beating of the Indian Ocean, and human interference created the brackish backwaters which is now emblematic to Kerala. Tranquil ambiance with bucolic setting, occasionally peppered with old churches and colorful Hindu temples, is what I imagined before I came and it is exactly what I see and feel as our small boat glides through the calm water. With a short stopover at a modest food stall to have a sip of toddy, the experience is a much-needed respite after having to deal with aggressive rickshaw drivers in Fort Kochi a few days earlier.

More than 130 km to the northeast of Kumarakom is Anachal where James and I find ourselves in an even more quiet place to stay as our basic accommodation is surrounded by the lush foliage of Kerala’s hill stations. The town is located a little over 10 km away from Munnar, a popular hill station from which tourists usually start exploring the tea plantations spread all over the hills, and we decide to spend two nights in a hut, far from the crowds. Our proprietor, his wife and daughter, an American solo traveler, two dogs and a playful kitten are the only souls around.

In God’s own country our experience ends in both extremes. From the infuriating shopkeepers in Kochi who ask us questions as if we were criminals, not customers, to a dishonest rickshaw driver who is very insistent on taking us to places we don’t want to see, Kerala is downright disappointing. But the genuine hospitality of our host in Fort Kochi, the best meals I have in India, and the captivating performance of Kathakali restore my faith in the future of tourism in the southern Indian state.

Church and Mosque

A Chapel next to A Mosque in Anachal

Munnar

A Brief Sunny Moment in Munnar

Tea Plantation

Mist over A Tea Plantation

Tea Plantation

Home to One of India’s Most Important Tea-Producing Regions

Peppercorns, Kerala

European Powers Came to Kerala for Its Pepper, Among Other Commodities

Hut

Our Hut, Where We Spent A Few Nights in Anachal

~ End of Chapter 3 ~

Click here for the full list of stories from the Spice Odyssey series.

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Based in Jakarta, always curious about the world, always fascinated by ancient temples, easily pleased by food.

40 thoughts on “Perceiving Kerala”

    • I hope when you do come to this part of India one day and explore the backwaters, the weather will be much better than when I went. Oh and don’t forget to try the Keralan dishes — they were delicious!

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  1. Lovely Post! My family hails from kerala and I have spent endless summers in this beautiful land. It is indeed God’s own land and can offer so much! The cuisine is wonderful too which I blog about 🙂

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    • Nandi, Indu! What I loved about Keralan food was that it reminded me much of Javanese food which I grew up eating. I learned that the past connections between the peoples of southern India and Indonesia enriched the culinary scenes of both parts of Asia.

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    • Hi Mas Heru. Omnduut ikutan yang Kerala Blog Express kan ya? Saya perginya bulan November tahun kemarin mas, bagian dari perjalanan saya enam bulan keliling Asia Tenggara dan Selatan.

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  2. I visited Kerala for the first time last April – loved it so much, I’m back already. Loved reading this post and the pictures!

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    • The fried karemeen that I had in Kumarakom reminded me of my mother’s version of fried fish, and that surely was one of the highlights of my stay in Kerala.

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      • Great to hear that, we had to cancel our kumarakom trip, since my daugther had to join her college,sooner than expected..fish fries are a delicacies, sure in kerala.

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  3. Beautiful pictures, Bama. BBC edisi “The Story of India” episode pertama tayangin Kerala dan saya langsung jatuh cinta. Ingin mengawali jelajah awal peradaban India dari sana suatu hari kelak. Tulisan ini bikin semangat lagi mengumpulkan keinginan untuk nekad pergi ke India deh hehehe.

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    • Thank you, Halim. Kalo ke Kerala supaya pengalamannya optimal jangan pergi pas musim muson ya, soalnya cuaca bisa gak ketebak. Oh dan pas di sana cobain macem-macem masakan Kerala! Menurut saya masakan Kerala itu paling pas di lidah orang Indonesia dibandingkan masakan dari wilayah lain di India.

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  4. Kerala looks so tranquil. Every travel experience has its good and bad intertwined into memorable stories. It is impossible to relegate a place or its people into one simple category. Would you ever consider returning to this region?

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    • That is so true. A place that leaves a positive impression to one person might be disappointing for others –just like food. I would definitely go back for the food, plus I haven’t explored the southern part of Kerala. However the thing about returning is the fact that there are so many things to see in India, so I might choose other parts of the country when I return one day.

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  5. You really drew me in here; I just loved following you on your route in to your little hut. The tea terraces and the pepper plant were such fresh greens – lovely! I’ve always thought this is a part of India I might particularly like.

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    • Lex, after retracing Vasco da Gama’s paths in Kochi, treat yourself a peaceful stay in one of those boathouses or one of the heritage houses in towns around the backwaters. After that go to the hill stations and learn one thing or two about the spices. Be prepared for some very persistent rickshaw drivers in Fort Kochi, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I loved kerala…i was there about 12 years ago with a group of teachers from australia…we did a lot of the tourist things in between visiting schools. The dancing particularly the kathakali dancers stand out sharply….i would love to visit again!

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    • I wonder if 12 years ago the extensive tourism campaign of the Indian state had already begun. After watching Kathakali I was really intrigued by other Keralan performing arts, including Thullal and Theyyam. I didn’t have enough time to watch the other two, though, but I would love to the next time I come.

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  7. Duh suasananya kelihatannya tenang banget ya… Hujan, sepi, romantis kali yaa…
    BTW, saya jadi bisa membayangkan apa yang dikatakan teman expat saya dari Kochi tentang kotanya… dan terjawab juga mengapa dia kristen…. hahaha biasanya yang dari Goa kan… ini ketauan saya malas research hahahaha…
    BTW lagi… chapter 4 apa ya?

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    • Banget mbak. Saking tenangnya kayaknya kalo saya seharian saya di atas kapal yang membelah backwaters itu saya agak-agak bosen deh, dan gatel pengen ke candi kuno atau gereja dan masjid tua yang ada di seantero India. Ya masing-masing orang beda preferensi sih. Ke backwaters di Kerala ini pasnya kalo udah mulai bosen sama candi (meskipun kalo saya kayaknya gak mungkin bosen candi sih). Chapter 4 mengenai era penjajahan bangsa Eropa mbak, yang menurut Pembukaan UUD 1945 penjajahan itu harus dihapuskan. 🙂 Tadinya saya mau bikin Chapter 3 lebih panjang, tapi di tengah jalan saya berubah pikiran dan merasa lebih baik di Chapter 4 saja saya elaborasi mengenai fase-fase penjajahan bangsa Eropa di Asia.

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    • Namaskaram Anna! The highlight of my stay in Kerala was definitely the food, particularly the Syrian Christian dishes. The amount of spices they used, the creaminess, the succulent chicken and fish… everything was just perfect!

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  8. Loved this post, and loved the title ~ prior to WordPress, I am not sure I could say one thing about Kerala as I was clueless about the State. Then WordPress and its community introduced this magical land to me ~ incredible photographs, stories and here an introduction into a culture and history with your words and photographs. You paint a magical picture here Bama ~ wonderful, and I look forward to the day I visit Kerala.

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    • Thank you very much, Randall. It’s always nice to hear from you. I must say Kerala and its residents have been quite successful in promoting the state as a destination different from the rest of India, which makes it more appealing to outsiders. When one day you come to Kerala I’m sure you’d love Kathakali as much as I did.

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  9. We had a similar experience in that we found Kochi to be totally overrated. We didn’t have bad experiences with the people, but I just found it to be boring and not pretty. We loved Munnar, taking a trek to that high peak right out of town with a local guide and saw a big communist rally in the middle of town that was interesting to say the least. Overall, I think Kerala is great as long as you skip Kochi!

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    • I guess the notion of Kochi as a romantic destination brings a lot of people’s expectations’ high. One time that pushy rickshaw driver took us to a traditional market, which looked exactly the same with the traditional markets here in Indonesia… hardly exotic, really. However the history is something people should look forward to when they decide to come to this city.

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  10. You and I both had such mixed feelings about Kerala – in a way it summed up our broader experience of India. The local tourism bureau has done a fabulous job marketing Kerala to an international audience, but I really did feel that most of the places we went to just didn’t live up to those expectations. Kochi especially, what with the rudeness/aggressiveness of its autorickshaw drivers and shop assistants. But you were right about the glorious food… that was a major plus, and I’d love to take a cooking class the next time I go.

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    • It seems like there are people who experienced mostly positive things in Kochi, and those who have mixed feelings, like us. I’m really glad we waited until our final night in Fort Kochi to watch Kathakali as it was one of the best things the city had to offer, apart from the food, of course. I just looked up my food photos from Kochi, and oh my! I do miss those dishes!

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