Kerala : God’s Own Country Kerala Travel Guide by Arabella Seebaluck This is where those wanting to indulge in the magic of the monsoon and elephant processions proceed. This is where fogs disperse for your eyes to feast on the mountains of the Western Ghats… or where all manners of spices and fragrances exist to tickle your taste buds or nose. It is also where the coconut-hungry come to feed! You are thus welcome to God’s own country, Kerala… the land of sun and insect bites, folded and unfolded lungis, white cotton, green gold and blue or backwaters. The mythological origins of this strip of land located south-west of the Indian peninsula are recounted as beginning with the ‘Satya Yug’ or ‘Era of Truth’ according to Hindu belief. Feeling regret for killings her undertook, Lord Parasurama, an avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu, is thought to have thrown his axe into the Arabian Sea, which borders the coast. This is how, the story goes, this piece of land rose from the depths of the seabed. The God of Oceans, Varun and the Goddess of Earth, Bhumi, bestowed abundant blessings on this new land, leading to its sobriquet of ‘God’s Own Country’. The state is squeezed by the sea border on the west, and the epic Western Ghats on the eastern front. The coastline itself is almost 600 kilometres long, sweeping sandy beaches and sleepy backwaters in its length. But this place isn’t “same to same” wherever you go. There are distinct features about the different places, particularly east to west. Therefore, it can be categorised into mountains and valleys, the plains and the coast. The Western Ghats are a natural rock partition that make up the boundary of the Kerala state in the east, with the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. The only ‘hole’ in this wall is at Palakkad, with the well-known Palakkad Gap, which is a low mountain pass. But the peaks on this mountain range can otherwise soar up to 2500 metres above sea level. Deep valley and dense forests cover parts of these areas, which are also home to the sources of the state’s rivers. The famous Kaveri River originates from these parts, and like its many lesser-known counterparts flows through no more than a rough 100 km into the Arabian Sea. In the centre of the state, the Midland Plains is crop country. Anything from paddy fields, to rubber estates, orchards, palms, pepper, tea and coffee grow in abundance there. The sea coast, or Malabar Coast, is also luscious green almost throughout, with intertwined backwaters and sandy strips, completing the configuration of ‘God’s Own Country’. From Backwaters to Beaches Kerala can be classified in many ways, but for the adventure-seeker, it is perhaps best to break this down in the main categories of what can be seen and what can be done if you choose to land yourself there. The state can be divided four-fold, which will allow you either to focus on what most appeals to you, or pick and choose to see and do a bit of everything. By and large terms, these categories would be the backwaters, the hill stations, the wildlife and beaches. Kerala Backwaters Canals, rivers and lakes merge into a conundrum of over 900 km making up the Kerala backwaters. The network is comprised of five lakes that are connected by natural and manmade canals, alimented by no less than 38 rivers that span over half the state. Wave action and nature’s other trickeries led to the creation of these transcendent waterways that compete with the Malabar Coast by gliding alongside it as a family of long, slithering snakes. If these home the romantic-looking kettuvallams or houseboats which are popular with visitors, many of them also have industrial or sporting functions. A luxuriant ecosystem also exists in the backwaters, which depend almost exclusively on fresh water. In some places, the rivers have been engineered so that sea water does not enter the fresh water streams, so as not to thwart the irrigation processes particularly. In terms of natural habitat, it is home to a brimming and exotic fauna and flora that includes the most incredible different species of birds, otters and even turtles. The Backwaters also host a number of boat races, especially around the regional festival of Onam. But these, of course, deserve a section entirely to themselves! So please read on… Alappuzha Perhaps your internet search will lead you straight to this destination, which is an entire district which is also known as Alleppey. Like anywhere else on the backwaters, kettuvalams are widely available within the broadest range of cruises and packages you may dream of. Linked to the famous Vembanad Lake, the network of canals in this region offer you a live show of everything you could have imagined finding in Malayali country. From coconut lagoons to King Fishers picking their food inside paddy fields, locals in their lungis or precious rice cargos being ferried across the canals, this is quite a striking scenery to the alien eye. Within India, you can easily get a flight from most metro cities to Kochi, which lies about 85 km of Alappuzha. The town also has a railway station that bears its name, making it easy to identify if trying to connect via train. Buses also link this area to all the main regional hubs. Travel will therefore highly depend on where you are arriving from. Local boat tours are widely available at the pier near the KSRTC Bus Station. Ashtamudi The name of Ashtamudi refers to the lake that bears the same name, as well as what resembles eight arms or tributaries. Some refer to it as the ‘gateway’ to the backwaters, given it is the second biggest in the state. Like other backwater areas, Ashtamudi has a buoyant ecosystem, which is even under the purview of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands. The Kollam District, where this lake is located, offers many tours and packages for this area. The nearest airport is Trivandrum International Airport, at about 70 km. Kollam Junction is the nearest rail station only 2 km away. Alumkadavu If you’re still in Kollam District, you may want to stop at Alumkavadu, not only for its enchanting canals, but also to delve into how the houseboats, or kettuvalams, are built. Coir, or coconut rope, and wood hang heavy in the Alumkavadu air, as artisans work craftily on building the barges. Something not to be missed for anyone who wants a bit of culture over and above lazily floating up and down the streams. Chandragiri Fort & River There is some majesty always associated with fortresses, and imagine them juxtaposed to the most majestic river arrangement. This is combination you will be offered at Chandragiri, whose fort which goes by the same name was built in the 17th century by a ruler called Sivapa Naik. Although most of the structure is in ruins now, it still lies atop a hill from where a beautiful scene of river-going-into-sea can be admired. Beautiful sunsets are also renowned there, particularly at the historic Kizhur state temple. There is multitude of islands nearby which are within reach from the Boat Club or other agencies which arrange cruises for all budgets and tastes. The nearest arrival points to this destination are by rail at Kasaragod, which is 7 km away. Mengaluru Airport (in the neighbouring state of Karnataka) is about 65 km away. Chithari This is a lesser known destination. It is still rather wild and more so authentic than the more widely visited spans of the backwaters. A small tropical island exists on this stretch, which is part of the Bekal Tourism Project – the idea being to make this rather virginal part of India a more frequented one. Good or bad, it may be worth going there while it is still unspoilt and earthy. Kanhangad is the nearest railway station at about 5 km, while Mengaluru Airport is a rough 50 km. Calicut International Airport lies some 200 km away. Kumarakom A little group of islands make up the village of Kumarakom on the Vembanad Lake. Activities there are not limited to fishing, as travellers can also choose to stay at the stilt-cottages built there by local authorities. For nature lovers, the bird sanctuary is a definite must. Almost 6 hectares of land gorge with the most beautiful ducks, darters, egrets and herons, whilst migratory birds such as the Siberian stork make their yearly stop to the delight of anyone who’s lucky enough to catch this sight. Kottayam Railway Station is about 13 km away from this destination, while Kochi Airport is about 95 km further. Kumbalangi Lying some 50 km from Kochi, in the district of Ernakulam, this is what has been termed as a ‘model’ fishing village. It has been earmarked to become the state’s first ecotourism village, through the properly-coined name Kumbalangi Integrated Tourism Village. What this means is that any visitor there should be able to come face to face to fishing in all its traditional forms. A bounty for keen fishermen and women to be sure, but also to these to just soak in the surrounding invigorating nature. Like any place that is close to water, the fauna and flora can only be luxuriant, promising a visual treat to nature lovers. Over and above just sitting waiting for the fish to bite or the birds to fly, one can also have a peek into traditional handicrafts on display there. These, of course, include ‘forms’ pertaining to everything that is fish-related! As mentioned before, Kochi and its International Airport are at approximately 46 km from the village, while Ernakulam is a rough 14 km away. Kuttanad After fish, let’s now talk rice. Paddies were mentioned previously and this is the place which has been nicknamed ‘the rice bowl’ of Kerala. Do not mistake this place with somewhere in Indonesia, because the backwaters are there, very presently offering their distinct charm to the paddy fields. The propitious flowing of no less than four rivers into the area make it an ideal place for rice cultivation, in addition to its lying below sea level, thus permitting the flooding that is the very character of paddies. Populations there are equally as connected to the land as in the majority of Kerala, where agriculture is prime. So there will be some hard and serious labour going on, and this could certainly be worth observing and getting excellent pictures of. You may get some of the parrots too as they circle over the paddies, alongside an array of other wonderful other species. Alappuzha, some 20 km away, is the nearest railway station and Cochin International Airport is at about 85 km from there. Valapattanam Valapattanam is found in Kannur, which is one of Kerala’s largest cities, with a million plus people. Stretched out on the Malabar Coast, the village is known for its impressive timber industry, particularly one company which has been coined as the largest of its kind in the South East Asian region. There are lots of industries that flourish in addition to the backwater tourism chapter in this location: teak, tobacco, cashew nuts and coffee are among the many cash crops in the area. So this may not be the leisurely glide associated with other less prolific backwater spots, but it promises to be equally enriching. Kannur railway station is at about 7 km from the village while Calicut International Airport is a further 90 km away approximately. Hill Stations in Kerala One thinks of Kerala and thinks of coconut groves and side winding waters. Hill stations are perhaps not the first thing that come to mind, but an impressive array of them exists throughout the state and its districts. Agasthiyamalai The Agasthiyamalai Hills (also known as Ashambu Hills) sit in between the Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts in the southern part of the state of Kerala. It is a microcosm of nature in its purest form. Indeed, the sage Agasthya, considered as the founder of Ayurvedic medicine, is said to have lived in these parts, which are reportedly home to some 2000 species of medicinal plants. Several wildlife sanctuaries are also holed up in the hills, which boasts a protected population of tigers and other wild animals. These make up the Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve, which is found in Tamil Nadu in the east, and could become a World Heritage Site if UNESCO gives it this prestigious seal of approval. The main peak, Agasthyakoodam, at nearly 2000 m above sea level, requires special mission for trekking. These are available from local state authorities. Another very interesting aspect of the Agasthyamalai is the Kanikkaran tribe. These are said to be a hunting-gathering tribe of distinct features, of whom there are only some 20 thousand individuals nowadays. The hills are at equidistance of Thiruvananthapuram Central railway station and International Airport, both an average of around 65 km from the town of Bonacaud. Ernakulam The district of Ernakulam homes several hill stations including Ayyampuzha, Kodanad, Kuttampuzha, Malayattur, and Thattekkad. These are smaller and lesser well known, but offer equal freshness and beauty, with the additional bonus of being rather untouched. Kochi is the nearest transport hub, with its international airport, railway and bus station offering a variety of solutions to the selected destinations. Taxis and other private vehicles are also usually widely available from the main hubs to and from more remote locations. Idukki Perhaps one of the more popular districts for hill stations, boasting the well-known Munnar destination. This place’s biggest attraction is that it is the meeting point of three rivers, therefore giving it a mystical beauty which blends in with the vigorous greenery of the area. Other than its fabulous tea plantations and nearby national reserve, the town has also one botanical feat which attracts specialists and amateurs alike: that of the blooming of the Neelakurinji (Strobilanthus) or Kurinji flower, as it is locally known, every twelve years. Other names to be reckoned with include Devikulam, Mattupetty, Chinnakanal, Ramakkalmedu, Nedumkandam and Udumbanchola. The connecting centres in this region, in addition to buses and taxis are Nedumbasseri , Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode airports. Railway stations in the district include Kottayam, Chenganachery and Ernakulam. Kannur Aralam, Iritty, Kanjirakolly, and Vaithalmala or Paithalmala are the main hill stations of the Kannur district, which lies north of the state of Kerala. If Aralam is especially known for its wildlife sanctuary, the other stations remain the little havens of greenery and waterfalls, swelling hills and falling gorges dotted with autochthonous dwellings. In Iritty, you are almost on the Coorg side of things, so this is a bit of a buy-one-get-one-free trip. But the village has its own unique river which goes by the same name flowing in its midst, so go there expecting a bit of specific charm and authenticity. The same goes for the nearby Vaithalmala, which also sits on the border with the state of Karnataka, close to the neighboring Kodagu Forest. Trekking is big in this particular area, with an ‘observatory’, built by local tourism authorities, offering trekkers and adventure seekers more than a great breath of fresh air. Expect landscapes to take this very breath away, and maybe put the camera down for a bit and just let your mind take in the snapshots! Many private bus services, as well as public (KSRTC) services operate from Kannur to a number of other locations. The district has no less than 4 bus stations, with the biggest being the Kannur Central Bus Terminal at Thavakkara, which also happens to be the biggest in Kerala. Kannur Railway Station is equally an important regional hub, which connects the town to all major suburbs and cities in the state and neighbouring regions. The nearest airports are Mengaluru Airport (in Karnataka) and Calicut International Airport, whilst the Kannur International Airport is under construction and expected to be completed in 2016. Kasaragod Ranipuram, in the Kasaragod district of northern Kerala, is nicknamed the Ooty of Kerala. It is a popular trekking destinations, where two distinct paths are available for enthusiasts. This is the place where elephants are often said to ‘come out to play’, not literally of course, but there have been a quite a few reported sightings of them. But another little animal which has an important part there is the Nilgir Tahr, considered to be an endangered species. Authorities are looking at reintroducing this rare animal to this natural habitat. Another nearby place which brims with wonderful wildlife are the Kottancheri Hills, which is also the other name for ‘trekker paradise’. The airports at Mengaluru and Calicut are the closest to this district. It has 9 railway stations at Kalanad Halt, Kanhangad, Kasaragod, Kotikulam, Kumbla, Manjeshwar, Nileshwar, Pallikere, Kallayi, Uppala and Vidyanagar. Kollam Aryankavu, in the Kollam District, is a mountain pass which boasts an impressive stone railway bridge, built over a dozen arches. This will only lead you to the many glens and grasslands of this area, which is known for wonderful water bodies, including some pretty impressive waterfalls. Thenmala is a sanctuary for both trekking enthusiasts and those looking to wallow in nature. This locality is proud of the initiative of being India’s First Planned Ecotourism Destination. If that doesn’t say it all, then you may have to indulge in the discovery of the place, its biodiversity and culture. If you’re looking to connect not only to nature, but also its Creator, then do stop at the nearby Kulathupuzha, some 25 km away. This is place is not only known for sitting in the middle of tranquil hills, and also Reserve Forest but also for being a pilgrim’s repose. Indeed the Sastha Temple is well frequented for serenity-seekers, for those who may be so inclined. Kollam has a long list of railway and bus stations, the main one being at Kollam Junction. The nearest airport in the area is the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport. Kozhikode Kozhikode or Calicut, is another one of these old places with a lot of nice old things which can be recalled through people and places. Names such as Vasco da Gama or Zamorins float in the air here... reminding visitors of its once ultimate commercial importance in spices and wood. The district, which is in the northern part of the state, is still milling with a bunch of various industries, the one of purport to us being tourism. Peruvannamuzhi is one of the stops that is a considered a ‘must’ in these parts, with scenic routes and a not-so-scenic dam which some consider as something worth seeing. Thamassery, close to the well-known Thusharagiri Falls which are folded inside the Wester Ghats, promises to be a slightly more interesting stop. The town is known to be quite a lively little spot, with lots of things visitors can add to their bucket list, including (but not limited to): the Kakkad Eco Tourism Centre, Kakkayam which boasts some scenic landscapes (and also a waterfall) and Vellari Mala, or the Camel Hump mountains. Thiruvambady, close to Vellari Mala, is another hilly spot with a well-known temple, the Thiruvambady Temple which is a participant to the Thrissur Pooram (see further down) – a famous feature with elephants. The temple has been gifted some 6 elephants which partake in these annual religious celebrations. Malappuram This is teak country, in particular Nilambur, which even has its own teak museum, which is run by the Kerala State Forest Institute. Not only does this underline the importance this type of wood has in the commercial lifeline of the area, but also in maintaining and preserving the important surrounding plantation forests. Indeed, Conolly's Plot is known to be the largest teak plantation in the world. The dense rain forest is also a tribal habitat, but its surroundings hosted royal residences, known as ‘kovilakom’. The Malappuram district is north of the state, in the Malabar region. Calicut is the closest international airport in the area, whilst the district boasts numerous railway stations including Angadippuram, Cherukara, Kuttippuram, Melattur, Perashshannur, Tirur and Vallikunnu. Palakkad In central Kerala lies the district of Palakkad, considered as the entry point to Kerala, given that it houses the only natural break in the Western Ghats at the ‘Palakkad Gap’. This makes it a bit of a numinous region to be in, given that it is the only ‘window’ this part of the state has to the rest of the country (we are not talking tech here, of course). Nelliyampathy is its hill-station crown jewel. This village is one which lives and breathes tea and coffee, not as beverages, but as cash crops. Vast plantations are therefore a rolling feat, but perhaps a little less interesting than the legendary Seethargund viewpoint, located a stone throw away. Legend indeed has it that this is no less than the place where the Hindu deity Lord Rama, his brother Laxman and wife Sita took a respite during their mythological time in exile. For Hindu religious mythology lovers, this would indeed be a trek worth taking! Coimbatore International Airport is one of the nearest to the district, with Kozhikode Airport and Cochin International Airport being not too far either. Pallakad Town and Pallakad Junction are the important railway stations in the district, which is also well connected by bus regional buses. Pathanamthitta This district is home to Gavi, which has reached international shores with its notorious beauty. It has been declared an eco-tourism centre, which avails of the expertise of locals in a variety of functions across the village. The site is a project of the Kerala Forest Development Corporation, spearheading this category of locations in India. It is also a plantation cluster, as hillsides roll with an abundance of tea and coffee plantations. Sabarimala, a famous Hindu pilgrimage abode, is close by. The Sabarimala temple is dedicated to Lord Ayyappa, according to the tradition that “… the temple at Sabarimala was built by Parasurama, the warrior-sage who reclaimed the Land of Kerala from the sea.” It is one of these sacred places in the Western Ghats that is just too mystical to be missed, especially by those seeking their own truths from the Divine. Chittar is another nearby village perched in the sides of the ghats, offering travellers its luscious combination of high rises and low falls, hill crests and waterfalls and everything you can expect to find under a forest canopy. The district is connected by rail through Kottayam, which is about 115 km away. Closest bus links are at Kumily and Vandiperiyar, whilst Kochi International Airport is some 190 km away. Thiruvananthapuram Welcome to the state capital district, where the hustle and bustle… oh wait, that’s not what you’re here for, is it? So let’s go straight to the Ponmudi Hills, this revered oasis of freshness, whose name can be translated as the ‘Golden Peak’. Any type of hustle and bustle can almost be forgotten there. Only the flutter of butterfly wings and murmur of meandering brooks can disturb you in these lush lands. Hikes and treks are top of the list here, alongside the hairpin-bended picturesque routes, like this traveller experienced: “While on our way to this place, we kept thinking-'What have we got ourselves into?' as the major chunk of distance from Trivandrum to this place is mostly boring and dull. But just when we took the 7th or 8th hairpin curve (out of a total 22), our opinion changed completely. Words can not describe the beautiful scenery, the windy cool weather and the clouds on top of mountains that we saw on our way to reach the top. Once we reached Ponmudi, we were literally blown away by the winds. I must say, you should definitely trek the other side of the mountains and climb the stairs to reach almost at the top of the mountain. The winds are crazzzyy there. Clouds were in, on, with and around us everywhere.” Vithura is a small village on the way to Ponmudi and also has much celebrated biodiversity. This village has an active autochthonous population, known for operating a small tribal market. They collect and gather forest produce which they sell in the market. Medicinal plants are particularly recognised there, as it is state-wide. The region also gorges with waterfalls, valleys and peaks of all sorts, promising a real delight for travellers. Being the state capital, Thiruvananthapuram (or Trivandrum) has its own international airport, as well as good rail and road links to major Indian hubs. These operate from the Thiruvananthapuram Central Railway Station and Central Bus Station. Wayanad Wayanad is the only district in Kerala to share borders with Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, but this isn’t what makes it so special. It has a very low rate of urbanisation (about 3%), which makes it as rural and as authentic as can be. Crested in the Western Ghats, north-east of the state, this district is home to a few hill stations which are great traveller favourites. Kalpetta, as being the main town of the district, is one of these. It is noted particularly for its many surrounding plantations, hills, lakes, falls and caves which are a combination of everything natural and wonderful any visitor would like to see. Similar landscapes are also part of Vythiri, which is some 10 km from Kalpetta. A town with a distinct character is Sultan Bathery, formerly known as Sultan ‘Battery’, for the fort that used to be there. This is a town which has a close connection to Mysore, the famous Kannadiga city some 140 km away. It is said that the town was named by the Tipu Sultan, who once ruled Mysore, and used this village as battery, which was installed in a former temple at the time. Given the closeness of Wayanad to two other states, it can either be reached by the state airport at Calicut (about 100 km), or the Mysore International Airport in Karnataka. Calicut is also the closest railway station while easy road access is operated by buses within Kerala and the neighbouring states. Wildlife in Kerala Wildlife in Kerala is diverse across the state, but has a few stars and heroes that are popular with visitors. Indeed, when one thinks of India, one thinks of either elephants or tigers… and it is a happy occurrence that both species are found in the many nature hubs there. But there is, of course, more to that in Kerala. Have you, for instance, heard of the Bonnet Macaque, Nilgiri or Common Langur, Malabar Giant Squirrel, Small Indian Civet or Sloth Bear ? These are only some of the fauna species listed by the Kerala Forests and Wildlife Department (KFWD), some of which can no longer be found in their natural habitat. The KFWD has categorised these natural habitats under two broad biospheres: the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve and the Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve. These are, in turn either determined as Wildlife Sanctuaries, National Parks or Community Reserves. Complete information on how to reach all of the reserves and sanctuaries, where to stay, trekking routes, permits, best time to visit and accommodation are available from the website of the KFWD at http://forest.kerala.gov.in. The Periyar Tiger Reserve This is the biggest of the wildlife sanctuaries in Kerala, covering an area of almost 800 km². The reserve holds an estimated 62 species of mammals, 315 types of birds, 45 species of reptiles, 16 types of and a 38 varieties of fish. Several endemic trees are also found there, growing alongside the banks of the Periyar and Mullayar rivers which are embedded in the local ecosystem. The nearest town is Kumily, which is about 190 km from Kochi and 145 km from Madurai (Tamil Nadu). If arriving by rail, Kottayam railway station is some 115 km away. Several types of accommodation are available on site, tying in nicely with the natural theme. They include the Tiger Bungalow, the Trusker Camp at Edappalayam, the Bison Camp at Manakkavala and dormitory options in Thekkady and Vallakkadavu. The Kerala Tourism Development Corporation also owns hotels nearby. The reserve remains open throughout the year, although it is best appreciated from October to May, as the climate is more gentle and the less comfortable heat and humidity of the monsoon has passed. Several ecotourism activities go on the site, including the tribal hamlet-cum-museum visit at Mannakudy or trekking and rafting programmes. The Tiger Trail, with a camping option, is limited therefore it is recommended to plan and book in advance if this is what you would definitely like to go for. Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary This is the 2nd largest in the state at about 350 km². Brushed by the Karottimala Peak at over 1000m, the reserve counts some 45 species of mammals, over 200 different types of birds and about 45 different species of reptiles. Nearly 60 different breeds of fish are in the sanctuary, alongside a group of some 30 species of amphibians. There are is an amazing waterfall at Chedalayam and trekking is widespread around the Tholpetty area. The elephant camp at Muthanga can also be included as part of this visit. The reserve, which includes plantations of teak and eucalyptus, is a very humid ecosystem, with about 2000 mm of rainfall every year. It is found about 110 km from Kozhikode or Calicut, which has both an airport and railway station for easy access. Accommodation on site is available, but also nearby at Seramby or Sulthan Bathery. The park remains open throughout the year, although the recommended period to visit is December to May. Shendurney Wildlife Sanctuary The rough 170 km² of forest land make this the 3rd largest reserve in the state, with an equally very humid climate which sees an average of nearly 3000 mm of rainfall per year. Alwarkurichi peaks this reserve at some 1550 metres, whilst the Shendurney, Kazhuthuruthy and Kulathupuzha streams merge to form the larger Kallada River which meanders through the park. The reserve’s demographics are as important as any of its counterparts, with an impressive 245 species of birds, whilst a rough 35 species of mammals and reptiles each exist, 42 different fish breeds and some 22 amphibians. The forest authorities have trekking packages under the Dharbakulam trail, Kallar trail and Kattilappara – Choodal bird watching trail. Boating is also possible in the site reservoir, operated both by the authority and the Thenmala Ecotourism Promotion Society. The most pleasant time to be at the reserve is October to February, but it is open the remainder of the year. Eravikulam National Park Founded in 1978, this is the largest of this category as classified by the KFWD. It covers almost a 100 km² of the Idukki district, in the central part of the state. This park boasts wildlife as abundant as in the sanctuaries, with some 10 Western Ghat endemic bird species, out of a rough 140 types already living there. One of the largest kinds of moths in the world, the Atlas moth, has been spotted fluttering in the park, potentially trying to fit in with the near 100 varieties of butterflies which are also part of this fauna. There is one more particular animal of interest found here: the Nilgiri Tahr. This is a particular kind of goat which is endemic to the Western Ghats and is already of the red list of endangered species. But Eravikulam has evidently been good to them, since it houses the highest density and largest surviving population of tahrs in India. This goat grazes alongside no less than another 30 something types of mammals, but also the panther. Indeed both panthers and tigers have been spotted strutting in the open grasslands. So, how to see this exuberant nature? Potentially on your feet… trekking is the option with trails available within the tourism zone. That could take you side of the park, to the Anamudi Peak, reportedly the highest of its kind south of the Himalayas, and which towers at a rough 2700 metres. Eravikulam is some 135 km from Kochin, where there is an airport. The most convenient rail stop is at Aluva, which is at an equal distance to Kochin. Munnar is the closest city, 15 km further, with good road links. The catch with this park is that there isn’t an ideal time to visit, because of some climate extremes. The summer season, April to October, will be hot and rainy, whilst November to March may even get some ‘frosty’ temperatures. Silent Valley National Park This valley is centred at the heart of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, in the northern part of the Kerala State. It is 90 km² of preserved ecology, surrounded by stiff mountain ridges which have, over the years, prevented most forms of intervention, both human and natural. It is home to the Kunthi River, which takes its source in the Nilgiri Hills. Another impressive population of some 275 of mammals and birds, fishes and amphibians combined live here – adding to another 500 species of moths and butterflies. The king of the park is known to the Lion-Tailed Macaque, whose life depends on a particular type of fruit extensively found in the park. Thus conservation of this endangered species has been successful, since the park was established. Another king here is also the King Cobra, the impressive and well-known snake which glides alongside the Viper and Rat Snake in these parts. Given its unique need for preservation, the park is accessible only from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., throughout the year. The best months to visit are said to be December to April. The nearest air arrival point is Kozhikode/ Calicut at 140 km distance, or Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu which is about 100 km away. This is also the one of closest rail stops, but Palakkad is closer at 58 km distance. Beaches in Kerala Kerala beaches are like those places untouched, which you often hear of, but don’t believe exist. The state has over 1000 km of coastline, which means quite a few very real beaches, known and lesser known. If beaches in India are less often associated with something like you see in a postcard of a Carribean island, whereby here it’s more about fishermen and great seafood, or the abundance of coconut trees… you would be enthused to see the inherent beauty and authentic beach character Kairali beaches offer. For the sake of convenience, these are to be detailed from the northernmost to southernmost districts which make up the entire state. Bekal (Kasaragod District) The northern district of Kasaragod is one of those places which has history buried deep within… with everything from great kings to eccentric navigators coming to these shores for their share of anything that was commercially precious, be it spices or wood. Bekal may have been one of those beaches where you can picture the Portuguese navigator land in his leather boots and felt hat… because of the stern and well-known fort which towers there. But better picture yourself laying out in the sun and taking it in, whilst listening to the Arabian Sea waves crash on the shore. The fort does, however offer a great view, and is quite popular with visitors because of its rugged, rustic, historic aspect. Closest airports are Bajpe Airport in Mengaluru, some 62 km away, whilst Kozhikode Airport (Calicut) is some 176 km further. Nearby railway stations are Pallikere, Kasaragod and Kanhangad. The main town, Kasaragod, is only 8 km away and provides road connections to a selection of regional hubs. Kizhunna Beach (Kannur District) Kizhunna is one of these Robinson Crusoe beaches, because it isn’t the one which is the most accessible, but is quite deserted… and quite private. There isn’t anything to do here but sit on a good few kilometres of sand and watch the boats, the tide, the horizon… and anything that takes your fancy if you want seclusion, serenity and sun. The closest town is Kannur. Many private bus services, as well as public (KSRTC) services operate from Kannur to a number of other locations. Kannur Railway Station is also an important regional hub, which connects the town to all major suburbs and cities in the state and neighbouring regions. The nearest airports are Mengaluru Airport (in Karnataka) and Calicut International Airport. Kappad Beach (Kozhikode/Calicut District) Now if you’re looking to combine the backwaters and the beach, this could be the place for you. Or if you’re one of the history buffs… this is the place too. Another famous landing place for navigators of yonder years, with an impressive 800 years or so landmark, Kappad is famously referred to as the ‘Gateway to the Malabar Coast’, where Vasco da Gama reportedly landed half a millennium ago. So for all that, but also for the beach too, you may want to head to this picturesque seafaring settlement, where you will most likely be able to indulge in incredible sights and smells, but also tastes… or tan! Access is best through Kozhikode Railway Station, about 21 km further, whilst the nearest airport is Kozhikode/Calicut International Airport, a mere 10 km away. Vakkad Beach (Malappuram District) This is another possibility of combining rivers and the sea. Sounds poetic doesn’t it, when one contemplates the merging of the river into the sea. So the Tirur River is one of such where one can meander through until you get ‘thrown out’ onto Vakkad beach. The nearby town of Ponnani, which is a fishing hub, is a stop to be considered too, with its melancholic lighthouse sitting on the bay. Means there are via rail, stopping at Kuttippuram, about 15 km away from the beach. The Kozhikode/Calicut International Airport is about 41 km away. Chavakkad Beach (Thrissur District) Keep heading south to the Thrissur district and you can find yourself lying on this wonderful stretch of sand… which may smell a bit like fish, since this is what this place lives on. There is a fishermen colony nearby, adding to the essence and character of the location. This, by all means, allows this beach to remain popular with locals and foreigners. Boating activities are available nearby to go up the estuary and into the river, which meanders back to the backwaters… since this is Kerala and backwaters are part of most landscapes. Guruvayoor Railway Station is at about 5 km and Thrissur, at about 29 km. The closest airport is in Cochin, some 80 km further. Cherai Beach (Ernakulam District) A little nearer the ‘metropolitan’ Kochi is Cherai beach, where if you’re lucky, you could spot some dolphins. Many of the more established ‘beach resorts’ are located there, which adds to the popularity of the place. One visitor said: “One among the finest beaches of Cochin. A must visit for anyone who pass by Cochin or Vypin. A lot homemade sea foods deliquesces are available just opposite to the beach on the road side made specially on request.” Therefore a must, it seems, for one looking for something a little less wild, a little closer to civilisation and even maybe, a little more ‘refined’. By rail, Ernakulam Junction is just really a stone throw away, while Kochi airport is only some 20km from this beach. Alappuzha Beach (Alappuzha District) Do you imagine Venice could be called the Kerala of Italy? Then be bedazzled if someone tells you this is the ‘Venice’ of Kerala, or India. If that means nothing to you, then perhaps you will find the pier, the lighthouse, the houseboats or boat races compelling. Be reminded that there is no place like Venice or Alappuzha, but just enjoy the antique feel and warmth of the place, the happy families who confer there amidst their splashing and laughter. The old ‘Allepey’ also has a story or two to tell, like many other cities further up the coast. So whether you want to dig into the sand or into the history, relax and do whatever takes your fancy. Alappuzha Railway Station is the closest while the airport at Kochi lies some 85 km away. Thirumullavaram Beach (Kollam District) Seclusion rests in the nature of this beach, alongside it rocky platforms which brush under the evergreen coconut groves and blond beaches. Although it is popular for not being too cluttered and having some good seafood joints nearby, one traveller comment pointed out something a little more exotic: “the surrounding dilapidated buildings looks like an ideal location to shoot a scary movie.” That is likely to tempt more than one of the adrenaline seekers out there into getting their share of the goose bumps. But if that fails, there is still a beach… and that is never a bad thing. Kollam Railway Station is 5 km away whilst 60 km further you can fly into Trivandrum International Airport to reach this location. Varkala Beach (Thiruvananthapuram/Trivandrum District) Save the best for last they say… and this has to be Varkala beach. World-famous, locally renowned, located close to the state capital, this is the jewel in the crown of Kairali beaches. The cliffs pay an important, dramatic role in the setting, allowing foreign and local visitors to perch from atop and enjoy the view or bask in the sun and sand in the various little beach spots found in this area. Although this could pass as backpacker haven, there is also a very spiritual dimension to the place, with a temple which is claimed to be some 2000 years old, the Janardhanaswamy Temple, looking out to the sea from the cliffs. It is considered auspicious for Hindus to carry out final rites here. On a less morose note, you can find natural cures to many ailments in many of the Ayurveda centres spread across the town. So, this is a stop you can make for much more than sea, sun and sand. Thiruvananthapuram/Trivandrum and its airport lie almost 60 km away, while Varkala railway station is only about 3 km. Culture & Co… Where to begin with ‘culture and company’ in Kerala? This state has such a unique culture, one that is so distinct from the rest of India. Whether it’s the Kathakali dance as part of the annual and grand feast of Onam, from its fresco art form to the poignant paintings of Raja Ravi Varma… or whether it’s the boat races – Vallamkalli – or Kalaripayattu, this mysterious martial art… there is so much to delve into. But for the sake of giving an overview of what can be seen and done in Kerala, a little bit of everything will have to be explored… Onam Legend has it that the once king of Kerala, Mahabali, was sent to the ‘dungeons’ by the Gods for being too popular… or perhaps some other doing which may be misunderstood outside of the mythological realm. But this beautiful legend is about Mahabali not wanting to be without the people of ‘God’s own country’ and asking the Gods to grant him a return once a year. Granted, his people, to this day and age, celebrate the glorious return of the King, through this fantastic festival of Onam! This story is as wonderful as the absolute and total feast which vibrates throughout the state for 10 days towards the end of the monsoon. Irrespective of caste, colour or creed… Malayalis celebrate Onam as part of their identity of belonging to this state and unique culture. As with any feast, there are a few ways in which they are celebrated. There is a religious facet of the feast, a food one, but also a cultural and sporting one. These all make up the Onam celebrations but are distinct in what they can offer to visitors. To begin with, the religious aspect of Onam is very ritualistic. It’s about cleansing and blessings, starting afresh, new beginnings, everything auspicious and holy. But this is perhaps the more private part of the festival since the rituals are usually conducted at home within the intimacy of families. What is common for the men and women to wear is their traditional dress, beautiful handloom off-white plain cotton ‘mundus’ with simple golden border ornaments for the ladies and near matching ‘lungis’ for the men. But this is the just the beginning. What goes on over and above the individual preparation and participation is that of the entire state which rallies behind the driving force of this festival, culminating in a variety of celebratory feast. Kathakali One art form which is a definite part of Onam is this dance, or theatre: the Kathakali, literally the face of Kerala. This theatrical performance, which entails performers with amazingly green-painted faces with distinct expressions of mythological origin, can be seen on most postcards and souvenirs one would bring from this part of India. But much over and above decorating fridge magnets and cups, this is a true spiritual art form, which stems from the religious rituals of yonder year, and which involves dances which express lessons derived from the Hindu Scriptures – mostly Mahabharata and Ramayana – into gracious, mystical moves. Being an art form which spans the past two millennia, Kathakali is sometimes called a dance, but it isn’t about dancing as such; it is about movements and gesture, or body languages which are to express scripture and their stories. There are deemed to be 101 such ‘acts’ to the Kathakali dance, but only about a third are still represented to this day. They are usually accompanied by two drums called the ‘chenda’ and ‘maddalam’ and percussion instruments. There is also some singing which goes with the performance, known as Sopaanam. Although the makeup is predominantly green, it is not all that unicolor-coded. The green faces depict noble and divine heroes, but the faces marked with black streaks are indubitably the ones giving ‘good’ a hard time, not to say they are ‘evil’. The colour coding extends to true demonic characters being painted in red, women in yellow and those living in nature having a black face base. The performers bear quite big head ornaments which frame their distinct painted faces. In any case, they have to sustain their audience for a while… as these ‘dances’ are known to last a few hours, with modern adaptations of course reducing the true nature of the performance within a reasonable auditorium timeframe. This performance isn’t to be confounded with something simple and less than ritualistic; Kathakali dancers can be trained for up to 10 years before becoming full-fledged performers and are even given a basic training in Kalaripayattu, the Malayali martial art. Vallamkalli Boat Race Moving graciously from the world of dance and art, the Vallamkalli is the very unique boat race which is a prominent feature during the 10-day Onam festival. Their name derives from the fact that their ends are shaped as cobra heads. The Vallamkali boats are said to be about a 100 feet long and can carry over a 100 men, not all of whom are oarsmen, as some are also engaged in singing and other colourful habits embedded within the spirit of this particular race. There are several races which take place all over the state, but one of the most prestigious one has to be the Nehru Trophy, named after the first Prime Minister of India who reportedly loved this race. Some 30 boats are said to race on the Punnamada Lake near Alappuzha, in the northern part of the state. Lots of rituals accompany the race, including singing, dancing and sandalwood-swirling, but the excitement of it is quite out of this world and is a big pull for many visitors outside of the state. Interestingly, the Nehru trophy has come into its 63rd year and is an institution to be reckoned with. Thrissur Pooram Kerala is also the land of elephants, as is pretty much the rest of India, and the Thrissur Pooram is potentially one of the festivals in which these animals are utterly glorified. But first things first, what is this festival, precisely? In broad terms, a ‘Pooram’ is a celebration held in particular in temples dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Durga (or her avatar Kali). The Thrissur Pooram became a huge religious festival for what could be described as a ‘logistical’ issue over 200 years ago, but it is now a major regional attraction, potentially after Onam. So what happens is that 10 major regional temples join together to celebrate this particular Pooram, which would also traditionally include an elephant. But this particular celebration involves dozens of elephants, which parade horizontally alongside each other, whose trunks are adorned with shields of gold and colour, the ‘nettipattam’ and whose mahouts bear some characteristically colourful umbrellas. Enough said, as this festival is a pure visual delight… one cannot read about it, but has to take in the sight! Thrissur is, of course, very well connected due to the importance of this particular festival which takes place in April/May. The city has four railway stations, including the Thrissur Railway Station, the Punkunnam railway station, the Ollur Railway Station and the Mulankunnathukavu Railway Station. Kochi International Airport is about 55 km from the city. Kerala Murals If you’re ever in any of the Kerala temples, one of the things you may encounter are the murals. Many of these have been traced back to almost a thousand years ago and are usually depictions of religious figures of philosophies. There is a distinct character to these murals, which are colourful, symmetrical and voluptuous. Separations and reunions, peace and conflict and other perhaps less distinct paradoxes are often the subject of these illustrations, which are said to be intricately tied to the other art forms found in the state: “… Kerala style of Mural painting, with its emphasis on dramatic scene, elaborate costume and memorable gestures of figure in intimate relation with each other, would seem to be parallel to the living performing art Kathakali, Koodiyatoom and other forms of theatre of imagination. They form the corpus of a distinctive school of painting evolved by masters of pictorial form who could recreate vitalities of conflict, the frenzy of the gods, the grace of the goddesses, the ecstasy of love, the agony of separation and the joy of reunion in the grand manner of the great Indian tradition of wall paintings.” The older murals are known to have been made with very basic material, including minerals, vegetable dyes and roots. Some of the most notorious murals are found in the Mahadev Temple in Ettumanoor, Kottayam district (70 km from Kochi) and the Mattancherry Palace in Kochi. The Krishnapuram Palace in Kayamkulam in the Alappuzha district in the north of the state is also well appreciated, whilst the Palakkad district, close to the Western Ghats, houses famous murals at the Pallikurup Mahavishnu Temple. The state capital, Thiruvananthapuram is home to the Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple which is also known for its frescos. A Thought for Food Food in Kerala is basically coconut everything. But don’t expect it to be as simple as that. Spices everything could also be another description or tamarind everything. This goes to say that this incredible state has some distinct flavours, but which belong to its very distinct regions. If it is agreed that coconut plays a big role on most Malayali plates, these would also be completed by fish on the coast, vegetables nearer the ghats and meat in the northern parts. But there are some definite stars in this culinary galaxy and these are the ones which will be celebrated, in most part. Sadhya This is the king of the Kairali meals, the one which is pulled for feasts and celebrations. It is a banquet, an assortment of wonderful gustative treats which are combined to honour a particular occasion. Key to this meal, which actually means ‘banquet’ in Malayalam, is the banana or plantain leaf onto which the meal is served. Now, this is ritualistic too, as if there is a ‘pointed end’ to the leaf, it should be towards the guest on your left. Only then can you enjoy what is on your leaf, preferably seated on a mat on the floor, as per the traditional style. The leaf would usually include some form of boiled rice on its bottom half, whilst the top half will combine curries, curds and pickles with a range of names including: · Parippu – which starts off the dish. This is a ‘gravy’ type of curry, which means it is a sauce composed of legumes and clarified butter (ghee). · Sambar – in the south of India, this vegetable stew needs little introduction. It is a mix of spices, lentils, tamarind and turmeric. · Rassam – similar to sambar, but with tomatoes instead or in addition to the other ingredients. · Avial – which is a mixture of vegetables and coconut, key to Kairali gastronomy and to the Sadhya. · Thoran – there are several versions of these, but usually a green vegetable is involved, whether leaves, string beans or cabbage, mixed with coconut and chillies. · Olan – this is another legume-based gravy, including black-eyed peas, coconut milk, ginger and the unmissable chillies. · Pachadi – this is a pickle, therefore can often come in an assortment of pickles of vegetables or fruits (such as mango) which complement the meal. · Papadum – this is a wafer or fried dough which is just the crunchy king of the meal. It can be joyously dipped in any of the soups or gravies and munched on delightfully. · Desserts – as in much of India, desserts usually stem from milk and fruits. Curds, buttermilk and fried plantains in different variations often conclude, or even separate the meal’s courses. The best-known one, of course, is the Payasam which is made up of molasses alongside some other more usual ingredients. Puttu, Appam and all… These are the breakfast favourites or every meal favourite… since they very often accompany savoury dishes at lunch or dinner time. Puttu can be found a variety of forms. It usually is made of rice flour and is steamed in a cylindrical tower which gives it its shape. The cooking process is as interesting as the eating in this case, so worth the watch if possible! Appam is made of rice water batter, and has a soft centre, with crispy edges… a bit like a nice white gooey pancake. Given its rather bland flavour, it is usually balanced with curries and other spicy ‘gravies’. Iddiyappam or Noodalappam – this is where the noodle meets the Appam. Similar ingredients as with the Appam, only shaped like noodles, or more like dried noodles still in their packet. Quite a sight for the taste buds! Dosa & Idli are also part of the Kerala gustative landscape, although they could be associated with the whole of South India. Expect some variation of these popular foods in this corner of the world. Vegetarian Food in Kerala Vegetarian dishes are always the life and soul of the food party, anywhere in India, but particularly in Kerala, where staples such as yam and tapioca contribute to the uniqueness of what it means to be ‘veggie’ there. Some of the kings of the veggie food assortment are: · Kaalan – This is an explosion of the staples: starting with the elephant yam, added to raw bananas, yoghurt, chillies, ghee and spices, it is one of these vegetarian dishes which will fill you to the brim, Malayali style. · Tapioca Ularthiyathu – this is made of the well-known tapioca root, which is an Asian favourite and a Kairali food royal. It’s a fry which combines cubes of the root with turmeric, spices and coconut shavings. · Pavakka Varuthathu – This is about making the bitter gourd palatable, and how? Simple: spices and coconut… and a mouth-watering fry for you to try. · Erissery – This is another explosion: yam, pumpkin, bananas and kidney beans are combined with spices and (of course) coconut into a delicious flavourful stew that is one of its kind. · Koottu Curry – This can be part of the Sadhya. It is a potato and urad dal (legume) curry, mixed with lots of spices and curry leaves and coconut. Non-Vegetarian Food in Kerala If the rest of India, or south of India chants the glories of vegetarian meals, Kerala has quite a proud meat-based food legacy, including pork and sea food. This, of course, depends on the specific part of the state. Some popular meals of this ‘non-veg’ category include: · Nadan Kozhi Varuthathu : which is a chicken fry, with lots and lots of chilli. It will enflame your nostrils with its ginger, garlic and other spices, all swirled into some vinegar. · Kallumakkaya Ularthiyath : this is a mussel fry. Interestingly, this combines all the usual spicy suspects and coconut… with mussels? Apparently yes… and well worth a try too! · Kerala Prawn Curry or Chemmeen Kari: Prawns and coconut milk… ‘nuff said’, as the saying goes. The mouth just waters thinking of this heavenly spicy and coconut-milky combination. · Kerala Style Beef: curry leaves star alongside the beef here, for a fry that is stirred up with mustard seeds, ginger and garlic. · Fish Molee: this is the taste of Kerala. The combination of coconut milk and ‘kudampuli’, which is also a very sought-after diet ingredient (though that isn’t related, nor going to make you lose weight). This is a meal to indulge in, at all cost. · Mutton Stew: even mutton can be eaten with coconut here. You have to taste it to believe it. The stew consists of chillies, tomatoes, potatoes, spices, onions and of course, coconut milk to give it a deliciously characteristic Kairali flavour. · Crab Masala: With nearby prolific seas, crab is only one of the abundantly available seafood on Malayali shores. This combines spices with tomatoes before being drenched in coconut milk for the unmistakable Malayali flavour. Ayurveda in Kerala So… tired of the travelling? You need a detox from all the coconut and spice indulging? Need a massage, a body polish, some oil dripping slowly on your forehead to melt your worries away? Or perhaps you have a need to try a different kind of cure, tired of the chemicals and hocus pocus of ‘normal’ medicine. Ayurveda is, therefore, another of these unmissable aspects of Kairali culture. It is the holy medicine, five thousand years old and the one which uses its allies in nature to provide cures for the seen or unseen ailments. A popular form of ‘alternative’ medicine, this is a true life-form in Kerala, part of the inherent culture of the people, most of whom will know which leaf or root to use for all the little aches and pains which make the rest of us run to the nearest drug store. It is passed on through generations and is practised not as alternative cure but a mainstream one. In other words, modern science may seem like a bit of an outsider there since you will find most Malayalis will resort to Ayurvedic cures. It a science which responds intrinsically to the body’s requirements and its need to balance its elements; the ‘vata’, ‘pita’ and ‘kapha’ (combinations of water, fire, earth and ether) elements or doshas in the body. Typically, one would need to be assessed by an Ayurveda doctor for medical issues. However, given its holistic nature, Ayurveda is also preventive, giving advice on eating and other habits to achieve the balance that one requires for a holistically healthy life. Treatments that are offered in Kerala are mostly medical in nature, that is, people go there for all sorts of diseases and may even stay at clinics until their cure is complete. But there are also some preventive therapies, including panchakarma, which a potent detoxification process, through which cleansing of the physical body is achieved through the five orifices. There are also yoga or rejuvenation programmes which can be completed in the many centres or hospitals throughout the state. A simple internet search will reveal the many clinics, resorts and public hospitals which offer some branch of Ayurvedic practice. It’s just a question of identifying your requirement before choosing an appropriate treatment after recommendation or appropriate consultation. Non-medical processes such as massage therapies are also widely available and will often even come with a medical reference. The key is to research as well as possible what is best suited for your requirement. One for the Road So if you’re already looking for flights or train schedules, accommodation in the forest or on the coast, then the job here is done. Kerala is such a wide and wonderful concoction of nature’s best, man’s purest and ‘God’s own’ that it would be simply sad not to see at least one part of this state. The character there is so distinct, so charmingly folded in its people’s ‘lungis’ and ‘mundus’, along the moustaches which garnish the men’s smiles and the flowers which adorn the women’s hair. Kerala is truly God’s own because it is that one place in India which doesn’t feel like India, but something Indian with a unique flavour, a distinct identity and a true character. Once you’re there, it isn’t difficult to imagine one of the Hindu deities raising it from beneath the sea to make it its own little play pad… or mythical figures such as King Mahabali returning on a chariot in all Malayali minds during Onam. So get there… as fast as you can, as soon as you can… and revel in what is potentially one of the godliest places on earth!