God’s Own Country

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They call it God’s own country and the joke runs that it is because no one else would accept something so bad! A fortnight ago, I finally mustered the courage to venture into Kerala. After visiting Ladakh in the north a couple of months ago, it only seemed appropriate – symmetrical – that I visit the southern tip of India too, which, technically, is in Tamil Nadu. Nonetheless, Kerala is one of the two southernmost states of India and the only one south of the Vindhya mountains I had not yet visited.

I chose to join a tour group because it is just simpler to let them handle food, lodging, and transportation in a land where I did not speak the language. For that matter, given India’s tourist infrastructure, I lack the courage to wander around on my own in the country even if I know the local language.

Our group started from the south in Kanyakumari and moved up north towards Guruvayur. I had chosen to travel to India’s southern tip by road transport and learned my lesson very quickly – do not forget your earplugs! Most bus transport companies in India feel an uncontrollable urge to run movies during the journey. Without fail, these cause thoughts of hominid extinction and massive catastrophes to cross your mind. Something else I noticed is that despite the similar quality of buses, Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation has much better service than other state transportation companies or even private enterprises. Still, this does not spare you from blaring movies during your trip!

Kanyakumari is the southernmost point of mainland India, about 8° – approximately 900 kms – from the equator to the north. It would be unreasonable to expect cool weather at such latitudes during any part of the year; it was hot, humid, and the sun was strong even in October. The town attracts many tourists but is especially important to Hindus for its place in their mythology – according to one story, the town was the site where Kanya Devi, an avatar of Parvathi, did tapas to obtain Lord Shiva’s hand in marriage. Today, the Kumari Amman kovil attracts many pilgrims.

Kanyakumari is famed for its sunrise, especially during certain times of the year when the sun’s first rays illuminate the southern tip of India. If you stay overnight in Kanyakumari, be sure to catch the sunrise; your hotel may have a terrace from which you can see it or you can go down to the shore where many people gather to usher in the day. Since our trip was in the midst of the monsoon season, the skies were overcast and the sun diffuse and weak until much later in the day.

Vivekananda Rock MemorialIt is claimed that Vivekananda, the Hindu thinker and revivalist of the late 19th century, also spent some time in Kanyakumari, meditating perched on a large rock just off the shore. Today, a memorial stands at the site, the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. There is a ferry taking tourists to and from the Memorial but the queue for it is massive and can easily take up to two hours. The distance from shore to rock is short, less than a hundred metres, but the current is strong and the ferry is an accident waiting to happen – it is overloaded to the point where passengers hold on to their life jackets and there is not enough space to wear them.

Flag on Vivekananda Rock Memorial islandThe rock which bears the memorial to Vivekananda has another mandapam in which a small projection from the rock resembling a human foot has been enshrined as Pada Parai – the footsteps of the goddess Kanyakumari. It is believed that this is where the devi performed her penance to Lord Shiva. Vivekananda, a great devotee of Durga and Kali, may have intended to worship at this mandapam when he swam over to meditate on the rock.

I found the memorial underwhelming and not quite worthy of the wait. This is a matter of personal aesthetics, but I would have preferred a large covered mandapam mostly open on the sides for meditation with perhaps a small marker of Vivekananda’s visit in the hall. Instead, we now have a structure that might as well have been built on shore – a building containing a towering statue of Vivekananda in large hall, and a warm and stuffy meditation chamber.

Thiruvalluvar statue at KanyakumariRight next to the Vivekananda Rock Memorial is another small island atop which stands a 40-metre tall statue of the great Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar. Unfortunately, the statue ruins the panoramic view of and from the Vivekananda Rock Memorial and I heard many tourists, mostly from North India, grumble about Tamil chauvinism. On this, I agree partially – the statue does ruin the panorama but more importantly, it does a greater disservice to the brilliant Tamil poet by making it a focus of antipathy – while the Vivekananda Rock Memorial is packed with tourists, only a trickle visit the Thiruvalluvar statue. Construction work on the statue started in 1990 and tool ten years but it is less commonly known that the foundation stone was laid in 1979 by then prime minister Morarji Desai. India!

Given the serpentine lines for the ferry, we visited the ancient but repeatedly renovated Kanyakumari temple on the mainland first. The place was flooded with worshippers and tourists who wished to get a glimpse of the famous diamond nose-ring of the deity that is rumoured to be visible even from the sea. Men are not allowed any upper garments inside the temple and conservative clothes are recommended for all visitors just like at any religious site.

Near the temple is a small memorial to Mohandas Gandhi built in 1956 in the form of a Oriyan Sun temple. Every October 02 – Gandhi’s birthday – through a small aperture in the ceiling, the sun’s rays fall on the exact spot Gandhi’s funerary urn was kept before some of his ashes were immersed in the sea.

KanyakumariWe spent a few minutes dipping our feet in the waters where three larges bodies of water meet – the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea. It is said that one’s sins are washed away if one takes a dip in these waters but in the tropical Indian heat, one hardly needs an excuse to wade into the water. Nonetheless, I am ever more grateful if true! One should be very careful though, for the water flows with force and the coast is rocky.

Ugly viewing tower at KanyakumariI noticed an unsightly viewing tower right on the water’s edge that some wool-headed planner thought would be a good idea. There are plenty of vantage points from the town if one wanted a good view of the sea from on high. I really wonder about some people’s sense of aesthetics at times.

There was hardly any point in sticking around in Kanyakumari so we left for Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, that afternoon. Out of curiosity, we stopped by a place that advertised itself as India’s first wax museum – save yourself ₹60 and the horror! The place has only about 16 very poor quality life-size wax figures of famous personalities like Michael Jackson, Manmohan Singh, Mother Teresa, Mohandas Gandhi, Albert Einstein, and Barack Obama.

I was taken aback by Kerala’s capital. The city was clean, if not by Viennese standards, at least among the cleanest I had seen in India. Unlike other concrete jungles, the city could still boast of a fair bit of foliage and seemed like any modern city. For a state run by communists, this was impressive and quite at odds with Calcutta, the capital of the recently communist state of West Bengal. Thiruvananthapuram is about 90 kms from Kanyakumari, a journey of almost two hours by bus. I had come armed with ethnic jokes about the Land of Lungi (original) and Hotel Keralafonia (original), but the city simply did not give me an opportunity to indulge in them. My spectacular version of I Am A Malayalee (original) had to be abandoned.

Padmanabhaswamy TempleThe next day, we visited the famed Padmanabhaswamy Temple. In June 2011, the Supreme Court of India ordered that the vaults of the temple be opened and an inventory prepared of the items therein. The discovery of treasures worth billions of dollars in the vaults, not accounting for the antique value, made headlines and put the temple in the spotlight. Not all the vaults have been opened yet but the four of eight known vaults that have been inventoried have yielded some $19 billion worth of artifacts, making the Padmanabhaswamy Temple the richest religious institution in the world.

The dress code for the Padmanabhaswamy Temple is saris for women and mundu for men, though they may cover their torso with a shawl if they wish. No leather products – belts, wallets, watch straps – are allowed in, and neither are mobile phones or other electronics. These will be stowed for you if you wish to deposit them at a stall near the entrance. At the same stall, mundu are available for rent for ₹40 in case you do not own one and do not wish to buy one. Women wearing jeans or salwar kameez were also made to wrap a mundu on top, so looks like sari is the only attire allowed.

Artist's impression of deity at Padmanabhaswamy  TempleThanks to heavy rain, there were very few people at the temple. We were in and out in about an hour, a record by any standards, I am sure. That left us some time to admire the structure itself though being a novice with Indian art and architecture, I probably didn’t make much of it. The statue of the main deity at Padmanabhaswamy Temple is so big that it has to be seen through three doors in the garbhagudi; through the first can be seen his shoulder and if you crouch, his face, through the second his torso, and through the third his feet.

We had planned to swing by the Raja Ravi Varma Art Gallery and the Napier Museum later in the day but being a Sunday, they were closed. Instead, we went to Kovalam beach to say hello to an old friend of mine, the Arabian Sea. The beach was small, rather crowded, and had insufficient facilities in terms of changing rooms, food & drink, and restrooms, but the water was quite safe. One could walk into the sea until the water was at least six feet on a smooth if slightly undulating bed of sand.

Napier MuseumThe next day, we returned to our original plan of seeing the art gallery and museum. The art gallery was a mixed bag – there were a few good paintings and a whole bunch of average ones; there were a few that appeared a waste of good canvas. However, what stood out to me was the poor way in which the paintings were displayed. The gallery was hot and stuffy, and the lighting focused hot, bright light on the paintings. I am not sure that advances the health of the paintings.

The museum, named after the former Madras Governor General John Napier, held a small but fair collection of sculptures, coins, and other artifacts from the Chola and Mughal periods. Yet it was the collection of a small museum of a city away from the art highways of the world, and interested visitors would have seen superior collections in several places in Europe and the United States as well as in India.

NedumudiAfter lunch, our troupe rolled on to Thekkady. Since the distance was too much to cover by nightfall, we spent the night in Nedumudi and enjoyed a cruise in Periyar lake from Alleppey to Nedumudi rather than rush to our destination. The roads, I noticed, were narrow, two-laned affairs but of decent quality and free of potholes and frequent speed breakers. We reached Thekkady only by noon the next day. After lunch and some shut eye, we headed out to catch a kalaripayattu demonstration. Kalaripayattu is supposedly the oldest martial art and was carried to China by travellers where it evolved into the Chinese forms we know today.

Thekkady tea estatesThe kalaripayattu was disappointing at best. No doubt, the practitioners were quite athletic but anyone who has watched Shaolin monks perform would have been underwhelmed by the show in Thekkady. After the show, some of us decided to indulge in one of Kerala’s other traditions – ayurvedic massage. Some hundred minutes of oil trickling (shirodhara), massaging, and kneading later, we emerged corporeally renewed as that dip in Kanyakumari had restored our spiritual purity!

Periyar lakeThe next day, we took a two-hour boatride in the Periyar lake, hoping to shoot some wildlife…with our cameras, of course! Unfortunately, we were too late; by the time we got the first available boat, it was 11 30, and animals frequent watering holes mostly at dawn. By the time the sun is beating down on them at midday, they would rather be resting in the shade somewhere. Still, we did see a couple of sambar but our boat was filled with raucous idiot plebeians who raised such noise upon the sighting that the poor deer was frightened and ran into the trees almost as soon as it had ventured out.

Elephant ride in ThekkadyWe had time before lunch, and there was an elephant park right beside our hotel. Some of us took that as a sign and went to meet the jumbos. I would have preferred to play with a calf, but there were none around, so I had to settle for an elephant ride. It was fun, particularly the part afterwards where we could take photos hugging and feeding the graceful beasts.

After lunch, it was off to Munnar. The road from Thekkady to Munnar must have been one of the highlights of the trip. Despite the twits and turns, the winding road was good if narrow, and the altitude made the climate cool; the entire stretch was very clean, like the rest of Kerala that we had driven through. With tea estates and spice gardens planted on either side of us, it was truly a beautiful scene outside our windows.

Thekkady to MunnarWe stopped at a spice garden at Kumily that had been mentioned highly on TripAdvisor along the way. The store also gave us a tour of their estate and that was when I realised that I had been very unfair to Keralites about their language. I used to think that Malayalam had a difficult jilebi-like script and that the language was difficult to understand; during the tour, it was made obvious to me that my lack of comprehension had little to do with the language – no matter whether the tour guide was speaking English, Hindi, or Malayalam, she was equally indecipherable in all of them! From what little I could understand about the various herbs and concoctions, there appeared to be a cure for everything from sarcoidosis to ISIS…it is a wonder there are so many medical research laboratories in the world still when we have these wonderful spices!

We reached Munnar by evening and the next day, we went for a speedboat ride at the Mattupetty Dam. It was very much overrated, but as with most activities in water, even a bad thing was good. Afterwords, we stopped at a scenic spot along the road where a small market had sprouted to try out some Thekkady tea. It was weak and very unlike Assamese tea, but it certainly had a distinguishable flavour some might enjoy. We also picked up homemade chocolates, whatever those are, as everyone I know who has visited Kerala raves about them.

In the afternoon, we went to the Eravikulam National Park. I was surprised to see a pretty long line at the ticket counter; it took us approximately 45 minutes to finally get in. Visitors have to take a bus into the park and return by bus from the designated spot inside. Each bus ferries some 25 people at a time and the ticket vendor told me that the park has six such buses. The park closes around 17 00 and the last bus is at 16 30 or so. Make sure you plan accordingly if you wish to visit Eravikulam.

SONY DSCThe Anamudi, the highest peak (2,695 m) of the Western Ghats, stands in the middle of the small park that is a sanctuary to the endangered Nilgiri tahr. We could climb up to slightly over 1,900 metres by road, and which point the road ran into a private tea estate that bordered the park. We were lucky to see a small group of tahr frolicking around but they were too far to enjoy without binoculars and we had to make do with our camera zoom.

Our next stop was the holy temple town of Guruvayur, the Dwaraka of the South. Not surprisingly, it took a temple town to show us the first signs of litter on the streets in Kerala. By Kerala standards, Guruvayur is a dirty temple town but it is still significantly better than many of the temple towns of north India like Puri. We made it to the temple only by early evening, around 17 00. The dress code for the temple is the same as that at the Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Thiruvananthapuram and the same rules regarding electronics and leather products applies. The queue was murderously long as is common at more sacred temples. Unlike at Thirupathi, there are no faster queues available for out-of-town visitors for a fee. However, there is a senior citizen queue for those above 60.

The regular queue took me about two hours, whereas the senior citizens in our group went through in 40 minutes. It seems to me that temples these days have little to do with faith and spirituality and a lot more to do with endurance tests and transactional religion. Not only does a visitor hardly get an opportunity to appreciate the temple architecture, inscriptions, or sculpture, but he is made to wait for hours for a darshan of perhaps five or ten seconds before the priests shove him to the side to allow others to stand before the deity. The huge crowds are so tightly packed and the ancient temples were hardly built with modern safety codes in mind that it is a wonder so few people die in the occasional stampede. Despite the sacrality of Guruvayur, my temple experience did not leave me with a spiritual afterglow.

The next day, we visited the elephant sanctuary at Punnathurkotta run by the Guruvayur temple. The site was the home of the Punnathur maharajahs at one time and is about ten acres. Presently, there are some 36 elephants at Punnathurkota and no calves. I like elephants and so I enjoyed watching the elephants goofing around. Some were carrying their food back to their pens, others were bathing or being given a bath, yet others were eating and a few seemed to be doing some sort of stretching exercises! On the way out, I did have a chuckle at a board that said that dealing in elephant tufts was illegal because it was against the wishes of Lord Guruvayurappan!

Guruvayur is famous for its brass lamps, but honestly, I have seen merchandise of equally good quality in Udupi, Karnataka.

Adi Shankara janmabhoomi kshetramOur final destination of the tour was the Ernakulam-Cochin conurbation. On the way, we stopped by Kalady, the birthplace of the revered Adi Shankaracharya. There is a temple to him and to Sharada Devi in a complex that allegedly encompasses the spot of Adi Shankaracharya’s birth and the place where he cremated his mother. In accordance with the legend, the Poorna river flows right by where Adi Shankara’s house would have stood in the 8th century. There is also a shrine to Krishna right next to the janmabhoomi kshetram, his mother’s ishtadeva. It is a pity more people do not visit the site and learn about one of sanatana dharma‘s greatest scholars.

KathakaliIn the evening, we caught a kathakali show that had been organised at the hotel just for our group. The author of the short play was a professor of theatre and dance and he explained to us neophytes the basics of facial expressions in Kerala’s traditional dance and how to appreciate it before the show started. I would have been lost without that intro; like operas in the West, Indian dances requires the audience to do its homework before they come to the show. Just as no one would show up to a performance of Verdi’s Nabucco without having read the opera, it would be difficult to follow a kathakali show without some preparation.

In Cochin, the next day, we visited the St. Francis Church where Vasco da Gama was buried before being repatriated to Portugal. It was built in 1503, and is perhaps the oldest standing church in India. Most of the Portuguese churches and other structures were destroyed by the Dutch when they took over the town in 1663. The Dutch also converted the one Portuguese church they allowed to stand from the Catholic.

Given my penchant for Jewish history, there was no way I would miss the Paradesi Synagogue in Jew Town. Constructed in 1568 by the Cochin Jews, Mattanchery Synagogue, as it is also called, is the oldest still-functioning synagogue in the Commonwealth. The original synagogue was built in the 4th century in Kodungallur but moved to its present location in the 14th century when business caused the community to shift to Cochin. The Portuguese occupational authorities destroyed the synagogue but a new one – the present one – was built almost immediately under the protection of the local Hindu king. There are six more synagogues in the area but they closed their doors many years ago. It is an Orthodox house of worship that now serves the last 15 Jews of the city.

Jews are thought to have first arrived in India centuries ago. However, several exodoi of Jews have occurred into India and it is difficult to pin down specific dates to the migration of different Jewish communities except the most recent – Bene Israel in the 11th century, Iberian Jews in the 17th century, and Baghdadi Jews in the 18th century. The origins of the Bnei Menashe and Bene Ephraim are disputed.

One thing that stumps me about the Jewish people is the strong desire among many of India’s Jews to leave for Israel. Jews have been persecuted for 2,000 years all over Europe and the Middle East but many of the Sephardim and Ashkenazim have strong geographic loyalties to their adopted lands and the Zionist project of establishing Israel in the Levant could not gain momentum without the horrors of the Shoah. In India, on the other hand, there has never been any antisemitism on the part of the majority Hindu community and yet the establishment of Israel saw a mass migration of Jews from India to Israel. I would be eternally grateful if someone could explain that!

The synagogue was the last stop of the tour and those interested in shopping for saris, spices, souvenirs, and gifts disappeared in the evening to make those acquisitions while I spent some time in the hotel pool. I flew out the next morning; Cochin airport is far from the city, about 35 kms from my hotel, and is serviced by a two-lane road for most of the distance. This should be factored in, as should the traffic, for anyone flying out of Cochin. The airport itself was nice. The Mangalore tile roof and the palm trees outside were aesthetically pleasing and the inside was modern, clean and large enough not to be overly crowded.

My trip had been unfortunately timed between Vijaydashami and Diwali but I was lucky to get away with it except in Kanyakumari. There, north Indians had descended upon the town in swarms and the hotels were full as were the lines outside many of the tourist attractions. Worse, there were plenty of loud and obnoxious children running and screaming in the corridors of our hotel – whatever great things my generation may have achieved, good parenting is not one of them. Thankfully, all this ended the moment we left Kanyakumari but I consider myself warned to consider the calender before booking tours.

I was also reminded of why Indians make lousy tourists and are not welcome in many parts of the world. At the buffet table, several guests simply had to touch each chapati with their hands to check if it was hot, and apparently, the tongs provided were not as capable as their fingers at picking up salad. Later in the trip, at the wildlife reserves, many insisted on feeding and teasing the animals despite several signs requesting that this not be done. On the boat ride in Periyar lake, again, loud passengers scared away whatever few animals we might have spotted.

Thanks to a wide variety of food at the buffet table, I was able to avoid the local cuisine throughout the trip. I have had Malayali cuisine before and the vegetarian cuisine tastes horrible, drowned in coconut oil as it is. However, the fish curries of the state were quite nice as was the appam – the two became mainstays of my diet for the duration of my trip.

Friends and relatives who had gone to Kerala earlier had warned me that the state would not be to my liking – there were a few things of historical interest and it was dirty. However, that was not my experience and I am told that tourism has drastically improved in the state in the last eight years. There was little pollution, the streets were largely clean, the roads were fairly good – and toll-free unlike Maharashtra, Karnataka or Tamil Nadu – and many zones were environmentally conscious and plastic-free, but as someone joked, it is not difficult to achieve these things if you chase out all the industry!

Despite my foreboding before the trip, I had a good time. It also helped that we had a good group for the ten days. Kerala may not be on the top of my places to re-visit, but I am definitely glad that I did so once at least.