Uday K. Chakraborty hopes that the naturally beautiful Kerala will rise again soon with its charm
From my otherwise alert grand-father the name “Kerala” used to evoke a little more than a blank stare; it was because the state has been in existence for just 60 years. But say Malabar Coast, Travancore and Cochin, the names of the areas combined to form Kerala, and the pieces would start to fall into place. Malabar, trading in ivory and spices, sandalwood and peacocks; Cochin, where the first European fort in India was built by the Portuguese; Travancore, ‘abode of prosperity’, a group of princely states combined into a powerful kingdom by an eighteenth-century Rajah…
These shores were fabled even earlier, in King Solomon’s time, bringing barges with their serried ranks of oarsmen to trade in Ophir’s rich markets of “black gold” – pepper – and spices, cardamom, cinnamon, chillies, cloves and cumin, spreading the repute of this exotic littoral to a world that was greedy for the riches and legend of the unknown East.
To an average North Indian, everyone south of the Vindhyas is a South Indian or a Madrasi, but when you actually visit this part of the country you will notice the significant difference in language, culture and way of life even between two adjacent states. I had entered Kerala from neighbouring Tamil Nadu where chaotically decorated, day-glow painted temple gateways thrust high above dun-coloured plains; where the colour of women’s saris is rivalled by the flowers hanging in their glossy hair; where lightness and brightness dazzle and every aspect of life is infused with kinetic energy. In Kerala, however, the only thing which appears colourful and animated is its politics.
Life in subtle hues
Everything else is lower key in Kerala. Water pots are clay or dull metal; even the cows eschew the brightly painted horns of their bovine counterparts across the border. Buses with Christian names go in haste, while shopkeepers survey the world from behind suspended bananas. On the narrow winding roads, there is no visible poverty, where daylight drinkers stand in long disciplined lines to buy liquor.
The appearance of women is more subdued; they often wear the traditional white cotton sari or half-sari with a narrow gold or coloured border, and rarely bedeck their hair with flowers. The women especially are in good health and they are plenty, unlike in north India.
It is very easy to get the impression that Kerala is one vast coconut grove, yet there are three distinct geographical regions in the states. Starting at the tip of Cape Comorin, the green land begins its inward journey and hosts a few spectacular sea beaches. Then along the coast stretching almost 150 kilometres from Quilon or Kollam, north to Cochin, the land is veined with a mass of creeks, rivers and canals interspersed with huge lakes. Between this area – appropriately known as The Backwaters – and the lower slopes of Western Ghats, the land is covered with coconuts and rubber plantations interspersed with fruit and cashew-nut trees.
As the land rises, the coffee plantations of the lower slopes give way to the timber, tea and cardamom, perhaps the most fragrant of spices, which got its English name from the Cardamom Hills on which it has grown for centuries. The land then goes up further inland, but lowering in elevation to deep woods of the rain forest area in the Silent Valley region of Wayanad district.
I discovered that there is nothing as languid as a lagoon. Lying on a boat, floating over glass-still water fringed with coconut palms just inland from any of the now famous towns. I lie back in the wooden boat under a warm sun hearing the faraway songs of fishermen pulling in their nets, high-pitched voices of birds, a cock crowing, the rustling of palm leaves in the breezes and the rhythmic clunk, clunk from women beating the husks of coconuts. It really gives one a sense of heavenly bliss.
In the evening the breeze is warm, the pace is leisurely, the excitement high, the food deliciously spicy as the accompanying Kathakali dancers posture and whirl through their intricately elaborate ritual dances.
May paradise be regained soon.