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Kerala, the door to India
My favourite Asian destination is without a doubt Kerala. This is the perfect place to unwind. Centuries-old traditions, mesmerizing music, delicious, mostly vegan food and of course the healing power of nature help to escape the rat race of westsern society, at least for a while.
Kerala, a state in the south of India, is steeped in tradition, rich in heritage. I spent three weeks in the region, travelling the whole length of the state, exploring nature, cities, heritage and culture in all its facets. I found that this is probably the best place to easy into India, as in truth the country can create a sensory overload.
Crazy traffic, noise, heat, poverty and the vast number of people in India can be a bit too much for the inexperienced traveller. Kerala on the other hand is relatively rich, relaxed, quiet (again relatively compared to for instance Delhi) and has the highest literacy rate in India (93.91%). There is religious freedom with Hindus, Muslims and Christians making up the majority of the population. It is alsol ‘God’s own country’.
Kerala opened the door to India for me, as it did for Vasco da Gama, a Portuguese explorer, who landed in 1498 in Calicut, a coastal town in the south of the state. He opened the spice route to the rest of the world as he was the first European to reach India by sea.
Flavours of Kerala
After 500 years of trading with India we (in Europe) might think we know about spices, but the Kerala cuisine is a league of its own. Kerala dishes are fragrant and tasty, spiced with cumin, cinnamon, coriander, pepper, ginger, cardamon, mustard, nutmeg, turmeric and herbs. The food is not just delicious, it also has many health benefits.
My favourite dish of the region is Sadya (picture), which can have as much as 28 dishes combined as a single lunch course. The best thing is that the food is served on a banana leaf, which is 100% recyclable. The leaf goes straight into a compost heap after use.
No cutlery is needed as the food is eaten with your hand. Which might be tricky to start with. This is exactly why you should try it, apart from it being delicious of course. By trying the local cuisine one gets a real sense of the country, its traditions and culture. It is also a great icebreaker, a clumsy foreigner trying to do his best is easily forgiven for a faux pas against local customs. Trust a local to teach you and you will soon get the hang of it.
Ayurveda is a traditional holistic natural healing method that is still widely practiced in Kerala. Good for body and soul, for both healthy and ailing human beings. To practice Ayurveda the traditional way doctors prescribe based on the client’s medical history a strict diet, herbal and oil treatments and the practice of yoga and meditation. The best part of the treatment are the different types of massages, again all based on one’s particular needs. The duration of treatments can vary from a couple of hours to weeks or months.
In Kerala there are many places that offer Ayurvedic treatments, from rather basic to 5 star resorts. I stayed at Somatheeram Ayurveda villa, a beautiful place on the beach near Kovalam. Picture falling asleep with waves breaking in the background, delicate flowers everywhere and oh the food, mostly vegan btw, a feast for the senses.
Kerala is genuinely human by nature.
Human by nature
After lunch, what better place to hang a hammock, relax and listen to mesmerizing music than an art academy where the young people of Kerala are trained in dance and music? Imagine a splendid wooden building, young girls dressed in orange, their ankles adorned by bracelets, elegantly dancing to the tune of the wind, the sound of drums in the background, a barren landscape surrounded by palm trees, the Kalamandalam academy of Kerala is truly a magical site.
But if you would like to totally switch off from the world then take a cruise of a few days in the ‘backwaters’ of Kerala on a converted rice boat. No internet connection, just the melodies of the jungle and the gentle ripple of water. This network of lakes and lagoons, canals and rivers form a labyrinth with more than 900 kilometres of connected waterways which create a paradise for exotic birds, such as: terns, kingfishers, darters and cormorants, butterflies the size of a hand and many other animals.
Occasionally there are people standing by the riverside, women dressed in colourful sarongs, some houses, a boat or two sailing on the same stretch of water and that is it. From time to time the rural quiet is disturbed by a snake boat (Chundan vallams) race. A spectacle between narrow boats, each over 30 m long with one hundred oarsmen. If that is too much for your senses, rest assured your barge will soon retreat to a more secluded area.
After a couple of days in the backwaters you might be ready for some ‘action’. Ideally you will end (or start) your trip to Kerala with some Ayurvedic treatment.
Size – Kerala covers an area of almost 39.000 km², almost the same as my home country the Netherlands. With 33 million people it is densely populated, although in some parts (like the backwaters and national parks) it does not feel that way.
Weather – It is best to avoid the monsoons from June to August and from September to December.
Language – Although Malayalam is the main language, English is widely spoken.
Airport – The capital Thiruvananthapuram has an international airport.
Recommended reading – ‘God of small things’, the 1997 Man Booker Prize winning novel by set in Kerala by local writer Arundhati Roy.