Steeped in Spice, Bathed in Light, Kerala's Mystique Beckons

Explore the rural backwaters of one of India's southern-most states

If you're content to sprawl out on a spare, white sand, palm-frilled beach, the Caribbean may be for you. But if you want to sunbathe in the earthy humidity of a cinnamon plantation, explore exotic temples, and glide past rice paddies in a willow-thin canoe, you might consider a flight to the Indian state of Kerala.

Before visiting my wife's parents in Bombay, we had read all the travel books and knew that Kerala means "land of coconuts." Hey, the Caribbean has coconuts. But nothing prepared us for the lush tropical beauty that greeted us as our plane descended over Cochin, Kerala's commercial center.

To our left, stucco mansions in soft pastel blues, pinks, and yellows, and steeples of Gothic churches rose above the green sway of coconut palms. To our right, huge freighters and tiny dugout canoes plied the calm aqua waters of the Arabian Sea.

Roughly the size of Vermont plus New Hampshire, Kerala stretches 360 miles from the southern tip of India up the western Malabar Coast.

According to Hindu mythology, Kerala was created when a Brahman priest-turned-warrior tossed his ax into the sea to wash away his sins. The seas boiled, then receded, leaving a rich, fertile land where anything could grow.

The ancient Keralite port of Cochin was a favorite stopping place for Romans, Arabs, Jews, Ethiopians, and Chinese, who gathered here to trade in silk, teak, gold, cardamom, and pepper.

While historians doubt it, tradition holds that the apostle Thomas traveled here in the 1st century to establish India's first Christian church. Later colonized by the Portuguese, Dutch, and English in quick succession, Keralites managed to maintain their unique culture, picking and choosing those foreign influences that best suited them.

With all its temples, churches, synagogues, and narrow cobblestone lanes, Cochin could keep any history buff happy for weeks. But my wife and I were determined to see the "real" Kerala, so we booked a canoe tour of the backwaters.

After a 45-minute bus ride, passing trucks with brightly painted messages like "Horn Okay, Please" and "Thy Will Be Done," we reached the outskirts of Ezxupunna, a loose collection of hamlets scattered among the lagoons to the north. With some hesitation, our busload of travelers boarded a waiting flotilla of 20-foot-long canoes. Then with a single fluid motion, each boatman pushed off from shore with a long wooden pole.

Suddenly, we entered a landscape out of Kipling's "The Jungle Book," where the only sound was the chatter of birds and the rhythm of our boatman pushing on a pole with long muscular arms.

Blue kingfishers flitted in the coconut palms and linseed trees above us, while cranes and herons searched the shallows for snails and shellfish. Villagers sloshed around knee-deep in rice paddies and cast nets in shallow ponds for fish. A boy in rubber sandals ran along the bank to quiet a lonely water buffalo tied to a tree.

Like most Keralite men, our boatman wore a simple plaid sarong called a lungi. These wraparound skirts, worn by both men and women throughout the region, come in eye-popping colors and designs. Women tend to be more modest, wearing their lungis to the ankles, but the men gather theirs up to show a bit more knee, particularly on hot days.

With lavender water hyacinths gliding past our boat, our tour guide, Sunil, recited an encyclopedia of details about Kerala: Nearly 90 percent of the population is literate, he said, and all Keralites have access to free health care. The elected state government, which has been run by the local Communist party for 30 years, has brought electricity to even the most isolated villages. Farmers, who have the benefit of three growing seasons a year, have been encouraged to branch out into farm-raising fish, crabs, and prawns to increase their earnings.

"Other developing countries can learn a lot from Kerala," Sunil said, sweating in a long-sleeved button-up shirt and Western-style slacks. But when asked if all these services mean higher taxes for foreign investors, he waved his hand as if he was brushing lint off his shirt. "No, nothing of the sort."

To be sure, the reasons for Sunil's pride in his state could be seen all around us; children returned home from school in their clean white-and-blue uniforms; electrical lines connected many huts to the 20th century.

But progress has been tempered by a host of problems. Most Keralites can read and write in their native Malayalam, but few can speak anything else, including the national language, Hindi. Electricity is widely available, but unreliable; blackouts are common.

Later in the afternoon, we approached a group of boys taking an afternoon dip. At the bow of our canoe, a spry Swedish retiree named Jorgen reached out his hand to one of the swimmers as if in greeting, then splashed the boy full in the face. My wife and I laughed, and the young swimmers thought it was an excellent joke as well. Instead of taking on the foreign aggressors, they proceeded to splash their sputtering comrade, as our boatman quickly punted us out of harm's way.

Our last stop was a tiny hamlet where villagers spend their days weaving fibers of coconut shells, called coir. Sunil's plan was to have us watch how coir rope is made. But dozens of village children, recently returned from school, had plans of their own. After a quick "hello," they got down to business, swarming the tourists, asking for ballpoint pens, empty bottles of spring water, and chocolates.

Raising his voice above a chorus of "One pen, one bottle, one rupee," Sunil tried in vain to direct our attention to the sullen ropemakers. Then whatever order still existed completely broke down. Mohan, an Indian-born tourist from St. Louis, pulled out a video camera, and children giggled and swirled around him like a carousel, trying to see themselves on the small attached screen. Sunil rubbed his forehead, looked at his watch, and laughed.

Back on the bus, Jorgen told us that he loved the simple life so much that he had actually spent the last week with a Keralite family, in their thatched hut, far from the nearest highway or city.

"If you wanted breakfast, you caught a fish. If you wanted spice, you picked peppercorns from a tree," said the silver-haired Swede, looking remarkably native in his long white kurta shirt and blue floral sarong. "I think my children would think I'd gone crazy, but I could have spent the rest of my life out there."

The backwaters of Kerala are a world apart, a place where Indians travel to escape the congestion, pollution, and mayhem of modern life. And as our bus honked its way into a brilliant red sunset, I marveled at how the land of coconuts and spice retains its alluring beauty as it enters the industrial age.

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