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Kerala – God’s Own Country

In the winter of 2000, we vacationed in Kerala and Goa. We started by driving to Delhi and spent most of the next day at the Sarojni Nagar flea market, hunting for casual wear and serious conversation and golgappa time. The early morning flight to Trivendrum was managed by my first cousin. As a result, we were upgraded to business class and were soon enjoying delicacies denied to lesser mortals. The real thrill was spending most of the flight in the cockpit watching the clouds change hues and colors. The experience of taking off and landing from the cockpit is truly unique. After the four hour flight we arrived in Trivendrum where another cousin of mine who was an air force doctor was waiting to pick us up. Oh yes, Trivendrum looks like a huge coconut grove from the air. You can barely see the city. Since coconuts are a staple of the staple diet, every house has at least four trees. Our first evening in Kerala was spent at Kovalam beach, where of course the kids went crazy in the water and I went crazy with the variety of seafood on offer. There are dozens of elaborate dhabas, or shacks, that produce a variety of raw seafood. You can choose what you want to eat and they will prepare the same in front of you. I decided to bake a kingfish. Made with fiery Keralite masala, it was a huge hit.

The next morning we went to the Padmanabhaswami temple which houses the reclining Vishnu and is said to have been erected in the early years of the Kaliyug. That’s 5000 years for you. I’m sure carbon dating tests don’t live up to the claim, but the thought of standing in such an old building is beautiful and humbling. However, the fact is that the construction of the present
The building is about a thousand years old and was built with the help of Chinese workers. Their influence in the sculpture is unmistakable. The most notable feature was the soft rubber-like floor made of vegetable dyes and egg whites. The temple’s main entrance, called a gopuram, is made entirely of powdered seashells, and paintings and sculptures depict events from Hindu mythology.

Kanyakumari was next on the tour plan. We started early, which means already at 10am, what with screaming kids, packing lunches and general chaos all around. Great fun though! So we went into the sumo we rented. As soon as we crossed the city, it started to rain. In the middle of the traffic, there was a sudden squeal of brakes and an auto rickshaw ran into the back of our sumo. We got off and came face to face with a shy looking Kerala guy. I couldn’t speak Malayalam, I gestured with my hands, “What happened?” The guy just stuck out his tongue and smiled and that was the end of the matter as neither vehicle was seriously damaged.

The road to Kanyakumari is full of tiny villages and towns that one passes so densely that one never really feels like one is on the highway. The empty spaces are lush green in classic Kerala style. Of course, the cloudy day made the trip pleasant. Our first stop was Padmanabhapuram, the capital of the Travancore kings. The current lineage is that of the Verma kingdom. The Keralite family system is matriarchal. That’s why the king (poor guy) can’t get married. But he can have as many concubines as he wants (lucky dog). So the sister’s son follows the king and the sister is considered the queen. The king’s palace at Padmanabhapuram is different from the rich variety of the north. It is the magnificence of the woodwork that captivates the eye. The floors of some rooms are made as previously described. Even the king’s bed is made of some kind of medicinal wooden structure. During the tour of the palace, we had a quick lunch of alo poors and left for Kanyakumari.

I went to Kanyakumari once in 1984 for one of the trainings while I was on probation in the bank. In 16 years, the face of the place has changed beyond recognition. What was once a laid-back place that lazily welcomed curious visitors has now become a concrete monstrosity dotted with clever street vendors every step of the way. We quickly made our way to the ferry that takes us to Rock Memorial Island, where Swami Vivekanand is said to have meditated at one time. Right next to it is another island where a huge statue of the Tamil poet Perivayoor (hope I understood correctly) has been erected. The Rock Memorial lost its exclusivity after the statue was erected. During the quick pilgrimage, we headed back to Trivendrum. A few kilometers away is a place called Suchindran, which according to legend was rediscovered about 500 years ago. It houses a unique multi-deity temple. The triumvirate of Hindu gods is represented by a single stone figure. There is also an eighteen feet tall statue of Hanuman which is covered by the devotee with fresh butter and betel leaves. There is another temple where it is believed that the god of rain, Indra, comes to bathe every night. I wonder why he has to bathe at night? The daytime water supply is probably bad.

The piece-de-resistance, however, is the columns outside the sanctuary. The columns carved from individual stone blocks are a combination of smaller, hollow columns. When struck one by one, the seven basic notes can be distinguished. Different sounds of drums on another set. We were on time for the Aarti so we stayed back. They had this mechanical device that, when turned on, played the drum and cymbals together in a predetermined rhythm. It was an effective accompaniment to the Vedic chants of the black-robed priests and the blare of conches and pipes. The experience is deeply moving. Singing merrily, we headed back to Trivendrum with much needed beer.

Our original plan was to fly to Cochin, but wiser advice prevailed and we decided to drive the 500 km that covers Kerala from Trivendrum. As it turned out, it was a great choice thanks to my cousin’s insistence. The first stop was a place called Varkala Beach. Well, one has to climb a rock before going down a rocky path to the sea. The wind ruffles your hair and makes crazy noises, and you have a beautiful view of the endless miles of sea. Calm and serene…remember the movie “EK DOOJE KE LIYE”. The final scene where the star-crossed lovers fall off the cliffs to their deaths. Well this place was something like that… except I didn’t slip. From there we continued on the road for about 15 km and came to a fishing village on the coast. There was a small restaurant where we decided to eat. Since we were probably the first customers for the past few weeks, Matre De grandly announced that the table would be set in about an hour. Hunger takes precedence over anger, we politely asked him if we could hire a boat to cover the backwaters (Backwater is otherwise the sea water blocked by land due to breaching the shore or water flowing onto the land at high tide). The King Matre De told us he had just that in mind. He blew a whistle and Lo & Behold a long ship arrived to take the hungry souls on an hour long journey. I suspect that these guys had an agreement that they would feel free to delay the arrival if the food was not ready by the time specified. Otherwise, the backwater experience was not bad at all.

This particular place was full of Portuguese man-of-war, a jellyfish to the uninitiated. It’s a poisonous creature, but it’s beautiful to look at, like not half of the prettier ones. So everyone sang merrily, took pictures and tried to forget the feeling of hunger. The hour passed quickly, the Matre De took pity, the boat returned, and the predatory party attacked the food and took no prisoners. Chicken, Dosas, Rice etc. disappeared at an alarming rate. Matre De wore a troubled look, panting to and fro from the kitchen. It served him right! From there to Cochin it was a long road between lush palm trees and green, green, green all around. The place comes to you. We reached Cochin late in the evening. Our stay was established in the Southern Naval Command HQS mess. So everyone crashed after a casual Chinese meal where a lobster was added to my substantial gastronomic repertoire. The next morning we did a quick tour of Cochin, which included an open sea trip to an island where the Buggati Palace stands in solitary glory. This place was built in the 18th century by a Dutch merchant and later it was taken over by the British who used it as a residence until independence. They would restore it to its former glory and then use it as a hotel.

On December 29th, we beat the clock to reach Cochin airport on time, only to find that the flight was delayed by an hour. So we waited and waited…it was hard because the anticipation to reach Goa was intense and every delay was accompanied by irritation and boredom. However time passed, the plane arrived and we were off to paradise. But more on that later.

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