Kerala is known locally as God’s Own Country. This narrow strip of land on India’s south western corner has a rich and diverse past reflecting its place as a trading centre through many centuries. Influences are varied and include one of the world’s oldest Christian communities- the disciple Thomas arrived in Kerala as early as 52AD — as well as a thriving Jewish community in Cochin whose synagogue was built in 1568. Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences are all visible today. Kerala’s population reflects this long and continuous contact with its neighbours and there is a relatively even split among Christians, Muslims and Hindus, all of whom live side by side in harmonious coexistence.
Kerala is unique in that it gains the benefit of both monsoons- the result being lush, verdant greenery which lasts right through the dry winter months. The best time to visit Kerala is from October to April. Monsoonal showers begin in May; the heaviest falls are June- August, with the rains tailing off around September.
Kerala is home to a variety of forms of artistic expression- Kathakali Dance is perhaps the best known. The dance involves the enactment of an episode from one of the Hindu epics, the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The performers convey moods, emotions and inner sensibilities by facial expressions and gestures. The costume of the Kathakali dance is a striking sight. The elaborate facial paint made from rice power treated with various colours, is an indication of the nature of the character being portrayed. The heroes have green faces; the villains red or black, while the holy men and female characters have yellow faces. Before each performance you can observe the intricate processes involved in applying make up to each dancer.
In the north of the state, the less well known but equally fascinating Theyyam is the dominant dance form. This form is totally uncommercialised; performances can be seen in small villages in the Cannanore district, the setting and presentation little changed over many centuries. Kerala also has a traditional form of martial arts Kalari Payattu- this can be seen in demonstration form in Cochin. To see the extensive training which these performers must undergo to attain the highest levels of skill, you can visit the Kerala Kalamandalam, a school for performing arts at Cheruthuruthy. Here you can spend a morning observing the masters and pupils in the course of their training.
Backwaters of Kerala
This vast network of lagoons, lakes, rivers and small waterways is one of the treasures of South India. Surrounded by rice paddies and lined with coconut palms along much of their length, the backwaters support a huge number of villagers as well an array of water birds. The best way for visitors to experience this unique environment and the lifestyle of the people is to stay at a small homestay or larger resort-style property near to Alleppey or at Kumarakom. Unfortunately unchecked development over many years means that the once-famous overnight houseboat cruise can no longer be recommended as there are too many boats, very little time is actually spent cruising and sadly corruption has crept in so that many people are now taken shopping during the overnight cruise! For this reason we now recommend a day-cruise with lunch and one night (better still 2 or more) at a place like Emerald Isle Heritage Villa, Maria Heritage Home, Thevercad or Vembanad House.
Keralan food is absolutely delicious and quite unique – yet another reflection of the area’s absorption of a myriad of influences.
Fish and seafood are plentiful, and inventive use of staple ingredients such as banana and coconut give an exotic touch to the cuisine. As well as on board houseboats, another way to experience Keralan cuisine and hospitality is at any of the home stay and plantation retreats.
At beach side towns and resorts you can enjoy a meal of freshly caught seafood, cooked to your specifications.
Beaches of Kerala
The long coastline of India’s south western most state is home to dozens of golden sand beaches, lapped by the warm waters of the Arabian Sea. From the world famous Kovalam and Varkala in the south, the luxury resort at Marari near Alleppey through to the little visited Malabar Coast in the north there is a beach experience here to suit all tastes.
This historic port city has been a focal point for trade on the ‘Spice Coast’ for centuries and the myriad influences of Chinese, Jewish, Dutch, British and Portuguese traders can be seen in the religion, culture and architecture of Cochin to this day. A full or half day sightseeing tour can take in the Chinese fishing nets on the harbour’s edge, the Jewish Synagogue, St Francis Church and Mattancherry Palace, Indo Portuguese Museum and a visit to the bustling spice market. At the end of the day you can enjoy a sunset harbour cruise followed by a display of Keralan performing arts, or a fine meal at one of the many great restaurants in the city. There are many wonderful boutique heritage hotels in the historic Fort Cochin area and you may wish to make one of these home for a few days.
Formerly a British hill station, Munnar is set at an altitude of 6,000ft amidst an area of breathtaking beauty; a haven of peace and tranquillity, Munnar is one of the most idyllic tourist destinations in Kerala. Long vistas to tea plantations, pristine valleys and mountains, exotic species of flora and fauna in its wild sanctuaries and forests, Munnar has all these and more. The nearby Eravikulam National Park is the last refuge of the endangered Nilgiri Thar, a mountain goat endemic to the Western Ghats. Also close by is Raja Malai, the highest peak in the area and a prime region for trekking.
This is one of the first areas of the Ghats to be opened to tourism, is popular with locals and visitors alike. The Periyar Wild Life Sanctuary with its unsullied grasslands and “Blue Mountains” is home to scores of species of wildlife including elephants, tigers, leopards, deer and birds of all kinds. This is one of the most important National Parks in India. The sanctuary is spread across 777 sq km, of which much is thick evergreen forest. The splendid artificial Periyar Lake adds to the charm of the park. This is the only sanctuary in India where you can view wildlife from a boat on the lake. Details about trekking and wildlife viewing in Periyar can be found on the Wildlife and Outdoor Activities Page.
As a less visited natural region of the south, Wayanad retains much of its pristine beauty. The Kerala section of the massive park which stretches from Bandipur in Karnataka and Mudamalai in Tamil Nadu, this area provides many opportunities for trekking. The vegetation is different from the neighbouring states however, with patches of rain forest and bamboo forest. As this area has been more recently opened for tourism, wildlife viewing facilities are less developed, but equally the number of human visitors is lower. The Eddakkal Caves near Wayanad are a remarkably well preserved example of 10000 year old rock carvings set high in the Western Ghats and can be reached by a drive through scenic countryside and a shot climb up a well defined path.
North of Cochin there are a variety of lesser known destinations including the backwaters around Calicut, the deserted beaches of the Malabar Coast and the historic town of Cannanore. This area will appeal to those who enjoy journeys off the beaten track, with a sense of discovery waiting at every turn.