Roaming Kerala

As the train cruised through the countryside northwest of Kanyakumari, a change occurred on the platforms outside. The words on the signs lost the right angles of the Tamil script and were replaced with curvier letters. A few minutes later, as we began to approach the city of Thiruvananthapuram, I got a message on my phone: “Welcome to Vodafone Kerala. Now ROAM LIKE HOME!” Roaming?! I’m still in India! Well, I thought, my SIM card is prepaid and since it’s still working, there must not be any actual roaming charges. But, in India, crossing a state line is like crossing a national border, where the culture and even the language change. Kerala, a state on the Malabar Coast of the Arabian Sea in southwest India, shares many similarities with its neighbor Tamil Nadu. The cuisine is similar, people dress similarly, and the tropical landscape is still ruled by palm trees. However, in other ways the two states do feel like different countries.

In Kerala, the local language is called Malayalam (read it backwards – it’s the same!) and is written with the Malayalam script. To someone like me who doesn’t speak a Dravidian language, the Malayalam and Tamil scripts look pretty similar, and in fact they are related. Malayalam and Tamil are both descended from the same branch of the Dravidian language family, so they are sister languages. Their alphabets also developed from the same source, so they share some similar letters and forms.

One of the most striking differences I noticed, coming from Tamil Nadu, was the abundance of the hammer-and-sickle logo throughout Kerala. Interestingly, Kerala was the first democracy in the world to elect a Communist government. In addition, as the state with the highest Human Development Index and literacy rate in India, Kerala is one of the more affluent regions of the country. I noticed this walking through some of the residential areas, where the houses, as in Kanyakumari, are modern and beautifully decorated. Many people from poorer parts of India come to Kerala to find higher-paying jobs, while many people from Kerala go abroad to do the same.

While the population of Tamil Nadu is overwhelmingly Hindu, the population of Kerala is more diverse. About 55% of the people in Kerala are Hindu, while the rest are mainly Christian or Muslim. Everywhere I traveled in Kerala, whether in the cities or in the countryside, I noticed nearly as many churches as temples. Because Christianity has been present in Kerala for nearly 2000 years, many different denominations are present, including Catholic, Orthodox, and the Protestant CSI (Church of South India, not the TV show – I was confused about that for a while!). The Hindu temples in Kerala also differ from their counterparts in Tamil Nadu; most of the temples I saw in Kerala are comparatively modest structures, and lack the grandiose gopurams common in Tamil Nadu.

I did not stop in the capital of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram; instead, my first port of call in the state was the seaside town of Varkala. A relatively small city perched on top of a cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea, Varkala is a popular beach and resort destination. I did not do much in Varkala other than enjoy the clifftop and the beach. The whole waterfront area is lined with restaurants, shops, and activities aimed at tourists. I expected this, but what I didn’t expect was to find that the majority of the tourist establishments had a Tibet or Nepal theme. I don’t know if there is a particular reason for this, or if the tourists who visit Varkala simply don’t realize that those regions are over 1500 miles away, and are not even in India…

Beach Yoga in Varkala, Kerala, India
Morning yoga on the beach below Varkala cliff.
Beach in Varkala, Kerala, India
Varkala cliff overlooking the beach and the Arabian Sea.

From Varkala, I continued up the coast to the town of Kollam to explore the backwater canals. The backwaters of Kerala are the state’s most famous feature. These are a network of brackish and freshwater lakes and canals, both natural and manmade, that run inland parallel to the coast for most of the state’s length. Many of the larger waterways have traditionally been used as a means of transportation, allowing goods such as crops to be brought to market without having to be sent out into the sea. The smaller canals are used to provide irrigation and freshwater to the rural villages. While the importance of the backwaters for trade has decreased in modern times, their importance for tourism has grown. The backwaters are calm, palm-lined waterways plied by beautiful thatch-roof houseboats and punt boats (propelled by a bamboo pole pushed against the bottom). The houseboats are a rather expensive option preferred by honeymoon couples; I opted for the public ferry, which took me fifty miles through one of the main canals from Kollam to the town of Alleppey over the course of eight hours. It was a much more pleasant ride than the bus would have been!

Houseboat in the Backwaters of Kerala, India
A classic Kerala backwater houseboat cruising through a canal near Alleppey.
Canoe on the Backwaters of Kerala, India
A serene scene in the Kerala backwaters.

Though the ferry ride was nice, I still wanted to see some of the more remote corners of the backwaters, so I took a group tour on two different punt boats through the narrow canals that give an opportunity to see the village life up close. Along the way, we passed women washing dishes and clothes in the canal, children playing on the banks or being lathered up for their canal bath, and plenty of kingfisher birds perched above the water waiting for a fish to pass by. We also had the chance to see the small-scale agriculture and industry that many of the villagers participate in, such as growing spices and making rope. The rope-making demonstration was particularly interesting; we watched as a woman gathered up a pouch-full of coconut husks from the ground and with the help of a rudimentary machine proceeded to weave it into fifty feet of rope in only two minutes.

Bridge in the Backwaters of Kerala, India
Another view of the Kerala backwaters.
Narrow Canal in the Backwaters of Kerala, India
A narrow backwater canal, inaccessible to the large houseboats.
Village Life in the Backwaters of Kerala, India
Village life along the backwaters.
Punt-Boatman in the Backwaters of Kerala, India
Our boat’s 1 hp (human-power) propulsion.
Rope-Making in Kerala, India
Rope-making is not something you ever really think about, but when you see it done by hand, it’s amazing how simple it is!

In the center of the Kerala coastline, at the mouth of Lake Vembanad, lies Kochi, the state’s economic hub and largest urban area. Kochi is a major port city, and there are constantly cargo ships waiting offshore for their turn to enter the bay. Most people live in the eastern part of the city, Ernakulam, which has the main train and bus stations, and features a skyline of medium-rise apartment buildings (something I have not seen in India until now). To the west of Ernakulam, a short ferry ride across the lake, is Fort Kochi, the historic city center where I chose to stay. As the name suggests, Fort Kochi was home to a fort built by Portuguese colonists in the sixteenth century, though there is not much left of the original structure. The town changed hands several times, first to the Dutch and then to the British, before becoming part of independent India. One historic structure that does remain is the Mattancherry Palace, just to the east of Fort Kochi. The Portuguese built this palace as a gift to the local king after they managed to offend the native population. The palace doesn’t look like much from the outside, but the inside contains an interesting museum that details the history of the Kochi region, and in particular focuses on the local dynasties. I found it interesting that, although the region was controlled for a long time by foreign powers, the native kings still held power locally. After India gained its independence, several kingdoms voluntarily merged to form the Malayalam-speaking state of Kerala. The kings in Kerala were among the first in India to relinquish their power to the newly-formed state government.

Chinese Fishing Nets in the Port of Kochi, Kerala, India
The Chinese also set up camp in Kochi for a while, leaving behind distinctive fishing nets that are still used to this day in various parts of Kerala.
Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica in Kochi, Kerala, India
Santa Cruz Cathedral Basilica, the main Catholic church in Fort Kochi.
Café in Fort Kochi, Kerala, India
Taking shelter in a café with a cardamom lassi while a storm gathers over Fort Kochi.

So far, my impression of Kerala has met my expectations – for a state whose motto is “God’s Own Country”, I definitely expected it to be nice. It certainly has a more relaxed feel than its neighbor Tamil Nadu; the traffic seems lighter, people honk their horns less, and fewer motorbikes have tried to run me over. As I go farther north in India, I’m sure it will get more chaotic again, but I have enjoyed spending some time along the coast and backwaters of Kerala. I’ll write more about this state in the next post, so stay tuned!

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