Face Paint, Tea, and Coconuts

In the last post, I covered my journey up the coast of Kerala all the way to the city of Kochi. But that’s only half of the state! This post will be the continuation of my visit to Kerala.

Part I: Face Paint

Before leaving Kochi, I took the opportunity to experience one of Kerala’s traditional art forms, called Kathakali. This is a genre of theatre developed in Kerala to portray the stories and mythology of Hinduism, in particular the two famous epic poems called the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Kathakali is a multi-faceted art form, and requires many years of study to master. There are many distinctive features of Kathakali; the most prominent is the makeup and costumes. The actors, who are generally all male, spend over an hour applying extravagant and highly-detailed face paint before changing into equally ostentatious costumes. At the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Kochi, every show begins with a face-painting demonstration, where the actors sit on the stage while applying their disguises. They make it look so easy as they draw intricate designs and even add three-dimensional features to their faces; check out the photos below to see what I mean.

Kathakali Preparation at the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Kochi, Kerala, India
Kathakali actors applying their face paint.

Another distinctive aspect of Kathakali is the expressive facial features of the actors. Through extensive training, the actors have amazing control of their eyes and face muscles, allowing them to portray various emotions in an almost caricatured way. There is a set of standard facial expressions used in Kathakali, which one of the actors demonstrated after he had finished with his face paint.

Kathakali Facial Expression Demonstration at the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Kochi, Kerala, India
Demonstration of the eye and facial expressions used in Kathakali.

The other interesting feature of Kathakali that distinguishes it from a traditional play is the use of mimes to communicate between the characters. Because the stories portrayed are complex, and because the actors do not speak on stage, they use hand gestures and facial expressions to “speak” to each other. These hand gestures are more than simple charades, though; as demonstrated before the show began, the gestures the actors use bear more resemblance to an actual sign language than to something you might come up with during a game of charades.

After a demonstration of the face paint, facial expressions, and hand gestures, the show for the night began. An excerpt from the Mahabharata (the entire story would take over seven hours to perform), the story centered around Arjuna, a faithful devotee of the god Shiva, as he tried to prove his bravery and devotion by killing a bull. Shiva, disguised as a hunter, killed the bull first, and the two got into a skirmish. By the time Shiva’s wife Parvati stepped in to mediate, Shiva had defeated Arjuna and broken his pride. Only then, from his humble position, did Arjuna recognize the hunter as the god Shiva, and Shiva subsequently affirmed Arjuna’s devotion by presenting him with a special bow and arrow.

Kathakali Music Demonstration at the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Kochi, Kerala, India
The performance was accompanied by music performed by two drummers and a vocalist, who also used a few small instruments.
Kathakali Scene Featuring Arjuna, Shiva, and Parvati at the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Kochi, Kerala, India
Arjuna (right) and Shiva (center) argue after they both tried to kill the same animal, while Parvati (left) tries to figure out a way to intervene.
Kathakali Scene Featuring Arjuna Crying at the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Kochi, Kerala, India
Arjuna is devastated after Shiva defeats him.
Kathakali Scene Featuring Arjuna Rejoicing at the Kerala Kathakali Centre in Kochi, Kerala, India
Shiva and Parvati reveal their true identities to Arjuna, who is overjoyed.

Part II: Tea

From Kochi, I headed inland, up to the town of Munnar in the Western Ghats mountain range. At about a mile in elevation, the climate of Munnar is pleasant, with temperatures around twenty degrees Fahrenheit cooler than in the surrounding lowlands. The European colonists who lived down in cities such as Kochi would use Munnar as a place to escape the heat, people, and unhygienic conditions in the city; this type of “getaway” town is called a hill station.

Though there are no more colonists in Munnar, the former colonizers still benefit from its favorable climate; Munnar is at the heart of one of India’s largest tea-growing regions. On the g-force-inducing zig-zag ride up the bumpy road to Munnar, I saw hillside after hillside covered in little green tea shrubs. Every once in a while, a plantation would also be dotted with dozens of workers slowly making their way between the plants and shearing off the leaves that were ready for processing. I toured a nearby tea processing factory to learn how the leaves are prepared. Interestingly, all types of tea come from the same plant; only the age of the leaves and the processing method determine whether they become black tea, green tea, or white tea. Black tea is made from mature leaves (cut in bulk with shears) that go through several stages of crushing and drying, whereas green tea is made from partially-developed leaves (picked individually from the plant) that are dried only once. White tea, the most expensive kind used mainly for medicinal purposes, is made from the youngest leaves (which also have to be picked individually) dried once.

Selfie at a Tea Plantation near Munnar, Kerala, India
A tea plantation in Munnar.
The Lockhart Tea Factory near Munnar, Kerala, India
The Lockhart Tea Factory near Munnar.

Though tea is Munnar’s main business, there are many other products produced in the region, such as cardamom, nutmeg, black pepper, coffee, sugarcane, and sandalwood. In addition, Munnar’s setting in the mountains provides some nice scenery that draws many tourists both from India and abroad. Generally, it is a great place to go hiking, and there are many marked trails leading through the surrounding hills. Sadly, though, a large forest fire had occurred just two weeks prior across the border in nearby Tamil Nadu, resulting in the deaths of several hikers. As a result, all of the national parks and hiking trails in the south Indian mountains were closed while the incident was investigated and the fires contained. I didn’t get the opportunity to go on a proper hike in Munnar, but I walked along some of the country roads just outside of town to get a feel for the beauty of the region.

Hills near Munnar, Kerala, India
The hills surrounding Munnar.
Mountains near Munnar, Kerala, India
More beautiful scenery near Munnar.
Lakkam Waterfall near Munnar, Kerala, India
Lakkam waterfall near Munnar.
Tea Plantation near Munnar, Kerala, India
Tea plantations near Munnar.
The Town of Munnar, Kerala, India
The town of Munnar.

Part III: Coconuts

Before wrapping up my stay in Kerala, I decided to learn more about the state’s unique cuisine. While the Tamils named their state after themselves, the Malayalis named theirs after their favorite food: “Kerala” is derived from the phrase “Land of Coconuts” in Malayalam. And, quite appropriately, coconuts form the basis of the majority of the local cuisine. I took a cooking class in Munnar, during which Nimi, a highly-awarded author of Indian cookbooks, showed us the common ingredients and spices used in Kerala cooking. Then, she taught us how to make five of her favorite Kerala dishes (see the photo below). Every single dish included coconut in one form or another, whether chopped, grated, in oil form or in milk form; with so much coconut cooking all around, the kitchen smelled amazing, and the meal was delicious!

Ingredients of Kerala at Nimi's Cooking Class in Munnar, Kerala, India
Spices, curry leaves, and other ingredients in Nimi’s kitchen.
Dishes of Kerala at Nimi's Cooking Class in Munnar, Kerala, India
Kerala dishes. Center from top to bottom: banana/coconut donuts, vegetable stew, idiappams, fish curry. Right: pineapple curry.

So, with a cookbook and some packs of tea as souvenirs, I have concluded my tour of India’s far south. I say “far south” because, even though I covered a pretty large area, when you zoom out on the map of India, it doesn’t look like I’ve covered much at all! It’s always the same – the more places I visit, the more I realize how many places I haven’t visited. Oh well… for now, though, I’m heading north to Mumbai!


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