Gold Caparisoned Elephants at a temple festival

Gold Caparisoned Elephants at a temple festival

Kerala, in and about

Imagine a tropical place where green foothills sprinkled with misty plantations lead to pristine blue mountains, a place where the Arabian Sea laps at white, palm-shaded beaches, a place where backwater lagoons cut intricate patterns through lush rainforests. Imagine this land too, as rich in culture and art, as diverse in shopping and tourist attraction as in its ecology. If you can hold all of that in your imagination at once, for one, well done, and for two, you will see why it is no surprise that the land you were picturing, Kerala, India, was named one of National Geographic Traveller Magazine’s “10 Paradises of the World”.

Munnar Tea Estate, Idukki Kerala is truly an ecological marvel, fortunate in its geography to be flanked by mountains and the sea. The land takes heavy rainfall eight months a year, allowing some of the world’s finest wild growth of flora and fauna to flourish in the dense rainforests that populate the area.

Boat House, Alappuzha The backwaters that wander through the sprawling forestation can be travelled on day-cruises, a leisurely way to learn about the natural habitat, or to simply enjoy the sight, color and sound. If the time of year is right, the backwaters will be hosting Vallam Kali boat races, thrilling spectacles in which the competing vessels, enormous wood canoes, can hold up to one hundred men.

Nearer the sea, the shores of Kerala boast post-card worthy white-sand beaches with vast varieties of activities to offer. Sunset from a houseboat, Alappuzha For those attracted to the wilder side of night life, Kovalam Beach Beach in Trivandrum, a former counter-cultural nexus in the sixties, offers a healthy dose of raucousness. For the more family friendly, or just-plain-relaxing, beach visit, Varkala beach in the Thiruvananthapurum (say it ten times fast!) boasts a long cliff that lends the sandy shore an air of seclusion and silence where one can enjoy the sight and sound of the lovely, trickling natural streams that spill from the rock. Beach goers that want a little history in their days by the sea are quick to visit Kozhikode Beach, where the (in)famous Vasco De Gama first plunked his boot down on Indian soil, marking the beginning of European colonization and the Age of Discovery. Alappuzha and Kollam beach cater to the sporty, with their large collection of sand-volleyball courts and parasailing and wind-gliding services. There truly is a beach for everyone’s taste in Kerala, although the sunset from any shore will probably give tourists goose bumps, regardless of their specific choice.

Munnar Tea Estate, Idukki Farther up in altitude from the forests and beaches, the Western Ghats Mountains provide opportunities for incredible natural sight-seeing. Near these mountains are many hill-top stations, must-see attractions in Kerala, allowing hikes that are as scenic and pleasurable as arriving at the plantations on top. Honeymooners flock to the hill-top accommodations near the Blue Mountains in to bask in connubial and scenic bliss, and tourists tend to flock with the lovebirds, cameras in tow. In addition to some of the most stunning and diverse natural topography and ecology in the world, Kerala also happens to be a cultural Mecca. The most literate state in all of India, at nearly 91%, Kerala is a land pulsing with the lifeblood of the arts. Highly symbolic and thematic dance-dramas, public demonstrations of native martial arts, independent and socially conscious-cinema, beautifully constructed and decorated religious temples and live poetry readings are all part of the cultural fabric of Kerala, and all worth your time.

One of these cultural opportunities that is can't-miss, is a live performance of the state's most famous and oft-practiced art form: Kathakali. Kathakali translates roughly to "Story told visually", and it certainly is a sight to behold. Colors carry consistent symbolic resonances, helping communicate the conflicts and characterizations of the plot so even the first-time spectator can follow along. For example, red represents violence and yellow represents divine force. The dance dramas often act out epic conflicts between men and demons and good and evil, and the performers are often swept up in passionate moods while dancing that are truly mesmerizing to behold. The deep thematic content, deeply symbolic and intricate costumes, heart-vibrating music and passionately intense dancing of Kathakali allow it to be a truly rewarding artistic experience as well as an educational and cultural one. Drama, however, is not just for the entertainment of tourists and locals; it has served political purposes throughout the states history, utilized often as propaganda in the socialist and communist movements. The political component of performance art lends it even more weight, and demonstrates further what an integral part the arts are in Kerala society.

Another live demonstration that needs be seen happens at the Kadathanadan Kalari Centre. Here, the martial art known as Kalarippayattu is practiced for all to see. Kalarippayattu is one of the oldest martial arts in the world, and centuries ago was not entertaining tourists, but was being employed on the battle field with deadly force. There is growing international interest in Kalarippayattu and it has evolved in the modern world as a form of exercise as well as self-defense option.

With all of the bountiful natural and cultural options that Kerala offers, you may be wondering, "What's the catch? Is it safe?" Kerala happens to be one of the safest regions in all of India, and reports from tourists of harassment and theft are nearly non-existent. In fact, Kerala, a matriarchal city, is one of the most female-friendly places in the world. Women are not only respected, but honored, given priority seating on public transportation and at spectator events, even those that cost no money.

Kerala, India is as close to pure paradise as one can find on this imperfect planet, especially if one is only staying for the length of a vacation. Boasting beautiful beaches, mountains and rain forests, as well as staggering amounts of cultural wealth and diversity, Kerala offers a wonderfully experiential vacation, absorbing the senses, rather than a commercial or gimmicky one that absorbs only money. A little paradise does the traveler good.

Key Facts:

  • Climate: No distinct seasons. Temperature averages between 21 to 34 °C
  • Population: 1.1 million (Nov 2006)

Nearby cities - distances between city centers (kilometers)

  • Neyyattinkara, Kerala - 19 km (NH 47) southeast
  • Kollam, Kerala - 68 km (NH 47) northwest
  • Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu - 69 km (NH 47) southeast
  • Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu - 148 km (NH 47 and NH 7) east-northeast
  • Kochi, Kerala - 206 km (NH 47) north-northwest
  • Madurai, Tamil Nadu - 317 km (NH 47, NH 7, NH 45B) northeast

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