Theyyam ritual near Kunnur, Kerala.

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Kerala

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The state of KERALA stretches for 550km along India’s southwest coast, divided between the densely forested mountains of the Western Ghats inland and a lush, humid coastal plain of rice paddy, lagoons, rivers and canals. Its intensely tropical landscape, fed by the highest rainfall in peninsular India, has provided intoxicating places to visit since the ancient Sumerians and Greeks sailed in search of spices to the shore known as the Malabar coast. Equally, Kerala’s arcane rituals and spectacular festivals – many of them little changed since the earliest era of Brahmanical Hinduism – have dazzled outsiders for thousands of years.

Travellers weary of India’s daunting metropolises will find Kerala’s cities smaller and more relaxed. The most popular is undoubtedly the great port of Kochi (Cochin), where the state’s long history of peaceful foreign contact is evocatively evident in the atmospheric old quarters of Mattancherry and Fort Cochin. In Kerala’s far south, the capital, Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum), is gateway to the nearby palm-fringed beaches of Kovalam and Varkala, and provides visitors with varied opportunities to sample Kerala’s rich cultural and artistic life.

One of the nicest aspects of exploring Kerala, though, is the actual travelling – especially by boat, in the spellbinding Kuttanad region, around historic Kollam (Quilon) and Alappuzha (Alleppey). Cruisers and beautiful wooden barges known as kettu vallam (“tied boats”) ply the backwaters, offering tourists a window on village life in India’s most densely populated state. Furthermore, it’s easy to escape the heat of the lowlands by heading for the hills, which rise to 2695m. Roads pass through landscapes dotted with churches and temples, tea, coffee, spice and rubber plantations, and natural forests, en route to wildlife reserves such as Periyar, where herds of mud-caked elephants roam freely.

Kerala is short on the historic monuments prevalent elsewhere in India, and most of its ancient temples are closed to non-Hindus. Following an unwritten law, few buildings in the region, whether houses or temples, are higher than the surrounding trees, which in urban areas often creates the illusion that you’re surrounded by forest. Typical features of both domestic and temple architecture include long, sloping tiled and gabled roofs that minimize the excesses of rain and sunshine, and pillared verandas; the definitive examples are Thiruvananthapuram’s Puttan Malika Palace, and Padmanabhapuram Palace, in neighbouring Tamil Nadu, but easily reached from the capital.

Huge amounts of money are lavished upon many, varied, and often all-night festivals usually associated with Kerala’s temples. Fireworks rend the air, while processions of caparisoned elephants are accompanied by some of the loudest (and deftest) drum orchestras in the world. Thrissur’s famous Puram festival (April/May) is the most astonishing, but smaller events take place throughout the state – often outdoors, with all welcome to attend. Theatre and dance also abound; not only the region’s own female classical dance form, mohiniyattam (“dance of the enchantress”), but also the martial-art-influenced kathakali dance drama, which has for four centuries brought gods and demons from the Mahabharata and Ramayana to Keralan villages. Its two thousand-year-old predecessor, the Sanskrit drama kudiyattam, is still performed by a handful of artists, while localized rituals known as theyyem, where dancers wearing decorative masks and hats become “possessed” by temple deities, remain a potent ingredient of village life in the north. Few visitors witness these extraordinary all-night performances, but from December through March it is possible to spend weeks hopping between village festivals in northern Kerala, experiencing a way of life that has altered little in centuries.

A word of warning, however, for budget travellers. Kerala ranks among the most expensive regions of India. Accommodation is particularly pricey – and tends to be of a correspondingly high standard. Cheap places to stay are thin on the ground everywhere, but especially in the coastal resorts, hill stations and backwater areas, where it’s not uncommon to pay upwards of Rs2000 for a room in a modest guesthouse in season.

Brief history

Ancient Kerala is mentioned as the land of the Cheras in a third-century BC Ashokan edict, and in several even older Sanskrit texts, including the Mahabharata. Pliny and Ptolemy also testify to thriving trade between the ancient port of Muziris (now known as Kodungallur) and the Roman Empire. Little is known about the region’s early rulers, whose dominion covered a large area, but whose capital, Vanji, has not so far been identified. At the start of the ninth century, King Kulashekhara Alvar – a poet-saint of the Vaishnavite bhakti movement known as the alvars – established his own dynasty. His son and successor, Rajashekharavarman, is thought to have been a saint of the parallel Shaivite movement, the nayannars. The great Keralan philosopher Shankaracharya, whose advaitya (“non-dualist”) philosophy influenced the whole of Hindu India, was alive at this time.

Eventually, the prosperity acquired by the Cheras through trade with China and the Arab world proved too much of an attraction for the neighbouring Chola empire, who embarked upon a hundred years of sporadic warfare with the Cheras at the end of the tenth century. Around 1100, the Cheras lost their capital at Mahodayapuram in the north, and shifted south to establish a new capital at Kollam (Quilon).

Direct trade with Europe commenced in 1498 with the arrival in the capital, Calicut, of a small Portuguese fleet under Vasco da Gama – the first expedition to reach the coast of India via the Cape of Good Hope and Arabian Sea. After an initial show of cordiality, relations between him and the local ruler, or zamorin, quickly degenerated, and da Gama’s second voyage four years later was characterized by appalling massacres, kidnapping, mutilation and barefaced piracy. Nevertheless, a fortified trading post was soon established at Cochin from which the Portuguese, exploiting old enmities between the region’s rulers, were able to dominate trade with the Middle East. This was gradually eroded away over the ensuing century by rival powers France and Holland, and in the early 1600s the Dutch East India Company entered the fray. An independent territory was subsequently carved out of the Malabar coast by Tipu Sultan of Mysore, but his defeat in 1792 left the British in control right up until Independence.

Kerala can claim some of the most startling radical credentials in India. In 1957 it was the first state in the world to democratically elect a communist government, and still regularly returns communist parties in elections (the present chief minister, V.S. Achuthanandan, is a communist party leader). Due to reforms made during the 1960s and 1970s, Kerala currently has the most equitable land distribution of any Indian state. Poverty appears far less acute than in other parts of the country, with life expectancy and per capita income well above the national averages. Kerala is also justly proud of its reputation for healthcare and education, with literacy rates that stand, officially at least, at 91 percent for men and 88 percent for women. Industrial development is negligible, however: potential investors from outside tend to fight shy of dealing with such a politicized workforce.

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