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 intoxicated visitors 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 best 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 in vast tracts of jungle.
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 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 rituals little altered 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.Read More
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. 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. 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.
Keralan ritual theatre
Keralan ritual theatre
Among the most magical experiences a visitor to Kerala can have is to witness one of the innumerable ancient drama rituals that play such an important role in the cultural life of the region. Kathakali is the best known; other less publicized forms, which clearly influenced its development, include the classical Sanskrit kudiyattam.
Many Keralan forms share broad characteristics. A prime aim of each performer is to transform the mundane to the world of gods and demons; his preparation is highly ritualized, involving otherworldly costume and mask-like make-up. In kathakali and kudiyattam, this preparation is a rigorously codified part of the classical tradition. One-off performances of various ritual types take place throughout the state, building up to fever pitch during April and May before pausing for the monsoon (June–Aug). Finding out about such events requires a little perseverance, but it’s well worth the effort; enquire at tourist offices, or buy a Malayalam daily paper such as the Malayalam Manorama and ask someone to check the listings for temple festivals, where most of the action invariably takes place. Tourist kathakali is staged daily in Kochi but to find authentic performances, contact performing arts schools such as Thiruvananthapuram’s Margi and Cheruthuruthy’s Kerala Kalamandalam; kudiyattam artists work at both, as well as at Natana Kairali at Irinjalakuda, which is accessible from Thrissur.
Here is the tradition of the trance dancers, here is the absolute demand of the subjugation of body to spirit, here is the realization of the cosmic transformation of human into divine.
– Mrinalini Sarabhai, classical dancer
The image of a kathakali actor in a magnificent costume with extraordinary make-up and a huge gold crown has become Kerala’s trademark. Traditional performances, of which there are still many, usually take place on open ground outside a temple, beginning at 10pm and lasting until dawn, illuminated by the flickers of a large brass oil lamp centre-stage. Virtually nothing about kathakali is naturalistic, because it depicts the world of gods and demons; men play both the male and female roles.
Standing at the back of the stage, two musicians play driving rhythms, one on a bronze gong, the other on heavy bell-metal cymbals; they also sing the dialogue. Actors appear and disappear from behind a hand-held curtain and never utter a sound, save the odd strange cry. Learning the elaborate hand gestures, facial expressions and choreographed movements, as articulate and precise as any sign language, requires rigorous training which can begin at the age of 8 and last ten years. At least two more drummers stand left of the stage; one plays the upright chenda with slender curved sticks, the other plays the maddalam, a horizontal barrel-shaped hand drum. When a female character is “speaking”, the chenda is replaced by the hourglass-shaped ettaka, a “talking drum” on which melodies can be played. The drummers keep their eyes on the actors, whose every gesture is reinforced by their sound, from the gentlest embrace to the gory disembowelling of an enemy.
Although it bears the unmistakeable influences of kudiyattam and indigenous folk rituals, kathakali, literally “story-play”, is thought to have crystallized into a distinct theatre form during the seventeenth century. The plays are based on three major sources: the Hindu epics the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Bhagavata Purana. While the stories are ostensibly about god-heroes such as Rama and Krishna, the most popular characters are those that give the most scope to the actors – the villainous, fanged, red-and-black-faced katti (“knife”) anti-heroes; these types, such as the kings Ravana and Duryodhana, are dominated by lust, greed, envy and violence. David Bolland’s Guide to Kathakali, widely available in Kerala, gives invaluable scene-by-scene summaries of the most popular plays and explains in simple language a lot more besides.
When attending a performance, arrive early to get your bearings before it gets dark, even though the first play will not begin much before 10pm. (Quiet) members of the audience are welcome to visit the dressing room before and during the performance. The colour and design of the mask-like make-up, which specialist artists take several hours to apply, reveal the character’s personality. The word pacha means both “green” and “pure”; a green-faced pacha character is thus a noble human or god. Red signifies rajas, passion and aggression, black denotes tamas, darkness and negativity, while white is sattvik, light and intellect. Once the make-up is completed, elaborate wide skirts are tied to the waist, and ornaments of silver and gold are added. Silver talons are fitted to the left hand. The transformation is complete with a final prayer and the donning of waist-length wig and crown. Visitors new to kathakali will almost undoubtedly get bored during such long programmes, parts of which are very slow indeed. If you’re at a village performance, you may not always find accommodation, so you can’t leave during the night. Be prepared to sit on the ground for hours, and bring some warm clothes. Half the fun is staying up all night to witness, just as the dawn light appears, the gruesome disembowelling of a villain or a demon asura.
Three families of the Chakyar caste and a few outsiders perform the Sanskrit drama kudiyattam, the oldest continually performed theatre-form in the world. Until recently it was only performed inside temples and then only in front of the uppermost castes. Visually it is very similar to its offspring, kathakali, but its atmosphere is infinitely more archaic. The actors, eloquent in sign language and symbolic movement, speak in the compelling intonation of the local brahmins’ Vedic chant, unchanged since 1500 BC.
A single act of a kudiyattam play can require ten full nights; the entire play takes forty. A great actor, in full command of the subtleties of expression through gestures, can take half an hour to do such a simple thing as murder a demon, berate the audience, or simply describe a leaf fall to the ground. Unlike kathakali, kudiyattam includes comic characters and plays. The ubiquitous Vidushaka, narrator and clown, is something of a court jester, and traditionally has held the right to criticize openly the highest in the land without fear of retribution.
Ayurveda in Kerala
Ayurveda in Kerala
“Health tourism” is very much a buzz phrase in Kerala these days, and resorts such as Kovalam and Varkala are packed with places to de-stress and detox – the majority of them based on principles of Ayurveda medicine. The Keralan approach to India’s ancient holistic system of medicine has two distinct elements: first, the body is cleansed of toxins generated by imbalances in lifestyle and diet; secondly, its equilibrium is restored using herbal medicines, mainly in the form of plant oils applied using a range of different massage techniques. A practitioner’s first prescription will often be a course of panchakarma treatment – a five-phase therapy during which harmful impurities are purged through induced vomiting, enemas and the application of medicinal oils poured through the nasal cavity. Other less onerous components, tailored for the individual patient, may include: dhara, where the oils are blended with ghee or milk and poured on to the forehead; pizhichi, in which four masseurs apply different oils simultaneously; and, the weirdest looking of all, sirovashti, where the oils are poured into a tall, topless leather cap placed on the head. Alongside these, patients are prescribed special balancing foods, and given vigorous full-body massages each day.
Standards of both treatment and hygiene vary greatly between establishments, as do the prices. Female travellers also sometimes complain of sexual harassment at the hands of opportunistic male masseurs; cross-gender massage is forbidden in Ayurveda. The application of dodgy oils that can cause skin problems is another risk you might be exposed to at a backstreet clinic. Your best bet is to follow tips from fellow travellers and, if you’re unsure, check the state of any treatment rooms in advance.
The Ayappa cult
The Ayappa cult
During December and January, Kerala is packed with huge crowds of men wearing black dhotis; you’ll see them milling about train stations, driving in overcrowded and gaily decorated jeeps and cooking a quick meal on the roadside by their tour bus. They are pilgrims on their way to the Sri Ayappa forest temple (also known as Hariharaputra or Shasta) at Sabarimala, in the Western Ghats, around 200km from both Thiruvananthapuram and Kochi. The Ayappa devotees can seem disconcertingly ebullient, chanting “Swamiyee Sharanam Ayappan” (“Give us protection, god Ayappa”) in a lusty call-and-response style reminiscent of English football fans.
Ayappa – the offspring of a union between Shiva and Mohini, Vishnu’s beautiful female form – is primarily a Keralan deity, but his appeal has spread phenomenally in the last thirty years across South India, to the extent that this is said to be the largest pilgrimage in the world, with as many as 40–50 million devotees each year. Pilgrims are required to remain celibate, abstain from intoxicants, and keep to a strict vegetarian diet for 41 days before setting out on the four-day walk through the forest from the village of Erumeli (61km, as the crow flies, northwest) to the shrine at Sabarimala. Less-keen devotees take the bus to the village of Pampa, and join the 5km queue. When they arrive at the modern temple complex, pilgrims who have performed the necessary penances may ascend the famous eighteen gold steps to the inner shrine. There they worship the deity, throwing donations down a chute that opens onto a subterranean conveyor belt, where the money is counted and bagged.
The pilgrimage reaches a climax during the festival of Makara Sankranti, when massive crowds congregate at Sabarimala. On January 14, 1999, 51 devotees were buried alive when part of a hill crumbled under the crush of a stampede. The pilgrims had gathered at dusk to catch a glimpse of the final sunset of makara jyoti (“celestial light”) on the distant hill of Ponnambalamedu.
Although males of any age and even of any religion can take part in the pilgrimage, females between the ages of 9 and 50 are barred.
Theyyem (or theyyam) – the dramatic spirit-possession ceremonies held at village shrines throughout the northern Malabar region in the winter – rank among Kerala’s most extraordinary spectacles. More than four hundred different manifestations of this arcane ritual exist in the area around Kannur alone, each with its own distinctive costumes, elaborate jewellery, body paints, face make-up and, above all, gigantic headdresses (mudi).
Unlike in kathakali and kudiyattam, where actors impersonate goddesses or gods, here the performers actually become the deity being invoked, acquiring their magical powers. These allow them to perform superhuman feats, such as rolling in hot ashes or dancing with a crown that rises to the height of a coconut tree. By watching the theyyem, members of the audience believe they can partake of the deity’s powers – to cure illness, conceive a child or get lucky in a business venture.
Traditionally staged in small clearings (kaavus) attached to village shrines, theyyem rituals are always performed by members of the lowest castes; Namboodiri and other high-caste people may attend, but they do so to venerate the deity – a unique inversion of the normal social hierarchy. Performances generally have three distinct phases: the thottam, where the dancer, wearing a small red headdress, recites a simple devotional song accompanied by the temple musicians; the vellattam, in which he runs through a series of more complicated rituals and slower, elegant poses; and the mukhathezhuttu, the main event, when he appears in full costume in front of the shrine. From this point on until the end of the performance, which may last all night, the theyyem is manifest and empowered, dancing around the arena in graceful, rhythmic steps that grow quicker and more energetic as the night progresses, culminating in a frenzied outburst just before dawn, when it isn’t uncommon for the dancer to be struck by a kind of spasm.
Increasing numbers of visitors are making the journey up to Kannur to experience theyyem, but finding rituals requires time, patience and stamina. The best sources of advice are local guesthouse owners, who can check the Malayalai newspapers for notices; websites such as wtheyyemcalendar.com can also point you in the right direction. Anyone pushed for time might consider a trip out to Parassinikadavu, where a form of theyyem is staged daily.