India // Kerala //

Kottayam and around

Some 76km southeast of Kochi and 37km northeast of Alappuzha, KOTTAYAM is a compact, busy Keralan town strategically located between the backwaters and the mountains of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. For Keralans, it’s synonymous with money, both old and new. The many rubber plantations around it, introduced by British missionaries in the 1820s, have for more than a century formed the bedrock of a booming local economy, most of it controlled by landed Syrian Christians.

The presence of two thirteenth-century churches on a hill 5km northwest of the centre (accessible by auto-rickshaw) attests to the area’s deeply rooted Christian heritage. Two eighth-century Nestorian stone crosses with Palavi and Syriac inscriptions, on either side of the elaborately decorated altar of the Valliapalli (“big”) church, are among the earliest solid traces of Christianity in India. The visitors’ book contains entries from as far back as the 1890s, including one by the Ethiopian king, Haile Selassie, and a British viceroy. The apse of the nearby Cheriapalli (“small”) church is covered with lively paintings, thought to have been executed by a Portuguese artist in the sixteenth century. If the doors are locked, ask for the key at the church office.

A twenty-minute bus ride west of Kottayam brings you to the shores of Vembanad Lake, where the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, spread over a cluster of islands in the lagoon, forms the focus of a line of ultra-luxurious resorts on the water’s edge. Between November and March, the wealthy metropolitan Indian tourists who holiday here are joined by flocks of migratory birds, though not in large enough numbers to entice non-specialists. Birds, or representations of them, also feature prominently in the area’s most bizarre visitor attraction, the Bay Island Driftwood Museum, just off the main road on the outskirts of Kumarakom village, in which lumps of driftwood collected by a former school-teacher are exhibited in an idiosyncratic gallery.

Another possible day-trip from Kottayam is the magnificent Mahadeva (Shiva) temple at ETTUMANUR, 12km north on the road to Ernakulam, whose entrance porch holds some of Kerala’s most celebrated medieval wall paintings. The most spectacular depicts Nataraja (Shiva) executing a cosmic tandava dance, trampling evil in the form of a demon underfoot. Foreigners can enter the temple for free, but you’ll need to buy a camera ticket  from the counter on the left of the main gateway.

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