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.