Kerala Travel Guide

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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 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.

Places to visit in Kerala

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 a 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); travellers are increasingly setting out from Kumarakom too. 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.

As well as festivals, 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 of the state.

Brief history of Kerala

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. Kodungallur is also tipped to be where one of the twelve disciples, St Thomas, first set foot in 52 AD; today Christians account for some 21 percent of Kerala’s population. 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, which 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 96 percent for men and 92 percent for women. Industrial development is negligible, however: potential investors from outside tend to fight shy of dealing with such a politicized workforce.

Best time to visit Kerala

The period from December to February is generally considered to be the best time to visit Kerala, especially if you’re planning some beach time – the skies are blue and the humidity isn’t too fierce. From March the heat builds up until the skies open in June for the state’s first monsoon, which lasts until August and is more intense than October’s “retreating” monsoon. A word of warning, however, for budget travellers. Kerala’s accommodation is pricey (though it tends to be of a high standard) and in high season cheap places to stay are thin on the ground everywhere, but especially in the hill stations and backwater areas, where it’s not uncommon to pay upwards of ₹2000 for a room in a modest guesthouse. March, April and May are good months to negotiate discounts and the best time to hike in the cooler climes of the Western Ghats.

Summer is noted for its festivals, including the traditional snake boat races held during monsoon.

Festivals in Kerala

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 is the most astonishing, but smaller events take place throughout the state, with everyone welcome to attend. Between December and March it’s possible to spend weeks hopping between village theyyems in northern Kerala, experiencing rituals little altered in centuries. The snake boat races in June, August and September are an incredible sight, while Christmas sees paper lanterns and fairy lights decorating homes and churches. Kerala’s Hindu festivals are fixed according to the Malayalam Calendar, so dates change from year to year – see keralatourism.org.

  • Swathi Sangeetotsavam (Jan)

    Held in honour of composer Sri Swathi Thirunal (maharaja of Travancore 1813–46), free evening performances of Karnatic and Hindustani music take place on the raised porch of Thiruvananthapuram’s Puttan Malika Palace, with spectators seated on the lawn.

  • Maha Shivrati (Usually early March; the moonless night)

    The night of the worship of Shiva is an all-night vigil at temples across the state. A shivalingam rises out of the banks of the River Periyar near Kochi, attracting thousands of devotees.

  • Vishu (Mid-April)

    A festival of lights and fireworks on Hindu New Year’s Day. On this day it’s believed that the first object seen is auspicious, so items including rice, fruit, flowers and gold are set out in homes.

  • Nehru Trophy Snake Boat Race (Second Sat in Aug)

    The most spectacular of the boat races attracts huge crowds to Punnamda Lake near Alappuzha. Following a grand procession, the magnificently decorated longboats – each carrying more than one hundred oarsmen rowing to the rhythmic vanchipattu (“song of the boatman”) – compete in knockout rounds. Similar races can be seen at Aranmula (Aug–Sept) and Champakulam (June–July).

  • Onam (Ten days in Aug or Sept)

    Kerala’s harvest festival is marked by singing, kathakali, pookalam (floral “carpets”), traditional food and in Thrissur, pulikali (the dance of the tigers). Four of the days are state holidays.

Kovalam

You have to envy the travellers who discovered Kovalam back in the 1970s. Before the appearance of the crowds and sunbeds that nowadays spill over the resort’s quartet of beaches, not to mention the warren of hotels, shops and restaurants crammed into the palm groves behind them, this must have been a heavenly location. Four decades of unplanned development, however, have wrought havoc on the famous headland and its golden sand bays. Virtually every conceivable patch of dry ground behind the most spectacular of them, Lighthouse Beach, has been buried under concrete, but it’s still a popular base for Ayurveda and yoga. The proximity of Kovalam to the city means domestic tourism is booming; closest to the bus and taxi stand, Howah Beach in particular attracts a lot of day-trippers, who leave behind a trail of rubbish.

Visitors should be aware that due to unpredictable rip currents and a strong undertow, especially during the monsoons, swimming from Kovalam’s beaches is not always safe. The introduction of blue-shirted lifeguards has reduced the annual death toll, but at least a couple of tourists still drown here each year, and many more get into difficulties. Follow the warnings of the safety flags at all times and keep a close eye on children. There’s a first-aid post midway along Lighthouse Beach.

Padmanabhapuram Palace

Although now officially in Tamil Nadu, Padmanabhapuram, 50km southeast of Kovalam, was the capital of Travancore between 1550 and 1750, and maintains its historic links with Kerala, from where it is still administered. With its exquisite wooden interiors, coconut-shell floors and antique furniture and murals, the palace represents the apogee of regional building, and fully merits a visit. Just avoid weekends, when the complex gets overrun with bus parties.

Varkala

Devout Hindus have for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years travelled to Varkala, 54km north up the coast from Thiruvananthapuram, to scatter ashes of recently deceased relatives on Papanasam beach. The beach, 4km from Varkala town itself, is dramatically set against a backdrop of superb, burnt-clay-coloured cliffs, which, coupled with comparatively low-key development, makes Varkala a more appealing place to spend a beach holiday than Kovalam. Tightly crammed along the rim of crumbling North Cliff, its row of restaurants and small hotels stare out across a vast sweep of ocean – a view that can seem almost transcendental after sunset, when a myriad tiny fishing boats light up their lanterns.

Kollam (Quilon)

Sandwiched between the sea and Ashtamudi (“eight inlets”) Lake, Kollam (pronounced “Koillam”, and previously known as Quilon), was for centuries the focal point of the Malabar’s spice trade. Phoenicians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Chinese all dispatched ships to the city, before the rise of Calicut and Cochin eclipsed the port. These days, it’s a workaday market town and busy transport hub for the southern backwater region, with surprisingly few vestiges of its former prominence. Many travellers stay overnight here, however, en route to or from Alappuzha on the excursion boats that leave each morning from its lakeside ferry jetty. If the traffic in the centre gets too much, take a short auto-rickshaw ride south to the main beach, or a couple of kilometres west along the coastal road to the Thangassery Lighthouse, which is well worth the climb to the top for views of the fishing harbour. In the evening, a stroll through the town’s traditional bazaar, with its old wooden houses and narrow backstreets lined by coir warehouses, rice stores and cashew traders, is a pleasant diversion.

Thrissur

Thrissur (Trichur), a busy market hub and temple town roughly midway between Kochi (74km south) and Palakkad (79km northeast) on the NH-47, is a convenient, albeit traffic-clogged, base for central Kerala. Close to the Palghat (Palakkad) Gap – an opening in the natural border made by the Western Ghat mountains – Thrissur presided over the main trade route into the region from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and for years was the capital of Cochin state.

Today, Thrissur is home to several influential art institutions and prides itself on being the cultural capital of Kerala. One of the state’s principal Hindu temples, Vadukkunnathan, is here too, at the centre of a huge circular maidan that hosts all kinds of public gatherings, not least Kerala’s most extravagant, noisy and sumptuous festival, Puram. The town derives most of its income from remittance cheques sent by expatriates in the Gulf – hence the predominance of ostentatious modern houses in the surrounding villages. The hinterland also serves as a storehouse, dotted with communities and pilgrimage sites where both contemporary party politics and ancient art traditions are pursued with great enthusiasm, despite the disruptive impact on local life of mass out-migration.

Thrissur Puram

Thrissur is best known to outsiders as the venue for Kerala’s biggest annual festival, Puram, which takes place on one day in the Hindu month of Medam (April–May; ask at a tourist office or check online for the exact date). Inaugurated by Shaktan Tampuran, the raja of Cochin, between 1789 and 1803, the event is the culmination of eight days of festivities spread over nine different temples to mark obeisance to Lord Shiva, at the peak of the summer’s heat. Like temple festivals across Kerala, it involves the stock ingredients of caparisoned elephants, massed drum orchestras and firework displays, but on a scale, and performed with an intensity, unmatched by any other.

Puram’s grand stage is the long, wide path leading to the southern entrance of Vadukkunnathan Temple on the Round. Shortly after dawn, a sea of onlookers gathers here to watch the first phase of the 36-hour marathon – the kudammattom, or “Divine Durbar” – in which two majestic elephant processions, representing Thrissur’s Tiruvambadi and Paramekkavu temples, advance towards each other down the walkway, like armies on a medieval battlefield, preceded by ranks of drummers and musicians. Both sides present thirteen tuskers sumptuously decorated with gold caparisons (nettipattom), each ridden by three young Brahmins clutching objects symbolizing royalty: silver-handled whisks of yak hair, circular peacock-feather fans and colourful silk umbrellas fringed with silver pendants. At the centre of the opposing lines, the principal elephant carries an image of the temple’s presiding deity. Swaying gently, the elephants stand still much of the time, ears flapping, seemingly oblivious to the crowds and huge orchestra that plays in front of them, competing to create the most noise and greatest spectacle. When the music reaches its peak around sunset, the two groups set off towards different districts of town. This signals the start of a spectacular firework display that begins with a series of deafening explosions and lasts through the night, with the teams once again trying to outdo each other to put on the most impressive show.

If you venture to Thrissur for Puram, be prepared for packed buses and trains, and book accommodation well in advance. As is usual for temple festivals, many men use the event as an excuse to get hopelessly drunk. Women are thus advised to dress conservatively and only to go to the morning session, or to watch with a group of Indian women – and at all times avoid the area immediately in front of the drummers, where the “rhythm madmen” congregate.

Wayanad

The seven mountains encircling the hill district of Wayanad, 70km inland from Kozhikode, enfold some of the most dramatic scenery in all of south India. With landscapes varying from semitropical savanna to misty tea and coffee plantations, and steep slopes that rise through dense forest to distinctive, angular summits of exposed grassland, the region ranges over altitudes of between 750m and 2100m. Even at the base of the plateau, scattered with typically ramshackle Indian hill bazaars, it’s cooler than down on the plains.

The main Mysuru–Kozhikode highway, NH-17, slices through Wayanad. Since the late 1990s, it has been the source of new income in the form of overstressed dot-com executives and their families from Bengaluru and Delhi, with numerous high-end resorts, eco-hideaways and plantation stays springing up to service the screen-weary. Even if you can’t afford to stay in one of these bijou retreats, however, there are plenty of reasons to venture up here. Abutting the Tamil Nadu and Karnatakan borders, the twin reserves of Muthanga in the southeast, and Tholpetty in the north, collectively comprise the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary – part of the world-famous Nilgiri Biosphere and one of the best places in India to spot wild elephant.

Kerala's Far North

The beautiful coast north of Kozhikode is a seemingly endless stretch of coconut palms, wooded hills and virtually deserted beaches. The small fishing towns ranged along it hold little of interest for visitors, most of whom bypass the area completely – missing out on some exquisite, quiet coves, and the chance to see theyyem, the extraordinary masked trance dances that take place in villages throughout the region between November and May.

The only village in Kannur district where you can be guaranteed a glimpse of theyyem is Parassinikadavu, a thirty-minute drive north of Kannur, where temple priests don elaborate costumes, dance and make offerings to the god Muthappan each morning and evening. With an early enough start, it’s possible to catch the morning session and still have time to continue north to explore the little-visited Valiyaparamba backwater region. Local ferries crisscross this fascinating necklace of lagoons, and there’s even a company running houseboat trips – though foreign tourists are few and far between.

Kannur (Cannanore)

Kannur (Cannanore), a large, predominantly Moppila Muslim fishing and market town 92km north of Kozhikode, was for many centuries the capital of the Kolathiri rajas, who prospered from the maritime spice trade through its port. India’s first Portuguese Viceroy, Francisco de Almeida, took the stronghold in 1505, leaving in his wake an imposing triangular bastion, St Angelo’s Fort. This was taken in the seventeenth century by the Dutch, who sold it a hundred or so years later to the Arakkal rajas, Kerala’s only ruling Muslim dynasty.

These days, the town is the largest in the northern Malabar region – a typically Keralan market and transport hub jammed with giant gold emporia and silk shops, and seething with traffic. Land prices are booming ahead of the opening of an international airport, which will doubtless see more skyscrapers rise on the outskirts. Kannur’s few sights can be slotted into a morning, but increasing numbers of travellers are using the beaches to the south as bases from which to venture into the hinterland in search of theyyem rituals.

St Agnelo’s Fort

Accessed through a gateway on its northern side, St Agnelo’s Fort remains in good condition and is worth visiting to scale the massive laterite ramparts, littered with British cannons, for views over the town’s massive Norwegian-funded fishing anchorage.

Arakkal Heritage Museum

The splendid whitewashed building facing the beachfront below the fort – once the raja and bibi of Arrakal’s palace – now houses the government-run Arakkal Heritage Museum. Here documents, weapons, various pieces of 400-year-old rosewood furniture and other heirlooms relating to the family’s history are displayed – though they’re somewhat upstaged by the old building itself, with its high-beamed ceilings and original floorboards.

Folklore Museum

Extravagant costumes worn in theyyem and other less-known local art and ritual forms, including the Muslim dance style oppana, dominate the collection of the Folklore Museum, 5km north of Kannur town in the village of Chirakkal, just off NH-17. Housed in the 130-year-old palace, the engaging collection also features masks and weapons used in Patayani rituals performed in local Bhadrakali temples, and displays of todikkalam murals.

Kanhirode Co-operative

Local guesthouse owners can point you toward handloom weaving workshops dotted around nearby villages – a legacy of the old calico cotton trade. One that’s used to receiving visitors is the Kanhirode Co-operative, 13km northeast of Kannur on the main road to Mattanur, which employs around four hundred workers to make upholstery and curtain fabrics, plus material for luxury shirts and saris.

Cultural experiences in Kerala

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 into 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 – most of the action invariably takes place within the temples. 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.

Kathakali

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”) antiheroes; 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.

Kudiyattam

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 gestural expression, 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

“Health tourism” is very much a buzz phrase in Kerala, 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.

The Ayappa cult

Throughout December and January, Kerala is packed with huge crowds of men wearing black dhotis; you’ll see them milling about railway 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 section of Periyar, 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 forty to fifty 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 Makaravilakku or Makar 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

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; keralatourism.org/theyyamcalendar is also useful, as is the leaflet A Hundred Festivals for You, published by the Tourist Desk in Kochi. Anyone pushed for time might consider a trip out to Parassinikadavu in the far north, where a form of theyyem is staged daily.

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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