Kottayam and around

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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. The many rubber plantations around town, 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. Author Arundhati Roy grew up in nearby Ayemenem, the magical setting for her acclaimed novel The God of Small Things and partway towards vast Vembanad Lake, where the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary spreads across a cluster of islands.

Getting to Kottayam

By train

Kottayam railway station, 2km north of the centre, sees a constant flow of traffic between Thiruvananthapuram (3hr 30min) and points north, including Ernakulam/Kochi (1hr 30min). There’s a prepaid auto-rickshaw stand outside the main entrance.

By bus

Kottayam’s KSRTC bus stand, 500m south of the centre on TB Rd (not to be confused with the private stand for local buses on MC Rd), is an important stop on routes to and from major towns in south India.

By ferry

The public ferry leaves for Alappuzha (2hr 30min) at 7am, 9am, 11am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm.

Tourist information

DTPC maintains a tiny tourist office at the jetty.

Services

The best place to change money is the Canara Bank on KK Rd, which also has one of several ATMs around the main square. Internet facilities are available at Intimacy (₹30/hr), also on KK Rd, just north of the KSRTC bus stand.

Kottayam’s churches

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 each from 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.

Kumarakom

A twenty-minute bus ride west of Kottayam brings you to the shores of Vembanad Lake, where the Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary forms the focus of a line of ultra-luxurious resorts on the water’s edge. A backwaters cruise hereabouts is a much better bet for peace and quiet than in Alappuzha or Kollam, although you will have to pay a little more if you want to arrange things from here: your hotel or homestay will be able to help.

The small Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary in the wetlands is a good place to spot domestic and migratory birds such as egrets, osprey, flycatchers and racket-tail drongos, as well as glimpses of otters and turtles in the water. There’s a paved walkway for a lot of the route, but it does get tricky in parts. The best time to visit is between November and May before the sun rises; the one and only official guide can’t be booked in advance and is snapped up by 6.30am.

Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary

The small Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary in the wetlands is a good place to spot domestic and migratory birds such as egrets, osprey, flycatchers and racket-tail drongos, as well as glimpses of otters and turtles in the water. There’s a paved walkway for a lot of the route, but it does get tricky in parts. The best time to visit is between November and May before the sun rises; the one and only official guide can’t be booked in advance and is snapped up by 6.30am.

Bay Island Driftwood Museum

Birds, or representations of them, feature prominently in the area’s most bizarre visitor attraction, the Bay Island Driftwood Museum, just off the main road, in which lumps of driftwood sculpted by the sea are displayed in an idiosyncratic gallery.

Ettumanur

Another possible day-trip from Kottayam is the magnificent Mahadeva (Shiva) temple at Ettumanur, 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.

Top image: A church in Kumarakom, Kottayam, Kerala along side the Vembanad Lake © AjayThomas/Shutterstock

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Andy Turner
8/29/2020
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