04 August 2009

Kerala Diary - 02

My second trip - was more of a holiday and I've just concluded it! For most of this trip I was showing Kerala to Vineet (a buddy from school) who was visiting for the first time. We did a bit of a loop - starting at Kozhikode (my hometown) heading south to Kochi... then going to Pathanamthitta to attend Reji's wedding (he's another close friend from school) .. we then headed into the Western Ghats (a mountain range running along the eastern edge of Kerala, a major geographic feature in South India which traps the monsoon clouds coming in from the Indian ocean and is hence crucial to Kerala's greenery) stopping first at Thekkady where we visited the Periyar wildlife reserve - one of India's best wildlife sanctuaries - and then later moving to Munnar - a city set in one of the most extensive Tea plantations in India... We then headed back to Kozhikode making a brief halt at the cultural capital of Kerala - Thrissur. Vineet left from Kozhikode but I had one more place to visit before I could conclude this trip - I wanted to visit Manish (a pal from my architecture school in Bombay) who is now working in the tiny town of Bekal in the extreme north of Kerala.

We left for Kochi as soon as Vineet got to Kozhikode deciding to save my most familiar bit of Kerala (Kozhikode) for when we were back from our loop. Like I was hinting at in the previous posting Kochi (which is a port side twin of Ernakulam) was extremely important historically. It was the centre for Europeans in Kerala and it is here that Vasco da Gama landed on his second trip helping the Portuguese establish a permanent base in India.

(Diary 2 - Day 2)

While in Kochi we first went to see the Jew town of Mattancherry.
We lazily made our way to its most inner section checking out some extremely touristic souvenir shops only to realize that we had missed the last entry into its famous Paradesi Synagogue for the day by a mere 15 mins.
(I know its about time I plan my trips better to avoid such close misses!) Anyhow there's more to see in Kochi.... we headed to see the St. Francis Church - where Vasco da Gama was buried.
[Going to see this church was to me a sort of completion of my trip to Lisbon which I had undertaken a few months ago, for while I was there one of the highlights of my trip was going to see Vasco da Gama's tomb in Jerónimos Monastery in Belém, Lisbon. As I stood in front of his tomb there I tried to imagine his great adventure and couldn't stop comparing it to my quiet insignificant journey in the opposite direction! At that point I vaguely remembered seeing a grave somewhere in Kochi that claimed to also belong to Vasco da Gama and wondered how it was possible that he was buried in two place. Of course according to my guide book the facts are quiet simple - Vasco da Gama died in 1524 in Kochi and was buried at St. Francis Church but given his crucial role in ushering in a new era for the Portuguese his body was taken back to Lisbon after 14 years where it was laid to rest in its current location. Read about my trip to Lisbon here - http://travellingsahil.blogspot.com/2009/04/lisbon.html]

We realized that there was a lot more to see in Kochi and at our pace we could easily spend a couple more days here... but since it was Vineet's first trip to Kerala we decided to move on and head out of the city ..
at the outskirts of the city we took a nice relaxing boat trip in backwaters - checking it off Vineet's 'to-do-once-in-my-life list' : ) ..

Completely relaxed we headed to Pathanamthitta. Reji had booked us a room in the most fancy hotel in town..

or so he said.. : )

(Diary 2 - Day 3)

The next day was his wedding. This was the first Christian wedding I had attended in Kerala and I was in for quiet a bit of a surprise!

I would have never imagined the similarity between a Christian wedding and a traditional Muslim wedding in Kerala.. It was practically the same thing - the men on one side .. the women on the other with their hair covered.. the sermon in malayalam with basically the same message.. the simplicity of the entire event.. and the humble feast (here too being the only real crowd puller)..

I wonder if Christian and Muslim wedding customs across India are this similar? I imagine not.. because it is here in Kerala that the first Indians converted to Christianity and also to Islam.. and to a large extend unlike in most other parts of the country it is here that these two religions have adapted best to the locals conditions/traditons and have become uniquely local...

  • Take the use of language for instance - most Christians in other parts of the country have stuck to using English (or some other european language) as the official church language.. while most muslims have stuck to using Urdu...
  • Take architecture as another point - Churches and Mosques in all parts of the country (and sadly know also in Kerala) look like Churches or Mosques anywhere in the world .. but in Kerala at least historically this was not the case.. The early Churches and Mosques looked like Temples - sadly very few of these interesting examples are still around!
Enough of pondering on Kerala's cultural history...

After the feast we were back on the road - heading to Thekady! We were in a bit of a hurry cos knew we had to get there before 6pm or we were in trouble... The hotel we had booked was inside the protected area of the Periyar wildlife reserve and the only gate into the reserve would shut on time! We made it there well on time and also managed to sign up for an early morning hike in the forest. This was the second time I was going to hike inside this particular forest. My earlier trip here was really great and I looked forward to it.

(Diary 2 - Day 4)

Early next morning we headed to a small guard house on the edge of the forest where a slightly eccentric local guide awaited us. After we wore the anti-Leech socks that he provided we headed straight into the forest.
This was Vineet's first tryst with real wildlife and I was hoping that we could see something.. A tiger would have been great but I knew that was asking for too much so I was willing to settle on some wild elephants..
And an hour into our hike that's exactly what we came across..a couple of wild elephants.. Now the think about wild elephants is that people don't really understand that this is probably the most dangerous animal you can come across in India - because they are a familiar sight to most indians (either literally or culturally) people tend to think of them as tender/calm animals..
Now this was when we realized that our guide was really quiet eccentric - in a attempt to show us the elephants and I guess his bravery he kept trying to get closer to the elephants to a point where the elephants were clearly aware of our presence and one of them even signaled a loud warning to us. Thankfully the elephants were heading in the opposite direction and was descending into a slight valley allowing us to have some great views of them.
We then realized that we had to stop our guide from getting carried away and asked him to head in another direction away from the elephants.
The way back was a lot more peaceful but I did get to see some amazing birds!

Vineet was now slightly bitten by the wildlife bug so we decided to extend our stay in Thekaddy by one more night and to go for the night-time hike in the forest.

But we had a few hours to kill before it was night and since this is famous land of the spices I decided that we should check out a spice garden. I had heard of only one - Abraham's spice garden - in fact I had seen it on TV while in London on a documentary show called 'Around the world in 80 gardens', but I was surprised of how many such gardens have popped up in recent years. I decided that instead of trying to find out which was the best spice garden of them all we should stick to Monty Don's choice (he was the presenter of the famous BBC documentary).(a pepper plant above)We found the whereabouts of Abraham and took a quick tour of his garden - unfortunately Abraham himself was down with fever and was unable to take the tour but was kind enough to share his excitement of owning one of the 80 best gardens in the world! It's not a great garden in terms of its design ..
(check above photo for Cardamoms growing just off the ground level)

...but he has a great collections of plants! If you have no idea what a pepper or cardamom plant looks like I suggest you too make a halt at Abraham's when your here!

It was finally getting dark .... Very few forests in India allow visitors to walk inside the forest and even fewer allow you to walk when its completely dark! It is a great experience.. not soo much for the wildlife cos you can't see much .. but for the ambiance of the forest by night .. the sounds .. the smells .. and of course the fear! It's awesome.. Once again our most crucial safety feature was the anti-Leech socks .. but this time there were two guides .. one of whom was an armed forest guard - just in case!
Surprisingly we saw a large no. of dear grazing along the river's edge and as expected heard some crazy sounds.. once again totally worth it! If you ever go to Thekkady don't miss the night hike! It's a great way to experience the forest...

(Diary 2 - Day 5)

After a great night of sleep post all the hiking - we headed for Munnar passing mountains covered in plantations - pepper / rubber / cardamom and tea amongst others....
This stretch of land is extremely fertile the riches of which have made Kerala what it is today...

Munnar is a beautiful city set amidst huge tea plantations that stretch as far as the eye can see.
Because of its relatively cool climate around the year it was very popular with the British and till recently was just a beautiful sleepy plantation town.
But much has changed in the last 15 years and it is today one of the major tourist destinations of South India and is best avoided during any holiday season. Thankfully we were there in middle of monsoon - which meant that though we were at constant risk of being stuck in heavy downpour at least we did have to put up with throngs of tourists!(Diary 2 - Day 6)

Munnar is the ideal place to lay low and breathe some beautiful clean air and since that's exactly what we were looking for it was brilliant! The only place which we made an effort to get to and see was the Tata tea museum - not the most interesting of museums but a good way to understand how the city and its tea plantations came into existence.
And the smell freshly picked tea leaves being processed is quiet an experience!
Some more lazy drives into random tea estates later we crashed for our last night in the mountains..

(Diary 2 - Day 7)

We started our drive to the coast and back to Kozhikode merrily since we knew it was a long way there (around 7-8 hours drive). Around half way we arrived at Thrissur, where we decided to take a small halt. Thrissur is generally referred to as the Cultural Capital of Kerala - we decided to visit the Shakthan Tampuran Palace which is run by the state archeology department as a museum.
Once again the museum is quiet OK but the building with its Kerala- Dutch style is a beautiful piece of architecture.
We also went to see the other lesser known archeology museum near the zoo, housed in the Kollengode Palace, this is another architectural delight.
It's easy to miss this building completely as even the name board outside is in a bad shape and has completely faded out.

We then headed to Kozhikode reaching there late in the evening..

(Diary 2 - Day 8)

It was Vineet's last day in Kerala and we decided to take it easy. Driving around the city of Kozhikode - past the Mananchira square at the heart of the city, buying some great Banana chips (deep fried in Coconut oil - I think you get the best ones here in Kozhikode), taking a small stroll along the beach and drinking the famous 'Sharja shake' at EPK (which is basically a frozen banana milk shake that guarantees a brain freeze). Vineet flew out late that evening and I headed to Kannur.

(Diary 2 - Day 9)

I got on an early morning train from Kannur to Bekal, where I was to meet Manish. Strangely the only one other time I had been to Bekal was also with Manish.. but this time was different it was him who was going to show me around!He is working on a new resort that's coming up there and since he was living there and there isn't much to do besides going to the beach as soon as we were done with seeing the beach he was very keen on us getting out of there - I suggested that he join me to Kannur were I was going to spent the night. He liked the idea and we caught a bus back.
Once in Kannur we went to Payyambalam beach and then to the small linear park built on the sea side cliff edge behind the government guest house. This relatively new park is a great addition to public space in the city. Sadly other cities in Kerala have been very slow at adding such quality spaces for the general public.

(Diary 2 - Day 10) Back in Kozhikode and getting ready to leave for Mumbai - where a new life and hopefully some great adventures await!

That's all from Kerala for now..


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vaikom said...

Interesting blog writing on kerala. your observant eyes and mind made the journey (for me) most delectable.
It is so cruel that some places of historical importance has shut out against non-Hindus.
Certain things won't change in human habits
You have by the way mentioned that Chinese net is the only visible presence of Trade relations between between China and Kerala earlier period. Need not. We have in Kerala so many things in our daily use presumably introduced here by chinese. Eg. Cheechatti (Cooking Wok), Cheena Bharani (huge jar, where we preserve fresh gree mangoes in salt for use in rainy days), Cheena Pinjanam (china-porcelain cups, plates, saucers etc.,). Cheena is Malayalam for China.

vaikom madhu

Sahil Latheef said...

Thanks Vaikom Madhu for your kind words!

And thanks for pointing out other everyday items that still survive in homes in Kerala that show it's historic link with China! I'm not sure but it would be interesting to see if there are also culinary influences because of this link - like in the case with the arab trade (there are quiet a few food delicacies of northern kerala that have arabic origins)!

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