A Glimpse of “God’s Own Country”

I was able to spend a couple days in Kerala with my grandparents last week. Our neighbor and friend, Sathish, also joined us on the excursion. The trip was splendid—we stayed around central Kerala and visited Munnar and Alleppey with an afternoon in Kochi. Kerala is called “God’s Own Country” and after exploring the state, I couldn’t agree more: the scenic panoramas, the coconut-infused food, the tropical climate—it truly was a relaxing getaway away from the suffocating Hyderabad heat. (I’m currently spending some time in Hyderabad while Visva-Bharati is on summer recess)

The trip was a departure from my usual budget approach to traveling. We hired a car and driver for the four days and stayed in nicer accommodations—including a luxurious houseboat on Lake Vembanad. Splurging a little ended up making the trip far more enjoyable for all, especially considering that we didn’t have to rely on public transit during the sudden downpours that marked the beginning of Kerala’s monsoon season.

The first thing that struck us upon touching down in Kochi was the greenery. As we drove up into the Munnar hills, the mountains and valleys became more pronounced, waterfalls seemingly manifested, and symmetrical tea plantations spread across the vistas. We stayed at Drizzle Valley, a cozy homestay outside of Munnar proper and really loved the experience—our hosts cooked us Malayali meals and treated us like family.

We spent our time in Munnar exploring gardens, visiting Mattupetty Dam, and enjoying the fresh air and fabulous views. Kerala is famous for its Ayurveda heritage so we also toured a spice garden where they grow many of the herbs and plants used in Ayurveda treatments. Munnar is also famous for its chocolates—I definitely sampled an extensive variety.

While visiting Mattupetty Dam, I began thinking about the “infrastructure tourism” phenomenon in India. People are always telling me to visit dams and I don’t know whether it’s because dams tend to be close to picturesque areas or because dams themselves are a feat of engineering. While at the Port Blair airport two months ago, a woman told me that I must visit a certain town in Madhya Pradesh to go see the dam there—I smiled but was confused by her logic. Growing up in Arizona, I visited Hoover Dam multiple times and while I can appreciate the structural grandeur, I wouldn’t classify it as a “must-see.” (Perhaps I would be less indifferent if I were an engineer…) Then again, massive infrastructure is still pretty novel on the subcontinent—perhaps by visiting these places we are engaging in a (literal) form of nation building.

It was difficult to leave Munnar, one of the loveliest places I have ever been. Luckily, our next stop, Alleppey, was just as magical. On the way to Alleppey, we stopped in Kalady, where Sri Shankaracharya, the great philosopher and religious leader, was born in the 8th century. My grandfather was thrilled to visit Adi Shankara’s birthplace on the banks of the Periyar River—legend has it that young Shankara prayed to Lord Krishna to reroute the river beside his mother’s house so that she wouldn’t have to travel as far for her daily bath.

Once we arrived in Alleppey, we boarded our traditional houseboat and set out exploring the backwaters of Kerala. The houseboat was incredibly comfortable, with wood-paneled bedrooms, two sitting rooms, and a full-time staff to cater to our needs. We ate our meals on the boat and spent the night as well—because of strict guidelines from the Kerala government, the houseboats have minimal environmental impact. The waste is dumped elsewhere, there are strict hours maintained for fishing versus tourism, and the boat mainly relies on natural cooling and wind from the lake to regulate the temperature. There are over 2,000 houseboats roaming the backwaters of Kerala—from the bow of the ship, it really is a marvelous sight to see all the houseboats circling the fishing villages surrounding Lake Vembanad.

After disembarking from our houseboat, we drove to Kottayam to visit some family friends. Sheba and John were my uncle’s roommates in Dallas and moved back to Kerala a couple years ago; I hadn’t seen them in almost a decade so there was quite a bit to catch up on. Their property is absolutely beautiful, situated on ancestral land going back nine generations and we were treated to a wonderful spread for lunch. Speaking with them, I learned quite a bit about different parts of Kerala’s history and culture—from the presence of Syrian Christians (who trace their roots to St Thomas) to the changing of family property laws due to Mary Roy’s landmark lawsuit.

Driving across Kerala, you see a lot of diversity: churches, temples, and mosques are all in close proximity and there are substantial followers for all three major religions. While the rest of India becomes more religiously divided, Kerala is the anomaly. A little anecdote John told me illustrated it perfectly: John’s Christian grandfather bought their family elephant (apparently the norm for local elite families) from a Brahmin in Northern Kerala. The elephant’s name was Kutti Krishnan (Baby Krishna) and lived with their family for generations. A Hindu name for a Christian’s elephant? It’s nothing new in Kerala where coexistence is the norm and has been for thousands of years.

After lunch, we said bye to John and Sheba and headed over to Kochi where we spent the afternoon at Fort Kochi, the historical area where the Portuguese and Dutch set up their colonies. (Vasco da Gama actually died in Kochi as well—he was first buried here before his remains were taken back to Portugal) The area is reminiscent of Pondicherry—or even South Bombay—with European architecture, heritage hotels, and shaded cobblestone streets. One interesting fact that I learned was that Kochi’s name comes from the Chinese! When the Chinese came to Kochi in the 14th century, they thought it looked a lot like China and called it Co-Chin or like-China. There still is a Chinese influence, most notably with the continued practice of fishing with Chinese nets.

After our afternoon in Kochi, we headed to the airport to fly back to Hyderabad. It was a fabulous few days in Kerala and we only touched the tip of the iceberg! There is so much more to see, from Thekkady to Trivandrum—but that’s for another time. While Kerala is definitely blessed with natural beauty, I do believe that its development achievements are also something to take note of—under Communist leadership, Kerala has achieved almost universal literacy, extensive land reform, and high standards of healthcare. (West Bengal, the other major state in India that has had extended Communist rule, has not been nearly as successful in these measures) A beautiful landscape with a high standard of living—there’s nothing not to love about God’s Own Country.

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