A TWO-WEEK ADVENTURE IN KERALA
India has always been one of my dream destinations — for years I have been enchanted by its ancient traditions and customs, the vibrant colours, sounds and of course the cuisine, so very different from where I grew up. As I have devoted more time to studying Ayurveda at its source, I have been fortunate enough to visit India a number of times in recent years. My last trip was spent in the Himalayas — said to be the birthplace of Ayurveda — so it was high time that I made my way to Kerala in Southern India, which has been a bastion for Ayurveda in more recent times.
In Hindu Mythology Kerala is believed to be reclaimed from the sea by Lord Parasurama (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu). In one of India’s great epics and love stories, the Ramayana, Kerala is also where Rama or Lord Rama took a great leap to cross the waters to the island of Lanka (thereafter known as Sri Lanka — “Sri” being a mark of respect reserved for divinities or royalty) to rescue his abducted love Sita in a love story that rivals Romeo and Juliet, and told in the local language, Malayalam (a palindrome word which helped me remember it!). Over modern history Kerala has had many influences from various rulers including the Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese and the British, the legacy of these periods of rule is very evident across the culture.
Just after Christmas I headed out to Hyderabad, in the state of Telangana, to continue my personal studies into Ayurveda with the family of Ayurvedic doctors who I have become close to, and to do my annual Panchakarma for a month. Just before I left for India, Nick and I managed to clear our diaries for the two weeks afterward, so that we could visit Kerala together. For me it was just a short flight away from where I was staying. We were looking for a tour where for once we could delegate all responsibility for logistics to someone else — one where we could take in all the sights, sounds and cuisines and experience as much as possible of the authentic local culture that Kerala has to offer in such a short period of time. In Kerala, Ayurveda operates alongside western medicine and it also influences a way of life that starts in the kitchen. We were recommended to Meraki Travel, a company that enables you to build your own dream itinerary with a few simple clicks. Armed with a small list of must-dos and then completely open to what we’d discover through the website, we simply selected our “Base Itinerary” before adding on some experience packs, which included everything from cooking lessons and boat trips to cycling tours and general sightseeing.
Our journey began in Kochi AKA Cochin, where Nick and I met up. Kerala literally means “the land of coconuts” so I was struck by the lush tropical landscapes and humidity in stark contrast with Hyderabad, though it is only a 90-minute flight away. The Fragrant Nature hotel we stayed in on our first night was surrounded by so much to see and do in walking distance, and offered the warmest of welcomes as we settled in. Nick and I got straight into the rooftop pool to shake off the travel fatigue (Nick was the one who had just completed the long haul, but even though I’d only flown 90 minutes, the transition from quiet Panchakarma to bustling city was definitely a bit rough to say the least!) and escape the humidity, and watched the evening sights and sounds and sunset unfold. Later we observed the ravens as they took a dip too, to the sounds of the Muslim call to prayer. The next day we were up bright and early for a breakfast of champions, South Indian-style: dosa, spiced potatoes and a variety of chutneys, fuelling up for a full programme of sightseeing.
We were picked up by our driver Rateesh, who stayed with us the whole trip. Rateesh was full of endless anecdotes, an encyclopedia of Indian history, and was miraculously able to answer almost all of my many, many questions about everything, and when he couldn’t he would phone a friend! A surprise highlight of Cochin was a trip to the local dhobi khana — a historical clothes washing area still very much in use today and open to tourists to help keep this age-old profession alive in a time of washing machines. Here men (it’s back-breaking work) wash each garment and then pound it against stone to loosen any stains. The final rinsed items are hung on huge communal washing lines propped up by wooden sticks. Each line is made of twisted coconut rope to which the garment is held up to dry by allowing the twisted rope to pinch it into place. No written paper notes are exchanged or used to identify the laundry — the dhobi wallas know exactly which load of washing belongs to which customer. Later the clothes are beautifully pressed by men and women using traditional iron irons preheated with burning coconut shell (the coconut really is the backbone of Kerala). Further highlights were the Jewish synagogue (Kerala is so diverse!) and the Dutch Palace in Cochin, followed by an al fresco Ayurvedic lunch thali of the local red rice and a selection of vegetable curries at the beautiful Brunton Boatyard. Then in the evening we got to get our hands dirty and try out some Anglo-Indian cooking methods with Oscar and Jeanette Rozario — one of the experiences recommended by Meraki — where we not only mastered making homemade curries and rotis in their homestay kitchen, but also served them to the other guests!
We had timed our arrival into Cochin with the Cochin-Muziris Biennale Art exhibition, the largest art exhibition in India and the biggest contemporary art festival in Asia. The whole area near our hotel was buzzing with creativity and once back to the hotel we hit the streets to fully immerse ourselves in the atmosphere. Cochin has a rich history and the old town is a must. We passed lots of beautiful Ayurvedic spas and hotels, which catered for those wishing to immerse themselves in a Panchakarma — a detoxification programme using the principles of Ayurveda to bring balance back to the body.
The next day we wound our way up to the mountain heights of Munnar, where we enjoyed the most breathtaking views over the highland tea plantations from our hotel room balcony. Here we visited the local Tea Plantation and Tea Museum, and experienced the whole process of making a cuppa from beginning to end as well as learning about the rich and chequered history of tea-making in India. We enjoyed tea tasting and learning about the different methods of preparing tea, and Nick got offered a job loading and unloading the freshly picked tea leaves by the plantation owner. Then we took a trek in the lush and tea-fragrant fresh air. The tea-making way of life also led us to the village life where we visited paper-making and textile-printing initiative Aranya Naturals, where the local community members with physical and learning disabilities are trained and employed to produce the most incredible printed fabrics. They use techniques inspired by their own heritage as well as Japanese textiles and other products, all with organic dyes from food grown on the estate. They also craft beautiful papers and stationery; the quality is so high that even Ralph Lauren uses them for silk designs and fabrics. Needless to say I was in my element and spent a good hour making new friends and of course trying on saris, etc… I may have bought one or two or three (OK, it was only one and lots of stationery). The printing really is stunning!!!!
Following Munnar, we headed out of the highlands on some breathtaking but also heart-in-your-mouth mountain roads to Madurai. In Madurai we were taken on the amazing Potter’s Trail in the village, where locals create “mud dolls” and tell incredible stories to all who will listen. The following day, we visited the incredible and vast Meenakshi Temple inside the 17th century Tirumala Nayak Palace with its gorgeous domes and arches. The Temple, is famous throughout India and dedicated to the consort of Lord Shiva, and the inner sanctum is only open only to Hindus who queue for up for hours to see the Meenakshi statue in her sanctuary for just a moment. The temple crackled with energy and vibrancy and was a real highlight, with its distinctive towers and bright array of colours. Afterwards Rateesh took us to one of his favourite spots to eat lunch, a roadside café where we were served an absolute feast of a meal on a banana leaf — think the most beautiful mix of veggie curries, chutneys, dals and rice you ever did see! The next morning we got up early to enjoy a specially prepared breakfast with our hotel chefs, at the Courtyard Marriott. They cooked up a storm of local dishes, each chef showing off their repertoire… typically their mums’ specialties! These were all simply delicious and so much fun — especially when they were trying to teach us how to grind spices with traditional stone grinders, which I could barely lift, let alone manoeuvre! Stay tuned to the website for some of these recipes.
That evening we made our merry way to Thekkady. Spiralling up into the mountains again we stayed at the beautiful boutique hotel Niraamaya Cardamom Club, nestled in the rainforest still inhabited by tigers, while our driver Rateesh enthralled us with his encounters with a tiger and a herd of wild elephants — which all ended well, thank goodness! As this was another small, quiet boutique hotel, we got to hang out with the chefs again and on one of the evenings when all the guests were at dinner elsewhere, they cooked us traditional South Indian thalis, AKA a total feast! We dined with unbelievable views mingling with the fragrant spices, from cardamom and cinnamon to turmeric and ginger — a foodie's paradise! One of the waiters also taught us in which order to eat the foods and answered my many questions about the ingredients. That evening we headed into town for a great night of enchanting Kathakali dancing, followed by the mindblowing feats of Kalaripayattu martial artists.
But wait, there’s more! After this our itinerary took us to Alleppey, for a cruise and overnight stay on a traditional houseboat. Cruising the backwaters of Kerala, which are surrounded by coconut plantations and paddy fields, was a welcome break after navigating the organised chaos that is driving in India… Having our own private chef on board was an added bonus, as was the delicious pearl spot lake fish he cooked up and served in a banana leaf. Once we had moored for the night a further highlight was a dusk walking tour, taking in the village life along the Keralan backwaters, including a sunset stroll through the rice fields watching local life unfold… whilst Nick kept his eyes peeled for snakes! We even tried our hand at ‘cooing’ local-style, which is the way to call for a water boat to take you to the other side of the water, and we wandered into a little shack to enjoy some coconut toddy (fermented coconut sap also used to create the coconut milk Appam pancakes so popular in Kerala) from a toddy shop, a bit like an old-fashioned moonshine bar — mildly alcoholic, devilishly delicious.
Next up? From Alleppey we headed the short distance to Kumarakom and the brand new Niraamaya Retreat hotel in a stunning location alongside the Vembanad lake. The hotel enjoys the most breathtaking uninterrupted lakeside sunsets. It hadn’t officially yet opened so we got one of the initial sneak peaks, and it’s fair to say that it was huge in comparison to its sister Niraamaya resort in Thekkady. As the staff were preparing for their grand opening we were invited to sample some of the delicious morsel snacks that they were proposing for guests. That afternoon we visited Philip Kutty’s farm for lunch and a tour of their island coconut farm — previously a manmade island used as a paddy field for growing rice. After they had finished feeding both their lodging guests (some guests have been repeat holiday customers for over 20 years! ) as well as day visitors like ourselves, we managed to sneak in some cooking lessons from the grandmother and daughter-in-law of the house, Aniamma and Anu — who have also hosted Rick Stein and one of their recipes features in his cookbook India. Both had sadly lost their husbands but continue to run this beautiful and welcoming family establishment despite the devastating flooding in August a year earlier that wiped out much of their coconut trees and all of their nutmeg trees. They managed to ferry their special cows to safety on the other side of the river and gave all this chickens to their staff. The flooding disaster of 2018 has been devastating for many local businesses and the chaos it entailed was evident as we travelled through this part of the world.
Back at the Niraamaya hotel we spent time with the resident Ayurvedic doctor working on breathing techniques and walking meditations. Of local heritage but having grown up in the USA and laterly UK, the Doctor had returned to his parents’ home with his wife and newborn twins so that they could be with their grandparents. Just as it is recognised to some extent around the world, Ayurveda and Indian culture very much recognise that grandparents make the best babysitters! In a lovely gesture, the hotel asked that I plant an honorary coconut tree at the spa — I can’t wait to see how it’s grown next time I visit.
Our last stop before flying back from Trivandrum airport was Kovalam, where we got to sit back and relax at the Taj Green Cove hotel and beach for a few days. Here we enjoyed some time relaxing in the sea, practised yoga twice daily on the beach, and even visited a local Brahman for Ayurvedic astrology (Jyotosh) readings and a special Puja to celebrate my birthday before an early flight home the next day. It was no doubt a whistle-stop tour, but it gave us a great authentic insight into the rich wonderful culture and cuisine of such a beautiful part of India.
Our itinerary was packed with much more than I have mentioned above and I could wax lyrical for hours, but here is the breakdown — I will let the images below do the talking as they will be far more eloquent that I can be.