Kerala, IndiaSunday, April 13, 2014
God’s own country
Special to the Washington Post (*)
In most corners of the planet, such a boast would sound unbearably self-satisfied, tourist-oriented branding at its tritest. But here in this prosperous state on the southwest coast of India, it doesn’t sound smug so much as sincere, precise even. “Rest your eyes on our natural splendour,” it seems to say, “and believe.”
The phrase invokes the stunning natural beauty for which Kerala is renowned, of course, but also alludes to the variety of faiths that thrive here: the co-existence of Hindus, Muslims, Christians and even some Jains is apparent in the busy juxtaposition of towers, minarets and spires that sit cheek by jowl in every city, town and village. If for no other reason, the state can lay claim to the title of “God’s Own Country” because there are so many gods who might be inclined to choose it as their own.
My girlfriend and I arrived in Fort Kochi, a famously quaint heritage city filled with the vestiges of its Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial past. One evening we stumbled upon a Sunday school concert in front of the Santa Cruz Basilica, a grand edifice with a dazzling white facade and twin spires reaching to the sky.
It was an arresting sight — glowing paper star lanterns hanging over a large, busy stage where a choir of small schoolgirls performed for a rapt audience of hundreds. This was followed by a troupe of teenage girls in colourful Indian dress who performed an elaborate folk dance, arms and torsos waving in intricate patterns. The contrast of Christian hymns and traditional pageantry should have seemed jarring, but instead it appeared to be a seamless expression of multi-faceted identity.
That identity extends to the countryside. From the stunning beaches along the Malabar Coast to the maze of backwater canals cutting through huge rice fields to the glorious rolling hillside tea plantations in the Western Ghats, Kerala’s landscapes are almost as diverse as its people. But the most abiding quality of those landscapes is the way they unfold in varying shades of lush green, as though the colour spectrum had been forced to expand to accommodate the state’s spectacular fertility.
The name Kerala is derived from kera, the local Malayalam word for coconut, and there is an abundance of palm trees across the state, the spiky dark green fronds acting as natural parasols against the glare of the sun. The coconut doesn’t just lend its name to the place, but also acts as a ubiquitous and adaptable natural resource from which countless products, such as coir, a versatile fiber, and toddy, a famous — and potent — local brew, are derived.
It’s the plant behind another beverage that gives the area around the hill station town of Munnar, in east Kerala, its famously vibrant shade of green. In this part of the Western Ghats mountain region, the steep hillsides are covered with about 60,000 acres of tea plantations — an industry begun by the British, who established the plantations in the late 19th century.
The result is a stunning vista: the vast swathes of tea bushes cling to the hills like a soft emerald carpet. The narrow pathways between the bushes, the trails followed by the tea pickers, lead to patterned grooves accentuating the topography, appearing from a distance as if some godlike cartographer had inked contour lines onto the mountain slopes.
We normally think of a physical colonial legacy in terms of architectural styles and urban design — the distinctive angles of the roofscape, the width of the boulevards, the patterns of the brickwork. But the colonizer doesn’t leave an imprint just in the city streets, and in the hills around Munnar, we see a different type of physical legacy, a landscape radically altered by the British.
The emerald sheen of the hillsides comes courtesy of the empire’s insatiable appetite for tea. Intrepid colonists such as John Daniel Munro and A.W. Turner made their way up to the High Ranges, as they called them, and discovered that the altitude, gradient and orientation of the slopes were particularly suited to the cultivation of tea.
And that wasn’t the extent of their impact. To provide enough wood to fuel the tea production process, eucalyptus seeds were smuggled in from Australia, and now the hilltops are covered with fast-growing, ramrod-straight eucalyptus trees.
As a town, Munnar has been blighted by thoughtless overdevelopment, with large hotels springing up in shambolic fashion. But traces of its history as a hill station, or colonial mountain town, remain, such as a few Christian churches and the High Ranges club, the latter persevering as if the sun had never fully set on the empire.
As has happened so often in India, the imposed traditions of the occupier, from the Mughals to the British, have been subsumed into the local identity, assimilated with ease into the larger national narrative. Thus, Indians drink copious amounts of chai, usually sweetened beyond recognition, and the tea landscape, too, becomes absorbed into the local tradition, a proud part of the heritage rather than evidence of an alien legacy.
We made our way to Eravikulam National Park, about eight miles from Munnar, which stretches over some 37 square miles above the line of vegetation, the green giving way to yellow-tinged, tough grass and exposed rock. The treetops and tea plantations are arrayed on the hillsides below, and from here you get an unrivalled view of the rolling countryside, with pockets of mist occupying some valleys while occasional lost-looking clouds skim the highest peaks. Looming over the reserve is Anaimudi mountain, which, at 8,842 feet, is the highest mountain in southern India. It’s a forbidding hunk of rock, earning the nickname “Elephant Head” with its imposing outline.
One of the chief attractions of Eravikulam is the Nilgiri tahr, a rare mountain goat that was nearly extinct a century ago but now numbers approximately 3,000, about half of them in this reserve. Unlike the wild elephants that you can glimpse in certain wide pastures in the valleys below, the Nilgiri tahr are happy to approach the pathway, mingling with visitors in nonchalant fashion.
Signs warning people not to stray off the track are in English and Malayalam, which uses a script peculiarly apt for this part of the world. The voluptuous letters, all round curves and looping twirls, beautifully match the landscape. Fittingly, the word Malayalam itself means “hill region.”
Another shade of green
Quite another shade of green characterizes the famous Kerala backwaters near the coast. Although the tea plantations are closer to emerald, the vast rice paddies of this area are an almost luminous jade, fringed with palm trees and banana plants. The wetlands area around Kuttanad is a dense maze of canals, rivers and lake, largely south of the Vembanad lake, one of the largest in India.
A voyage along the backwaters on one of the traditional thatched boats is one of the quintessential Kerala experiences; the kettuvallam, as they are known, were once used to carry rice and passengers around the waterways and are now being adapted as houseboats, many luxurious.
We take an overnight cruise, meeting our charming crew of three at the busy coastal city of Alleppey. It is one of those chaotic, choked Indian towns that thrum with an anarchic energy, where speeding rickshaws and mopeds play real-life dodgem on the streets before being held up by the occasional elephant progressing along in stately fashion.
The contrast with the waterways couldn’t be starker. Once you’re on the water, the delirium of Alleppey fades to a dim memory, replaced by a pervasive calm. A cruise along the canals is captivating — so serene, so tranquil that it weaves a kind of meditative spell, like a deep-tissue massage for the soul. We slowly glimpse the quotidian charms of local life here — the beautiful little cottages along the waterways, with moored boats instead of parked cars; small shops and toddy bars; numerous churches, some daringly modern in style, others tracing their roots back to the time of St Thomas, the doubting apostle, who is said to have arrived in these parts in the 1st century.
As the houseboat chugs along, we regularly hear the slap-slap-slap of cloth smacking against stone as mothers do the family laundry by the water’s edge while children wave in our direction.
The captain docks the houseboat beneath some palm trees as we stop for lunch, and we become distracted by a most unusual sight: a lone duck herder on a canoe is expertly chaperoning a flock of hundreds along the water, steering them this way and that, corralling them toward his colleagues on the riverbank. With the ducks safely home, the herder moves on to do it all again with another flock, an act of Sisyphean patience.
Later, we pass a cramped cricket game unfolding in the space between some palm trees, a scrawny wicket worn on the wiry grass. The boys wield their bats expertly, accounting for the tree trunks as if they were rival players. They, too, stop and smile and wave, the sense of hospitality boundless.
As the afternoon draws to a close, we take a canoe along a narrow canal, passing small, pretty cottages, and then walk along the small dams near the rice paddies, bending to duck beneath the broad leaves of banana trees. With the sun setting to the west, the rice paddies before us glow an iridescent green. It’s a dazzling sight, a vivid example of Kerala’s natural beauty.
We return to the houseboat as darkness falls and the vibrant colors fade to black. Whirring bugs accumulate in the air around us, and we catch a faint call to prayer echoing from a distant minaret and enthusiastic singing drifting over the water from a nearby church.
God’s own country, they call it. We close our eyes on the natural splendor, and believe.