Ancient temples, gently spiced cuisine and Ayurveda – it may be monsoon season, but India’s languid, tropical state of Kerala is as captivating as ever
Words by Michelle Wranik-Hicks
You may have heard Kerala described as “God’s Own Country” (a phrase coined, believe it or not, by an advertising agency in 1989), and during the monsoon season (from June to August), you’ll understand why. When the rains arrive, India’s southern state transforms into a lush, emerald-coloured Garden of Eden. Waterfalls flow, coconut groves glisten, and mist covers the hill stations, yet amid the sudden downpours are brilliant interludes of sunshine. Rain may deter some tourists, but not those interested in Ayurveda*, one of the world’s oldest holistic healing systems, as it’s the best time undergo a rejuvenation. Read on for a few more reasons to book a trip now…
In perfect harmony
Ayurveda was born in India some 5,000 years ago and its heartland is Kerala. Today, modernised practices have been adopted around the world and how you are treated will depend on the diagnosis of your body’s doshas – Vata, Pitta and Kapha – and what is needed to achieve a state of balance. Discovering it in Kerala during monsoon season is the ideal time, as the moisture in the air, which transfers to the skin, helps the natural medicines work most effectively. Plus, medicines are derived from herbs enhanced by the rich alkaloid content of the soil that’s unique to the area.
One of the most popular Ayurvedic treatments is Kizhi, a massage that’s known to help ease pain and is carried out using a warm poultice containing herbs, herbal powders, rice or sand. You’ll find many treatment centres and resorts that specialise in it.
Mind, body, and spirit
The main goal of Ayurveda is to promote good health and those visiting for a stretch of time can enrich their experience beyond individual treatments by seeking advice on a rounded approach that includes everything from mindful eating to meditation. A list of government-approved Ayurvedic centres can be found online at keralatourism.org/ayurvedacentres.
A dose of history
A confluence of religions and Portuguese, Dutch and British Raj influences, the atmospheric port city of Kochi is a sensory riot, crammed with historic sites like Jain Temple, the 400-year-old Paradesi Synagogue, Mattancherry Palace and Portuguese churches. Time-honoured traditions continue even in the rain: sniff spices along Bazaar Road, head to the harbour to watch fisherman working giant Chinese fishing nets and take a peek inside Kerala Museum (keralamuseum.com).
Part dance, part mime, the 17th-century theatre tradition of Kathakali, classical Indian dance characterised by colourful performers with exaggerated expressions, is as old as Shakespeare. Book tickets for a performance at Kerala Kathakali Centre (K.B. Jacob Rd, kathakalicentre.com) in Kochi.
Onam, one of Kerala’s most important festivals, starts on 15 August this year. The 10-day harvest festival is marked by elaborate feasts, folk performances and temple visits. It culminates with the Snake Boat Race, held on the river Pampa in Aranmula (around 111 kilometres from Kochi) – an unmissable spectacle of hundreds of oarsmen, rowing along the river clad in white dhotis and turbans, past chanting crowds.
Don’t miss seeing the luscious Kerala waterfalls – Athirappalli is the most famous at more than 80ft high. The cascades are popular year-round picnic spots.
Breakfast like a king
With sizeable portions and hefty calories, Keralan breakfasts are utterly delicious, consisting of sweet things like puttu (a type of roll made of roasted rice and grated coconut); appam pancakes (also made of rice and coconut), and idli dumplings, doused in banana, sugar and coconut milk or served with sweet chutneys as well as savoury dishes like nadan mutta curry (egg curry).
A seafood bonanza
All that coastline means seafood in abundance, with fishermen heaving in basketfuls onto the sands each day. No matter where you stay, there’s bound to be succulent lobster, fish, calamari and king prawns on the menu. Binge on chemmeen kari (prawn curry) or kappa meen, a spicy tapioca, kingfish and tamarind curry, scooped up with fluffy appam.
Feast on sadya
Comprised of 28 small dishes, sadya is a vegetarian feast served on a plantain leaf, and it’s a must try, particularly during festivals like Onam. Small servings (eaten in order to aid digestion) include red rice and pickles, curries like lentil parippu curry, and the creamy dessert payasam (coconut milk mixed with molasses and spices, garnished with cashews and raisins). Afterward, the plantain leaf is simply wrapped up and discarded.
Take a closer look at the vibrant coastal village life of Kovala, which is a hive of activity of everything from coconut leaf weaving to trading the local catch at the fish markets.
Gliding along languid backwaters past simple, rural riverside communities, lush coconut groves and rice paddies – there are few experiences as authentic as a cruise on a converted kettuvallam. These former thatch-roofed barges once carried spices towards the ports, but now function as houseboats staffed by crew, a cook and guides. Boats range from the rustic fan-only sort right through to the luxurious.
Time for tea plantations
Fresh cool air, mountains blanketed in mist, and stunning tea plantation views – Munnar, a colonial hill station in the southern Western Ghats, is particularly beautiful during monsoon. Once you’ve drunk your fill of tea, taken a stroll around a tea estate, and checked out the Tea Museum, the 2,695-metre Anamudi peak beckons for trekking, paragliding and mountain biking adventures.
It’s a jungle out there
Set out on a safari, South Indian style, to spot prowling tigers in the protected Parambikulam Wildlife Sanctuary or at Bandipur Park, a reserve home to around 139 tigers and nearly 2,000 elephants. Another habitat for rare creatures is Munnar’s Eravikulam National Park, home to the protected though endangered Nilgiri Tahr – see them up close on a guided tour.
HOT TO SHOP
Beach shack shopping along Varkala’s clifftop is geared toward the Western boho crowd, with souvenirs of excellent quality and range, from organic cotton dresses and edgy beachwear to hand-carved wooden sitars, and leather sandals and bags made to order. The clifftop markets also have a Tibetan bazaar where vendors spruik handicrafts, silk and even singing bowls.
Snap up an antique
Find rare, one-of-a-kind pieces in Kochi, which has a concentration of some of the country’s finest antique sellers. Try Heritage Arts, home to an astonishing collection of handcrafted teak furniture and jewellery; Madonna Exports for a tempting array of handicrafts, wood carvings and tribal art; The Ethnic Passage for bronze masks and spice boxes, and Crafters, where the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall are regular customers.
Should you venture to Aranmula to watch the Onam festival boat race, add a kannadi to your shopping list. These exquisite, handheld metal-alloy mirrors are made by artisans in the small temple town, who follow an ancient and secretive method that omits the use of glass or mercury.
WHERE TO STAY
A modern boutique and a member of Relais & Châteaux, there are 17 stylish suites in this converted mid-17th century house, with local art and artefacts, landscaped gardens and discreet service creating an ideal retreat after a day exploring Kochi.
This former cardamom plantation is a cosy retreat in the misty mountains of Munnar, featuring guestrooms and cottages named after spices and beds carved from teak and maple. Set out on guided forest walks and return to tuck into homestyle cuisine.
Located close to the coastal village of Mararikulam in Alleppey, this charming property offers premium cottages and villas with direct access to the white sand beach. Unwind with an Ayurveda treatment or yoga lesson, take a stroll in the vegetable and butterfly garden, or laze by the swimming pool.
Animal lovers will be pleased to learn that Kerala has six national parks dedicated to protected and endangered species such as the Indian sloth-bear, lion-tailed Macaque, the Indian bison, Bengal tiger and Nilgiri tahr.
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