description: In comparison to most other Indian states, Kerala
is relatively small; a slim strip of land bounded by Karnataka and
the Southern Ghats (including the famous Nilgiri hills) on the eastern,
inland side, and the Lakshadweep Sea on the Malabar Coast. For such
a small state it has a wide variety of landscapes and terrain, from
plantations and hill stations to beach resorts and the famous 'backwaters',
making it a major destination for package tourists as well as backpackers.
The coastal strip - the only part we've seen - is generally very lush
and green with a seemingly endless cover of coconut palms, more so
in the south than the north.
Although Kerala has a long coastline and plenty of beach, very
little is given over to beach resorts suitable for the kind of activities
favoured by foreign tourists; the rest of the coast mainly being
small fishing communities. The beach areas there are lack the variety
and gentle beauty of the Goan or
Karnatakan coast, and the
main resort of Kovalam,
with its cramped feel and fetish for concrete, feels a little like
a nascent Benidorm.
The eternal village
Kerala is an extremely densely populated state (two to three times
the Indian average population density), and after a few days on
a motorcycle the coast begins to feel like one long extended village
punctuated by the occasional large town or city - especially south
of Kochi and Thrissur where NH17 and NH47 join to become the main
route south. While the endless human habitation makes it easy to
find a place to stay if you're touring by motorbike, any of those
" tranquil solitude of the open road" moments are pretty
much toast after Mangalore, and the delights of the Kannur one way
system make you appreciate the logic of London's - only marginally
less scenic - A205 South Circular.
The state's lush interior may well have a more relaxing pace, but
travelling through the endless village that is the coast - and playing
chicken 8 hours a day with Kerala's generally psychotic and talentless
drivers - tends to take the edge off any pleasure gained by arriving
at the destination; give me the Grand Trunk Road any day.
One of the things that lighten the tedium of playing with Kerala's
endless traffic is sharing the road with elephants, a common sight
on the highways, sometimes in two's or three's, and often carrying
their own substantial lunch of palm fronds in their curled trunk.
They trot along at a surprisingly pace, and can apparently cover
around 50 Km in a day. Some are working animals employed in the
forestry industry, but the most famous are the "temple elephants"
which, painted and ornamented, take part in festivals and religious
ceremonies at Kerala's many Hindu temples. If you're travelling
on the coast, the elephant sanctuary at Guruvayur
keeps 58 animals for religious purposes, and is well worth a visit,
as is the atmospheric town itself.
Social development and the Left
Keralan government has been dominated for years by left leaning
or communist politics, and as a result the state has a strong emphasis
on social development. Early governments introduced extensive agricultural
and land reforms, extended rights for tenant farmers and placed
education at the top of the agenda as a route to development and
prosperity. The state has the highest literacy rate in India by
some way, and its well educated citizens often travel abroad to
work, particularly to Gulf countries, where they are much sought
The substantially better money they earn makes them fairly wealthy
by Indian standards, and otherwise simple looking villages often
have a number of very nice looking modern houses built by returning
expats. As there is money around, major towns and cities such as
Ernakulam / Kochi
and Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum) tend to have far more
modern office buildings and shopping centres than you'd see elsewhere
Food, religion and culture
Look around any tourist destination in North India and you'll see
plenty of restaurants offering South Indian dishes. Down south it's
the real thing and the Dosas, idlis and parothas are generally extremely
fresh and bear little resemblance to those sold in the north. The
parothas - a sort of cross between bread and moist, flaky pastry
- are fabulous when fresh and its hard to stop having 'just one
Most Keralans seem to have very substantial appetites. The roadside
dhabas serve vegetable dishes with a mountain of rice, and most
customers seem to have second portions. In one place we ate in close
to the Tamil Nadu border, our jaws dropped as we watched an tiny
old lady of 70 or so demolish two heaped plates of rice and veg.
Kirsten had eaten around half a plate and pronounced herself 'stuffed'.
Religion is a very important element of Keralan life, predominantly
Hindu (60%) but with a substantial Muslim (23%) and Christian (17%)
population as well. There are plenty of important Hindu shrines
and pilgrimage towns, and the colourfully painted temples - often
with extensive compounds - and their intricate carvings are markedly
different to those found in north India.
Part of the religious tradition in Kerala are the famous Kathakali
dramas (Katha - story, kali - performance or play) which mix dance,
music and drama to tell the stories from the Hindu epics. The performers
faces are painted with elaborate and heavily stylised make up -
a process that takes several hours - complimented by equally brightly
coloured costumes and head pieces, all of which play a part in the
complex language of movement and facial expressions that form the
narrative. Viewing a performance is not for the faint hearted, and
requires stamina; in Varkala we saw bits of a Kathakali drama that
stretched over several days and nights, interspersed with the odd
bout of - seriously loud - fireworks.
In spite of the high level of education, an irritatingly significant
proportion of Keralan men seem to think they're God's gift to woman
kind - something that seems several light years from the truth -
and take the euphemistically named practice of eve teasing (usually
referred to as sexual harassment / assault elsewhere) to Olympic
standards. Apart from flagging us down in the middle of the road
every few metres to ask our "good names", the tedious
and seemingly endless squeals of "hey, baby" and "hi
sexy", invariably accompanied by a kind of demented cackling
or giggling (no doubt at the stunningly original wit) began to grate
like nails on a blackboard after the 457th iteration of the morning.
While it should be pointed out that this vain, egotistical and
moustache - preening section of Keralan society is (so it is claimed)
a minority, they have a disproportionate visibility and the only
way to avoid their infantile attention is to be male or dead - even
being pig-ugly, 90 years old and wearing your ultra-conservative
Great Granny's Victorian era passion-killing Sunday best is unlikely
to put off Kerala's thick-skinned (or just plain thick) eve-teasers.
For all of its theoretical plus points, Kerala never quite matched
our expectations of how "God's own country" (Kerala's
nickname) would look and feel. Before we went to Kerala we heard
little negative feedback from those that had been there (few raved
about it either however), so perhaps our impressions are the exception
or the interior would have been a better bet. The local tourism
industry is certainly well organised by Indian standards, and the
tourism board have been extremely successful in promoting the
resources they have and attracting visitors.
Kerala also offers many 'niche' activities for those who want something
beyond beach holidays, such as ayurvedic or health resorts, tours
of the backwaters on converted rice boats and elephant safaris.
There is plenty of local culture to imbibe and some places, such
as Fort Kochi, have a fantastic ambience and sense of history.
For those interested in such activities combined with a few days
on the beach, there's plenty to occupy a couple of weeks break.
But those who arrive expecting Goa style beach life or a relaxed
tour on two wheels may well end up disappointed if prior expectations
are too high.