Journey to the Land of Peace
By NAOMI TOLLEY
A stream of huge jack-wood boats unhurriedly moored alongside in Alleppey.
And we waited and watched as the gentle murmur of crews slowly rose with the dawn.
Eventually we heard a voice raised above all others: “Come, come Miss Naomi.” It was Rajiv, our guide, ushering us aboard his kettuvallom.
These graceful old boats, made from jack-wood, bamboo and coir, were once used to transport rice and spices up the Keralan backwaters.
Today they have been carefully restored and converted to leisure craft which drift up and down those same waters.
Little did I realise, as Rajiv took my hand, it was the start of one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
If you’ve ever been to India you’ll know the experience is normally a complete sensory overload – in a charming, stimulating, occasionally stifling, sort of a way.
But here, on the backwaters of Kerala, it’s like a journey to the Land of Peace itself – the only senses working overload are sight and taste as your eyes and taste buds feast off the lush scenery and Keralan cuisine cooked in the local Kuttanad style.
En-route to nowhere we passed modest waterside villages where children climbed trees and women washed clothes in the river’s edge, stopping only to lift a hand and wave.
We stayed on board for two nights, sleeping in the only bedroom on board, enveloped in mosquito nets. Rajiv and our cook slept on the floor outside – nationals seem immune to insect bites in India.
Our days were spent reading, eating, reading, and more eating – and listening to nothing but each other’s voices, laughter and the sound of silence.
It’s no surprise this experience is hugely common with honeymooners.
These big old boats can be hired for a day or more but always account for tips for your guide and cook at the end of the journey.
The houseboats have all the creature comforts of a good hotel including furnished bedrooms, modern toilets, cozy living rooms, a kitchen and even a balcony for angling.
Parts of the curved roof of wood or plaited palm open out to provide shade and allow uninterrupted views. While most boats are poled by local oarsmen, some are powered by a 40 HP engine – which obviously shatters the peace and quiet. Personally, I’d recommend the more traditional method.
Boat-trains – formed by joining two or more houseboats together – are also used by large groups of sight-seers.
What I found truly magical about a houseboat ride are the breathtaking views of the untouched and otherwise inaccessible rural Kerala – what a way to witness a microcosm of unspoilt India.
Once described as ‘Venice of the East’ by Lord Curzon, former British Conservative viceroy of India, Alleppey is a hub for backwater tourism in Kerala.
The fact the local radio station is called Radio Mango speaks volumes. But you’ll see the laid-back town and its backwaters come alive from August to October with the ancient snake boat races – spectacular regattas involving long, thin boats powered by up to 120 oarsmen. The most famous snake boat race wins the Nehru Trophy Boat Race.
If, after days spent lolling around on the water, you fancy something a little more upbeat, head to Fort Kochi.
This historic town, if you could call it a town, sits on the Arabian Sea and is famous for its Jain temples, and Chinese fishing nets. The huge, hand-constructed nets can be found in Vasco-da Gama square – a narrow promenade which runs parallel to the seafront. If you’re lucky enough, as we were, the fishermen may even let you try your hand at sinking and raising the nets – quite a treat considering they were erected between AD 1350 and 1450 by the traders from the court of Kublai Khan.
Their silhouettes against the sun setting over the Arabian Sea also make for a great photo opportunity.
At sunset this is an ideal place to relax and stroll around stalls selling delicious seafood and tender coconuts. If you venture further in to town the back streets throw up a wealth of surprises. Our tuk-tuk driver even let us take the helm of his vehicle and take him for spin!
After our little jaunt, I stumbled across a local elderly man in a hut painting original artworks. I found one of the famous Chinese fishing nets for the equivalent of just pounds10, and I managed to barter him down to pounds5. If it’s unusual souvenirs you’re after then Fort Kochi is a treasure trove.
The west coast of India is famed for its ‘alternative’ lifestyle and health therapies. Further north from Kerala you’ll find Goa – a hub for laid-back British travellers wanting to sample Asian culture.
Although Ayurvedic health holidays are booming across India, and in many parts of the UK including Totnes, in Kerala you’ll find the Ayurvedic resorts suspended in a time long gone – as though you have gone back to the very roots of the Hindu health care system.
The word Ayurveda itself roughly translates as ‘life knowledge’ or ‘knowledge of a long life’.
The Charaka Samhita is an ancient Indian Ayurvedic text on internal medicine which reads: “‘Life’ itself is defined as the combination of the body, sense organs, mind and soul, the factor responsible for preventing decay and death, which sustains the body over time and guides the processes of rebirth.”
Ayurveda aims to protect that ‘life’, which includes healthy living along with therapeutic measures that relate to physical, mental, social and spiritual harmony – the body, mind and soul all working in harmony.
Kerala’s equable climate with a natural abundance of forests, herbs and medicinal plants, coupled with a cool monsoon season from June to November provides ideal conditions for Ayurveda’s curative and restorative packages.
In fact, today, Kerala claims to be the only state in India which practises this system of medicine with absolute dedication.
Traditional texts reveal that the monsoon is the best season for rejuvenation programmes. The atmosphere remains dust-free and cool, opening the pores of the body to the maximum, making it most receptive to herbal oils and therapy.
Without planning we found ourselves in an Ayurvedic centre at just the right time of year – in Kovalam.
Kovalam is an internationally renowned beach with three adjacent crescent beaches. It has been a favourite haunt of tourists, especially Europeans, since the 1930s.
But don’t be swayed by its popularity. It is still in essence a traditional Indian beach and it’s a common sight to see groups of Indian women bathing fully clothed in saris.
This is a good point to note that, although baring flesh is not frowned upon, thongs and nudity should be avoided out of respect to the locals – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians all make their home here.
A massive rocky promontory on the beach protects the bay from the wind, creating calm waters ideal for swimming.
Ways to while away your days are aplenty and if you’re not swimming, there are herbal body toning massages, special cultural programmes, catamaran cruising and more.
But be careful of the beach massages and opt for an Ayurvedic resort – we both had our breasts groped by a couple set up as professional masseurs.
The beach complex includes a string of budget cottages, Ayurvedic health resorts, convention facilities, Yoga and Ayurvedic massage centres.
The southernmost point of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the state, is just 16km away from Kovalam and getting there is no hassle. It’s a perfect last base to spend the remainder of your holiday in India. But if you decide you’re not quite ready to head for home, you can bag dirt cheap flights out to the tropical paradise islands of the Maldives from Thiruvananthapuram airport.
Thiruvananthapuram itself has interesting places to see like the Napier Museum, the Sri Chitra Art Gallery, the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Ponmudi hill station, the SMSM Institute, a state-owned handicrafts emporium – the perfect place to pick up ethnic curios.
And I came home laden with Indian artefacts, including a drum, a sari and Ayurvedic potions – they still serve as a reminder of one of the most memorable trips of my life – to ‘God’s very Own Country’.
(c) 2008 Herald Express (Torquay UK). Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.