The cacophony of sights and sounds is overwhelming, but awe-inspiring. There is order in the disorder of a seemingly frenzied crowd of people and jammed traffic as you stand at the congested junction in the beach town of Kovalam in India’s south-western state of Kerala.
Thoughts turn to what Evelyn Greenslade said in John Madden’s film, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Actually, it was Academy Award-winning actress Judi Dench, playing the character, who said these profound words:
“India is an assault on the senses … a riot of noise and colour.” How right she was, because art had perfectly imitated realistic wisdom in reel life!
No matter where you are in Kerala, everything is magnified … the pace of life is constant and intense, the people are charming, lush green landscapes breathtaking, traffic is overpowering, sounds are sometimes deafening, the pristine beaches are inviting, multi-coloured hues are vivid, cuisine is tantalising, spices are full-flavoured and you’re finely-tuned to the magical festivals and infectious music.
It’s propitious then to know I’m on the Malabar Coast in a tropical paradise popularly known as ‘God’s Own Country’. It was formed in 1956 by combining Malayalam-speaking regions (it has five main regional dialects) – spoken by 90 per cent of the locals.
Land of Coconuts
With a population of 34 million, Kerala is no Shangri-La. This land of coconuts enjoys a unique topography with the Arabian Sea, a part of the Indian Ocean on the west and the Western Ghats on the east, networked by 44 rivers. It is divided into three geographical regions: highlands, which slope down from the Western Ghats onto the Midlands of undulating hills and valleys into an unbroken coastline with many picturesque backwaters, interconnected with canals and rivers.
The 580-kilometre shoreline is dotted with serene beaches, tranquil stretches of emerald backwaters, sprawling paddy fields, lush plantations, verdant hill stations, exotic wildlife, grand waterfalls, rejuvenating Ayurvedic health retreats and historic and cultural monuments.
With a protected area of more than 2,300 square kilometres, it has two national parks and 12 wildlife sanctuaries. The development of sustainable and eco-friendly tourism has made Kerala an eco-tourism destination because of the rich biodiversity, unmatched natural attractions and an equable climate.
A pleasant discovery is about Kerala being one of India’s most progressive states in terms of social welfare and quality of life: the first in India to reach 100 per cent literacy rate, it has the highest life expectancy at 75.1 per cent compared with 65.6 per cent of the national average and the lowest child mortality count.
It is the only state in India where Ayurveda is still followed as a mainstream medicine. In fact, various Ayurvedic treatments and food habits have become an integral part of the Keralite lifestyle. That’s because Ayurveda is not simply a mode of healthcare, but also a fundamental approach to life. An estimated 25 per cent of India’s 15,000 plant species are found in Kerala.
One of the most interesting geographical features is the backwaters, a chain of brackish lagoons and lakes lying almost parallel to the western coast of the state.
The total expanse stretches over 1,500 kilometres, north-to-south, with an interconnected network of canals, lagoons, inlets and lakes. Often these waterways are the only link between isolated villages and bustling towns.
Experience the tranquil and picturesque beauty of these maze-like waterways by taking a boat ride through the Poovar Backwaters and see the abundance of nature at its best as you glide down the Neyyar River. Rich in flora and fauna, while cruising through you can easily spot water birds like brahminy kite, snake bird, sea egret and Indian cormorant eagle. Jude, our boat pilot, rapturously exclaimed: “This is heaven and you’ll want to stay here forever!” We agreed.
Poovar is a fishing village located 35 kilometres from the capital Thiruvananthapuram (formerly Trivandrum), and 20 kilometres from Kovalam. If you crave calm and beauty, then opt to stay in Kovalam, one of the oldest tourist enclaves in the country, famous for its beaches, shallow waters and low tidal waves.
This ‘Paradise of the South’ exudes an aura of laid-back indulgence, with three idyllic crescent-shaped, clean and safe beaches – Lighthouse, Hawa and Samudra. The 17-kilometre coastline beckons with such energetic water sport activities as surfboarding, kayaking, swimming in the ocean, surfing, water-skiing or just basking on the beach and sunbathing.
Check out the nearby sights in Thiruvananthapuram and Kovalam. Spend time at the Napier Museum, the Sree Chitra Art Gallery, the Padmanabhaswamy Temple (an intricate fusion of the indigenous Kerala style and the Dravidian style (kovil) of architecture, the prominent candy-striped Vizhinjam Lighthouse, Vizhinjam Marine Research Aquarium, and the Padmanabhapuram Palace & Museum of Antiquities.
Another must-visit destination at India’s southern tip is Kanyakumari, a coastal town in Tamil Nadu, a scenic 85-kilometre drive from Kovalam. Impressive, too, about 500 metres out are memorials on two rocks: Vivekananda Rock Memorial and the colossal Thiruvalluvar statue in honour of the Tamil poet and philosopher.
Described as a ‘true haven for travellers’, nature here is truly resplendent!
Spice it up
Kerala cuisine offers a multitude of dishes. The staple is made up of rice, coconut, fish and lentil. A highlight is the traditional Sadhya (banquet, usually meant for special occasions like weddings) when you’re served 25 items on a banana leaf. The small portions include Rasam (spicy broth of tomatoes, lentil and black pepper), Masala fried fish, Pepper chicken, Chamba Rice (boiled), Sambhar (spicy vegetable and lentil stew in tamarind and asafoetida) and Ada Pradhaman (steamed rice flakes cooked with ghee, jaggery and coconut milk).
Then there’s an endless choice of meat and vegetarian varieties to seafood delicacies including serfish, cuttlefish, kingfish, mackerel, red lobsters and the rare and expensive karimeen or the pearl-spotted fish. A visit to the Kovalam Fish Market is an eye-opener, watching the hive of sales activity.
No south Indian meal is complete without rice – either boiled rice or Idlis (steamed cakes made from rice batter), Dosas (thin crispy pancake) and Uttapams (pancakes made from a batter of rice and lentil flour). Most enjoyable is the Masala dosa, filled with spicy potato and onion mixture.
Layered flat bread called Parotta is made of maida (plain flour), egg (in some recipes), oil or ghee and water.
Abundant fruit and vegetable choices are beyond belief: mangoes, guava, custard apples, okra, bitter gourd, aubergine … the list goes on.
You’ll be spoiled for choice with many eating establishments in Thiruvananthapuram and Kovalam. Here’s a small sample of venues where you can savour food for the body and soul:
Let executive sous chef Dinesh Lal make your dining experience a memorable one at The Leela Kovalam, India’s only cliff-top resort, with panoramic views of the coastline across the vast expanse of the Arabian Sea. Savour a unique Sadhya banquet by eating up to 25 food items off a banana leaf. Now that’s a treat!
An amazing location by the Arabian Sea, Bait Seafront Restaurant in Thiruvananthapuram serves the best butter garlic shrimps, and the freshest catch of Red Snapper and Reef Cod.
Mothers Veg Plaza, Thiruvananthapuram serves a traditional Sadhya meal on a banana leaf and included are three varieties of Payasam (dessert with rice or vermicelli) and 100 varieties of Dosa.
Villa Maya is a traditional pure vegetarian restaurant in Thiruvananthapuram. The restored 18th century Dutch manor once enjoyed the attention of the royal house of Travancore.
For a memorable experience on the water, turn your attention to dining in a floating restaurant in Poovar. There are three vessel options on the Neyyar River including Samudra, Chile and Stephen’s.
Jothi Vilas Restaurant serves pure vegetarian cuisine in a serene setting overlooking Samudra Beach, Kovalam. Specialties include Idli, Sambhar, Poori Bhaji, Vada Pav and Uttar Ki Khasiyat.
Suprabhatham is a little vegetarian retreat hidden back from Lighthouse Beach, Kovalam Beach, serving a delicious choice of dishes, including Kerala Parota.
Varsha Pure Vegetarian Restaurant near Lighthouse Beach, Kovalam, serves tasty Sambhar, Idli, Vada, Dal, Paratha and
so much more.
Punjabi Dhaba, Kovalam Junction, has north Indian vegetarian fare, ideal for the budget conscious; Malabar Café, Lighthouse Beach, Kovalam, has great butter and garlic fish (white snapper), fried prawns and Red Snapper curry; and butterfish is a favourite, along with Pomfret cooked in the tandoor at Searock Café, Hawah Beach, Kovalam.
Street food is now a fad and its popularity was evident by the long queues at Anjaneya Restaurant and SK Vada Kada Tea Stall in Kovalam Junction. Eager patrons were buying samosa, pakora, kebab, chicken curry and other mouthwatering treats just as quickly as they were cooked. SK’s masala chai was a thirst quencher!
On reflection, American chef and author Julia Child was spot on when she eloquently said: “People who love to eat are always the best people”! •
Photography by Rama Gaind & iStock.
Fly Qantas to Singapore and then catch a Jet Airways flight into New Delhi. India’s Jet Airways travels all domestic routes.
Where to stay
• The Leela Kovalam: +91-471/305-1234; theleela.com
• Poovar Island Resort: +91-89/4333-8905; poovarislandresorts.com
• The best time to visit is September to March.
• Make sure you have enough cash as many local shops have stopped accepting credit cards, and ATMs are not always easily accessible.
• Kerala has the best Ayurveda resorts that combine the goodness of traditional therapies and a healthy diet routine. Somatheeram Ayurveda Resort is the world’s first Ayurvedic resort at Thiruvananthapuram. somatheeram.in
• India Tourist Office: incredibleindia.org
• Kerala Tourism: keralatourism.org