God' Own country

words | Anisha Shaw

Sunsets of fluffy pastel marshmallow clouds sinking lazily into the water, miles of doughy powder sand lapped by an azure sparkling sea and ginger-infused cocktails washing down fresh fish…  if that sounds good, head to the Med.

But, if you’re seeking the truest sense of South India, there’s none other than Kerala! This State doesn’t even keep to the peripheries of normality. She’s a diva. A dalliance with her and she’s embedded under your skin. Kerala strikes like a heart palpitation, less of a spasm, more of a seizure. The red-hot sunsets are as scorchingly intense as the fiery cuisine; the landscapes are epic and of exasperating extremes and the curious culture cuts into your veins becoming your lifeblood.

You may detect an undertone of resentment. I describe it so because I didn’t want to become a statistic to India. I didn’t want to fall victim to its teasing wiles, its flirtatious nature, its alluring charms. Kerala’s explosive. Scorching sunsets streak the skies with passionate pinks and raven reds, the sizzling cuisine of the land’s birthed spices arouse new taste buds and the immensity of eccentric culture amazes as much as it amuses.

Named one of "ten paradises of the world" and "50 places of a lifetime" in the National Geographic Traveller and boasting discreet and exclusive hotels with lists of accolades, Kerala’s been given the tagline, ‘God’s own country.’ And Keralites aren’t afraid to use it. Located at the extreme southern tip of the Indian subcontinent, it established itself as a major spice trade centre from as early as 3000 BC. The south of India is as rich in colour as the redolent spices it’s renowned for.

Cochin
My journey begins in Cochin; a bustling State with the most picturesque of districts, Fort Cochin, an ancient port that was the centre of Indian spice trade for centuries. The historical town has a unique air of serenity, thick with the smell of the past and with more goats than rickshaws navigating the streets. Cochin’s diverse past is mirrored in its steep-roofed bungalows and Portuguese residences, cathedral, palaces, historical mosque and 16th century synagogue, all surrounded by the crumbling residues of the British Raj.

The Brunton Boatyard is ‘among the finest heritage accommodation in India; an elite 22-room hotel door-stepping a working harbour, set among street traders' stalls, with a sprightly bus terminal on one side and the dynamic Arabian sea on the other. The infinity pool virtually spills into the sea, a unique pocket of solitude amidst the mayhem. Stepping into the converted boatyard is like stepping into the distillery of time. Every element tells a story, of which you instantly become a part with traditional giant ‘punkhas’ (fans) in the lobby, once operated by labourers’ feet. You belong to a bygone era, which is so captivating; it eradicates all sense of real time.
A two-minute walk takes you to Cochin’s raison d’être; an impressive shoreline of giant Chinese fishing nets.

Indian fishermen, whose faces scream a telling history of labour and graft, toil tirelessly from the crack of dawn until late, manually operating the oversize nets. A highlight is waking up early to watch them, against a backdrop of breaking silver skies, scaling the striking wooden planks barefoot, tens of metres above dark swirling waters, to gather their catch. A brief stroll further along the harbour leads to the Fish Market, an incredible sight of fishermen in Mundu (men’s sarongs) yelling bids to sell catch of Tilapia, King Prawns and Crabs. Within the organised chaos, an elderly man sits on a plastic chair, notepad and pencil in hand, playing auctioneer. Everyone abides.

Even with its colonial history, Cochin exudes the essence of Indian culture. Inside Greenix village, a dedicated playhouse, the setting is dark and cool by night. The hallway is paved with imposing cold marble statues of goddesses, the only warmth reflecting off spot-lit paintings of men in contorting Yoga positions, in a strangely erotic fashion. It’s a haunting and enchanting introduction to theatre. I head there early to catch glimpse of the dancers applying make-up. The stark face paints used by Kathakali – katha ("story") kali ("performance") and Mohiniaattam ("dance of the enchantress") dancers makes stage make-up look natural. I’m treated to a heady melange of classical, traditional and religious dances, concluding in Theyyam, a trance-induced ritual. The whole experience is mystifying yet mesmerising.

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Munnar
A four-hour drive uphill leads to the crowning glory of Kerala, Munnar. A world apart from Cochin; at an elevation of 8,000 feet you get a sense of how remote and grandiose the Western Ghats are. The drive up is treacherously steep, through vast winding mountain ranges, where surging waterfalls cascade onto the roadside. I take comfort in knowing the road was improved by the British in 1942 as an evacuation route for a possible Japanese invasion. The Ghats are blanketed in a thick carpet of tea plantations. There’s an odd calm in miles of organised rows of lush green. Exotic wildlife and biodiversity thrive in the protected Ghats. Munnar is dramatic. With a Sound-of-Music-in-India backdrop, it’s a breathtaking, surreal landscape of rickety peaks, rugged gorges, manicured tea estates and crisp mountain air.
The temperature drops as the drive breaks through the mist barrier.
I arrive at the colonial Windermere Estate. A sense of panic sets in. With only mountains the familiar faces, at altitude and in thick white cloud, the dense mist coats me. I remind myself I am still in Kerala.
The next morning, as the sun rises, the mountains of the Western Ghats appear in a milky mist. Below, glimmers 60 acres of undulating Cardamom plantation, all belonging to the Windermere Estate. I leap out of bed at the faintest glimmer of dawn to photograph sunrise.
The finer details are the luxury at Windermere, where lavish furnishings aren’t the order of the day. As I throw open the large French windows, overhanging rolling hills, I reach straight for the blanket, thoughtfully placed to keep at bay the fresh morning air. There’s raucous birdsong and a faint smell of burning wood, as the mist majestically rises over the Ghats. A horizontal hill of green makes a cameo appearance, before the creepy mist pours erratically back over the mountains, changing direction at a whim and enveloping the aloof peaks.
Dining is a tree-house escape with an old-world charm. Above it, I while away the hours in the expansive wooden library littered in literature on nature, yoga and travel. My highlight is dashing through the showers from my massive, rustic and cosy ‘Planter’s Villa’ to The Hut, built native style under a tribal thatched roof; for freshly brewed cardamom, ginger and masala afternoon tea with freshly cooked Indian snacks, hot and steaming against the dewy mountain air. This redefines natural living. 
A stroll through the surrounding wooded wonderland is awe-inspiring. Alone, it makes for a daunting experience, through a densely-shaded canopy. The ancient tree roots swallow the steep stone steps leading into the 60-acre forest.
One final deep breath lets me fill my lungs with pure air, in a blissful state of nirvana; isolated, remote and with a newfound respect for nature. Then it’s off on a 5-hour drive to Thekkady in anticipation of the largest tiger reserve in South India.

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Thekkady
Upon stepping foot in Spice Village, I’m an Indian goddess; blessed with a garland of fresh flowers and cleansed with fresh and fragrant herbal tea. The healing scent of eucalyptus is strong and soothing, making a walk through the grounds its own Ayurvedic treatment. My expansive cottage blends nature and comfort harmoniously. I learn that the entire eco-resort is built on the legacy of an Anglo-Indian man’s passion for nature. That strikes a chord. Every fruit imaginable grows on the surrounding trees, each described with zeal by the in-house Naturalist. Freshly-grown spices are used in fifty percent of the guest’s meals. I’m impressed dining in the historic Tiffin Room, where the rosewood tables are restored antiques, as are the poster bed, wardrobe and chest in the villas; from the era of the Raj and used by Princes.
Locally, talk of Kalarippayatu gets me intrigued. The choreographed martial art uses blades and swords. As the lights dim in the stadium, four men appear in the pit below through the dust unsettled off the mud floor, focussed to an almost meditative state. The performance is heart-stopping.
Breakfast is a mouth-watering feast of Indian delicacies; Dosas (crepes), Uttapam (pancakes) and Idli (steamed savoury cakes), with exotic fruit platters of figs, dates, Sitafal (Custard Apple) and Chico (Sapodilla), all washed down with freshly squeezed pomegranate and pink grapefruit juice.
A 4-hour trek through South India’s most popular wildlife sanctuary, the Periyar Reserve, begins early. The 777 sq km setting is spectacular, with dense woods, rugged ravines and a lake created by the British in 1895. Where else can you spot bison, sambar, wild boar, elephants and tigers? Wear socks as the reserve basin has leeches.
My Thekkady high comes at the elephant sanctuary. As I trek on an elephant, I notice spiders the size of my hand in large spun cobwebs in the forest. I feel myself fall in love with the gentlest of giants as he playfully brushes me through the shoots of tall Spice trees.  >

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Kumarakom
I feel a pang of relief at the next destination. Lake Kumarakom is on firm flat ground, at sea level and hot. The tall imposing fortress gates open as if by secret exchange with the chauffeur; very James Bond-esque. The uber-grand entrance provides an indicative clue as to its exclusivity. On the banks of the beautiful backwaters, the resort’s renowned for boasting a 1 km sparkling green pool waterway and is no stranger to awards. It’s listed in Asia’s Top 25 resorts, has won ‘India’s Leading Resort’ for 3 successive years, is a member of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World and attracts celebrity clientele.
The scenes are artful masterpieces. A scratch and sniff retreat, it depicts a tale of faded roses and pencil etchings where simple beauty meets documented history.
I stay in a Heritage Villa with private pool and Jacuzzi, echoing the grandeur of yesteryear; the deep mahogany wood reminiscent of bygone eras. Light filters through soft chiffon draws which glimmer flirtatiously in the breeze. Amidst the village hustle and bustle, where cows, villagers and tuc-tucs battle for space, this is a Palace of tranquil. The entire bathroom’s outdoors; interesting concept at night, answering to nature’s call, when hungry mosquitoes swarm around my ears, lizards dance on the wall and insects crawl past my foot.
Seclusion is the seduction. The sun rises over the backwaters like a glowing ball of molten flames, as if borne of the infinity pool; streams of liquid light flood through the trees creating a dreamy picture postcard. Sunsets are the stuff of dreams as rainbow colours fill the dusk skies like an abstract painting.
The Chef willingly introduces himself and offers individual catering. I eat my way around the globe seduced by desserts of fresh saffron, ginger and chocolate.

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Kovalam
The Taj Vivanta at Kovalam is the final destination. Here, seclusion, privacy and the utmost discretion are key. It’s where the rich and famous come to holiday. Designed with a Balinese theme, stone statues emerge through fountains carved into the hilly beachside retreat. My Suite is fit for a Princess, overlooking the exquisite Arabian Sea and 58 villas hidden within the 10-acre grounds. Boating is beautiful on the ‘infinity lake’, now there’s a first!
Evenings are spent indulging in moonlit private dinners by the water’s edge, as inky waves crash ashore. I’m served fresh lobster, suffused in chilli, coconut and mango. 
The hotel’s Jiva Spa, is my second home. A sanctuary of tranquillity, it retains an Indian mysticism with a sprinkling of Himalayan accents. Within minutes of unwinding to meditational karmic sounds and with the scent of massage oils and incense, I drift off and re-awake having discovered my inner Indian soul.
Next morning, I wander onto the beach early and stumble across a large collective of fishermen, hauling in a boat full of catch. The bulk is sold to locals; the remainder divided between the fishermen. The amount is contested and a fight almost breaks out. The weary fishermen wrap their portions in a mesh of weaved coconut leaves and commence the long walk back to their village. The camaraderie is surreal. Ten or more men form a perfect line along the Keralan coast carrying a huge fishing net. To think that one net feeds twenty families and provides livelihoods is a sobering dose of reality.
Sunsets are a lovely blur of honey-coloured light pouring on the indigo ocean, trailing to my feet, my toes embedded in the flour-coloured sand, as I dreamily gaze out. The coconut-milk beach is private and protected. The epitome of barefoot luxury, I relish dressing down for dinner; shoes optional.
 

Kerala forces you to open your mind and heart and seeps into your soul like oxygen into the arteries. It leaves the everlasting stamp of awe. A piece of my heart remains in India. 

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Backwaters
Ranked above the Taj Mahal as the preferred destination in India, in the National Geographic Traveller magazine, Kerala’s backwaters are synonymous with the State. The placid and intricate lattice of waterways is a lifeline to villagers living on its fringes. Spindly waterways nourish bordering rice paddies and coconut groves. Cruise aboard a private Kettuvalam, or ‘Houseboat’ with a team of staff catering to your every whim. The backwaters are the real topaz jewel in South India’s crown. I’m transferred onto a smaller canoe boat into the pulse of a village. People wash their hair and clothes, catch fish, cook and play in the backwaters. I watch in amazement.