India bombards your senses from the moment you emerge from the airport. The intense heat, the humidity, the crowds. You’re mugged by sounds, colours, smells. The hustlers are waiting, the beggars, the sick and disfigured. You struggle to take in the poverty, the wealth, the architecture, the dirt, the fumes, the green palms, the blue skies, the cattle, the dust and the incredible atmosphere. If it’s your first time here, you’ll be punch-drunk within moments.
I travelled to the south-western state of Kerala. Its tourist literature tags it ‘God’s Own Country’. Arriving from Sri Lanka, my plane touched asphalt in Trivandrum, Kerala’s capital, which these days prefers to be known by its less user-friendly former name of Thiruvananthappuram, reclaiming its Malayalam heritage. The word translates as ‘The Place of the Sacred Serpent on which the Lord Vishnu Sits’. And what a place! In many ways it’s a typical Indian city, bustling and overcrowded. Atmospherically it’s a suffocating, tropical Dostoyevskian Petersburg, blended with a soupçon of the seedier side of peak-season, globally-warmed Bournemouth steeped in coconut oil and ayurvedic essences and with a population multiplied many-fold.
Like most, I opted to escape the city and acclimatise on the coast. The taxi-ride was a fitting introduction to travelling in India. We got there without killing anyone, and the old Ambassador didn’t disintegrate en route, but my head hurt from a combination of tension and repeated contact with the roof.
Kovalam lies some thirteen kilometres from the capital. It’s a dense, colourful strip of low-rise restaurants, bars, shops, hotels and guest-houses, set on the fringes of palm jungle along a pair of beautiful sandy beaches where teams of local fishermen chant as they haul in massive nets, and visitors sunbathe or cool-off among rolling breakers. It’s popular, though not overcrowded, attracting everyone from luxury-hotel holidaymakers to a lively mix of international hikers, beach bums, explorers, sun-worshippers, loafers, wasters, seekers – and more.
I’d booked nothing beyond the flight but found a cottage room without difficulty. At less than four pounds a night it was clean, private and secure, set in a coconut grove with the beach a two-minute walk away.
It’s a friendly place. Meeting people – mainly Europeans – is easy. By the end of my second day I’d become acquainted with numerous itinerant artists and musicians, an M&S manageress and her family, a distractingly-attractive blonde cruise-ship beautician studying ayurveda, a couple of undercover documentary makers who’d been filming animal rights abuses in circuses and festivals, a recovering junkie and a kindly English academician and his wife who have more or less settled in Kerala for several months each year and have set up a charity for orphans in the region . . . Within days I could add to that: international students; several wealthy business-folk; a couple of travelling dj’s; a gorgeous troubled young French woman with scars on her wrists; a handsome young Colombian who taught his own brand of tai-chi chuan and new-age spirituality almost exclusively to beach-babes, and appeared to be harbouring a python in his bathers; and a whole host of Keralan beach-sellers.
The beach-sellers can take a little getting used to. They approach you at any time throughout the day offering anything from sunshades and loungers to fresh fruit salads. The latter are fresh and delicious, but once you’ve established yourself as a customer your vendor will claim you for her own. If you’re approached by another (and you will be) expect vociferous exchanges and accusations of disloyalty. And the sellers are not above waking you should you be (or pretend to be) snoozing. Depending upon your mood, it’s either an irritant or part of Kovalam’s charm.
Kovalam’s fishermen spend a couple of hours twice a day hauling in massive nets on coir ropes. The catches are surprisingly small. Most of what is caught is inedible and is cast needlessly onto the sand. Visitors try to return the living fish and marine life to the water, but it’s usually too late. Occasionally much larger creatures are dragged in: a young whale-shark the previous week had been left to die in the shallows. The sea in this region is being depleted of its natural resources. In the afternoons it’s not unusual to witness local men in a couple of boats throwing sticks of dynamite into the water within a hundred metres or so of the beach. The practice is illegal, as well as dangerous for swimmers, but more than one person I spoke to was of the opinion that the regional police opt to supplement their income rather than seek prosecution.
Kerala is a stronghold of ayurveda, and in Kovalam it seems almost everyone’s a practitioner. It’s a bazaar, and difficult to determine which clinics are the genuine article. I tried a massage and steam-bath on my second day, and was stretched, pummelled and walked on but – for reasons I couldn’t fathom – not steamed. In fact, massage done, my masseur simply disappeared, leaving me relaxing on the table. Eventually, still glistening with aromatic oils, I wandered out into a hot evening breeze and was instantly coated in a light dust, which I washed off in the ocean.
Eating in Kovalam’s restaurants is generally a rewarding experience. Freshly caught seafood, cooked in a tandoor or over a charcoal fire, with rice or nan and vegetables is typical. For the homesick there’s chicken and chips. A few of the restaurants boast back-areas with large-screen tv’s where you can watch poor-quality pirated movies as you eat.
Officially Kerala is a dry state but several places discreetly serve alcohol. It’s a slightly unnerving experience the first time you witness a police-check. They swagger in and coast the tables, billie-sticks slapping in palms, toting-up the beers and wines. But they’re not after tourists. Canny bar-owners keep a fund for just such a contingency. It tends to happen more towards the end of the month, when a policeman and his payday may be separated by an otherwise unbridgeable gulf.
Growing bored with beach life, I took a trip one afternoon to a nearby village further down the coast. Approaching along the cliff-top, a bold pink mosque is the first thing to catch your eye. It dominates one end of the sheltered cove around which the village clusters. Getting closer you see, on the further side of the cove, a gaudily-coloured church rising above the dwellings. Descend into the near-side of the village, and a much older, rather decrepit-looking mosque crouches in the shadows of the palms. Further along is a ramshackle old chapel. A pattern seems to be emerging.
The village is densely-populated. People of all ages crammed into tiny wood or concrete huts. They’re curious and friendly but there’s little to see apart from the scores of traditional fishing canoes and outriggers that set off day and night to cast nets into the already over-fished Lakshadweep Sea, and the women in fabulously-hued saris who gather to haggle good-naturedly over the catches. A local man offered to guide me up the steep dirt path through the village to the hill-top church. We spent an hour looking around, talking. Somewhere nearby there is an ancient Hindu shrine which I was eager to see but when asked my guide professed some confusion as to its whereabouts. In the church courtyard, gazing out over the village, harbour and beach to the twin mosques on the further side of the bay, I asked if we could visit the main mosque. He replied courteously that he would rather not. I asked if there was friction between the communities, Muslim and Christian/Hindu. He smiled and assured me there was not.
‘But they live separately?’
He declined to comment. I didn’t know it at the time but, as a tourist, I’d been permitted to cross an invisible boundary between the two. A villager trying to do the same would’ve likely received a severe beating from the police. Back in Kovalam I learned that it’s not uncommon for members of the two communities to sneak out under cover of darkness and defecate on each other’s doorsteps.
A lazy week or so had passed and I joined a travelling nurse called Natalie from Vancouver for a trip upstate. To the uninitiated, Trivandrum’s public bus depot is unmoderated chaos. The state buses indicate their destinations in Malayalam (despite Western expectations that everything should be in English); the place overflows with humans in – or awaiting – motion, and the buses, pumping clouds of pollutants into the atmosphere, appear to arrive and depart from almost any point within the depot’s crumbling perimeter. But public transport is cheap: a five-hour bus-journey into the Cardamom Hills cost less than a pound sterling.
Indian roads and drivers are an intriguing combination. The sine qua non of road-users seems to be ‘Drive at maximum speed and always overtake, particularly if you’re on a mountain hairpin with a sheer drop beneath you and traffic is approaching from the opposite direction’. Half way to Kumily I almost found religion. There’s no rational explanation for your survival; someone up there must be watching out for you.
Kumily is a busy spice-rich town set in the hills on the border with the neighbouring state, Tamil Nadu. Spices are everywhere and the air is heady with their aromas. In the back lanes children call out and wave to you across fields, or run up to greet you in their best English. Close by is the Periyar wildlife sanctuary in which we took a guided jungle trek. As the sun burned through the early morning mist we skirted the shores of Periyar Lake, crossing open grassland to the fringes of the jungle, then explored deep beneath the canopy. We passed among wild boar, monkeys, sambar deer and flying squirrels and came upon a family of forest elephants grazing on the edge of the jungle: two adults and three youngsters. Our guide had us keep our distance. He explained that the elephants can be aggressive. A family in the open like this, he told us, is typically watched over by a male hidden in the trees. Upon my return to England I read an account by an incautious traveller who, in this reserve, had been pursued through the forest for an hour by an enraged bull elephant.
There are tigers in Periyar, and leopards too, though they’re rarely seen. But snakes, deer, mongoose, gaur (Indian bison) and exotic birds are plentiful.
The next day we took a tour of a nearby tea factory and coffee and spice plantations, which included a spectacular viewpoint stop to gaze over the plains of Tamil Nadu. Back in Kumily, Natalie asked our auto-rickshaw driver, Dhavir, if there was anywhere she might get a beer. He took us to the only alcohol-selling bar in town, and later invited us to his home for the Hindu celebration of his niece’s birthday. It was an evening of flowers, garlands, fruit and food, of chanting, dancing, blessing and general good-feeling. A bright-eyed old man, Dhavir’s uncle, had been gazing at Natalie for much of the evening. Eventually, during a pause in the celebrations, he leaned across and said, smiling, in faltering English, ‘You don’t remember me, do you?’
Somewhat taken aback, she admitted she didn’t. ‘Have you been to Canada?’
It seemed unlikely, given the basic conditions in which the family lived. He chuckled at the notion, and said – or we thought he said, ‘We were servants together.’
Natalie was baffled. He repeated it a couple of times and we realised he hadn’t said ‘servants’ at all, but something far more interesting.
‘We were serpents together,’ he said. ‘In another life. We spent a lot of time in each other’s company.’
He told her how much it meant to him to see her again. He’d been waiting almost a lifetime but had always known it would happen. With good grace he accepted her inability to recall. Later, at the door, visibly moved, he told her as we were leaving, ‘We will meet again in the future. This time you too will remember me. We will spend our lives together again.’
From Kumily we moved to the old colonial hill-station of Munnar on the edge of the Western Ghat mountains. The road takes you over spectacular hill-passes. Massive basalt upthrusts push above the trees, and the mountains shimmer in the distance. Below is a patchwork of rice paddies, forest and peanut and tapioca groves. In Munnar itself, evidence of colonialism is seen in the veranda’d bungalows perched above the town, with their neat hedges and flower-gardens, and the High Range Club-house and golf course. All very British – or Scottish, to be precise. Here, close upon the tree-line, every slope is a deep green quilt, sprinkled from first light with female tea-pickers. The work is gruelling – long hours on harsh slopes in the belting sun for a subsistence wage. But only women are capable of doing it, so a plantation foreman informed me sincerely as he rested in the shade of a nearby hut. By his account, they select the choicest leaves with an intuition that men simply can’t emulate.
The nights are cool at this altitude but it’s a wonderful place for hiking and the views are unforgettable. We went out of town one evening to a viewpoint on a nearby mountainside to watch the sun set. As the light abruptly faded the temperature dropped by several degrees. Quite suddenly we were in total darkness. We had wandered away from the main viewing area where dozens had gathered, and now, shivering in shorts and tee-shirts, we realised we were in trouble. Neither of us had thought to bring a flashlight and there was no phone signal out here. There was no established path and in the dark we dared not move for fear of tumbling off the mountainside. Everyone else had gone back to town and it was now bitterly cold. A miserable, fearful hour passed and we were growing increasingly desperate. Finally, we spotted the beam of a flashlight making its way up the slope towards us. A voice called out. Our auto-rickshaw driver, realising back in town that we were the only ones not to have returned, had driven back out to find us.
City-folk and the natural world – not always the best combination.
Three nights later we headed out of the Western Ghats, down to the coastal town of Cochin-Ermakulam. In Munnar private bus companies take over from the drab old state-run buses we had travelled up in. Their condition is hardly better but they are vividly painted and decorated with Christian bric-a-brac, and most have names. We rolled out of Munnar in a bus called Jesus. We descended via steep switchbacks through the tea carpets, winding on down as far as the banana-line where, crossing a deep gorge, we collided with a bus coming uphill. Its name was Salvation. No real damage, happily. Just a couple of new dents and some broken glass and crumpled chrome. Vehicle insurance is an unknown. The drivers exchanged an observation or two, shrugged and drove on.
Cochin, occupied as a trading centre variously by the Portuguese, Dutch and British over several centuries, bears fascinating vestiges of their presence. The old part, Fort Kochi, is reached by ferry from modern, bustling Ernakulam. The humidity here is oppressively high, though a good month or two remained until the beginning of the monsoon. A couple of hours wandering around the old town can be an exhausting experience, not helped by the legions of people trying to sell you stuff, even if it’s only advice.
A sense of old world charm pervades the narrow streets south of Vasco Da Gama square. European residences, mansions, bungalows, a Dutch cemetery, Franciscan church, Portuguese basilica, Dutch palace, Jain temple . . . Crowning it all is a village green where the locals play cricket – it’s almost forever England. Along the waterfront big cantilevered Chinese fishing nets dip incessantly in and out of the water, and for a few rupees you can select a sample of the catch and have it grilled in front of you. With a couple of Italian women we’d met, we ate fish and watched the sun set and a pair of dolphins sporting lazily in the channel around the incoming boats.
A few minutes’ walk further south in Fort Kochi is Mattancherry and the area known as Jew Town, which has the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth. The Jews have played an important role in Kerala since before the Christian era. Dispossessed and persecuted further north, they fled to Cochin in the sixteenth century and were given protection and land by the local Hindu Raja to build their own settlement and synagogue alongside his palace and temple. The Portuguese, who till then had made good use of Jewish astronomers, traders, interpreters and travellers, now turned on them and the Jews of Cochin were subjected to a further century and a half of persecution during which much of Jew Town was destroyed. They later prospered under Dutch occupation, and in the early eighteenth century continued to live peacefully under the British.
Most of Jew Town these days has been taken over by spice sellers and sharp Kashmiri traders dealing in antiques, jewellery, curios and bric-a-brac. The synagogue remains, with its unique hand-painted Cantonese willow-pattern floor tiles depicting love-affairs between mandarins and commoners; nineteenth century Belgian oil-burning chandeliers; its old clock tower; Hebrew inscriptions on stone slabs; ancient copper-plate scripts and an Ark containing scrolls of the Torah. The great majority of Jews remaining in Cochin in the twentieth century emigrated to take advantage of the opportunities presented with the establishment of Israel. Today only about twenty remain, spread through seven families, and they’re unlikely to survive beyond another generation.
No trip to Kerala would be complete, as they say, without a trip along the famous backwaters. We clambered into a dugout, in company with a family from Delhi, and passed several hours drifting along the peaceful waterways through lush green jungle and paddy fields. Here children splash in the waters, exotic birds perch and swoop, and you pass, and perhaps visit, villages where life has changed little in centuries. It is in one of these villages that Arundhati Roy’s award-winning novel The God of Small Things is set.
The following day Nurse Nat and I parted. She was travelling north to Mumbai and beyond, and for me it was time to head back to Kovalam. Almost a month had passed and I had a few days left before my flight home.
Kovalam was quieter as the season dwindled. A few familiar faces remained and a handful of new ones had arrived. There was a subtle change in the weather too, an indication of the monsoon season drawing nearer. The humidity was generally higher than when I’d left, though not as exhausting as in Cochin. Out over the water on a couple of evenings dark clouds gathered, low thunder growled and lightning flickered. There was even rainfall over the village.
I took a trip to a remote village to witness the Thaipusam, a temple festival celebrated in honour of the Hindu god of war, Murugana. Thousands of locals had gathered from nearby villages. They came on foot, in cars, trucks and by water in dugouts. Lanes were festooned for kilometres with bright bunting, fashioned mainly from flowers and leaves. Fabulously bedecked elephants, accompanied by their equally elegant mahouts and ritual dancers in ornate costumes and make-up, made their way from the village temple to the riverside a couple of kilometres away. Here a lengthy, seemingly chaotic ceremony of singing, dancing and music took place throughout the afternoon. Local children in gorgeous outfits carried flowers, candles, oils and spices, and sang prayers and praises. The day built to a climax with the arrival of the devotees, the holy men. Clad in saffron loincloths, these men and boys – some couldn’t have been older than twelve – had purified their souls and bodies with forty-eight days and nights of near-starvation, subsisting on a once daily meagre bowl of rice plus water. In states of ecstatic trance they were blessed at the riverside, daubed with sacred ash and fragrant oils and bedecked with garlands of bright flowers. One by one they were led up to the path where, accompanied by music and the chanting of children in traditional makeup, their cheeks were pierced and run-through with thick six-foot steel skewers. They danced and spun incessantly in the blistering heat, or stood wild-eyed and dazed, waiting as more and more were led up for piercing.
Others lay prone on trestle-tables and their backs and thighs were pierced with meat-hooks. Remarkably, there was no blood and no indication of pain. When all were done these latter were suspended by their hooked flesh from logs fixed to protrude horizontally over the fronts of trucks. They were given little hand-drums to beat, and the ceremony began in earnest.
The trucks, devotees, elephants and entire procession began to move back along the uneven dirt track to the village heart. With the villagers walking alongside and the inexhaustible dancers and musicians accompanying, the noise was incredible. Some of these performers had been dancing since near-midday. It was now approaching sunset but they showed no signs of tiring. The journey back took perhaps an hour and a half, and the throng continued to multiply.
As evening closed in there were more festivities. In the temple precincts traditional Keralan food was served: spicy traditional vegetarian dishes on banana leaves, accompanied by fresh fruit and coconut milk. Then more music and dancing and finally fireworks and a fire-walking display.
Here are links to images and youtube videos (not my own) of similar Thaipusam festivals in the area:
My last days in Kovolam involved beach, bars and general loafing. It’s a wonderful place, but it has a shadow side. After you’ve been here a while you begin to notice – or perhaps someone points out – the number of middle-aged European males holidaying in the company of Indian boys of indeterminate age. You learn there’s a well-organised channel operating from all over Europe via Hamburg, Rotterdam and elsewhere: a network of ‘Special Interest’ breaks in developing countries, all-inclusive.
You raise the matter in a bar one evening. Regular visitors are aware, though some prefer not to notice. But then names are mentioned: a highly successful British businessman you chatted with at dinner the previous night. Pleasant chap. Another name, well-known in the British media, who apparently spends many weeks in this part of the world. And another Englishman, with a palatial holiday home further north, who has connections to royalty. Suddenly the kindly academician and his wife, who you have chatted with on the beach and in cafes, are spoken of in a new light. Their charity for Indian orphans is referred to in altogether different terms. Someone shows you a photo of the smiling academician with a child on his knee.
The difficulty is in determining the truth. You have the evidence of your own eyes, yes, and that’s undeniable. There is a thriving business here and children are being horribly exploited. But those are anonymous men. Men from Anywhere. But the names . . . the people you’ve passed time with . . . Is this to be be relied on?
The documentary-makers tell you they’ve been accumulating evidence and are planning to expose it when they get back to England. Someone else says they haven’t a hope. It’s all protected, at very high levels. You’re now in Conspiracy-Theory World and it’s unsettling. With proof of nothing you don’t know what or who to believe. It could be fact, or a feeding frenzy. Old scores being settled, sheer caprice, or the ‘gospel’ truth. You’re acutely aware that even educated people, those who might consider themselves discerning, may, at the scent of scandal, the whiff of fresh blood, relinquish all objectivity and revert to the most primitive instincts. You’ve witnessed it elsewhere. The allure of the pack can be a formidable force; almost anyone can become fair game. On the other hand, there’s is absolutely no doubt that vulnerable children are at risk here. Whatever the facts may be, here in God’s Own Country it seems the deity is absent or indifferent. Or just a figment.
It’s my last day in Kerala and I am wandering through Kovolam’s maze of back lanes. It’s early, not yet too hot. Birds chatter in the trees. Men climb for coconuts, barefoot and unsecured. Few shops are open. I can hear the waves breaking on the sand. In a dusty hotel courtyard excited waiters are attacking a stray cobra with brooms, egged on by half a dozen other staff. The snake tries to retreat but is beaten to death. Hawah beach is deserted bar a few westerners meditating or practising yoga on the sand. Mount the steep roadway, then a cart-track up the cliff. Leaving the village, a goat-trail twists through sparse brush to a knoll where a venerable old banyan tree overlooks the bay. Its trunk is vast, a labyrinth of twisted roots and huge shoots sheltering dark dry recesses, a couple of them large enough to stand in. Joss, candles and Hindu/Christian images have been placed around its base, and beneath its mass of branches the earth is littered with partially eaten fruit.
I look up, as I’ve been told to do, and see the flying foxes. There could be a couple of score, all suspended by clawed feet, shrouded by their wings. One or two open a beady eye and regard me curiously. I clap my hands. Twice. The air is filled with a cacophony of rushing and twittering and flapping wings. The foxes circle overhead, scolding me furiously. They’ve only recently returned from a night’s foraging in the jungle. I watch for a few moments in wonder. You can see them in the evening sometimes, linking with other colonies into a dusky shadow that heads across the bay, the beating of their wings a curious sound mingling with the waves. Now as I leave they begin to return to their roost.
It’s my last abiding image of Kerala. I’ve been here almost six weeks. I’m nut brown and skinny, sitting in an airbus, heading back into the tail-end of a troubled English winter.