Bordered by mountain and sea, India's southwestern state possesses a tranquility all its own.
Serene, spiritual, euphoric. Boundlessly beautiful and exotic. Kerala has a way of making you too tongue-tied to describe its essence because it's all of these - and more. In the vast Indian subcontinent, where controlled chaos and swirling currents of humanity can be mind-numbing, Kerala stands apart with an intrinsic tranquility and beauty all its own.
Kerala is a land of magnificent spice gardens, orderly British colonial tea estates, colorful street bazaars and Old World architecture. There are also tigers, elephants and monkeys, ornate palaces, forts, temples, churches and shrines. Trendy Ayurveda resorts and a fusion of international cuisines bear the distinctive Keralan stamp, as do golden beaches, perfectly swaying palms, lush hills hidden in mist and an immense inland sea dotted with villages that time somehow forgot. And in this Land of Coconuts - the literal translation of Kerala - groves stretch endlessly toward the horizon.
While much of India conjures images of dry, dusty landscapes, Kerala is positively verdant. The slim state, bordered by the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghat Mountains, is outlandishly fertile from moisture-laden monsoon rains and has been a hub of the foreign spice trade for at least 3,000 years. With rugged mountains protecting it from inland invaders, Kerala turned to its long coastline and developed maritime commerce with the outside world. Arab, Chinese, Roman and Jewish traders all called upon what became known as the Malabar Coast, introducing its exotic spices to an appreciative world.
With Portuguese trader Vasco da Gamma's arrival in 1489, a flotilla of European merchants began calling upon Kerala, exporting ivory, spices, peacock feathers and teak. Dutch, Spanish and especially British companies later had a heavy hand in export trade until India gained independence in 1947. But vestiges of this crossroads coalition still intermingle with the predominant Hindu culture, making Kerala an exotic amalgam of living history.
In its cities, the colonial footprint is most obvious in Kochi (formerly Cochin), Kerala's main trading port for thousands of years. Set on a peninsula where the massive Vembanad Lake joins the Arabian Sea, the city's winding streets are avenues into the past. At its heart is Fort Cochin, built in 1766 and reflecting the successive waves of European, Chinese and Indian influence. The narrow streets are enchanting, lined with 500-year-old Portuguese houses and Mattencherry Palace, the Jewtown area's Pardesi Synagogue and Dutch architecture dating back to the 1600s.
Kerala's heritage also extends into its mountains, where a handful of hill stations have matured into tourist getaways. Originally built by weary colonial British wanting to escape the oppressive lowland heat, many hill stations sprouted tea estates and spice groves that have been productive for more than 100 years. In tea circles, Munnar is the most famous, once the British summer capital in southern India. Under the ownership of the colonial Messrs. Finlay Muir & Co., Munnar's tea became part of the European standard for a good cup of tea. Today, not much has changed with harvesting as workers manually cut and haul the bulk tea that still finds its way across the globe.
Long before the British presence in Kerala, tales of a quasi-mythical spice road into the region's mountains prompted trader and explorer Da Gama to embark on his historic 12,000-mile voyage from Lisbon. Before his arrival, Italy dominated the coveted spice trade through a chain of Arabian and Egyptian intermediaries. But Da Gama's success shifted this profitable balance of power, and two of his four ships survived the journey home with cargo holds of cinnamon, nutmeg, turmeric and cardamom - reportedly worth 60 times the cost of his expedition.
That spice road, it is thought, is the winding road leading to Thekkady and the nearby spice haven of Kumily in the misty Cardamom Hills of the Western Ghats. Today, the are a lives up to its past with miles of carefully maintained spice groves and tea plantations. Tourism is flourishing in the village of Kumily as adoring visitors from around the world gleefully throng to the fragrant shops and stalls selling every manner of heady spice under the Indian sun. A nearby eco-resort, Spice Village, capitalizes on the theme and makes a good base from which to explore the region.
Even as it marches headlong into the 21st century, Kerala maintains a preservationist stance with its protected wildlife parks. At the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary near Kumily, the star attraction is the tigers, with a supporting cast of elephants and other protected animals within its rainforest boundaries. British hunters once killed for sport, and into the 1990s local tribes were still poaching to eke out a meager living, but the wildlife parks have changed the relationship between local people and the natural environment. Tribes have been relocated, educated and trained; and now are caretakers of the parks and the prized wildlife - a big draw for ecotourism.
Kerala owes its popular image as a sultry paradise of golden sands, swaying palms and lazy lagoons to an immense inland waterway known as the Backwaters. Flowing into the Arabian Sea, the staggering 1,200-mile maze of interconnected lagoons, lakes and canals is marked by rustic settlements, rice paddies and coconut plantations. For generations, boats have crossed these shallow waters to transport rice, coconuts and cashews to coastal ports. As big-scale agriculture elsewhere overshadowed production, the region reinvented itself as an idyllic tourist destination with the distinctive kettuvallamhouseboats as its trademark.
Kerala is the only Indian state to faithfully practice the principles of detoxifying Ayurveda, Sanskrit for knowledge of life. While not entirely in the same spiritual camp as Hinduism, Ayurveda rejuvenation is a medicinal offshoot that has become a quintessential Keralan experience for travelers in search of holistic health and has done more to popularize the region than any other factor in recent decades. A growing profusion of dedicated resorts, particularly in Kovalam, is taking advantage of the state's equitable climate, natural abundance of herbs and medicinal plants and the cool Juneto- November monsoon season - conditions that make for the best Ayurvedic treatments.
It's been said that India is as vast as it is crowded, as chaotic as it is serene, a place where the past and present collide. In Kerala, perhaps the more appropriate descriptions would include tranquility, natural beauty and a place preserving its history but carefully poised for the future. In the entirety of India, Kerala seems a world apart.
INFO TO GO
Cochin International Airport (COK) in central Kerala is the most convenient gateway for visitors. As in the rest of India, travel in Kerala can be challenging. Indian Railways (www.indianrailways.gov.in) may seem confusing but is a fairly dependable system, and multi-day passes can be purchased in advance. Self-drive rental cars are available in some areas, but it's advisable to hire a car and local driver. Visit www.keralatourism.org.