How do you cover God’s own Country in just 4 days? Peter had just the Plan. Peter Dalglish was our Terrific Travel Agent; who, despite his very Scottish name, is a hard-core Malayali who knows his Kerala. Here’s how we executed the Peter Plan.
From Kochi airport we drove straight to Munnar by National Highway 49. All along the entire highway I saw no villages or huts, only architect-designed villas with colourful gardens. Kerala had changed!
As we climbed the Western Ghats, we spotted lovely spice plantations on either side of the highway. We stopped for a guided-tour of one picturesque plantation near Valara waterfalls. Our guide not only knew the plants but was a good saleswoman as well: we ended up buying a load of spices and herbs.
At Munnar, Peter had fixed us at “The Fog”. This hotel is atop a hill with a magnificent view. It is a new property with young and enthusiastic staff. Good value for money!
In the evening we visited a native theatre to watch 2 traditional Kerala performances. One was Kathakali (meaning: story-dance). In this art form the artistes act out scenes from Hindu mythology. Facial expressions are important to display the Navarasas (9 emotions). The lady artiste (rare, because usually in Kathakali, female roles are played by men!) did a great demonstration of this.
The other performance was Kalaripayattu, the martial art. The emphasis is on speed and flexibility and it is said that Chinese Kung-fu evolved from this. The combatants thrilled the audience with their derring-do.
The Tea Museum has not only information about tea-making but about the history of Munnar as well. Modern Munnar was established by British planters around 1870 and operated with manpower from Tamilnadu. Long before the cities, rural Munnar was already a cosmopolitan place!
- Munnar derives its name from Moonu-Aaru or the 3 rivers that meet here: Mudirapuzha, Nallathanni & Kundaly.
- Two prominent natives of Munnar: Shiny Wilson the Olympian athlete; and Walter Dawaram, the dare-devil police chief who inspired many screen cops!
Near Munnar, is the Mattupatti Dam and a Wildlife Park. The Reservoir has an interesting natural echo-point.Unfortunately the nearby Wildlife Park was closed (because the star animal – Nilgiri Tahr—needed quiet seclusion for delivering babies!)
We drove to the boat jetty at Alleppey (Alapuzha). We registered at the Boat Company office, which is built in pleasing indo-colonial style.
Then we were taken by ferry to Quay23 where our luxurious house boat was berthed. House boats come in various styles and sizes; they often cost upwards of Rs. 1 crore. Ours was a premium boat with 4 AC bedrooms with attached baths and well-stocked kitchen. There was a majestic upper deck for viewing and a lower deck which also served as the dining room with a view. With a 6 cylinder 88hp engine, it was a gentle giant waiting to be revved up.
As we transferred from the taxi-boat, we were greeted by the friendly crew. Soon a tasty meal (with delicious Kerala Fish-fry) was served on the lower deck. We cruised lazily down the River Pamba. In a couple of hours we berthed at Champakulam. This is home to St.Mary’s Syro-Malabar Syrian Catholic Church, built in AD 427. It underwent many renovations over the centuries to reach the present shape. The ceiling has beautiful paintings depicting events from the Old & New Testaments. I noticed some very interesting Hindu influences at the church: (a) there is a Dwaja Stambha at the entrance and (b) they light a Kuthu-vilakku at the sanctum (both could pass off for Hindu symbols but for the cross appended on top).
We cruised throughout the evening, absorbing the lovely scenery on either side of the Pamba. We were on a highway of sorts with heavy traffic of ferries, school-buses, taxis, fishing boats and of course, the house-boats. By one estimate there are over 500 houseboats in the Alleppey-Kumarakom waterways!
At night we berthed at a private dock owned by the company. The dinner was great and we slept soundly in the silence of the river. At dawn we were woken up by the sweet calls of the birds. We went on another riverine canal and returned ashore.
Back at Kochi, we visited the Dutch Palace (a misnomer really, because it was built by the Portuguese and gifted to the Kochi Maharaja; the Dutch merely renovated it). The Palace has some lovely Kerala Mural paintings depicting scenes from Indian mythology.
Nearby is the Jewish Synagogue. This is the only synagogue which conducts services in all Kerala (there are about 6 others which are dormant). Unlike other Synagogues, one removes shoes before entering. This has nothing to do with religion: the flooring is made of beautiful and unique Chinese Canton tiles, and these national treasures ought not to be damaged! The Jews of Kerala (like the Parsis) are a dying society. Once a vibrant community of spice traders more than 4000 strong, they now number only 31. Of these, only 7 White Jews (European descent) are left. The youngest, Hallegua, is the lady manager of the synagogue — 40+ and unmarried —and the oldest is Sarah Cohen who is 90+. Many have migrated to Israel and have rented their houses in the Jewish quarter to (ironically) Kashmiri Muslims who sell souvenirs. Why didn’t Sarah Cohen migrate too? She retorts in fluent Malayalam: “Why should I leave, when I have my own house here?” Soon there may be nobody to answer that question.
The beautiful Church of St.Francis in Fort Kochi was built in 1503. Said to be the oldest European church in India, it also has another claim to fame: Vasco da Gama was laid to rest here in his last journey. Sadly, he did not rest for long, as his bones were excavated and re-interred in Lisbon!
The climax of our tour was a sunset cruise on Kochi coast.
Indeed, it was stupid even to attempt covering God’s own country in 4 days, but what a pleasant stupidity it was! Thanks for the pleasure, Peter.