Kerala’s silk-water wonders

Kerala’s silk-water wonders

Serene backwaters, Ayurveda at every turn, a palpable spice trading and regal heritage. Tropical Kerala is replete with India’s enlivening colour and intense intrigue, yet is graced with a soothing gentleness.

Text & photography: Melissa Rimac

Tranquillity is at its most poignant on Kerala’s backwaters — the vast network of rivers, lakes and canals fringing more than 900km of coastline.

A labyrinth of waterways encircles slumbering Alleppey, a town so delightfully antiquated it’s akin to stepping into a sepia postcard.

Surrounded by so much water, even the air seems liquid. I watch my thoughts and emotions rippling under the surface; intensifying, churning, refracting.

As the sky morphs from silver to gold, the waterbirds become so raucous they almost overwhelm conversation. A teak canoe slices satin water as a priest glides towards a tiny islet temple; every ripple is magnified and suspended in slow motion. Hypnotic temple drums tenderise us with rhythmic waves. Such serenity isn’t what I’ve come to expect from India, a land synonymous with clamour and engaging exuberance. Laid-back Kerala, however, is a place apart.

Unrolling along India’s southern tip, vividly green Kerala bursts with all the vivacity and fascination that renders India such a pulse-quickening experience, but tempers it with a breathe-deeper vibe and relaxing accessibility.

This tranquillity is at its most poignant on Kerala’s backwaters — the vast network of rivers, lakes and canals fringing more than 900km of coastline. As in centuries past, these watery highways throb with trade, transport and traditional life. Behind curtains of fanning palms, birds hitch a ride on buffalos, coir is woven from coconut husks, boats are hammered into shape sans nails, and canoes are laden with produce, bikes, big umbrellas and people in billowing lungis and saris. On nearby beaches, fishermen push out large, curly-bowed boats.

Soothing waters
Kerala once comprised independent kingdoms and, eager to experience the ensuing visual and cultural nuances, we’d flown into Trivandrum, a low–slung southern city studded with whimsical colonial architecture, palaces and temples.
As the most soulful backwaters are located away from the tourist hubs, we tuck ourselves into a marshy inlet near the city of Kollam. The backdrop of near wilderness outside our bungalow at Fragrant Nature Resort belies the short distance from colourful bustle.

The morning mist appears almost solid as our boatman plants his pole then pushes through velvety water. Fishermen cast nets and boats bearing building sand smudge the horizon. Reflections of migratory birds become exaggerated and three-dimensional, the fluttering of cormorant wings amplified.

As we move north and sharing road space with gargantuan deities en route to festivals, Kerala’s eclecticism unfolds. We visit an open-air temple built around a banyan tree and gape at the lavish murals at Krishnapuram Palace. Beaming with pride, people tell us Kerala’s progressiveness and tolerance stem from a history of openness to new ideas and people. Curiosity is seen as a key to bettering oneself and, today, Kerala is a peaceful, scholarly composite of mixed religions, with a thriving reverence for ancient trance-inspired arts such as Kathakali dancing.

Detouring towards the spice lands that fuelled Kerala’s fortunes, we curl up roads lined with stately mansions, pausing to eat off banana leaves and drink Ayurvedic herb-infused water. We stay at Kalaketty, a plantation manor fringed by gardens of cardamom, mangoes, cinnamon and pepper. Our dancehall-proportioned abode features original rosewood furniture and unruffled aristocratic poise.

Canals and kingfishers
The architectural pomp of Kottayam, a skyline graced with churches, mosques and temples dating back to the late 1500s, signals our return to the backwaters. This region forms the fertile setting for Arundhati Roy’s celebrated novel The God Of Small Things. We pass elephants en route to festivals and follow canals dotted with wooden canoes and piles of coir.

Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, a wildlife haven laced with rivulets and canals, wraps around Coconut Lagoon, a watery setting for traditional teak houses. Having arrived by boat across vast Lake Vembanad, we settle in to find egrets and baby cows sharing our lawn. As we uncoil at the yoga pavilion, birds streak the sky in dense arrowheads then drift onto the nudging paddy field.

The quintessential backwaters experience is a houseboat trip. Away from traffic, gliding along the stillwater on rice-barge-style boats, we’re witnessing a lifestyle undisturbed by the 21st century. Barefoot on foot-tickling choir matting or lounging on the daybed, we watch commerce conducted from canoes and schoolgirls sauntering home, starched red ribbons alight in the glare. Worshippers thread towards tiny churches and temples that stand sentry over luminescent paddy fields thick with egrets. Into the metallic afternoon step the silhouettes of schoolboys — white knee socks beaming like beacons; goats and ducks traverse the bridges linking islands.

Often, it’s just us and snake-necked cormorants riding on a floating frond. Surrounded by so much water, even the air seems liquid. I watch my thoughts and emotions rippling under the surface; intensifying, churning, refracting.

A labyrinth of waterways encircles slumbering Alleppey, a town so delightfully antiquated it’s akin to stepping into a sepia postcard. Near the lighthouse that once guided tall ships calling for rubber, tea and spices, rows of posturing colonial remnants are dissected by canals where electric blue kingfishers swoop into lotuses. While we chat with a man polishing his green 50s Fiat, rollicking trains shriek towards level crossings and, under towering mango trees, people settle onto ghats to chat.

Seeking waterside action, we stay in an erstwhile aristocratic mansion, sleeping in the one-time coconut storage area. A carpet of paddy fields envelops us and people resplendent in their shiniest, brightest clothes carry offerings to the neighbouring temple. From the waterside path, it’s possible to walk for hours.

Un-reconstituted heritage
At Fort Cochin, ship’s horns resonate along moody, fading facades then stir with calls-to-prayer and bells from 17th century cathedrals. Chai sellers proffer their fragrant brews in gleaming crockery while baby goats skip by. Sacks stuffed with chillies are pushed from wooden carts into crumbling Dutch-era storehouses. Strolling narrow streets, I’m in the spice–trading heyday without my imagination having to budge at all.

The cantilevered fishing nets introduced by Chinese traders more than 400 years ago line “Cochi’s” buzzing promenade, quivering as counterweights are levelled. At “Jewtown”, inside elaborate doorways bearing inscriptions harking back to the 1700s, lie piles of hessian bags stuffed with spices, herbs, shells, bark and rocks — used in both Ayurvedic and traditional Muslim medicine. The air is hazy with turmeric and aniseed aromas. We retreat from a convoy of clunking carts into merchant shops where wizened men weighed down by thick spectacles contemplate oversized ledgers.

The engaging, gritty action of a working harbour plays out right in front of our balcony at the Brunton Boatyard. We watch cars, icecream vans and bicycles being loaded into ferries. Dolphins frolic amid cargo ships, Arab-style fishing boats and canoes. Yoga lessons on the grassy courtyard prepare us for exploring.

Pushing past the canopy of splayed trees, sunshine bathes the former military parade ground, now abuzz with cricket games and courtship. We linger over Cochi’s 16th century synagogue, the Portuguese-built palace and tangled lanes crammed with perfume, antique and handicraft shops. At atmospheric eateries, we lean into big wicker chairs and watch a community that’s all the more vibrant thanks to a mercantile history that drew people from all over India.

Silence of the palace
To experience Ayurveda in the purest form possible, we check in for palatial seclusion at Kalari Kovilakom, a sanctuary of healing where undiluted Ayurveda is practised in a magnificent palace overlooked by serrated mauve hills.

An almost monastic state of mind sets in as we’re divested of shoes and handed white pyjamas and woven sandals. Tobacco, TV, shoes, alcohol, tea and coffee aren’t allowed and a sign imploring “don’t let the silence disturb you” reminds us how pleasant subdued speech can be.

My senses are soon sharpened, which is indeed an aim of Ayurveda. The palace’s lavish details — think wildly elaborate doorways, exquisite carvings and gilded frescoes – become doubly striking. It’s impossible not to feel composed and regal in our suite, a vast rhapsody of hand-painted tiles, original palace furniture, raw silk curtains and scattered marigolds.

Some guests come to Kalari to address particular concerns in a nurturing environment, others to deal with the detritus of overloaded lives. The retreat commences with an Ayurvedic consultation, where diets and treatments are individually tailored. I’m asked questions about my physical health, friendships, relationships, dreams and sex life.

Accumulated toxics can damage tissues and blight health, explains Dr Jouhar, adding that elimination — of bodily substances as well as pent-up emotions, frustrations and upsets — is a key element of the Ayurvedic lifestyle.

A gentle detox routine sets in: personalised yoga (focused on joint flexibility) and pranayama breathing sessions; twice daily treatments including fabulously thorough massages, along with herbal scrubs, steams and tonics; time for the cultivation of healing thoughts, actions and resolves. The bell announces delicious meals devoid of salt and oil.

Deeply healing, too, is the almost childlike pleasure of lolling around all day in pyjamas, forging new, like–minded friendships and making the most of Kalari’s contemplative pleasures, such as the extensive library, sketching pavilion and abundance of daybeds placed near pleasure pools alive with goldfish, cooing pigeons and squirrels.

I emerge feeling purified, recharged and ecstatically reborn. But, mostly, I’m profoundly aware of the extent to which my thoughts, food, movements and environment imprint on my health. Much like the transforming, multi-faceted reflections in Kerala’s backwaters.

According to Ayurveda, mind, body and soul all contribute to health, and a person’s constitution, life orientation and feelings are critical to healing. The focus is on long–term results and lifestyle shifts; with the patient/practitioner relationship characterised by nurturing and warmth. The emphasis is not just on curing but on staying healthy, relieving stress and boosting vitality and resilience. Ayurveda advocates awareness of which substances, qualities and actions promote health.

Ayurveda has been helpful in healing respiratory, skin, neurological, immune, fatigue, asthma and kidney problems. Rejuvenation, detoxification, weight and stress management are also specialties.

Escape routes

Winging it  
Wendy Wu Tours tailors specific Kerala itineraries and also includes Kerala’s highlights in extensive Southern India Tours:, Ph 1300 727 998

Room with a mood

  • Ayurvedic–focused, eco-friendly CGH Earth properties feature complimentary yoga, resident naturalists, health-conscious food, cultural activities and traditional architecture. The resorts support orphanages and schools, which guests can visit:
  • Surrounded by marshland, traditional villages and temples, Fragrant Nature Resort can arrange visits to festivals not normally accessible to tourists:
  • Homestays offer an atmospheric, intimate peek into an enduring, traditional way of life:,
  • Charm-laden merchants mansion:
  • Colonial splendour in Trivandrum: Hotel Mascot
  • Highland seclusion:
  • Beachside, traditional houses:

Don’t miss:

  • Kerala’s colourful festivals
  • A houseboat trip:
  • Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary: surrounded by tribal villages, home to tigers and wild elephants
  • Ferry and canoe trips around Alleppey

Further inspirations

  • Lonely Planet’s South India guide gives a thorough rundown on history, culture and hidden gems
  • For brochures and festival dates: India Tourism: T: 02 9221 9555,


The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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