Have you ever been to Kerala, India? Come with us
To a crescendo of cymbals and beating drums, the demon’s facial muscles quiver. His face is painted bright green. Long silver fingernails protrude from his free hand; in the other he brandishes a sword. As far as classic Indian dance drama goes, it doesn’t get any brighter than Kathakali, which sees actors splash on multi-coloured makeup and dress in elaborate costumes. They wear long, flowing dresses that push out like lampshades and don rainbow-coloured hats shaped like saucers.
I’ve come to Kerala to experience traditions that are hundreds — and in some cases thousands — of years old. I’m intrigued to see how these traditions fit into the contemporary culture of this slender, beautiful state reclining along the western edge of the Arabian Sea.
The demon slowly curls and rotates his hands while intermittently raising and lowering certain fingers. The princess understands this communication and she responds by moving her eyes from side to side and waggling her cheekbones.
Kathakali originated here in the 17th century and its popularity seems undiminished today. There is a host of venues in the coastal town of Kochi, Kerala’s commercial hub, and I’ve managed to score a front-row seat for this evening’s performance. The stage is small, just big enough for a drummer and a cymbal player as well as the two dancers who play the roles of demon and princess. The princess is trying to lure the demon into a trap by seducing him — and it seems to be working.
Then, the lights go out. This isn’t part of the performance: there has been a power cut and for a moment there’s confusion onstage. The drummer, a boy no older than 10, stops beating. The cymbal player clangs his cymbals and sings louder, a signal for the drummer to keep going. The dancers continue telling the story even though the audience can barely see them.
Kathakali stories are often about love and are conveyed using a series of facial expressions and hand movements (or mudras) of which there are 24. The demon slowly curls and rotates his hands while intermittently raising and lowering certain fingers. The princess understands this communication and she responds by moving her eyes from side to side and waggling her cheekbones. The actors remain mute throughout. Performances last an hour, but they were originally written to last the entire evening.
The lights are back on and the drums and cymbals are in full crash as the demon sees through the princess’s fake advances. It’s curtains for her and for the audience as the performance comes to an end.
I leave Kochi in Kerala, winding along the labyrinthine, interconnected backwaters amid a verdant flotilla of riverweeds that move to the motion of temple drums. Women rub fish on rocks to remove the scales, and men gather coconuts using calliper-like climbing aids to shimmy up tree trunks. Other men are in the water, clinging to the side of a long canoe as I approach. They take deep inhalations before dunking underwater like seals and resurfacing with huge slabs of sand, which they plonk into their canoe. They’re collecting sand to spread around the foundations of their houses; this will bolster their abodes against monsoonal floods.
Eventually I’m beyond the backwaters, snaking into the hills and driving past rubber plantations until I’m 65km southeast of Kerala’s Kochi in Idukki, India’s second largest district, nearly all of which is covered in rugged mountains and forests. I’ve come to spend some time in an isolated farmstay, to escape from the 1000-plus houseboats cruising up and down the backwaters.
Keralites have a strong affinity with their natural surroundings: the soil is rich and many families have several acres where they grow organic fruit and vegetables. Some families are turning this cultural tradition into a business by opening homestays, which serve guests the organic food they grow onsite and offer yoga and meditation programs.
Jose and Sinta Dewalokam are one such family. Their 10-acre farm, Dewalokam, has been in Jose’s family for three generations. Half of it used to be a rubber plantation, but Jose has spent the past 10 years single-handedly transforming it into a gigantic vegie patch and orchard. I have dreams of creating my own mini-farm one day, so I’ve come here to get a few pointers.
Jose and Sinta greet me with big smiles and a jasmine garland, then Sinta takes me on a tour of the farm. Mangoes, coconuts, peppercorns, beans, custard apples, papayas, mulberries … and we’ve only covered a section of ground that’s no larger than a tennis court. Sinta tells me that 10 varieties of banana grow here. She picks ginger and turmeric from the ground as we go. Lemongrass grows like a weed, as does ghost killer, an Ayurvedic plant that aids recovery from schizophrenia.
Keralites have a strong affinity with their natural surroundings: the soil is rich and many families have several acres where they grow organic fruit and vegetables.
Sinta is keen to show me her bees. Numerous hives line the edge of the property, which slopes away into a calm river, the other side of which is a nature reserve. Without any protective clothing, one of the workers pulls out a section of hive and hands me a piece of honeycomb. It tastes divine. I’m sad to hear that the recent erection of a mobile phone tower not far from here is lowering honey yields due, I’m told, to the radiation.
One of the reasons I chose to come to this farm is because guests with green fingers can help in the garden. And, if shovelling cow dung’s your thing, you’ll be inadvertently helping kitchen staff cook your dinner. Cow dung is mixed with water, then placed in an underground tank to ferment. Eventually it omits methane, which is channelled into the kitchen’s gas stoves. Nothing is wasted around here, not even the waste.
Everything about this place is natural: Jose doesn’t rely on noxious chemicals to keep his garden pest-free. He combines tobacco, cow urine and fermented dhal to create a pesticide. Coconut shell husks break down for mulch. Goat, cow and buffalo dung from their farm animals is spread on the garden to enrich the soil with nutrients. With all this dung around, you may expect the air to smell foul, but it has the sweet scent of ulang-ulang that grows seemingly everywhere.
After spending a couple of hours seeing all the food in its natural environment, I’m keen to taste it. Jose leads me into a palatial and light-filled dining room. Wait-staff lay huge banana leaves in front of us and proceed to dish out 10 mini vegetarian dishes, all bursting with the life and flavour of Jose’s garden. We eat the meal with a tea made with boiled water from a deep well in the garden, as well as cinnamon, cardamom and the leaf of a tree that’s used for blood purification. People don’t rely on pharmacies around here; their back gardens are their medicine cabinets.
Fire, air & water
Health is a big deal in Kerala. Ayurveda, literally meaning “the science of life”, is one of the world’s oldest medicinal systems, originating in Kerala over 4000 years ago. Heading towards the border of Tamil Nadu, I’ve ventured to the Ayurvedic village of Kairali to embark on a six-day detox beneath a mango and coconut tree canopy. Established in 1989, it’s the only Ayurvedic place in India that makes all its own massage oils, body scrubs and herbal decoctions.
As soon as I arrive, I’m whisked away for a consultation with the onsite medic, Dr Rajeev. He weighs me, takes my blood pressure and asks questions about my daily routine before determining the most efficacious treatment program for me. Then it’s straight onto the treatment table where I’m lathered in a litre of massage oil and lulled into relaxation by the mesmerising rotations of two masseurs’ fingers. I slip away into a dream-like realm, only coming back into the room as oil shoots up my nose. Nasyam, as this treatment is known, is working on stabilising my water (kapha) element, in particular on unblocking my sinuses.
As part of this treatment, I’m not allowed to wash my hair (or get it wet) or be exposed to air-conditioning. It’s 45 degrees outside and I’m sweating like mad. But, after all, this is a detox.
One of my masseurs, the Indian doppelganger of Freddie Mercury, helps me off the massage table. I sit up and the herbal decoction I’ve just snorted dribbles down my throat. What with all the massage oil, my Tarzan-like loincloth has slipped out of place. Freddie readjusts my cloth, skilfully avoiding any embarrassing brushes, and then leads me to a wooden cabinet that resembles a Medieval torture device. He gestures for me to sit inside. My head pokes out the top. Steam pours in and perspiration droplets rise on my skin; I can almost feel the toxins dribbling out.
Specific mantras are chanted to each of the Ayurvedic plants while they are prepared. There is a flame of the forest tree that treats prickly heat, and an Indian screw tree that aids diarrhoea.
Most of the resort’s visitors (around 85 per cent) are Westerners. Some people stay at Kairali for three weeks and follow intensive programs that combat stress, diabetes, arthritis and many other maladies. Abstinence from smoking and alcohol is strictly propagated as part of the detoxification process. The principle of Ayurvedic medicine is that humans are composed of fire, air and water. Whenever we’re ill, it’s a sign these elements are out of balance.
There are more than 100 medicinal and herbal plants growing in the village. These treat a range of ailments, from swellings to skin diseases, respiratory disorders and worm infestations; there are some plants that improve voice and memory. Specific mantras are chanted to each of the Ayurvedic plants while they are prepared. There’s a flame of the forest tree that treats prickly heat, and an Indian screw tree that aids diarrhoea.
More than 36 herbs combine to create the massage oil, the base of which is sesame oil, and a body scrub is made as well, using 10 ingredients including gooseberries, cedar root and flowers. The village has a factory site in Pollachi, about an hour’s drive, and it’s here that all the oils and scrubs are produced.
Among the treatments there’s elakizhi where you’re pounded (not too forcefully) with poultices filled with leaves and powder. Shirodhara is perhaps the world’s most relaxing massage: a steady stream of oil drips onto your forehead from an urn suspended above the treatment table. I manage to fall asleep during this one. I also fall in love with navarakizhi, which involves being rubbed with small rice-filled linen bags cooked in cow’s milk. The bags are continually heated in milk for the duration of the treatment and the sweeping strokes of the massage feel like heavenly tongues slurping me.
There are 27 villas onsite, all named after Indian zodiac signs, as well as two regal Maharaja suites. Before a brick was laid, a vastu (Indian feng shui) practitioner read the land and divided it into anatomical parts to determine where each building should be erected; the kitchen was built on the land’s stomach.
Vastu also determines the dimensions of each building. Any trees in the way were incorporated into the structures and clockwise-flowing waterways run past each building, trickling to calm guests’ minds. Many are shaped like pyramids to attract positive energy. The floors are made from iron-oxidised rock in order to keep this energy in the building. The result of such meticulous planning is a village with potent and palpable healing energy and most of the onsite restaurant’s food is gleaned from a 10-acre organic vegie patch just down the road; the food here leaves a memory in your mouth.
Before a brick was laid, a vastu (Indian feng shui) practitioner read the land and divided it into anatomical parts to determine where each building should be erected; the kitchen was built on the land’s stomach.
My time in Kairali might be coming to an end, but Dr Rajeev expresses the importance of maintaining the detox work outside of the resort. “It’s not possible to incorporate two massages a day into your routine back home,” he says, “but you can maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. Adherence to daily and seasonal regimes are crucial factors in the maintenance of your health.”
The healer has seen many repeat guests at Kairali. “People come here, thoroughly detox but then rush straight back into stressful and busy lifestyles,” he says. “Their health gets put into the background.” I’m not about to start snorting oil before breakfast each day, but being at Kairali has emphasised that I need to slow down the pace of my life back in Australia. If I don’t, there’s every chance Dr Rajeev will put me on the induced vomiting program next time.
While some of these Ayurvedic treatments sound ghastly, they have stood the test of time and have been preserved for good reason, just like many of the other cultural facets I’ve experienced during my trip around India’s southernmost state. They may have a combined age of over 5000 years, but the strands of this state’s cultural DNA continue to add colour, flavour and vitality to contemporary Kerala.
Escape routes in Kerala
- Getting to Kerala
Virgin Australia has return flights to Kochi departing from all major Australian cities. Fares start from around AU$1500.
- When to go to Kerala
November to March/April are the most comfortable months, temperature and humidity wise.
- Visas for Kerala
Australian citizens need to apply for a six-month tourist visa at their nearest Indian Consulate.
- More information on Kerala
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