Lazy daze in Kerala
Head to the north of the state for an unhurried holiday
Think of the state of Kerala, on India’s southwest coast, and it’s likely you’ll picture palm-fringed beaches, traditional boats heading through its network of narrow canals, ayurvedic head massages and fairly punchy curries. Kerala has gained a reputation as the quieter, more cultural, more discerning alternative to Goa, its somewhat hedonistic neighbour. After a few too many full-moon parties on Goa’s beaches in the 1990s, overseas backpackers moved on to Kerala and in the past 20 years, the beaches and backwater canals have become crowded in the holiday hot-spots around Kochi, the capital, and the southernmost tip of the state.
But domestic tourists take their breaks in the north of Kerala and the coastal area around Kasaragod. It’s just as beautiful as the south, you can still take a kettuvallam (houseboat) and the ayurvedic treatments are the real, undiluted deal. And it is oh so calm. The peaceful coastal town of Bekal is where you might find the fairly well-todo of Mumbai popping down for a few days of rejuvenation and fine food. There is a sprinkling of high-end hotels and resorts opening to cater for this crowd, such as Lalit Resort & Spa at Bekal, an exceptionally pretty hotel set in vast coconut groves, fringed by the Nombili River on three sides, its white-sand beach lapped by the Arabian Sea.
It’s more than 35C and too hot to venture out in the day, so the schedule slips into something extremely languorous. Rather than rise early to go exploring before it gets too hot, my daughters and I find it more pleasing to wake up at 11am-ish and eat a late breakfast, followed by a very late lunch, and take our trips in the late afternoon. The staff are quick to accommodate our fairly odd routine and we get used to north Keralan-style eating. For breakfast at 11.30am (by which time we’re ravenous), waiters bring us dosa (a bit like a pancake) and vada (a deep-fried doughnut made out of lentils) served with sambal and chutney, stuffed paratha (sweet-tasting fried flatbread) filled with vegetables and spices, and fresh, sweet fruit juices.
There are a couple of days when this feels too slovenly and I get up at 6.30am for a yoga session. This takes place on the fabulously surreal location of the resort’s helipad as it’s the most convenient flat, outdoor surface. The property has a reputation for excellent yoga instruction (I can concur) and it seems crazy not to take advantage. Yet I am caught snoring during shavasana (corpse pose) and take this as a sign that mornings are meant for sleeping after all.
There are a few must-sees in the region, but not so many that we feel under pressure. It’s the fort at Bekal that has made this region of myths and legends most famous. The 350-year-old hilltop site, once the setting for an ancient mosque, overlooks a pristine beach and looks like a giant keyhole. It’s the best-preserved fort in these parts and, with the sea sometimes crashing against it, has a natural drama. No surprise, then, that it has become a favourite Bollywood location. It’s the perfect spot from which to watch the sunset and not too much of a climb above the sea. Local families come here for a walk, to take in the ocean views and eat ice-creams.
Bekal has a thriving tourism industry, but locals are not yet used to overseas visitors. My daughters and I feel welcome wherever we go, so it’s a while before it dawns that we are becoming something of an attraction ourselves. The first time someone sidles up to us brandishing their iPhone, we think the smart-looking Indian family wants us to take a picture of them together. In fact they want a picture of us standing next to them. The cry of “Selfie! Selfie, Miss!” becomes something we get used to. So there are a few people out there who have our confused smiles as part of their holiday snaps and socialmedia stories.
You can’t visit India, and certainly not Kerala, without visiting a Hindu temple. The “floating” Ananthapura Lake Temple is probably the best known, and certainly the quirkiest, in the area. Its origins are in the 9th century and its inner sanctum is surrounded by a large pond and accessible only by a little bridge. We enter, say prayers, and are given a blessing from the monk, although we don’t understand what he says. As we cross the water, we are mindful of the rarely sighted crocodile that has apparently been living in the pond for 40 years.
Religion is a huge part of the culture in Kerala, which is widely known as “God’s own country”. A highlight of our trip is a rare ceremony in a nearby village. Theyyam is a ritualistic art form with origins in Kerala dating back more than 1000 years. It is part ceremony, part carnival, and goes on for a couple of days. The most public and spectacular aspect is the performance of the Theyyam dancer, a chosen one from a lower caste who wears an elaborate, fiery-coloured costume and a giant headdress. He moves through the crowds and chants as if in a trance, his face covered with a thick orange paste and jet black paint around his eyes. For believers he doesn’t just represent God during the performance, he is God. There is
Children visiting Bekal Fort, Kerala, top left; massage pavilion at Lalit Resort & Spa, top centre; Theyyam is a famous ritual in northern Kerala, top right; Ananthapuram Lake Temple above; Lalit Resort & Spa, left