Lazy daze in Kerala

Head to the north of the state for an unhurried hol­i­day

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - TRAVEL & INDULGENCE - LES­LEY THOMAS

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

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