KERALA’S COASTAL KINGDOMS
Travelling along the coast of Kerala is an extremely enjoyable experience in itself – stunning views of the Arabian seacoast, beautiful beaches, breathtakingly beautiful backwaters, and lush groves, plantations and paddy fields that can be seen from the highways connecting the cities of Kerala. But, Kerala is not just about beautiful scenery – it also has many places of historical, architectural, artistic and cultural importance. The Princely States of Travancore and Kochi were known for their riches and patronage of the arts. We decided to make a trip from Thiruvananthapuram Airport to Kochi Airport exploring these many gems.
Thiruvananthapuram, well-known as Trivandrum, is a city of remarkable contrasts. Its heart is traditional and contains the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, but there are also old British colonial areas where you find Kerala’s most fascinating museums, a large zoological park, churches and British public buildings. On the outskirts, there is Kerala’s infotech centre, an important academic hub of the state, which has some of India’s most important institutions for science, technology and space research.
We started our morning in the East Fort area before it became too crowded. We walked along the temple tank to the Gopuram of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The seven-storey Gopuram or gatehouse is in the classic Dravidian style seen in Tamil temples, with rich but restrained ornamentation more characteristic of Kerala. The corridor around the temple, we are told by a guide, has 365 sculptured stone pillars (364 and one-quarter according to him!).
Walking out of the temple, we asked for directions to Kuthiramalika Palace Museum but found that local people know it better as the Puthen Mallika Palace or the horse palace. This palace has exquisite woodcarvings, including columns shaped like rampant horses (which give it the name), lining the eaves below the
sloping tiled roof, and Kathakali statues stand below the carved wooden ceiling. Inside, the chambers of this palace have polished floors and intricately executed stone screens. About 20 of them now house a museum of princely memorabilia including portraits and weapons. The highlight is a soild crystal throne donated by the Dutch and an ivory throne made from 50 elephant tusks. The reading room has a magnificent ceiling and next to it is the music room.
From here, we drove to the landscaped gardens of the Government Arts and Crafts Museum, designed in the 1880s by Robert Fellow Chisholm, a British architect known for his Indo-saracenic style. The striking red and black structure with double storey gabled roofs and Islamic arches, which was earlier called Napier Museum, has attractive interiors with stained glass, wooden ceilings and colourful walls. We saw a superb collection of Chola and Vijayanagara bronzes, stone sculptures, gold ornaments including elaborate necklaces and belts, exquisitely detailed ivory carvings, and 15th century woodcarvings. Among the highlights are the carved temple chariot, a wooden temple model and an oval temple theatre.
Near this museum, the Natural History Museum has the ubiquitous collection of stuffed animals but what was most interesting was a replica of a wooden house, detailing the principles and components of the Nair’s Naluketu or four-winged domestic architecture. From here we came to a beautiful building, called the Shri Chitra Art Gallery which exhibits the works of Raja Raja Varma and his celebrated nephew, Ravi Varma, one of the best known oil painters in India. We saw Ravi Varma’s religious paintings that inspired many of the temple idols and prints of today.
From Thiruvananthapuram, we drove to Kollam or Quilon, which is among Kerala’s most historical port towns. Mentioned by Ibn Battuta in the 14th century as one of the top Indian ports, its rajas witnessed a flourishing Chinese settlement at Kollam. In the 9th Century, on his way to Canton, China, Persian merchant Sulaiman al-tajir found Kollam to be the only port in India visited by huge Chinese junks. Marco Polo too visited this port. It was once such an important trading centre, that in the 16th century the Portuguese writer Duarte Barbosa called it a great city visited by Moors, Christians and Heathens in good numbers. Set between the Arabian Sea and the Ashtamudi lake, Kollam is still one of Kerala’s key ports and trading centres but the town now does not have too many attractions – a Portuguese cemetery is one of the reminders of its trading glory years.
Further ahead of Kollam, we came to Kayamklulam, which was once a small kingdom, later taken over by the Maharaja of Travancore, Marthanda Varma, in 1746. This was an important centre of the pepper and cinnamon trade, occupying much importance for the Dutch companies exporting pepper from the Kerala coast. The Nairs here take pride in the strong army boasted of by Kayamklulam in those times.
We parked ourselves at the Krishnapuram Palace, a fine example of Kerala’s princely architecture. This 18th century palace was built by the Travancore kings to replace an older palace built by Veera Ravi Varma of Odanad, who reigned here before the Travancore war. The palace sits in a nice garden and has an attractive wooden façade, with red-tiled gabled roofs and dormer windows. The construction style is typically Keralan Pathinarukettu – the palace is built in blocks with narrow
galleries, and the windows and doors face open courtyards to ensure ventilation and the flow of light. The rooms have wooden partitions with carvings. We walked along polished wood and red oxide-coated concrete floors to explore the palace. The local guide showed us the Puja room with ritual utensils and oil lamps. The highlight of the palace is the mural called Gajendra Moksha, which depicts an elephant saluting Lord Vishn, based on the story of Pandyan King Indradyumna, who was cursed by the sage Agastya to be reborn as an elephant. Gajendra, with his wives, was seized by a crocodile that caught hold of his leg with a firm grip and thus he was held captive for many years. He appealed to Lord Vishnu whose mount Garuda killed the crocodile. Painted with vegetable dyes, it has details of a fierce looking Garuda and a compassionate Vishnu, surrounded by deities, sages, etc. This is one of Kerala’s finest murals and the floral borders also form a panel of the infant Krishna. The
museum here has heirlooms and weapons, including a double edged sword of the Kayamkulam Rajas. A medieval Buddha statue is a later addition to the palace. The palace gets its name from a Krishna temple nearby.
We continued to Alappuzha, famous as Alleppey, a town with picturesque canals, backwaters and lagoons, near some of the finest coastal scenery and pretty beaches. Alappuzha or Allepey is called the “Venice of the East” – a title given to this city by Lord Curzon. Alleppey is situated on the shores of the Arabian Sea close to the banks of Vembanad Lake. Even today, a boat ride on the backwaters in Alappuzha is one of the most memorable experiences for a visitor to Kerala. There are many houseboats and smaller boats that take visitors on a boat ride. We had lunch at a rooftop restaurant, before visiting the boat.
The houseboats take inspiration from Kettuvalams, the rice boats that were designed to carry huge cargo over the waterways. We had chartered one for the night called Southern Panorama. Ramesh Nair, one of the owners, took us to the jetty in a leafy area south of the city, where the houseboat was moored. The luxury houseboat comprised of a deck with sitting arrangements, a living and dining room, two bedrooms, and a kitchen and open cooking area at the rear. Once we had boarded, the boat sailed through the backwaters, passing palm-fringed shores and narrow shaded canals. Since the afternoon was warm and
humid, we were glad the deck had been converted into an a/c glass-walled sitting room from which we could watch the glistening waters and lush green coastal landscapes. The boat kept stopping to show us Kerala’s daily life – coir, coconuts and cashews being loaded on small boats, fisher people casting their nets, village activities and farming. Tea and snacks were served onboard. As evening approached, the chef onboard and his team got busy preparing our Keralan dinner - prawns, fish and veggies in various styles. Presently, the boat stopped at night for us to sleep.
In the morning we awoke to a view of the sunrise on the gleaming waters. We saw herons and kingfishers on the way to the jetty. The driver took us to Haripad, which has one of Kerala’s most important Subrahmaya Temples, with an idol of the four-armed deity that devotees believe was found in the river, and then to the Sree Krishna Ananda Temple at Ambalapuzha. This is one of the most important temples of the erstwhile Travancore State designed in typical Kerala style, with gabled roofs and carved wooden facades looking towards a sacred tank. The Nagaraja temple of Mannarsala, not very far away, is a place of worship for childless couples. We decided to relax at Mararikulam which has the beautiful Marari Beach.
From Marari, we drove to Kottayam which is a town set
between the backwaters and the hills. Once an important trading centre, it does not have much appeal, other than a couple of impressive churches. We visited a rubber plantation near Palai, which has fine Syrian Christian houses. We had pre-booked lunch at the Madukakunnu Farm, and saw the rubber plantation that lies in the foothills of the Western Ghats. One of the staff members showed us around the 1940s house and its garden, explaining the medicinal importance of each plant. The appam, stew and other home style dishes served for lunch were delightful.
After lunch, we drove to Ettumanoor, one of the architectural masterpieces of Kerala. The temple focuses on a circular shrine with fine woodcarvings, Dravidian murals and a roof made with copper sheets, featuring 14 ornamental tops. The temple is most famous for its mural, one of Kerala’s oldest and most celebrated, of Pradosha Nritham, showing Shiva as Natraja, executing the Tandav, a cosmic dance.
From here, we continued to Cochin. A cluster of islands and peninsulas, Kochi and Ernakulam form an important economic zone in Kerala. We checked in at Taj Malabar Resort & Spa, set in Willingdon harbour, with a view of ships. We had dinner at their iconic Rice Boat
Restaurant, selecting from their fresh catch of fish and prawns.
The next morning, we drove out to Fort Kochi to see the St Francis Church, one of the oldest European churches in India. Vasco do Gama was buried here when he died in 1524 and 14 years later his remains were shipped to Lisbon. Over the years the church experienced conversions – from Catholic to Protestant when the Dutch took it over in 1663 and renovated the church in 1779, and then to an Anglican church following British rule under CSI (Church of South India). The building is impressive and inside the church we saw tombstones and a rope-operated punkah (fan).
Just across from the Parade Ground next to the church are heritage buildings of the Dutch period that have been converted into heritage hotels.
As we headed towards Jew Town, we passed an impressive church and learnt that it was the Santa Cruz Basilica, a Roman Catholic Church at Fort Kochi which was built in the 16th century but had to be rebuilt in the 1800s and consecrated in the 1900s after the British destroyed it when taking control of Cochin. Notable features of the church are the wood carvings and murals inside. Pope John Paul raised it to the status of a Basilica in 1984. In spite of its significance, the Basilica does not feature in many tourist sightseeing brochures on Cochin.
Carrying on, we came to the Mattancherry Palace, better known as the Dutch Palace, though it was actually built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and gifted to their ally, the ruler of Cochin, who gave them trading rights. The palace was completely renovated and practically rebuilt after the Dutch took over Cochin in 1663. Built on two floors around a quadrangle, the palace incorporates European influences into the traditional Keralan architectural plan of wings around
a courtyard with columned galleries. It has a Bhagvati Temple in the central courtyard and Shiva and Vishnu Temples to the south. Walking through the palace, we were captivated by the marvellous murals depicting the entire Ramayana and scenes from the Mahabharata, the life of Lord Krishna, Kumarasasambava and Puranic legends. The halls have interesting exhibits like wardrobes, turbans, palanquins, portraits of the Rajas from 1864 to 1964, weapons including ceremonial swords, costumes and other princely memorabilia. One of the best known rulers, we were told, is Dharma Raja, known as Raja Rama Varma of Kochi, who introduced reforms and improved central administration in the 18th century. The Raja also signed an alliance with the East India Company.
The road from the palace to Jew Town runs along the backwaters, with scores of souvenir and cap sellers, a little fish market, and general tourist service centres. Walking through the market, we bought books and browsed through antique shops before reaching the Mattancherry Pardesi Synagogue, founded in 1568 and rebuilt by the Dutch in 1664, two years after the Portuguese destroyed the building. A wealthy Jew merchant, Ezekial Rahabi, donated the clock tower in the 18th century. On a previous visit I had seen features like its Cantonese willow-pattern tiles, Belgian chandeliers, interlocking pews, a ladies’ gallery supported by gilt columns, ornate brass pulpit and a slab from the 14th century Kochangadi Synagogue that is now in ruins, an elaborate Ark with scrolls from the Jew Torah, the old testament, and gifts of gold crowns from the princely family of Cochin, and copper plates inscribed with the deed giving privileges to the Jews. Finally, before our return, we visited the beautiful Kovalam Beach, also known as the ‘Paradise of the South’, 13 kms from Thiruvananthapuram. Kovalam has endless swathes of coconut trees offering magnificent views. The popular Lighthouse Beach offers an amazing view of Vizhinjam Mosque on top of the Kurumkal hillock. Samudra Beach on the northern side and Eve’s Beach are ideal for a relaxed hangout. Sunbathing, swimming, catamaran cruising, herbal body massage, kayaking, surfing, fishing and water skiing are popular activities.
Napier Museum at Thiruvananthapuram
Santa Cruz Basilica, Kochi
Thiruvananthapuram has British buildings and churches
The Jewish Synagogue at Mattacherry in Cochin is among India’s oldest
St Francis Church at Fort Kochi is one of the oldest European churches
Beach shacks dot the coastline
Krishnapuram palace, Kollam
Yoga at Somatheeram near Thiruvananthapuram
Ayurvedic tourism is booming around Thiruvananthapuram Massage in an ayurvedic spa Head massage with special oils
The Kettuvalam or riceboat has inspired Houseboat tourism in Kerala
Sree Krishna Ananda Temple at Ambalapuzha, with gabled roofs and carved wooden facades looking towards a sacred tank
Houseboat sailing through Alappuzha and Kottayam
Children off to school in the backwaters
The elegant Chinese fishing nets in Kochi
A bedroom on Southern Panorama Houseboat
Meal on Southern Panorama Houseboat
Mattancherry market, Cochin Life in the backwaters at Alappuzha and Kottayam
Temples abound along the Kerala backwaters
Spice market, Cochin
Fisherwomen selling their catch at Thiruvananthapuram market
The backwaters at Alappuzha and Kottayam
Fishermen drawing in their nets
Sunset on the beach
Visitors at Thiruvananthapuram beach
Gopuram of the Temple Buddha at Krishnapuram palace, Kollam
The backwaters, Kottayam
Cochin comprises a cluster of islands and peninsulas connected by bridges or ferries
Cochin is a good place for book shopping