KERALA’S COASTAL KINGDOMS

Airports India - - CONTENTS - PHO­TOS: DI­NESH SHUKLA

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

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.

KOL­LAM

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.

KOT­TAYAM

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

His­toric Thiru­vanan­tha­pu­ram

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

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