From the remote hill tribes of the Western Ghats and the villagers of the sleepy backwaters to the Kathakali dancers of the city of Cochin, take a glimpse at the unique lifestyles of the people of Kerala.
I close my eyes and soak up the gentle warmth of the late afternoon sun on my face. The pool water refreshes me after the long drive over the Western Ghats. Beyond the palm trees that edge the pool, the waterways of Kerala flow by. Tomorrow we’ll be heading out in a converted rice boat, one of the highlights of my time in southern India. Tonight, however, we are staying in the paradisal hotel, Coconut Lagoon, a luxurious hotel with its own network of waterways and bridges adding to its air of exclusivity. We’ve seen wild elephants on the shores of Lake Periyar, dined in a royal palace, admired breathtaking vistas and visited stunning temples. Yet, one of my fondest memories of my travels in India and, in particular Kerala, are the people I met along the way.
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Kerala, in far the south-west of India, runs along the tropical Malabar Coast and inland to the mountains of the Western Ghats. The mother tongue of the area is Malayalam. The people born here are Malayalees. Being a centre of trade over the centuries, influences from many different cultures have coloured the character of Kerala. Today, peoples of different religions, including Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Jews, live harmoniously side by side. On my journey through southern India, I had a glimpse of some of the unique lifestyles of the people of Kerala.
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The jungle tribes of Kerala
In the jungle of the Western Ghats not far from Thekkady, following a chance meeting earlier that day, we visit a tribe living in the forest and spend an evening with the men of the village. Here, in simple huts, they live in harmony with nature, hunting and gathering produce from the forest. They worship the Hindu gods as well as the flora and fauna that surrounds them.
Wearing impromptu costumes made from anything they could find, including leaves and an old sackcloth, they welcome us. By the light of many torches, they dance and sing for us before sharing a simple meal of root vegetables served on a banana leaf. Of the women, only the chief’s wife looked on, hidden from our eyes behind a fence. It was a fascinating evening. The tribesmen were excited for us to be there. They had never entertained westerners before and said we would bring them good luck.
The plantation families of Kerala
The next day, as we make our way down the hillsides towards the Kerala backwaters, we stop for lunch with a Christian family. In contrast to the night before, it is the women here who welcome us into their home, a brick-built colonial-style mansion. Chatting to the whole family and their servants, we learn about their way of life and the importance of their land where they grew trees tapped for rubber and keep beehives.
That evening, sipping a cocktail in the luxurious surroundings of Coconut Lagoon, I feel a million miles away from the people I have recently met.
The backwater villagers
In the morning, we board our home for the next couple of days, a former rice boat now a simple yet comfortable floating mini-hotel with just two bedrooms.
Drifting along the network of Kerala’s backwaters offers another unique insight into the lives of the people living here. From my vantage point, I see children on their way to school, walking along the pathways edging the banks, women washing clothes, pots and pans, fishermen and boat builders. The canals are so much more than a transport network. They are the lifeblood of the villagers who rely on the waterways in so many ways. Chatting with local children and their parents while walking along the riverbanks in the early morning sunlight, I find the people of the backwaters of Kerala were as interested in me as I was in them. Life here, at least on the surface, seems to be lived at a leisurely, contented pace.
The Kathakali dancers of Kerala
Next stop, Kerala’s vibrant capital city of Cochin. We’re here to see a performance of the Hindu dance of Kathakali. The dancers wear elaborate costumes and make-up. The art of applying the make-up is part of the show and it’s fascinating to watch as slowly each person is transformed into a character from the Hindu epics – gods and goddesses, saints and animals. Traditionally, the actors were always male. However, this is now slowly changing, and women have started performing Kathakali as well.
It takes a great many years of highly disciplined training and devotion to learn this classical dance form. The strength, endurance and suppleness required takes years of physical, mental and spiritual discipline. The aim is to achieve individual perfection while being part of a unified team.
What contrasting lives the people I met in Kerala have – the forest hill tribes, the plantation owners and workers, the villagers of the backwaters, and the Kathakali dancers. My experience may have only offered a brief glimpse of each, but I’d dearly love to return one day to gain a deeper understanding of the unique lives of the people of Kerala or ‘God’s Own Country’ as it is commonly known.
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