Written in 2000 for National Geographic Traveler
I’d have almost preferred not to go back to India. Over the last twenty years I’d made numerous journeys there, culminating in an exhausting odyssey along one of the most dangerous roads in the world. The book that resulted felt like an entire career; I’d seen most of what I wanted to see; and as much as I loved being among Indians, and the daily pleasures of the culture, I felt done with the place. Despite its perennial problems, India used to be an enchanting country to travel in. Amid the catastrophe of its billion people entering the 21st century, I did not find it so anymore.
The one part I still wanted to see was Kerala, the state at India’s southwestern tip. It is one of the country’s great paradoxes, with a dazed green light that only belongs to Southeast Asia. Its lush “backwaters” are an exalted universe unto themselves: a labyrinth of villages linked by lagoons, lakes, and natural canals whose web extends to a 350-mile coast of sunstruck beaches.
For years I’d heard Indians with all the facts at their fingertips describe Kerala in tones of wonder as a success story—the country’s highest literacy and life expectancy by far, a birth rate even lower than ours, its lowest income yet arguably its highest standard of living—plus a splendor not yet marred by huge, badly ventilated hotels. Skeptical as ever, I wanted to see Kerala for myself. I also hoped it might prove a promising first experience of the country for my wife, Kylée; a yoga teacher, she was already deep in the culture, but had never visited.
At least it would be calm. I knew Kerala held few of India’s usual religious tensions, with Hindus, Muslims, and Christians living amicably together for centuries. Most of the subcontinent had been exposed to the outside world and outside ideas through invaders; along the so-called Spice or Malabar Coast, on the sea route between West and East, the exposure had happened through trade, which tends to be more persuasive.
I put this all together and found myself secretly hoping that Kerala might remind me of the India I first saw decades ago—a quiet, humane countryside full of sustained natural beauty, breathable air, amid a visible architectural past—that I’ve watched rapidly disappear from the rest of the subcontinent. The one guarantee I trusted was the people, who are a constant joy of travel here; for outsiders, the doors to the Indian house are always open.
My first morning in Kerala I awoke to the realization that, unwittingly, I’d saved the best of India for last. I was roused at dawn by devotional music from the Hindu temple just across the lagoon. The day before, we’d drifted to our small hotel—a few bungalows perched by the water—in a carved skiff poled by boatmen, past coconut groves with village houses somewhere among them, following a tropical river. The temple, hidden by palms, lay on a beach which faced both the lagoon and the Arabian Sea. I watched a morning haze lift on a horizon of figures gathering fishing nets as surf unfurled along the outer belt of sand. Nearer, men were doing improbable stretching exercises in time to the music. (“You see?” said my wife. “Their clean diet, amid all this heat, makes for an incredibly flexible body.”)
Those songs, broadcast at all hours, signalled the festival which started that night and lasted several more: ceremonial elephants arrayed on the sands, hot-coal walkers, a cadre of urgent drummers, devotees spinning into a frenzy by torchlight as a golden mask of the god was carried in a palanquin up the beach. When it finally ended, and the lagoon was peaceful once more, I felt stunned and sleep-deprived; but this was the India I’d hoped to see again.
People come to Kerala for different reasons. Some do two monumental weeks in the rest of the country and, exhausted by the guidebook sights, take a few days here to recover, usually on a beach or the backwaters. Others visit Kerala’s prolific spice and rubber plantations, and its wildlife preserves farther inland. Or, like one returning Indian I met who was an electronics executive in Atlanta (“My name’s Hasmukh—just call me Harry!”), you could come here not for the waters, but for an annual ayurvedic tune-up.
“This is like nowhere else in India,” he told me. “You can relax. You can get cured. I’m doing five days of ayurvedic treatment starting tomorrow. Traditional medicine. Herbs, medicated oils, massage, the works. A real Kerala specialty, going back not a few centuries but a few millennia. A friend of mine with a bad back is coming for a whole month of treatment.”
This struck me as a truly strange idea: to leave India healthier than when you arrived. I always expect to fly out with bronchitis. But since the air here seemed clear, what intrigued me more was Kerala’s unmatched, longstanding reputation for several performing arts, especially the epic, gaudy rituals of Kathakali theater. (Unlike most first-rate Indian culture, Kathakali rarely reaches the West.) So I decided on a coastal route south to north, from the area around the state’s capital, Trivandrum, to its most historic trading port, Cochin, with as much time in watery beauty as possible, and plenty of live music and theater along the way.
Much of Kerala lives by fishing. Early one morning I left my bungalow at Lagoona Davina (a resort named for its creator, an adaptable English ex-model) and got poled across the lagoon. I walked beside the Arabian Sea, in gathering sunlight, to a village where boats in yellow, green, white, and blue stripes were pulled up. More were arriving, with weighted nets finer than dental floss, full of glinting fish. It often took twenty men, their heads wound with cloth, to haul a large vessel up the sand. Some boats bore names like St. Thomas, whose purported 1st century visit is spoken of like an eyewitness account. A chaotic wholesale fish market was dominated by women fluttering their hands and bargaining hard, ululating at the male prices. It was seven-thirty, and already very hot. On this beach, at least, despite Kerala’s growing tourism, I was the only foreigner.
This was well outside Trivandrum, a hectic city which most visitors sensibly hurry through to get to its nearby beaches, the alternative to my lagoon. I had a look one day at the most popular of those, Kovallam, which must’ve been gorgeous twenty years ago; it’s now a tourist ghetto of handicraft shops, snack bars, concrete hotels, and saried Indians wading modestly among the daring European bikinis. With luck it will remind the rest of Kerala what should not be allowed to happen.
Trivandrum itself was worth an afternoon. Its art museum was a huge mansion in classic Keralan style: high airy interior, cartoony colors, ornate crossbeams and stained glass. The city had several architectural marvels—a huge temple, a spiralling coffee house like a saffron-stained Guggenheim—and linguistic marvels as well. For years I’ve collected Indian commercial names, and Trivandrum gave me Brilliance College, Hotel Hilten, and Oriental Manures Ltd. This is the India I can never get enough of.
Better yet was a forty-mile side trip to the Padmanabhapuram Palace of Travancore, historically linked to Kerala, now in a neighboring state. This rosewood-and-teak treasure, probably the finest wooden building in the subcontinent, was a royal capital for 400 years. Its sleek white walls, crisscross geometries, and sloping pagoda roofs evoked centuries of happy trading ties with the Chinese; its masterpiece was a dance hall with an insanely polished black floor and sculpted stone pillars crowded with tigers, snakes, lotus blooms, dragons, and barefoot busty maidens cupping oil lamps. I saw in this one site both the Keralan appreciation for foreign ideas, and the natural elegance of its people—both unusual qualities in the subcontinent.
I was trying to learn a few useful phrases of Malayalam, Kerala’s palindrome of a mother tongue, through a typically politicized language book (“Who can live by literacy alone? By reading can anyone fill his mouth and belly? ”). This is the only part of India I know where you can get innocently sandwiched in a teahouse argument about, say, contemporary international fiction, as I was, and find everybody around you passionately taking sides.
“Listen to me. Kundera’s last novel was his best.”
“What do you mean? It was pretentious rubbish. Tell me—yes, you, sir—what is your opinion, please?”
I said, “I’m afraid I haven’t read it yet.”
“Can we be serious for a moment? You are both wrong. The man of the decade is Garcia Marquez. Dispute me if you like.”
“How did you read it? In Malayalam? You cannot get to know a book in translation, my friend, and judge it at all.”
“On the contrary, you avoid the trap of style. As everyone agrees—”
I wasn’t surprised to learn that the principal Malayalam newspaper is the second most widely read in the country, with a circulation of 8 million. Up in Delhi the children beg for rupees; in Kerala they plead for a pen.
And it made perfect sense that this state of avid, argumentative readers was so enthusiastic about other arts. Several evenings at my resort, I’d already been surprised by the high quality of the live music, an experience repeated throughout my journey. Usually it was a violinist, male singer, and mridingam drummer, often accompanying a Mohiniattam dancer of languorous classical gestures, clad in gold and white. This was what Indians themselves loved about Kerala: good art was simply everywhere.
But the eminent magician Professor Muthukad, who started his own Academy of Magical Sciences in order to keep a rich Indian tradition of illusionists alive, surprised me even more.
I saw him perform to a packed house in Trivandrum. With his dark mustache and tough-guy walk he resembled a hero from the melodramatic Bombay cinema, his every move accentuated by glycerine Hindi pop music, but beneath the kitsch he was a fine magician. A Keralite, he performed all over India; he’d soon dazzle New York with his two-hour show of imprisoned maidens galore. He made goddesses appear under a mirrored pyramid; in exotic tableaux he set fire to one slave girl and dismembered another, who talked gaily throughout. He tore India’s biggest film weekly, Screen, into tiny bits and reassembled them—an act of social criticism. My favorite trick was his simplest, when without fuss he made full whiskey bottles multiply like mad from two yellow tubes. He kept vanishing and instantly popping up elsewhere, and he talked more rapidly than anyone on earth.
I was wondering if the backwaters could live up to their promise. Our entry point would be the town of Kottayam. No Indian pleasure is more reliable than its trains, so we made the northward journey there from Trivandrum by rail. For two hours we rattled beside verdant canals, rice fields, and coconut palms—although Kerala is the most densely populated state, it often feels the sparsest, without India’s usual bleak crashing cities.
My wife and I were sharing a compartment with a local railways superintendent who pointed out at every stop that we were “absolutely, rigorously on time, sir.” Though predominantly Hindu, 20% of Kerala’s people are Christian, and when a pastel church flashed past mid-jungle, no village in sight, I mentioned that unusual figure and said, “But from all the churches everywhere you’d guess it was the other way round.”
He smiled proudly. “Back when there were no Christians in ancient Rome, twenty centuries ago, there were already Christians in Kerala.” Like many here, he traced his family faith all the way to Saint Thomas.
Kottayam is a town that thrives on the written word. Its many publishers are inundated by manuscripts from Malayalam novelists, and one house claims to put out a book every day. I was heartily in search of gentle countryside, but first I wanted to visit St. Mary’s, a 16th century church with a rare treasure on its arched ceiling: 99 recessed squares of flowers, birds, and angels’ heads—early, naive Portuguese paintings in vegetable hues, from the era when that country was a power on the subcontinent.
Once inside, I found myself the unexpected guest at a wedding. As fans whirred patiently, the fluorescent lights burned and the dark-frocked priests and video cameramen and the entire congregation chanted along. Two more Indian strangers (in this case, Christians) got hitched, sweaty in their finery, having met only once. Today they wore the shell-shock of a customary arranged marriage, but having seen Indian weddings before and come back to visit later, I knew that next year would probably find them a cozy, expectant pair. “Will they be happy?” the bridegroom’s cousin said to me. “Of course they will be happy. When they get to know each other.”
We were staying a few miles from Kottayam at Coconut Lagoon, a resort entirely of 19th century houses of white stucco and dark teak, “imported” from elsewhere in the state, set in palm groves beside the Vembanad Lake by a long-established local family. (This architecturally faithful and ecologically sound tourism is, in India, the norm only in Kerala, unfortunately.) From here we could make daily expeditions into the backwaters, which are Kerala’s glory.
Soon after dawn the next day we set out on a chugging boat, an updated African Queen, through the misty backwaters. The waterways, 100 feet across, were supported by meticulous stone walls and bordered with trees—hanging creepers, banyan, mango, jackfruit, banana, but mostly palms leaning out to seek sunlight. Men and women were busy in their soapy first ablutions. Butterflies, herons, eagles, ducks, mynahs, cormorants, and snake birds—darters with serpentine necks—patrolled everywhere. Paths led along both sides: a fish vendor on a bicycle, a paper boy striding swiftly to keep up with us, grinning, waving.
The boat chugged beneath plank bridges. At times the backwater became choked with the hyacinth pads that proliferate like beautiful weeds, clogging traffic—a fisherman, paddling home after a night’s work, followed gratefully in the larger boat’s cleared wake. I liked getting around Kerala this way rather than by car; for one thing, other boats are never plowing straight at you. These so-called backwaters may follow a main road and divide a village or town with its bakery, primary school, fabric and jewelry shops, market, temples, churches, pharmacy, YMCA, “typewriting institute” (five cents per page, no mistakes, no waiting), occasionally even a satellite dish. The house architecture was often grand: curved arches, starry lattice-work, and always sloping tile roofs.
Here, too, were bars with hammer-and-sickle posters on the faded walls—Kerala had the world’s first elected Communist government, in 1957—and the elaborate remains of stone gates guarded by sculpted lions or a silver statue of Jesus shaded by a sun-umbrella. The canal kept opening to lesser canals, with locks for controlling the water level, sacred cows asleep like bookends, children paddling a tiny skiff to school, men immersing themselves then surfacing with armfuls of dark silt to use as fertilizer. Vast ricefields stretched away in Mondrian blocks. It was all in reverse, a puzzle-world of water irrigated by orderly fingers of land.
The ultimate way to enjoy the backwaters, I found, was to stay a night or two on a converted kettuvallam, a gliding Kerala cargo boat traditionally used for transporting, say, thirty tons of rice. It looks awkward—a giant eggshell of coir-rope (made from local coconuts) knotted on a web of bamboo and covered with closely-woven thatch. Flaps lift like wings on each side, letting in light but not heat. In recent years the dormant trade of constructing them has bounced back, due to visitors. My wife and I boarded right at Coconut Lagoon, and were surprised how comfortable and spacious the kettuvallam was: two suites with enormous beds, modern bathrooms, and a salon near the bow open to breezes.
The point is not to get anywhere, but to drift languidly through ethereal beauty. It was astonishingly romantic to watch sunset from one kettuvallam among several, while the three boatmen set out hanging lanterns and a pearly glow faded behind the scrim of palms. Dinner was an abundant eleven platters of Keralan cuisine, built around subtly spiced fresh fish. As the coconut islands darkened, the shimmering water doubled the infinite heaventree of stars. Waking at dawn we found ourselves surrounded by hundreds of fishermen’s skiffs on immense Lake Vembanad. It was like time travel, into a quiet morning of another century which I was reluctant to leave.
An oil lamp is lit, and two vocalists begin chanting a verse above the hammer-and-tongs of percussionists. The arrival of actors is unearthly: when a god appears, the audience may prostrate themselves. There are bursts of argument, brandished swords, leaping, to-and-froing with the hands in dispute, harsh imprecations and threats of disembowelling. The actors’ faces, hands, and bodies are elastic, alive to every gesture in the chanted text as the warlike percussion batters on.
Kathakali (“story/movement”) is a unique Keralan performance art that developed in recent centuries out of ancient Sanskrit theater, though it has as much dance as acting in it. Performances are often free and may last all night, usually presented in the open air by Hindu temples that hire a Kathakali troupe. The plays’ texts come from the two Hindu epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
The effect is hypnotic, powerful, and even terrifying, because the performers loom overhead and at times leave the stage to cut a swathe through the rapt, swaying crowd, who part for the swordplay—the figures now storming at each other, now elegantly dancing, now brooding, now bathing in an enemy’s blood. The actors themselves do not speak any lines. It’s like watching performers act out The Iliad while Homer’s verse is proclaimed in ancient Greek; naturally, a great deal of the experience gets missed if you have no grasp of the language.
I saw the greatest Kathakali troupe perform at the impressive open-sided theater of the state Kalamandalam School in Cheruthuruthy, north of Cochin, having spent an afternoon watching master classes in theater, dance, and music. Students (from age thirteen) live at the school; the rigorous classes begin before dawn. Because Kathakali is hard on the body, and can take ten years to master—every actor learns all the roles—it’s traditionally been an all-male art, though there’s now a female troupe performing throughout Kerala.
All that practice, all those exercises, are designed to transmit the nuances of character through the extraordinary costumes and makeup which announce the broader outlines. The elaborate masklike makeup is applied by specialists, and involves geometric paper cutouts, fringed and folded and pasted-on. The costumes are gigantic encasements. These preparations take about five hours, as the performers gradually become mythical characters.
Tourists usually see a highly abbreviated performance, which makes sense, as so much is inevitably lost on a foreign audience. It can still be a powerful, primal experience, and because Kathakali is done in an intimate space, the kings and gods are only a few feet away. To see one victoriously pulling out cotton strips of an enemy’s entrails, and laughing in triumph while covering a maiden (played by a man) with them, is to realize that the scope of theater is far wider than you ever thought. At the end, there was a delightful moment of healing calm when Krishna renounced the savage blood-frenzy—the god bringing humanity back to man after the madness of war—and it was as eloquently expressed in Kathakali, with all the forgiveness, the amused, rueful benevolence of the god, as I have ever seen it.
Long this coast’s busiest port, Cochin—Kerala’s northern hub and most important city—has three parts, linked by bridges and frequent ferryboats: mainland Ernakulam, British-era Willingdon Island, and the earlier, evocative Fort Cochin, where we stayed. There a pink and yellow architectural past of hopeful colonizers survives in grand Dutch and Portuguese townhouses and stately churches (Vasco da Gama was buried in one), and in the airy British layout of private club, solemn residences, and cricket pitch.
The loveliest part of Fort Cochin was Jew Town, a traditional quarter of shuttered houses in ghost-shades of once-audacious blues, greens, and ochres, often with a Star of David worked into the grillwork of a window. Jew Town’s 16th century synagogue was the earliest in the British Commonwealth, but Jews were already long settled in Cochin. Many old houses are now antique shops aimed cannily at foreign tourists, and the quarter remains the nerve center of Kerala’s spice commerce.
The Jewish Synagogue was, oddly, both simple and lavish, with a white plank ceiling and plain walls, ornate hanging lamps, and 1100 Chinese blue and white floor tiles. Services are still held on Fridays and Saturdays for a dwindling community, but I was there early in the week, so on the advice of the Indian synagogue-guide I waited around one afternoon with a few other visitors to meet an elderly, small-boned man of pale complexion who sometimes stopped by. At first he was hesitant to talk (“We are not animals in a zoo!”) and when I asked his name he said only, “Nameless,” with a faint smile.
“The Nameless Jew,” I said. “My relatives, too. In the war.”
At this he thawed. “There are fifteen of us left here. Only three are young, like you. What will be the future? I don’t know. Whoever is left will decide. There are five thousand Jews in India—lots up in Bombay. This is the oldest location, but eventually it will be over here. And the truth is, we have never been persecuted. Not in two thousand years. This is the only country in the world where that is so. Not once—only by the Portuguese. But never by Indians.”
With the few other visitors standing around, he opened ornate doors to reveal a silver-clad Torah, containing the five books of Moses, and a gold crown, a gift of the local maharajah back in 1805. “You see?” he said. “We were always welcome here.”
That tolerance made Kerala special in India—the worldly tolerance of traders who’d seen the value of their spices rise and fall across many generations. Around the corner, in an old house filled with mountains of fragrant ginger, a dapper man told me with a shrug, “The classical importance of Cochin in spices has gone. You don’t need to actually come here to trade now, because of telephones and roads. The best cardamom in the world comes from Kerala, but the South American price is half ours, so we can’t compete—we sell it only locally.”
“Does spice run in your family?”
“So far, yes. My great-grandfather started this business fifty years ago. I’ve been at it twenty-seven years. Some Jews sold this building to a coir-merchant, then I bought it from him.” Behind him a painting of Christ hung on the lustrous blue walls. “Years ago there were sixty spice merchants like me in Jew Town. Now, about ten. We sell ginger, betel nuts, turmeric, and black pepper especially, mostly to Europe and the Arabian Gulf.”
I saw his speculating colleagues in action upstairs in the venerable Indian Pepper & Spice Trade Association Building. In an air-conditioned room with a polished floor, two dozen booths—each with a fan and several phones—were manned by forty brokers in pepper futures. They cursed, they napped, they gesticulated theatrically and shouted like wrestlers at close range. (All were barefoot, a rule I shall suggest to the New York Stock Exchange the next time I get invited.) Volcanic eruptions of energy linking buyer to seller via these amiable middlemen would subside just as quickly, while a woman in a red sari came and went, talking of Kerala’s condiment.
Here, I thought, were past and present reconciled, in a room of spice traders bickering on cell phones while those lush backwaters were a mere hour and a century away. I’d been right to come back. I hoped Kerala’s genius for subsistence, which in India looks almost like prosperity, would survive—and that its coconut palms would multiply faster than its hotels.