Kerala Travelogue

Spice jet recently started a direct flight from Pune to Kochi – which is what tempted to make a short trip to say hi to Manoj Thomas, who was holidaying in Kottayam, 100 km south of Kochi. Nowadays it is fun to use the Compass google app – it works in the plane! We started by flying over Khadakvasla dam, which supplies drinking water to Pune and continued South East – flying mostly along the coast.

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Kochi Airport viewed from the plane Tall Temple near Kochi Airport

My cycling friends had done a trip from Goa to Kochi a few years ago – and the impression they gave me was about Kerala being one big un-ending village, with houses continuing on both sides of the roads endlessly. So was surprised to actually see huge coconut groves, as the aircraft swooped over their tops and a river to land at Kochi’s new airport, which is about 30 km away from the main city. The aerial view of Kerala made it look very much like a bigger Goa. Green – beautiful. It rains 10 months a year, all months, except Jan and Feb. I don’t know if Kerala schools give summer vacations during those months!

We skipped Kochi city and went straight down MC Road. MC Stands for Main Central and it is the road that links Kochi to Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala. We continued down the road till Koothakulam, after which started a dizzying series of village roads, which only the seasoned driver of Manoj’s Alto, also called Manoj, could have known about. The terrain is hilly – we seemed to be traveling a combo of left/right and up/down at any time. The roads are narrow – and Manoj’s driving skills would have made him a serious contender in the Himalayan car rally.

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Why do you think Kochi buses have rear windshields half way down the body?

Narrow winding roads meant that the roads were devoid of speed breakers, footpaths, pedestrians, cyclists and roadside parked vehicles. Manoj’s hypothesis was that it has been a long standing tradition to have good roads, starting from the days of the Travancore kings. It continues till date – probably because people keep governments on their toes – by alternating the Congress and Communists every 5 years in State elections. Some form of Rightism extends even when the Left rules the state – to pedestrians. The only way for a pedestrian to survive the narrow high traffic Kerala road is by walking on the wrong side – so that you can see oncoming traffic.

To my mind what makes Kerala unique is not so much its beauty, as its culture. Kerala people are followers of 3 religions – the Hindus, the Christians dominating districts like Kottayam and Islam, which is popular in the Northern districts. Christianity traces its roots to St. Thomas, one of Jesus’ apostles who landed up 2000 years ago. He is said to have converted 7 Brahmins to start the religion in India! He later went on to Chennai, where he is believed to have been martyred in Mylapore. Amongst the Syrian Christians in Kerala, the tradition is that the youngest son gets the property! Interestingly, among the Malyalee Hindus it is the daughter who inherits property from her mother. The husband moves in to his wife’s house after marriage.

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Note the script below the photos – Syrian!

We visited a Syrian Catholic church of the Malankara diocese, which was about 500 years old. It was established by the Portuguese traders, with the benevolence of the local Rajah. The temple architecture is an amalgamation of the Hindu, Isllamic and Buddhist styles. You have Minars, dragons and deep sthambs in the church. The roof is a lovely one made entirely of wood, with walls which are load bearing. The external walls of the church are also quite old, with a construction which uses the porous Konkan brick. Inside there was a baptism table – which was made from a single piece of granite. Also there were paintings of the bishops of the last 200 years – all with long flowing beards, and with one exception – all white beards. Interestingly, the last 5-6 bishops were also spectacled.

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Valliapally – The Big Church Altar

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Deep Sthamb in Church! Baptism tub

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Pig Fish at door entrance Should have commissioned one to mark my visit also!

We went on to another church in the neighbourhood, which was newer – about 200 years old. Was perched atop a hill, so had a panoramic view – and at one spot a refreshing breeze. This one had tombs also inside – right next to the church wall. We completed the religious journey by visiting the Juma masjid – the Friday Mosque. Unlike the church we did not find any people around – so we were not sure whether to enter or not. Hence the visit was limited to the outside. The mosque was built in traditional Kerala construction style – and had a lot of taps around – I guess to wash the feet of the praying fraternity.

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Juma Masjid

Kerala is the fabled land of gold. With the Padmanabh temple treasure running into billions of dollars, the current fascination with gold seems to be deeply rooted. The village headquarters of Karukachal has 19 jeweller shops! Land prices in the villages in Kerala run at crores per acre. The high price culture is also found in retail: All prices are fixed. The North Indian bargaining boffin is going to be in trouble here. There are a few pleasant suprises though. In the middle of the Gulf money lavish palaces, you end up finding a few low cost no steel all brick– Laurie Baker – type of house. But inside the house you will still subscribe to Malayalam Manorama, with every other ad from an Alukka’s trying to sell gold to you. And in the classifieds, if next to the usual obituaries, you find a husband-wife photo, then don’t worry – they did not expire in an accident together. It is just the rich Mallu’s way of celebrating marriage anniversaries.

Another paradox to this wealth, is the retail institution – which is peculiar to Kerala – Margin Free – where everything is below MRP. Here is the bill analysis: Savings of Rs. 17.74 on a bill of Rs. 240.76, a percentage which is a shade less than 8 per cent. Not bad – considering the margins in retail are usually around 20 per cent. In order to make you feel that the margins are actually more, the bill first lists out what is called the U. Rate, which looks amazingly less – 24.5 is the U Rate for a Sprite bottle with a MRP of 30.00. Then surrepritiously the tax column appears – adding 4.9 to the U-rate – to give you a saving of only 0.55 on the MRP! We checked into one of the stores to check it out. Very well stocked and in appearance, no different from the Kirana stores of the ‘bhais’ – as the Mallus call anyone hailing from the North of Karnataka. They have good checks and controls, where like in a typical Kirana shop items are double checked before dispatch. There are no bar codes, so data entry is manual. For the math though, the shop assistants still rely on the computer!

Karukachal village is in Changnassery taluka, 100 km from Kochi and 150 from Trivandrum. It is less than 100 km away from most of the Kerala tourist spots: Sabarimala, Tekdi, Munnar. Houses in a Kerala village are never numbered. They have the same surname as the people who live in it – or maybe vice versa. The love for the surname is also extended lovingly by the Keralite to the buses and trucks that he runs in – Pallikkaparampil for example. Unfortunately the metro Keralite is forgetting his roots by abbreviating the surname out of his name L

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The Pink House – Note the double roof

Unlike North Indian villages, where the houses are clustered in a central area between fields, the Keralite loves to live on his farm. So does Manoj, with his dad’s handsome Pink House proudly located on the edge of a 1 acre garden. Went on a conducted tour with Manoj’s dad and literally found variety which would put an Amazon forest to shame: Cardamom, Cocoa, Pepper, Pineapple, Rubber, Teak, Mahogany, Rubber, Joyphal. It wasn’t always this way. When Manoj’s dad shifted back to the village from Bhopal in 1993, the entire acre was full of rubber trees. But with rubber tapping being a labor intensive business, and the literate worker in Kerala loath to work on the fields, he decided to cut down the rubber and replace it with teak. The returns will only come 50 years later – but talk about vision.. Later on he realized that Mahogany is a better RoI crop – with returns coming in a relatively small 25 years, so Mahogany also got planted.

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Cardamom Cocoa Pepper

The remaining plants are primarily kept for educational purposes – so that the grandchildren know what is what. The pineapples unfortunately are eaten mostly by the rats and the crows. Then there is this interesting allspice plant – a hybrid with a very tangy leaf. This has been promoted by Kerala government – and is a coveted leaf by the gourmet. Also there is the joyphal – a great fruit with a delicate net for seasoning, cover for chutney, and a seed which is a cure for indigestion. Interestingly, Joyophul trees have gender – the males have flowers but no fruit. But the males are required for fertilizing the female tree flowers..

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Pineapple Shrubs Rubber Sap flowing after bark cut

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Black Scorpion – being recycled by ants!

Kerala’s other agricultural claim to fame, apart from spices, is rubber. Rubber trees are harvested every alternate day by stripping a line along the bark – and funelling the sap into a coconut shell. The cuts are done around 7-8 in the morning and previous day’s sap – which by now has solidified is collected when the cuts are being made. There has been an influx of Orissa and Bengal labor into Kerala to replace the educated Keralite, who is loath to indulge too much into manual work. Given the propensity of rain, there is also a protective plastic shield placed above the shell in order to prevent rain water mixing with the sap. Trees begin to yield after at around 7 years of age and continue to produce sap till the ripe old age of 30. After which they end up as packaging wood. One of the bigger users of rubber in Kottayam is Paragon footwear, which primarily produces rubber chappals – its hoardings along MC Road claim that it sells more than 10 crore pairs a year!

On my morning walk, I was reminded of the bread sellers of Panaji, who cycle around honking their old autorickshaw type bulb horns, selling‘pavs’. The difference in Kerala was that – one they use a motorcycle – albeit a bulb horn fitted one – and two that they sell sea fish.

Kerala has been a wonderful gastronomic experience. Starting from the first day at Saravana Bhavan, a local not the Chennai chain, where I sampled Kerala Paratha and ending with the awesome Onam type dinner – with almost 16 courses – at Manoj’s house in the evening. On day 2 it was lunch in Kottayam town – at the Anand Restaurant – with par-boiled rice and lovely payassam. In the evening we sampled more authentic Kerala paratha with black chick peas and Set Dosas with stew from the streetcarts of Karukachal.

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Onam Feast Not beer, just pink boiled water

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Rice powder Steamer Cylinder Lid

One interesting dietary ingredient in Kerala is the tapioca – the humble root from which the ‘fasting’ delight – the sabudana is made. Manoj tells me that in the past, it was not rice, but tapioca, which was the staple food in Kerala. For Breakfast, mashed tapioca with curd chutney. We also had iddiappam and stew and boiled plantain. Desserts ranged from simple heavenly pineapple to Jackfruit halwa to rice balls stuffed with jackfruit. The Dessert feast still continues thanks to a shopping spree at a Karukachal bakery – where I stocked on the jaggery-banana Kerala Halwa, sweet banana chips, jaggery coated jackfruit chips etc. Diabetes, here I come!

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Tapioca Plants – the roots are pure carbohydrates!