Savour the slow pace of life along Kerala's backwaters and get enchanted by an almost-forgotten art form
A proud fisherman with his prize-catch-of-the-day, Kochi
Kerala's famous elixir - toddy
A traditional lunch served on the houseboat
In the dusty front yard of a modest house in the hamlet of Goturithy, about an hour’s drive from Kochi, the Emperor Charlemagne, defender of Christendom, prepares to go into battle with a Turkish warrior. He dons a crown and cape and boots, all in rich velvet embellished with gold — a costume evocative of medieval Europe and of grand opera. Then he and his troupe of soldiers begin to go through their moves: the slow, high goose-stepping, with much loud stamping of feet, gradually picks up tempo, and segues into kalaripayattu moves. The facial expressions and hand gestures seem inspired by Kathakali. The music is a fusion of martial brass-band tunes, cymbals and drums reminiscent of temple festivals, and lilting folk tunes sung in sentamil (the ancient literary form of the language, which was once widely spoken in Kerala). We are watching a rehearsal of Chavittu Natakam, a unique and now almost-forgotten performing art from Kerala, originally influenced by European opera, that re-enacts biblical themes and the heroic acts of medieval Christian heroes.
Introduced by the Portuguese in the 15th century as a means of spreading Christianity, Chavittu Natakam was once an integral part of the culture of Kerala’s Latin Christian community. The troupes travelled from place to place, performances lasted 14 days, and drew huge crowds. The 8th-century Emperor Charlemagne seems to have struck a special chord with the locals as the ideal warrior hero who was both brave and big-hearted. They changed his name to Karelman, and his battlefield exploits became a favourite theme. Until the late 1950s, Chavittu Natakam was still popular: it was performed at the first Republic Day in Delhi in 1950 to great acclaim, and apparently so delighted Prime Minister Nehru that he had himself photographed wearing Karelman’s plumed helmet. Then over the years it began to die out, because of lack of patronage or encouragement from either the state or the church, and the huge expenses involved in mounting a production. Scattered groups of performers and supporters struggled to keep it alive. A popular 2010 film, Kutty Srank, with Malayalam cinema’s superstar Mammooty playing the Karelman role in a memorable sequence, helped revive interest. But the real resurgence began after Chavittu Natakam was performed during the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in December 2012; the response from the audience was so enthusiastic that it kick-started energetic efforts to revive it. Since then, as many as 17 high schools have formed Chavittu Natakam groups, and compete annually for best per-formance awards. What’s more (and where but in Kerala could this happen?), Chavittu Natakam troupes are now also invited to perform their biblical epics at Hindu temple festivals all over the state.
At his home in Goturithy, Thambi Payapillai, who plays the role of Karelman, gathers together his troupe, the Yuva Jana Chavittunataka Kala Samithi, spanning the genera-tions from 12-year-olds to 60-year-olds. Dusk falls as he puts them through a rigorous rehearsal drill (without costumes, though), in preparation for a perfor-mance they are to give in Delhi a few weeks later. A couple of hours fly by as we watch, mesmerised, the intricate swordplay between Karelman and the Turk, the high leaps and complicated steps that build into a cre-scendo at the climax, the rousing music to which even Thambi’s baby grand daughter bounces happily in time. Thambi smiles wryly as he tells us that there’s now a 20-minute version put on for tourists at Kochi, though most performances these days have been cut down to a one-hour show. It’s a far cry from the performances that used to go on for 14 days, but we end the day experiencing an entrancing slice of Kerala culture that most tourists — and many residents — are yet to discover.
Our day had begun, in contrast, following the circuit well-trodden by every visitor to Kochi: the Chinese fishing nets along the seafront with their fresh catch of sardines, mullet, snapper, and karimeen laid out for sale; the Jewish Synagogue amidst its warren of narrow lanes, with shops selling antiques faux and real, resort-wear, and arguably the most delicious biriyani south of the Vindhyas at Kayees Restaurant. We joined the hordes at Mattancherry Palace and admired its exquisite murals of scenes from the epics. And then, at the waterfront, we found Kerala’s tradition of mural painting alive and well in its 21st- century reincarnation, in the vibrant art that has bloomed on the walls of old warehouses and factories in the area — leaping leopards and soaring kites, outsized portraits, surreal landscapes, and fish swarming up tree trunks.
The next morning, our guide Vishnu was still lost in memories of the previous evening, humming a Chavittu Natakam song as we boarded a rice boat (kettuvallam) to spend the next 24 hours doing that other must-do for visitors to Kerala: cruising the backwaters from Alappuzha to Lake Vembanad and Kumarakom. And what a magical day it turned out to be! A gentle breeze blew as we drifted past old women fishing, boys diving for mussels, schoolgirls in uniform rowing their canoes, kingfishers swooping into the water in a flash of brilliant blue. We saw duck farms, and banks and churches and post-offices, grocery stores and purple and pink houses, and giant hoardings of Sonia-Rahul and NaMo. As we cruised the vast expanse of Lake Vembanad, we saw fields of golden paddy ready to be harvested, stretching into the horizon.
Reclining on armchairs on the covered deck, we ate delectable meals of fried karimeen (the famous pearl spot of these waters), fish curry, chicken roast and crisp karela, payasam and banana fritters. In between meals, our brilliant cook Benedict plied us with juicy pineapple, fragrant tiny bananas and tender coconuts plucked from the palm trees that fringed the lakeside, as he regaled us with tales of his life on the waterways. What he loves most about his job, he told us, was meeting people from all over the world: “The Americans are businesslike, they don’t talk to us, but they are the most generous tippers. The Gujaratis really enjoy themselves and appreciate everything. As to people from Delhi — they are the most obnoxious…”
In the evening, beer glasses in hand, we watched the lake change colour from slate-grey to flaming orange at sunset, to pink and lilac and then inky blue. A bright full moon rose in the sky, reflected in the lake’s rippling surface as a line of shimmering silver discs. As night fell, we moored at the edge of a paddy field, mosquito nets enveloped the deck, and we slept soundly in our comfortable cabins to the gentle rocking of the boat. In the morning we awoke to a lavish breakfast of idli, dosa, upma, omelette and toast rustled up by Benedict in the boat’s tiny but impeccable kitchen. An hour later we reached Kumarakom, stopping at our hotel just long enough to offload our luggage before getting into a narrow country boat to visit villages along the canals and waterways that flow into Lake Vembanad.
Kumarakom, home to 19 hotels and resorts (with more coming up), is where Kerala’s Tourism Ministry has launched an imaginative — and successful — pilot project aimed at reducing pollution in the lake, protecting and promoting traditional means of livelihood like fishing and farming, and involving the local community in tourism-related activities. It won the prestigious UN award for Responsible Tourism last year. K Rupeshkumar of the Kerala Institute of Tourism and Travel Studies, who has designed the project, tells us that some 1,800 families who live in villages around Kumarakom now supply vegetables, fruit, fish and rice to the hotels; and open their homes to tourists who want to see something of village life.Our first stop is at the village of Manchira, where Gowri is deftly weaving dried palm fronds into beautiful mats. Her vegetable patch is verdant with ginger, pepper, chillies, jackfruit, yam, screwpine and bananas. Further into the village, we see an ingenious metal contraption, a ‘climbing machine’ invented by the state’s Agricultural University, which makes shimmying up a coconut palm to pluck the fruit fast and easy. My intrepid colleague Jyothy volunteers to test it out and reaches halfway up before we can count to twenty. By now we are joined by a group of foreign tourists who have signed up for the ‘Village Experience’ package (half the proceeds go to the villagers). They watch Jyothy open-mouthed with admiration. Next stop is watching toddy-tapping — an intricate procedure which seems to defy gravity, at the end of which we are offered a glass of milky liquid. A taste for Kerala’s famous elixir, indeed an addiction to it, is something that could be easily acquired. At the next village, we visit Latha’s house where she’s weaving coir into rope that is “so strong it will last a hundred years”; we see tapioca plantations, and the wonder that is the rose-apple tree with its beautiful star-shaped white and pink fruit. Hearteningly, we also see a large boat that collects sewage from the houseboats, treats it, and de-pollutes the water.
Heading back to shore, Jyothy takes the oars and rows, rows, rows our boat, cheered on by villagers and tourists on passing boats. We alight for a late lunch at the Samridhi Restaurant, run by 10 village women. Our banana leaf comes as artfully arranged as a still-life painting. It contains two lightly-cooked vegetables, a red fish curry, a mound of rice, a pile of mussels, spiced buttermilk and papad — all for `40; and for `20 more you also get a large serving of fried fish. Raji Rajan, who presides over the kitchen, says what they cook at the restaurant is what they eat at home — and super-delicious it is too. Not a single table in this spacious restaurant is empty, and the turnover of customers is fast and constant.
The ‘Responsible Tourism’ project in Kumarakom has shown impressive results: it has made the local community stake-holders by providing them new sources of income; improved the ecology and increased the fishermen’s catch by de-polluting the waters; and encouraged many farmers who had let their paddy fields lie fallow in the hope of selling the land to hotels, to start cultivating their fields again.
Our three magical days in Kerala are over too quickly, but on the way back to the airport the next morning, I manage to squeeze in one more quintessentially Kerala experience: I check in at the Nagarjuna Ayurvedic Centre at Kalady, just 20 minutes from Kochi airport. Its serene location on the banks of the Periyar River, the wise advice of its chief physician Dr Krishnan Namboodiri, and my amazing hour-long abhyangam massage done by two masseuses in tandem, leave me in a most uncharacteristic mood of goodwill and benevolence towards All Mankind. And so relaxed that when I find my flight delayed for three hours, I fall into a restful sleep, even though I’m sitting in a noisy hall on a hard airport chair. Wish I’d missed that flight.
Air India flies daily from Delhi to Kochi (round trip: about Rs 12,500); so do Indigo, Jet and SpiceJet.
Two fast trains connect Kochi to Delhi and Mumbai — the Ernakulam-Nizamuddin Duronto and the Ernakulam-Lokmanya Tilak Duronto.
Kochi to Kumarakom is a two-hour drive, but if you have the time, the slow boat from Alappuzha, which takes a whole day and a night, is highly recommended.
Where to stay
KTDC’s premium hotels in Kochi and Kumarakom are beautifully located and offer value for money.
- KOCHI We stayed in the grand Bolgatty Palace (from Rs 4,100; 0484-2750500/2750600, bolgattypalacekochi.com), said to be the oldest Dutch Palace outside the Netherlands. It overlooks the waterfront, and is set in spacious grounds with large old trees and a nine-hole golf course.
- KUMARAKOM Here we stayed at Water Scapes (from Rs 6,500; 0481-2525861/2524258, water scapeskumarakom.com) which has a great view of Lake Vembanad, spacious wooden cottages on stilts and is criss-crossed by canals. A bird sanctuary adjoins the hotel.
Our Backwaters-Vembanad cruise (Rs 20,000 per day for a three-bedroom boat, including meals; +91- 9447444077/9447444066, rainbowcruises.in) from Alappuzha to Kumarakom was on a kettuva llam houseboat of the Rainbow Group, which owns 30 boats. The premium ones — like ours — sleeps six, comes with three double bedrooms, each with attached bathroom, a large deck with comfortable armchairs and a video player so you can even watch movies, and lavish meals.
What to see & do
- KOCHI The Jewish Synagogue and its surrounding lanes, Mattancherry Palace, the Chinese fishing nets at the waterfront. Check with KTDC or your hotel/ travel agent where you can see a performance of Chavittu Natakam — the unique and enchanting musical dance-drama, influenced by European opera, which enacts biblical epics and the exploits of Christian saints and heroes.
If absolutely authentic Ayurvedic treatment is what you’re looking for, check into the Nagarjuna Ayurveda Centre (prices depend on the treatments taken; +91-9747553254, 0484- 2463350/ 2460854, firstname.lastname@example.org, nagarjuna ayurveda.com) at Kalady, just a 20-minute drive from Kochi airport, for a week-long (minimum) stay. It doesn’t have the luxuries of a spa-resort, but the setting on the banks of the Periyar River is lovely, it’s impeccably clean, the medications and oils are made by their own company, and the treatment regimes it offers are serious and professional.
- KUMARAKOM Cruise (Kumarakom Village Life Experience: half day: Rs 1,250, full day Rs 2,500; 0481-2523097, kerala tourism.org) the narrow canals and backwaters around Lake Vembanad in a country boat, to see the villages participating in the Kerala Tourism Ministry’s ‘Responsible Tourism’ project which involves villagers in tourism-related activities such as supplying food to hotels, demonstrating crafts and offering tourists a glimpse of village life.
Where to eat
- KOCHI Kayees (New Road, Mattancherry; 0484-2354321), near the Jewish Synagogue for its fabulous mutton biriyani; Kashi Art Café near the Chinese fishing nets on the waterfront — the chocolate cake is memorable; the ambience, in a leafy courtyard, charming.
- KUMARAKOM The no-frills Samridhi Restaurant, run by the village women as part of the ‘Responsible Tourism’ project, serves an excellent fish thali for Rs 40.
What to buy
You could consider buying a kettuvallam houseboat for around Rs 40 lakh — a lot more fun to own than a BMW. Otherwise, spices (pepper, nutmeg, cinnamon) from the spice shops near the Jewish Synagogue, Kochi.