I travelled through India many years ago, coming down from Kathmandu to Delhi, over to Varanasi (the famous cultural and religious centre on the Ganges River), to Agra (known best for the Taj Mahal) before heading overland by train to Pakistan. On a recent six week visit to the country, I decided to go beyond the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra and Jaipur) and so headed to the state of Kerala, a narrow strip known as the ‘land of the coconuts’ on the southwest coast.
I was travelling on my own and this proved to be a mellow start to what can be a challenging country.
- Delhi (overnight only; airport hotel)
- Kochi (tranquil place to relax and enjoy the backwaters of Kerala)
- Kovalam (popular beach town)
- Madurai (vast and colourful Sri Meenakshi Temple)
- Ooty (hill station founded by the British)
- Mysore (known for its temple art)
- Goa (for a cultural break)
Kochi, formerly called Cochin, is referred to by locals as ‘God’s own country’ and ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’. It is one of India’s principle seaports and was once the centre of the Indian spice trade. Chinese fishing nets are perched all along the shores. Fort Kochi was the first European colonial settlement in India and has the oldest European church in the country.
Tourists often rent houseboats for a few days and float along the calm and fertile backwaters where the lakes and streams meet the ocean. That didn’t particularly appeal to me so instead I arranged for a day trip of the backwaters with a guide and in the evening saw a performance of the Kathakali dance at the local community centre.
Kovalam is about 215 km south of Kochi and a perfect beach resort. While some travel books say the place is spoiled, I say those writers have never been to Cancun! I found it to be utterly charming and oozing with authenticity. The beach is small and intimate and framed on both ends by low cliffs. Small family-run hotels, guest homes, modest outdoor restaurants and shops line the beach. It is very, very low key. Sure, a few people approach you about buying a postcard or a wrap-around skirt but they were all pleasant. The foreign tourists I met were not the fancy types.
Every day, men in loin cloths and head scarves would be on the beach, chanting and hauling in their fishing nets. Young boys were diving for shells (oysters perhaps?) from their boats made of driftwood tied together.
If you want to be part of the “village”, I recommend staying down close to the beach. A number of foreign tourists I met in Kovalam were there for ancient Ayurvedic medicine/healing.
I hired a car and driver (through the owner of the hotel where I was staying) to take me to Madurai in the state of Tamil Nadu, with a quick stop at Kanyakumari, the southernmost town of the Indian mainland. Kanyakumari is where the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean meet. It is said to be a place of Hindu legends but I was greeted by a big sign that said to beware of thieves.
Madurai is known as the Temple City for its vast and colourful Sri Meenakshi Temple with images of gods, goddesses, animals and mythical figures. It is one of India’s greatest cultural and architectural landmarks. The temple contains many shrines and attracts pilgrims and tourists from all over the world. You can wander about at will but there is so much to see and stories to hear that you should consider hiring a guide.
One of the shrines is dedicated to fertility and women who are waiting to have a child leave offerings there. It seems that a king of Madurai was childless for a long time and performed a number of sacrifices because he wanted an heir to the throne. On one occasion, a three-year-old girl came out of the fire and he adopted her. But the girl had three breasts. This worried the king but a divine voice assured him that the third breast would disappear when she met her consort. The girl grew up to be a brave and beautiful princess. She won many battles but eventually lost to the divine Lord Shiva. As soon as she saw him, her third breast disappeared. The princess became Shiva’s wife Parvathi and they settled in the temple.
The Mahatma Gandhi Museum is worth visiting. It not only chronicles his life but also the history of India under British rule and the struggle to independence. It is a rather ugly story.
I could only spend a short time wandering the streets of the city. Cows seemed to be everywhere, blocking traffic, eating garbage, and were joined by oxen, pigs and elephants. The noise of car horns was constant, sharing air space with organ music that was blasted from the church across the street from my hotel. A man and women on a bicycle stopped in front to milk a cow; who has milking rights and how do they find their cow for they wander about freely?
Ooty is a hill station in the Nilgiri Hills founded by the British in the early 18th century to escape the heat of the long Indian summer. Ooty—Queen of the Hills—is known for its tea plantations, Botanical Gardens, and landscape. A small, slow ‘toy’ train can take you up the hill to Ooty; while it is actually a short distance, the trip took more than four hours because of the cows blocking the track.
The town of Ooty is rather forgettable but the plantations around it are lush and a pleasant drive-by. I splurged a little and stayed at the Savoy Hotel, a very British establishment with manicured lawns, an excellent dining room and old-world rooms. The man from housekeeping (fabulously dressed) not only made a fire to warm up my room but also brought me a hot water bottle to warm up the bed—a first for me!
The following day I took a packed, local bus down the steep hill to Mysore on a one-lane road with one hairpin curve after another. The trip was through two wilderness reserves. We saw wild elephants, spotted deer and lots of monkeys. We didn’t see a tiger although a woman who was gathering wood around there had been killed by one the day before.
Mysore was busier than expected and I visited grand palaces of people who had far too much money. The Maharaja’s Palace is indeed beautiful but so excessive. Then I hired a car and driver for a trip into the countryside—to the India where farmers plow their fields with ancient looking equipment and people live in makeshift homes.
Mysore has been described as “calm, graceful and magisterial”. I couldn’t appreciate it and needed to escape the clamour so after three nights I got a drive to Bangalore and caught a flight to Goa.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2010