Kerala, Part 1: the coast

A few days on the famous Malabar coast.

I’m stepping back to December.  All our January travel kept me from sorting the 2,500 photos I took on our travels through Kerala and Dharamsala in December.  Read on about the First stop: Kerala (December 12-20).

Kerala: Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple, in Trivandrum.

Kerala is the state comprising much of India’s south-western coastline, the famous Malabar coast, sometimes known as the Spice coast.  Gorgeous tropical beaches, a fascinating cultural mix influenced by centuries of interaction with Arabs, Dutch, Portuguese, and the British, and a stunning range of cool hills called the Western Ghats, make this a very interesting place to visit.  It is also home to the world’s first democratically elected communist government, and is the Indian state with the highest literacy rate, lowest birth rate, lowest infant mortality rate, and highest life expectancy.  It is also the most Christian state in India, due largely to the early Portuguese influence. The local language is Malayalam (as a curiosity, our guide pointed out that Malayalam is a palindrome). Kerala has been aggressively marketing itself as a tourist destination, calling itself “God’s Own Country.”

We spent about a week visiting Kerala, based in Thiruvananthapuram – ok, I can see why the British shortened that to Trivandrum – and ranging as far south as Kanyakumari (the southern tip of India, technically in Tamil Nadu) and as far north as Kochi and Kannur.  At the end we met up with my parents and traveled north and east and into Coorg, then on to Mysore and Bangalore, but that’s another story.

Also on this Kerala beach, a Catholic church on a rocky promontory.

Although we saw some interesting temples and museums in Thiruvananthapuram (which means, literally, holy snake city), I found the beach at our hotel to be, perhaps, the highlight of our visit.  A broad sandy shore on the Arabian Sea, with good swimming, there were busy fishing crews out at sunrise every morning, a small but busy Catholic chapel on the rocky outcropping, and even a professional film crew filming a music video one evening. See my photos from the beach. [Location]

On our first morning there, I decided to get up at sunrise and visit the beach to see whether I might get some interesting photographs.  I was rewarded handsomely, as the beach was busy with numerous crews of fishermen from the local village.  Every few hundred meters down the beach, another crew of about 30 men was working hard to haul in the nets their boats had laid a few hours earlier.  Pulling hard on the rope at each end of the nets, they slowly drag their catch closer to shore.  I arrived with this process underway, and watched for an hour until they had finally pulled the whole net ashore.  It looked awfully small. I watched as 29 men, panting from their effort, slowly unwrapped the net.  There, among a few dozen worthless jellyfish, were perhaps two dozen small fish.  The women showed up, each with a basket or bowl to carry the fish back to market. All stood, disconsolately, recognizing that there was perhaps one fish per family at best. My children arrived.  We watched for a few minutes more, then turned and headed back to the hotel. Somehow, the sumptuous breakfast buffet, with thirty heaping dishes and fruits and  breads, was less appetizing.  [See my photos of the fishermen.]

Kerala fishermen: one man coils the rope as the net is pulled toward shore.
Mara dips her toes in the confluence of Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, and Arabian Sea, at Kanyakumari, the southernmost tip of India.

Kanyakumari was another highlight – where India comes to a sharp point and where the Indian Ocean meets the Arabian Sea and the Bay of Bengal, Kanyakumari is considered by many to be a holy place. Barely 8° north, this is as close as we’ll get to the equator while in India. We visited a memorial to Swami Vivekananda, a famous philosopher who also played an important role in convincing J.N. Tata to found the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), where we are based during my sabbatical.  We visited the memorial to Ghandi, the site where his ashes rested briefly before immersion at this meeting of the three waters. We dipped our toes in the sea, surrounded by numerous and diverse groups of devotees here on a pilgrimage. See my photos of Kanyakumari.  [Location]

The visit to Vivekananda’s memorial was quite a ‘trip’ – it is on a rocky islet just a few hundred meters offshore.  A ferry runs every few minutes to bring tourists and devotees to visit.  When we boarded, the ferry was clearly labeled with numerous signs indicating that everyone must be seated, everyone must be wearing a life jacket, and so forth.  The first people on board grabbed the life jackets and the seats, and the rest of us – because, after all, the attendants stuffed far more people on board than capacity would permit – were left to stand, jacket-less.  I imagined myself in one of those newspaper stories about over-crowded ferries that capsized.  We headed out into choppy seas, cresting large swells cruising in from far across the Indian Ocean, with salt spray dashing across the bow and the all the passengers roaring “wooo!” and “weee!” with every new wave. Phew, we made it out and back without drowning.

Kanyakumari: The ferry is packed with more people than capacity.

Anyway, the kids especially enjoyed our hotel, the Travancore Heritage, because it had a nice swimming pool, a great beach a few steps beyond the pool, and a fantastic buffet every day for breakfast and dinner.  [Location]

Mara and Andy at the pool in Kerala, Travancore Heritage hotel.

Links to photos from Kerala: beachfishermenKanyakumariothers.

More to come in the next installment: the Kerala backwaters, the Western Ghats, traditional dance and martial arts of Kerala.

This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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