A melodic wind chime sounded in the warm breeze as I sat eating lunch. The panorama took in palm trees, whitewashed buildings, ponds, and lush gardens. This formed one of my first impressions of Kerala, the southernmost state of India and my home for three weeks.
Although I had traveled to more than 60 countries, I had never visited India. In my journeys I follow my passions for everything from scuba diving to Asian art. Truthfully, I had been apprehensive about large crowds of poor people extending their hands for alms. I was afraid of getting sick … of being uncomfortable.
I couldn’t have been more wrong about India at the beginning of the 21st century. In my home town of San Francisco I’ve been asked for spare change more times on an evening out than during my entire stay in India. Wherever I went, people greeted me with smiles and glowing eyes. Not only did I stay healthy — I ate fine foods such as fish and vegetable curries seasoned with masala blends of Keralan spices.
Some people say India is 25 countries in one, since each of its 25 states is unique. Covering 375 miles of coastline on the Arabian Sea, Kerala is known for its lush backwaters and beautiful palm-lined beaches. In addition, the region has become a center for the ancient healing art of Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old system integrating massage, yoga, meditation, herbs and diet. Although Europeans have traveled to Keralan retreats for years, Americans have only recently discovered the benefits of Ayurveda and the beauties of southern India.
“Ayurveda works from the outside in. Yoga works from the inside out. Both in harmony work toward the wholeness of being.” I read that description in the brochures from Kalari Kovilakom, a former palace from the 19th-century Vengunad Kingdom that has been converted into a “palace for Ayurveda.” It was here that I heard the wind chimes that first afternoon.
It is hard to know what to call Kalari. It is not a hotel, nor a spa, nor an ashram. In the luxury of the palace, guests experience an ancient Indian lifestyle. The daily rhythm started with yoga at 6:30 a.m. followed by breakfast, private Ayurvedic treatments, private yoga session, lunch, meditation, an afternoon Ayurvedic massage treatment, and dinner. Guests receive comfortable, loose cotton clothing to use during their stays. Twice-a-day herbal oil massages formed an important part of the Ayurve-dic program, and these cotton garments (new ones were supplied as requested) meant visitors never needed to think about what to wear.
Guests usually stay from two to three weeks for the full treatments. Upon arriving, each visitor meets with a doctor for a complete interview. A specific diet is laid out as well as individual Ayurvedic massage treatments. My favorite was “Sirodhara,” which began with two massage therapists rhythmically applying lukewarm herbal oils over my body for 45 minutes. The coordination of these two masseurs was unbelievable — it seemed as if one man had four arms! Next, another therapist dripped warm herbal oils on my forehead for 45 minutes.
After my session everything became more alive — the smells of the incense, the sounds of the birds, the taste of the food, the soft pink of the evening sky. In discussing my impressions with one of the staff, she remarked, “You see the beauty because it is inside of you. It is you.” What a wonderful thought to take away from a few days of comfort and bliss.
From Kalari Kovilakom I headed for Kerala’s legendary backwaters. Kerala has 41 rivers that run to the sea, creating a series of canals and other waterways that keep the region green throughout the year. The area served as setting for the popular novel The God of Small Things by Arundati Roy. I recommend reading the book before a trip to Kerala — or reading it there as I did.
Reached only by boat through the series of rivers and canals, Coconut Lagoon Resort sits on the shores of Vembanad Lake. Surrounded by rice paddies, it also lies across the river from Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary, so sounds of lapping water blend with the calls of breeding darters, purple herons, little cormorants, and Indian shag. Walkways and foot bridges over streams lead to a “butterfly garden” filled with flowers that attract these beautiful creatures.
One afternoon I cruised among the palm-lined backwaters in a small boat with a guide who talked about the local lifestyle. As with all of my Indian guides, he openly discussed his personal life. During the four-hour journey, I learned about the realities of arranged marriages (how love can grow with commitment and through flexibility and family life), what “keeping up with the Joneses” meant to a Keralan (it was having a new refrigerator) and how cable TV had changed the traditions of evening strolling and conversation.
Since there are few roads, small dugouts and larger water taxis provide transportation. Most homes sat at the water’s edge, and the slow pace of the boat created an ongoing visual of families, birds, shadows, fishermen and bright-colored saris. People passed me with direct eye contact and welcoming smiles. Rather than using greetings such as hello and goodbye, Keralans communicate these words with their eyes and smiles. Similarly the classical Kerala dance form of Katakali uses eye and facial expressions to convey meaning and emotions.
Next I visited the hill country area of Kerala, source of the spices that brought Europeans to India in the 15th century. Driving with a guide into the mountains, we ascended through fields of pineapples, then coconuts, then coffee before arriving at the tea and spice plantations. Set at nearly 3,000 feet, Thekady was the site for the aptly named Spice Village Hotel. All the plants and spices grown in the area flourish on the grounds of the property. Daily guided walks by a naturalist explain the culinary and medicinal uses of the plants.
The hotel uses an innovative method for controlling mosquitoes (I never saw or heard one during my stay). Placed atop pedestals throughout the eight-acre property, small containers of water attract mosquitoes to lay their eggs. Every two days the water in the basins was changed, thereby breaking the hatching cycle. Quite ingenious!
At the nearby Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, I had the chance to view the animals (tigers if one is extremely lucky!) by boat and an early morning walk through the forest. I also took an excursion down into the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu for a three-hour trip by ox-cart through a countryside lush with papaya plantations, vineyards, palm trees and orchards. The vast knowledge of the naturalist guide from the Spice Village Hotel was supplemented by the incredible eyes of our oxen-handlers. During the leisurely jaunt I spotted 20 species of birds, from a yellow wagtail to a purple sunbird. The most beautiful sighting: a majestic Crested Serpent eagle on a perch overlooking the river while the afternoon sun sharpened the colors and shadows.
My next destination was Somatheeram Beach Resort, a retreat overlooking the Arabian Sea that has offered Ayurvedic therapy since its founding in 1985. Arriving on a glorious sun-drenched afternoon, I saw guests strolling the manicured paths in green cotton garments that blended with the grass and palm trees. Bright pink and red bougainvilleas cascaded alongside the traditional Kerala-style houses that provided guest accommodations.
The sound of breaking waves pervades every area of Somatheeram. With their open-air designs, the treatment rooms permit bird calls, garden fragrances and breezes from the coast to permeate the space and one’s mind during the Ayurvedic therapies. My thoughts often wandered during the treatments, and I came to feel that Ayurveda is truly a perfect science of life. The word ayur literally means life, and veda, the science or knowledge. In the sessions, I received suggestions about how diet, yoga and meditation can help prevent illness and enable the mind to maintain peace and awareness.
Served either buffet-style or a la carte, meals included both vegetarian and non-vegetarian selections, including delicious choices such as dry-coconut prawns, fish molee (fish with chile and lime), and masala dhosa (a spiced Indian crepe). Several evenings we enjoyed concerts of classical Indian music in the exquisite outdoor dining area. Stars on the horizon blended with the flickering lights of hundreds of fishing boats, creating a celestial awning.
Mornings were my favorite time of the day at Somatheeram. Awakening at sunrise I could hear the rhythmic chants of fishermen as they pulled in nets that stretched for hundreds of feet out into the sea. Their voices harmonized with the sounds of the waves and the cacophony of the waking birds.
Somatheeram manufactures its own Ayurvedic herbal oils and pills. I visited the small, incredibly clean production facility, which is located a few miles from the resort. Giant cauldrons of oils were superheated to bring out the healing nature of the herbs. This attention to detail and concern was a touchstone of my visit to Somatheeram.
I found it difficult to leave Kerala. I had gotten into a rhythm of healing that incorporated an awareness of diet, exercise, nature and thought. My visit seemed like more than a mere vacation. It felt like an entry into a whole new way of living. Who could ask more from three weeks?
FOR MORE INFORMATION: For details about Kalari Kovilakom, Coconut Lagoon Resort, and the Spice Village Hotel, see the website for this excellent group of luxury eco-resorts, CGHEarth:www.cghearth. For information about Somatheeram and Manatheeram Resorts, visit www.somatheeram.com.
For more information on land arrangements and hotel accommodations in India, contact Asian Pacific Adventures: Phone: 800-825-1680 or 818-881-2745; Fax: 818-881-2749. E-mail: info@AsianPacificAdventures.com. Website: www.AsianPacificAdventures.com.
SOUTHERN INDIA — Travel Tips
• Air India has daily flights from the U.S. to various cities in India. A new route from San Francisco has made travel to India easier from the U.S. West Coast. Contact Air India at 800-223-7776 or visit www.airindia.com.
• Most flights from the United States arrive in Mombai (Bombay). A visit to this thriving city is worth a few days. No visit to Mombai is complete without a stay at the historic Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, which exudes old-world charm and elegance (800-223-6800; www.tajhotels.com). Choose accommodations in the Palace wing if possible.
• In Kerala, the monsoonal weather pattern tends to make January to September the most pleasant time to visit.
• Loose-fitting light cotton clothing is the best bet for traveling in the tropics, with the addition of a light sweater for cooler evenings at the higher elevations. Women should have appropriate (shoulders and thighs covered) warm-weather attire for visiting places of worship. Sandals and flip flops simplify the shoes-on-and-off routines.
• Excellent guidebooks on the area include The Rough Guide to South India and the Lonely Planet Guide to India.