From being a quiet corner of India which even domestic travellers rarely visited, Kerala has come a long way. Now, the world just cannot get enough of “God’s Own Country”. Culturally diverse Kochi, the cool beauty of Munnar and the state’s many spa-style ayurvedic resorts offer a smorgasbord of experiences for global travellers. Yet, there’s more to Kerala than these now familiar stops on the travel circuit. The many unspoilt, quiet delights are only a train, bus or car ride away from the main hotspots.
In parts of Kerala’s unique backwaters, life seems forever suspended in a state of blue-green tranquillity. Large-scale tourism has changed things quite a bit in the past two decades. From budget hotels to high-end resorts, there’s something for everyone. If you’re looking for a more informal as well as authentic experience of Kerala, why not opt for a home stay?
A few hours out of bustling Kochi and you’re in a never-never land of little emerald islands in a sprawling network of canals and backwaters. This is Kuttanad, Kerala’s famous rice-bowl, where getting from point A to B means having to clamber into a canoe or boat. Locals will also inform you that this is the only place in the world where rice is grown in fields below sea level.
Some village homes now supplement their income from rice cultivation and other agricultural activities by taking in visitors. You could get to stay in a traditional Kerala house built of lovely, dark wood. Delicious meals, including just-caught fish from the backwaters, are likely to leave you glassy-eyed with satiety. Most homes have their own gardens, lush with banana, coconut, jackfruit, mango and breadfruit trees, besides cassava and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg.
Arguably the best part of being here is that there’s no pressure to “do” the sights; you simply need to be. Beneath an inky sky thick with countless stars, lie back in a canoe gliding down the backwaters. Go fishing with your kindly hosts, sip sweet, tender coconut water and get drenched in a sudden rain shower. If you must get up and about, you could always haul a bicycle into a boat, drift across to another island and go exploring temples and simple, white-washed churches or cycle along the paths around paddy fields. Stop off at a wayside stall for tea, freshly-fried banana chips and a chat with the stall owner. And of course, take a million pictures – you can never have enough of paradise.
While the well-known Periyar Sanctuary has good tourist infrastructure, the Wayanad region offers serious wildlife lovers relatively more scope for sighting a variety of animals and birds.
There’s something special about seeing elephants in their own habitat. At Tholpetty Wildlife Sanctuary, in north Wayanad, you can do just that. Other animal sightings could include deer, boar and bison and of course, monkeys. You’d have to be incredibly lucky to spot a tiger – they’re around, but remain rare sightings. The appropriately named Pachyderm Palace is the only place to stay, outside the sanctuary. While the facilities are simple, there’s great food and warm service. The best room there is a tree house with an all round view of the forest; as they say in travel speak, book early to avoid disappointment. Choose between a 2-hour morning and evening safari. Hardcore explorers will enjoy a 5-hour morning trek with a guide. You can get this organised either through your hotel or at the sanctuary entrance.
The Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary borders neighbouring Tamil Nadu and if you’re a birdlife enthusiast, this is where you should be heading. At Munnar, hop on to a Coimbatore-bound bus. One and a half hours along a road snaking through the mountains will bring you to Chinnar.
With over 220 species of birds, the sanctuary is a bird lover’s paradise – drongo, kingfisher, bushchats, flycatchers, bulbuls and if you’re blessed, the rare green-billed malcoha. Chinnar is also inhabited by the endangered grizzled giant squirrel, found only in these forests and Sri Lanka. Apart from these, the scrubby open forests are home to a host of butterfly species, spotted deer, wild gaur and the odd big cat. Don’t miss out on visiting the watch tower for superb views of the blue-green mountains. To arrange for guided treks through the sanctuary, contact the Forest Information Centre at Munnar.
Doesn’t the name Silent Valley send shivers down your back? There are many stories of how the sanctuary, now a part of the Western Ghats World Heritage Site, came by its name. One version is that Silent Valley is the Anglicised version of Sairandhri, the name assumed by Draupadi, wife of the Pandava brothers of Mahabharata fame, when they wandered through the country in exile. A more likely version is that British botanist Robert Wight, who explored the area in 1847, named it Silent Valley, possibly because, unlike most forests, this one was remarkably devoid of the loud chatter of cicadas.
Sairandhrivanam, as Silent Valley is called in Malayalam, is among the last of India’s tropical, evergreen rainforests. The Kuntipuzha River cuts through the 15 km length of the valley that is surrounded by dense green mountainsides. Trekkers can walk over the hanging bridge that lies suspended, thread-like, across the crystal, perennially flowing waters.
It’s worth bearing in mind though, that Silent Valley isn’t for the casual trekker. For those with the requisite levels of fitness and experience, the park offers a cornucopia of wonders. It is a marvel of biodiversity, thanks to the complete absence of any permanent human settlement – the nearest tribal communities live in the adjoining Attapady Reserved Forest. Several animal and bird species are endemic to the region and biologists still stumble across new species. Alas, many species are now threatened with extinction. Keep your binoculars ready for Nilgiri wood-pigeons, Rufous Babblers, Nilgiri Flycatchers or a Crimson-backed Sunbird. There are 34 mammal species in Silent Valley from big cats like the tiger and leopard to civets, mongoose, sloth bear, wild boar, varieties of deer and gaur (wild cattle). There is also a huge range of insect and butterfly species. Botanists have identified 1000 types of flowering plants and an astonishing number of orchid, fern, lichen and liverwort species, many of which are endemic. For photography buffs and artists alike, this is paradise unbound. Do keep a watch though, for the 500 species of leeches and earthworms!
There’s something special about Kerala’s temples. Compared to neighbouring Tamil Nadu’s towering, elaborately sculpted religious monuments, Kerala’s sacred places are understated, with low, clean lines and open spaces that blend quietly into its flamboyantly lush vegetation
The Sri Rama Temple on the banks of the Triprayar River is lovely enough to convert an atheist. Blue skies and dense coconut groves form a divine backdrop for the red tile-roofed temple buildings, surrounded on three sides by the gurgling river. Through history, Triprayar temple was owned by various rulers going back to the Middle Ages. As with all ancient shrines, there are several fascinating legends associated with the temple. For visitors, there is more to marvel at in the form of wood carvings and ancient murals from the Ramayana. Don’t miss out on tasting “prasadam”, comprising varieties of delicious rice preparations.
You might consider timing your trip to coincide with a religious festival. Many large resorts offer staged versions of festivals, but these hardly compare with the real thing, where you are both spectator and participant. If you visit Triprayar in August/September during the Onam festival, you could get to view the famous “snake-boat” race. In November/December, the Ekadashi festival celebrations are held with the idol of Rama being taken around in a fabulous procession of 21 elephants.
From achingly lovely landscapes to vibrant folk traditions, Kerala can be overwhelming in the riches it has to offer. Leaving the tourist trail may mean sacrificing precious time and some comfort, but you’ll take home an experience like never before.