Kerala

We left our hotel in Goa before sunrise to catch our 8-hour train ride to Kannur.  As we approached Kerala, we started seeing lots (LOTS) of coconut trees and backwaters.  It’s so green and very much looks like the landscape back home in the Philippines.

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scenes along the train tracks
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Kannur train station
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Kannur train station
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chai sold on train

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When we arrived Kannur, I told the hotel owner that I wanted to see a Theyyam. He told me the Theyyam season starts in December so there probably won’t be any but he’ll keep an eye out in the local papers for me. The following night he eagerly told me there’s one in a nearby village, albeit a small one. I was excited and felt so fortunate to be able to see one in an actual kavu (a sacred grove)

Theyyam is Kerala’s most popular ritualistic art form, which exists only in the northern Malabar Coast (which is where we were). Normally done in kavus in villages around this area, it’s an intense ritual where a person puts on a very elaborate costume which involves face and body paint, head dress, bangles, breast plates and garlands. During the performance, this person takes on the form of a deity and blesses devotees. The dance is accompanied by wild drumming (uh yeah talk about drums and I’m there!)

Anyway, our rickshaw driver took us to the place and it had already started when we got there. We obviously didn’t know what to do so fortunately one elder man hand signaled for us to take off our shoes and step in. There was a row of seats on the side and locals scooted over and gave us seats. We watched the ritual and after some time all the men stood and lined up next to the Theyyam. One lady kept indicating for Husband to go but we both didn’t know what’s going on or what to do so Husband just stayed on his seat. Then later, everyone else stood up and lined up for some blessings… except us. The lady next to us probably felt bad that we missed out on blessings, she gave me a piece of the blessed banana leaf that she got from the Theyyam.

 

 

Later on, one of the elderly men who seem to belong to that kavu motioned for us to follow him. He led us to a community table and gave us a cup of tea and some boiled beans served on a banana leaf. We ate the beans with our hands along with another woman with her daughter across the table.

After all the dancing was done, devotees lined up and it seems each one would say something to the Theyyam, perhaps what they want to pray for, and the Theyyam would speak in tongues and give them some blessing.

 

 

We were staying at this beach house right by Malabar beach. Its a very quiet area without many tourists at all.  There isn’t really much to do except to relax, listen to birds singing and to the rustling of the coconut leaves as the wind blows, hang out and sit on the beach, watch kids play ball at sunset and locals strolling along the beach.  A few times, we even had the beach all to ourselves.  During the day we’d take a rickshaw to town, walk around, go to the mall (get some chips to eat on the beach) and get my falooda fix.

 

 

 

Now for the real reason we are in Kannur… a friend’s wedding. We were told (several times) that Kerala weddings are very short, unlike the usual Indian weddings we’ve heard of or had seen in movies. One even told us don’t look the other way or you’ll miss the tying of the knot. Regardless, it was still a unique experience for us. The bride is gorgeous in her gold and white bridal saree and her hair full of Jasmine flowers (women guests also put a string of Jasmine flowers on their hair) and the groom was looking good as well! Music was played using traditional South Indian instruments, Nadaswaram (the world’s loudest non brass accoustic wind instrument – yes folks, it’s loud) and Thavil (percussion instrument). The couple faced East as the groom places the thali, a necklace which signifies their union (like the wedding rings in Western weddings).

 

 


Once the wedding was over, a traditional sadhya followed. Served usually in weddings and important festivals, a sadhya is a feast consisting of vegetarian dishes served on a banana leaf. We ate using hands, and by this time had become a pro at it 😁. Well, not quite a pro, but at least not too awkward (it’s a skill I leaned in my childhood days after all).

 

 

A reception at the hotel followed that evening, where there’s more food, and family (including us) giving blessing to the groom and bride. The groom and bride were seated on a stage, as family members and friends go up one by one (or two by two) and sprinkle some rice grains into a lamp.

The day after the wedding, we took a 10-hour train ride further down south to the town of Varkala, a major tourist destination in Kerala.  In a way it was strange to see so many tourists after several days of being off-the-gringo-track (for real, our entire stay in Kannur area we saw only 2 other non Indian tourists on the beach).

Perched along the cliff overlooking the vast Arabian sea and Varkala beach are numerous stores, cafes, restaurants and hotels, ours being one of them. The whole place has a hippie backpacker vibe, strangely with a Himalayan-induced atmosphere with many stores selling Tibetan trinkets and crafts and incense. I felt like I was back in Kathmandu all over again. Every other place offers all sorts of ayurvedic treatments, yoga, meditations and massages. And yes, I did try one, the shirodhara. Have you ever run your fingers lightly over a baby’s forehead and it would instantly send the baby to Dreamland? Now I know how babies feel 😂. With shirodhara, you lie down on a table and they gently pour warm oil on your forehead through a brass vessel with a spout where the oil would go through. At first it was a very strange feeling as the oil drips into my forehead. It felt like there were tiny fingers caressing the inside of my skull all the way to the back of my head. It took a few minutes to get used to it. They would move the vessel so the oil pours like a pendulum going back and forth gently, and would stop in the center. And then I fell asleep 😂. I had an ayurveda massage before that so every inch of me was covered in oil that I felt like I was ready to be put on the grill 😂

 

 

Now on to food. My favorite part is the fresh seafood! It reminds me of the beaches in the Philippines where you pick from the catch of the day and they’ll cook it to your liking. We feasted on fresh fish, squid and prawns.

One early in the morning we walked along the beach , past all the tourist stalls and hotels, until we reached a small fishing village. The fiahermen were already done sorting their catch of the day and were packing up the nets when we got there. It was pretty interesting to see the activities in the fishing village. At night we see thousands of fishing boat lights flickering in the dark sea.

 

 

Locals regard Varkala beach as holy. At the very southern end of the beach are several mounds of sand, with some small shrines or offerings. I learned this is a place where Hindus can scatter the ashes of their loved ones. While we were there, we saw 2 women and a holy man, performing some rituals before they walked towards the sea carrying something on their heads. This is also the place where devotees perform daily puja at 7am in the morning.

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And now for the last of our Kerala adventures, we went on a houseboat.

Kerala is known for its lakes and lagoons linked together by canals, commonly and famously known as the “backwaters of Kerala”. These waterways are almost synonymous with houseboats, what used to be rice barges and now a main tourist attraction in this part of the country. The houseboats vary from small day-tour ones to big fancy ones that can accomodate up to a dozen people. It has bedrooms, living rooms, dining rooms and some even has second floor balconies. Most people stay for at least one night in these houseboats but we opted for just a day trip. We were at the southern gateway to the biggest network of the backwaters so it is less touristy (the northern gateway, Allepey, has most of the houseboats as that is where most tourists go). We hopped in our boat at around 11am, and the houseboat sailed slowly through Lake Ashtamudi. True to what’s written about it, the backwaters are so serene and tranquil all we can hear were the soft hum of the engine, the water splashing at the boat, and our camera shutters. The houseboat crew prepared lunch for us and we had a full spread of Keralan meal.

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houseboat
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the ubiquitous Chinese fishing nets in the Kerala backwaters

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After lunch, we docked at Munroe Island and we were met by our canoe guide who led us to a narrow canal where his canoe was docked. Using a long bamboo pole, he maneuvered his canoe through the palm fringed narrow canals of the island, showing us village homes, prawn and fish ponds, a toddy maker, and a couple of villagers making coir (ropes). We passed through several low bridges that we actually had to duck all the way down the canoe floor for us to go through!

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The canals sort of reminded me of the ricefield irrigation canals we would play in when we were kids 😀 On our way back to the port, we were served tea and fried banana plantains (baduya!). It’s like being home! Now that’s the last of our Kerala adventures 🙂

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