62. Travel (4): Return to India (West Bengal and Kerala)

Note: The main focus of this blog is my thirteen months in Bangladesh. I am moving posts relating to travel (outside Bangladesh) to the end of the blog.

Bangladesh is more or less surrounded by India and so a visit was always on the cards. Trying to decide where to go in this vast and diverse sub-continent, particularly given a limited timescale, was not an easy task. I had spent a memorable eight weeks or so here in the early 1990s as part of a longer stint of travelling through south-east Asia. I was enthralled by India then. At that time I travelled mostly in Rajasthan (Jaipur, Pushcar, Udaipur, Jodhpur and Jaiselmer), with a foray into India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, to visit Agra and Varanasi, and the mandatory few days in the capital, New Delhi. Memories come flooding back: slow, crowded, dream-inducing train journeys; intoxicating scents of spice and incense on warm humid air; vividly coloured silks and saris; exquisitely detailed architecture in spectacular palaces and temples; hallowed Mother Ganga and wandering sacred cows; spell-binding religious rituals; thrilling, beturbaned camel-riding in the great Thar desert; majestic, lumbering elephants; delicious dhal and paratha, chai and chapatti; atmospheric travellers’ haunts and good company; warm monsoon rains; engaging smiles and deep, luminous brown eyes; frenzied activity in city streets; endless creativity amidst chaos and confusion; and a myriad other memories.

India has a population of 1.2 billion, and is the second most populous country in the world. This vast and varied nation has six main religions and over 18 official languages. Landscapes and climates vary dramatically and cultural diversity is a hallmark. India is now a world power on the geo-political stage with a strong military and a fast-growing economy. However, there is still widespread poverty and huge social and environmental problems. In addition, Indian politics are beset by communal, caste and regional tensions. (Mridu Rais gives a good introduction to the evolution of the caste system in India from British colonial times to the post-colonial era and outlines how caste is linked to territory, region and nation.) The long-running battle with neighbouring Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir culminated in a ceasefire in 2003, though bomb attacks in Mumbai in 2008 were blamed on Pakistani militants. India announced a pause in the peace process shortly thereafter.

Much of India’s rich and diverse culture has had major influence globally. In terms of contemporary literature in English, I can think of at least six Indian authors off the top of my head whose novels I have read e.g. Arundhati Roy, Anita Desai, Aravind Adiga, Salman Rusdie, Rohinton Mistry and Vikram Seth, apart at all from works that are influenced by India e.g. E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India, and the films Gandhi, City of Joy and the Bollywood-inspired adaptation of Pride and Prejudice (Bride and Prejudice). If you would like to read more, you will find detailed information on the diverse culture of India here.

My trip to India: West Bengal and Kerala

On this occasion I chose to visit neighbouring Kolkata in West Bengal and then fly to Kerala in the southwest. There are so many places of interest to visit in India and I had no particular reasons for choosing this combination. West Bengal was, of course, of interest after spending more than a year in what was once East Bengal.

First stop Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), West Bengal

In the western world, Kolkata is most often associated with Mother Teresa, Nobel laureate and founder of the Roman Catholic Missionaries of Charity order. (I saw her home for the dying next door to the Kalighat Hindu temple.) While recognised for all that she did for the city’s poor, the associated images of human suffering and squalor resulted in a one-sided, negative depiction of Kolkata that has long infuriated locals. Yes, sadly, there is poverty, just as there is in every city in India and elsewhere in the region. However, there is much more to Kolkata. Here, and indeed in Bangladesh, the city is seen as a vibrant hub of Bengali culture. Throughout India, Kolkata is regarded as the intellectual and cultural capital of the nation. You will have picked that up from other posts in my blog: this is the birthplace of writer Rabindranath Tagore, poet Kazi Nazrul Islam, the great Indian film director and writer Satyajit Ray, theorist and feminist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and many other influential Bengalis. Having lived next door in Dhaka for over a year, I no longer thought of Kolkata in terms of slums and black holes. In fact, I felt very much at home upon arrival. Both Dhaka and Kolkata were once part of historical Bengal and share much in terms of culture and language. Geographically, both Bangladesh and West Bengal share the mangrove forests that comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site (see post 38). Furthermore, West Bengal – Kolkata in particular – is home to many Bangladeshi migrants. I have read that there are whole communities of Bangladeshi Hindus living in and around the city. (Many fled here during the war for Bangladeshi independence – see post 14.)

Situated on the Ganges delta, Kolkata is spread out along the eastern bank of the Hooghly River, a tributary of the Ganges. It’s one of the 10 largest cities in India with a population of 4.4 million (14 million for the entire metropolitan area). It experiences many of the same problems as Dhaka in terms of traffic, pollution and infrastructural logistics. Here too, roughly one third of the population lives in slums. Some of the travellers that I met in Kolkata, who had arrived directly from Europe, Australia and the US, were experiencing intense culture shock. It was only then that I realised how deeply I had slipped into the Bangladeshi way of life. If I had arrived directly from Ireland, I would probably have had a very different reaction to Kolkata. In a way, I was a little sad to miss out on that excitement of arrival that forms a big part of the travel experience. To me, though unquestionably vibrant and energetic, Kolkata seemed altogether quieter and less polluted than Dhaka. In general, it felt ‘easier’ with more transport options (including a metro system, ferries and trams) and a more developed tourist infrastructure. People are more used to seeing foreigners here too. (Memories of Delhi, all those years ago, came flooding back when I first set eyes on ‘tana rickshaws’: Kolkata is one of the last places where these hand-pulled rickshaws are still in use.)

Here are some of the highlights of my visit to Kolkata. 

  • Riding in yellow Ambassador taxis and loving the white classic Ambassador cars.
  • Being reminded of my first trip to India at the Howrah Hotel, a throw-back to the budget hotels of that time. However, unfortunately, I didn’t have time to hang out and laze about as I did back then: I wanted to experience as much of Kolkata as I could.
  • Walking across the heaving Howrah Bridge, which spans the River Hooghly, amidst the throng of pedestrians. This cantilever bridge is said to be one of the busiest in the world, used by millions of commuters daily. It was built during World War 11 to give Allied troops access to the Burmese front.
  • Taking the ferry from Howrah to Babu ghat – a great way to experience the River Hooghly and gain another perspective on the city.
  • Marvelling at the huge statue of Queen Victoria which stands in front of the Victoria Memorial. (We removed such reminders in Ireland!) The ‘Memorial’ is an immense, imposing, white marble building, said to be modelled on the Taj Mahal. It’s a fitting reminder of the pomp of the British Raj, of which Kolkata was the capital until 1912. To get there, I walked through the nearby Maidan (a vast public park).
  • Taking refuge from the heat in the cool, tranquil interior of St. Paul’s gothic cathedral, built in 1847. (The nearby Academy of Fine Arts was being renovated unfortunately: the exhibitions that remained open to the public didn’t inspire me much.)
  • Visiting teeming Kalighat Kali Temple at night, Kolkata’s holiest Hindu destination, and therefore an important centre of pilgrimage. It’s dedicated to the Hindu Goddess Kali and is tucked away behind a busy marketplace. (Some say that Kolkata got its name from Kali.) Armed with offerings of flowers, I joined the throng of streaming pilgrims as we visited significant sites and statues, including the revered and unusual statue of Kali in a cage-like structure. Outside, the temple pond was strangely quiet: perhaps it’s busier in daytime. Unfortunately, there was a lot of aggression at this site from temple touts and this somewhat detracted from its enjoyment.
  • Finding narrow streets that reminded me very much of Hindu Street in Old Dhaka.
  • Coming across adhoc statue collections of Hindu deities in side streets and alleyways. Thrown together in this way they looked comical.
  • Wandering around a pottery yard where statues were being sculpted and being surrounded by hundreds of Kalis in various stages of completion.
  • Unexpectedly stumbling upon a mini puja (festival) in Little Britain Street in Dalhouise and being welcomed with flowers and a scarf by a very handsome Kolkatan. Enjoying the festivities and camaraderie into the late hours.
  • Browsing through the crowded used-book stalls that line College Street, near the reputable University of Kolkata.
  • Sitting sipping coffee in one of Kolkata’s legendary coffeehouses, the Indian Coffee House in the north of the city, off College Street. It’s famous for its ‘adda’ sessions (see post 26) and is said to have been the breeding ground for several political and cultural movements. It certainly lived up to its reputation: it was jam-packed and resonated with the hum of conversation.
  • Wandering between street bazar stalls that sold everything from saris to religious artifacts to fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Enjoying the variety of tasty Indian food and recognising a lot of the street food from Dhaka e.g. phushka (see post 26).
  • Eating delicious tikka masala at the Diamond Restaurant, a small, local eatery on Hari Mohan Bose Road, not far from my hotel.
  • Attending an exhibition of hand-coloured aquatint engravings at the University of Kolkata by Thomas and William Daniell (uncle and nephew), part of their monumental six-volume work ‘Oriental Scenery’, published between 1795 and 1808. It was interesting to read about their travels in India. Their artistic exploration of the sublime and the exotic was very popular back home in England, where fledgling romanticism was being accompanied by a fascination with India that had grown out of the Grand Tour. Travelling in India was a formidable undertaking in those days. Thomas Daniell wrote in 1788: ‘The Lord be praised at length, I have completed my twelve views. The fatigue I have experienced … has almost worn me out.’ Two hundred and twenty two years later, despite immeasurably improved travelling conditions, there are times when I can wholeheartedly empathise!
  • Viewing an exhibition of photographs on the life and times of Dr. Sarvepali Radhakrishnan, born in 1888 and a professor of Philosophy in the University from 1921 – 1941. He went on to become President of India from 1962 to 1967. There were various photographs of him with heads of state and with Tagore and Gandhi, amongst others.
  • Spending an enjoyable morning in the tranquil Thakurbari in Jorosanko, the ancestral home of the Thakurs (anglicised to Tagores). Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore (see post 29) was born and raised in this house, which was built by his grandfather Prince Dwarkanath Tagore. Jorosanko served as a cultural nerve centre during the Bengali Renaissance. Standing alone in the beautiful, white courtyard and imagining times past, I would have given anything to have been transported back to that time for a day or two. Today, Jorosanko houses a museum and there is also a university on the grounds.
  • Accompanying a student of music to the library at the university, where he comes every Saturday to study Tagore manuscripts. Later, I met a lovely woman called Debjani who is a singer of Tagore songs: she invited me to a recital at her home later in the week, but, unfortunately, I won’t be here.
  • Exchanging stories with fellow travellers in Sudder Street and indulging in delicious squeezed juices, pancakes and freshly brewed coffee.
  • Wandering around the upmarket BBD Bagh, previously called Dalhouise Square, in central Kolkata. It was renamed as the former to commemorate three men (B, B & D!) who died for independence. I saw the impressive red brick Writers Building which was built in 1780 by the British East India Company to house clerks (‘writers’) and today houses the West Bengal Government. Nearby is the beautiful, all-white Scottish St. Andrews Church, built in 1818, with its elegant spire.
  • Visiting the Government College of Art and Craft, an oasis of calm and artistic endeavour. (In Dhaka, I had visited an exhibition of paintings (titled ‘A shifting weave of memory’) by the principal of this college, Dipali Bhattachorya.)
  • Meeting Mark from London, who reads Bengali, and discovering more about Tagore over dinner in the Blue Sky Café on Sudder Street. 

Next stop Kerala, Southern India

After an interesting couple of days in Kolkata I was bound for Kerala, a state in south-western India that stretches along the Malabar Coast between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghats mountain range. Ports along this 369-mile (590 km) stretch of the Malabar Coast played an important role in the global spice trade in medieval and colonial times. I frequently found myself imagining the magnificent treasure-laden wooden galleons that must have passed this way up to six centuries ago.

The state of Kerala, promoted in tourism literature as God’s Own Country, has the largest population of Christians in India. Of the population of circa 33.4 million, 19% are Christian, 25% Muslim and 56% Hindu. Malayalam is the official language, spoken by 97% of Keralites. As one of the more socially progressive states in India, despite lagging economically, it has achieved high scores in a number of development indices e.g. literacy rates, life expectancy and gender equality. Amongst all Indian states, Kerala scores highest on the UN HDI index. These successes, among other factors, suggest a unique development path that has been studied by political scientists, economists and others as ‘The Kerala Model’. Tourism, fishing and agriculture are the mainstay of the economy. The state contributes more than 30% to India’s total marine fish production and over 36% of marine exports. Remittances from overseas migrants in the gulf underpin much of Kerala’s progress.

Historically, Kerala was regarded as India’s most open and tolerant state. From at least the fourth century, Hindus had been trading with merchants and settlers from Jewish, Muslim and Christian traditions. From the 20th century, many Keralites joined the global wave of migration, bringing back new ideas on their return. Traders were replaced by tourists. Historically, communities had close social and economic ties despite cultural and religious differences. However, all that is changing. Policies of globalisation, and more recently the global downturn, have resulted in economic difficulties in Kerala, particularly in the farming and fishing sectors. The state has one of the highest rates of suicide in India, particularly amongst farmers. Outbreaks of violence throughout the state have increased. This is particularly true in Kerala’s fishing communities. Impoverishment and discontent have opened the floodgates to communalism and tension. Further catalysts include: a growing and very visible inequality between families who enjoy remittances from the gulf and those that don’t; the reported radicalisation of some Muslim migrants in the gulf; and the exploitation of local unrest by some groups for political purposes, thus further exacerbating tensions.

Kerala has a rich cultural tradition that includes religious festivals and arts, snake boat races, classical dance, theatre (e.g. kathakali and koodiyattam), music, a distinctive cuisine and literature. The author Arundhati Roy, mentioned above, is a Keralite and her novel The God of Small Things is set in the Kottayam area.

Thiruvanthapuram, Kovalam and Vizhinjam

I flew from Kolkata to Chennai (formerly Madras) and from Chennai to Thiruvanthapuram, also known by its easier-to-pronounce colonial name, Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala state. From my base at Greenland Lodging in the capital, I visited Kovalam and Vizhinjam further south. The highlights of my few days in the south of Kerala include:

  • Listening to the fascinating life experiences of my travelling companion, Relja, on the flight from Kolkata to Chennai. Originally from Serbia, now living in Chennai, he proved through his stories that fact can indeed be stranger than fiction.
  • Flying over the spice and tea plantations of the Western Ghats and seeing the Malabar Coast from on high, aboard the flight from Chennai to Thiruvananthapuram.
  • Spending a few hours at the tall, tiered Sree Padmanabhaswamy Hindu Temple, dedicated to the patron deity of the Travancore Rajas (once the ruling family of this area). Unfortunately, as a non-Hindu, I couldn’t enter. I had a peek inside though: it looked like a cave from the entrance. It is said that the deity in the central sanctum is composed of over 12,000 sacred stones brought by elephant from the Gandhaki River in Nepal. There were many dreadlocked pilgrims in white and bright-orange robes wandering in and out and the atmosphere was festival-like.
  • Visiting the nearby Puttan Malika (Horse Palace), the seat of the aforementioned Travancore Rajas, not far from the temple pond.
  • Enjoying delicious, spicy, garlicky Keralan chicken in coconut milk with naan bread. Drinking freshly squeezed lime juice and rediscovering the Indian lassi in all its mouth-watering varieties.
  • Taking a bus south to the beach town of Kovalam. I was glad I made the journey, and despite negative guide book descriptions, I found it to be a laid-back, atmospheric little place. After a delicious breakfast in Waves, a German bakery overlooking Lighthouse Beach, I went for a walk by the water and pottered around in the little tourist shops.
  • Walking from Kovalam south along the coast to Vizhinjam, one of the politically sensitive fishing villages referred to in the introduction above. Here, communities have been polarised and occasional violent outbursts occur between Roman Catholics and Muslims. Last year, court proceedings started in relation to the Vizhinjam riots of 1995 (as reported in The Hindu on 8/8/2008). Today, Christian and Muslim families live as separate communities on either side of a dividing beach, a no-man’s land in-between. I have read that if boundaries are transgressed, boats are liable to go up in flames, as a series of incidents in recent years have proved. After the 2004 tsunami, NGOs with religious affiliations aggravated the situation further by distributing aid along religious lines. Here, the beaches were very different than those I had left earlier that morning in Kovalam. These were working, fishing beaches. I wandered around between both parts of Vizhinjam but I didn’t find anyone I could talk with, unfortunately. I could sense the tension though as people regarded me warily.
  • Finding interesting anecdotal background information on the plight of fisher folk in Kerala in a 1993 article in the New International. The feature provides some insight into how issues of caste have historically affected Kerala’s fishing communities, in this case Roman Catholic communities, in places like Vizhinjam. In the absence of meeting people that I could talk to about communal strife in Kerala, this article, though outdated, provided me with some background. It is unfortunate that such inter-community strife exists in Vizhinjam today between two such historically marginalised groups of fisher folk, as is evidenced in the following extract.

‘….It’s late afternoon when we reach Vizhinjam. The streets are so busy it feels like all its 10,000 or so residents – 7,000 Christian and 3,000 Muslim – are out and about. The houses are very small. The mosque and numerous Christian churches are very large.

Fish is being sold. Toddy – an alcoholic beverage drawn from the coconut trees – is being bought. In between snatches of conversation and gossip in rapid-fire Malayalam, Magline tells the history of the fisherfolk.

It is a story of extreme marginalization in virtually every sense. For centuries they were the poor people, the pariahs, not allowed into schools, churches or temples, pushed out onto the very margins of the land – into the sea, in fact.

The ruling upper-caste Hindus – who were vegetarian – viewed the fisherfolk as the lowest of the low. These people lived by fish. Dealt in fish. Smelt of fish. And, it must be added, they drank like fish too. Tired after a long night’s fishing, the men would come back with their catch at dawn. Fish does not keep – it has to be sold quickly. Waiting for them on the shore were the merchants and loan sharks.

…….Nobody took much interest in the lives of the fishing people – until Portuguese Catholic missionaries arrived in the sixteenth century. They – unlike the lofty Syrian Orthodox Christians who had already been in Kerala for about 1,000 years – saw the fisherfolk as souls fit for conversion.

[See also this interesting research summary from the Australian Refugee Review Tribunal dated 3rd April 2009.]

  • Journeying by local bus from Kovalam back to Trivandrum, stopping at many small villages en route.
  • Drinking coffee in the Trivandrum branch of the Indian Coffee House (ICH). This one is housed in a red-brick, spiral-shaped building designed by the renowned British-born Indian architect, Laurie Baker. Inside, the waiters wore the trademark ICH pagri (turbans) that I had seen in Kolkata.

North to Varkala

After an uncomfortable 32-mile journey in an overcrowded train I arrived in sun-soaked Varkala. All along the coast of Kerala there are many small and medium-sized hotels tucked into the cliffside offering endless ayurvedic R&R. Though regrettably, on this occasion, I couldn’t afford the cost of indulging in treatments that promised renewal of body and soul, Varkala went a way towards this. The slightly hippy tourist activity is centred along a promenade atop sheer, red laterite cliffs overlooking a crescent-shaped beach below. I wanted to stay at the Bamboo Village on South Cliff but it was full unfortunately. Instead, I took a basic room opposite the ‘village’ in Villa Venus. The town of Varkala proper is behind the promenade, the main part almost 2km southwest. The beach is quiet but has a dangerous rip-tide and is not safe for swimming. I loved the laid back holiday atmosphere on the clifftop: I could easily have spent a week here. Highlights included:

  • Sitting in cliff-top bars and restaurants, under the shade of palm-thatch and bamboo, sipping fresh lime soda and watching the sun set over the dazzling Arabian Sea.
  • Enjoying the company of fellow travellers and soaking up the somewhat bohemian atmosphere away from the madding crowds. [However, I was reminded that I was still in Kerala every morning from 5 a.m. onwards when mosques, temples and churches vied with each other in what seemed like an attempt to break the sound barrier. There was the Muslim muezzin’s call to prayer, some kind of Hindu woofer-blasting system and Christian loud-hailers, all accompanied by what sounded like gun shots (possibly firecrackers?). The cacophony continued till breakfast and I was to hear variations on the theme again and again during my time in Kerala.]
  • Browsing in the touristy and arty little shops along the clifftop path.
  • Sharing stories beneath swaying palms over lassis, fresh juices, cappuccinos and cakes in Clafouti, Blue Marine and other cliff-top cafés.
  • Drinking beer from teapots at dinner, so disguised to avoid the possibility of arrest for lack of liquor licence.
  • Smiling at the way English is used on menus e.g. ‘hotty dishes’ (i.e. spicy!)
  • Enjoying delicious Keralan specialities e.g. fish molly/molee – a fish curry served with coconut rice, and an interesting tandoori fish dish, the name of which escapes me. Choosing the fish first from the evening catch, displayed out front in all the restaurants along the promenade.
  • Walking north on a wonderful coastal path that traversed beaches too, past the villages of Oddayam and Edava. Arriving at Kapill Beach and the nearby bridge across Kapill Lake. From the bridge I could see where the backwaters (see below) meet the sea.
  • Spotting a couple of sea eagles flying close to the cliff-edge. On my walk north from Varkala I saw a huge variety of birds in large numbers including beautiful white egrets, gliding birds of prey, black and grey herons and sand pipers.
  • Walking through narrow, quiet lanes in Varkala to visit small temples.
  • Having a meditative chai (tea) in Shri Padmam at Temple Junction on a quiet terrace overlooking an atmospheric village pond.

North to Alappuzha, formerly known as Alleppey 

Though I could have stayed longer in Varkala’s clifftop travellers’ haunt, it was time to move on and so I reluctantly abandoned my newly acquired travel companions and took a train to another popular tourist destination, about 64 miles north, called Alappuzha, or Alleppey. Lord Curzon, a Viceroy of the Indian Empire, referred to Alleppey as the ‘Venice of the East’. (Incidentally, this was the same Lord Curzon who inaugurated Curzon Hall in Dhaka University in 1904 – see post 28.) The town is situated on the Arabian Sea and also sits amidst a vast 560-mile network of lakes, lagoons and freshwater rivers. Alleppey is a jumping off point for travelling through these lush backwaters, the main reason why many travellers come to Kerala. I stayed in a lovely heritage home called Keralite Vadakekalam House, north of Dutch Square. Highlights from Alleppey included:

  • Staying in the aforementioned homestay, a 100-year-old Syrian-Christian house with antique furnishings and lots of period atmosphere. My hostess Alice, who, with her husband, owns this house,  was very welcoming. I met her husband (whose name I can’t remember) briefly the following morning at breakfast, during which I sampled delicious homemade breads and interesting preserves, also home-produced.
  • Visiting the Raheem Residency (hotel). I was interested because it is part-owned by Irish woman Bibi Baskin, formerly a journalist and television presenter. Alice told me that Bibi is a friend of hers and stayed at Keralite while carrying out restoration work. The hotel is gorgeous, but out of my price range unfortunately. Bibi wasn’t home that day!
  • Wandering around the town by the beach and the myriad picturesque canals and waterways.  I saw a lot of interesting-looking buildings, all rich in architectural detail, that I would like to have learnt more about e.g. colonial-era factories and warehouses, old-looking houses in various states of disrepair, churches, mosques and temples (including a Jain Temple).
  • Eating a very good chicken tikka masala. Alice recommended the Hotel Royale Park on YMCA Road for dinner. It wasn’t the most atmospheric or friendly place but the food was good. I missed the atmosphere and camaraderie of Varkala though.

The backwaters: Alleppey to Kottayam

As mentioned above, the ‘backwaters’ is the name given to Kerala’s vast, meandering network of canals, lakes, lagoons and freshwater rivers. The most popular way for tourists to travel through the backwaters is aboard a ‘house boat’ (kettuvallum). However, as a solo traveller, this was not a feasible option. Nevertheless, by travelling on local boats and canoes and walking on paths between waterways I gained rich and rewarding insights into backwater life. The area that I travelled in is known as the Kuttanad. I have read that the negative impacts of tourism are affecting rural communities and the environment in this area. In particular, the unregulated growth of houseboat tourism is a major concern. However, during my trip from Alleppey to Kottayam I didn’t see more than four/five houseboats in all (though I was travelling off-season). The highlights of my time in the backwaters were:

  • A spectacular, slow 30km journey by local boat from Alleppey to Kottayam through the backwaters, stopping off en-route at small piers to pick up passengers and drop off others.
  • Enjoying the tranquillity and the glittering scenery along the route. In places, the riverbanks were thick with coconut palms. The scenery alternated between flat rice paddies, open agricultural land, bucolic villages and colourful churches and temples. At times we were in the open waters of Lake Vembanad. At other times we were navigating narrow canals. All along the route there was an abundance of plant and bird life.
  • Taking zillions of photographs, prompted by endless shimmering reflections.
  • The location of GK Riverview, the homestay I chose on the bank of the River Meenachil in Aymanam (near Kottayam), not far from the birthplace of Arundhati Roy, the author of The God of Small Things.
  • Though the ‘homestay’ was disappointing on many levels (especially in light of the overwhelmingly positive reviews it receives), I enjoyed good company (Denis, David and Rupa, Phil and Ruth) and lovely, long walks in the locale, visiting churches and temples,  playing with children and witnessing life unfold quietly.
  • Meandering through the narrower waterways of the backwaters in the vicinity of the homestay in an old wooden canoe with fellow travellers, David and Rupa (Canada). For much of the journey we were in the comfortable shade of the over-hanging leaf canopy, where both sides of the canal were lined with houses, offering interesting glimpses into the lives of locals. Throughout the trip we saw colourfully-clad women on canal banks soaking, soaping and slapping wet clothes against flat washing stones.
  • Spotting vividly-coloured flowers and darting kingfishers amongst the enveloping lush, green foliage.

North-east to Kumily (Thekkady) and Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary

Reluctantly leaving the beautiful backwaters behind, I took a bus north-east from Kottayam to Kumily, also known as Thekkady, which is situated on the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border, in the Cardamom Hills region of the Western Ghats mountain range. The town is a gateway to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, where, theoretically, it is possible to see tigers. However, with less than 40 tigers in a 357 sq. ml. park, the chances of actually seeing one are slim. The reserve surrounds a 10 sq. ml. artificial lake, created by the British in 1895 by damming the Periyar River to provide a water supply to the plains below. Because of Kumily’s elevation (2953ft–5906ft), temperatures are pleasantly cooler, particularly in early morning and late evening. The town itself is relatively quiet and survives purely to service the nearby wildlife sanctuary and the tourists that visit. Consequently, hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops dominate and there is no shortage of invitations to ‘come and have a look’. All in all, I would have to say that neither the town nor the reserve would draw me back, and I could happily have skipped this area in favour of extra time elsewhere. Nevertheless, there were highlights as follows:

  • Sitting up front on the bus from Kottayam to Kumily, where there was a nice breeze and always something interesting to see. There were a lot of churches on this route – some spectacular – and a variety of elaborate roadside shrines. It felt exhilarating to be in mountain landscape again.
  • Enjoying views into the wildlife sanctuary from the balcony of my lovely room in the White House on Lake Road in Kumily. The proprietor, Lily Joseph, was very warm and brought me a welcome cup of tea upon arrival.
  • Relaxing in the quirky Coffee Inn and neighbouring Jungle Café, both near the White House, with similar views into the wildlife sanctuary. Enjoying nice (though lonely) breakfasts in Chrissies Café while taking in the mountain views from the rooftop terrace.
  • Watching monkeys on walls in the village and getting a fright when a bold one landed suddenly on my table in the Wildernest café, where I was having coffee and cake. Staring defiantly at me, it took the lid off the sugar bowl and helped itself to a sugar lump! It looked quite large and threatening up close.
  • Walking along the pleasant two-and-a-half mile, tree-lined path from the entrance gates to the boat jetty on the lake, in the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Seeing teak trees and reading about the trade in teak timber on the Malabar coast in colonial – and even earlier- times. The European demand for teak wood (mainly for ship-building) meant that huge tracts of land in Kerala were reserved for plantations. Demand declined once steel ships began to replace wooden vessels.
  • Gliding between dramatic, part-submerged, dead trees on the lake, stark reminders of the forested valley that once occupied the lake-bed. Birds nest on the bare branches today. The dead trees lend an eerie beauty to the tranquillity of the lake. The boat trip itself felt rather restrictive. It was heavily policed: nobody was allowed to move, or sit in the upper deck. I learnt later that an accident on this lake some time ago resulted in the deaths of many tourists. Apparently, everybody had rushed to one side to view an animal and the boat capsized. There was very little wildlife to see on the shores today, apart from water buffalo, and while there were birds, I saw more in Varkala and in the backwaters.
  • Enjoying a spicy, creamy Keralan chicken dish with garlic and herb naan bread in the Ayur and Ginger restaurant in the Lake Hotel. The food was good, but again, the atmosphere was somewhat lacking. (My choice was restricted because I needed to find an indoor, air-conditioned restaurant in order to avoid adding to my cache of painful mosquito bites.)

North to Munnar (eventually), via Theni in Tamil Nadu

I was eager to move on from Kumily and get to Munnar but a bus strike and much misinformation made for a frustrating day of travel and a waste of valuable time. The situation looked promising to begin with. Kumily is on the border with Tamil Nadu so all I had to do to avoid the Keralan bus strike was walk across the border to the Tamil Nadu bus stand. There, I eventually found a bus for Madurai that stopped in Theni, from where I was told I could get a bus to Munnar. However, when I reached Theni I realised that I had been misinformed earlier. There would be no buses to Munnar until 4pm (or 5pm or 6pm depending on the information desk I asked at). So I was stuck in Theni, a busy city, on a scorching day with time to kill. As my guidebook only covered Kerala, I decided to go into a large, modern-looking hotel and ask advice on what I could do in the city for a few hours. A very convincing young man at the reception desk told me that I should visit Vaigai Dam, a ‘very beautiful area with a waterfall, gardens and a hotel’. Getting there proved to be a challenge: unfriendly auto drivers were demanding exorbitant fees. Eventually, I took a local bus to Aundipatti and got an auto from there. To cut a long story short, the dam was interesting in the way that dams are, but no more than that. The ‘hotel’ was uninvitingly seedy-looking, so I bought drinks and snacks in a small food stall instead. I intended to find a shady spot in the ‘gardens’ but was harassed by a group of angry youths. (I have no idea why they were angry with me.) The man at the food stall gave me a chair and invited me to sit by his stall, though conversation was impossible because of the language barrier. I got back to the bus station in Theni well before 4 p.m. and happened upon a bus that was leaving for Munnar. I had just enough time to collect my backpack. The bus pulled out of Munnar station ten minutes before the hour! The journey from Theni to Munnar was spectacular and made up for the frustrations of the day. For a lot of the time we were winding our way through the Western Ghats mountain ranges on a series of hairpin bends.

It was dark by the time I reached Munnar. My time here was shortened by the travel debacle described above. Memories of similar frustrations from previous travels in India came flooding back. The difference on this occasion is my tight time-schedule: time is of the essence when travelling in India, and I had to expect some repercussions for ignoring this principle. Nevertheless, I got a feeling for the Munnar area: below are some of the highlights.

  • My bus journeys to get here were definite highlights: the first bus from Kumily to Theni brought me through plains, framed by mountains in the distance. I saw ancient-looking, bullock-pulled carts and open agricultural land between towns and villages along the route. A lovely woman on the bus offered me deep-fried banana which was delicious. During the wonderful journey through the mountains from Theni to Munnar, we stopped for tea in a stunningly situated atmospheric little mountain village on the Tamil Nadu/Kerala border. The sign read Melachokanathapuram Town Panchayet, although the Customs House had Bodi Mettu, Kerala on the wall. Whatever its name, the views were breathtaking and the mountain breeze refreshing. At times, during the bus journey, we were driving along narrow roads cut into the mountains with sheer drops on one side. These, and the hairpin bends, kept me on the edge of my seat! I witnessed a sublime mountain sunset. Daylight faded rapidly as we continued to wind our way down to the town of Munnar. I took an auto to the first place on my list – J J Cottage in Old Munnar – and luckily they had a room.
  • The town of Munnar was busier and more chaotic than I thought it would be and its layout was confusing. However, the hills that surround the town offered a more pleasant perspective. A walk in any direction eventually leads to tea and spice plantations and the higher you climb the more the beauty of the high ranges becomes apparent. I spent most of my day in Munnar walking in the surrounding hills.
  • The Munnar area has some of the highest altitude tea plantations in the world, a fact I picked up at the interesting Kanan Devan Tea Museum. As well as being introduced to displays of the various stages in tea production, I also learnt something of the historic transformation of this area through the development of the tea industry. I discovered a lot about the different varieties of tea and the language used to describe dry leaf, infused leaf and the final cuppa. There’s a lot more to the humble brew than I thought!
  • I enjoyed a dish called ‘chicken palak’ in the ‘Royal Retreat’ restaurant where I met a French girl who was studying ayurvedic medicine and yoga in Kerala. There was an exceptionally good curd-based dessert here too.

Back to the Malabar coast: Kochi, formerly known as Cochin

My final journey in Kerala had a cold and early start (5.30a.m.). After what felt like a gruelling eternity of winding our way in darkness through the mountain ranges of the Western Ghats, we tumbled out of the bus gratefully at a traditional tea-house in the town of Adimali. I chatted for a while to the lovely man in charge of chai. After warming up, the remainder of the journey was less of a struggle. For one thing it was light outside and I could watch the unfolding scenery. My destination was Kochi, a city embedded in the long and rich history of the Indian spice trade on the Malabar Coast. I have read accounts of spices, particularly pepper, or ‘black gold’ as it was known, being shipped from this area to ancient Greece as far back as the fourth century BC. I have also read that at one point the Romans were sending 120 ships a year from Egypt to trade with India and bring back vast quantities of pepper. History attests not only to the importance of trade along this spice route, but to the ways it shaped and influenced the course of world events, especially in relation to colonisation, as Europeans sought to find sea routes to the East. Columbus stumbled upon the Americas while seeking a route to the East Indies. The forming of the British East India Company in 1600, to compete with the Dutch spice trade, led to the colonisation of the Indian subcontinent.

From around 1400 Fort Cochin was attracting Jewish, Arab and Syrian Christian merchants who set up shop here. Travellers, traders and envoys from around the globe came to buy and sell goods, pay their respects to local royalty and admire the grand palaces and bazaars. The arrival of Vasco da Gama at the end of the 15th century precipitated a long period of European settlement. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch and then the English in the battle for control of the lucrative spice trade.

Today, the city has three distinct regions: Ernakulam, the modern city to the east and the older districts of Mattancherry and Fort Cochin on a peninsula in the west. My time in Kochi was much too short. I could easily have spent a week or more here. I didn’t see the modern city at all. Instead, I divided my time between Mattancherry and Fort Cochin, where I stayed. Highlights were as follows:

  • Wandering through the maze of narrow streets in Fort Cochin and Mattancherry where interesting buildings whisper tales of colonial times.
  • Visiting the ‘go downs’ on Bazaar Road in Mattancherry, where the historic trading culture of Cochin is most visible. Many of the blue-shuttered, ochre coloured buildings were once pepper warehouses and continue to trade in spices today.
  • Admiring the marvellous murals in Mattancherry Palace. The palace was built by the Portuguese in the 16th century for the local royal family, in exchange for trading rights. It was later extended by the Dutch. (It is sometimes known as the Dutch Palace.) The impressive frescoes, many of which, I understand, depict scenes from the Ramayana, form part of the canon of Keralan murals, which have attracted renewed interest of late. For most of the 20th century this highly stylised art-form was out of fashion, but there has been a revival in the last decade or so.
  • Browsing in curio and antique shops in the labyrinth that is Jewtown, Asia’s oldest Jewish enclave, though most of its residents moved on to Hong Kong and Shanghai more than a century ago. Many of the traders today are Kashmiri. I saw some lovely ‘colonial-era’ furniture that I liked, though it’s difficult to know whether it’s authentic or not.
  • Visiting the Paradesi Synagogue (1568), a legacy of the Jewish presence in Kerala that dates back to 70 AD, though now catering mostly to tourists. The main hall is richly decorated, including lovely blue-and-white willow pattern tiles on the floor from Guangzhou, said to be several centuries old. There were so many chandeliers hanging from the ceiling that it looked a bit like a lighting shop!
  • Enjoying coffee and delicious lemon cheesecake in the lovely Old Courtyard restaurant in Fort Cochin.
  • Visiting the beautiful St. Francis Church, the oldest European church in India (dating to 1503).  Vasco da Gama was originally buried at this church, when he died in Kochi in 1524. (His body was repatriated to Lisbon in 1539.) [Unfortunately, the Santa Cruz Basilica was closed by the time I got there.]
  • Marvelling at the attractive, vernacular, architectural heritage of Kochi. I saw some interesting mosques in Fort Cochin. Though built in the vernacular style they were still recognisable as mosques.
  • Enjoying a delicious Keralan fish dish with garlic and ginger in the Chariot Beach Restaurant.
  • Watching the sun set against the backdrop of the city’s most prominent landmark, a cluster of giant cantilevered, wooden-frame fishing nets. They are believed to be the legacy of medieval Chinese spice traders. It takes at least four fishermen to hoist and dip the nets by operating a delicate system of counterweights. The line of nets looked very beautiful against the evening sky.
  • Chatting with Ron from Charleston, South Carolina, over tea in a little café on my last night in Kerala, also my last night in India. Om Mane Padme Hum was playing in the background, bringing back memories of Nepal and Tibet. Meeting Ron has reminded me of how much I want to visit Charleston and the American South.

Final thoughts

I am finding it difficult to wrap up this post and articulate my summary thoughts about this much-anticipated return visit to India. I feel a certain ambivalence that I think has alot to do with the timing and particular circumstances of my journey, and not just my experiences in India. It was indeed a great privilege to visit the vibrant city of Kolkata and travel through Kerala’s lush, green countryside. The highlights of my travels, as described above, attest to the richness of my experiences. Yet, throughout the journey, there was an undercurrent – almost unconscious at times – of feeling that something was missing. And though I tried, I failed to entirely shake off that sense of loss.

Part of the reason lies in the fact that I was returning to India after almost twenty years. Nothing could compare with that first journey in India. My memories of that time are still extraordinarily vivid and are inextricably linked with my first experience of long-term, long-haul travel. I was on a ‘round-the-world’ ticket then and I was filled with a sense of excitement and adventure; I made deep and lasting friendships along the way; and the density and intensity of experience filled me with awe and wonder and pure joy. There was an innocence to that time that could never be recaptured.

And although I’m older now (and more cynical unfortunately) this can’t be the full explanation. After all, I continue to derive immense joy from travelling: indeed I often think that travel is essential to my personal sense of well-being. However, this travel experience was framed against the background of almost a year of living and travelling in Bangladesh. Looking back, I think I was simply tired and I compounded this by trying to pack too much into a limited time-frame. Crossing the border from Bengali Dhaka to Bengali Kolkata didn’t give me that sense of excitement that typically accompanies arrival at the beginning of a travel adventure. There is no doubt that I usually enjoy the freedom of travelling alone, but after a year of living in Bangladesh I longed for the company of like-minded travellers. And though I did meet some lovely fellow travellers, contact was fleeting as I was constantly moving on. Another factor was the quality of my interactions with locals in India. I’m trying my best not to be biased but it has been my experience that my reception in India has been rather cold and formal when compared to the warmth and apparent joy with which I am welcomed on my travels in Bangladesh. I didn’t ‘connect’ with locals in the way that I usually do when I travel. While I did meet some affable folk on this journey, I missed the  genuine friendliness of the people of Bangladesh. In the absence of a tourist industry, there is no sense of being ‘ripped off’ in Bangladesh (apart from the occasional CNG-driver!). On the contrary, I have been met with nothing but openness, kindness and courtesy from locals during my travels in rural Bangladesh, and also indeed on the streets of Dhaka. All too often I take this for granted and it is only when I return from elsewhere that I am reminded of it.

At the end of the day though, I am happy that I made the effort to revisit India. Memories of this journey will endure: there has been much of geographic, historic and cultural interest and I saw some stunningly beautiful landscapes. In relation to the ‘travelling’ experience itself, I wrote elsewhere that ultimately, for me, it is the quality of the feeling of ‘being’ in each place that lingers. Much depends on the connections I make with local people. On this journey in India that feeling of ‘being’ was not as deep or as enriching as it has been on other occasions. I didn’t experience that level of euphoria that I usually do when I travel. But I understand now that the reasons for this lie partly with me too. Hopefully my next travel experience in this vast and varied country will be a considerably slower one, with more meaningful encounters and a more invigorated mental and physical starting point.

Until then, I’m adding some photographs below from this trip. I took so many and it’s almost impossible to choose. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (449 photographs in all). Enjoy!

1. Howrah Bridge, Kolkata


2 responses to “62. Travel (4): Return to India (West Bengal and Kerala)

  1. Hello Ann! It has been a long time. I was amazed to find you here. I think you have been travelling a lot since we last were in contact? I was reading your introduction above and wondering if this was the time when we first met? Next year I will be 60 and will return to Asia. If you have inclination to travel we could meet up again. In the meantime I will enjoy reading your blog. How do I get in touch with you by e-mail? Bernhardt (Germany)

    • OMG, it’s so great to hear from you Bern! It has indeed been a very, very long time. And yes, the period I’m referring to at the beginning of this post was just after the very first time we met in Thailand! Such good memories ❤. I have every intention of going back to Asia – I’ve been dreaming about Vietnam and Malaysia lately! So let’s talk further about that …. Your e-mail came through when you left this comment so I’ll be in touch very soon. I can’t stop smiling 🙂 !!

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