Kerala, India
Red Lantern Journeys

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Article and photos by | additional photos by published | april ‘09

Chinese fishing netLast September I attended the annual Kerala Travel Mart in Cochin. I stayed at the Malabar House, one of Fort Cochin’s first boutique heritage hotels, dating back to 1755. It was a pleasant, relaxing place with excellent food and comfortable rooms. We also visited several other similar heritage hotels such as the Old Harbour Hotel, and the Koder House. These hotels were colonial homes of former Portuguese and Dutch merchants that have been beautifully restored. Best of all, they are within just a few minutes walk of each other and the shoreline with the famous Chinese fishing nets. Next to the nets is an open-air fish market where you can buy some fresh fish to have cooked up right in front of you at nearby shacks. If you order beer, they probably won’t be licensed to sell it, but will some how produce a coffee mug filled to the brim. No glass mugs as that would make it too obvious what you were drinking.

A really special place in Fort Cochin is the Brunton Boatyard Hotel. It’s located on the shores of where the backwaters open up to the sea. It was built from the remains of a Victorian shipyard and has only 22 rooms. It’s also a CGH hotel. CGH is a high-end group of eco-sensitive hotels that makes great use of the local resources, involves the local community and places emphasis on sustainable business practices and socially-conscious tourism. What they have done is quite amazing and highly commendable.

tea plantationAbout a five-hour drive to the northwest of Cochin is the rural district of Palakkad. It is definitely off the beaten path, which is what makes it so special. Here we stayed at the 200-year-old ancestral home of Kandath Tharavad. It was built according to the principles of Vaasthu Shastra, an ancient Kerala science of architecture, and located amidst rice and coconut plantations and small villages. Mr. Bhagwaldas, the owner, told us of his policies about interacting with the local children: no giving of money, candy, or even pens directly as it promotes a culture of begging and becomes a part of the problem, instead of the solution. He asks that visitors who wish to give something to help the local community put money in a box at his home which he then gives to the local school. He is also glad to personally escort visitors to visit villages, basket weavers, temples, potters and will even invite the family astrologer to read their palms.

From Palakkad, a half-day’s drive will get you into the hills of the Western Ghats near the former British hill-station of Munnar. As you gain elevation, the air cools to a point where it can be downright chilly. Munnar is nearly 5,000 feet in elevation, which makes it the center of tea plantations in Kerala. Vast acreage of deep green tea bushes covers every plantable surface. If you look close you’ll spot groups of women in bright clothing harvesting the tea by hand, making their way slowly through the acreage with large canvas bags of hand-sheared leaves. It’s a photographer’s paradise!

fish in marketDescending another couple of hour’s drive to the south brings you to the town of Thekkady on the edge of the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary. Thekkady is surrounded by spice plantations and is a good place to buy all kinds of fresh spices to take home with you, including a variety of masalas for fish, poultry, meats, and vegetables. Other common spices which dominate your senses when exploring the local markets include cardamom, pepper, clove, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, and nutmeg. Spice plantations are typically part of the local jungle and everything is harvested by hand. Another CGH hotel called the Spice Village is here. Staying at this hotel is a great experience in local horticulture, birding, culture and cuisine. It’s also nearby Lake Periyar where you can take boat rides and nature walks to view the local wildlife, including tigers, elephants, bison, and deer.

No trip to Kerala is complete without an overnight houseboat cruise through the backwaters. From about an hours drive outside of Cochin, you can board a boat with one or two air-conditioned bedrooms, each with a private bathroom, complete with a captain, cook and waiter who will be at your service. You can simply relax and have a beer as you float by rice paddies that are lower than the surface of the water. The bucolic scenes of life on the waterways are lush and memorable - fishermen tossing their nets from dugout canoes and women, waist deep in water as they wash clothes or dishes on the steps of their houses.

boys on beachThe best beaches are found in the southern part of Kerala, and while scenic, are not the main reason to come here. However, a visit to an ashram or an Ayurvedic wellness resort could be just what the doctor ordered. Ashrams house a guru who will lead meditations and yoga for visitors and are usually very basic in terms of their accommodations and facilities. Ayurvedic wellness centers began in Kerala and there are several beach-side and inland resorts that have on-staff Ayurvedic doctors who will diagnose whatever ails you and develop a treatment consisting of massage, diet, meditation, and yoga. They have packages of one, two, and three weeks that cater to many Europeans whose state-sponsored health insurance will cover these types of medical vacations.

One of my most interesting experiences in Kerala was an Ayurvedic massage in Fort Cochin. Ayurvedic massages are deep tissue massages using coconut oil on a hardwood massage table that has gutters to collect the excess oil slathered all over your body. My girlfriend and I took the plunge and ordered a complete body massage plus a hot oil drip. There is no such thing as a "couples" massage in India, so we were each led into separate rooms for our treatments. My room was dimly-lit with a massage table in the middle. Two barrel-chested short men soon entered; both wearing the India lungi (a kind of sarong) around their waist and nothing else. I removed my clothes and lay down on the table and they both went to work on me. One guy on each side rubbed my legs, arms, and torso in vigorous, symmetrical motions. It was definitely a jarring experience at first, but I just tried to relax and get the most out of it. I must admit, I almost burst out laughing a couple of times from the image that these two swarthy-looking, mustached Indians working over my pale, thin body must have presented.

waterwaysThe 30-minute oil drip after the massage consisted of a copper bowl of warm oil suspended over my forehead with a towel strategically placed to prevent the oil from getting into my eyes. It was soothing, but the oil gradually cooled and soon I was looking forward to a hot shower to wash away what remained. These massage treatments are supposed to cure all kinds of ailments, and were definitely an eye-opening experience.

Kerala is often considered a secondary destination to the northern parts of India, especially for first-timers to the country, but if you have the time, it’s well worth including it in your itinerary. The best times to go are from December to March and late September through mid- October. Other times of year are subject to the seasonal monsoons and occasional typhoons that can drench the landscape with torrential rains.


Kerala is a small state of about 32 million people on the southwest coast of India. It’s known for being the most highly educated state in India with a literacy rate of about 90 percent. In 1957 it became the first state in the world to have a democratically elected Marxist government, which is still in place today.

Kerala has three distinct geographical areas: the coastal lowlands dominated by a combination of beaches and fresh and brackish water inland waterways called the Backwaters; the midlands of lush tropical agriculture including rice farms and coconut and rubber plantations; and the highlands, consisting of the mountains of the Western Ghats, which are dotted with British hill stations and spice and tea plantations.

The two main cities of Kerala are the capital city of Trivandrum (now called Thiruvananthapuram) and the former Portuguese and Dutch enclave of Cochin (now called Kochi). Many of the towns here have two names: a European name and a local name which have recently become official names. These changes cause a lot of confusion for tourists.


For more information on some of the accommodations mentioned in this story, please visit their web sites:

Kandath Tharavad Ancestral Home:

CGH Group of Hotels:

Malabar House:

Koder House:

Old Harbour Hotel:

Dhiraj Madura

Dhiraj Madura, contributing photographer

Dhiraj Madura is Global Design Chief of SRAM Corporation as well as a gifted photographer, avid cyclist, fan of painting, sculpture, furniture making, and art of all kinds. He attended the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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