Surojit Mohan Gupta
It was upon the invitation of my friend from high school, Suresh Nair, now a resident of Brisbane, Australia, that I made my maiden trip to “God’s Own Country” for a five-night-six-day visit to the state of Kerala. It was during the month of June, when I was in the United States, that Suresh contacted me about his upcoming trip to India and his desire to visit his home state and extended to me the invitation to join him between 15 and 20 September, assuring me of taking care of all local arrangements provided I was able to synchronize my trip with his schedule of meeting up in Kochi and departing from Thiruvananthapuram on the aforementioned dates. I jumped at the offer and immediately solicited the assistance of my nephew in getting domestic flight reservations.
I had barely gotten over my jet lag and associated weariness from my 10-week travels to Oahu, Hawaii when it was time for the trip to Kerala. My flight from Lucknow, routed through Bengaluru, brought me into the world’s first fully solar-powered airport, the Cochin International Airport, in the evening from where Suresh picked me up and took me to the Gateway Hotel on Marine Drive, Ernakulam, which was to be our home for the first two nights. Drinks and dinner at Velocity on Marine Drive prepared me for a restful night of slumber knowing that we had a full day of exploration the following morning.
The day for me began early with a walk along Marine Drive. After breakfast, we headed out to Fort Kochi where we spent a couple of hours examining the ruins of the fort and the beach, the St Francis Church, one of the oldest European churches built in India, and Bastion’s Bungalow, which houses the District Heritage Museum, Ernakulam. A short drive from Fort Kochi took us to Jew Town, the earliest Jewish settlement in Kerala, and the Paradesi Synagogue where the remnants of the once-thriving Jewish community are still to be found. The early afternoon was spent at the Hill/Mattancherry Palace in Tripunithura where we were witness to the history and culture of Kerala and the opulence of the erstwhile royal family and its matrilineal traditions.
After quick lunch at the restaurant at The Gateway Hotel and a briefer-than-brief siesta, we were ready for a long drive into the villages of Kerala where visits to two temples had been planned. The first temple we visited was the Poonilarkavu Devi Temple, Kodakara, and the second was the Puthukavu Devi Temple, Ponkunnam, which was lit up with thousands of lamps by devotees in appreciation of the deity’s benevolence. The peace and serenity of the temple complexes and their surroundings remain etched in my mind. A brief visit to the home of Suresh’s uncle was followed by an elaborate dinner and another restful night following a rigorous day of sightseeing.
While one had been a witness to the beauty of nature and the verdant foliage of Kerala in driving through Ernakulam and on the highways leading to the villages of Kodakara and Ponkunnam, the real treat arrived a day later when Suresh and I took a boat ride on Lake Vembanadu (Vembanadu Kayal)—India's largest body of water—which dominates the 34 backwaters of Kerala; it lies between Alappuzha (Alleppey) and Kochi and is over 200 km in area. Booked on Gokulam Sabari-I, a three-room fully air-conditioned houseboat, for a boat ride on Lake Vembanadu and an overnight stay in the backwaters, we enjoyed Kerala's coastal belt which is relatively flat, teeming with paddy fields— Kuttanad, also known as The Rice Bowl of Kerala, —groves of coconut trees, and heavily crisscrossed by a network of interconnected canals and rivers along with local fare cooked fresh by the chef on board the houseboat. The peace and quiet of the night, illuminated by random lights along the coast, and the bobbing of the houseboat, anchored in the evening to facilitate fishing with nets, ensured a peaceful night of rest on the water.
Following a hearty breakfast on board the houseboat, we headed back to the docks at Alleppey and from there by road to the Mahindra Ashtamudi Resort on the Ashtamudi Kayal in Kollam district, one of the most visited backwaters and lake in the state. Floating cottages and luminous backwaters make Mahindra Ashtamudi Resort a place right out of a fairy tale. A very popular family vacation destination, this picturesque location in Kerala blends small-town flavours with nature’s hub of beauty.
A gateway to the backwaters, Ashtamudi Lake is the most popular place in Kollam, which is surrounded by lush green trees and swaying coconut palms. This 16-km-long lake is the second largest lake in Kerala, which has found its way into the sea through the Neendakara estuary. This place is so beautiful that tourists from different parts of the country and abroad, visit this natural paradise to catch a glimpse of one of the many splendours of Ashtamudi. A lot of tourists come here to experience boat ride, which gives a glimpse of village life, natural habitat, and abundant flora. This lake is known for its panoramic beauty and eight channels that connect to one lake. It is because of its eight 'arms' or channels, that the lake is named Ashtamudi.
It was at the Club Mahindra Resort that we spent the last couple of days of our stay in Kerala, taking in the visual and culinary delights that the place had to offer. This may well have been the last leg of our Kerala trip, but it was intercepted by a visit to the family home of one of Suresh’s friends, George and Alison Kutty, for lunch in the village of Kalampanad. Delicious local cuisine, prepared by Alice and her two daughters-in-law, was followed by steaming cups of filter coffee and dessert. We returned to the Mahindra Resort in the late evening to spend our last night in Kerala.
Early the next morning, we took a cab from the Ashtamudi Resort to the Thiruvananthapuram International Airport, taking in the scenic beauty of Kerala on the two-and-a-half-hour drive there. At the airport, Suresh and I said our goodbyes as he flew out to Mumbai enroute Brisbane and I returned home to Lucknow. In retrospect, it would seem that I had seen very little of Kerala in the time that I had spent there. We had traversed only a third of the Kerala coast and had missed out on several other attractions for which “God’s Own Country” is famous. One singular advantage I enjoyed was the company of a friend who spoke Malayalee like a native and whose very presence facilitated nuances and ventures which could otherwise have been missed, and for that, I remain grateful.