Beyond the Backwaters of Kerala, India

Beyond the Backwaters of Kerala, India

India’s southernmost state has long been known for its canal-like waterways, but Kerala has much more to offer than cruises and swanky houseboats. Dave Cauldwell ventures beyond the backwaters to discover Kerala’s multifaceted culture.

To a crescendo of cymbals and beating drums, the demon’s facial muscles quiver. He brandishes a sword, his face is painted bright green, and long silver fingernails protrude from his free hand. As far as classic Indian dance drama goes, it doesn’t get any brighter than kathakali, which sees actors splash on multicoloured make-up and dress in elaborate costumes: long, flowing dresses that push out like lampshades, and rainbow-coloured hats shaped like saucers.

I’ve come to Kerala to experience traditions that are hundreds of years old – and in some cases, thousands. I’m keen to see how they fit into contemporary Kerala culture. Kathakali originated here in the 17th century and its popularity seems undiminished today. There are a host of venues in the coastal town of Kochi, Kerala’s commercial hub, and I’ve managed to score a front-row seat for this evening’s performance. The stage is small, just big enough for a drummer, a cymbal player and the two dancers who play the roles of a demon and a princess. The princess is trying to lure the demon into a trap by seducing him. It seems to be working.

Suddenly the lights go out. This isn’t part of the performance. There’s been a power cut and for a moment there’s confusion on stage. The drummer – a boy no older than 10 – stops beating. The cymbal player clangs and sings louder, a signal for the drummer to keep going. The dancers continue telling the story even though the audience can barely see them.

Kathakali stories are often about love and are conveyed using a series of facial expressions and hand movements (or mudras), of which there are 24. The demon slowly curls and rotates his hands while intermittently raising and lowering certain fingers. This communication is understood by the princess who responds by moving her eyes from side to side and waggling her cheekbones. The actors remain mute throughout. Modern performances take about an hour, but they were originally written to last the entire evening.

The lights are back on and the drums and cymbals crash as the demon sees through the princess’s fake advances and chops off her breasts. I need to get out of here – it’s getting too violent and I came searching for serenity.

There are flying tits galore in Kerala’s lush forests, but thankfully it’s down to the birdlife and not as a result of any mammary massacres. Sixty-five kilometres southeast of Kochi is India’s second-largest district, Idukki, nearly all of which is covered in rugged mountains and forests. My plan is to spend some time in an isolated farm-stay, an escape from the 1000-plus houseboats cruising up and down the backwaters.

Keralites have a strong affinity with their natural surroundings; the soil is rich and many families have several acres where they grow organic fruit and vegetables. Some families are turning this cultural tradition into a business by opening homestays, which serve the organic food they grow on site to guests.

Jose and Sinta Dewalokam are one such family. Their 10-acre farm, Dewalokam, has been in Jose’s family for three generations. Half of it used to be a rubber plantation, but Jose has spent the last 10 years single-handedly transforming it into a gigantic veggie patch and orchard. I have dreams of creating my own mini-farm one day, and I hope to get a few pointers.

Jose and Sinta greet me with big smiles and a jasmine garland. Sinta then takes me on a tour of the farm. There are mangoes, coconuts, peppercorns, beans, custard apples, papayas and mulberries – and we’ve only covered a section of ground no larger than a tennis court. Picking ginger and turmeric from the ground as we go, she tells me that 10 varieties of banana grow here. Lemongrass grows like a weed, as does ‘ghost killer’ – an Ayurvedic plant that apparently helps treat schizophrenia.

Sinta is keen to show me her bees. Numerous hives line the edge of the property, which slopes away into a calm river, on the other side of which is a nature reserve. Without any protective clothing, one of the workers pulls out a section of hive and hands me a piece of honeycomb. It tastes divine.

One of the reasons I chose to come to this farm is because guests with green fingers can help in the garden. And, if shovelling cow dung is your thing, then you’ll be inadvertently helping kitchen staff cook your dinner. Cow dung is mixed with water and then placed in an underground tank to ferment. Eventually it omits methane which is channelled into the kitchen’s gas stoves. Nothing is wasted around here. It’s inspiring.

Everything about this place is natural. Jose doesn’t rely on noxious chemicals to keep his garden pest-free. He combines tobacco, cow urine and fermented dahl to create a pesticide. Coconut shell husks break down for mulch. Goat, cow and buffalo dung from the farm animals is spread on the garden to enrich the soil with nutrients. With all of this dung around, you may expect the air to smell foul, but instead it has the sweet scent of ylang-ylang, which grows seemingly everywhere.

After spending a couple of hours seeing all of the food in its natural environment, I’m keen to taste it. Jose leads me into a palatial, light-filled dining room. Waitstaff lay huge banana leaves in front of us and proceed to dish out 10 little vegetarian dishes all bursting with the life and flavour of Jose’s garden.

Health is a big deal in Kerala and it extends beyond a nutrient-rich diet. Ayurveda, literally meaning ‘the science of life’, is one of the world’s oldest medicinal systems and originated in Kerala more than 4,000 years ago. Heading further away from the backwaters, towards the border of Tamil Nadu, I venture to the Ayurvedic village of Kairali to embark on a six-day detox beneath a mango and coconut tree canopy. It’s the only Ayurvedic place in India that makes all of its own massage oils, body scrubs and herbal decoctions.

As soon as I arrive, I’m whisked away for a consultation with the on-site medic, Dr Rajeev. He weighs me, takes my blood pressure and asks questions about my daily routine before determining the most efficacious treatment program for me. Then it’s straight onto the treatment table where I’m lathered in a litre of massage oil and lulled into relaxation by the mesmerising rotations of two masseurs’ fingers. I slip away into a dreamlike realm, only coming back into the room as oil shoots up my nose.

One of my masseurs, an Indian doppelganger of Freddie Mercury, helps me off the massage table. I sit up and the herbal decoction I’ve just snorted dribbles down my throat. With all the massage oil, my Tarzan-like loincloth has slipped out of place. Freddie readjusts my cloth, skilfully avoiding my crown jewels. He leads me to a wooden cabinet, which resembles a medieval torture device, and gestures for me to sit inside. My head pokes out of the top. Steam pours in and perspiration droplets rise on my skin. I can feel the toxins dribbling out.

Some people stay at Kairali for three weeks, following intensive programs that combat stress, diabetes, arthritis and many other maladies. The principle of Ayurvedic medicine is that humans are composed of fire, air and water. Whenever we’re ill, it’s a sign these elements are unbalanced. My oil-up-nostril treatment, or nasyam, is working on stabilising my water (kapha) element – in particular on unblocking my sinuses.

There are more than 100 medicinal and herbal plants growing in the village. These treat a range of ailments, from swellings and skin diseases to respiratory disorders and worm infestations. There are some plants that improve voice and memory. More than 36 herbs are combined to create the massage oil.

Among the treatments there’s elakizhi, where you’re pounded (not too forcefully) with poultices filled with leaves and powder. Sirodhara is perhaps the world’s most relaxing massage: a steady stream of oil drips onto your forehead from an 
urn suspended above the treatment table. My crown jewels managed to stay tucked away during that one, and I fell asleep. I’ve always enjoyed a good licking, and for that reason I fell in love with navarakizhi, which involves being rubbed with small rice-filled linen bags cooked in cow’s milk. The bags are continually heated in milk for the duration of the treatment and the sweeping strokes of the massage felt like I was being slurped by heavenly tongues.

There are 27 villas onsite – all named after Indian zodiac signs – as well as two regal maharaja suites. Before a brick was laid, a vastu (Indian feng shui) practitioner read the land and divided it into anatomical parts to determine where each building should be erected; the kitchen was built on the land’s stomach.

Vastu also determined the dimensions of each building. Any trees in the way were incorporated into the structures. Clockwise-flowing waterways run past each building, trickling to calm guests’ minds. The result of such meticulous planning is a village with potent and palpable healing energy, a place far beyond the reach of swiping swords and tongue-poking demons, and a far cry from the chugging of houseboats on bustling backwaters. They may have a combined age of over 5000 years, but the strands of this state’s cultural DNA continue to add colour, flavour and vitality to contemporary Kerala.

Get there

Virgin Australia has return flights to Kochi departing from all major Australian cities.

Stay there

Dewalokam Farmstay

Kairali Ayurvedic Healing Village

Get Informed

November–March/April are the most comfortable months temperature-and humidity-wise.

Words Dave Cauldwell

Photos Dave Cauldwell and Steve Davey

Tags: boat journey, india, kerala, wellness

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