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Kerala, Little India

Beckoning visitors away from the beaches, Kerala’s backwaters unfurl like a scroll revealing an impossibly lush landscape and rich cultural make-up.

Take a banana leaf, of which there are many in Kerala, and fold it in two and you'll have a rough idea of the shape of this tiny sliver of a state at the tail end of the Indian subcontinent. It's not a big place - about half the size of Tasmania - but it has an amazing history and two primary formative influences: nature and religion. Cataclysmic physical changes hundreds of years ago defined the western and eastern borders of Kerala. As witnessed by the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami, violent, sometimes even apocalyptic weather, especially during exceptional monsoons, can re-shape this region overnight. Through the centuries new islands and lakes have formed, towns and harbours have risen and enjoyed brief prosperity and are now so completely vanished that not even their names are recalled.
But the positive result of these topographic changes is that the land, abundantly watered, is incredibly fertile. If Rajasthan is red, the red of the desert and of long, dry summers, Kerala is as green as Ireland, lush and absurdly verdant. Its 590-kilometre coastline is fringed with millions of coconut palms - indeed its name comes from kera, the local word for coconut, which can be found grated, ground, sliced or slivered, the flesh and the milk used in curries, vegetable dishes and desserts in the region's unique cuisine that mirrors the strains of the numerous religions and cultures that comprise Kerala's cosmopolitan population.
In this lush landscape moulded by nature, exotic flora grew, a multitude of trees and plants, the leaves and fruits of which acted as magnets for traders. Ships from the likes of imperial Rome, China, Britain and Arabia all came here, as did Jewish merchants from Venice, eager for cardamom, nutmeg, chilli, fennel, fenugreek and the fabled Tellicherry pepper known as black gold.
Religion is the handmaiden of conquest and commerce, and after the traders came the missionaries. St Thomas the Apostle is said to have landed along this coast in AD52, leaving behind the colony of Christians now known as Nasranis. By the 9th century both Jewish and Syrian churches were firmly established in the town of Cochin, now known as Kochi. Hard on the heels of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama came Portuguese priests, including the sainted Francis Xavier, who preached here in 1530 and made many converts. A quarter of a century later, Jesuits arrived and printed India's first book, heralding centuries of commitment to education.
It's small wonder that Kerala takes great pride in its literacy rate of almost 100 per cent. And the visitor can't help but be struck by the legions of children who throng the streets at the end of classes, handsome and happy with wide and winning smiles. Even in the most privileged western education establishments, one rarely sees students so neat, so polite, so well turned out, with nary a tie or hair ribbon out of place. At Kerala's schools, religious and secular, children are taught not only the local language, Malayalam, in which there are no fewer than 26 different alphabets, and English, but often other European languages as well.
In 1887 when William Logan compiled his Malabar Manual there were 15,608 inhabitants in Kochi, nine churches (two Protestant, six catholic and one Syrian Christian), two Hindu temples and 16 schools plus the oldest Jewish synagogue in the Commonwealth. That synagogue is still there, as it has been for 437 years, at the epicentre of the colourful area known as Jew Town, without a rabbi now and with a congregation largely departed for Israel, but with no shortage of visitors to admire its cool interior with myriad coloured-glass sanctuary lights and chandeliers.
But Protestant and Catholic churches and schools have continued to flourish. If, as any visitor should, you embark on a cruise on one of the hundreds of houseboats, you'll see whole convoys of school children travelling in ferries along the 900km network of canals, lagoons and estuaries. The Keralan houseboat is a more practical version of those that drew thousands to Lake Dal in Srinagar in India's north before the troubles with Pakistan. The houseboats, which depart from Alleppey (Alappuzha), south of Kochi, are essentially rice barges fitted with an arched superstructure covered with bamboo matting and laced in place with stout coir rope, readily available in Alleppey, a world leader in the coir industry. The grander boats are sumptuous indeed, with three bedrooms, each with ensuite, and a galley from which emerge feasts prepared by an onboard cook. An overnight cruise will take you through the maze of waterways writhing with activity - women scouring pots, boisterous boys bathing, men harvesting water hyacinths.
It seems a paradisiacal existence, with bounteous nature providing for all. Although Kerala is a poor state, even by Indian standards, the poor live well. The infant mortality rate is low and life expectancy is 72, not too far off Australian and American averages.
All along our aqueous route are brightly coloured baroque churches, villages where the lifestyle is almost medieval. Out on the water, a Kingfisher beer in hand while live kingfishers swoop and flutter about the craft, tranquility and peace reign.
But Kerala's towns are busier, almost chaotic. Most roads are narrow and the ubiquitous holy cows and runaway goats impede progress further, but impatience is futile here. It's best to take a deep breath, exhale slowly and enjoy the passing parade and the ceaseless activity, observe the pink plaster figure of St. Sebastian in an illuminated glass case set on a church façade or the same saint painted in lurid colours on a huge truck. All the trucks here have what seems to be mandatory decoration, naïve images and ornament. Some praising God, others Allah.
This is an atypical India with its own forms of folk art and its own ancient cultural traditions, including kathakali, a 400-year-old dance form unique to Kerala. An hour before a show the actors apply stiff paper beards and thick make-up in a traditional, codified manner, donning towering headgear and immense skirted costumes, metamorphosing into the gods and demons and heroes of the great Hindu legends. The state is also home to theyyam, folk dances in which the performer, after a period of abstinence, prayer and solitude, dons the costume of a chosen deity and receives homage from worshippers. In an elevated state he loses his physical identity and becomes the deity, dispensing blessings, healing.
Throughout Kerala, local traditions and appropriated ones merge seamlessly. Evidence of the colonial presence can be seen in bricks and mortar. All along the coast scattered among more recent buildings are churches, cathedrals and schools, the cricket ovals of the British Raj, the forts built by the Dutch, the schools built by high-minded Germans. But for visitors with a gastronomic rather than architectural bent, similar evidence can be found on plates, for it's the dazzling array of food styles - Portuguese, Muslim, British, Arab, Jewish - that makes Kerala such an inviting destination for gourmets. Whereas other parts of India make do with relatively poor ingredients, Kerala has an abundance of fresh produce, and the sea and lakes fair swarm with fish, some indigenous to the state like the freshwater carp karimeen. Rice is a staple, grown in the backwater areas and cooked with a large quantity of water that reduces starch in the grain. A special kind of tamarind called kokum is used in flavouring but sparingly. Masala, too, is used lightly.
And nothing beats the startlingly inexpensive Indian thali from hotels like Sarovaram as well as myriad streetside restaurants. Fill up on a range of traditional curries ladled from a frame fitted with four saucepans, accompanied by tamarind chutney, dhal, an incendiary mango pickle, green beans, rice, curd and a cooling coconut chutney. You'll eat with fingers rather than utensils, use pieces of pappadam or chapatti to help scoop up each spicy mouthful, and when you're finished you'll fold up your quondam banana-leaf plate, repair to a communal wash basin to rinse your hands, pay the modest bill and depart replete. Unless you dally for seconds.
Freshness is foremost in India. Promenade along the beachfront at Fort Kochi to watch the fishermen dip and lift their ancient pterodactyl-like Chinese nets then choose a fish from the catch and have it cooked on the spot at a makeshift stall.
At the high end of the dining scale there's the Taj Malabar hotel, where the Nahobjit Ghosh-designed menu includes meen peera pattichathu, a Syrian Christian dish of local seer fish cooked with coconut and spiced with garlic, fenugreek, turmeric, curry leaves, shallots, ginger and kokum. Another standout is chemmeen elevanthenga ularthiyathu, plump black tiger prawns cooked with tender coconut, soured with kokum and fired up with fresh green chillies.
Watching a chef prepare local specialties can be an unnerving experience. The sheer quantity of spices added is alarming, but when the time comes to taste, things are not as fiery as one might have imagined. After all, the Keralans have had a lot of experience with these fiery flavours and blend them in a special way to create dishes that, like so many other things about this magical place, are quite unique.