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Published: February 18th 2008
Elephant Parade, Kochin
Elephants line up for the culmination of one of Kerala's most dramatic festivals.
© L. Birch 2008
With Christmas and New Year finally out of the way, we drew up plans to visit Kerala and Tamil Nadu. After so long a respite from 'life on the road', you might have thought that we would be ready to move on but we were strangely reluctant to do so. We had become comfortable in Goa. We knew the ropes and had gathered a small circle of friends. But eventually, after delaying as long as we could, we set off in mid January - boarding a train that was to take us 500 miles further south and put us on a collision course with the sort of "India Experience" that Goa had shielded us from.
The psychological onslaught begins on the train. Train journeys in India seem to encapsulate life in the country - in microcosm. Never cleaned, they are often stunningly dirty. There are no bins and rubbish is never collected. The very worst of the rubbish; food packaging, paper cups, plastic bottles and newspapers - is thrown out of the windows. The rest rolls under a seat somewhere and stays there. Meanwhile, a never-ending procession of beggars, food vendors and opportunist salesmen shuffle through the carriages demanding money
Dressed in Royal Finery
An elephant and rider await the start of the grand procession.
© L. Birch 2008
or trying to sell you things you probably don't want (my personal favourites were a man selling day-glo pens and another trying to sell thermal socks in temps of 35 degrees). The most vocal are the Chai Wallahs
- tea sellers - who wander endlessly up and down the train dispensing small cups of hot, sweet tea from a portable urn. Their guttural cries of "Chai, chaiya" precede them as they stalk the corridors. It is a distinctive sound that you become accustomed to hearing on every train journey in India.
The worst thing about a long train journey - and ours lasted nearly 16 hours - was having to use the toilet. You could generally smell the toilets from 20 feet away. Inside the cubicle, the acrid stench was almost overpowering. The 'toilet' was simply a hole in the floor through which, you had a blurred glimpse of railway tracks flashing by beneath the train. There was nothing to hold onto and the walls and floor were liberally smeared with generations of indescribable stains. The relief of any bodily function usually involved a complex balancing act as you squatted over the hole trying desperately not to touch the
Backstreets of Fort Kochin
Dilapidated colonial buildings still line the streets of Fort Kochin, once the most important staging post on the Malabar coast.
© L. Birch 2008
walls. And of course, there was likely to be a fair amount of swearing when you did so. Festivals and Fishing Nets
It was hot and humid when we arrived in the port city of Ernakulam, our first stop on Kerala's Malabar Coast. After a look around at the hotels on offer, we plumped for a small local hotel close to the harbour. It was clean, cheap and best of all - had not made it into the guidebooks. Those that had - we soon learned - often lowered their standards and hiked-up their prices. Although a rather uninspiring modern city, Ernakulam had several things going for it. For one thing, it was only a short ferry ride from historic Fort Kochin - for centuries - the focus of the Malabar Coast's legendary spice trade. It was also the northern-most gateway to Kerala's Backwaters, a complex system of canals and palm fringed waterways that stretch deep into Kerala's hinterland (a bit like the Norfolk Broads but with palm trees and water hyacinth). And finally, it was an important pilgrimage site for Hindus and hosted a number of exotic festivals over the course of the year. As luck would
St. Francis Church
Built by the Portuguese in 1503, St. Francis church is one of the oldest Christian structures in India.
© L. Birch 2008
have it, we had arrived at the climax to the Ernakulathappan Utsavam - a 4-day festival that culminated in displays of traditional dancing and a splendid procession of highly decorated elephants. We had seen pictures of the festival's highlight - the elephant parade - but never dreamed we would actually be present on the one day each year that it was held.
It was certainly a breathtaking spectacle. After a day of prayers and offerings at the city's largest Shiva temple, the elephants were fed and bathed before being dressed in a ritualised 'armour' of gold plating and brightly coloured cloth. Eleven elephants were finally led out onto the streets by their mahouts amid a chaotic throng of people. Seemingly oblivious to the sounds of fireworks and blaring car horns, the elephants were marched to a nearby processional field where they became the centrepiece of an exhilarating night-long festival.
Fort Kochin, a 35-minute ferry ride away across Vembanad Lake, proved a more sedate distraction. Boat trips are a big feature of travel in Kerala and this one provided an opportunity to see dolphins as the boat wove between a scatter of mangrove covered islands and the big ships
Chinese Fishing Nets, Kochin
Cantilevered fishing nets introduced from China, look out across the Arabian Sea at Fort Kochin.
© L. Birch 2008
moored offshore from the container port at Willingdon Island. How dolphins survive in such a polluted environment - so close to the city - is a mystery, but fortunately they do and delighted us by leaping out of the water and porpoising alongside the boat.
The dilapidated buildings of Fort Kochin reflected its many influences. They were an eclectic mix of Dutch, Portuguese and British architectural styles. There was even an old Jewish quarter with a synagogue dating back to 1568. Elsewhere, you could stumble across remnants of the original Dutch fortifications, a Portuguese church - built in 1503 and said to be one of India's oldest European-built churches - and of course, Kochin's most iconic constructions - Chinese fishing nets. Looking out over the Arabian Sea from the tip of Fort Kochin, these huge, cantilevered structures were introduced by traders from central Asia. It takes 4 or 5 fishermen to lift and lower the enormous nets that are operated with a complex system of counterweights, but looking at the handful of tiny fish each dip of the nets reveal, it seems hardly worth the huge effort involved.
So why had there been so much European interest in
Bringing in the Catch, Kochin
It takes several fishermen to raise and lower the great wooden fishing nets.
© L. Birch 2008
Kerala and Fort Kochin? For the Portuguese, it was all about empire and expansionism but for the Dutch it was to gain control of the region's most lucrative commodity - spices. All along the wharves of Fort Kochin, huge Dutch-built warehouses were filled with the choicest spices to be found anywhere between Europe and Japan. They included; pepper, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg from Indonesia. The region was also famed for its coffee and fine teas, which were grown in the hills that separated Kerala from neighbouring Tamil Nadu. Messing About on the River
Alleppey, just a few hours south of Ernakulam and Fort Kochin, was Backwater central. It was the place that most people came to in order to experience this uniquely beautiful system of waterways. It was also the place with the most persistent touts and hassles of just about anywhere we had been. Everybody in Alleppey it seemed, was out to sell you something if they could and usually for grossly inflated prices. Quite soon, we began to despair at the interminable approaches to rent boats, take tours, hire taxis, stay on a houseboat, buy spices or rent bicycles. It was rare that any
The Keralan Backwaters
A peaceful scene on Kerala's Backwaters at Alleppey.
© L. Birch 2008
greeting offered on the street was made out of friendliness or for the simple pleasure of doing so. Usually, it was the preface to a sales pitch and became incredibly irritating. It seemed that no-one saw us as human beings but merely as walking dispensers of cash. It got to be so bad that after a while, my immediate response to any greeting was a curt "No thanks!"
Of course, we did do a boat trip but we booked it direct with a private boat operator on the outskirts of town. Early one morning, we set off by slow boat out across a vast inland lake, studded with floating rafts of water hyacinth. The trip took us into remote corners, narrow waterways where simple villages were surrounded by rice paddies and floating gardens. Giant kingfishers flew off noisily at our approach while purple herons continued to spear frogs in the shallows in total disregard to our presence. We saw houseboats being built and waved to children setting off for school on the local ferry. Kerala's network of waterways spills across acres of fertile, green countryside. End to end, this interlinked system of canals and lakes measures a little over
Backwater Boat Trip
Enjoying a boat trip along the canals and waterways of the Backwaters near Alleppey.
© L. Birch 2008
550 miles in length. But as vast as it seems, the water levels are dropping and the Backwaters - and the communities that depend on them - are under threat from pollution, and all the problems associated with a rapidly growing population. Unfortunately, it was a pattern we had seen repeated in many of the world's most beautiful and sensitive environments.
Back on dry land, we tried to remember just how many boat trips we had undertaken since embarking on our journey in October 2006. There had been quite a number, from China all the way down through Asia to Australia's Indian Ocean coast and across to the Indian sub-continent. They were exciting memories of sun dappled water and adventure. We had one last Backwater boat trip to undertake but before then, we were determined to see a different side to Alleppey and not leave it with bitter tastes in our mouths.
Running the usual gauntlet of commission touts and would-be entrepreneurs, we followed a path Viv had scouted a few days earlier that took us out of town. The path meandered alongside waterways, over a canal bridge, through small villages (where people actually said "Hello" without wanting
Home among the Backwaters
With Rahul's mother, Sujatha at their home on the Keralan Backwaters.
© V. Birch 2008
anything) and into lush, green countryside. Before long, we were hailed by a young man who had noticed us admiring a crudely built dovecote in the compound attached to his house. Urging us to come take a closer look, we relented - hoping that we weren't going to be disappointed once more. The young man was dressed simply in a loincloth and introduced himself as Rahul. His English was poor but better than that of his mother, Sujatha, who smiled shyly from the doorway of the house. Two plastic chairs were hastily procured - the sum total of the household furniture it seemed - and we were invited to sit while Rahul and his mother fussed over us as if we were honoured guests.
While Rahul harvested a coconut and prepared us a drink from the sweet milk inside, he told us a little about their lives. He lived with his father, mother and two brothers in a house no bigger than a garden shed. It had lakeside views it was true but the bare earth floor flooded during the monsoons and was pitted and uneven. The house itself was built from mis-matched pieces of wood and roofed with
Rahul was justifiably proud of his small collection of fancy doves.
© V. Birch 2008
rusted sheets of corrugated iron. Rahul was 19 and unemployed but his father and elder brother worked on a houseboat out of Alleppey. His older brother had a mobile phone, he told us proudly as he lopped the top off a coconut with a machete. His mother was less impressed by this indicating that - mobile phone or not - there was no money in her pockets.
Life was obviously tough but it could have been worse. Rahul had his precious doves, it was always warm and they lived in a place of heart-stopping beauty. When we finally rose to leave, there were no demands for money - only smiles and warm handshakes. As we waved goodbye and walked away from Rahul's, I couldn't help thinking how strange a place India was; knocking you down one minute, picking you up the next and restoring your faith in human nature. The encounter with the little Keralan family was to be the last of our Backwater experiences. In the next few days, we were moving to higher ground - exchanging the heat of the coast for the cooler climes of the high country inland.
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