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Memories of my travels between 1972 and 1982

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Kerala 1982

I'd been staying at the Ex-servicemen's Institute in Colombo and took a flight to Trivandrum.  I'd spent the morning buying a new bag and trying to spend my excess Sri Lankan money.  At Trivandrum airport  I gathered together a group of three other travellers to share a taxi into town and a room in a hotel.  I realised that Trivandrum must have been a princely state as the taxi passed through great arches and strange architecture.  After supper I walked in the streets, colourful and lively, a demonstration with red flags, piles of rubbish beside the road and plaster Ganeshes, street sleepers and spiced tea; the fruit sellers had piles of red apples and halfway decent oranges, and there were all sorts of fried and griddled goodies being sold in the streets.  I woke in the morning to the noise of crows cawing and traffic hooting; outside was a yellow brick wall, palm trees and a trucking agency and I set out to explore.

Trivandrum, My picture
Sri Padmanabhaswamy Temple, Trivandrum, My Picture
After selling the bottle of whisky and box of cigarettes I'd brought duty-free from Sri Lanka, I walked through the Chalai Bazaar and found the main Vishnu temple which I couldn't enter but at least I could take a peep at the columns inside and the carvings on the gopuram.  I found the buildings around sympathetic and interesting, especially a pilgrim resting-place with a wooden roof-support and a fine clock; around were black-shirted hairy youths in groups, carrying special malas and medallions, and opposite was a large tank for bathing.  On the far side of the road was a Shiva shrine under a peepul with yellow-stained cobras, some crude figurines and a large Ganesh.  I went back in the evening  as worshippers went to darshan; men had to wear only a dhoti and were being turned away if they wore shirts or trousers.  A lone orange-dressed sadhu seemed out of place.  Down below a stage had been set up and a group was singing, with tabla and harmonium accompaniment; there was a long series of interconnected songs, no doubt devotional, and the main singer had a good voice and a fine style which made it pleasant to listen for an hour and gave me the opportunity to watch the people about.

I made the mistake of going on to Kovalam the next day: maybe I didn't find the best spot, for the beaches were crowded and not particularly clean and the hotels were dirty and full of red-eyed coughing Europeans in freak clothes, so I quickly fled in a taxi back to Trivandrum and on by bus through a built up and modern countryside to Quilon, where I stayed the night.  Quilon too seemed modern and newly built, but there were some older areas tucked away, in the bazaar and down by the waterway.  The bazaar seemed fine at night, as I walked around after supper, rope shops, metal shops, vegetable shops, some buildings with good roofs and carved dormer windows.  I only noticed one temple, more mosques and churches, though there were flower and garland sellers around. 

Kerala Backwater, My picture
Kerala Backwater, My picture
I took the backwater canal ferry from Quilon to Alleppey, which was comfortable enough and rarely even full although there were maybe 30 Westerners aboard.  The countryside was uniformly green, first coconut palms and later rice-paddies as we approached the Kottayam area which I remembered from driving in the area in 1973; there was even one ferry crossing near an uncompleted bridge, but it didn't look like the place where we crossed the canal system back then.  Most interesting were the canal craft, some lovely big boats with curled up black ends and arched palms over the top, which made me think of Wilfred Thesiger's pictures of the Marsh Arabs; sometimes they had patchwork sails or they were punted along the waterways; there were smaller canoes and later on private craft and some dredging was going on.  I liked the landing-stages and the people getting on and off; the Keralan women were often wearing lunghis and a scarf to take the place of the end of a sari, while the girls wore long skirts; there were many wayside churches and temples.  Early on I had glimpses of the open sea and there were huge fishing nets erected on poles; later we passed through a narrow section which was a real canal in a populated area.  Late in the afternoon we pulled up in a pleasant rural spot and got out for a cup of tea in a cafe. 

I stayed in a cheap Indian-style hotel near the ferry jetty.  I had a room with a fan in a distant courtyard where they were making little toy carts with painted wood.  The owner or manager was an unsmiling white-haired man, who sat square-faced behind his money counter in the street-side room; there was a shower and a washroom but the only toilet seemed to be another open grassy courtyard.  In the evening I looked round the bazaar, finding it not as picturesque as Quilon in respect of old buildings, but there was a good Kerala style temple with wooden roof arches and the characteristic gables.  There was a large temple with a gopuram on the other side of town, and a Ganesh temple with a resident sadhu under a tree in the middle of town.  It felt a more Hindu town than Quilon.  There was also plenty of political activity; speeches were being made before a large crowd and relayed over loudspeakers; the police were keeping a watchful eye but there was no trouble.

In the morning I took the ferry to Kottayam across a broad open lake, much less interesting than the previous day's journey.  Kottayam was large and Christian and I walked up the hill to the bus station.  The bus I took to Kumily broke down and I had to change again when the replacement broke down as well - I ended up standing in a very crowded affair.  We passed through bustling towns, climbing up through rubber plantations, some cardamom and finally tea plantations.  The churches we passed were huge, often with shrines and statues opposite, often in little places away from the road.  Finally we reached open downland near Peermade.  I had intended to try to pass straight on to Tamil Nadu, but I failed to get off in Kumily and went to the end of the road at Thekkady and the Periyar Lake Wildlife Sanctuary where I'd camped in 1973.  In the end I had to spend three nights in Kumily as there was a big national strike and the buses weren't running.  Kumily was a growing town, popular with the blank-eyed Westerners because of the local grass and had a couple of hotels catering to their need for European oriented food and music.  Good food was available and the town was lively in the evenings with a torchlight parade, perhaps related to the strike.  One evening I ate paratha and sambar in the Rolex Hotel and was surprised that some very poor people were eating there as well, wood-cutters.  I'd seen others around the trails in the Park and wondered if they were tribal.

I spent most of my time in the Park, finding friends, and together going on walks, boat rides and a guided tour on foot.  The guided tour was probably the best, as we managed to see wild pig and elephant as well as the more familiar monkeys; we also weren't hurried and allowed to take our time.

Finally I took a good iddly breakfast and walked through the gate into Tamil Nadu to find a bus going down the hill to Cumbum where I had to change; the bus station there seemed a different world, only Tamil script being used, and little English spoken, but I found a bus with a good seat on into the Tamil heartland.  We travelled into a wide valley, full of towns and temples, I didn't notice a single church; instead of the green tropics of Kerala were ploughed fields stretching to jagged hills; and it seemed much poorer and less developed, with clusters of untouchable villages and some very poor-looking houses in the townships.  Donkeys, cows and goats were the main animals, with cotton fields and coconut plantations alternating with rice-fields.  Finally, dusty, parched and sunburnt from the inside of the bus, I arrived in Madurai and knew I was in a different world.

Kerala Backwater, My picture

Kerala Backwater, My picture