The Malabar coast is a phrase redolent with the smell of exotic spices. It runs along India’s south west coastline, the area between the Arabian sea and the Western Ghats in what is now administratively the states of Karnataka and Kerala. It was to Kerala, which is shaped a bit like a red chilli and goes by the self-proclaimed sobriquet of God’s Own Country, that TOWT and I went recently on our latest holiday and what an amazing place it is.
By Indian standards, it seems quite prosperous – the housing was certainly of better standard than in some other parts of India we have been to and the mendicant count was very low. Kerala, which became an Indian state in 1956 out of three former kingdoms all united by their common language, the wonderfully palindromic and polysyllabic Malayalam, shortly thereafter voted in one of the first democratically elected Communist government under the stewardship of E M S Namboodiripad – San Marino voting in the first in 1945. Red flags with hammers and sickles abound and whilst the party, which from its iconography I judged to be of the Marxist-Leninist persuasion, is currently the opposition the sense is that their social democratic reforms have laid the foundations for the state’s high literacy rates and GDP rating. Indeed, so large has the indigenous middle class become that they are having to attract migrants from outside the state to perform the menial tasks – a recipe for disaster in the long-term, I fear.
There is no common agreement as to the origin of the name Kerala but the most likely is that it comes from the proto-Tamil-Malayalam word for lake, Cheral, and has the meaning, land of lakes. Kerala is mentioned in a number of ancient Sanskrit works, the earliest of which is the Aitereya Arannyaka. The verdant landscape – it is a phenomenally green area – and the prolific and varied spices attracted traders from at least as far back as 3,000 BCE with archaeological and inscriptional evidence of trading links with Mesopotamia, Egypt, Rome, Jerusalem and the Arabs. It is specifically referred to in a Graeco-Roman trading map called Periplus Maris Erythraei as Celobotra. This regular and profitable exposure to different cultures has made the area relatively cosmopolitan and tolerant. Today, Christians, Hindus and Moslems live together reasonably harmoniously together with seven Jews, more on whom anon.
The Chinese traded regularly after the first millennium and the first European, Vasco de Gama made his way here at the turn of the 16th century CE. Indeed, when he died in 1523 in Kochi, probably as a result of malaria, he was buried there. The Dutch East India Company pushed the Portuguese further up the coast to Goa and then the Brits took over from the Dutch, it becoming a favoured watering hole of the Raj as well as the home for extensive tea plantations, whose names normally denote the Scottish or Irish origins of their original owners, until independence was gained in 1947.
Serviced by 44 rivers of which 41 flow down from the Ghats, many of which are navigable, and with the second largest lake in India, water is an ever-present theme in Kerala. Together with its vast expanses of white beaches, luscious plantation, jungles, exotic indigenous flora and fauna Kerala offers an astonishing variety of sights and experiences for travellers, the majority of whom, at least on our travels, were mature. And if it all gets too much you can avail yourself of their ayurvedic heritage.
These and many more themes I will explore over the next few weeks.