Unique Experiences in Kerala
Geographically endowed with natural beauty and culturally enriched with a long and colourful tradition of sacred arts, Kerala offers an appealing range of unique experiences and here's our choice of some of the best.
The stylized classical Indian dance-drama of Kathakali has become one of Kerala's most iconic images with actors dressed in resplendent costumes and head pieces, and wearing brightly coloured make-up. Depicting the world of gods and demons with elaborate hand gestures and deliberate body movements, the male actors are accompanied by musicians playing percussion and also providing the vocals. Traditionally performances are held in the open-air of a temple complex to start around 10pm and run until dawn with only flickering lamps to light the stage. In Kochi, one of the best places to see Kathakali, it's possible to attend shorter evening performances with the chance of seeing the actors made up if you arrive early.
The rich and varied cuisine of Kerala is a real highlight when visiting the state, from the bitter flavour of gourd to the sweetness of juicy mangoes, the freshness of coconut and, of course, the heat of chilli. Vegetarians will find no end of options with the Hindu preference for meat-free diets while carnivores will be satisfied with the Christian and Muslim cuisine on offer that utilises beef, pork, duck and seafood. Dishes to look out for include iddlis - steamed rice cakes soaked in a spicy & sour broth, lentil-based dhals, the fish curry moillee, and uttappams - fermented rice flour pancake-style snacks served with chillis, coriander and chutney. Most South Indians eat with their hands so cutlery may be a limited option in many restaurants.
Kerala is a fantastic place to experience a homestay with a number of local families opening their country mansions to visitors. Board and home-cooked meals are provided and the owners will welcome guests and often offer walking tours around the estate and local village. Prices are often higher than a typical hotel but it's a great chance to meet and speak with Keralans with a true insight into the local way of life. Homestays in Kerala tend to be located in more rural environs with gardens to make the most of the setting.
Snake Boat Races
If you find yourself visiting Kerala during the monsoon season, be sure to check out a snake boat race. Every year between July and September, slender 70-m long vessels that bare resemblance to a snake (hence the name) hit the rising waters with some 100 rowers propelling the boat to the finishing line. The boats are accompanied by drummers who provide a rhythmic soundtrack for the oarsmen to row in sync to. There's also a choir singing traditional boat songs to further encourage the rowers. A number of important races are held in and around Alleppey including the spectacular Nehru Trophy Race on the second Saturday of each August.
Combining acrobatic combat with the principles of yoga, kalarippayat is Kerala's distinctive and totally unique martial art. Dating back to the 12th century the specialist fighters are trained in hand-to-hand combat and weaponry that includes swords, spears and shields. It's possible to watch kalarippayat demonstrations at local gyms and tourist resorts.
With a history that spans some 5,000 years, the holistic medical system of ayurveda is widely practised throughout India and has recently gained popularity in the Western world. Diagnosis and therapy is determined according to not only physical ailments but also personality and lifestyle with an emphasis on the harmony of mind, body and soul. Treatments usually include a vegetarian diet, oil massage and herbal medicine. With South Indians strictly following the ancient Sanskrit roots of ayurveda, Kerala is a great place to indulge in a little health tourism either at one of the professional ayurveda hospitals or if it's just a massage you're after, at one of the many spa resorts.
The annual Hindu festival of Puram held in the temple town of Thrissur is one of Kerala's largest and most colourful festivals with dressed elephants, percussion players and spectacular firework displays. Festivities take place over the course of 36 hours on the day when the moon rises with the Pooram star in the Malayalam Calendar month of Medam (usually sometime in April or May). It's a busy time with thousands of participants and spectators so book well in advance.
Onam Harvest Festival
Also held in the town of Thrissur each year is the 10-day long Onam Harvest Festival when Keralans welcome the mythical King Mahabali into their homes with a banquet known as sadya. What makes the celebrations in Thrissur so remarkable is the slightly wacky pulikali, a procession of men dressed like tigers with masks, striped shorts and intricate body paint with the face of a tiger across their chest and stomach, each one unique. The masked men strut their stuff with wiggling tails, jingling ankle bells and jiggling bellies, accompanied by drummers and out to impress. The event takes place in August/September.