Kerala, with its friendly people, beautiful beaches and tropical greenery, holds some of the oldest religious architecture, and is famous for the interlocking rivers, lakes and canals called the backwaters.
By Dr. Mel Borins, Family Physician, Author, Speaker
Kerala, a tourist destination on the Malabar coast in South West India, has a long shoreline with serene beaches, tropical freshwater rivers and streams, lush hills, exotic wildlife, sprawling plantations, lime green rice paddy fields, historical monuments, and most of all, friendly, smiling, welcoming people. A great climate and cheap prices makes it an excellent vacation destination.
A travel company specializing in travel to Kerala organized an exciting tour filled with fascinating sights, a diversity of cultural experiences and much appreciated opportunities for rest and relaxation for us.
The City of Cochin
Our first two nights we stayed at the elegant Ramada Resort in Cochin. The resort has a huge meandering swimming pool and luxurious rooms, with all the comforts of home. Our spacious room overlooked the Arabian Sea, a peaceful haven to retreat to after a busy day of touring.
We boarded a large boat, the St. Sebastian, at the Fort Cochin Ferry dock for our private tour of the harbor. We saw the city landscape, the famous Chinese fishing nets, ship building and repair facilities, and the gigantic loading docks with containers from all over the world. The best part was seeing the dolphins swimming and frolicking beside our boat.
We visited the oldest European church in India, the impressive St. Francis Church, originally built in 1503. Vasco da Gama, who discovered the sea route from Europe to India, was initially buried in this church. Nearby, the imposing Santa Cruz Basilica was built in 1505, destroyed by the British in 1795 and rebuilt in 1887. The Christians of Kerala, which make up about 16% of the population, belong to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. Apparently St. Thomas converted his first followers in Kerala in 52 AD.
After a delicious seafood lunch at the renowned Malabar House Restaurant, we visited Jew Town to see the oldest synagogue in the Commonwealth. The first Jewish traders came to Kerala in 992 BC during the time of King Solomon. After the destruction of the second temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, some Jews fled and settled in India. Other Jews immigrated from Persia and Babylon in 490 AD, and after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. The Maharajahs of Cochin welcomed the Jews, and the Pardesi Synagogue was built in 1568. Kerala has always been a place of tolerance and acceptance.
We walked down the narrow streets of the old city of Cochin to Jew Street, and took off our shoes at the entrance of the Synagogue, a custom when visiting homes and places of worship. The synagogue floor was made of individually painted tiles from China. Large crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling and a silk curtain hid the Ark and holy bibles. An informative pictorial description of the Kerala Jewish history was in one of the outer rooms.
Perhaps the most impressive quality of Kerala is its openness to external influences. India is all about acceptance and surrender. Arab, Roman, Chinese, Islamist, Christian, Marxist and British influences have all left their mark on Kerala. Diversity is part of everyday life.
We drove 65 km south of Cochin to Alleppey, an area of many inland waterways called the “Backwaters,” famous for its floating houseboats. After checking into the Punnamada Spa Resort, we boarded our luxury houseboat docked directly outside our waterfront room. We traveled all day on a converted rice barge, used in the early days for the transportation of goods from the isolated interior villages to the towns. These houseboats, about 67 feet long and 13 feet wide, have fully furnished single and double bedrooms with en-suite washrooms, sundecks, private balconies and full kitchens.
A cruise on a houseboat is a fabulous way to explore the picturesque beauty of the backwaters and witness the Keralites simple way of life on the river and canals. Many tourists sleep on the elegant houseboats, with all their meals prepared from local provisions plucked, caught or bought in the backwaters.
We awoke to songbirds and watched an amazing sunrise through the coconut palms. Then we drove to the Abad Whispering Palms resort, located at Kumarakom, a tiny settlement on lovely Vembanad Lake, one of the largest in India. We took another riverboat cruise through the Mangrove forests, emerald green paddy fields and coconut groves interspersed with enchanting waterways and canals adorned with white lilies and a plethora of birds.
The most impressive thing about India is the unexpected. While driving to the beaches of Kovalam, we stopped due to a religious Hindu procession. Many slender young men, entranced, with ten-foot-long steel rods piercing through their cheeks, walked towards the temple. Teenage boys, also entranced, danced, eyes closed, to the rhythm of temple drums. Men with huge, colorful, four-foot-tall headdresses precariously balanced on their heads, followed, with a procession of flutes.
India’s 1.2 billion inhabitants face many challenges. A people’s greatness is measured by how they cope with adversity. Despite a wealthy minority and growing middle class, most Indians live without sanitation and in poor conditions. The most profound reason to visit India is the reminder of how fortunate we North Americans are. We were inspired by the tenacity, good will and generosity of the Indian people, proof that joy and inner peace is not about wealth and possessions.
Dr. Mel Borins, a family physician in a private practice and an active staff member at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto, helps train Physicians in Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Counseling and Psychotherapy, Stress Management and Communications. He is a leading expert in health and wellness, offering fresh perspectives to the often serious subjects of health and stress management. www.melborinscreative.com