Fragrant Tapestry of South India : Travel in Kerala

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Kerala, the southernmost state in India, has many names. The locals call their land “God’s Own Country.” After crowded, dusty Mumbai, Kerala indeed seems like a paradise to me, a land of lacy, cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, misty lagoons and lakes, verdant rice paddies, tea and cardamom plantations, white temples and churches. Even Malayalam, the most widespread language in the region, sounds unusual to me—mellifluous and nasal, fast-paced and caressing. While I can grasp the rudiments of Hindi and Marathi, Malayalam is completely new to my ears. To be confronted with something so exotic and unusual after what I thought was a good introduction to India over the course of my numerous trips underscores the richness of discoveries this country holds. As my stay in Kerala unfolds, I find that not only are its sounds completely new to me, but also its scents, tastes, and sights. Just like everywhere in India, it is a kaleidoscope of sensory impressions.

Divinity has many expressions in “God’s Own Country.” The moment we land in Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram (which the British used to abbreviate as Trivandrum), I am struck by the unusual diversity, even by Indian standards. Although more than 50% of the residents follow Hinduism, the Muslim and Christian communities are vibrant, reflecting Kerala’s important role as a trading port. The city of Kochi is also home to the oldest Jewish synagogue in India (1568), a splendid jewel box-like building decorated with Belgian glass chandeliers and Chinese hand-painted tiles. For the first couple of nights, I could not fall asleep—the songs at Hindu temples lasted deep into the night, then the call to prayer sounded from the mosque nearby, and finally, the Syrian Orthodox church rang its bells calling the parishioners to the morning mass. The scents of rose oil and oud blend with myrrh and frankincense, the cross is painted on top of the lotus flower and the marigold garlands are just as likely to be given to the goddess Durga as they are to the Virgin Mary.

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The ancient travelers called Kerala “The Mountain Country.” Kerala wraps around the south-western coast of India like a hilly ribbon, one edge of which falls into the Arabian Sea, while the other intertwines with the borders of neighboring states, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The picturesque hill stations on the Western Ghats are surrounded by tea plantations. While the temperature in Kochi was around 90F in January, Munnar greeted us with a comfortable 70F. It is a perfect place to spend a couple of nights exploring the surrounding countryside and the impressive national parks. The foggy hilltops are draped in verdant foliage, and a light, bitter green scent hangs in the air near the tea processing plants.

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Kerala is also known as “the Red State,” for the communist hue of its government. In 1957 it became the first region where the Communist Party of India won an overwhelming majority. It still rules the state in coalition with other left parties. While the wide ranging land redistribution introduced by the communists and various social welfare programs has not created a perfect socialist state, the investment in social capital has paid off handsomely. The literacy rate is the highest out of all states—94% vis-à-vis 74% for the Indian average according to the 2011 Census. The desperate poverty and slums that shock Westerners in India are almost absent. Of course, the communist programs alone may not be the sole reason for these achievements, but the progressive stance of the government when it comes to education and social capital development is impressive nonetheless.

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The Venice of the East is a moniker Kerala received from visitors who were enchanted by its labyrinthine of backwaters, a network of interconnected canals, estuaries and inlets, running parallel to the Arabian Sea coast. A favorite tourist activity among both European and Indian visitors is to hire a boat for an overnight stay or simply for an afternoon. As the boat leaves Kochi, heading towards Alappuzha, one finds oneself in an enchanted world of coconut palm fringed rivers, lush rice paddies and vine covered bridges. Tiny villages dot the canals, and just like in the Venice of olden times, life is closely linked with the water, the main mode of transportation. The aroma of mustard seeds and curry leaves begins to waft in the air as women prepare breakfast in the open air kitchens; the scent of temple incense competes with that of brackish water and the salty sea air adds a poignant, fresh tinge to this mélange.

“Kera” is a Malayalam word for coconut. Although this etymology is disputed by some modern scholars, Kerala is undoubtedly a land of coconuts. Coconut palm is as omnipresent as an olive tree in the Mediterranean. The milky sweetness of coconut is just as likely to be found in savory dishes as in desserts. In contrast to the Northern states, the palette of Kerala’s cuisine uses very few spices. The lemony ginger, green curry leaves, tart unripe mangoes, bitter mustard seeds and sweet coconut provide the main flavors. The mild heat of vegetable and seafood dishes comes mostly from the resinous pungency of native black pepper rather than the bold heat of chili peppers that were brought to India at the end of the 15th century by the Portuguese. Rice is the main staple, but it is not the dry, perfumed basmati that one would find on their plate. The pink tinted local rice, rosematta, is a medium grain variety, with a pleasant milky taste. The rice is also made into a dazzling variety of dishes—plump dumplings, steamed vermicelli, crisp pancakes and tender flatbreads. Just like in other aspects of Kerala’s culture, I find more overlaps in its cuisine with Southeast Asia, rather than with the Indian north.

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As I wrap up my olfactive painting of Kerala, one scent stands out in particular, the fragrance of bananas. Never before in my life have I seen such an amazing diversity of bananas as what I discovered in South India. A banana tree is a ubiquitous green presence along the roads and river banks, its floppy, yellowing leaves swaying in the breeze. The markets have whole stalls devoted to bananas, some of which are as tiny as my little finger, while others are as big as an elephant tusk. This scent of the banana market is what I remember the most—fresh and floral, with a hint of dark caramel. For a moment its sweetness seems to overpower even the smells of spices, rotting vegetable peelings, incense sticks, wilting marigolds and the briny sea breeze.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

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18 Comments

  • Andy: How I wish I could travel there now! If I ever go to India, I will have to make sure I visit this region. January 2, 2012 at 8:13am Reply

  • Suzanna: What a delightful read, and so evocative that one can almost smell the banana market.

    Superb photography also, V. The first photo is a stunning cultural composition and the hilly landscapes are full of line and texture. January 2, 2012 at 8:31am Reply

  • Maja: Was just watching a show on Kerala food the other day. The abundance of coconuts and curry leaves… It must be amazing there, indeed 🙂 January 2, 2012 at 8:38am Reply

  • skilletlicker: This seems like a good region of India to initiate the first time traveler to that country. Do you agree? Or should one just plunge head first into Mumbai and absorb the culture shock in one fell swoop? Seeing Ghost Protocol last night (Mumbai is a loction) and then reading your post this morning is inspiring me to make a trip to India a priority for 2012. January 2, 2012 at 11:38am Reply

  • CC: I went to Kerala chasing a monsoon and I can confirm: it’s the smell of Hermès’ Un Jardin Après la Mousson. I still wear it when I want to recreate that trip. When can we have a post on perfumes and voyages? January 2, 2012 at 11:38am Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, I bet it was a great time to visit for mangoes. The first time I went to India it was right before the monsoon season, and the mangoes were amazing. They made up for sweltering heat and humidity.

    I have a post related to the topic of travel:
    http://boisdejasmin.typepad.com/_/2011/06/scent_of_travel.html

    But did you mean something different? January 2, 2012 at 1:40pm Reply

  • Victoria: I think that it would be a good first time Indian destination. There is certainly plenty to do in the area and there are also some beautiful temples. The nature is what I found incredible about Kerala–the mountains, the parks where you can see elephants in nature, etc. The backwaters alone are worth the trip. We stayed on the boat overnight, and it was wonderful.

    Check out Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations in Kerala. He actually follows pretty much the same route in backwaters as we did.

    As for Mumbai, I will write about it too at some point. It is exhilarating, exhausting and maddening. But I love it nonetheless. January 2, 2012 at 1:46pm Reply

  • Victoria: The flavors of Kerala’s food are bright and fresh. Plus, I love the smell of curry leaves–intensely green, earthy, incense-like. January 2, 2012 at 1:50pm Reply

  • Victoria: Suzanna, thank you very much! The first photo is from a kathakali performance in Kochi, a traditional dance-drama, which seems more like Kabuki than anything I’ve encountered in other parts of India. A completely surreal and beautiful experience! January 2, 2012 at 1:52pm Reply

  • Victoria: I have a difficult time picking a favorite region in India, but Kerala must be at the top.
    Moreover, it is just so impressive in terms of its social development–the Human Development Index for Kerala is on par with that of the advanced capitalist democracies (even if its GDP per capita is quite low.) January 2, 2012 at 1:56pm Reply

  • Lavanya: very nice post, V!

    Malayalam (and Bengali) is maybe my favorite Indian language. I can follow a little bit because our dialect of tamil has a lot of malayalam in it but mostly I just like to hear the sounds and enjoy it (malayalam in some parts of Kerala like Trichur is even more musical and sing-songy). I have visited a few parts of Kerala like thekaddy when I was a kid but we keep planning a ‘back waters’ trip that we need to make happen. Technically my ‘native place’ is Kerala( a lot of my ancestors moved from Tamil Nadu to Kerala in the 16th century or so). so I have been meaning to atleast make a trip to visit the ancenstral home etc. Hopefully soon. January 2, 2012 at 2:15pm Reply

  • Victoria: I love the sound of Tamil as well (and Bengali too!) No wonder so much of the poetry is written in these languages. We traveled in the mountains right near the border with Tamil Nadu, and it is such a beautiful area. Everywhere we went we saw older ladies selling carrots. I guess, it was a a season for carrots, and those looked bright orange and smelled great–earthy and sweet. January 2, 2012 at 2:32pm Reply

  • CC: No, that is what I meant 🙂
    But somehow I had missed that post.
    Still, there is always space for more thoughts on perfume and travels. To be able to smell the elsewhere in our daily steps is quite extraordinary.
    On a side note: I came across this blog this year and it has attuned me to scents and to my forgotten sense of smell. It has been quite a journey, too. Thank you. January 2, 2012 at 3:14pm Reply

  • Victoria: The way you put it is great–"
    To be able to smell the elsewhere in our daily steps…" Yes, I think that it is one of the reasons why fragrance is such a passion of mine. I am a dreamer, I suppose. 🙂
      January 2, 2012 at 3:29pm Reply

  • Lynn Morgan: Utterly amazing post, Victoria! Your writing continues to astound and delight me. January 5, 2012 at 5:12pm Reply

  • Victoria: Thank you, Lynn! I loved writing it, it made me relive those memories and scents. January 6, 2012 at 10:48am Reply

  • Surbhi: Just the amount of green land makes it a happy place. Probably my favorite place in india so far. Kolkata is probably my second favorite. May 20, 2016 at 10:04pm Reply

    • Victoria: Agree on Kerala.
      I still haven’t visited Kolkata. May 21, 2016 at 2:41pm Reply

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