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Kerala's Coastal Kingdoms

From Kochi to Thiruvananthapuram, Anil Mulchandani takes you on a coastal tour through South Kerala.

Travelling along the coast of Kerala is an extremely enjoyable experience in itself – stunning views of the Arabian seacoast, beautiful beaches, breathtakingly beautiful backwaters, and lush groves, plantations and paddy fields that can be seen from the highways connecting the cities of Kerala. But, Kerala is not just about beautiful scenery – it also has many places of historical, architectural, artistic and cultural importance.


Thiruvananthapuram, well-known as Trivandrum, is a city of remarkable contrasts. Its heart is traditional and contains the Padmanabhaswamy Temple, but there are also old British colonial areas where you find Kerala's most fascinating museums, a large zoological park, churches and British public buildings.

We started our morning in the East Fort area before it became too crowded. We walked along the temple tank to the Gopuram of the Padmanabhaswamy Temple. The seven-storey Gopuram or gatehouse is in the classic Dravidian style seen in Tamil temples, with rich but restrained ornamentation more characteristic of Kerala. The corridor around the temple, we are told by a guide, has 365 sculptured stone pillars.
Walking out of the temple, we asked for directions to Kuthiramalika Palace Museum but found that local people know it better as the Puthen Mallika Palace or the horse palace. This palace has exquisite woodcarvings, including columns shaped like rampant horses lining the eaves below the sloping tiled roof, and Kathakali statues stand below the carved wooden ceiling. Inside, the chambers of this palace have polished floors and intricately executed stone screens. The highlight is a soild crystal throne donated by the Dutch and an ivory throne made from 50 elephant tusks.
From here, we drove to the landscaped gardens of the Government Arts and Crafts Museum, designed in the 1880s by Robert Fellow Chisholm, a British architect known for his Indo-Saracenic style. The striking red and black structure with double storey gabled roofs and Islamic arches, which was earlier called Napier Museum, has attractive interiors with stained glass, wooden ceilings and colourful walls.
Near this museum, the Natural History Museum has the ubiquitous collection of stuffed animals but what was most interesting was a replica of a wooden house, detailing the principles and components of the Nair's Naluketu or four-winged domestic architecture. From here we came to a beautiful building, called the Shri Chitra Art Gallery which exhibits the works of Raja Raja Varma and his celebrated nephew, Ravi Varma, one of the best known oil painters in India.
From Thiruvananthapuram, we drove to Kollam or Quilon, which is among Kerala's most historical port towns. Mentioned by Ibn Battuta in the 14th century as one of the top Indian ports, its rajas witnessed a flourishing Chinese settlement at Kollam. Set between the Arabian Sea and the Ashtamudi lake, Kollam is still one of Kerala's key ports and trading centres but the town now does not have too many attractions – a Portuguese cemetery is one of the reminders of its trading glory years.


Further ahead of Kollam, we came to Kayamklulam, which was once a small kingdom, later taken over by the Maharaja of Travancore, Marthanda Varma, in 1746. This was an important centre of the pepper and cinnamon trade, occupying much importance for the Dutch companies exporting pepper from the Kerala coast.

We parked ourselves at the Krishnapuram Palace, a fine example of Kerala's princely architecture. This 18th century palace sits in a nice garden and has an attractive wooden façade, with red-tiled gabled roofs and dormer windows. The highlight of the palace is the mural called Gajendra Moksha, which depicts an elephant saluting Lord Vishnu.
We continued to Alappuzha, famous as Alleppey, a town with picturesque canals, backwaters and lagoons, near some of the finest coastal scenery and pretty beaches. Alappuzha or Allepey is called the "Venice of the East" – a title given to this city by Lord Curzon. Alleppey is situated on the shores of the Arabian Sea close to the banks of Vembanad Lake. Even today, a boat ride on the backwaters in Alappuzha is one of the most memorable experiences for a visitor to Kerala.
The houseboats take inspiration from Kettuvalams, the rice boats that were designed to carry huge cargo over the waterways. We had chartered one for the night called Southern Panorama. The luxury houseboat comprised of a deck with sitting arrangements, a living and dining room, two bedrooms, and a kitchen and open cooking area at the rear. The boat kept stopping to show us Kerala's daily life – coir, coconuts and cashews being loaded on small boats, fisher people casting their nets, village activities and farming.
In the morning we awoke to a view of the sunrise on the gleaming waters. We saw herons and kingfishers on the way to the jetty. The driver took us to Haripad, which has one of Kerala's most important Subrahmaya Temples, with an idol of the four-armed deity that devotees believe was found in the river, and then to the Sree Krishna Ananda Temple at Ambalapuzha. This is one of the most important temples of the erstwhile Travancore State designed in typical Kerala style, with gabled roofs and carved wooden facades looking towards a sacred tank.
From Marari, we drove to Kottayam which is a town set between the backwaters and the hills. Once an important trading centre, it does not have much appeal, other than a couple of impressive churches. We visited a rubber plantation near Palai, which has fine Syrian Christian houses. The appam, stew and other home style dishes served for lunch were delightful.
From here, we continued to Cochin. A cluster of islands and peninsulas, Kochi and Ernakulam form an important economic zone in Kerala. We checked in at the Taj Malabar Resort & Spa, set in Willingdon Harbour, with a view of ships. We had dinner at their iconic Rice Boat Restaurant, selecting from their fresh catch of fish and prawns.
The next morning, we drove out to Fort Kochi to see the St Francis Church, one of the oldest European churches in India. Vasco do Gama was buried here when he died in 1524 and 14 years later his remains were shipped to Lisbon. Over the years the church experienced conversions – from Catholic to Protestant when the Dutch took it over in 1663 and renovated the church in 1779, and then to an Anglican church following British rule under CSI (Church of South India). The building is impressive and inside the church we saw tombstones and a rope-operated punkah (fan).
Carrying on, we came to the Mattancherry Palace, better known as the Dutch Palace, though it was actually built by the Portuguese in the 16th century and gifted to their ally, the ruler of Cochin, who gave them trading rights. The palace was completely renovated and practically rebuilt after the Dutch took over Cochin in 1663. Built on two floors around a quadrangle, the palace incorporates European influences into the traditional Keralan architectural plan of wings around a courtyard with columned galleries.
The road from the palace to Jew Town runs along the backwaters, with scores of souvenir and cap sellers, a little fish market, and general tourist service centres. Walking through the market, we bought books and browsed through antique shops. On a previous visit, I had seen features like its Cantonese willow-pattern tiles, Belgian chandeliers, interlocking pews, a ladies' gallery supported by gilt columns, ornate brass pulpit and a slab from the 14th century Kochangadi Synagogue that is now in ruins, an elaborate Ark with scrolls from the Jew Torah, the old testament, and gifts of gold crowns from the princely family of Cochin, and copper plates inscribed with the deed giving privileges to the Jews. Finally, before our return, we visited the beautiful Kovalam Beach, also known as the 'Paradise of the South'. Kovalam has endless swathes of coconut trees offering magnificent views. The popular Lighthouse Beach offers an amazing view of Vizhinjam Mosque on top of the Kurumkal hillock. Samudra Beach on the northern side and Eve's Beach are ideal for a relaxed hangout. Sunbathing, swimming, catamaran cruising, herbal body massage, kayaking, surfing, fishing and water skiing are popular activities.

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