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KERALA'S COASTAL KINGDOMS

The state of Kerala is a dynamic mix of scenic beauty and historical delight. It is home to exquisite artefacts, colonial architecture, intricately-designed temples and, of course, serene backwaters.

The coast of Kerala is itself a treat – stunning views of the Arabian Sea, beautiful beaches, breathtaking backwaters, and lush groves can be easily spotted. But, Kerala is not just about beautiful sceneries – it also has many places of historical, architectural, artistic and cultural importance. The Princely states of Travancore and Kochi were known for their riches and patronage of the arts. We decided to make a trip from Thiruvananthapuram to Kochi, exploring these many gems.

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM

Thiruvananthapuram is a city of remarkable contrasts. Its heart is traditional, with 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 more.

We started the morning in the East Fort area before the crowd set in. 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.

Walking out of the temple, we asked directions for the Kuthiramalika Palace Museum; we soon found that locals know it better as the Puthen Mallika Palace or the horse palace. This palace has exquisite woodcarvings, including columns shaped like rampant horses (which give it the name)lining the eaves below the sloping tiled roof, and Kathakali statues stand below the carved wooden ceiling. The highlight is a soild crystal throne given 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, a wooden ceiling and colourful strips. We saw a superb collection of Chola and Vijayanagara bronzes, stone sculptures, gold ornaments including elaborate necklaces and belts, exquisitely detailed ivory carvings and 15th-century wood carvings. Among the highlights are the carved temple chariot, a wooden temple model and an oval temple theatre.

The nearby Natural History Museum has a ubiquitous collection of stuffed animals but what was most interesting was a replica of a wooden house, detailing the principles and components of 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.

KOLLAM

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. In the 9th century, on his way to Canton, China, Persian merchant Sulaiman al-Tajir found Kollam to be the only port in India visited by huge Chinese junks. Marco Polo too visited this port. 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 has few attractions – a Portuguese cemetery is one of the reminders of its global trade glory years.

Further ahead from 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.

We parked at the Krishnapuram Palace, a fine example of Kerala's princely architecture. This 18th century palace was built by the Travancore kings to replace an older palace, Veera Ravi Varma of Odanad, who reigned here before the Travancore war. The palace sits in a nice garden and has an attractive wooden façade with red-tiled gabled roofs and dormer windows. The construction style is typically Keralan Pathinarukettu - the palace is built in blocks with narrow galleries and the windows and doors face open courtyards to ensure ventilation and the flow of light. The highlight of the palace is the mural called Gajendra Moksha which depicts an elephant saluting Lord Vishnu, based on the story of Pandyan King Indradyumna, cursed by the sage Agastya, to be reborn as an elephant. Painted wih vegetable colours, it has details of a fierce looking Garuda and a compassionate expression on the face of Vishnu. This is one of Kerala's finest murals. The floral borders also form a panel of infant Krishna. The museum here has heirlooms and weapons including a double-edged sword of the Kayamkulam Rajas. A medieval Buddha statue is a new addition.

We continued to Alappuzha, famous as Alleppey, a town with picturesque canals, backwaters and lagoons near some fine coastal scenery and pretty beaches, Alappuzha or Allepey is called the "Venice of the East" - a title given to this city by Lord Curzon. Even today, a boat ride on the backwaters from Alappuzha is one of the most memorable experiences for a visitor to Kerala. There are many houseboats and smaller boats that take visitors on a boat ride.

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 an open cooking area at the rear. Once we had boarded, the boat travelled over the backwaters, passing palm-fringed shores and narrow shaded canals. Since the afternoon was warm and humid, we were glad the deck had been converted into an a/c glass-walled sitting room from which we could watch the glistening waters and lush green coastal landscapes. The boat kept stopping to show us Kerala's lifestyle like coir, coconuts and cashews being loaded on small boats, fishing folks casting their nets, village activities and farming. Tea and snacks were served onboard. As the evening approached, the chef onboard got busy preparing a Kerala dinner - prawns, fish and veggies in various styles.

In the morning, we rose 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 Subramanya 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. The Nagaraja temple of Mannarsala, not very far away, is a worshipping place for childless couples.

KOTTAYAM

From Marari, we drove to Kottayam, which is a town set between the backwaters and the hills. This town, once an important trade centre, does not have much appeal other than a couple of impressive churches. We visited the rubber plantations near Palai, which has fine Syrian Christian houses. We had pre-booked lunch at the Madukakunnu Farm, and saw the rubber plantation that lie in the foothills of the Western Ghats.

After lunch, we drove to Ettumanoor, one of the architectural masterpieces of Kerala. The temple focuses on a circular shrine with fine wood carvings, Dravidian murals and a roof made with copper sheets featuring 14 ornamental tops. The temple is most famous for its mural of Pradosha Nritham, showing Shiva as Natraja executing the Tandav.

From here, we continued to Cochin. A cluster of islands and peninsulas, Kochi and Ernakulam form an important economic zone for Kerala. 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.

As we headed towards Jew Town, we passed an impressive church, the Santa Cruz Basilica, a Roman Catholic Church at Fort Kochi was built in the 16th century but had to be rebuilt in the 1800s and to be consecrated in the 1900s after the British destroyed it when taking control of Cochin.

Continuing, we came to the Mattancherry Palace. 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 traditional Keralan architecture. It has a Bhagvati Temple in the central courtyard and Shiva and Vishnu Temples to the south. Walking through the palace, we were captivated by the marvellous murals depicting the entire Ramayana and scenes from the Mahabharata, the life of Lord Krishna, Kumarasasambava and Puranic legends. The halls have interesting exhibits like wardrobes, turbans, palanquins, portraits of the Rajas from 1864 to 1964, weapons including ceremonial swords, costumes and other princely memorabilia.

The road from the palace to the 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 before reaching the Mattancherry Pardesi Synagogue founded in 1568 and rebuilt by the Dutch in 1664, two years after the Portuguese destroyed the building. A wealthy Jew merchant, Ezekial Rahabi, donated the clock tower in the 18th century. On a previous visit, I had seen the 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.

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