Distorted by the ripples, the blue sky fragments into a shifting maze of colours and shapes; I let my fingers ski across the surface of the murky green backwaters – the kayal. The muggy May morning congeals into a frieze of Dali-esque timelessness, as I hang limpidly over the prow of the vallom, and ponder this enigmatic motherland of mine…. KERALA…the name itself enthralls. Well, Chattanooga, Bujumbura or Middlesex might charm their denizens…but cair-rella .. just seems to roll off the tongue, deliciously! Be it kera alam or chera alam, land of coconut palms or the land of the Chera dynasty, the sound Kerala suggests rolling waves and balmy beaches.
Embryonic Kerala evolved out of ancient Tamilakam, under the fiefdom of the Cheras. The Chera Kingdom and subsequently, the feudal Nair and Namboothiri Brahmin enclaves assumed power over the region. Throughout history, commerce and trade attracted merchants and settlers, and it is believed that St. Thomas the Apostle visited Kerala in the same century. Early contact with Europeans later gave way to struggles between colonial and native interests. The States Reorganisation Act of 1 November 1956 elevated Kerala to statehood.
KERALA …my birthplace, my matrabhoomi! How do I convey this sense of a deeply possessive pride most Malayalees harbour? … the electric sensation of melding with the elements in the environment?.....or the glorious bonhomie of malayali festivity? The usual effusive verbiage of travelogues and tourist brochures, simply derogates the experience of Kerala into the banality of just another packaged tour. Perhaps the real life narration of a child of the soil might make a difference.
The softly lapping waves lull me into lethargic catatonia. Suddenly, I whip my hand out of the water, alarmed as the tentacles of sinister sea-life seem to coil around my wrist! The weathered old boatman, silhouetted against the sky, grins wryly: “It’s only payal!” – payal being a pervasive seaweed, that colonizes large areas on the surface of the water. Indigenous to interior Africa, it remains a nuisance legacy of some ardent “madama” (derisive reference to the wife of the “saip”, again derisively referring to the Englishman of the empire, respectfully called a “sahib” by the north Indians), who brought a single bulb of a type of African water hyacinth over, to spruce up her garden pond!
Through the ages, the social fabric of Kerala was always embroidered with an exotic interweave. The people of this land, especially around the commercial hub of Kochi, offer to the observer a broad spectrum of cultural diversity. The ancient epic Mahabharata, (800 BC), frequently cites Kerala as a tribe, a region and a kingdom. As early as Egyptian times, the ports of Kerala, churned out commercial trade in significant volume. This is evidenced from a study of the substances employed in the process of mummification. They constituted largely, of spices and herbs peculiar to only Kerala. The Greeks have records of spices, mainly black pepper, imported from Kerala. Pliny the Elder and Periplus of the Erythraean Sea are two sources documenting Greek absorption with the region. Late BC centuries are known for Roman legions stationed at erstwhile Saud (Kochi-Calicut region), to protect Roman commercial interests, and the Emperor Ashoka the Great, carved reference to Keralaputra on rock. Even to observe the local populace, you find typically Arabian features on someone who might be Christian or even Hindu. East Europeans, Jews and other Mediterranean communities also, found refuge here. Thus, New York may be the great melting pot of today, but Kochi set precedents well over a couple of millennia ago. This diverse cultural amalgam produces harmony and contentment at most times.
The boatman poled our vallom to the edge of a grassy outcrop of land. We alighted gingerly and walked along the granite walls of an ancient temple. As we wandered about the temple compound, devotees were scattered with an air of reverence; in their eye, a passing glance of bonding during this common quest for divine solace and worship. Call me prejudiced, but this is a unique trait I experience only in Kerala. Strangers communicate so meaningfully with the eyes. My mind drifts to childhood memories of the intense stare of the Kathakali performers.
Come September, and most temple grounds are gaily festooned with colour and awash with merriment. The Onam festival binds the people of Kerala into a common ethnic brotherhood. It appears to celebrate the time-old Hindu hospitality to different communities. The kathakali is a dance performance at Kshetrams(temples), - “katha” meaning story and “kali” being play or performance. The artiste is dressed in provocating colours and flaring costumes. The stark and vivid facial make-up, emphasizes the expression of the eyes.. Dances like the Kathakali, Mohiniattom, koodiyattom, thullal, padayani, and theyyam, trace a long line of tradition and culture into the past. The riveting snake boat race, the festive pookalalams and the horseplay called “kaduva kali”, shout to the world, that Kerala during Onam is the malayalee statement of celebration!
From the temple, we sauntered into a fairly modern town. As I observed the people go about their daily affairs, I was struck by a sense “savoir vivre”. Compared to the disarray and commotion of most Indian cities and large towns, the people of Kerala seem to know their individual place and position in the universe. Consequently, people conduct their affairs with a sense of quiet certitude and purpose, creating an ambience of tranquility and orderliness. I wondered sardonically if that was an unconscious tribute to the government and politics of the land.
Kerala, along national guidelines, offers its populace the right of franchise to participate in a parliamentary system of representative democracy. A rare juxtaposition of political ideologies is observed. Communist parties are actually elected into power in a democratic parliament. Government is managed through its three components: The Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary.
Done with our purchases, we hail a taxi. The indigenous Ambassador car is India’s proud icon of automotive self dependence. Though slowly being phased out to more modern style and fancy, it remains a rolling bastion of pride to Indians. We coast along Kerala’s sandy beaches and swaying palms. The driver chatters away about his typical clients. Tourists from across the world are transfixed with the charms of Kerala, apparently. He tells me that his calendar is filled with dates that remind him of the annual arrival of regular customers. He pauses to wave and greet passing foreign acquaintances. I marvel at the level of literacy and the general knowledge of international current affairs that the common man in Kerala possesses.
Kerala's education system is envied nationally as she assumes status as one of the most literate states in the country. The rural village level education in Kerala made significant contributions to progress by sponsoring sabha mathams that imparted Vedic knowledge. Apart from kalaris, which taught martial arts, there were village schools run by Ezhuthachans or Asans. Christian missionaries, who set up numerous schools and colleges, opened a portal to the highest ideals of western education.
The schools and colleges in Kerala are run by the government or private trusts or individuals. Each school is affiliated with either the Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE), the Central Board for Secondary Education (CBSE), or the Kerala State Education Board. English is the language of instruction in most private schools, while government run schools offer English or Malayalam as medium. After 10 years of secondary schooling, students typically enroll at Higher Secondary School in one of the three streams—liberal arts, commerce or science. Upon completing the required coursework, students can enroll in general or professional degree programmes
The driver of our taxi politely asks if he could pull over as he spots an elderly couple, from Germany apparently, agitated and rather upset. I watched as he walked over to them and very re-assuring in his manner, mollify them with directions and advice. I think to myself, is it any wonder that Kerala is renowned for its hospitality to tourists.
Kerala, ensconced on the lush and tropical Malabar Coast, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in India. The National Geographic Traveler magazine lists Kerala as one of the "ten paradises of the world" and "50 places of a lifetime". The state's tourism industry is a major contributor to the state's economy with a growth rate of 13.31%. In 2006, Kerala attracted 8.5 million tourist arrivals, an increase of 23.68% over the previous year, making the state one of the fastest-growing destinations in the world.
The landscape transforms as we move interland from the backwaters. The ebullient bougainvillea and the crimson flame of the forest burst colour into our vision. I am struck by how our state is defined by its greenery and swaying palms. The driver pulls over sharply and directs our attention to a nearby enclosure. In preparation for the upcoming festival the temple elephants and their handlers, are being decked out in all their finery. I am spellbound by burnished gold spheres that protrude out of the caparison of the elephants. The handlers or mahouts, have gaily coloured umbrellas and what looks like fans of yellow strands that they wave about ceremoniously.
Much of Kerala's notable biodiversity is concentrated and protected in the Agasthyamalai Biosphere Reserve in the eastern hills. Kerala's fauna are notable for their diversity and high rates of endemism: 102 species of mammals (56 of which are endemic), 476 species of birds, 202 species of freshwater fishes, 169 species of reptiles (139 of them endemic), and 89 species of amphibians (86 endemic). These are threatened by extensive habitat destruction, including soil erosion, landslides, salinization, and resource extraction.
I turn myself in to retire for the day. As I lie in the darkness, and slowly surrender to exhaustion and blissful sleep, visions of the grand history of where I lie, flash past my eyes.
Kerala and Tamil Nadu once shared a common language, ethnicity and culture; this common area was known as Tamilakam. According to legend, Kerala was an Asura-ruled kingdom under Mahabali. Onam, the national festival of Kerala, is dedicated to Maveli's memory. Another legend has Parasurama, an avatar of Mahavishnu, throwing his battle axe into the sea; from those waters, Kerala arose.
The Government of India's 1 November 1956 States Reorganisation Act inaugurated the state of Kerala, incorporating Malabar district, Travancore-Cochin (excluding four southern taluks, which were merged with Tamil Nadu), and the taluk of Kasargod, South Kanara. A new legislative assembly was also created, for which elections were first held in 1957. These resulted in a communist-led government through ballot - the world's first of its kind - headed by E.M.S. Namboodiripad. Subsequent social reforms favoured tenants and labourers. As a result, living standards, education, and life expectancy improved dramatically.