In the winter of 2000 we spent our holidays in Kerala & Goa. We started off by driving to Delhi and spending the better part of the next day in the flea market of Sarojni Nagar hunting for casual clothes and some serious chat and golgappa time. The early morning flight to Trivendrum was commanded by my first cousin. As a result we were transferred to the business class and soon we were enjoying all the goodies denied to lesser mortals. The real thrill was spending the better part of the flight in the cockpit and watching the clouds change their hues and colors. From the cockpit the experience of take off and landing is really unique. After the four hour flight we arrived at Trivendrum where another cousin of my mine who is a Doctor in the Air Force, was waiting to pick us up. Oh yes, from the air Trivendrum looks like an enormous coconut grove. One can barely see the city. Coconut being an essential ingredient of the staple diet, every house has at least four trees. The first evening in Kerala was spent on the Kovalam beach where of course the kids went mad in the water and I went mad looking at the variety of the seafood on the offer. There are these dozens of sophisticated dhabas called shacks that put various kind of raw seafood on display. One can choose what one wants to eat and the same is prepared before you. I chose to have a Kingfish grilled. Prepared with the fiery Keralite masala it was a mega hit.
The next morning we went to the Padmanabhaswami temple which houses the reclining Vishnu and is said to have been erected in the first years of the Kaliyug. That's 5000 years for you. I am sure the carbon dating tests do not match up to the claim but the thought of standing in a building that old is nice and humbling. The fact however is that the construction of the present
building is approximately a thousand years old and was made with the help of Chinese workmen. Their influence is unmistakable in the sculpture. The most remarkable feature was the floor, which is made of vegetable dyes and egg white and feels like soft rubber. The main entrance of the temple, which is called the gopuram, is entirely made of powdered sea shells and featured with incidents of Hindu mythology in paintings as well as sculpture.
Kanyakumari was next on the tour plan. We started early, which means as early as 10 in the morning, what with the kids screaming, the lunch getting packed and general chaos all around. Great fun nevertheless! So off we went in the Sumo we had hired. No sooner had we crossed the city that it started raining. Amidst the traffic there was a sudden screeching of brakes and an auto rickshaw rammed into the back of our Sumo. We got down and confronted a sheepish looking Keralite fellow. Unable to speak Malyalam I gestured with my hands ‘what happened?’ The fellow just stuck out his tongue and smiled and the matter ended there as there was not much damage to either of the vehicles.
The road to Kanyakumari is specked with small villages and towns which one keeps crossing with such frequency that one never really gets the feeling of being on a highway. The empty spaces are lush green in the classic Kerala style. Of course the cloudy day made the journey pleasurable. Our first stop was Padmanabhapuram, the capital of the Travancore kings. The present lineage is of the Verma royalty. The Keralite family system is matriarchal. Hence the King (poor chap) is not allowed to marry. But he can have as many concubines as he wants (lucky dog). So it is the son of the sister who succeeds the King and the sister is regarded as the Queen. The palace of the King at Padmanabhapuram is different from the opulent variety of the north. It is the grandeur of exquisite wood craftsmanship, which captures the eye. The floors of some of the rooms have been made as I explained earlier. Even the bed of the King is made from some kind of wooden contraption having medicinal properties. The tour of the palace over we had a quick lunch of aloo poories and departed for Kanyakumari.
I had been to Kanyakumari once before in 1984, during one of the training courses while under probation in the Bank. In 16 years the face of the place has changed beyond recognition. What was once a laid back place lazily receptive to curious visitors has now become a concrete monster dotted with street smart vendors of curios at every step of the way. We quickly made our way to the ferry that takes one to the island of Rock Memorial, where Swami Vivekanand is reputed to have meditated at one time. Right next to it is another island where a massive statue of the Tamil poet Perivayoor( I hope I got the name right) has been erected. The Rock Memorial has lost some of its exclusivity after the statue's installation. The quick pilgrimage over we headed back to Trivendrum. A few kilometers away is a place called Suchindran, which as per legend was rediscovered about 500 years ago. It houses a unique multi deity temple. The triumvirate of the Hindu gods is represented by a single figure of stone. There is also an eighteen feet high statue of Hanuman, which the devout cover, with offerings of fresh butter and betel leaves. There is another temple where it is believed that the God of Rain, Indra comes every night to take a bath. Why he needs to bathe at night puzzles me? Probably the daytime water availability is poor.
The piece-de-resistance however are the pillars outside the sanctum sanctorum. Carved out of single blocks of stones these pillars are a combination of smaller pillars, which are hollow from the inside. On beating them one by one the seven basic musical notes can be distinctively heard. On another set it is the different sounds of drums. We were in time for the Aarti so we stayed back. They had this mechanical contraption which when turned on played the drum and cymbals together to a pre determined rhythm. It was an effective accompaniment to the Vedic chants of the black clad priests and the blaring of conches and pipes. The experience is deeply moving. We went back to Trivendrum merrily singing aided with much needed beer.
As per our original plan we were supposed to fly to Cochin but wiser counsel prevailed and we decided to drive the 500 kms from Trivendrum covering Kerala at a stretch. As it turned out it was terrific choice, thanks to my cousin's insistence. The first stop was a Place called Varkala Beach. Well, one has to go up a cliff before going down a rocky path to the sea. The wind ruffles your hair and makes those crazy sounds and one has a beautiful view of the sea stretching for endless miles. Calm and serene. . . remember the movie “EK DOOJE KE LIYE". The last scene where the star-crossed lovers die falling from the rocks. Well this place was something like that . . . only I did not slip. From there we went onwards about 15 kilometers down road and arrived at a fishermen's village be the sea side. There was a small restaurant where we decided to eat. Since we were the probably the first customers in the past few weeks the Matre De grandly announced that the table will be set in about an hours time. Hunger taking precedence over anger we politely asked him if a boat could be rented to cover the backwaters (Backwater incidentally is seawater locked by land due to breaches in the coast or high tide spilling water overland). The Matre De regally told us that that was just what he had in mind. He blew a whistle and Lo & Behold a long boat arrived to take the hungry souls on an hour-long trip. I suspect these guys had an arrangement where he would calmly delay the arrival if the food was not ready in the allotted time. Anyway the backwater experience was not bad at all.
This particular place was full of the Portuguese Man of War, which for the uninitiated is a jellyfish. It's a poisonous creature but beautiful to look at, just like half of the fairer sex. So everybody merrily sang and got photographed and tried to forget the hunger pangs. The hour passed quickly, the Matre De took pity, the boat returned and the ravenous group attacked the food and took no prisoners. The chicken, Dosas, Rice etc. vanished at an alarming rate. The Matre De wore a harried look and was panting, running to and fro from the kitchen. Served him right! From there to Cochin was a long ride between the lush palm trees and green, green, green all around. The place gets to you. We reached Cochin late in the evening. Arrangements for our stay had made in the mess in the Southern Naval Command HQS. So everybody crashed after a leisurely Chinese Meal where a lobster was added to my considerable gastronomic repertoire. The next morning we quickly took a round of Cochin, which included a high seas ride to an island where in solitary glory, is the Buggati Palace. This place was built in the 18th Century by a Dutch trader and later taken over by the British who used it as the Residency till independence. It's being restored to its former glory and then would be used as a Hotel.
On the 29 Th Dec we beat the clock to reach Cochin airport on time only to find that the flight was delayed by an hour. So we waited and waited. . . it was tough as the anticipation of reaching Goa was strong and any delay was brooked with irritation and boredom. Any way the time passed, the plane arrived and off we went to paradise. But more of that later.