The state of Kerala is located at India’s southern extremity and forms a long sliver of land bordered by Tamil Nadu to the east and Karnataka in the north with Sri Lanka and the Maldives to the south. In many ways Kerala is distinct geographically, climatically and culturally to its near neighbours and, although best known for its coastline and palm-fringed beaches, has a hilly, lush and thickly forested interior framed by the high mountains of the Western Ghats. The climate is tropical and this, in turn, has contributed to the production of tea, coffee and key Indian spices which form an important part of the Keralan identity and also attracted the first western traders to the subcontinent, including Vasco da Gama in 1498. Our Kerala travel guide highlights the very best of the region, both for the first-time visitor or seasoned traveller.
The best time to visit Trivandrum is from October to February. During this time rainfall is moderate and perfect for visiting places. Weather in Trivandrum is so cool and pleasant with a minimum temperature of 180 during winters.
You have to envy the travellers who discovered Kovalam back in the 1970s. Before the appearance of the crowds and sunbeds that nowadays spill over the resort’s quartet of beaches, not to mention the warren of hotels, shops and restaurants crammed into the palm groves behind them, this must have been a heavenly location. Four decades of unplanned development, however, have wrought havoc on the famous headland and its golden sand bays. Virtually every conceivable patch of dry ground behind the most spectacular of them, Lighthouse Beach, has been buried under concrete, but it’s still a popular base for Ayurveda and yoga. The proximity of Kovalam to the city means domestic tourism is booming; closest to the bus and taxi stand, Howah Beach in particular attracts a lot of day-trippers, who leave behind a trail of rubbish.
Visitors should be aware that due to unpredictable rip currents and a strong undertow, especially during the monsoons, swimming from Kovalam’s beaches is not always safe. The introduction of blue-shirted lifeguards has reduced the annual death toll, but at least a couple of tourists still drown here each year, and many more get into difficulties. Follow the warnings of the safety flags at all times and keep a close eye on children. There’s a first-aid post midway along Lighthouse Beach.
Although now officially in Tamil Nadu, Padmanabhapuram, 50km southeast of Kovalam, was the capital of Travancore between 1550 and 1750, and maintains its historic links with Kerala, from where it is still administered. With its exquisite wooden interiors, coconut-shell floors and antique furniture and murals, the palace represents the apogee of regional building, and fully merits a visit. Just avoid weekends, when the complex gets overrun with bus parties.
Devout Hindus have for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years travelled to Varkala, 54km north up the coast from Thiruvananthapuram, to scatter ashes of recently deceased relatives on Papanasam beach. The beach, 4km from Varkala town itself, is dramatically set against a backdrop of superb, burnt-clay-coloured cliffs, which, coupled with comparatively low-key development, makes Varkala a more appealing place to spend a beach holiday than Kovalam. Tightly crammed along the rim of crumbling North Cliff, its row of restaurants and small hotels stare out across a vast sweep of ocean – a view that can seem almost transcendental after sunset, when a myriad tiny fishing boats light up their lanterns.
Sandwiched between the sea and Ashtamudi (“eight inlets”) Lake, Kollam (pronounced “Koillam”, and previously known as Quilon), was for centuries the focal point of the Malabar’s spice trade. Phoenicians, Arabs, Greeks, Romans and Chinese all dispatched ships to the city, before the rise of Calicut and Cochin eclipsed the port. These days, it’s a workaday market town and busy transport hub for the southern backwater region, with surprisingly few vestiges of its former prominence. Many travellers stay overnight here, however, en route to or from Alappuzha on the excursion boats that leave each morning from its lakeside ferry jetty. If the traffic in the centre gets too much, take a short auto-rickshaw ride south to the main beach, or a couple of kilometres west along the coastal road to the Thangassery Lighthouse, which is well worth the climb to the top for views of the fishing harbour. In the evening, a stroll through the town’s traditional bazaar, with its old wooden houses and narrow backstreets lined by coir warehouses, rice stores and cashew traders, is a pleasant diversion.
Thrissur (Trichur), a busy market hub and temple town roughly midway between Kochi (74km south) and Palakkad (79km northeast) on the NH-47, is a convenient, albeit traffic-clogged, base for central Kerala. Close to the Palghat (Palakkad) Gap – an opening in the natural border made by the Western Ghat mountains – Thrissur presided over the main trade route into the region from Tamil Nadu and Karnataka and for years was the capital of Cochin state.
Today, Thrissur is home to several influential art institutions and prides itself on being the cultural capital of Kerala. One of the state’s principal Hindu temples, Vadukkunnathan, is here too, at the centre of a huge circular maidan that hosts all kinds of public gatherings, not least Kerala’s most extravagant, noisy and sumptuous festival, Puram. The town derives most of its income from remittance cheques sent by expatriates in the Gulf – hence the predominance of ostentatious modern houses in the surrounding villages. The hinterland also serves as a storehouse, dotted with communities and pilgrimage sites where both contemporary party politics and ancient art traditions are pursued with great enthusiasm, despite the disruptive impact on local life of mass out-migration.
Thrissur is best known to outsiders as the venue for Kerala’s biggest annual festival, Puram, which takes place on one day in the Hindu month of Medam (April–May; ask at a tourist office or check online for the exact date). Inaugurated by Shaktan Tampuran, the raja of Cochin, between 1789 and 1803, the event is the culmination of eight days of festivities spread over nine different temples to mark obeisance to Lord Shiva, at the peak of the summer’s heat. Like temple festivals across Kerala, it involves the stock ingredients of caparisoned elephants, massed drum orchestras and firework displays, but on a scale, and performed with an intensity, unmatched by any other.
Puram’s grand stage is the long, wide path leading to the southern entrance of Vadukkunnathan Temple on the Round. Shortly after dawn, a sea of onlookers gathers here to watch the first phase of the 36-hour marathon – the kudammattom, or “Divine Durbar” – in which two majestic elephant processions, representing Thrissur’s Tiruvambadi and Paramekkavu temples, advance towards each other down the walkway, like armies on a medieval battlefield, preceded by ranks of drummers and musicians. Both sides present thirteen tuskers sumptuously decorated with gold caparisons (nettipattom), each ridden by three young Brahmins clutching objects symbolizing royalty: silver-handled whisks of yak hair, circular peacock-feather fans and colourful silk umbrellas fringed with silver pendants. At the centre of the opposing lines, the principal elephant carries an image of the temple’s presiding deity. Swaying gently, the elephants stand still much of the time, ears flapping, seemingly oblivious to the crowds and huge orchestra that plays in front of them, competing to create the most noise and greatest spectacle. When the music reaches its peak around sunset, the two groups set off towards different districts of town. This signals the start of a spectacular firework display that begins with a series of deafening explosions and lasts through the night, with the teams once again trying to outdo each other to put on the most impressive show.
If you venture to Thrissur for Puram, be prepared for packed buses and trains, and book accommodation well in advance. As is usual for temple festivals, many men use the event as an excuse to get hopelessly drunk. Women are thus advised to dress conservatively and only to go to the morning session, or to watch with a group of Indian women – and at all times avoid the area immediately in front of the drummers, where the “rhythm madmen” congregate.
The seven mountains encircling the hill district of Wayanad, 70km inland from Kozhikode, enfold some of the most dramatic scenery in all of south India. With landscapes varying from semitropical savanna to misty tea and coffee plantations, and steep slopes that rise through dense forest to distinctive, angular summits of exposed grassland, the region ranges over altitudes of between 750m and 2100m. Even at the base of the plateau, scattered with typically ramshackle Indian hill bazaars, it’s cooler than down on the plains.
The main Mysuru–Kozhikode highway, NH-17, slices through Wayanad. Since the late 1990s, it has been the source of new income in the form of overstressed dot-com executives and their families from Bengaluru and Delhi, with numerous high-end resorts, eco-hideaways and plantation stays springing up to service the screen-weary. Even if you can’t afford to stay in one of these bijou retreats, however, there are plenty of reasons to venture up here. Abutting the Tamil Nadu and Karnatakan borders, the twin reserves of Muthanga in the southeast, and Tholpetty in the north, collectively comprise the Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary – part of the world-famous Nilgiri Biosphere and one of the best places in India to spot wild elephant.
Kerala’s Far North
The beautiful coast north of Kozhikode is a seemingly endless stretch of coconut palms, wooded hills and virtually deserted beaches. The small fishing towns ranged along it hold little of interest for visitors, most of whom bypass the area completely – missing out on some exquisite, quiet coves, and the chance to see theyyem, the extraordinary masked trance dances that take place in villages throughout the region between November and May.
The only village in Kannur district where you can be guaranteed a glimpse of theyyem is Parassinikadavu, a thirty-minute drive north of Kannur, where temple priests don elaborate costumes, dance and make offerings to the god Muthappan each morning and evening. With an early enough start, it’s possible to catch the morning session and still have time to continue north to explore the little-visited Valiyaparamba backwater region. Local ferries crisscross this fascinating necklace of lagoons, and there’s even a company running houseboat trips – though foreign tourists are few and far between.
Kannur (Cannanore), a large, predominantly Moppila Muslim fishing and market town 92km north of Kozhikode, was for many centuries the capital of the Kolathiri rajas, who prospered from the maritime spice trade through its port. India’s first Portuguese Viceroy, Francisco de Almeida, took the stronghold in 1505, leaving in his wake an imposing triangular bastion, St Angelo’s Fort. This was taken in the seventeenth century by the Dutch, who sold it a hundred or so years later to the Arakkal rajas, Kerala’s only ruling Muslim dynasty.
These days, the town is the largest in the northern Malabar region – a typically Keralan market and transport hub jammed with giant gold emporia and silk shops, and seething with traffic. Land prices are booming ahead of the opening of an international airport, which will doubtless see more skyscrapers rise on the outskirts. Kannur’s few sights can be slotted into a morning, but increasing numbers of travellers are using the beaches to the south as bases from which to venture into the hinterland in search of theyyem rituals.
St Agnelo’s Fort
Accessed through a gateway on its northern side, St Agnelo’s Fort remains in good condition and is worth visiting to scale the massive laterite ramparts, littered with British cannons, for views over the town’s massive Norwegian-funded fishing anchorage.
Arakkal Heritage Museum
The splendid whitewashed building facing the beachfront below the fort – once the raja and bibi of Arrakal’s palace – now houses the government-run Arakkal Heritage Museum. Here documents, weapons, various pieces of 400-year-old rosewood furniture and other heirlooms relating to the family’s history are displayed – though they’re somewhat upstaged by the old building itself, with its high-beamed ceilings and original floorboards.
Extravagant costumes worn in theyyem and other less-known local art and ritual forms, including the Muslim dance style oppana, dominate the collection of the Folklore Museum, 5km north of Kannur town in the village of Chirakkal, just off NH-17. Housed in the 130-year-old palace, the engaging collection also features masks and weapons used in Patayani rituals performed in local Bhadrakali temples, and displays of todikkalam murals.
Local guesthouse owners can point you toward handloom weaving workshops dotted around nearby villages – a legacy of the old calico cotton trade. One that’s used to receiving visitors is the Kanhirode Co-operative, 13km northeast of Kannur on the main road to Mattanur, which employs around four hundred workers to make upholstery and curtain fabrics, plus material for luxury shirts and saris.
Cultural experiences in Kerala
Keralan ritual theatre
Among the most magical experiences a visitor to Kerala can have is to witness one of the innumerable ancient drama rituals that play such an important role in the cultural life of the region. Kathakali is the best known; other less publicized forms, which clearly influenced its development, include the classical Sanskrit kudiyattam.
Many Keralan forms share broad characteristics. A prime aim of each performer is to transform the mundane into the world of gods and demons; his preparation is highly ritualized, involving otherworldly costume and mask-like make-up. In kathakali and kudiyattam, this preparation is a rigorously codified part of the classical tradition. One-off performances of various ritual types take place throughout the state, building up to fever pitch during April and May before pausing for the monsoon (June–Aug). Finding out about such events requires a little perseverance, but it’s well worth the effort; enquire at tourist offices, or buy a Malayalam daily paper such as the Malayalam Manorama and ask someone to check the listings for temple festivals – most of the action invariably takes place within the temples. Tourist kathakali is staged daily in Kochi but to find authentic performances, contact performing arts schools such as Thiruvananthapuram’s Margi and Cheruthuruthy’s Kerala Kalamandalam; kudiyattam artists work at both, as well as at Natana Kairali at Irinjalakuda, which is accessible from Thrissur.