With its roots in Sanskrit, the word ayurveda comes from ayu (life) and veda (knowledge); the knowledge or science of life. Principles of ayurvedic medicine were first documented in the Vedas some 2000 years ago, but may have been practised centuries earlier.
Ayurveda sees the world as having an intrinsic order and balance. It argues that we possess three doshas (humours): vata (wind or air); pitta (fire); and kapha (water/earth), known together as the tridoshas. Deficiency or excess in any of them can result in disease: an excess of vata may result in dizziness and debility; an increase in pitta may lead to fever, inflammation and infection. Kapha is essential for hydration.
Ayurvedic treatment aims to restore the balance, and hence good health, principally through two methods: panchakarma (internal purification) and herbal massage. Panchakarma is used to treat serious ailments, and is an intense detox regime, a combination of five types of different therapies to rid the body of built-up endotoxins. These include: vaman – therapeutic vomiting; virechan – purgation; vasti – enemas; nasya – elimination of toxins through the nose; and raktamoksha – detoxification of the blood. Before panchakarma begins, the body is first prepared over several days with a special diet, oil massages (snehana) and herbal steam-baths (swedana). Although it may sound pretty grim, panchakarma purification might only use a few of these treatments at a time, with therapies like bloodletting and leeches only used in rare cases. Still, this is no spa holiday. The herbs used in ayurveda grow in abundance in Kerala’s humid climate – the monsoon is thought to be the best time of year for treatment, when there is less dust in the air, the pores are open and the body is most receptive to treatment – and every village has its own ayurvedic pharmacy.
Traditional Keralan Arts
The art form of Kathakali crystallised at around the same time as Shakespeare was scribbling his plays. The Kathakali performance is the dramatised presentation of a play, usually based on the Hindu epics the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas. All the great themes are covered – righteousness and evil, frailty and courage, poverty and prosperity, war and peace.
Drummers and singers accompany the actors, who tell the story through their precise movements, particularly mudras (hand gestures) and facial expressions.
Preparation for the performance is lengthy and disciplined. Paint, fantastic costumes, ornamental headpieces and meditation transform the actors both physically and mentally into the gods, heroes and demons they are about to play. Dancers even stain their eyes red with seeds from the chundanga plant to maximise the drama.
Traditional performances can last for many hours, but you can see cut-down performances in tourist destinations such as Kochi, Munnar and Kumily, and there are Kathakali schools in Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) and near Thrissur that encourage visitors.
Kalarippayat (or kalari) is an ancient tradition of martial arts training and discipline, still taught throughout Kerala. Some believe it is the forerunner of all martial arts, with roots tracing back to the 12th-century skirmishes among Kerala’s feudal principalities.
Masters of kalarippayat, called Gurukkal, teach their craft inside a special arena called a kalari. You often can see kalarippayat performances at the same venues as Kathakali.
The three main schools of kalarippayat can be divided into northern and central, both practised in northern Kerala and the Malabar region, and southern kalarippayat. As well as open hand combat and grappling, demonstrations of the martial art are often associated with the use of weapons, including sword and shield (valum parichayum), short stick (kurunthadi) and long stick (neduvadi).
Kerala’s most popular ritualistic art form, theyyam is believed to predate Hinduism, originating from folk dances performed during harvest celebrations. An intensely local ritual, it’s often performed in kavus (sacred groves) throughout northern Kerala.
Theyyam refers both to the shape of the deity/hero portrayed, and to the actual ritual. There are around 450 different theyyams, each with a distinct costume, made up of face paint, bracelets, breastplates, skirts, garlands and exuberant, intricately crafted headdresses that can be up to 6m or 7m tall. During performances, each protagonist loses his physical identity and speaks, moves and blesses the devotees as if he were that deity. Frenzied dancing and wild drumming create an atmosphere in which a deity indeed might, if it so desired, manifest itself in human form.
From November to April there are annual rituals at each of the hundreds of kavus. Theyyams are often held to bring good fortune to important events such as marriages and housewarmings.The best place for visitors to see theyyam is in village temples in the Kannur region of northern Kerala. In peak times (December to February) there should be a theyyam ritual happening somewhere almost every night.
Although tourists are welcome to attend, this is not a dance performance but a religious ritual, and the usual rules of temple behaviour apply: dress appropriately, avoid disturbing participants and villagers; refrain from displays of public affection. Photography is permitted, but avoid using a flash. For details on where and when, ask at your guesthouse or contact Kurien at Costa Malabari.
Kerala Colour Section
Serene Kerala is a state shaped by its wonderful natural landscape: a long, luxurious coastline; wandering backwaters; lush palms and spice plantations; and cool mountain escapes. Add the kaleidoscope of culture best experienced in the unique performing arts and you’ll understand why Kerala is a destination not to be missed.
Goa might pull in the package-holiday crowds, but Kerala's coastline – almost 600km of it – boasts a stunning string of golden-sand beaches, fringed by palms and washed by the Arabian Sea. The southern beaches are the busiest. Less-discovered, wilder choices await in the north.
Best Beach Towns
Varkala The beautiful cliff-edged coastline of Varkala is a Hindu holy place as well as a lively backpacker-focused resort. Good base for yoga, surfing or just chilling out.
Kovalam Kerala's most commercial beach resort, but still fun and easily accessible with some good waves and a surf club. Resorts here and further south have a strong focus on ayurvedic treatments.
Kannur While Kannur itself is not particularly appealing, head 8km south to Thottada for gorgeous beaches and seafront homestays in local villages. Kannur town's 4km-long Payyambalam Beach is popular with locals.
Most established of the resorts along the coast is Kovalam, only a short hop from the capital, Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum). Once a quiet fishing village, Kovalam has two sheltered crescents of beach perfect for paddling or novice surfing, overlooked by a solid line of low-rise hotels and restaurants. If you're looking for something less busy, some lovely beaches and resorts cluster south of Kovalam in the area around Pulinkudi and Chowara, where ayurvedic treatments are popular.
North of Trivandrum is Varkala, which straggles along dramatic, russet-and-gold-streaked cliffs. Although a holy town popular with Hindu pilgrims, Varkala has also developed into Kerala's backpacker bolthole and the cliffs are lined with guesthouses, open-front restaurants and bars all moving to a reggae, rock and trance soundtrack. For a quieter scene, travellers are drifting north to Odayam beach.
Even further north, Alappuzha (Alleppey) is best known for its backwaters, but also has a decent coastline up to Marari, while Kochi (Cochin) has Cherai Beach on Vypeen Island, a lovely stretch of white sand, with kilometres of lazy lagoons and backwaters only a few hundred metres from the seafront.
Far North & Islands
Fewer travellers make it to Kerala's far north, which means there are some beautifully deserted pockets of beach, where resorts are replaced by more traditional village life. Among the best are the peaceful white-sand beaches south of Kannur, or further north around the Valiyaparamba backwaters between Kannur and Bekal.
Even more far flung are the Lakshadweep Islands, a palm-fringed archipelago 300km west of Kerala. As well as pristine beaches, the islands boast some of India's best scuba diving and snorkelling.
Kerala's 900km of waterways spread watery tendrils through a lusciously green landscape. Palm-shaded, winding canals are lined by back-in-time villages, many of which are accessible only by boat. It's an environment unique to Kerala and an unforgettable South India experience.
The choice of houseboats – especially at Alappuzha – is mind-boggling and your selection of boat and operator can make or break the experience.
- Unless it's peak season, avoid booking a houseboat until you arrive at the backwaters; inspect a few boats before committing.
- Ask to see the operator's certification: those houseboat owners who have a 'Green Palm' or 'Gold Star' certificate have met requirements such as solar panels, sanitary tanks and low-emission engines.
- Visit the houseboat dock in Alappuzha, talk to returning travellers or guesthouse owners, and search online to gauge costs and quality.
- Avoid peak season (mid-December to mid-January) and domestic holidays when prices peak and the waterways are clogged.
To glide along the canals in a punted canoe, or sleep under a firmament of stars in a traditional houseboat, is pure enchantment. The distinctive houseboats that cluster around the main hubs of Alleppey and Kollam (Quilon) are designed like traditional rice barges or kettuvallam ('boats with knots', so-called because the curvaceous structure is held together by knotted coir).
There are several ways to explore the backwaters. The most popular is to rent a houseboat for a night or two; these sleep anywhere from two to 14 or more people. They vary wildly in luxury and amenities. The hire includes staff (at least a driver and cook, but often additional kitchen staff and crew), so catering is included, and you'll eat traditional Keralan meals of fish and vegetables cooked in coconut milk. The popularity of these tours can mean that the main waterways get very busy – even gridlocked – in peak season. A one-night houseboat trip won't get you far through the backwaters.
Ferries, Canoes & Kayaks
The cheapest means of seeing the waterways is to take a public ferry. You can take trips from town to town, though you won't see much of the smaller canals. Two of the most popular trips are the all-day tourist cruise between Kollam and Alleppey, a scenic but slow trip, and the 2½-hour ferry from Alleppey to Kottayam.
A better way to explore deep into the network and escape the bigger boats is on a canoe tour, which allows you to travel along the narrower canals and see village life in a way that's impossible on a houseboat or ferry. Village tours with a knowledgable guide are another tranquil way to explore the region and understand some of the local culture.
Kayaking the canals is gaining popularity; an operator such as Kerala Kayaking will take you deep into the backwaters where you can experience a leisurely paddle through villages.
Kerala has an intensely rich culture of performing arts – living art forms are passed on to new generations in specialised schools and arts centres.
Places to see Performing Arts
In the spring there are numerous festivals offering the chance to see Kathakali, with Thirunakkara in Kottayam in March and the Pooram festival in Kollam in April. The easiest places for travellers to see performances are at cultural centres such as Kerala Kathakali Centre and See India Foundation in Kochi; Mudra Cultural Centre and Navarasa Kathakali Centre in Kumily; and Punarjani Traditional Village and Thirumeny Cultural Centre in Munnar. In Kovalam and Varkala there are short versions of the art in season.
If you’re interested in learning more about the art of Kathakali, Kerala Kalamandalam near Thrissur and Margi Kathakali School in Trivandrum offer courses for serious students, or you can attend these schools to see performances and practice sessions.
Both the Kochi and Kumily centres have demonstrations of kalarippayat, or you can visit the martial art training centres of CVN Kalari Sangham in Trivandrum and Ens Kalari in Nettoor, close to Ernakulam.
The best areas to see theyyam performances are around Kannur, Payyanur and Valiyaparamba, in the northern backwater area, where there are more than 500 kavus. The season is from October to May. For advice on finding performances, contact the Tourist Desk in Kochi or homestays at Thottada Beach.
Kathakali – with its elaborate ritualised gestures, heavy masklike make-up, and dramatic stories of love, lust and power struggles based on the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Puranas – stems in part from 2nd-century temple rituals, though its current form developed around the 16th century. The actors tell the stories through precise mudras (hand gestures) and facial expressions. Traditionally performances start in temple grounds at around 8pm and go on all night, though versions for those with shorter attention spans are performed in many tourist centres, to give you a taste of the art.
Theyyam is believed to be older than Hinduism, having developed from harvest folk dances. It's performed in kavus (sacred groves) in northern Kerala. The word refers to the ritual itself, and to the shape of the deity or hero portrayed, of whom there are around 450. The costumes are magnificent, with face paint, armour, garlands and huge headdresses. The performance consists of frenzied dancing to a wild drumbeat, creating a trancelike atmosphere.
Taking its moves from both Kathakali and theyyam is the martial art of kalarippayat, a ritualistic discipline taught throughout Kerala. It's taught and displayed in an arena called a kalari, which combines gymnasium, school and temple.
Kerala's hill country in the Western Ghats is a sumptuous natural spectacle where narrow roads wind up through jungle-thick vegetation and provide dizzying views over peacock-green tea plantations. A cooling altitude helps to make the towns soothing places to escape from the coast, while the wildlife sanctuaries are largely unspoilt wildernesses offering the chance to spot wild animals and birdlife.
Best known of the hill stations is Munnar, with contoured green fields and plantations carpeting the hills as far as the eye can see. This is South India's tea-growing heartland, but also a great place to trek to viewpoints across fine mountain scenery. Some wonderfully remote lodgings are hidden in the hills, tucked deep into spice and flower gardens or cardamom and coffee plantations.
Wayanad & Periyar
The northern area around Wayanad Wildlife Sanctuary has shimmering green rice paddies and plantations of coffee, cardamom, ginger and pepper. The rolling hills are fragrant with wild herbs and punctuated by mammoth clumps of bamboo. It's one of the best places to spot wild elephants and there are plenty of opportunities for trekking.
At Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, a tiger reserve since 1978 and Kerala's most-visited wildlife sanctuary, you can cruise on Periyar Lake, stay in an island palace, paddle on a bamboo raft or embark on a jungle trek with a trained tribal guide.
Kerala's Dry Experiment
In 2014 the Keralan government at the time announced a 10-year plan to move towards full prohibition of alcohol by gradually closing down bars and state-run liquor outlets. More than 700 bars were promptly shut down, but in a softening of the policy, most of these have reopened as beer and wine parlours. Spirits are only available from government liquor shops.
With a change of government in 2016 there's now speculation that the prohibition policy may be wound back or scrapped completely.