Unique Things to Do and See in Kerala
Welcome to Kerala—a paradise on earth known for upholding a way of life where humans and nature are one. #humanbynature
Out of the 29 states in India, none have enticed me more than Kerala. Situated in the southwest part of the Indian peninsula, the tropical Kerala is home to palm-lined canals, unspoiled coastline, lush mountains, and wild jungles safeguarding some of the world’s most endangered species. From this visual, its designation as “God’s Own Country” does not seem hyperbolic. With virgin beaches, tea plantations, and wildlife sanctuaries in spades, you won’t run out of things to do in Kerala.
But what’s most unique to Kerala is the people. My introduction to Kerala began with my friend Ashica, a gifted storyteller and a descendant of the Malayali people, more commonly known as ‘Keralites’ – the term used for people from Kerala. From further research, an exceptionalism for the arts seemed to be a trait most Keralites possess. Did you know: compared to the rest of India, Keralites are considered to have the highest literacy rates, the highest quality of life in the whole subcontinent, and enjoy one of the highest incomes per capita in all of the South Asian region? These achievements are, in large part, a direct effect of the dignified character of Keralites, who prioritize the importance of living holistically.
The otherworldly qualities of Keralites are best experienced in the things to do in Kerala. From peddling down slow-moving canals with a boat man whose birthright are the very backwaters you tread upon, to an esoteric martial arts practice that has been all but forgotten; whether you’re a first time visitor or a seasoned veteran of India’s many mysteries, it’s without a doubt that Kerala will give you a taste of our heavenly nature the second you meet the children of God’s Own Country.
“To find magic in the everyday and eternity in the ordinary”
– Human By Nature Campaign
At a time when the world is exploring what it means to be human, Kerala Tourism portrays the real, yet fascinating interplay of humans and nature in a land known for its open, inclusive way of life. Drawn from powerful human stories, the film is shot with a predominantly real-life cast. Set across five different terrains, the film carefully strives to stay away from the trademark slickness of a typical commercial in its tone and treatment. Here are three of the most “human” things to see and do in Kerala.
THINGS TO DO AND SEE IN KERALA
One of the lesser-known things to do in Kerala is to watch a kalaripayattu demonstration. Known as the ‘First Martial Art,’ the disciple was first cited in The Vedas, Hinduism’s holiest texts written over 3000 years ago. Kalaripayattu means “the art of the battlefield,” with the first military academies, called ‘kalaris,’ opening in Southwestern India. The creation story has been lost to history but many practitioners attribute the Hindu God Vishnu (through one of his “avatars” Parasurama ie. his human incarnation) as the mythical mastermind behind Kalaripayattu. Historically, the kalari schools taught young people how to fight with honor using weapons and rigorous training, but also educated the students in the healing arts of Ayurveda to help treat those wounded in battle.
The goal of the practice is to ultimately know one’s body and mind, and the principles of Kalaripayattu can be seen in the use of weapons as an extension of oneself, as well as the sophisticated aerobatics. Despite its divine origins, the sport was heavily repressed in the 18th century under British colonial rule, who were fearful of a potential resistance group. Practitioners of kalaripayattu were killed, weapons were seized, and kalaris were outlawed. But there were those who continued to practice the illegal art form and in the 1920s, after the fall of the British Empire, the last of the following revived the long forgotten way of Kalaripayattu. Kalaris slowly have mounted a comeback, but the discipline is more widespread in the south, thanks to Kerala’s promotion of holistic wellness. Kalaripayattu is human in nature, but divine in spirit.
Where? Kerala Kathakali Centre on KB Jacob Rd, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi, Kochi, Kerala 682001, India
Special thanks to Jay Stephen for allowing me to broadcast her Kalaripayatttu montage of one of Kerala Kathakali Centre’s live perfomances.
For more of Jay’s work, visit Jay-Visuals.com.
Kathakali Classical Dance
It didn’t matter that the story had begun, because kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again. The ones you can enter anywhere and inhabit comfortably. They don’t deceive you with thrills and trick endings. They don’t surprise you with the unforeseen. They are as familiar as the house you live in. Or the smell of your lover’s skin. You know how they end, yet you listen as though you don’t. In the way that although you know that one day you will die, you live as though you won’t. In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn’t. And yet you want to know again. That is their mystery and their magic.
—Arundhati Roy, “The God of Small Things”
Watching a Kathakali dance number is something you cannot miss while in Kerala. One of the eight nationally recognized forms of classical dance in India, Kathakali centers around highly technical eye movements and refined facial expressions that dancers dedicate their whole lives to learning. The eye movements are so difficult to master as dancers have to train the muscles underneath their skin to move their eyes in exaggerated ways. Directly translating to “story play,” the performers act out ancient Indian myths and sagas through interpretive dance, using florid body gestures and facial contortions synced to the sounds of accelerated drumming. There are only nine different facial expressions, known as navarasas, used to convey humanity’s basic emotions like fear, happiness, and disgust, and are also set to the tempo of the music. Traditionally, Kathakali was only performed by males but recently, women have taken up the art form as well, demonstrating reform in spaces typically dominated by men.
Performances at Fort Kochi. Photo credit: Ashica Stephen.
The stage is simple, with ambient lighting achieved with the single wick of a coconut oil candle, amplifying the ornate features of the Kathakali costumes and makeup. Kathakali costumes are typically very grand in size and quite heavy, so the physical demands of this classical dance are two-fold. There are different costumes to indicate different characters, face masks, and also guidelines for the face makeup, with seven makeup styles to denote certain types of character. Red signals a malicious character, black face paint is for secondary characters, and yellow is the customary color for holy men and female roles. Green is worn by the protagonist, symbolizing courage. In the more traditional performances, actors will even dye their eyes with the seed of the Punyaha Chunda flower to give their eyes an unearthly quality. This is storytelling in its rawest form, with powerful narratives being communicated without speaking one word and our shared humanity being the only bridge for understanding.
Pro-tip: Before a performance, the audience can attend a session to learn what the nine expressions are so they can follow the storyline more closely.
Where? Kerala Kathakali Centre on KB Jacob Rd, Fort Nagar, Fort Kochi, Kochi, Kerala 682001, India
Kerala’s backwaters are a network of canals, lagoons, and islands that run parallel to the Arabian Sea and have become synonymous to Kerala’s tourism industry. The guardians of the backwaters are the Keralites who use the waters for everything from a food source, to roadways, and even their primary flow of income. A trip to one of Kerala’s backwaters, the most popular being Alleppey, is mandatory for all newcomers to Kerala. Alleppey is approximately two hours south of Kochi. You can customize your backwaters outing depending on your needs although it’s highly recommended that you allocate at least two days for this outing. If you are tight on either time or money, there are several ways to make a day trip out of the backwaters by opting for either a ferry ride (extremely affordable) or a government cruise. You can also book a seat on shikara, or a hooded long boat (similar to the riverboats you see in Disneyland’s Jungle Cruise), for general sightseeing.
A more luxurious way to cruise the backwaters is by renting a houseboat, known by locals as a kettuvallam. The houseboat experience provides all the creature comforts and amenities, including a bed, kitchen, and the resplendent ones even have their own karaoke rooms! Before you get trigger happy on booking a houseboat, my best advice would be to get a feel of the backwaters by way of canoe or ferry, and shop around for the houseboat that’s right for you.
Another option is to take a canoe, manually powered by locals (instead of third-party operators) and stay overnight at a local homestay, like Ayana’s Homestay. Not only do you get to see your money at work, but you’ll also get to spend time with the stewards of this natural paradise who have called this place home for centuries. The canoes are as basic as they come but your itinerary will be much more easy-going. Unfortunately, the lack of covering during a hot day may get uncomfortable so plan ahead by taking the canoe out in the early morning or late evening when the sun is less harsh. And a reminder: supporting the locals is not only about money; it means preserving the sacred connection between humans and the wetlands that bring them life.
Find budget and luxury homestays in Allepey here.
Of all the things to do in Kerala, which activity speaks the most to you? Let me know in the comments below!
DISCLAIMER: This post was sponsored by Kerala Tourism. But the photos, opinions, as always, are my own. A special thank you to Elen Traveling for the commissioned artwork.
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Need to add this to the Southern India itinerary list!
Yes, you absolutely need a dedicated Southern India trip!