Because I know North India so well, South India stunned me. All the usual images of India – camels, turbans, the Taj Mahal, tattered beggars on crowded streets, women pulling sheer scarves across their faces – these are all northern. And I have lived there. I’ve seen both the Taj and the religious hatreds close up.

But here’s South India: Shining, emerald-green paddies. Dancers in pleated silks with jasmine in their hair and bells on their ankles. Graceful boats with prows that curve like an ancient, fantastical ships. Girls in Muslim headscarves playing openly with girls in bright dresses close to a centuries-old Christian church.

South India was never under Muslim rule, so strong threads of early Hindu culture still exist. Women are respected because the culture used to be matrilineal. There is quiet friendship among Hindus, Christians and Muslims. And overall, the literacy rate in the south is the highest in all of India.

In South India, women ruled many families, and vegetarianism and non-violence flourished for 4000 years. Few women veil their faces, even among the Muslims.

Furthermore, St Thomas came to Kerala from the Holy Land in the year 52 AD, and the Christians of Kerala — called Syrian Christians – date from that time. You can visit the old churches and see a Christian service unlike any other.

And most importantly, in South India, the Hindus, Christians and Muslims get along.

For this reason alone, it’s worth wandering the streets and watching the people.

South Indians look different from North Indians. Many are darker, and the old people often have bright white hair. The women of the South are famous for the length of their curly, thick hair; you’ll see women with braids that reach their knees.

The silks of the South are also famous throughout India. South Indian silk often has woven patterns of squares and wide vibrant borders. The silk stores are worth long visits. The shopkeepers unroll bolt after bolt of color shot through with gold thread. You can buy ready-made western dresses, shirts and suits. Another specialty is superb gold jewelry. Indians are connoisseurs of high-quality, well-crafted gold and gems, so a stop at a jewelry store is well worth the time.

Our trip to South India started in the city of Kochi (used to be called Cochin) –Big hotels, banana trees, silk stores, gold earrings, and our introduction to South Indian food. In South India, banana leaves are often plates, and small servings of many dishes are arranged on the leaf. This is called a “thali.” Sometimes a thali is served on a brass tray with many small dishes. Tamarind and cocoanut are important ingredients in South Indian food.  Specialties are fermented rice dishes, some for breakfast and others for lunch and dinner. Huge crispy pancakes are filled with vegetable curries. Soup is nicely sour and spicy. Superb vegetarian food is everywhere. Many feel this is the best vegetarian cuisine in the world.  And South Indian coffee is some of the very best in the world. They make it strong and often add rich, hot milk.

But this was a paddling trip! We went from the city to a small village where there was a bridge over a river. We wore paddling clothes; the village women wore saris and the men wore “lungis,” which are like cotton sarongs. Ten foreigners in odd clothes – what a “tamasha” (festival)! Our capable guides got us into life vests while the villagers stood and stared, chatting among themselves. We set off down the river while dozens of villagers stood on the bridge watching and commenting. It was fun. After all, staring at strange foreigners is high sport in most small towns around the world.

After easy paddling on gentle water, we stopped at a picturesque resort. In the morning we did yoga on the smooth, soft, bright green grass. On that day some glossy magazine was doing a photo shoot of newlywed couples: earnest young men and gorgeous young women in fashionable saris who looked sweetly embarrassed that everyone knew that they were honeymooners. It’s not a look you often see nowadays.

We set off on the river and paddled by a mosque and school, where Muslim children were running and shrieking during recess. Close by was an old stone church, built hundreds of years ago, where dark women in saris were bringing in tropical flowers for the altar.

We stayed at a posh new camp in tents that were much nicer than a hotel. Inside, each tent had fresh, bright walls of quilted yellow calico print. The bed sheets were crisp and very fresh, and each tent had its own tiled bathroom with a good shower and flush toilet.

This was near a bird sanctuary. All over, we saw big flocks of green and yellow parakeets and other bright birds. We saw work elephants too, well-fed and massive, calmly lifting huge teak logs. And because this was the south, we were able to visit an extremely ancient Hindu temple.   There were weathered stones in a row where worshippers had prayed for 1500 years.

Kerala stretches along the Arabian Sea. There are flat, warm rivers and waterways that twine around and meet like elaborate braids. On the larger of these rivers, big houseboats (“kettuvallam”) carry thousands of tourists along the quiet water. But because we were in kayaks, we could paddle away from the tourists, into the tiny, vivid green waterways lined with lotuses, to small villages.

Along the shores were banana trees and coconut palms. We stayed in South India’s version of a small castle: a traditional nobleman’s home that had been converted to a B& B. The host, an Indian version of a squire or laird, greeted us proudly at the door and ushered us into the enchanting rooms, with carved teak walls and antique furniture. It’s always warm there, and each room’s bathroom was a beautiful, completely private small courtyard outside. I have never showered in the sun before! Very fun! Unforgettable!

Some days we hiked along the flat waterways, walking into tiny villages, chatting with villagers, eating fresh coconut and drinking “toddy,” which is the local, home-made alcoholic drink made from coconut milk.

In one town, it was a festival day. There was a crowded procession where men wearing saffron or white carried statues of Hindu gods and goddesses. Others beat huge drums, chanting and shouting.

Our last stop was a luxury resort on the beach of the Arabia Sea — the most luxurious hotel I have ever visited. We had a villa with a completely private swimming pool, so we could swim naked if we wanted to. There were endless seafood dishes, perfectly made drinks, espresso, fresh fruit, pastries, and ever-changing vegetable curries. The staff was very professional and spoke perfect English. Our gala dinner was a seafood feast.

Under the high trees along the beach live poor fishermen and their families. Big boats of dark wood with elaborately carved prows carried the men out every morning at dawn. Along the beach, nets hung on frames to dry. The fishermen’s children grinned at us and asked if we could give them pens. The sun rose and set, the water lapped the shore, and we walked for miles along the beach.

South India is a separate place from the North. Today, when I close my eyes and remember Kerala, I see the dazzling green fields, I smell the frying ginger, and I hear the laughing, gentle children.

–by Jean Gendreau

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