Kerala: The Land of Spice and Dance

The mystique of India has been luring travelers since time immemorial. The explosion of colors, spices, sounds and exotic sights are easy to conjure at just the whisper of its name. But to think of India as a totality is a fool’s errand; the more than a billion people are so varied in cultures, languages, cuisines, climates and topography, the task is futile. The South Asian country is as diverse as its terrain, and that includes every facet of its composite.

The state of Kerala is the wealthiest in the country and on the streets of Kochi, the state capital, scenes of poverty are rare, as are crowding masses of souvenir vendors, often associated with exits around Taj Mahal. Kerala is the Southern California of India, a laidback land where palm trees sway in balmy breezes and it’s possible to visit mountains and ocean in the same day. Here, farm to table is not a new concept; it’s just the way it has always been. Especially with regard to flavor enhancers.

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Seasonal Pursuits
There was a time when spices were worth far more than their weight in gold—peppercorns were sold one by one. Before their ubiquity on supermarket shelves, spices such as black pepper, cinnamon, cardamom and clove were exotic and expensive commodities for Europeans, who craved not only these ingredients, but their trade routes as well. India’s Malabar Coast has been well known for centuries as the source of spices. Formerly Cochin, the city was famous for the quality of condiments exported by motley merchants who set sail for Kerala. European schooners and Arab dhows were dwarfed by enormous Chinese junks arriving with porcelain, jade and other valuables and departing with tons of Malabar spices. Kerala’s population became like a regional masala mixture, with various Indian cultures complemented over time by Portuguese, Dutch, French, British, Arab and Jewish residents established on the coast for trade.

Jewish India
The somewhat unexpected Jewish heritage is of particular interest in this part of the world. Jews established themselves on the Indian coast hundreds of years before the arrival of the Portuguese when Vasco da Gama first landed in 1498. Known variously as Cochin Jews, Black Jews and Malabari Jews, the original community was bolstered by this arrival of their brethren fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and the Netherlands at the end of the 15th century. These new arrivals became known as the White Jews.

Today, there are only a handful of Jewish Indians left in Kochi, but their legacy is still very evident in the beautifully restored synagogues, some of them nearly a thousand years old, found in Kochi and north of the city in the area known as Muziris. Though Kochi’s Paradesi synagogue is the largest and most ornate house of Jewish worship remaining in Kerala, the smaller Paravur and Chendamangalam synagogues to the north are deeply evocative of the past. These two temples were recently restored as part of the larger Muziris Heritage Project, which encompasses several other historical sites in the area, including the impressive Museum of Kerala History located in a former palace.

Heritage Dance
As befits any wealthy and cultured society, Keralites appreciate fine living and have patronized the arts for centuries. Several unique art forms endow the state with its own heritage. This includes the revered kathakali theatrical dance in which actors in elaborate makeup and costumes enact scenes from Indian epics, to dramatic effect. Acting in silence, communicating with intricate and subtle hand gestures and facial expressions, the kathakali performers are backed by drummers and a singer whose chant emphasizes the storyline. Visitors often attend multiple kathakali performances to witness interpretations of different stories. The application of the makeup is a presentation in itself and, mindful of visitors’ interest, actors make a show of applying their own makeup on stage before the performance.

There are several places to see kathakali in Kochi. Most of them, such as the Kerala Kathakali Centre and Greenix, are found on the historic Fort Cochin area. The beautiful hall at the city’s Folklore Museum is another. Each venue has a slightly different take on the theater it presents. The Kerala Kathakali Centre is perhaps the most traditional—a leaflet handed out before each performance explains the action on stage. At Greenix Village, a small arts-complex, the stage setting is more modern and a narrator provides intermittent commentary during the performance. A journey north to the town of Cheruthuruthy to see kathakali performed at the Kerala Kalamandalam will also allow an inside look into the rigorous training required for preparation of a career representing India’s folkloric past. This prestigious school of performing arts trains the majority of actors, dancers and musicians who perform in most of the aforementioned shows.

Kathakali is not the only art to take to the stage. The theyyam dance is traditionally restricted to temples, but performers at Greenix give short presentations to introduce visitors unfamiliar with this style. Mohiniattam sees a single female dancer characterize the Hindu enchantress Mohini. Kalaripayattu is a martial art performed by two men in an action-packed sequence of acrobatic moves. Koodiyattam, which is the oldest form of Sanskrit theater, has been declared by UNESCO to be a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Naturally, arrangements for private performances can be made, taking place earlier in the day before the public evening shows.

Culture and Respite
Located amidst the tropical mountains of the Western Ghats, Paradisa Plantation Retreat is set high in a valley where palms and pines happily commingle to produce a unique and majestic landscape. About four hours’ drive from Kochi, Paradisa Plantation Retreat rewards those who make the journey with an experience that strips away the material clutter of daily life and replaces it with the intangible pleasures of a clear mind.

The Retreat’s eclectic villas are all spacious and well appointed in a simple style meant to remove the extraneous from guests’ physical as well as mental space. An avid defender of traditional architecture, owner Simon Paulose keeps his sharp eye on the lookout for historical houses for sale, some of them in a state of disrepair. After purchasing them, he brings them back to life as evocative accommodations. Paradisa Plantation also brings in costumed performers to present traditional dances that, rather than being touristy vestiges of the past, are in fact still integral to Indian culture to this day.

Getting There
Air travel from New York to Cochin International Airport requires only one change of planes when flying via Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Mumbai or Delhi. Upscale tour company Indian Vistas looks after its clients from the moment they touch down at the airport until they depart again; transfers, hotels, guides, drivers and special requests are all delivered with precision and professionalism. Like Paradisa Plantation Retreat, Indian Vistas is well versed in satisfying the needs of sophisticated travelers. The company covers India beyond Kerala and can make arrangements for travelers wanting to visit several regions.

Contributing photographers for the piece in the July/August issue were Yadid Levy/Anzenberger/Redux and Cedric Arnold/Camera Press/Redux.