There’s a rhythm to how oars cut furrows in the placid water of Kerala’s backwaters. My ears don’t pick it up at first because our motorised shikara’s engine drowns out ambient sounds. But as we draw into a narrow canal, our boatman Raju kills the engine. Abruptly the soundscape changes as if we’ve plugged into a whole new frequency – the twitter of birds, the gentle splatter of rain drizzling over water, the rustle of the leaves of coconut trees and the soft lap lap of wooden oars slapping against the water to the count, like a heartbeat.
Oars and the traditional wooden canoes, called vanchis (moored outside every household), are the lifeblood of Kumarakom, a sleepy picturesque village of water canals and paddy fields in the southern Indian state of Kerala’s Kottayam district. Solid ground is few and far to be found in this waterworld made up of a cluster of silt-fed fertile islands reclaimed from the Vembanad Lake, India’s longest lake whose sprawling expanse I mistake for the sea. The English word for the gentle lapping sounds would be ‘burbling’. But it’s a Malayalam word, ‘kalakalam’, that instinctively floats up from the depths of my memory like a ghost. Humming, I realise the words are part of the lyrics to an old Malayalam film song, strains of which I’ve caught my father sing kalakalam kayalolangal padum kathakal (the oars of the backwaters warble burbling stories).
The oars don’t have much to tell me but our boatman Raju, and Sudeep, my guide for the day courtesy the Taj Kumarakom Resort and Spa, have a wellspring of tales, anecdotes and history to share with me. From the existence of crocodiles in the backwaters during Raju’s grandfather’s time, to how the marshy reclaimed soil is fortified by planting coconut and bamboo trees whose tenacious roots hold the soil, how like clockwork the canals turn into brackish lagoons in summer from April/May and when the monsoon clouds burst open in June, silt-rich freshwater rushes in from mountains nourishing Kumarakom’s paddy fields that are part of the agricultural Kuttanad belt (Kerala’s rice bowl region that straddles various districts), and the villagers’ main source of income apart from eco-conscious responsible tourism that engages locals, stories are aplenty.
The kayal, or backwaters as they’re popularly called in English, are a geographical phenomenon unique to Kerala. It’s a mind-boggling 1,500km grid of canals (mix of manmade and natural) that have fascinated artists, tourists and residents alike since time immemorial, and an intrinsic part of Kerala pop-culture, film, literature, music and poetry. I’ve never lived in Kerala for an extended period of time, but the backwaters have flown into my lexicon through songs and movies – the olive-green river I’m drifting on inspired the magical realism of author Arundhati Roy’s Booker prize-winning novel God of Small Things. It’s set in Kumarakom’s neighbouring village Ayman, Roy’s hometown, and the majestic houseboats are the hero images of travel brochures that tourists associate this state with.
The backwaters meander across the 14 districts of Kerala and can be categorised into three main regions –the Ashtamudi Aakulam backwaters that run across Thirvunanthapuram and Kollam districts further south; the Vembanad backwaters that connect the trifecta of central districts Ernakulum-Kochi, Alappuzha and Kottayam; and the Valliyaprambu backwaters of Kannur-Kasargod up north. Kumarakom, I’m reminded is less commercial and more authentic than Allepey (touted the Venice of Kerala) which is where foreign tourists flock to in droves to live out the idyllic houseboat cliché.
During my four-day whistle-stop sojourn of Kerala, hosted by five-star hotel chain Taj Resorts, I discover the last two. Yes, the irony of me a Gulf-born Malayali, discovering my native place, isn’t lost on me or my guides on this trip. But Kerala is a destination of multitudes you can’t grasp over a cursory weekend trip spent lounging by a resort pool like most visitors do, or time-strapped annual vacations spent filtering in and out of relatives’ houses like I have.
It’s a reason the Taj Hotels’ luxurious properties in Kerala make for a refreshing holiday. Local culture and traditions are a part of everyday activities in the three properties I visit, an upshot of their ‘Tajness’ concept.
At Kumarakom, it’s the diya lighting ceremony that sees local women dressed in traditional white-and-gold sarees glide around the resort lighting earthen lamps as the inky dusk settles in; at Taj Malabar in Kochi, which I visit the next day, it’s the al fresco Mohinattam performance (Kerala’s traditional dance) set against the twinkling lights of the harbour, while at Taj Bekal it’s the evening ritual of purifying the lobby area with scented smoke. Surprisingly, none of it feels shoehorned or gimmicky.
Kumarakom’s spectacularly gorgeous property is made more poignant because of its heritage: Taj Kumarakom’s central building is the 150-year-old Baker house, erstwhile home of the Bakers, a British missionary family who are credited with being the founders of Kumarakom.
In quintessential Taj fashion, the colonial bungalow including its stables have been restored to which Taj have added 28 additional villas. They stand in neat rows across manicured gardens interspersed with pools and quaint bridges that eventually open out into a central lawn by the Vembanad Lake shore. The lawn is dotted with hammocks, swings and a bench to sit in and watch the comings and goings of purple-flower flecked, plump-leaved carpets of water hyacinths, that rising and falling tides sweep from the lake to the surrounding canals, like breath.
Ironically, these seemingly beautiful flora are weeds that constantly suffocate the waterways and its ecosystem and the government is constantly finding ways to tear them away.
What I find hard to tear myself away from is the stunning villa that’s my home for the night. Named after birds found in the adjacent Kumarakom Bird Sanctuary (a rubber plantation-turned-ornithological haven by Alfred Baker, now run by Kerala Tourism) where the cormorant, Siberian crane, and Heron – also the name of my villa – come to roost seasonally. All I want to do is perch myself by the gorgeous aquamarine private plunge pool but the open-air bathroom with its sunken deep bathtubs, roofless shower and Forest Essentials toiletries vies for my attention.
But the resort is teeming with activities for guests, from morning hikes through the splendid bird sanctuary, to mind-numbingly relaxing Ayurvedic massages at the Jiva Spa, to ziplining across the indoor lagoon and fishing from it. Under the patient tutelage of activities manager Ravi who diligently hands out bait (turmeric-soaked dough) and releases the miniature pearl-spot fish, the kayal’s legendary karimeen (a mouth-watering delicacy when fried) into the lagoon, I experience the adrenalin rush that courses through the veins of Kumarakom’s fishermen as they cast their nets across the backwaters at 6.30pm and draw them back at 3.30am before water traffic plies the waters. I’m hooked line and sinker into this seemingly meditative sport the minute I reel in my first catch.
But it’s time for Kumarakom to release me and I find myself cast out for a couple of hours to Kochi, Kerala’s financial capital.
Where Kumarakom is characterised by a restful lull, Kochi fizzes with an electric energy. This is the port city that has courted traders as early as the 14th century. The past lives on in present-day Kochi, or Fort Kochi, as the old part of town is known, in the form of the Dutch Palace (a gift from the Kochi Raja to the Dutch) in Mattancherry famed for its frescoes and murals made of vegetable dyes depicting Sanskrit poems and Hindu myths; the Portuguese St. Francis Church where Dutch explorer Vasco Da Gama’s remains rest, and Chinese fishing nets (bequeathed by explore Zheng He to Kochi as a Chinese protectorate) dot the beaches. These incongruent cultural influences co-exist harmoniously amidst colourful galleries, artsy cafes, antique shops and an inimitable chilled-out vibe that suffuses every nook and corner.
But Fort Kochi needs no preamble, having been Kerala’s calling card to the world for years, which is why I’m whisked away to the lesser-known Willingdon Island, home of the Taj Malabar Resort and Spa. India’s largest manmade island created during the British rule in 1939, Willingdon is a naval base and hence a secure location, making it the top choice for visiting dignitaries. Falling asleep has never seemed more intimidating or honorary than the few hours of shut-eye I catch in the stately Presidential Suite in the resort’s heritage wing, whose prior occupants have included Britain’s Prince Charles to the Prime Minister of India.
I learn about all of this and more in between sunset cruises of the Kochi Lake (what the Vemaband is called in this part of Kerala) and a gourmet dinner at Rice Boat (modelled after grain-transporting barges), the resort’s novelty fine-dining restaurant where the city’s movers and shakers sup to see and be seen. The menu is a curious mélange of traditional Kerala recipes and ingredients as well as continental preparations – octopus theeyal (octopus curried in a tamarind coconut gravy) sits nonchalantly next to baked crab gratin – that sounds dissonant in my head, but my tastebuds revel in the unusual culinary connection. How quintessentially Kochi.
As far as connections go, Bekal seems far removed from the rest of Kerala, quite literally. Situated in the 14th and final district of Kasargod, the northern-most point of Kerala, Bekal is closer to Karnataka and easily accessible from Mangalore (a mere 72km away) and residents are as likely to speak Tulu as they are Malayalam. I learn this the hard way, changing two flights (Kochi-Bangalore-Mangalore) followed by a six-hour car journey, so imagine my sheer relief when I arrive at the Taj Bekal Resort and Spa and learn that I don’t have to do much in Bekal but revel in all that this sprawling beach resort has to offer.
Like a talisman, houseboats have shadowed my trip right from Kumarakom, and follow me 400km away in Bekal too – both in the innovative architecture of the resort whose 66 whitewashed villas are designed like a houseboats fitted out with gorgeous plunge pools and silk screen paintings, but also aboard an actual houseboat ride on the Valliyaparambu backwaters.
Fed by four different rivers, the main contributor is the Chandragiri river. At a certain point in the tour, the waters get choppy and the air has a salty twang. As the boat pitches and rolls, Glawice, the Taj staff who is my companion for the duration of my stay, smiles saying, ‘we’ve met the sea,’ pointing to where the kayal’s green and the Arabian sea’s stormy grey unite.
Back at the resort, it’s another natural union that’s a standout feature – the Kappil river’s backwaters that meander through the property snaking around lush wild gardens, cycling routes (the resort hands out bikes for guests to explore and get around the resort) and romantic thatched gazebos, cuts through the golden Kappil beach – a public beach that resort guests have access too – and meets the sea. This is predominantly a honeymooner’s paradise but families and solo travellers seeking R&R can kayak on the backwaters, enjoy long ambling walks or sign up for some pampering at the sprawling 16,000sqft Jiva Spa.
Apart from the fact that Northern Kerala is still unspoiled by tourism, it has a distinct flavour and it hits me aboard the houseboat when another of my dad’s oldschool Malayalam songs about the kayal lodges itself in my mind – Kayalarikathu Valayerinjappol/ Valakilukkiya Sundaree, Malayalam cinema’s perhaps most popular Mappila song, a genre of folksongs unique to Muslim or Mappila community of Northern Kerala.
I hear it in the musical dialect of Malayalam-laced Arabic loan words when I’m purchasing traditional snacks in Bekal’s market – sweet, glutinous halwa and crunchy banana chips freshly fried in coconut oil. But I taste it, nay relish it, in the traditional Mappila feast that Chef Bijoy Nair and team serve me in the resort’s Backwater Café. It’s a whole different world from the conventional Sadya (banana leaf feast) of rice and vegetarian curries: there’s the Thalassery biriyani, paper-thin pathiris (rice pancakes), kozhi porichathu (fried chicken), kadduka (stuffed mussels), chicken ullarthiyathu and malabar paratha, mutton stew, chemeen mulaku curry (prawns cooked in spicy gravy). Every biteful smacked of the pepper that Arab traders and merchants had come seeking to the Malabar coast, eventually settling there. For dessert, there’s elaneer payasam made of tender coconut.
More history lessons, albeit less scrumptious ones, follow me on an excursion of Bekal Fort, a 16th-century keyhole-shaped watchtower whose red laterite facade is thrown into sharp relief by the chartreuse green of its gardens.
The fort that was once Tipu Sultan’s military stronghold to protect against naval invasions is best known for being the setting for the 1992 film Bombay’s song Tuhi Re. As the sea breeze turns into a howling gale and the sea froths around the headland the fort is sat on, I realise there is music here too.
Different from what I heard in Kumarakom, but a natural symphony nonetheless and combined with all the food, sights and history I’ve consumed on this trip, it’s safe to say that God’s Own Country is a synaesthetic travel experience; one that you absorb through five different senses and carry in your heart.
All three hotels offer variations of the Family Getaway Monsoon offer including stay, sightseeing, restaurant and spa.
• Taj Malabar Resort & Spa, Cochin from INR9,500 per night
• Taj Kumarakom Resort & Spa, Kerala from INR12,500 per night
• Taj Bekal Resort & Spa, Kerala from INR16,000 per night, with a minimum two-night stay
Getting there: Book return flights from Dubai to Kochi via wego.ae from Dh1,421