I am standing on a stunning cliff-top, situated between two deserted strips of honey colored beaches, looking across a jade colored infinity pool fringed by palm trees. Away from the bustle of Kovalam, near Trivandrum, Kerala is Niraamaya Surya Samudra (part of Relais and Chateaux) where the property is studded with typical teak wood Kerala houses called tharavadu with wooden pillars, terracotta roofs and tiled floors built by local craftsmen from recycled wood, garnered from hundred year old Kerala homes.
I love the fact that greenery pervades even the bath areas. A gargantuan banyan tree that spreads its tentacles all over the open bath area and watches over a room.
It’s a celebration of architecture and the culture of Kerala with multiple elements woven into the landscape—gleaming urulis (circular bell metal vessel) filled with bright red flowers, kalvilakkus (stone lamps), yaalis (part lion, part elephant, part horse sculptures), rotund stone Ganeshas resting beneath the abounding coconut trees guarding their territory in proprietary fashion, brilliant Kerala murals with their natural dyes in orange and ochre livening up walls, heavy wooden doors carved with intricate details, large plantation chairs to watch the sea and small hanging bells outside each room.
I am near the the breathtaking coastal village of Pulinkudi, about 10 km from Trivandrum, where Klaus Schleusener, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, transformed a barren hill into his winter home. Today his original house called the “Octagon House” still lives on in the property.
Klaus built the Octagonal House where he spent his winters and eventually, since his friends loved to come and stay with him, he bought some more land and reassembled old Kerala homes. “He transformed the life of the local village where you could not even get five eggs from one shop” says Renjith, the operations manager of the resort. The omnipresent motif of Niraamaya Surya Samudra is of course the sea. At night you hear the waves pounding the rocks as you drift off to sleep, and in the morning you wake up to yoga on the pavilion overlooking the beach and “pre-dawn tea on the beach” with the waves lapping at your toes.
The cotages have idyllic positions set in lush foliage and with magnificent sea views. The best part of the resort is the spa with its own herb garden which provides ingredients for the treatments. I have a simple Abhayanga snanam (bath) with earthy smelling herbs and oils.
Therapists gently wash my feet before I am lying supine on a wooden table placed in a bamboo curtained therapy room. After being kneaded by expert hands, I feel like I am almost levitating. Come nightfall we sit on tables at the Essence restaurant and watch a Kathakali performance.
Originating in northern Kerala this combines mime, classical music, and intricate eye movements. The make-up with vibrant colours applied to the characters is part of its charm.
Traditionally a vibrant green face means good, white indicates super-human and crimson red signifies the demonic!
We take a backwater cruise through mangroves to Poovar estuary where the river Neyyar has breached the sand banks and reached the ocean. It’s a sight I cannot easily forget. The ferocity of the waves, the balance of nature that ensures that the backwaters don’t flood the homes on it and the golden sand banks with tender coconut sellers and brightly dressed locals.
Canoeing through the mangroves is a slice of local life: some young men boisterously washing an elephant named Mahadevan Kutty; a pistachio green mosque; women bathing on the banks and the prolific bird life—a snake bird which has us searching for a decapitated head of a snake in the waters, a sea eagle gliding and soaring and cormorants diving to get their fresh meal. I leave the resort the next day, with a heavy heart and a heavier hamper of fresh organic beetroot pickle and pineapple jam, promising myself a return journey here.
From the beaches we make the long road journey to Kochi and stay in the historic Fort Kochi which is intricately connected to the city’s importance down the ages as a trading post for spices. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British settled here in the past attracted by its lucrative spice trade.
Our home away from home is the Malabar House a boutique hotel—a labor of love by German designer and hotelier Joerg Drechsel and his pretty Basque wife Txuku. The property has a history that can be traced back to the 1700s.
I walk into an airy reception with a huge red sphere suspended from the ceiling and eye catching art on the walls with a carved wooden horse and a café courtyard with a frangipani tree. My room has a teak four poster bed, an electric red wall with a painting and delightful cotton cushions.
I squeeze myself into a local auto for a quick conducted tour of the grid of streets, where every door, window and brick offers a lesson in multi layered history. From the early eighteenth-century Dutch Cemetery, an old Jewish House converted into a hotel, Princess Street dotted with old fashioned villas converted to boutique hotels and guesthouses, the ochre St Francis church (where Vasco Da Gama, who died in 1524, was buried before his mortal remains were returned to Portugal 14 years later) and the large Parade Ground dotted with boys playing a boisterous game of cricket under the massive umbrellas of giant rain trees.
Just over a mile away is Mattancherry, the Jewish quarter, where I get lost in antique warehouses lining Jew Street piled with carved wooden doors, window frames and furniture gleaned from old Kerala homes and the Pardesi Synagogue with its Cantonese hand-painted tiles and its ornate Belgian chandeliers. We end up at the water’s edge where we find the iconic Chinese nets that look like giant spiders, erected in teak wood and bamboo poles with a network of pulleys, silhouetted against the setting sun making for a brilliant photo-op.
Come nightfall, Malabar House entraps you in its romantic ambience with musicians strumming sitars, a sparkling pool, fairy lights strung around trees and a traditional pole framed dais.
We spend a morning at the Kochi Biennale which has brought streams of visiors to Kochi.
Historic sites like the sleepy Cochin Club, the sea facing historic Aspinwall House with several warehouses, David Hall—a Dutch House from the 17th century, and Pepper House have become temporary spaces for experimentation—a space for artists to do something not bound by commerce with its mix of film, installation, sculpture, painting, performance art and new media.
Of course any Kerala sojourn revolves around water, and it’s to the backwaters that we head last. This is a tight network of bottle green lagoons, estuaries and deltas of forty four rivers and canals where sky and water segue seamlessly in a silvery haze. Water and greenery are motifs of this part of the state.
Our last sojourn is at the boutique property Purity, on Lake Vembanad which used to be an Italian guest house and Joerge has converted it into a vibrant turquoise and pink haven of rooms with leather puppets sandwiched behind sheets of glass lit up, modular blocks of furniture designed by him, larger-than-life bathrooms and antiques dotted around the hotel ranging from a palanquin to a statue of the super-god Hanuman. With its stained-glass windows and airy verandas decorated with contemporary art, this is a visual feast. We take a canoe ride across Lake Vembanad with water hyacinths, as houseboats called ketuvallams drift by.
We watch these micro-economies where kids play in the water and farmers herd ducklings to feed in paddy fields and strong men row small boats weighed down with cargo or dive for mussels.
In the evening we dine on the waterfront with candlelit tables, and ruminate over the trip through the beaches, backwaters and history of this state. Time seems to slow down and then remain still. A pace of life lined with lassitude that stays stored in your memory chip for years to come.
Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer and blogger based in Chennai, India who blogs at http://kalpanasunder.com/blog