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If nature is a great teacher, then you would find a good classroom in Kerala, aptly called “God’s Own Country.” One cannot help but notice the comradeship between man and nature throughout Kerala, a southwestern state in India wedged between the Western ghats and the Arabian Sea. Bestowed with pristine beauty, this marvel has been named one of National Geographic’s “ten paradises of the world—a must-see destination in the 21st century.”
Some of the memorable destinations within Kerala include the hill stations of Munnar and Wayanad, the serene beauty of Lake Vembanad in the backwaters in Alappuzha, the palm-fringed beaches of Kovalam, and the wildlife sanctuaries in Periyar.
Wayanad figured high on the list of must-see places this year for me. An idyllic destination for vacationers, Wayanad in northwestern Kerala is a region immersed in a dazzling variety of wildlife. As my taxi wound its way up the hill after picking me up at Calicut Airport, I asked the driver to pull over several times so I could take in the majestic landscape with lofty ridges, waterfalls, and mountain streams. I was not surprised to learn that Wayanad is the most species-rich ecological region in India, a part of the UNESCO World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
One of the finest resorts in Wayanad is the Vythiri Resort. A two-mile drive on an unpaved and rugged path that ribbons off from the main road took us to this rustic jungle resort.
From the moment I entered the gates, I realized that I was doing a cheek-to-cheek dance with the foliage as I strolled through the stone-lined pathways. The flamboyantly colored butterflies vied with the tropical birds, Malabar squirrels, monkeys and a gurgling mountain stream to welcome me onto the property.
I was in a shared kingdom.
I kept my camera close and heart closer as I stopped several times to give way to bright yellow forest snails taking their time to cross over, to let shy Malabar squirrels scuttle their way up a tree, to take pictures of monkeys frolicking high in the branches, and to follow neon-colored butterflies. At some point I just put away my camera to let my spirit dance to the symphony of the birds, the stream, and my own heartbeat.
I stayed in one of the bucolic cottages built in the style native to the region. A small patio opened up to a sparkling mountain stream amidst wilderness. Cottages on this property come with modern facilities, and you have a good variety to choose from.
What is dreamy about this resort are the five unique treehouses built by local craftsmen using indigenous techniques and locally sourced materials. Surrounded by mesmerizing lush forests, these treehouses are a true reflection of the love the natives of Kerala have for nature. Living in harmony with nature takes on a different meaning here. For instance, the treehouses are fashioned to let the branches go through the house via the floor. Their growth is not thwarted. Not a single nail passes through them. I was surprised to see five branches of the tree as part of the décor. A manually operated pulley, that is counteracted by a water bag, serves as an elevator up the strong pica trees. Relaxing in the lap of nature in the heart of a tropical rain forest and hearing the birdsong from a height of 75 feet is a heady feeling. What brought me down were the hunger pangs that took me to the restaurant; eating in is discouraged in the tree house.
If you have never tried Kerala cuisine, you may want to try it here. A myriad of Kerala dishes, the vast majority either cooked in coconut milk or coconut oil or garnished with fresh coconut shavings, awaited; puttu and kadala, avial, olanand kaalan were some of the items in the buffet that I was delighted to see. For meat lovers, karimeen (pearl spot fish) will find a place in their hearts forever.
The elderly may find the unpaved pathways and several steps to the restaurant and coffee shop challenging. For the adventurous, it will prove to be an unforgettable stroll through the property. Rest assured, your camera will capture the most memorable and romantic moments on the hanging bridge over a gushing mountain stream.
A visit to Kerala is incomplete without a ride on the kettuvallam (the Malayalam word for houseboats) on the world-famous backwaters of Lake Vembanad in Alappuzha, south of Wayanad. The backwaters stretch for approximately 125 miles down the state’s coastline.
Once used as grain barges, especially rice from the paddy fields along the backwaters, they have now taken the shape and form of tourist houseboats. About 400 houseboats ply the waters of Lake Vembanad in Alappuzha—also known as the “Venice of the East.”
This stunning town is home for the famous annual boat race in August. Crowds from Kerala and neighboring states occupy every square inch of the pier to see the popular event.
Snake-shaped boats, called chundan vallams, are a major crowd puller. The beach is an added attraction and so are the coconut coir cottage industries.
Aboard the houseboat, a three-member crew was at my service, catering to my culinary demands. The norm is to start the journey with a welcome drink for the guests—tender coconut water. Around noon, I went to the kitchen on board and chatted up the cook as he prepared a seven course vegetarian lunch.
During the 20 miles of cruising on Vembanad Lake, I sauntered off to the top deck where a daybed enticed visitors for a siesta. Tempting as it was, an extraordinary visual treat beguiled and saved me from the temptation of a nap. My camera worked overtime capturing endless crops of bananas, yam, and cassava plantations along the cruise. One gets to feast one’s eyes on the largest rice-growing region in Kerala—Kuttanad—as you ply along some of the greenest paddy fields imaginable. The backwaters also happen to be the navigating route for all the people living on the shores and it was amusing to see the expressions on the faces of people either passing by on passenger boats or waiting for the next boat at stops along the canal. Shacks, small eateries, convenience stores, and toddy shops dot the shores. Toddy is called “kallu” in Malayalam and is the palm sap that is collected in pots hung on top of palm trees. Once fermented, it turns into kallu. It is quite popular in rural areas.
Retheesh Prakash, a houseboat owner for the last two years, says, “There are at least four categories of houseboats to choose from, depending on your budget and your interest. We have guests on very short holidays who take the day cruise, only to come back the following year for an overnight stay as well.”
Dining on the deck during a stunning sunset and watching the remnant colors of the setting sun dance on the waters proved to be memorable. Once the orange glow on the horizon fades away and the boat is anchored, a peek into a small Kerala village dominates the agenda for guests for the evening. “A stroll through the village after supper, exchanging pleasantries with the villagers, and tasting some kallu are experiences to look forward to if staying the night on a houseboat,” says Prakash.
Back on land, I decided to stay a couple of days more and experience traditional Kerala living. Close on the heels of the houseboat jetty is Tharavad Heritage—a 100-year-old mansion along the backwater canal. It has many a story to tell about its early inhabitants. Built by an Ayurvedic medicine practitioner a century ago, this immaculately-maintained mansion feels like a museum. Built on ancient principles of Hindu architecture called vastu shastra, very similar to feng shui, this five-bedroom home bears an atmosphere of serenity. Madhu Mohan, one of the brothers who own this mansion, attributes the positive vibrations to the architecture. “Every one of our guests says they have never slept better. The energy of the place is such. Out of regard for my ancestors and their wisdom we have never remodeled this place. In fact, we feel we may disrupt the energy flow even if we rearranged some of the large furniture.” The living room boasts a collection of antiques in brass and wood. An antique rosewood gramophone, traditionally hand-crafted teak and rosewood furniture, and other décor are preserved with much reverence, enhancing the charm of the native setting. The terracotta-tiled roof, polished teakwood planks in all the rooms, and the traditionally laid flooring mixed with burnt coconut kernel and egg white is a natural room-cooling marvel of yesteryear. Succulent home-cooked food, bereft of artificial flavors, colorings, and grease awaits you in the stone-floored dining room that opens onto a garden that is maintained just as immaculately as the interiors. Your search for a heritage home experience on land and on boat may very well end here, as the owner owns a houseboat that has been recently upgraded.
As I packed my bags rather reluctantly, I wondered if I would ever come back to the haven called Kerala. It seemed pre-ordained that we take a four-hour train journey to Palakkad from Alappuzah. I had heard of the Prashnam astrology that was practiced rather extensively in Kerala and wanted to see if I could find the answers to some of my questions. This style of astrology uses special kinds of seashells and some believe that the answers to many of our questions about future may very well lie with them. You ask the question—called prashnam in Malayalam—and the seashells whisper the answers.
We reached Nandanam—the home of Prashnam astrology in Wadakanthara, a small hamlet in Palakkad district. Hindu chants filled the air, signaling that I was approaching the Wadakanthara Bhagawathi temple, the closest landmark. I knew I was closing in on all the answers to my questions when I saw a house whose design was a fusion of contemporary and traditional style, half a block away from the temple. It is the home of Nandan Namboodiri, who lives here with his seashells. He comes from a family of professional astrologers who specialize in this style of astrology—known as kavidi prashnam. “Kavidi” in Malayalam means seashells. Using these, planetary positions of an individual and the cause of his visit for consultation are found, and solutions are suggested. For this, 108 small seashells are used and they are rotated a number of times, each time invoking the grace of the guru or the Lord. A portion of the shells are separated and counted to find out the ruling planet at that time. Comparisons are made between the birth chart drawn at the time of your birth and the results from the kavidis. Accurate predictions are believed to be made about career, relationships, health and wealth, and solutions to problems plaguing you are suggested.
Why seashells? Namboodiri says that that the cluster of 108 seashells have an innate divine energy and serve as a powerful scanner to come up with accurate predictions. He says, “The powerful interplay of three factors—the birth chart, the present planetary movements, and the kavidis—makes this style very unique and helps it cut across religions.”
It would appear surreal if your birth star led the way for you to arrive at Kairali—the healing village. Kairali in Kodumbu is a resort 6 miles away from Wadakanthara that provides Ayurvedic treatments. But, is that all there is to it? The answer is a resounding no. What makes Kairali ethereal is the therapeutic energy in this property. Cottages that dot the property are built on vastu shastra principles. Each cottage is named after a birth star and inside each of them is a conch shell, called valamburi shangu, that is believed to hold positive vibrations and aid healing.
Equipped with the essentials of comfortable living, this resort promises to revitalize your body, mind, and soul. A consultation with a team of highly experienced Ayurveda doctors and a tour of the treatment rooms will be in sync with the appellation of this resort—Healing Village.
This Ayurvedic healing village is ranked among the top 50 in the world in the National Geographic list of best-wellness meccas. If you are going to be in Palakkad and are on a short holiday, book a cottage of your birth star for your next trip. It is well worth it. You never know, you may start and end your next vacation in Kairali.
God’s own country? You bet. One visit is all it takes to understand this epithet.
Jayanti is an Indian Canadian writer, TV and radio host, and a documentary filmmaker based in Vancouver, Canada. She has vast experience in print and broadcasting in North America, including work with CNN in Atlanta.
David Robeiro CEO of Chimera Enterprises, Trivandrum, Kerala, designs and builds tree- houses in Kerala. Here, he talks about challenges and accomplishments in building these homes trees for tourists in one of the finest resorts in Wayanad in Kerala.
You not only design and build tree houses, but you are the first to build a houseboat in Kerala for tourism. Tell us a little about that.
The seed was planted by a German journalist in the early 90s. At that time there were commercial small boats carrying rice that were plying the backwaters of Alleppey. Because of the time taken by these boats to transport grains it was not seen as an economically viable industry and so it started declining. It was at this time the journalist suggested the idea of converting these boats into tourist houseboats. My partner and I took this idea and redesigned rice boats into houseboats for tourism. This is how the houseboat industry gained momentum in Kerala. In the beginning we had plenty of tourists from Germany and now there are visitors from all over the world.
How about treehouses in resorts? How did that happen? What are some of the challenges?
I am a person who loves challenging projects. Once the houseboat business was a success, I moved to the next challenge—that was building treehouses in the rain-drenched forests of Kerala. I was approached by the owner of Vythiri Resort as he had seen some of my work in another resort. I have designed and built five in Vythiri atop huge pica trees. Some are very rustic; others have modern amenities in them, one even has a jacuzzi.
Kerala not only sees severe rains, but gusty winds as well. Sealing the treehouse from heavy downpour has been a persistent challenge. Other challenges come in the form of visitors from the animal kingdom—especially small reptiles. We take steps to keep them at bay, but nothing aggressive, because we are in their territory.
What would you say is special about the treehouses you have designed and built?
Not only are the construction materials used eco-friendly, every aspect—from conception to the finished product—is in harmony with nature. I make sure that this principle is never compromised. Not a single nail is drilled into a tree, threatening its existence. Not a single branch is cut, every branch comes through the floor and out through the roof. I am almost fanatical about protecting nature.
—Jayanthi Chandran Ram