Kerala- where the forests and mountain ranges of Wayanad look enchanting in the morning mist and sunlight shines like liquid gold; the landscape is perfect as a postcard; and the tarmac is a ribbon of black silk winding through paddy fields of the freshest green fringed with trees of banana, cardamom and coconut.
Kerala is also home to the Nilgiris which have some of the highest mountain peaks south of the Himalayas. The foothills of the majestic Nilgiris are dotted with tea and coffee plantations, along with cardamom trees and creepers of fragrant black pepper.
A large part of northern Kerala is occupied by the famed Silent Valley National Park. Nestled in the Nilgiri mountain range, this National Park is a vast expanse of virgin forests, inhabited by an ancient tribe and some very interesting wildlife like the wild gaur, red fox and the Giant Malabar Squirrel. The best way to experience it is to forego modern comforts and stay deep within the jungle in the forest guesthouse. The guesthouse is barely a cottage with a few rooms and bare minimum necessities. Availability of accommodation is up to the whims and fancies of the Forest Dept., and as is often the case if you know someone who might know someone else, you will be lucky enough to get a room. In case you are not, there is another cottage located at the edge of the forest.
The daytime silence is broken only by a distant stream or the rustle of branches as a Giant Malabar Squirrel hops from one tree to the next. As the sun sets behind the mountains, the valley is filled with a resounding silence-the one place I have seen so far where even the cicadas are silent.
After witnessing the mystic dance of Theyyam, the best of eco-tourism at Vythiri and the temple town of Guruvayur, we journeyed to our last stop in Kerala- Cochin.
Some time on our hands allowed us to explore the ancient spice markets of Cochin. The city is known for many things, but since ancient times its significance has been primarily due to the spice trade. Cochin was an important port on the Silk Route, when traders from Europe and the Orient bought and sold spices, silks, jewels, glassware and other precious items.
After a week of experiencing the visual and sensory delights of Kerala, we waited to board the ship M.V Bharat Seema which would take us 400 Kms off the coast of Kerala into the Arabian Sea and to the coral paradise of Lakshadweep.
I strongly believe that it is the people who make a place and define its character. A kind word and a gentle smile can open any doors for you. This was true esp. in the countryside, where despite not knowing a word of the regional language, we experienced the best of hospitality, warmth and kindness when people welcomed us into their heart and hearth.
While it may have been coined as a marketing or advertising gimmick, the natural beauty of Kerala and simplicity of the people has truly earned it the epithet of God’s Own Country.
As our ship set sail from Cochin harbor, we were keen to see what wonders the next evening had in store for us, as we would reach the Lakshadweep archipelago. A group of about 400 islands, of which only 10 are inhabited and tourists are allowed only on 3, I remember thinking to myself that this was surely going to be an extraordinary place.
And it sure was….