Modern temple painting from Cochi


Kerala is hot and humid all year round and looks like a standard tropical paradise with tall coconut palms and banana trees everywhere. It is irrepressibly green unlike most of India which is sort of yellow for most of the year. Quantity of water is definitely not a problem here, though water quality and control of flood water may be more difficult. As you drive along the roads you can see huge man-made temple pools surrounded by lush vegetation. The main roads are incredibly noisy and busy just like all Indian roads but you can see that away from them are quiet back streets full of greenery and peaceful rice fields. These are often unpaved and the red colour of the earth makes a pleasant contrast to the greenery and blue skies. Kerala is a very pleasant place to be despite the fact that the climate or the pollution played havoc with my skin and Mike got about 30 mosquito bites. They say there is no malaria here?!

If you were to compare Kerala to Rajasthan which is where most tourists experience India, you would realise that they are two countries as dissimilar as, say, Norway and Greece. The people, the language, the culture and the standard of living are vastly different. Kerala is also one of India's communist states, a fact which Mike, like a good American, treated with wide-eyed fascination mingled with horror. However, all I have to say about politics, is that the word 'communism', like the word 'democracy', does not seem to have the same meaning within India as elsewhere. These notes about Kerala are my general observations. For details of what we actually did there, check out The Honeymoon Trail.

People and language: The people in southern India are different in appearance from the people of the north. They tend to have rounder faces and larger eyes than the northerners and thicker wavier hair, which the girls often wear very long with flowers in. Contrary to popular belief among both Indians and westerners they are not significantly darker than people in other parts of India. It is believed that the Dravidian race of people once extended all over India. Aryan conquerors in the North created the populations and cultures that we see today. The south preserved Dravidian languages and cultures, and there was also significantly less genetic mingling than in the north. Similarly, the Muslim invaders had relatively little influence on the south. That's the theory anyway. The Dravidian states today are Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh which correspond to the linguistic areas of Malayalam, Kannada, Tamil and Telugu, each with its own alphabet. Despite a little knowledge of Hindi we learned nothing of any of these but people in the south speak English more anyway. Our driver from Karnataka had to speak English to be understood in Kerala. The southern people have traditionally resisted the imposition of Hindi from the north and prefer English as a common language.

Dress: People in Kerala wear a wider variety of garments than people in the north. Women wear their saris in a greater variety of styles, although relatively few now wear the traditional white sari with thin gold or coloured stripes around the border. Apart from Salwar Kammeezes, long loose dresses also seem very popular. Far more men wear Indian dress than in the north, it seems as though about 75% of men in the streets wear the lungi which can be worn either as a long straight skirt reaching to the ankles or tied up above the knees for work or walking. They often adjust their dress, retying it in a different position or holding it open, maybe to cool off. The younger men look very attractive as they walk along with their skirts draping long at the back and a corner of the cloth held in each hand. I'm sure they don't know this though, it doesn't seem like a culture that places a huge emphasis on male beauty. At certain times of the day dozens of school children can be seen walking along the streets dressed in western or Indian style school uniforms.

Chinese influence?: It is interesting that at both ends of the Indian sub-continent you can see a Chinese influence which is definitely lacking in the middle. A very large proportion of Keralan houses are built with pagoda style rooves and the Chinese dragon has found its way into temple and palace architecture. There are traditions of martial arts, mime theatre, and medicine which, whatever their actual degree of connectedness are definitely reminiscent of Chinese culture. I suspect that the southern Indians were involved in trade with the Oriental world at a very early stage.

Religion: There are a lot of Christians in Kerala. They have been Christians here since before Christianity took off in Europe, apparently since before the gospels were even written, so it would be fascinating to know more about their original customs and belief, although I'm sure that by now South Indian Christians have been strongly influenced by the traditions of the Portuguese and the British. The Indian Christians believe that their ancestors were converted by St Thomas, a contemporary of Jesus who reached India by boat and began to preach. This is certainly not as fantastical as it may at first appear. It seems that there was trade by boat between the Mediterranean countries and India at this time. There was once a large Jewish community along the south-western coast of India, and although they believe they were first established during the Roman occupation of Israel, they trace the first trade contacts back to King Solomon! Of course, most of the population remains Hindu, but I think there are few Muslims.

Comparison with Europe: The differences between Kerala and Europe are more stylistic than qualitative. You see much less poverty than in other parts of India which we visited and lots of people live in big houses surrounded by walled gardens which reminded me of the posher parts of the French Riviera. Also there is much more fresh paint everywhere, which pleased Mike and even some sidewalks which pleased me as I rarely walk around with the level of alertness required to negotiate Indian road traffic. As far as infrastructure is concerned (electricity, telephone, etc), the area is not much behind rural Europe, and if anything, the use of the Internet is more prevalent. Even small villages have Internet 'cafes' and this rapid development makes sense when you consider that it enables people to avoid the cost and unreliability of long distance phone calls.

Since Kerala looks more like Europe materially, it is much easier to notice the cultural differences. For example it always seems as if everyone is outside on the streets all the time. Villages of a size that would warrant the passage of about three cars an hour at home are a seething mass of rickshaws, two wheelers and people. You can hardly help but wonder what people are actually doing all the time. Or maybe its the advent of television that makes us all so quiet. The other thing about Kerala is that it is relatively easy to buy books here, it has the highest literacy rate of the whole of India. I indulged by buying a book about the cultural history of India. Mike bought a book called DNS and BIND (about computers, what a surprise!). Although we spent most time in Kerala, we also went to Karnataka and were briefly in Bangalore, the computer capital of India. Bangalore is very much our twin city in a way, since we live in the 'Silicon Alps', but it is much more populated.

Back to travelogue contents