Queen of the Arabian Sea
“Last night I dreamt I went to Kerala again.”
I confess that I borrowed this classic opener of Daphne DuMaurier’s haunting novel, Rebecca. But instead of a dark gothic mansion on England’s Cornish coast, my reverie takes me to sun-dappled Kerala on the Malabar coast, the land of tea and spices on the southwestern edge of India.
The jewel of Kerala is the seaside city of Kochi. In the early 1500s, Portuguese colonizer Vasco da Gama invaded the ancient Kingdom of Kochi, renamed it Cochin, and established the Maritime Spice Routes between Europe and Asia. Before the spice traders came Chinese fishermen from the royal court of the Kubla Khan to set up their strange 20-foot-high hammock-like nets and harvest the most succulent seafood in all of India. And many centuries before that, this peaceful land was the cradle of Ayurvedic medicine, said to have originated with the gods.
Today, the city of Kochi has reclaimed its ancestral name and the sultry air is still pregnant with the aromas of ginger, cinnamon, and the extraordinary varieties of pepper that spice traders call black gold.
Left: Jewish tombstones dating back to the 1600s can be seen in the Paradesi Cemetery in Jew Town. | Photo by Karen T. Bartlett
Middle: Rustic hand-carved spice boxes | Photo by Karen T. Bartlett
Right: Masala chai, the spice tea of Indian royalty, dates back 5,000 years. Shutterstock | Sonia Vadlamani
I’m late to the party, of course, arriving on a two-hour, twenty-first-century flight from vibrant Mumbai, but it takes no time at all to feel the centuries fall away. I wander the narrow stone alleys where merchants have set out their enticing wares of jewelry, perfumes, wind chimes, traditional musical instruments, lanterns, masks, and icons of a thousand different deities. At sunset, I join a throng of tourists, along with some of the fishermen’s wives and children, on Fort Kochi beach where spectators are encouraged (for a tip) to help pull in the nets.
I’m feeling a deep spiritual presence in the ancient Paradesi Synagogue, built in 1568 for Malabari Jews with a lineage dating back to King Solomon, and Sephardic Jews fleeing persecution in Portugal and Spain. In 1949, most of the 3,000 congregants emigrated to the brand-new State of Israel, and today fewer than five of their descendants still live here.
Kettuvallam traverse the miles of intertwined rivers, estuaries, lakes, and deltas that comprise the Alleppey backwaters, forming an ecosystem unique to Kerala. | Photo by Karen T. Bartlett
I’m time traveling through Kerala’s twisty, mystical Alleppy backwaters aboard a Kettuvallam, a 100-foot rice boat made of teak, bamboo, and coconut thatch, catching glimpses of settlements where traditions have barely changed in a hundred years. I’m savoring coconut milk curries (especially at breakfast, served with appam, a lacy crepe-like bread). In a saree shop, I discreetly observe a bride-to-be and her mother examining sensuous silks for a heavily beaded wedding saree. I linger over bins of spices and hand-made incense sticks at the famous Mattancherry spice market and score a carved vintage spice box. It doesn’t seem so heavy until I must spend my last rupees on the overweight luggage charge.
And finally…feeling supremely relaxed after immersing body and soul in a 3,000-year-old ayurvedic oil therapy, I’ve found a tiny garden café for my first-ever taste of creamy masala chai. Kochi’s famous Assam black tea has been steeped in a sweet milky blend with fresh-ground spices. To froth it the Kerala way, my server holds holds the teapot high above the table and pours it into my narrow glass without spilling a drop. Sheer artistry, and the flavor is divine. As with all truly extraordinary moments, you never forget your first time.
So, if I never get back to you, dear Kerala, I’ll see you in my dreams.
Worth a Visit
The sixteenth-century complex of temples and ceremonial halls for the rajas of Kochi is a museum showcasing royal paraphernalia, weaponry, and murals depicting Hindu deities, royals, and great Indian epics.
* Kerala Kathakali Center
There are at least 400 forms of spectacularly costumed ceremonial dance throughout Kerala. Catch an evening performance of Kathakali, a dance/martial arts ritual featuring exaggerated facial and hand gestures.
*Rice Boat Experience
Kettuvallam date back centuries and range from luxurious royal houseboats to live-aboard fishing vessels. Take a full or half-day float with traditional lunch or tea or go full immersion on an extended houseboat stay with performances, chef-prepared cuisine, and visits to monuments and temples.
Taj Malabar Resort & Spa blends five-star service with old-world charm. Its acclaimed Rice Boat restaurant, specializing in seafood from the backwaters and local coast, overlooks the colonial warehouses of Fort Kochi.
Visit during the January-March dry season. keralatourism.org