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There is a reason that the Indian state of Kerala, found on the country’s southwestern tip, is known as God’s Own Country: from undulating cloud-tipped forests and tea plantations in Munnar to the lazy palm-edged lagoons of the famed Keralan backwaters, and a 600-kilometre stretch of uninterrupted coastline, its privileged natural setting is not easily beaten. But Kerala has plenty more to offer besides just good scenery: Kochi, the port city which for centuries was the centre of the country’s spice trade, has a creative energy all its own, home to the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, South Asia’s largest art fair.
The Biennale marks perhaps the perfect time to visit Kerala: taking place from December until April – for 2020/21, coronavirus travel restrictions notwithstanding – it coincides with the end of winter and beginning of spring, when the weather is temperate and without the fierce humidity of later in the summer. This year’s edition is curated by the artist and writer Shubigi Rao and while the full roster of participants is yet to be announced, Kochi-Muziris demonstrates the breadth of engagement with art in India, creating a dialogue between past and present, myth and reality. Previous artists involved have included Sunil Gupta, Madhvi Parekh, Nilima Sheikh, as well as international names, from Marlene Dumas to the Guerrilla Girls.
Elsewhere, the relatively small city centre – Fort Kochi – can be explored on foot. Base your stay at Brunton Boatyard, a former colonial shipyard which now houses the city’s best five-star hotel: a day can easily slip away on the palm tree-edged waterfront terrace, where a shimmering green-hued pool seems to disappear into the ocean beyond. Dine in one of the hotel’s many restaurants which reflect Kochi’s multicultural past with dishes like chutulli meen, pioneered by the city’s longstanding Jewish community, or appam, a fermented rice pancake traditional to the area. Myriad other restaurants and street food vendors across the city make Kochi a gastronome’s paradise: try a traditional Keralan breakfast, puttu kadala, black chickpea curry served with steamed ground-rice patties, or thattu dosa, a thicker version of the traditional Indian pancake.
South from Kochi is Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the state which is known for its strong spiritual links: Padmanabhaswamy Temple, dedicated to Hindu god Vishnu, remains one of the most important religious sites in the country (and the richest – in 2011, a treasure estimated to be worth one trillion dollars was found in its cellar). Historical sites abound in the city – just a short distance from Padmanabhaswamy is the Ramanayar Palace Museum, a centre for ancient Keralan art, while the Trivandrum Zoo is Asia’s oldest, built by Maharaja Swathi Thirunal Rama Varma to keep his royal tigers, cheetahs and boars (and is where Yann Martel wrote 2001 novel Life of Pi). The city is also a centre of traditional ayurvedic medicine – a millenias-old holistic practice encompassing diet, exercise and lifestyle – whereby the government-run main college has been running since 1889 (numerous other practitioners work across the city).
As for where to stay, head just south of the city to The Leela in Kovalam, a small beachside resort centred around the curving Lighthouse Beach, and smaller bays with promising surf. The Leela sits right on the waterfront: relax beside the vast infinity pool which gives way to the ocean beyond, or dine at its beachfront restaurant The Tides. The locale, which was once a traditional fishing village, has a laidback air – most hotels will offer surfboards to hire, or try Kovalam’s numerous yoga studios while you are in the area (Elephant Yoga Centre is a local favourite).
Those wanting to extend their yoga practice should undertake a stay in one of Kerala’s famed ashrams: The Amritapuri Ashram, opened by the guru Amma in 1981, is perhaps the most well known, sitting on the edges of the Keralan backwaters. A series of lagoons and canals, running from Kochi to Kollam and still used by locals as a means of transport, the backwaters provide a suitably serene backdrop: consider taking one of the numerous cruises along its length, or stay on one of the region’s pretty traditional houseboats, recognisable for their intricately woven outer shells.
Alternatively, for those wishing a more complete sense of escape, the mesmerising natural landscapes of Kerala – one of the first states in India to embrace the concept of ecotourism – provide a respite from the bustle of India’s cities. Parambikulam reserve, currently under consideration as a UNESCO World Heritage site, is a popular protected site whereby visitors can see wild Indian tigers amid dense teak forests, while Munnar, the once-summer capital of the Raj, showcases Kerala’s lush green vistas, with mile upon mile of rolling tea plantations, where clouds hover amid the mountainous landscape.