9 APRIL 2012

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Article from BTNews 9 APRIL 2012

ON TOUR: The magic that is Kerala

Regular readers will know that our roving reporter Jane Stanbury has been off to India.  This is her report from deep down on the South West coast.

Kerala is a top tourist destination in India.  National Geographic's Traveller magazine names Kerala as one of the "ten paradises of the world" and "50 must see destinations of a lifetime".  It is India in miniature and offers a beguiling destination for even the most wearied of travellers.  It can be reached by using a number of international airlines including Emirates,  Etihad, Jet Airways (India) and Qatar Airways.

Marinating, tenderising and steaming – no not a selection of cookery techniques but methods employed by the Ayurvedic therapists at the Spa Niraamaya which forms part of the luscious Surya Sumadra Beach Garden, my destination for a week of rest and relaxation.

Perched on the low cliffs above the Indian Ocean just south of Kovalam in Kerala, the 5-star hotel offers a number of individual villas scattered amongst tropical gardens.  Decorated in typical Keralan style the properties feature spacious, sit out, terraces, outdoor shower areas enabling guests to cleanse beneath the stars, and magnificent views to the ocean and accompanying sunset.

With just 24 “rooms” and acres of gardens even when full Surya feels deserted.  A rocky set of steps lead down to the sandy beach which stretches for about 500 metres and is seemingly deserted.

With difficult access from any other point the beach is invariably used only by Surya guests and is managed by two very attentive life guards ensuring the varying tides and currents don’t sweep you away; hints on how to handle the waves, how to exit the ocean and which part of the beach to swim from exemplify the courtesy of the team at the hotel.

This is replicated in the spa where an exclusive appointment with the local Ayurvedic doctor ensures the set of treatments chosen will aid recovery from your specific aches and pains.  Ayurveda is not just about pampering, in Sanskrit it means “the knowledge of life” and is an ancient holistic system dating back over 5,000 years.  The complex system at its most extreme involves diuretics, emetics and a strict diet to strengthen and control body and mind to protect against illness and prolong life.

At Niraamaya you can choose the full experience or just simply enjoy the heritage of the herbal treatments practised by the people of Kerala.  The spa has its own herb garden which provides ingredients for the treatments.  Earthy smelling herbs, fresh leaves and spicy oils combine to produce a complex mix of massage oils, body rubs and heated poultices used with dexterity by the therapists.  There are key differences between Western treatments (also available) and the traditional Ayurvedic offering.  Therapists gently wash your feet before each treatment and place a blessing on your head as you leave.  Wooden tables replace comfy massage tables, unfamiliar ingredients give off unfamiliar smells and open-air bamboo curtained therapy rooms replace dark, moody spa music filled treatment rooms.  Even the sceptics seem to benefit from the daily rituals and strict vegetarian diet. 

As is a visit to a Kathakali performance.  Originating in northern Kerala this ritualistic dance incorporates mime, classical music, and extraordinarily intricate eye movements to create detailed choreography in acts that last for hours.  The make-up plays its own role and visitors are often invited to watch the vibrant colours applied to the characters pre-performance.  Traditionally a vibrant green face means good whilst white indicates super human and crimson red equates to the demonic.  A full performance is recommended only for the aficionados but there are a number of shorter dances where gods and mortals play out their roles against a background of chaos and disaster caused by human ambition, greed and pride.  The final outcome is normally happy, but it may take a while to reach conclusion.

The characters of Kathakali are as symbolic in Kerala as those of the Punch and Judy puppets in Europe.  Children play with replica toys and grand palaces have life size mannequins watching over their royal activity.  A classic collection can be found at the Kuthitmalika Palace in Trivandrum, the state capital.

The palace, built by Maharajah Swathi Varma, a great patron to the arts, is one of the most authentic royal experiences a visitor could wish for.  The dark wooden building appears underwhelming yet guides lead you through room after room of original artefacts including a crystal throne, ivory sculptures, an eclectic selection of European art and a random selection of Ming era china seemingly placed casually in the corner.  There is no official interpretation and the only way of unlocking the secrets is with a palace guide.  The lack of interpretation, and slightly shabby maintenance, is more than made up for by the contents.  The highlight of the structure is the upper gallery which contains the educational, music room and Asyurvedic treatment rooms including a self-massaging table….and an exterior plinth featuring 122 carved dancing horses.

The palace however is overshadowed by the neighbouring Sri Padmanabhaswamy temple.  Built in 1733, the temple is accessed via a heady seven-tiered ivory coloured ornamental tower leading to six vaults that until recently had been hidden.  In 2011 the Kerala High Court ordered the temple and its assets to be managed by the State, and an order followed to open the vaults for inventory purposes.  On review assets found included Napoleonic coins, a metre tall gold idol studded with rubies and emeralds, endless jewels and precious metals.  It is said that cumulatively the assets may be worth US$23.94bn making it the richest temple in the world.  It is therefore unsurprising to find the property surrounded with military guards and access only given to those who are genuine practising Hindis.

After a day in the hot and dusty city we couldn’t wait to return to the peace and quiet of Surya Samudra.  There were any number of alternative destinations; the intoxicating Western Ghats where undulating hills produce tea, coffee and spice plantations against a patchwork of flaming Poinsettia bush fences; or visited any number of the wildlife sanctuaries protecting elephants and tigers amongst others.  The meandering backwaters of Allepey also beckoned where villagers live in perfect harmony with the network of rivers and visitors can while away days on converted rice barges taking in the verdant surroundings peppered with small communities.

A holiday with a real difference. 

Jane Stanbury  www.emeraldmedia.co.uk

www.suryasamudra.com – the owners are also creating two new properties one in the back waters, and one in the tea hills, all are based on the company mission of Peaceful. Private. Personal.   

www.keralaconnections.co.uk – will create a magical tailored itinerary for your pleasure.

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