3 New ‘Things To Do’ in Fort Kochi

Like the exceptionally flavourful food that you find all over Kerala, the tiny region of Fort Kochi seems to have been created by putting together a bunch of wonderful ingredients that were slow cooked over a gentle fire to create a powerful sensorial experience.

Enhanced by an essence of rich cultural heritage that carries influences from the Dutch and the Portuguese colonizers it saw in the past, Fort Kochi has over the years developed into a vibrant tourist destination that entices travellers from around the world. Whether to capture the 14th century Chinese fishing nets against the fantastic backdrop of the famed sunset over the Arabian Sea or to walk through the narrow antique shop lined lanes of Jew Town leading to the historically significant Pardesi Synagogue, tourists have found enough and more reason to ensure that this tiny region remains one of the most visited destinations in India.

What makes Fort Kochi stand out though is its constant state of evolution. The region has progressively added to its already rich bounty of attractions by harbouring and nurturing many new age artists and bold entrepreneurs who have showed their gratitude by gifting it with new layers that seem to merge seamlessly with what existed before. An area that was previously known for its history is now being talked about as a cradle for liberal arts. Historically a centre for spice trade and traditionally a region where you could taste some of the best local cuisine, Fort Kochi is now also known for its beautiful contemporary cafeterias that would put some of their better known big-city counterparts to shame.

Even though I write about the present day Fort Kochi with so much enthusiasm, I in no way am trying to suggest that the region’s heritage can be ignored. When you visit, it is a must to experience the sunset at the Chinese fishing nets and do everything that all those ‘top 10 things to do’ lists tell you to do. It would be well worth your time. I have spent hours doing the same and still relish the thought of doing them again.

But like any experienced traveller would tell you, it always pays to leave your guide book in your hotel room once in a while. Go beyond those lists and only then will you see a side of Fort Kochi that will invite you time and again. Here are my top 3 NEW things to do in Fort Kochi.

1) Create Your Own ‘Art Walk’

Spend an afternoon walking along the streets of Fort Kochi exploring the amazing street art that adorns the walls. You can read my post ‘Fort Kochi, Street Art & A New Dimension’ about the graffiti I saw during my time on the Kerala Blog Express last year. Right at this moment, Fort Kochi is hosting the second edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2014 and the city’s fabric is now getting richer with stunning new additions to its street art portfolio. If you can, before you visit, try to read about the artists who have in the past or are presently creating dynamic pieces that seem to have brought in a new vigour to the region. It will add to the experience.

Art on the sea-facing wall at the Pepper House Cafe.

Art on the sea-facing wall at the Pepper House Cafe.

Building wall covered with graffiti in Fort Kochi.

Building wall covered with graffiti in Fort Kochi.

2) Hangout At One Of The Art Cafes

As you might already know, authentic Kerala food is pretty famous and most visitors have marvelled at the complex flavours of the cuisine. But what you might not know is that there is a new breed of chic art cafes that have popped up in Fort Kochi and they aren’t shy about moving away from the taking chances with fare that has generally not been served in the region . You can now find the heavenly chicken escalope sitting comfortably on a menu next to the legendary appam and chicken curry. Cafes like the Pepper House Cafe (which is my favourite), the Kashi Art Cafe, the David Hall Gallery Cafe and the Teapot Cafe have made chilling one of my top things-to-do when I visit the region. What’s there to complain when you can spend some quiet time (in an Indian city!) at a beautiful cafe with some amazing food and some inspiring art to appreciate!

The Pepper House Cafe

The Pepper House Cafe

Art is an intricate part of the experience at Kashi Art Cafe.

Art is an intricate part of the experience at Kashi Art Cafe.

3) Feel Some Musical Vibes At The Springr Cafe

So this one tip comes with a disclaimer. I am a sucker for anything off-the-beat experience that I can find whether I am travelling or not and so for all those of you who think a cafe must have a particular feel or must have great service, ignore this tip!

The Springr Cafe was special for me. It was more like a friend’s home than like a cafe. An old house converted into an art studio like space. The food was good, simple and non fussy. The seating was informal and the chats friendly. The fact that I could, during my time there, walk into the studio and watch a band practice was AWESOME! That is the charm of Springr. It is one of the few cafes were I didn’t feel like a visitor.

I’m sure that there are other similar cafes in Fort Kochi as the music scene is livelier there today than it has ever been before. Try discovering the others too if you have the time.

The dimly lit studio-like interiors at the Springr Cafe.

The dimly lit studio-like interiors at the Springr Cafe.

A band prepares to jam in the music room at the Springr Cafe.

A band prepares to jam in the music room at the Springr Cafe.

Do you have any other suggestions on new things that a visitor could do in Fort Kochi or have you discovered a cafe that you think others should know about; feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section.

The Jaisalmer Fort in 10 Photographs

Jaisalmer has been a preferred destination for me for years now and for more reasons than one. From nights spent sleeping at the dunes under the sky to chatting with locals sitting on the roof of a bus. The thing about Jaisalmer is that life somehow seems to ease down and everything moves at a really comfortable pace. Leaving the rush of the city and healing the scars left by months of monotony becomes an effortless task.

It might not just be the fort that brings people to Jaisalmer but then once there, you cannot ignore the magnificent structure. The thing is that even if you have been to the fort multiple times, you never get tired of sitting at one of the many cafes inside the fort sipping some amazing masala chai and soaking in the view of the town and the dunes in the horizon. A walk through the narrow alleys inside the fort is an experience like none other. The crowds at times can be quite an annoyance and a visit early in the morning might help you avoid the madness.

On my last trip there, I stayed at the Mystic Jaisalmer hostel (mysticjaisalmer.com) for about a week and ended up having a fantastic time. Though this post isn’t about the hostel and how good a choice it was for me, I still must say that if you ever visit Jaisalmer and are looking for a fantastic place to stay (and the very very affordable rates are not even the main reason!), look no further. Ashraf Ali, the owner of the hostel is probably one of the nicest people I have met during my travels and he will make sure that you have a super chilled out experience! And if you do read this post and do spend some time at Mystic, have a masala chai for me and let me know how the trip was.

*This is not a sponsored post and my stay at Mystic Jaisalmer wasn’t complimentary. 🙂

Here are ten photographs from my trip. The first one shows you the view of the fort from the roof top cafe at Mystic Jaisalmer! Jaisalmer Fort Jaisalmer FortJaisalmer FortJaisalmer FortJaisalmer FortJaisalmer FortJaisalmer FortJaisalmer FortJaisalmer FortJaisalmer Fort

The Theyyam – Playing God in God’s Own Country.

*Please be warned that this post, towards the end, contains a few images of animal sacrifice that some readers may find disturbing. These images have been included in order to depict the ritual in its purest form.

Part 1 – The Kari Chamundi Theyyam

Theyyam (Also known as Teyyam, Theyyattam or Thira): A popular ancient ritual form of worship of the North Malabar region in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The main performer of this ritual (Malayanmar) is also known as ‘Theyyam’ and is considered to be a form of God.

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My palms were sweaty; I had to keep wiping them as I tried to optimize the camera settings. In my excitement I had almost dropped my camera trying to get the best spot.  I had been waiting for more than six hours for it to begin. The evening was spent watching the men work diligently on coconut leaves in preparation for the night. It was interesting but I had heard so much about the Kari Chamundi Theyyam that the wait for the actual ritual to start seemed to go on forever!

The preparations for the Theyyam begin early in the evening.

The preparations for the Theyyam begin early in the evening.

The men work for hours with the coconut leave creating small ornamental units.

The men work for hours with the coconut leave creating small ornamental units.

Some of the simple decorations prepared.

Some of the simple props prepared.

Some more complex looking than the others!

Some looked more intricate than the others!

The kota is prepared for the Theyyam with a simple arrangement of brass lamps.

The kota is prepared for the Theyyam with a simple arrangement of brass lamps.

At around half past midnight, wearing only their white mundus and armed with chendas, the men walked towards the front of the kota, the bare and inconspicuous temple structure that was the abode of the family deity. Without much fanfare, the ritual of Thottam, the recital of a song that described the story of the Goddess Kari Chamundi, began.

The loud rhythmic beats of the drum had managed to draw everyone towards the kota. I was informed by my cousin that this was just a precursor to the actual performance. The approximately fifteen minute long recitals would be performed twice before the Theyyam began. Between these performances, some of the performers would get back to the preparations and the others would rest. The work on preparing the props for the venue and those that would adorn the main performer needed exceptional skill and oodles of concentration; the men seemed to be generously endowed with both. The swigs of toddy that I noticed them downing with amazing regularity earlier in the evening seemed to be helping them too. I was curious to see how these small prop units would be assembled for the main performance. But that would have to wait for later.

The first part of the Thottam begins. The man standing in the center is the main performer.

The first Thottam begins. The man standing in the center is the main performer.

A boy from the neighbourhood watches the Thottam.

A boy from the neighbourhood watches the Thottam.

One of the men creates begins work on the centre piece around which the Theyyam will be performed.

One of the men begins work on the ceremonial centre piece around which the Theyyam will be performed.

The main performer prays before starting the second Thottam.

The main performer prays before starting the second Thottam.

Most of the family members had gone to sleep after the second recital got over as it would be another hour before the main ritual began. At around 2 am, a little over eight hours into the wait, I was told that the main performer had just begun the elaborate process of putting on his make-up.

This was it, I would finally get to see and photograph one of the malayanmars transforming into a Goddess. As I walked towards the area where they were seated, I could see him with his back towards me looking into a mirror and working on the makeup. A second man sat next to him holding an antique brass lamp. The light from the single bulb that hung from the stunted mango tree they sat under was probably not enough for the makeup. To me, it was the perfect setup; the light from the solitary bulb created an ambient setting and the flickering flame of the oil lamp added the touch of drama that my photo needed. I took my camera off my shoulder and was taking the lens cap off when I noticed the malayanmar suddenly turn and look at me; it was a strange and piercing glance which lasted only for a couple of seconds before he turned back to the mirror. Realizing that the stare had only managed to freeze me, the assistant gestured with his hand asking me to leave. I was told by another one of the assistants that I would have to wait for the ritual to begin to get my shots as the malayanmar did not wish to be disturbed when he was undergoing the transformation.

Though the photographer in me was disappointed, I knew that respecting the traditions and nuances of every culture that I came across was important. Many ancient traditions have been distorted and at times destroyed with the aim of creating a ‘more exciting’ experience for the tourist. In the process, the original pure rituals have ceased to exist and sometimes the newer versions, created by putting together only the ‘not-so-boring’ aspects, begin to become the only known images of the original. This adulteration of cultures and ancient practices is one of the major impacts that ‘cultural tourism’ has and is one that all of us as sensitive travellers must try to reduce.

Moreover, by not allowing me to photograph the preparations, the performers had ensured that the beginning of the ritual would end up becoming ’more exciting’ for me as now there would be an added element of surprise (if there wasn’t enough of it already!).

I decided to shift my focus to the other members of the group who were busy preparing the front of the kota for the ritual. Some of the props that had been prepared earlier were now being used to decorate the center piece and as the time for the actual ritual came closer, the work began to take on a frenzied pace. Hands moved faster and orders were shouted out louder but there was no sense of chaos. It seemed like clockwork. The pile of coconut fronds had now been transformed into this intricate and beautiful ceremonial centre piece. The stiffer parts of the frond had become mini-torches; sticks with rags of cotton cloth wrapped around one end. These were doused in oil and would be lit later when the ritual began.

The beautiful center piece takes about 30-45 minutes to prepare.

The beautiful centre piece takes about 30-45 minutes to prepare.

The work on the props continues in to the night.

The work on the props continues in to the night.

After a while, with all the preparations over and having lit all the torches and the central lamp, the men picked up their chendas and began playing a slow rhythmic beat that seemed to be an invitation to the malayanmar to begin the ritual. As the beat began to gather pace, people started to appear from all sides. In a span of 5-10 minutes, the kota was surrounded by almost a hundred people. Everyone was keen to witness the presence of the goddess!

The men begin to play the chendas to announce the start of the ritual.

The men begin to play the chendas to announce the start of the ritual.

The family members and people from the neighbourhood gather around the kota.

The family members and people from the neighbourhood gather around the kota. A bottle of toddy can be seen in the foreground!

Disclaimer: From this moment onwards, you may find me rushing through the ritual and I confess that at the moment I feel a sense of helplessness mixed with a strange exhilaration. The actual Theyyam is such a powerful and at times shocking experience that the only way to gauge its true impact is by seeing it in person. I am trying to create a decent image of the ritual through a few words, some pictures and a video montage but that in no way can be compared to the real experience.

The entry of the malayanmar was just the thing that was needed to jolt everyone out of their sleepiness. The transformation wasn’t complete but was still striking. He bowed before the idol of the Devi (Goddess) placed inside the sanctum sanctorum. It seemed like he was having a conversation with her. He would soon be her.

The ritual begins with the malayanmar running into the kota and praying to the Goddess.

The ritual begins with her running into the kota and praying to the Goddess.

The metamorphosis had begun. The piercing yet distant gaze, the periodic twitching of his mouth, the sound of his beautiful antique anklets as he moved in a systematic pattern and the occasional muttering in a strange outlandish tone; as he started circumambulating around the lit central piece a few times, it was there for everyone to see. He seemed to be moving farther away.

After repeating this a few times, he sat on the wooden stool kept in front of the fire. The other men began putting the remaining costume onto him. Even as they went about getting him ready, he continued tapping his feet and muttering every now and then. In a couple of minutes, they had completed his physical transformation. They let go of his hands and moved away from him. His eyes seemed to be more active; his movements quicker. There was a visible change in his body language. She had taken over.

The men work on the final stages of the malayanmar's costume.

The men work on the final stages of the her costume.

As he sits on the stool, he mumbles and his eyes keep moving about randomly stopping at members from the audience.

As she sits on the stool, he mumbles and stares at the night sky as if in a conversation with the Goddess.

Looking upwards; talking to the Goddess.

Looking upwards; talking to the Goddess.

The parts of the costume that were being prepared earlier finally come together.

The parts of the costume that were being prepared earlier finally come together.

She got up and moved towards the temple, bowed before it and then the dancing began. The sound of the chendas, the dance movements, the muttering and the gesturing went on for almost an hour. In the middle of the dance, she would suddenly sit down in front of the temple and roll from side to side while tapping her feet. This would go on for a couple of minutes before she got up and began the dance again.

The performance begins with the malayanmar performing a dance like act in front of the shrine.

The performance begins with her performing a dance like act in front of the shrine.

The sound of the brass anklets add to the music because of the constant foot tapping.

The sound of the brass anklets add to the music because of the constant foot tapping.

Continuing the conversations with the Goddess during the Theyyam.

Continuing the conversations with the Goddess during the Theyyam.

Part of the ritual involves the malayanmar sitting before the centre piece and taking sips of toddy from a dried coconut shell.

Part of the ritual involves her sitting before the centre piece and taking sips of toddy from a dried coconut shell.

After about an hour, she ran towards the house where the elders had asked everyone to gather. She walked towards the main entry door and sat down facing it. It was time for everyone to seek her blessings. She spoke to almost everyone. She was the Goddess. She asked most of them if they remembered her; if they thought about her. She asked them not to forget her. To me, she said that she had seen me take pictures and she hoped they would come out well. But she warned me that if I would use them to earn money, she would come back to remind me of her words!

She sits outside the main entrance to the family home blessing every body personally.

She sits outside the main entrance to the family home blessing every body personally.

As I waited and watched others receive her blessings, my father walked to me and asked me to rush back to the kota as there was a small but important part of the ritual pending. He explained that what I had experienced earlier was the Goddess in her ‘calm’ state. After she had finished blessing everyone, she would go back to the temple and then exhibit another transformation before the ritual ended. He assured me that this was going to be the most interesting part of the whole night.

In about 10 minutes, she ran back to the kota but she had changed once again! Her eyes were fiery and her body language aggressive. She danced with swift movement while screaming out in anger. And as her anger peaked, one of the men emerged from the crowd with two live hens in his hands. He held them by their feet as their heads dangled and then handed one to the Goddess. I wasn’t prepared for what would happen next. I had seen animal sacrifices before but never something that was done with such a powerful symbolic performance. I will spare you the details of the sacrifice as no amount of restrain in my writing will help create a milder image. All I can say was that in a few minutes after it started, it was over. There was blood splattered all over the kota. Two lifeless heads lay on one side while the limp bodies lay on another. Though I managed to capture a few shots of what had just happened, I still wasn’t able to get over the experience.

The final part of the Theyyam depicts her in he 'Rudra' (angry) state.

The final part of the Theyyam depicts her in he ‘Rudra’ (angry) state.

Leaning over the hen just before the sacrifice begins.

Leaning over the bird just before the sacrifice begins.

She bites on the neck before pulling the head apart and throwing it away. This is done in a particularly aggressive manner to depict anger.

She bites on the neck before pulling the head apart and throwing it away. This is done in a particularly aggressive manner to depict anger.

Holding the lifeless body with the neck in her mouth. After a couple of minutes, the ritual is repeated for the second bird. She sits and stares at people with two birds hanging out of her mouth.

Holding the lifeless body with the neck in her mouth. After a couple of minutes, the ritual is repeated for the second bird. She sits and stares at people with two birds hanging out of her mouth.

The Theyyam ends with the men taking off her costume.

The Theyyam ends with the men taking off her costume.

It took me about an hour to absorb the enormity of what I had just experienced and the fact that I had been a part of an event that had survived that had remained unchanged over centuries.

Would I recommend you to witness a Theyyam when you visit Kerala next time? Hell yeah! Just remember that Theyyam season begins around September in Kannur district and the last Theyyam is organized around the 1st of May. So plan a trip accordingly.

If you need any help with your trip. ‘Feel free’ to comment here and I will try to do the best I can to ensure a phenomenal experience!
P.S. After experiencing the Kari Chamundi Theyyam, I was lucky enough to attend another one about a month later. The next post on the blog will carry photographs of the Puthiya Bhagawathi Theyyam and trust me on this; you don’t want to miss that too! 🙂

Fort Kochi, Street Art & A New Dimension.

A city, like the people who call it home, needs to develop, evolve and grow with changing times. Now, if you have been following the Indian political soap opera (leading to the 2014 Mahabharata/Elections) and believe that the only meaning of ‘development’ would be to have beautifully tarred pothole free roads for miles and glass matchbox buildings lining them, this post might end up disappointing you!

Kerala has been progressive for ages now in its own way and the most enriching aspect of this was that the state acknowledged the importance of its rich heritage, both natural and man-made, and made protecting it a part of its developmental plan. A state that has been a forerunner in making the most of its resources and teaching the rest of India a lesson or two in tourism management, Kerala is known for its dense forests, pristine beaches and a unique cultural heritage. Every tourist who has had the opportunity to visit God’s Own Country (a moniker that most would agree is apt), has been lured by the promise of experiencing nature and cultural vibrancy at its best.

One of the trump cards that helps draw tourists to Kerala by the droves is Fort Kochi, a beautiful heritage hub in the city of Kochi. The St. Francis Church, the Paradesi Synagogue, the Chinese fishing nets and the quaint little spice shops have made sure that a visitor always returns home with great memories.

But 12/12/12 changed the city and how the world would see it in the future. The Kochi-Muziris Biennale, launched on the aforementioned date, brought about a dynamic shift; one that would be reflected in every travelogue about the city that has been written about the region ever since. The introduction of graffiti into the cityscape was a well thought out move on the part of the Kerala State Government and Kerala Tourism. Fort Kochi is now on the way to becoming a certain destination for the art hungry traveller. You may think that this is a premature statement but with the massive success of the first Kochi-Muziris Biennale and the second one approaching soon, the region and it’s graffiti scene is bound to grow.

Pepper House, the Aspinwall House, the walls on Burger Street and some other locations became canvases for the vivid expressions of artists like Anpu Varkey, Amitabh Kumar and Daniel Connolly amongst others. The sometimes contentious art of graffiti has not only gained the approval of the visiting tourists but also the admiration of locals who realize the importance of this brilliant new addition to their area’s fabric.

Okay, so it may not be a Berlin or a London yet but it is getting there.
‘A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step’ – Lao Tzu

Here are a few photographs of the first steps that Fort Kochi has taken. These were captured when I visited the region as part of the Kerala Blog Express (another fantastic initiative by Kerala Tourism) team of travel bloggers.

The Dragon Fish by Anpur Varkey at Pepper House. Street Art

The Dragon Fish by Anpu Varkey at Pepper House.

At Pepper House, Swiss couple Maya Hottarek and Louis Werder created the Brain Monster as a critique of capitalism and the waste it creates.

At Pepper House, Swiss couple Maya Hottarek and Louis Werder created the Brain Monster as a critique of capitalism and the waste it creates.

IMG_0009_1IMG_9784_1IMG_9926_1IMG_0012_1IMG_0014_1

Political pamphlets disfiguring a wall adorned with a graffiti... For those who don't know what vandalism means, here's a great example!

Political pamphlets disfiguring a wall adorned with graffiti… for those who don’t know what vandalism means, here’s a great example!

If you knew you would be disappointed by Kerala’s idea of development but still managed to stay with this post right till the end, I have some good news for you. KERALA DOES HAVE SOME OF THE BEST ROADS IN THE COUNTRY! 😉

Kerala Blog Express, a Journey of Sunsets.

Okay, so here is a confession. I have never been a big fan of sunsets or sunrises and I’m not really sure why. Don’t get me wrong. I do enjoy them every now and then, but I have never felt the urge to walk distances or schedule my day specifically with the aim of making it to that special ‘sunset’ point.

Well, all that was true before I joined the Kerala Blog Express and met two special people, the crazy EDIN CHAVEZ and the awesome INMA GREGORIO.

Edin and Inma had two very different personalities and I was fascinated by them both but it was the traits they had in common that in a strange way resulted in this post. Two of the things that captivated me the most was their conversations in Spanish (which I couldn’t understand at all but still enjoyed a lot) and their love for sunsets.

Even if they had gone through a busy day and had seemingly given up to exhaustion by displaying a lack of enthusiasm for planned photo ops, the suggestion of watching the sun come down to meet the horizon and taking a few good shots would make them jump to their feet. To be honest, on the first evening at the Estuary Island in Poovar, I wasn’t really keen on shooting the sunset; I was just following the herd! But I am glad I did, as that ended up being my first step in a relationship with the flaming skies.

After the first evening, the quest became effortless. I just had to follow the crazy sunset hunters! They could sense sunsets and locate fantastic view points to shoot from. I was learning. I was falling in love.

While skimming through the photographs that I had shot during the Kerala Blog Express, I realized that I had made a journey of sunsets. Every photo took me back on the journey and memories flooded in. Here are ten of those sunset moments that made the Kerala experience so magical for me.

Kerala Sunset

Local boys showing off their parkour skills at sunset. Location: Estuary Island, Poovar. Courtesy: Estuary Island Resort.

Staying at the Estuary Island Resort allowed us to soak in this brilliant sunset.

Staying at the Estuary Island Resort allowed us to soak in this brilliant sunset. Location: Estuary Island, Poovar. Courtesy: Estuary Island Resort.

Inma (aworldtotravel.com) doing what she loves the most; enjoying the sunset. Location: The Leela Kovalam.

Inma (aworldtotravel.com) doing what she loves the most; enjoying the sunset. Location Courtesy: The Leela Kovalam.

A fishing boat glides past as the dying sun paints the sky a fascinating pink. Location: Punnamada (Vembanad) Lake. Courtesy: Rainbow Cruises, Allepey.

A fishing boat glides past as the dying sun paints the sky a fascinating pink. Location: Punnamada (Vembanad) Lake. Courtesy: Rainbow Cruises, Allepey.

The sunset turned out to be the icing on the cake after a fantastic boat ride spotting wild elephants, sambar deer and gaurs. Location: Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.

The sunset turned out to be the icing on the cake after a fantastic boat ride spotting wild elephants, sambar deer and gaurs. Location: Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.

Dramatic giant silhouettes of trees at Wayanad. Location: The Hill District Club, Wayanad.

Dramatic giant silhouettes of trees against the gradient sky at Wayanad. Location Courtesy: The Hill District Club, Wayanad.

The mesmerizing hills of the Western Ghats create a beautiful layered foreground for this sunset. Location: Vythiri, Wayanad. Courtesy: Vythiri Resort.

The mesmerizing hills of the Western Ghats create a beautiful layered foreground for this sunset. Location: Wayanad. Courtesy: Vythiri Resorts.

A favourite of many sunset-chasing photographers, the Chinese fishing nets frame the sun as it rests on the horizon before taking the plunge. Location: Fort Kochi.

A favourite of many sunset-chasing photographers, the Chinese fishing nets frame the sun as it rests on the horizon before taking the plunge. Location: Fort Kochi.

A fisherman at Edakkad beach in Kannur. Disappointed with the catch but not giving up, he made a sharp subject. Location: Edakkad Beach, Kannur. Courtesy: MalabarCove Beach House.

A fisherman tries his luck oblivious to the stunning shimmering water. Location: Edakkad Beach, Kannur. Courtesy: Malabar Cove Beach House.

This tiny gorgeous stretch of sand witnesses the most magical crimson sunset every evening. Location: Edakkad Beach, Kannur. Courtesy: Malabar Cove Beach House.

This tiny gorgeous stretch of sand witnesses the most surreal crimson sunset every evening. Location: Edakkad Beach, Kannur. Courtesy: Malabar Cove Beach House.

So as you may have imagined, by the end of the KeralaBlogExpress road trip, my love for sunsets had slowly developed into an obsession and there are only two people to thank for this transformation, Edin and Inma. What better way to thank these amazing guys than to use the Spanish that I have learnt by listening to them (and a little help from Google Translate, obviously!).

Amigos, gracias por ser increíble.

(I do know a few more words in Spanish but then this isn’t really a post about my incredible command over the language!) 😉

Kalamandalam – A Cradle of the Classical Performing Arts in Kerala.

It seldom happens that you step inside the confines of a place you have never been to before and feel a sense of belonging almost instantly. The space, though sometimes vast and open, seems to gently hold your hands and pull you in. I felt an immediate sense of déjà vu as I took my first steps inside the campus of Kalamandalam. The architecture from an age gone by, sounds echoing through the air and tall trees creating complex patterns of shadow and light on the ground; this place had an impact like none other I had felt during my visits to Kerala.

A school of the classical performing arts, with more than eight decades of rich history, Kalamandalam is located in the Cheruthuruthy village of Thrissur district in Kerala. Initiated in 1930 by the legendary poet Vallathol Narayana Menon with the aim of reviving the then dying art and dance forms of Kerala, the institution has over the years become a cultural landmark on the Indian map.

Offering training to students in residence by the best in the field in Mohiniattam, Kathakali, Ottam Thullal and other dance forms, many acclaimed artists have begun their exemplary careers after passing through the doors of this school. Masters like Kalamandalam Gopi, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon, Guru Gopinath and many others have either had close associations or are alumni of this highly acclaimed school. The school also offers courses for those who wish to learn the art of playing percussion instruments like the chenda, the maddalam and some others which play an important role in the narrative and musical aspect of the traditional dance forms of Kerala.

During my time at the campus as part of the Kerala Blog Express travel blogging team, it was not difficult to imagine why Kalamandalam had gifted the world so many masters. As part of their ‘A Day with the Masters’ initiative, we were given a quick walk through of what was a typical day at the school. The classes, each holding not more than 5-10 students at a time who were all immersed in the instructions of the gurus, had an old world spiritual feel. The constant attention of the cameras and the movement of the curious visitors didn’t bother the students at all. It was as if the world beyond the classroom didn’t exist to them. The loud but repetitive beats of the chenda and the maddalam seemed to send them into a state of an almost meditative trance that was probably essential to the art.

Walking from one class room to another, being hit by these many beautiful sights and powerful sounds, time had gone into a loop; one that I was particularly enjoying a lot. To experience the Guru-Shishya (teacher-student) tradition first hand and in such a vibrant state, at a campus that adheres to the Gurukul system of teaching, was indeed a privilege. The experience became of greater importance because before then I had only seen these arts performed in modern auditoriums or schools. The ambiance at Kalamandalam was tailor-made to inspire, foster and produce great talent.

But more importantly, the school had managed to instill a sense of interest and awe in the minds of most visitors who, like me, left with a strong desire to return and spend more time here. A trip to Kerala would without a doubt be incomplete if a visit to this hallowed cradle of the traditional art forms of Kerala was not part of the itinerary.

To know about Kalamandalam and for more details about the ‘A Day with the Masters’ initiative, visit –

Kerala Kalamandalam Website

‘A Day with the Masters’ Initiative

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

The beautiful feet of a student during class.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

Expressions and postures play an important role.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

A student practices a Kathakali expression.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

A senior student practicing Thullal at the school.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

The gurus (teachers) are masters themselves and an important part of the school’s success.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

Learning to play the Thimila.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

A Chenda playing class in progress.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

It takes years of hard work and dedication to master the powerful Chenda.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

Students break into spontaneous dance moves while walking to their class.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

Traditional Gurukul style class.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

The architecture only adds to the surreal spiritual feel of the school.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

Expressing beautifully, oblivious to the many cameras pointing at her.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

Students work for years on clay pots practicing Kathakali makeup before graduating to human faces.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

A visiting Kathakali master supervises over two practicing post-graduate students.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

The different characters of Kathakali are shown at the museum on the Kalamandalam campus.

Kerala Kalamandalam Dance School

The faces of Kathakali with colours representing character types. For eg. Green faces depict noble character.

 

Finding Happiness at Kumarakom Village

Smiles are precious in cities and the honest ones are rare to find. During my time exploring the dusty bylanes of rural India or on one of those many chai stops on my motorcycle journeys, I have time and again chanced upon a smile that had the power to take me to that now faraway destination called pure joy.

Having spent most of February backpacking through Rajasthan and then joining the Kerala Blog Express as part of the team of travel bloggers, the exhaustion had just begun to set in. While on the trip, we were taken on a walk through the quaint little village of Kumarakom which was a pioneering responsible tourism project initiated by Kerala Tourism. As we approached the village on a country boat, we were welcomed by a sprightly bunch of kids dressed in their tidy school uniforms. Standing atop one of the many over-bridges that spanned the narrow backwater, the kids made for the perfect welcome with all the excited jumping and waving. They were as excited to see us as we were to see them. As most travellers would know, the sight of happy children is always a welcome event and this wasn’t any different.

KeralaBlogExpress

Excited school kids welcoming the boats.

Calling out to us Bollywood style

Calling out to us Bollywood style.

But once we had parked the boat, something caught my eye. There was this one little girl who stood alone watching all the activity from a corner with curiosity in her eyes. She seemed to be in a different imaginary world as she broke into a giggle all of a sudden and that moment was frozen in my mind.

Even though I wasn’t a part of her imaginary world, she seemed to share her amusement with me and I couldn’t help but smile. It was as if she had unknowingly granted me access to a place where happiness was a way of life. I felt relaxed and the clouds of weariness had cleared to let in those much needed rays of sunshine.

She had shown me an aspect of village life that I seemed to miss so much without even having experienced it before. A moment of realization; of suddenly knowing where I wanted to be and what I wanted from life. An honest smile, without pretense, was a life giver and I wanted to feel alive. That little girl had without an effort gifted me what was now ‘my precious’!

She observed all the sudden activity with curiosity.

She observed all the sudden activity with curiosity.

Something amused her and she broke into a giggle.

Something amused her and she broke into a giggle.

She was Happiness.

She was Happiness.