From ONE Magazine

The Timeless Allure of Kerala

The turbulent waters of the Arabian Sea have carried many outsiders to the lush shoreline of Kerala. The tropical forests along the fertile coastal plain lure outsiders, now as they have for centuries, with a promising landfall. Often the voyagers seek enrichment from the sea or land, but life among the native peoples offers its own wealth.

People of the Malabar coast of southwest India live simply, yet with a dignity and grace appropriate to this beautiful land. Their daily life retains the culture’s characteristic traditions. Yet they also freely greet the cultural riches carried into their region by the outsiders seeking the native spices and other local resources.

The long, complex history of Christian influence in Kerala suggests how people of the region adopt what outsiders bring. Tradition claims that by the middle of the first century, Thomas the Apostle traveled through Syria, Persia, and Afghanistan down to India. Eventually he arrived on the Malabar coast and made his way east to Madras, where he preached the good news of Christ before his martyrdom. He is credited with first spreading the branch of faith down into the Indian subcontinent.

When in 1498 Vasco de Gama discovered a sea route around the Cape of Good Hope to this region, Europeans were amazed to find Christianity well established here. At the same time they were shocked to learn that these people were linked to the Chaldean Church, which was separated from the Vatican. Like others even to this day, these Westerners could imagine their faith only through the Roman hierarchy. The years intervening since Thomas’s day had seen these Indian people’s fidelity to Christianity. Their faith had arisen and been maintained through their allegiance to the Eastern Christians in Syria and Persia. Hence, their church is known as the Syro-Malabar Church.

Since the arrival of the Portugese and their missionaries, their relationship with Christians of the West has endured some difficult periods. Yet, the root of faith carried by Thomas is the same as that which flowered in the West, and both continue to bear fruit, each with the unique flavor of its native culture. A quarter of the population of this area of Hindu-dominated India is united today in Christianity, representing Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and other variations.

The region’s contacts with the Levant go back centuries. Kerala has long been an international trading center for spices, sandalwood, ivory, and coir, among other sought-after commodities. Some scholars think that when King Solomon visited Ophir in search of pepper, he came to what is now the village of Puvar, south of Trivandrum and close to Kovalam beach. Down through history, representatives of other powerful rulers have also come here for the riches produced by the simple native life.

The rhythms of daily life seem to belie the effects of outsiders over the centuries. Today, Kovalam is a small, almost magical place which typifies the region’s timelessness and allure. It remains an idyllic paradise of coconut palm forests and rocky cliffs descending into the Arabian Sea. The local economy is tied to nature. Fishing flourishes, and agriculture produces rice, bananas, spices, and coconut products in abundance. Despite the advent of electric lights installed in beachfront cafes, a visitor to the region suspects that little else has changed in the nearly two thousand years since Thomas’s arrival.

Early in the morning at Kovalam beach, a handful of fishermen load neatly coiled lengths of handwoven fishnet into small, hand-carved boats before facing the sea. They row into the furious waters and let out their half-mile-long nets, just as their ancestors had done for generations. Returning to shore, they wait patiently for the nets to fill.

Soon they are ready to gather the sea’s harvest. While the day is still young, the fishermen gather on shore in their colorful lungi skirts and begin to pull the heavy nets back onto shore. While they toil, they sing rhythmic songs in Malayalam, the native tongue. The hands around the weighty coils make one strong pull per measure until the net is close to shore. Meanwhile, boys enthusiastically beat the water with their hands to scare the fish back into the net.

Once ashore, the daily catch is sorted. Jellyfish are thrown back. Thousands of smaller silverfish and squid are separated into woven baskets to be hoisted into the dugout boats for transport to market.

The sharp-toothed kingfish, measuring three to five feet, are the pride of the catch. They provide delicious steaks for the evening feast. Curry fish, tomato-sauce fish, coconut-topped fish: the creative possibilities reflect the richness of the local resources.

An elder male acts as a broker auctioning fish to kitchen workers from the nearby Ashok hotel. Despite tough negotiations, the woman buying for the hotel cannot argue a price lower than twenty rupees, about $2. After all, the fishermen know what a good fish is worth, and they must make a living.

Finally, the catch is divided among the fishermen and local restaurateurs representing such glibly named establishments as the Wood Star, Blue Sea, Woodstock, and Black Cat. The remaining fish are loaded back into the dugouts to be taken to the local markets in Trivandrum.

Suresh, not yet twenty years old, is in charge of the Velvet Dawn, a seaside grass-shack restaurant which caters to the relatively few tourists at the somewhat remote village. The young manager is a devout Hindu. Each evening he lights a series of votive candles and incense in a corner of the restaurant in honor of Lakshmi, goddess of beauty and good fortune born of the churning ocean.

Because Suresh comes from a large family, he must wait until all his older brothers and sisters have been married before his parents find him a suitable bride. When his older sister wed recently, she had known the groom for only one month. Everyone in town, whether a relative or one of the few tourists, was invited to attend the ceremony. The event cost Suresh’s parents a fortune – nearly 150,000 rupees, or $13,000. The bride must have a good dowry, which includes everything she needs to set up a household plus as much gold as the family can afford.

These special occasions counterpoint the daily routine. In addition to the fishermen on the beach, local women and children earn needed income by hawking a selection of the region’s produce to visitors.

One beautiful young woman named Shamila makes her rounds on the beach with a cheerful smile: “Mango, pineapple, coconut, papaya, Baba?” She rarely misses a sale. Ask for a coconut, and she first whittles a small hole from which to drink the refreshing coconut milk. Then she whacks the nut with a sharp knife until it breaks in two. Shamila will even help herself to the luscious coconut meat as she keeps up the conversation. Her lively talk soon sells a mango as well, even before the coconut is gone.

A young friend follows in her shadow and tries to sell peanuts. Rolled up in cones of newspaper for one rupee each, this treat also is hard to refuse. The bright, quick smile that always follows a sale is a treat in itself.

The ecology here suffers from no wastes. After the meat of the coconut has been eaten, the gathered husks are sundried and later burned for fuel. As the midday snack is finished, voracious sea birds polish off any remains that might be lying on the beach. Happily, in this region of India, humans and nature are in harmony.

Away from life at the beach, change has come to Kerala in the usage of the native kathakali dance. This traditional entertainment embodies dance, mime, drama, and fantastically colored costumes. Originally a means of educating people in religion, the dance deals largely with the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and other Hindu stories. Today, in tribal villages, kathakali has been adopted to instruct people in Christianity.

Students come from all over the world to study kathakali dance. The makeup for the production takes hours to apply. Burnt coconut oil outlines the eyes, and tree saps and minerals produce the bright colors for the facial makeup. A green face is always a good or royal character, a red face is a demon, a black face is the hunter – all of which are communicated by symbolic facial paints. Tiny eggplant flowers tucked beneath the eyelids irritate them to produce the characteristic red eyes. Traditional masks, headdresses, and elaborate costumes complete the visual spectacle.

Simple musical accompaniment to the colorful drama alternates between quiet moments with a lone flute and moments of action highlighted by percussion instruments. Usually, performances begin at dusk and go until morning, but abbreviated versions still give the exotic flavor of this entertainment.

Kerala today is a fascinating picture of age-old traditions challenged by Western influences. Yet Kerala’s people have strength in their cultural traditions and the abundance of natural resources. Although the influences of the outside world leave their mark in various ways, the people of Kerala keep their characteristic charm in earning their livelihood with respect for the land, the sea, and their heritage. At the same time, they are open to outsiders, just as they were to Saint Thomas so long ago. As often as not, though, those who seek to refashion the lives in Kerala find themselves changed by the warmth and openness of these hardworking people.

Claire Rydell is a free-lance photographer and writer who has visited cultures throughout the world.