Discover Kerala: Thekkady

My favourite thing is to go where I’ve never been.” Diane Arbus

The third destination on our Kerala adventure was Thekkady in The Western Ghats, home to India’s largest wildlife sanctuary, Periyar. Another long drive from Munnar through identical colourful town after colourful town saw us arrive in Kumily, a small market town surrounded by thick green forests and spice gardens.

What we did……..

Our trusty driver Nishanth recommended we book to see a traditional Kathakali dance show and a Kalari martial arts display, so we stopped off to buy tickets at the Thekkady Kathakali centre ahead of checking into our hotel for the night. The centre also had an Elephant camp offering rides but the huge creatures had their legs shackled and were whipped by their handlers, all very cruel and having seen these beautiful animals in the wild the previous day we avoided it, plenty of people were taking the rides in a small circuit through a thicket of trees.

First up was the Kathakali show, a display of dance-drama that tells historical stories through gestures and rapid eye-movements accompanied by percussion and singing. The costumes were bright and elaborate and the makeup was thick and colourful, almost scary. The small theatre was somewhat threadbare and the props and costumes had seen better days but the show was spirited nonetheless, but rather long.

The pre-show ritual was open to the public, where the laborious dressing process of one of the characters took place on-stage displaying the many layers of the costumes. The whole story was acted by hand gestures (mudras) and by facial expressions (rasas) and more specifically rapid eye movements, dancers undergo special teaching to learn to control their eyes. Women characters are sometimes played by men, slow rhythmic dancing was performed to melodic vocals but honestly it was difficult to follow the story, we left at the end quite confused.

The Kalari Centre offers daily traditional martial arts shows where the performers practice the three thousand year old form of Kalaripayattu that originates from South India, embracing body-mind control and coordination. The fighters performed stunts without weapons, with weapons and then with fire in a sunken arena. Audience members were invited to join in some of the stunts too. Kalari is taught in secret by the masters in total isolation, the candle-lit arena was quite stagnant and once the performers were using fire the smoke was quite unbearable.

Thekkady is the spice growing area of Kerala with plantations open to the public, so the following morning we visited Abraham’s Spice Garden before heading off to our next destination, Kumarakom Lake Resort in the Kerala backwaters. The family-run garden is filled with many varieties of flora and fauna, medicinal herbs, spices, fruits, vegetables and flowers. The garden has been operating for over fifty years, started by Mr Varkey Varkey in 1952, grandfather of the elder and very knowledgeable Mr Abraham who was our tour guide.

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Armed with his bamboo cane pointing stick he took us around the garden which is featured on Tripadvisor, in the Lonely Planet South India and Kerala guide and also appeared in Monty Don’s Around the World in 80 Gardens, a BBC TV series and book. I have to say this was a great experience and very interesting but I was terrified of seeing a snake so was pretty nervous as we entered the main dense garden area. Abraham explained in detail about all the spices, fruits, vegetables, plants and herbs, describing their medicinal benefits and various uses in Ayurvedic therapies, giving us things to taste and smell along the way. There was also a small shop selling some of the spices and ayurvedic herbs.

As we left the Thekkady area and began another long journey we passed through more tea plantations where the female pickers (all tea is picked by women due to their small soft hands and picking abilities) were busy working. Others were taking shade under trees by the side of the road having their morning harvest weighed and accounted for, these women like so many others work hard all day in the sprawling steeped plantations receiving very low wages for their efforts which causes unrest, regular strikes and protests in the area.

Where we stayed……..

We spent one night at the eco-friendly Greenwoods Resort in Kumily, Thekkady (read about that here)

Thekkady provided us with some relaxation, some culture and some new experiences. A longer stay in this area would have given us time to explore the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary and Elephant Junction where you can even bathe some elephants.

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Read my six previous Kerala posts In Pictures: A Postcard From Kerala, IndiaDiscover Kerala: Faces of IndiaDiscover Kerala: CochinReview: Vivanta by Taj – Malabar, CochinDiscover Kerala: Munnar and Review: The Fog Resort & Spa, Munnar

All views are my own. Unless otherwise stated, all photos on this page © Jo Brett 2015. All rights reserved.