Forget everything you think you know about India. This is Kochi, the southern coast's sybaritic retreat. Tad Friend explores lush backwaters, dabbles in local cooking, and expands his mind through the ayurvedic treatment sirodhara.
My first morning in India I woke up somewhere else. My wife, Amanda, and I were sleepily carving up a mango; it was just after dawn in the city of Kochi. Like much of the state of Kerala, Kochi (often still called Cochin) is a braid of canals and lagoons, and our breakfast table at the Taj Malabar hotel was beside a window that opened onto Vembanad Lake, a nominally fresh body of water that, somewhere within the city's aqueous terrain, merges with the Indian Ocean. Beyond the passing freighters lay islands thick with coconut palms; closer at hand, an old fisherman paddled up and stood in his dugout to coax a few grouper from the folds of his net into a red bucket. Then he spun like a discus thrower and flung the net back out. Its silver weights popped on the water like tiny firecrackers.
This scene of quiet clarity was not at all the India I remembered from my first trip, 15 years earlier. In that India, the Indian Airlines clerk at the Bombay airport took 25 minutes to cancel a ticket for the woman ahead of me in the long, long line, licking his pencil to fill out the 18 forms required, deaf to my anguish as my flight shut its doors and flew away. In that India, a man on a crowded Delhi street flicked cow dung onto my sneakers—and then, hoping to wangle a tip, made a great show of discovering it and cleaning it off with a canvas-destroying solvent. And the owner of the houseboat I stayed aboard on Dal Lake, in Kashmir, became incensed when I informed him that his cook was refilling the Bisleri water bottles by dipping them in the filthy lake. "Black shit!" he cried, not at the culprit but at me. "I will kick your bloody backside to Pakistan!"
Keralites delight in proclaiming their superiority to the barbarians up north. They pride themselves on their twice-daily baths, their cream-colored raiments, and on their use of ayurvedic medicine, an ancient system of herbal treatments, to tune their bodies like mechanics realigning a Porsche. Foreign visitors now flock to Kerala for "medical tours," the latest form of Western fascination with Indian gurus who claim to understand what we have long forgotten.
The phrase "medical tour" makes me ill, but I did have an inexplicable urge to try sirodhara, an ayurvedic treatment in which medicated oil is drizzled onto your forehead. It seemed like jumping naked into the deep end of India. The procedure is reputed not only to sharpen your wits and rejuvenate your memory, but also to cure both Alzheimer's disease and schizophrenia. In ayurveda, nature remedies all: cinnamon oil alleviates mumps and, when applied to the soles of your feet, "wintertime quakes"; king coconut oil restores "falling hair"; the powdered seeds of bastard teak, eaten daily with gooseberry juice, make the old young again. Ayurveda is the Sanskrit word for "knowledge for prolonging life." When weaker measures fail, practitioners encourage bulimia—here seen as a cure rather than an illness, and known as "therapeutic vomiting."
After our breakfast, Amanda and I went to the hotel spa, where the resident vaid, or ayurvedic doctor, informed us that we had to sign up for at least seven days of treatment to receive sirodhara. So I tried dinacharya, the "daily health-maintenance therapies." My attendant, Prakas, told me to remove my clothes and provided me with a loincloth the size of a Kleenex. Then he gave me a handful of areca-nut powder to clean my teeth with, using my finger as a brush. Once my gums were numb—areca nut is the ingredient that makes betel chewers drool unawares—he pried my eyelids wide and applied a few drops of tender coconut oil and rose water to clean them. It felt like being jabbed with a kebab skewer. Fifteen minutes later, he was still dabbing black sludge out of my blood-red eyes with a folded tissue; he said it was "dust," but I'm inclined to believe it was some sort of atavistic eye-defense juice, akin to a skunk's spray.
After stopping up my ears with camphorated drops and filling my nose with medicated-goat's-milk snuff—thereby disarming all my senses, save touch—Prakas had me stretch out on a long wooden table. The massage began. It consisted of body swoops that were actually rather soothing until he concluded each pass with a wrist snap that ground my ankles or elbows into the black wood. The table came from Strychnos nux-vomica, an Asian evergreen known as the poison nut tree because its seeds contain strychnine. So that was a comfort. Amanda, who also had a massage, said afterward, "I felt like a chicken sliding around on the cutting board." Then she asked, "Why are your eyes swollen?"
Kerala prides itself on much more than its ability to blind and cripple its visitors. It has the most newspapers of any Indian state, and its literacy rate, 96 percent, is the highest in the country—higher, indeed, than that of the United States. Even the working elephants, imported from Assam in the north, are bilingual: they respond to commands in Hindi as well as the local Malayalam. In 1957, Kerala became the world's first state to democratically elect a Communist government, and the locals still maintain that they were onto something. The novelist Anita Nair has written that "the average Malayali goes through life convinced that he is the liveliest, shrewdest, and most intelligent of all Indians. This despite the high rate of lunatics and suicides."
"The people have a special way of protesting everything that is not to their liking," a tourism operator named Madhu Kayarat told us. Kayarat's meesha, the full mustache that male Keralites cultivate as a badge of manliness, was perfectly groomed, and he pushed his glasses onto his forehead to glare about with fierce, nearsighted enthusiasm. He was explaining why there was so little traffic that day in Kochi, a city of 600,000 people: the Joint Action Council of Motor Vehicle Workers had called a one-day strike to protest the government's having raised the price of petrol. The streets are constantly being blocked or emptied by such "closures," "stirs," or "agitations." This was a "weak closure," meaning that cars venturing out weren't being stoned. "We are the only state to strike," Kayarat said proudly. "Because of the literacy rate, we know why the price has gone up. The other states are angry, but they don't know why."
One of Kerala's leading industries, bringing in some $90 million a year, is tourism; this sliver of land along the Lakshadweep Sea is branded as God's Own Country. What draws visitors is the pungent tang of Old India nostalgia: the Fort Cochin district has a lovely canopy of tamarind and rain trees that surround a bastion of the Portuguese fort (which, in a reminder of how very bygone the days of empire are, now serves as the subtax collector's residence). And the cozy, down-at-heels Dutch Palace in nearby Mattancheri has just the right number of paintings of wicked-looking rajahs. To be sure, Vasco da Gama's tomb at St. Francis Church is a disappointment—the explorer's body was returned to Portugal almost 500 years ago. Still, our guide, V. X. Joyce, told us reverently that we ought to take a moment to appreciate the ayurvedic qualities of the church's limestone walls. "Limestone is good for human dwellings," he said. "It has been filled with sun energy for thousands of years, so it absorbs all the radiated emotions of your upset."
Joyce is a warmhearted man who wears oxford-cloth shirts of a blinding white. He extolled the local way of life to us with a mixture of pity and anxiety—pity that we had lived in ignorance for so long; anxiety that his jingoism might be unwarranted. (Kochi means "sea gate," and the city shares with other outlying coastal regions—think of Baja, of Florida, of Chile—both a fierce chauvinism and a fear that it is missing out.) Though Joyce acknowledged that Keralan cuisine is awash in coconut oil, he insisted that "Keralites are less susceptible to it, because cholesterol in the veins breaks down under our hot sun." When we snacked on water buffalo at a street stall on Mahatma Gandhi Road, Joyce told us that women never eat at such places: "It would be indecent." A woman in a green sari promptly emerged from the neighboring stall. We looked at Joyce. "She is from nortH INDIA," he explained.
In the afternoon heat the vendors at the Ernakulam market lay stretched out on gunnysacks piled beside or, often, atop their produce, a bedding of manioc and string beans and snake gourds, of jackfruit and orange cucumbers and pale-red pumpkins shaped like pattypan squash. "Mango, mango, mango" and "fifteen rupees for two kilos," the men murmured in their sleep. Amanda and I were trying to keep up with the panzer-like advance of Nimmy Paul, who has made a cottage industry of introducing visitors to Kochi's markets and food. Nimmy's husband, V. J. Paul, known—like most Syrian Christians here—by his last name, brought up the rear. A mild man with a spaniel's eyes, Paul quit his job as a stockbroker to help Nimmy with her cooking classes. He usually does the shopping alone, because otherwise they quarrel. "He brought stinking fish onto the floor of the house," Nimmy explained as we walked. "There could be worms coming out of it!"
"What rubbish you are talking," Paul said, absently fingering a gooseberry.
"Worms! Rotten-fish worms!" She stopped to ask the price of potatoes, and, after looking us over, the vendor told her 25 rupees (about 50 cents).
"It's not for the sahib," she explained, "it's for me."
"Twenty-five rupees." She sniffed and barreled on.
Back at their spotlessly clean house in a leafy Ernakulam neighborhood, Paul held a whispered conference with his wife. "He's getting angry at me for making you remove your footwear," she announced, as Paul rolled his eyes. It became clear that they are one of those couples whose unity derives from bickering.
Beginning with how she ground a coconut on a ﬂat stone in her backyard, Nimmy prepared our meal as if her husband had just killed a mastodon—he was actually in the other room watching Wayne's World—and she had just invented fire. Soon she was deftly stirring red rice and coconut oil in one of her uruli, bell-shaped metal dishes that resemble prehistoric hubcaps. "The body is very tender now, during the rainy season," she said, "so this is the best time to get an ayurvedic massage. When it gets hot like this, we boil the vetiver root and have a bath with it, to cool the system. And when it's cold, we drink coffee with jaggery"—a sweetener made from molasses—"and crushed ginger, pepper, and coriander seeds, which helps warm you and clear the respiration."
Nimmy was a patient and lucid teacher, but when she began explaining how she was wrapping a ﬁsh called a pearl spot in crushed cilantro and coconut paste before poaching it in a banana leaf, I put down my notebook. There was simply no way to replicate what she was doing back home. For one thing, you can't buy whole mace, or banana leaves the size of manta rays, at your local Piggly Wiggly. As Marco Polo said of Kerala: "Everything is different from what it is with us and excels both in size and beauty."
Taste, too. The mutton biryani was not greasy, as it so often is in Indian restaurants, but light and minty and marvelous. And the pearl spot, clad in its green dinner jacket, was a joy. Nimmy whisked around the table, spooning up choice morsels. "My grandmother and mother would never sit with guests, but just serve food, and that's what I do," she said. She looked at her husband, who had cleaned his plate and was chewing a toothpick: "Mr. Paul also needs to move his arms and legs a bit." He jerked upright and began to clear.
My quest for Sirodhara began to seem foredoomed. The ayurvedic centers all wanted me to check in for 21 days, during which time I would forego meat, alcohol, and sex. At Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala hospital, when I proposed a quick drizzle, a supervisor scowled and said, "It is not the patient who decides what he wants, it is the doctor who decides!"
At the Santhigiri Janakanthi Ayurveda Center, a manager named Sunil Sadanandan explained that the real problem was—not to put too fine a point on it—me. "Virtues deficient in the soul persist as ailments in the body," he said. Fortunately, however, his vaids could root out the moral failings that were presenting as rheumatic pains, spondylitis, or secondary amenorrhea. I said that I didn't have rheumatic pains, spondylitis, or secondary amenorrhea. "That is for the doctor to determine," he said, combing his mustache at me with sudden ferocity. "Do not be a shirker, for it is only the ignorance of true ayurveda that misleads the people to go to star hotels and tiny mushroom centers bloomed into pleasure treatments!"
Sadanandan sent us down the street to his center's treatment facility, where two men led us upstairs into a dim, shabby room with the now-familiar poison-nut table and a steam cabinet—one of those boxes only your head sticks out of—for sweating off the unguents afterward. "It's medicated steam," the younger man, Rajesh, said encouragingly. "Turmeric leaves, neem leaves, lemongrass, ginger—"
"Steam is small heat, sufferable temperatures!" his partner, Shreekumar, a white-haired man in a well-worn dhoti, interjected. When I dropped a hint about sirodhara, he frowned. "It must be prescribed by a doctor, or else there are chances of unconsciousness and cardiac arrest—"
"Paralysis," Rajesh put in.
"Chances of vomiting—"
"Emptiness of mind."
They shuddered and fell silent.
After a minute, Shreekumar suggested an alternative: "One tablespoon cow ghee every morning on empty stomach, you are becoming very healthy."
"Cow-dung lotion is very antiseptic," Rajesh added.
"Only from the pet cow!" Shreekumar insisted, not to be outdone. "The one that has been eating herbs, katuka grass, Brahmi grass, which gives more memory power—not basil leaves!"
As it became clear that we were not, in fact, going to check in, the men grew even more affable. When we put our sandals on downstairs, Shreekumar pointed out that even the coir rug underfoot was intended to stimulate the feet and thereby quicken the senses. "But don't take a beating on your feet soles, or you will go blind," Rajesh cautioned, moving closer, his eyes shining. Strangely, my senses did feel quickened. It may have been the coir, the tang of saffron in the air, the close, wet heat. Or just the enthusiasm of Shreekumar and Rajesh, who kept waving and waving as we drove away.
Religious and philosophic enthusiasm is everywhere here—you can't buy a banana chip without getting a lecture of some kind—but it never seems to cross the line into coercion. A go-along-to-get-along attitude prevails of necessity because Kerala is so diverse, its population divided into nearly equal fourths among Muslims, Christians, caste Hindus, and Dalits (formerly called untouchables). The once-populous Jews, on the other hand, are on their way out. Centuries ago, the local rajah anointed one Joseph Rabban the Prince of Anjuvannam and granted the Jews the right to fire three salutes at the break of day. Rabban was also given "the lamp of the day, cloth spread in front to walk on, a palanquin, a parasol, a Vaduga drum, a trumpet, a gateway, a garland, decoration with festoons, and so forth." But when Israel was born, so many of Kerala's Jews emigrated that Kochi now numbers only 25 "black" Jews—who live around Ernakulam's Jew Street and whose forebears were in the spice trade—and 14 "white," or Orthodox, Jews in the Mattancheri neighborhood known as Jew Town.
Even as we walked into Jew Town's 400-year-old Paradesi Synagogue, we could hear a muezzin's call to prayer. An air of supervention hangs over the crooked streets. Only seven local houses are still inhabited: the rest have become antiques stores. "In this house," Joyce told us softly, "we have Mrs. Cohen. She is doing a small business of embroidery." There in the doorway, stitching gold sequins onto a yarmulke, was Sarah Cohen, a white-haired lady who, except for her sari, looked as if she would be perfectly at home on a stoop in Brooklyn.
I asked her if she was sad that so few Jews remained. She didn't look up. "When I am sewing, I am interested only in this."
Amanda tried another tack: "Your work is very beautiful."
"Ah, ya ya ya," she said, waving us away.
The next morning, we drove an hour south to Alappuzha and boarded a kettu vallom—one of the Keralan boats built entirely of bamboo thatch, teakwood, and coir, without a single nail—for a tour of the region's famed backwaters. We were soon utterly lost in the 50-mile-long labyrinth of canals and lakes and rivers. Everywhere there were snakebirds wheeling above and drongos crying "pinka pinka pinka" among the coconut palms and fishermen paddling along the banks and hooting "Ooo, ooo" to announce their wares and naked children splashing and farmers sowing rice in the paddies, chest-deep in the monsoon tides.
The grizzled cook asked if I wanted to steer. When I took the helm, Amanda, who had been calmly sipping juice out of a fresh king coconut, put on her sunglasses and assumed something of a crash position. But though our boat, the Great India II, was about as nimble as a giant bamboo clog, I kept us safely in midstream, and even had time to wave to the passing ferries.
After disembarking, we drove back to Kochi along the coast. Near Bannambeli, we stopped to talk with four men who were husking coconuts at jackhammer speed, driving them with both hands onto sharpened metal stakes. The eldest man, skinny and toothless and black from the sun, said he thought he'd been doing the work for 15 years. When we asked how old he was, and when he'd started, it became clear he'd been husking coconuts for 45 years.
We drove past a small bay with dozens of huge Chinese fishing nets, cantilevered teak contraptions that reminded me of praying mantises. A troop of brown ducklings waddled across the road, and as we made way for them, a group of 15-year-olds from the local girls' school surrounded the car. They all wore braids, and their braids were all tied with bright pink ribbons, and they all smiled and waved and shouted "Hello" as if their hearts were overﬂowing. It was when they pressed their palms to our window that my last grudge against India began to dissolve.
On our last day, I finally found someone who would administer sirodhara. Dr. Krishnakumar at the Brunton Boatyard spa, a gentle man who seemed amused by my determination, gave me a cursory exam—pulse, blood pressure, a quick pass with a stethoscope—then wrapped a linen cloth around my head and arranged me on the table beneath an oversized clay pot. He filled it with warm milk and the powerful herb Sida cordifolia. The mixture began to drip through a hole in the pot, down a cotton rope, and onto my forehead. Dr. Krishnakumar moved the apparatus from side to side, and then in what felt like Möbius loops, he murmured, "This carries off the toxins of your life."
Within a few minutes it felt as if my forehead had opened up and the oil were soaking my brain. Visions of Buddha statues and old temples flickered on my closed eyelids, followed by Beatles lyrics ("When I'm 64") and strange, druggy ideas ("What if I'm the toxin?"). These were followed by anxious thoughts that flew around my skull like caged falcons, crashing into its bone walls.
I suddenly felt utterly calm. And then very anxious again. The 45 minutes seemed to last for hours, and afterward Joyce and Amanda agreed that I looked years younger. But the treatment was unsettling; during it, I kept flexing my toes and mentally working multiplication tables to make sure I hadn't lost all brain function. Toward the end, I began to feel on the verge of an epiphany, of a new alignment with the world—and then the last gluey drops began to spatter, irregularly, against my temples. The doctor unwound the linen band, and I could once again hear the crows in the rain trees outside, the squawk of the auto rickshaws, and the rising tide of noises from the town.
Most guidebooks suggest going to Kerala between January and March, when it's dry and sunny. But the best season for ayurvedic massage is said to be June and July, when monsoons pound Kerala before sweeping north. They say that in the rainy season your body opens up like a thirsty flower to receive replenishment. Hotel prices are lower then, too.
You can see Kochi in four days, but it's worth spending a few nights in the backwaters. We got a lot of good advice from Fred and Ellison Poe, a father-daughter team who run Poe Travel (800/727-1960; www.poetravel.com), an Arkansas-based agency recognized in Travel + Leisure's A-List of super-agents.
WHERE TO STAY
The five-star landmark on Willingdon Island is where we stayed in Kochi. It's on the water and 20 minutes away, by either car or ferry, from Mattancheri or Ernakulam. The staff is extremely helpful, and the food at the hotel's Rice Boat restaurant is superb (try the njandu ularthiyathu, a crab appetizer). We did rather regret accepting the chef's suggestion that we experience a traditional banana-leaf lunch out by the dock, where we ate alone, in full view of all the hotel's guests, as three waiters stood by. "It's like being on The Bachelor," Amanda whispered. DOUBLES FROM $150; DINNER FOR TWO $50
Willingdon Island; 800/448-8355 OR 91-484/266-6811; www.tajhotels.com
This reconstruction of an 1849 boatyard is where we would stay next time we visit. It sits on the Arabian Sea in the center of Fort Cochin. There are terra-cotta floors, punkah fans in the lobby, and antique four-poster beds in many of the 26 rooms. DOUBLES FROM $130
CALVETTY RD., FORT COCHIN 91-484/221-5461; www.cghearth.com Malabar House
A diminutive boutique hotel in Fort Cochin that feels a little fussy, but its owners have two beautiful hideaways in the backwaters: Serenity, a rubber-estate bungalow with five bedrooms, and Privacy, a romantic two-bedroom retreat in Sanctuary Bay. DOUBLES FROM $136
PARADE RD., FORT COCHIN 91-484/221-6666; www.malabarhouse.com
As part of her ongoing plan to take over the world, this Indian domestic goddess just inaugurated homestays this October. Her guest room is spare but clean; she also offers meals, cooking lessons, and full- or half-day foodie immersions. Ask her son to teach you how he folds a napkin into the shape of a lotus flower. $125 PER NIGHT WITH FULL BOARD
CHAKALAKAL RD., ERNAKULAM 91-484/231-4293; www.nimmypaul.com
WHERE TO EATBadettu
This vegetarian restaurant in the Sarovaram hotel on the road to the airport serves wonderful traditional Keralan lunches on banana leaves: a dozen varieties of tasty, spicy curries and rice. We were the only WESTERNERS THERE; YOU EAT WITH YOUR HANDS. DINNER FOR TWO $8
NH 47 COCHIN BYPASS RD., ERNAKULAM; 91-484/230-5519
They start you off with ayurvedic water—which tastes like chicken! Well, licorice, actually. The Keralan curries packed with chiles, ginger, and mustard seed are excellent (though the service is a bit lackadaisical). DINNER FOR TWO $5
WARRIUM RD., ERNAKULAM; 91-484/236-6664
WHERE TO SHOPCrafters
This complex of five antiques shops, all within a few minutes' walk of each other, is owned by the Malayil brothers, former spice traders who decided to turn 33,000 square feet of warehouse space into storage for a beguiling hodgepodge of Shiva statues, cedar chests, and old-fashioned rice measures. To attract passers-by, Johny Malayil recently installed a 12-foot-wide bell-metal pot in the doorway of his main outlet. He was inspired by how many people in Brussels visit Manneken Pis, a 25-inch-tall statue of a urinating boy. "If they can make small," he told me,"we can make big."
VI/141, JEW TOWN; 91-484/222-3346 www.craftersantique.com
Sree Krishna Inn
Vivanta by Taj - Malabar
Taj's latest brand, Vivanta (unveiled in 2010) stands for laid-back luxury, as reflected by this South Indian retreat, perched comfortably on Lake Kochi. Despite their Victorian decor, the 96 rooms include a range of seamlessly integrated tech amenities, ranging from 32" LCD televisions and ergonomically-designed work desks to dual massage showerheads, appealing to business and leisure travelers alike. The hotel's Jiva Spa offers an extensive list of Ayurveda treatments, including a blissful magnolia, lavender, and jasmine facial, while the traditional Rice Boat restaurant--housed under an authentic cane roof and featuring views of colonial Cochin warehouses --serves freshly caught Keralan bounty like snapper, soft-shell crab, and tiger prawns.