Tag Archives: kerala

a lot can happen in a year

I have to get the hang of this posting frequently business.  I thought that I would be lazy on blogging because I had nothing to say.  It turns out, the busier you are and the more you do things, the less often you blog.  I’m not sure if it is because of the time commitment, the attention span, or something else.

A lot has happened since the last post, and since before then too.  In fact, a lot has happened in the past year, which lends credence to the whole “a lot can happen in a year” cliche.  Because, you know, it’s so true.   Let me serve as an example.

This time last year, I was sitting on a beach in Kerala thinking about which book I wanted to read next and whether I’d wake up early enough for morning yoga.  I had a “routine” of sorts: wake up, maybe take yoga, grab a late breakfast (kerala coffee, whole wheat toast with pb, maybe fruit and yogurt, or even an omelette), sit on a terrace, watch the ocean, check some email, window shop, dip my toes in the water, take another yoga class, rinse, repeat.  On March 2nd, I left India for Malaysia, where I spent 3 weeks in Borneo pretty much doing the same thing (minus the yoga, plus more alcohol).

That was my life, basically until late May.  I did return to the US in early April, but, with no job as yet, I headed back to Asia for a couple more weeks – a last hurrah maybe – before finally returning and settling into the 9-5.  And so, right around Memorial Day weekend, I started a job, which, for the second half of 2010, basically consumed my life.

But it wasn’t the only thing – the end of the year was also marked with the entry into a yoga teacher training program, which proceeded to eat up any leftover free time I had (after work sucked most of it).  What a change from counting coconuts in palm trees from the second floor terrace of a beachside hotel.

The beginning of 2011 saw the end of teacher training, which I suppose means I am now a yoga teacher.  It also saw more long work hours, and in a few days, will see the move back into a permanent home of sorts.

And I’m leaving out a couple of trips to Ireland, two other moves, and a gym membership that I definitely do not make the most of…

So, in a year I went from wandering aimlessly for several months around Asia, to taking on an important and intensive work committment, to moving and moving again, to starting and completing yoga teacher training, to the beginning of a nest.

A lot certainly can happen in a year.

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downtime

So after a few hectic weeks of travel, I’m on the beach in Southern Kerala – Kovalam to be exact.  I’ll be here for 2 weeks, doing yoga twice a day and generally just relaxing.  It will be a welcome break before I head to Malaysia for more hectic travel.

Kovalam is pretty touristy, but I’m sure it is nowhere near the scale of Goa.  Still, it’s pretty hard to avoid sellers, tour operators, money exchangers, restaurant hosts, etc, haranguing you to come and “have a look” in their shops.  I’ve already succumbed and had chappals made, and a couple pairs of pants.  Tomorrow’s errand might have to be the post office….

The ocean is gorgeous, though I haven’t brought myself to go in it yet.  Maybe tomorrow. :)

In the meantime, lots of fruit (even mangoes!), fish, coconut, lassi, and fresh lime soda!

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simple religion

The more time I spend in Kerala, the more different it seems from the north of India.   The people look different, the food is different, even the clothes are different.   And most striking to me, is how religion in the South, particularly in Kerala, is unlike much of the rest of the India.

For starters.  Kerala seems to have managed to find a way for its various religious adherents to co-exist peacefully.  One of the big roundabouts in Trivandrum has a massive cathedral, impressive mosque, and humble temple all within spitting distance of each other.  No one has to sneak in, no guards are visible, and traffic bustles along as if this were some every day scene.

But in India, and much of the world, this isn’t ordinary.   Religious and ethnic groups the world over collect in their little groups, and tend not to mix so overtly.  Not so in Kerala, where “syncretism” seems to the catchword.

The theyyam is a great example – it seems to pre-date established Hinduism, reaching back to some murky roots of animism and shamanism.  But it’s managed to incorporate Hindu deities (many of whom I’ve never heard of before).  Granted, Hinduism is a religion that easily lends itself to consilience – explanations of the divine tend to revolve around so-and-so being an incarnation of Shiva/Vishnu/Parvati.

More interestingly,  theyyam also includes some popular Muslim figures, many of whom who have been deified themselves.  Not something you see everyday.   And then there are the various warriors, wronged women, ghosts, etc, incorporating an astonishing complexity of social justice as well.  Af ter all, unlike the rest of Hindu rituals, the theyyam is dominated by lower-caste families, and not Brahmins.

But there is more.  The Sabrimala temple plays host to a massive pilgrimmage every year to honor Ayappas, a god not mentioned in any Vedic texts, but revered by Malayali Hindus all the same (some stories of course claim him as an incarnation of Vishnu).

Kerala has its history of religious violence, but always perpetrated from the outside.  The Christians trace their history back to St Thomas, who visited India after Jesus’s death (which means Christianity came to India before Europe).  In the 4th Century, they aligned themselves with the Syrian church.  When the Portuguese came centuries later, they brought Roman Catholicism in all its violence with them, converting by the sword, so to speak.  Eventually religious fervor calmed, and today both Catholics and Syrian Christians worship peacefully.

Islam has a strong presence in Kerala as well, with strong ties to the Middle East.  There are madrassas here, and also Dubai’s own religion – capitalism (which melds seamlessly with communism here).  Kerala is the would-be poster child for utopia.

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divine mysteries

I left Kochi a little sad, as my friend had departed the day before for her yoga teacher training in Goa.  I was on my way to Kannur, a town in the northern part of Kerala, where tourism is growing, but hasn’t yet reached the proportions it has further south.

But Kannur definitely has its reputation, and I certainly saw tourists.  But the beach was empty for the most part, and even the big draw in town was blissfully free of foreigners.

Kannur is known for its annual theyyam festival, which runs for almost half the year.   Theyyam is a Malayalam word that is supposedly derived from daivam, meaning god.  During theyyam, a performer, one who has trained all his life, induces a trance and takes on the persona of a deity.

Not just any deity – the theyyam ritual is specific.  Only certain people within certain families can perform it, and even then, they invoke only specific gods at specific temples at specific times of the year.

The performer dances, often with props such as swords, fire, staves, etc, and in his rthymic motion, induces the trance.  When he glimpses himself in the mirror, he no longer sees himself, but his god or goddess.  The change is measurable – even the casual onlooker can sense the presence of a different persona.

The ritual is not unlike spiritual possession found in so many cultures, and is itself a syncretic mix of Hinduism, animism, and even some Islam.  The gods are not strict to the Hindu pantheon, but can also be warriors, unfairly accused girls, and deities from other religions.  But whoever the god is, he or she is an integral part of the family who performs that theyyam every year.

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slowing down

I’ve been in Kerala over a week and I kind of don’t want to leave.  It’s not only beautiful here, but the people are friendly and welcoming.  Plus the food is good.

We’ve seen and done a lot here, and I’m hard-pressed to name my favorite part.  But one thing in particular stands out – life moves at a hectic pace here, but still slower than our usual day-to-day.  Here, I feel like I can slow down a bit and enjoy what I’ve seeing and doing.  True, we are going quickly, a day here, a night there, but at the same time, I feel like we are taking the time to really appreciate our experience.  There has been more than one day of just wandering around, sitting reading a book, and obviously, checking internet.

Tonight for example, I’m sitting in my hotel room watching star movies and eating tapioca chips.  Tomorrow morning I take an early train to the northern part of Kerala, less visited and maybe more pristine.  There, I will sit on the beach and relax, but also try to see a theyyam ceremony and maybe another backwaters tour.

Regardless, I’m planning on only relaxing and doing nothing, and the small backwater villages are the place to do it.

But even the bigger cities in Kerala afford an opportunity to slow down in a way not really seen in the rest of India.  Here in Kochi, I can just wander around, popping into shops, watching the fishermen on the beach, and sipping coconut water, while the city bustles around me.

It’s really not surprising that this is always a top destination choice when people come to India.

Yesterday, on our random wanderings, we came across a women-run cooperative selling spices.  Seven women, tired of being shafted working for the man, and watching shoppers get fleeced on prices, decided to open their own store.  The owner we met was a wonderful woman, and very helpful.  For less than $10, I picked up some delicious vanilla pods, something I’d estimate would cost over $40 back in the US (and something close at the more touristy shops here).  Plus, I got to support a local women’s initative.  Not a bad time indeed.

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unintended consequences

For anyone who has read the LP guide to India, the Kerala section mentions that the state government has been off-and-on Communist.  Apparently, the relatively high rates of literacy and other social indicators can be attributed to this phenomenon.  But so, apparently, can the high rate of alcoholism and suicide, because communism stifles ingenuity and people turn to substances and death out of despair.

The solution, it seems, is to build up Kerala’s tourism sector, and because they are all communists, everyone gets a piece of the pie.  Seems so easy…..

And as always, the unintended consequences raise their ugly heads.

The push for tourism has been quite successful – it is high season now and we see a lot of tourists here.  The tourism board has created a great system, and are very helpful.  Kerala is a wonderful place to travel.

Too wonderful, maybe.  Because Kerala’s highlight is the backwaters, miles of rivers and lakes that stretch parallel to the ocean, and lend themselves to lazy canoe rides and houseboats.  The houseboats are simply bigger canoes with coverings, but at some point, some enterprising soul discovered he could put an outboard motor on one, and run trips overnight.  And of course, putting the motor on the boat meant they could get larger now.

So, for about 100 bucks, you and your sweetie can lounge on the deck of a boat while a chef cooks you meals and you motor down the river for a day or so.  You, your sweetie, and about 1000 other people, that is.  Because the houseboats all leave from Alleppey, and the channel is only so big, and at any given moment, you can stand on a jetty and watch about 10 massive boats pass you by, their motors churning the waters and leaving chaos in their wake.

And diesel residue.  So the channels are polluted now, and the government in their infinite wisdom has walled the channel to prevent flooding, thereby killing the last of the mangroves.  And so, while tourism provides jobs and livelihoods, tourists kill the ecosystem.

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where everyone hugs instead of tugs

There are a lot of gurus in India.  Some of them are probably charletans, out to get your money and good intentions.  Some of them are genuine, but maybe mediocre.  And some of them attract such an immense following that the sheer energy of the group is overwhelming and maybe something exceptional.

Amma, Mata Amritanandamayi, is one of those.  At face value, there’s not really anything extraordinary here.  Maybe she’s performed a miracle (who hasn’t?).  Maybe her story bears a remarkable similarity to Krishna’s and St Theresa’s (not surprising given Kerala’s religious makeup).   Maybe she’s a genuinely nice and compassionate person.

But she displays no amazing phenomena.  Really, she’s just really touchy-feely.   Her gig is hugging, and hugging she does - hours and hours and hours on end.  Once, for 27 straight hours.

But in this seemingly mundane, ordinary act, maybe there is a glimpse of the Divine Presence.   Maybe the universe, in its infinite grace, pauses a moment in this human body to convey compassion to its multitudes of lost souls.  Maybe so much Love can build up in one person that the only way to release this energy is in the simple joy of touching another human being and acknowledging, “we are in this together, you and I.”

I am not a mystic.  But Amma’s ashram in Amritapuri holds a kind of magic, where a Benetton ad in white sits in lawn chairs and watches her hug person after person for hours and hours.  Amma’s darshan is this touch, and watching it is like receiving a blessing.

Of course, receiving a hug itself is a special kind of blessing.  I can’t say my life was changed in any way, but I was not annoyed at waiting nearly 10 hours for a few seconds in Amma’s embrace.  Whether or not she can really cure your ills, or offer you peace, or heal the world is probably forever up for debate.  But that one person exists who devotes her life selflessly for others is enough evidence of divinity for me.

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god’s own country

Kerala is everything the guidebooks say, and more.   My 40 hour non-A/C ride was far more bearable than I thought it would be, due to the welcoming presence of several Marathis and Malayalis.  I brought my own food, which proved only partly necessary, as food was abundant.  It got quite warm the second day, but manageable, and never too crowded.

3 am arrival to Trivandrum, and straight to the lodge, which was conveniently next to the train station.  Then we woke up early-ish, got ready and headed to the bus (also next door) for the bus to Kollam (A/C). 

There, we met our host, who runs a small guesthouse right on the beach.  We dropped off our bags, and headed back to town, to catch a ride to Ashtamudi Lake, and a lake islands tour.  Not sure what to expect, I was pleasantly surprised to see a long canoe/longboat, and a few other foreigners.  We delicately boarded, and then our guide and canoe driver pushed off the banks with his pole and we proceeded on a lazy 3-hour trip through the backwaters, stopping for tea, fresh coconut water, and several inquisitive young children. 

Tonight, on the beach.  Tomorrow, we board a ferry for Amrithapuri, for some full body contact with Amma, then on to Alleppey.

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