Into God’s Own Country

Today we cross the ‘border’ into Kerala, a state whose virtues have been extolled for the past 10 days by our Keralan driver, Rajesh. I must admit, it sounds an interesting state, boasting as it does the first democratically elected Communist government where the literacy rate is 100%; the women outnumber men, and are more highly educated;  no one person can own more than 15 acres of land; free housing is available for the poor; and has the highest wages in India.

But first, some excitement before we can cross the border. I had received an alert from SmartTraveller about a transport strike in Tamil Nadu, and they had considerately advised me to stay away from any protests as they can turn ugly quickly. We discuss the troubles with Rajesh as we set off from Banyan Tree, and before we know it the discussion has become more of a reality as our car is stopped by a lad on a motorbike. He has an intense conversation with Raj; much hand waving on both sides. Motorbike boy takes off, Raj stays put. He tells us that the man was saying we should not go any further as there are gangs along the road throwing stones at any vehicle without Tamil Nadu plates. Our car is from Kerala. Raj ponders what to do, but sees that cars are coming the other way so decides to proceed. At a nearby intersection we are flagged down by a policewoman who tells Raj to wait as soon there will be a police vehicle arriving to escort all non Tamil Nadu cars to the border. So we wait, and notice that all the shops are closed – most unusual. Eventually the police jeep arrives, with a long convoy of Keralan cars following meekly behind. We join the convoy to the border, but see no protesters at all – bit of a disappointment really now that we have the police riding shotgun! The border crossing is also something of a non event.

We are heading to Vellinezhi, a small village in Kerala known for its traditional dance and music.

We are staying at a place called Olappamanna Mana, a heritage home stay run by one of the leading families in the area. Olappamanna is their family name  (mana means house) and they are Keralan Brahmins (known as Namboothiris in Kerala). Generations have lived in the house, and the family was once immensely wealthy, but the Communist Government changed all that when they took away their land in 1970, with minimal compensation. The family has a long history and association with traditional Keralan art forms, and remain a revered and respected family in the district.

Now they take in paying guests, who stay in one of the houses on the property – simply furnished, dramatic with its black and white tiling.

The main draw card for tourists, apart from their fabulous pure vegetarian food, is to witness the Kalam Ezhithi Pattu, a performing arts ritual or blessing to the Goddess Kali that started at Olappamanna Mana centuries ago. The ritual is held in the family temple within the compound, and is performed some 125 times a year. We are not visiting on a scheduled Kalam Ezhithi Pattu day, but no problem – our travel agency has arranged it and paid in advance on our behalf, so it will be performed in our name (which means extra blessings and good luck for us).

The Kalam is a traditional picture made on the ground using naturally coloured powders. The patterns and colours are traditionally stipulated and rigorously adhered to, with the knowledge passed down to successive Kalam drawers. Our Kalam takes about an hour to draw. We visit it to check on progress after afternoon tea at the main house:

We are then instructed to take a drive in the local area before returning to shower and be ready for the drummer to summon us to the ritual at around 7.15pm. So Rajesh takes us to see another temple in the area, which I must say is rather small and insignificant, although apparently quite important. The river it sits beside is lovely though.

Much more interesting is the local tug-of-war competition that is happening behind the temple as part of the locals’ Onam celebrations. We watch for a while, while they in turn watch us. It looks like great fun. And the ladies are lining up to have a go as we leave.

We get ready for our ritual, admiring the full moon from our balcony. At 7.30 we hear the drums start beating, so hurry down to witness the ritual. The son and heir has changed into his simple temple outfit, as his little 5 year old boy, looking cute enough to eat! 

The ritual takes about 40 minutes and involves muttering and tossing of flower petals by the young priest; drumming; a bit of guitar type music; an older man wearing red & gold with bell anklets walking round the Kalam before we get a blessing mark on our forehead and rice thrown over us.  A local family has also come to see the ritual, and Rajesh our driver has also joined in, so we are a blessed group of 7, together with the son and grandson.  At the completion of the ritual the Kalam , or drawing, is scrubbed out. All that work gone. Fascinating.

Then it is up to the family home for our evening meal. The meal is again delicious ( we had already enjoyed a scrumptious lunch) and starts with a very yummy soup, served with an ingenious leaf spoon.

Although we thoroughly enjoy the meal it is not without its stress as we are eating in the Indian way with our hands, which despite numerous meals now eaten in that way I am not a fan nor am I particularly dexterous. And this is all under the watchful but kindly gaze of the entire family – rather scary patriarch, his wife, the son and his wife, the grandchild AND the ever smiling servant, all of whom stand to attention at the end of the table and smile and watch. Talk about performance anxiety. But, we manage without major incident. We all repair to the porch for pineapple pieces and polite conversation, before we deem it is acceptable to retire to our own abode. 

We are up and away fairly early the next morning as we have a long car journey ahead of us. It has been an interesting experience, and a privilege to have had a small look into the traditions and rituals that are so ingrained into local life.


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