Facial Contortionists

Trip Start Aug 22, 2005
Trip End Feb 06, 2006

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Flag of India  ,
Tuesday, September 20, 2005

We noticed a marked difference entering Kerala. Everybody was so friendly and helpful. Even the rickshaw drivers didn't have the annoying habit of talking through my 'no thank yous' with the thousand and one places they could possibly take me. They just said 'ok, maybe tomorrow!'. The architecture of our old Dutch guesthouse at the first stop in Cochin just made our day after 15 hours on a train!

Kerala's geography is unique, having a network of man made and natural canals laced with lagoons to irrigate fields and transport the harvests. The backwaters are perfect for cruising on the distinctive long fishing boats. It's dubbed 'the Venice of India'! We were saving the cruise for later in Kerala though, where the waters are a little quieter, Cochin has an industrial dock just upstream...

The state of Kerala has a literacy rate of 90% so school is very important and the school days are longer (school in Jaipur ran from 8-1 and in Kerala it's 8-4.30). Kerala is also a real melting pot, over 20% of the population is Christian and churches are prominent all over the state. The Portuguese were the first colonial influence here in the 15th century and they built about 20 Catholic churches. The Dutch then followed 200years later and fought for power, mainly because Kerala is dubbed the 'spice coast' of India and famous for it's black pepper, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, as well as rice, rubber, coconut, coffee and tea (The Portuguese actually introduced the chilli pepper, cashew nuts, pineapples and papayas to India from the New World). When the Dutch conquered they converted all the churches to the Protestant faith and also used them as armouries, which led to their demolition by the British who came in the 18th century to control the coast. There are only a few churches remaining. These actions were actually very unusual for the British; academics are quite adamant that the British had a culture of historical preservation rather than destruction.

There wasn't a lot to do but just relax and stroll around the town visiting the Indo-Portuguese museum, the Dutch Cemetery, the Jain Temple and the Jewish Synagogue. There are around 60 Jews in Fort Cochin, their ancestors dating back to the 16th century. We also went to see the enormous Chinese cantilevered fishing nets on the sea front.

In the evening we walked past the fishermen who had pulled their catch into shore and had everything imaginable for sale - baby sharks, langoustines, red snapper, tiger prawns. You buy the fish then take it to one of the bayside restaurants to cook.

We went on to see something very special. Kerala is famous for Kathakali, an ancient art form which involves telling stories from the Ramayana by dance and music. We were able to watch the artists preparing their make-up, which is as important as the story itself. I've actually written more about the special make-up under the Aranmula entry to follow, as I had a day's worth of instruction at a cultural centre. The show started with a demonstration of what makes Kathakali extraordinary. They have thousands of particular hand movement and facial expressions to explain Hindu mythology, and the artist seemed to have absolute control of every muscle in his face and arms. The traditional performance last 8 hours, but are reduced to 3 for tourists. It was long enough to be honest. We didn't know any of the hand movements and so found it hard to know what was going on... The costumes and make-up were impressive but I'm glad I communicate in words. It takes a long time to say anything in Kathakali!!
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