KERALA

Even before your airplane hits the tarmac, the feeling of being in an exotic place is upon you. You see countless serpentine waterways meld into the generous swathes of green below-the signature landscape of Kerala. A silver of land lying between the Arabian Sea and the Western Ghat mountains along India's southwest coast, Kerala is 550km long and a mere 120km wild at its broadest. Beaches hills, the unique backwater, wildlife spice plantations, Ayurveda and a culture that has evolved for thousands of years-Kerala has it all. It is also the gateway to the enchanting Lakshadweep islands.




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Set on seven low hills, coastal Thirruvananthapuram (earlier Trivendrum) is the capital, named as the abode of the serpent Ananta upon whose coils Lord Vishnu reclines in the Sri Padmanabhaswami Temple here. The biggest attraction here is Kovalam, one of India's most popular beach stretches.

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The mesmerizing backwater, or lagoons, ok Kerala are a labyrinth of waterways. Set in the Kuttanad region, an area stretching from Kollam (formerly Quilon) in the south to Kochi in the north, these are Kerala's traditional roadways. At the heart of the backwater is the massive, serpentine Vembanad, India's largest lake. What better way to experience the backwater than to take off on a Kettuvallam-an exquisitely handcrafted rice boat, traditionally used to ferry the harvest, now fashioned into houseboats.

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Not to be missed is the pageant of snake boat race on the backwaters. Associated with Onam, the annual harvest festival, they also happen to be the largest team spot in the world. The racing season is typically from July to September. The tradition kicked off about 500 year ago with the Champakulam Moolam boat race. The race is still going strong, as is the equally prestigious Nehru Trophy Boat Race.

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Spread out over a series of peninsulas and island, Kochi (also called Cochin) is one of Kerala's most vibrant Cities. A trading port of antiquity (since Roman times, no less), it used to be on the main China-Europe trade route. The narrow streets of the Fort Cochin area are steeped in history. Jew town is a must visit for antiquity and spices.

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Kerala's native architecture is striking, in sharp contrast to the anonymous concrete structure one encounter in India metros. Kerala's traditional houses-called tharavads-are designed keeping tropical conditions in mind. They can be identified by their signature red-tiled roofs and extensive use to timber. You can stay in many of these traditional homes now.

Kerala has some lovely hill tracts. Munnar is a charming hill-station surrounded by tes garden and was set up by the British who were eager to escape the sultry weather of the tropics. The hills of Wayanad boast a number of luxury resorts, including one where accommodation is in cabins in the high canopies of trees!

The first to receive the monsoon rains-and generous quantities of it -which are captured by the Western Ghats, Kerala is a biodiversity hotspot. Nature lovers inevitably head for the wildlife sanctuary set around Periyar Lake in Thekkady, teeming with elephant. Bird lovers can try their luck at the Kumarakom Bird sanctuary.

Ayurveda is the traditional Indian system of healing and rejuvenation, and entails a regime of massages (with special oils) and oral medications and diet. Rejuvenation programmes typically run for several weeks. Ayurveda treatments are available in most resort in Kerala.

Kerala is a land of great cultural highlights, and its sophisticated masked dance and martial arts have evolved over centuries. Elephant pageants, Kathakali (the famed masked dance) and Mohiniattam performance are not to be missed, as also a demonstration of Kalari Payattu, an indigenous martial art.

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