Kerala and Tamil Nadu
A couple of weeks ago I took a vacation to south India before the summer heat arrived. Talk of verdant tea plantations and winding blue river mazes demanded that I take a trip to Kerala and Tamil Nadu, India’s two southernmost states. From the first to last day of my trip I can say that while many of the photographs in guide books here edit pictures to embellish their beauty, the natural beauty I awoke to every day in the south was far more gorgeous than any picture.
From the second I walked out onto the plane’s step ladder, the shirtless, lungi- wearing men reminded me of how geography informs human life and culture. Later, as I floated on a canoe through Alleppey’s backwaters watching children brushing their teeth by the water’s edge and taking boats to school, I recalled walking through the desert in Rajasthan, watching women clean their bowls with sand. For every restaurant (or hotel, as they’re called here) that served fish I remembered the dry beans I ate each day on my earlier camel safari in the desert. Yet, while there are many diversities among India’s states, there remain comforting, uniting similarities.
Although it took me about an entire day of travelling to reach, my stop at Kanyakumari was well worth it. Not only is Kanyakumari the southernmost point of India, it is also the breathtaking meeting point of three bodies of water- the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean.
|These hilarious kids attached themselves to me for the ferry trip to the nearby islands and we had so much fun!|
Later in the day I visited surrounding temples, nature sites and spent a large portion of the day at the Vivekananda ashram. An exhibit there highlighted the transformation of Indian spirituality and helped organize my developing thoughts on the different universal, theological and philosophical concepts that characterize this country.
This major port center along the Arabian Sea felt the presence of Arabs, Italians, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British. I spent the weekend touring the city and seeing the influences of these empires blend with the Indian way of life. I watched fisherman make their living manually pulling the boulders of the Chinese fishing nets and walked through the church in which Vasco da Gama’s body was originally buried. While the history made it an interesting learning experience, I also enjoyed meandering through colorful shops and quaint restaurants and watching some unique Keralan art, such as a Kathakali classical dance.
|Chinese fishing nets: the only ones seen outside of China|
|Kathakali Dance. "Katha" = story and "Kali" = play. Dancers study for 8-10 years, mastering the rapid eye movements, and different meanings behind every motion of the face, hands and legs. Kathakali originated in Kerala in the early 17th century and was conducted in royal palaces for entire nights. Sadly, once royal society declined, so did this art form. However, it is being kept alive through tourism and a desire to uphold south Indian tradition. I watched a performance which acted out a bloody story of good and evil and though it gave me a huge headache, I was really amazed.|
When I was first researching Indian Jews back in the summer I came across the town of Cochin in every piece of reading. Cochini Jews are the oldest group of Jews in India, of which there are 7 or 8 remaining. One of the most commonly accepted narratives is that Israelite traders had worked at the port city during King Solomon’s rule and after the destruction of the Second Temple many more Jews arrived in Cranganore (near Cochin). They got along well with the Hindu rulers and were granted special privileges and allowed to build synagogues, own property and live freely as Jews.
After a flood in the 1300s the Jews shifted from Cranganore to Cochin, where the Portuguese soon arrived and persecuted them. When Spanish Jews arrived after the Inquisition there was segregation and animosity between the “White” and “Black” Jews. While the discrimination continued, there were some successful efforts within the community to overcome it.
Once the Protestant Dutch rulers took over in the late 1600s they treated the Jews with respect and tolerance.
Centuries passed and with the establishment of Israel in 1948 most of the Cochini Jews shifted to the new Jewish state.
Walking through Jew Town, as it is formally called and written on maps and street signs, I could see clear remnants of a large, vibrant Jewish life. As I saw the Hebrew written on Jewish tombstones in the cemetery and the colorful and exotic interior of the main synagogue I knew there had to be more. If there had been tens of thousands of Jews there must be more synagogues in the area. After asking the one Indian Jew (now Canadian, but visiting his elderly parents in Cochin) at synagogue on Friday night if there were more sites in the area he told me yes and that I would find the only other synagogue open to visitors in Chennamangalam on Vypeen Island.
The next morning I took a boat to the island and walked around looking for the synagogue. A woman asked me what I was looking for because tourists never walk where I was. When I told her I was looking for a Jewish synagogue- NOT a church she gasped and said it was about an hour rickshaw ride away. A driver told me it would cost 800 ruppees ($16) and when I got it down to 400 I forced myself to not think in ruppees and realize how cheap it actually was and how badly I wanted to see the synagogue.
After getting through the busy part of the island we drove through narrow paths lined by palm-tree forests for over an hour, asking people every 5 minutes how to get to the synagogue (as it turned out, the driver had no idea where it was). Some people knew what we were talking about and others had no clue.
Eventually we reached it and the driver and I both got out to knock on the door. After a minute or two someone greeted us and welcomed us into this hidden Jewish relic in the tropical maze of Kerala. Colorful lamps hung from the ceiling, 5 empty Torah cases stood open in the ark, a classroom sat empty upstairs next to the women’s section and palm trees brushed against the outside of the building. Now a heritage site, the synagogue acts as a museum. Outside the synagogue was the oldest gravestone of a Cochini Jew from 1269 CE. Seeing this Hebrew writing and imagining the synagogue and classroom full for praying and learning was amazing.
When I was in Poland a couple of years ago I remember standing in empty synagogues- empty because of anti-Semitism and persecution. As I stood in the Chennamangalam synagogue it was a completely different layer of the Jewish story- this synagogue is empty not because Jews were forced out but because they were free and wanted to realize their Zionist dream.
|Gate to the Jewish cemetery|
|Pardesi Synagogue, Jew Town- Cochin|
After the humidity of Cochin, I took a 5 hour ride on a local bus to the crisp air and mountains of Munnar. I spent some time walking around the town and mingling with other travels but spent the majority of my stay doing what I came to do- hike. At 5:30 I woke to meet the group and our guide. We spent the first half of the day hiking through tea plantations. Prior to this visit I had little knowledge of tea and enjoyed learning as I basked in the greenery around me. In the latter half of the day we continued through spice plantations and identified plants of so many items I eat or see on a regular basis: cardamom, betel nut, nutmeg, lemongrass, papaya, jack fruit, cocoa, coffee, cashews, mangoes, bananas, oranges, pineapples, vanilla, coconut, chilies, tapioca, pepper, gooseberry, cloves, pomellos, rubber and more! Though it wasn’t harvesting season and many of the fruits were yet to be seen it was exciting to see plants and have our guide surprise us with their identities.
It was a challenging hike and my back and legs were sore for the following two days which was okay because I spent most of the 48 hours relaxing in a canoe and lying under palm trees!
|Some members of our group were so excited by the snakes we saw- snakes which our guide hadn't seen before. So...I walked away.|
I took a six hour canoe ride with a guide through the backwaters, lying under canopies of palm leaves, eating from banana leaves and getting glimpses of the alternating challenges and relative ease of river village life.