Southern India: A Land of Color, Contrast, and Compassion
Creat
ors Syndicate

It was like being in a dream state, part floating through space with images, figures, and bold colors magically appearing and then fading in the distance. As our small wooden boat weaved through the narrow latticework of canals in the backwaters of Kerala, I imagined that I had traveled back thousands of years.

Our boat inched timelessly along, pushed by a long pole, through waters reflecting the golden colors of leaves shading us from the hot sun. Bare-chested men carried stacks of grain on their heads past thatched-roof huts. Women in bright orange and yellow saris and sarongs, with hair bound in a colorful scarves, washed clothes on large square rocks. Young children cajoled along the marshy banks fringed with foliage, jackfruits, wildflowers and banana trees.


backwater journey boat in distance in Kerala
by Beverly Mann
 

We skirted lotus leaves, as we ducked under low tree trunks used bridging the canals, occasionally glimpsing an ancient barge once used to carry rare spices and rice some 500 years ago. My senses ran amok as I inhaled sweet scents of hibiscus and was serenaded by exotic fowl, kingfishers, and high-pitched cries of goats.

My backwater journey first began on a houseboat, Kettuvallam, a boat with a thatched roof woven with only knots and a wooden hull with no nails or screws. Here, I experienced a typical fisherman's lunch — daily staples of fish, curry, and rice. While I stretched out on padded seats and tufted decorative pillows like Cleopatra, I observed the scenic rivers and tent-like fishnets combing the waterway, part of a network of lagoons, lakes, and 44 navigable rivers.

This was just a taste of the raw, natural India on my two-week sojourn in the south and southwest journeying through Mumbai, Goa, and Bangalore, where I experienced the coexistence of different lives — from simplicity and abject poverty to palatial resorts.

A nation of "namaste," the traditional Indian respectful greeting, warmth, and compassion, India opened my heart as well as all of my six senses.

I entered a cultural transformation from the backwaters to the luxurious surroundings of the posh Leela Hotel in the village of Kovallam, one of the largest resorts in Kerala, for several days of healing, relaxation, and seamless service. This is a popular stay for many American business and leisure travelers

My Ayurvedic spa treatment at the hotel's Divya Ayurveda Wellness Centre was based on 5,000 years of herbal remedies. It began with oil dripping on my forehead and a scalp massage, an herbal scrub, and long sweeping motions with herbal oil spread over my body to help with circulation and detoxification. Afterward, I had a session with Dr. Sooraj, who analyzed my system and recommended holistic treatment.

The following morning, I arose to yoga class outdoors facing the Arabian Sea, soothed by the sounds of waves crashing against the nearby rocks, chirping birds, and jasmine-scented sea breezes.

 

After two days of bliss, I headed on a flight to Goa, considered, God's waiting room. As my plane landed, I eyed endless stretches of palm trees covering the earth's surface and realized that I was entering paradise.

Steeped in some 500 years of Portuguese and 90 years of British history, Goa comprises miles of mangroves lining quaint villages off dirt roads. My guide said it takes only 122 rupees, about $2.40, to live here per day.

We passed several of markets bursting with crayon colors amid baskets of flowers and stunningly dressed, doe-eyed women in patterned saris. I saw the oldest Asian medical college, built in 1565, and stopped at the Basilica of Bom Jesus, where the remains of St. Francis Xavier, who died in 1552, are on display. Locals believe that good fortune in gorgeous Goa lies with the existence of this saint.

Colors of market in Bangalore by Beverly Mann

 

That evening at the hotel, I had my hand painted with henna, a traditional art form done by women, especially before the marriage ceremony.

The initials of the groom are hidden in the pattern, and on the wedding night, the groom slowly and sensuously explores her body to find his name.

Two days later, I flew off on a short flight again to my final destination, the fast-growing garden city of Bangalore, India's Silicon Valley, which is frequented by many American businessmen.

IBM, Cisco, Yahoo!, and Microsoft, to name a few, have huge concrete buildings sprouting from streets lined with eucalyptus, African tulip palms, and mayflower.

Truly a city of vast contrasts: from opulent high-rises and swank hotels to a lineup of auto rickshaws, called cockroaches, amid heavy traffic of modern autos, to the local shopping arena of Commercial Street, where vendors are hanging their traditional wares. My friend and I bought some bangles and jeweled bindis, worn in center of the forehead. We were warned to watch our valuables.

My stay at the luxurious Leela Palace was most memorable. Designed after Mysore Palace, the rooms are fit for royalty. The signature restaurant, Jamavar, reflected the finest tastes of India. The hotel was surprisingly affordable for the value for two people. There are special packages for $300 per night.

I most enjoyed the exotic breakfast buffets where I experienced my first dosa, a lentil and rice crepe adorned with three different curries made from coconut, cardamom, and cumin.

 

It was in Bangalore that I experienced my first Hindu ceremony, a ritual that has remained unchanged for 2,000 years. Men and women were on opposite lines, as the priest carried flower petals, a lit candle, and some offerings.

The diversity of religions was quite apparent: Sikh, Hindu, and Muslin temples all stood within eyeshot.

My driver took me through the kinetic downtown past the 300-acre Cubbon Park and massive colonial buildings of British rule. On the way, we stopped to see the Natya Stem Dance Kampri, a contemporary dance company blending Indian martial arts, yoga, along with the traditional mudras, or hand positions.


Indian vendor in Mumbai by Beverly Mann
 

The final day before flying back to Mumbai, formerly Bombay, I toured the remote native village run by Sri Aurobino and his wife, who both escaped the stress of the corporate world to start a retreat on this tranquil farm.

"Here we massage the soul as well as the body," said Aurobino. "We even have a stargazing seat to look up at the universe at night."

Guests can receive past-life regression therapy here. Aurobino was highly influenced by American psychiatrist Brian Weiss and personally relived a miracle of another life that motivated him to start this farm.

On my long, but comfortable flight home, I looked down at my hand only to see my henna design fading. Still, I couldn't help but feel the presence of India now more than ever entrenched in my being. Was this journey reality, or was it really a dream? Or was I actually once here before in a former life?

 

IF YOU GO

How to Get There: Serving India for 40 years, Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com) has 55 flights to India, with a new first-class lounge at Frankfurt (Germany) Airport.

Hotels: Leela Hotels (www.theleela.com), a haven for the senses, exotic, with each site having its own personality, sterling service, and traditional Indian welcoming. Limo service picks you up from airport and there is pre-checking on return flights.

Tours: Bangalore: www.bangalorewalks.com. Kerala: The Government Tourism is outside the premises of Leela Hotel in Kovalam for houseboat and backwater tours and maps. It's $60 for a two-hour taxi ride to backwaters and $80 for houseboat tour and lunch. The wooden boat ride is $10 for up to four hours.

Beverly Mann is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

  ^top of page 
Website design by
Freeman-Designs

Copyrighted 2008 - All Rights Reserved by Beverly Mann