The southernmost Indian state aptly described as one among the 50 “must-see destinations” of a lifetime by National Geographic Traveller, has emerged as India's hottest tourist destination. “Malabar” as the maritime land was known since two millennia ago to traders and travellers from as distant as Rome, China and Arabia as the exotic spice country has always conjured up tales and memories mixed with mystery, magic and affection.
The most fascinating and unique attraction about Kerala is that it has everything a traveller looks for and much more to discover. Serene beaches, misty hills, sprawling backwaters, dense jungles, spice plantation, historic monuments, cultural institutions, architecturally marvellous temples, churches, mosques, colourful festivals, spectacular classical and folk arts, energy-rejuvenating spas and exotic culinary delights. Kerala has them all. And all within a few hours drive from each other. Nature hasn't blessed too many spots like it did Kerala with temperate climate throughout the year to make it the destination “where the season never ends”.
However what Kerala has caught the world's attention for is not just its stunning natural beauty. It is also for the magnificent progress it has made in profoundly improving its people's quality of life. For the model state is India's best in human development indices like public literacy, health, life expectancy, population control etc. and compares well in these even with the richest countries. A state which has succeeded in nearly eradicating absolute poverty, it has also the best record in bridging the gulf between genders or the urban and the rural divide in social and economic advancement. Paradoxically, Kerala has achieved all this even while keeping low levels of industrial development or economic growth. Hence the extraordinary experience has been referred in academia as the unique “Kerala Development Model”. No wonder Kerala is often dubbed a country within a country.
Water is Kerala's mascot. Washed by the Arabian Sea in the east. Its 650 km-long coasts boasts of a multitude of pristine beaches. Blesses by 44 rivers the state's predominant Arabian culture blossomed on their banks. Large inland lakes and languorous backwaters consisting of a network of canals, lagoons and estuaries, have endowed Kerala a unique place in the hearts of the global traveller. And the greatest boon to the land from the lord of waters; the life-springing monsoon which fills its water bodies and drenches its land to sustain its lush greenery round the year. Travellers from far and wide converge in Kerala by June exclusively to “chase the monsoons”. Kovalam, the internationally known beach near Thiruvananthapuram has drawn sea-surfers from all over the world for years. The serene and quieter Varkala has emerged as another favourite beach destination. A spew of newer and virgin beaches too have caught the discriminating tourist's attention in recent years which includes Muzhuppilangad in Kannur, the country's longest drive-in beach.
Yet Kerala's biggest USP is its exclusive backwaters. A cruise through the sprawling backwaters in a dawdling houseboat is an unforgettable experience. Throbbing life in the banks of backwaters where villagers are busy involved in farming, fishing, coir making or toddy(the country liquor made from coconut flowers) tapping provides a glimpse into how rural Kerala lives. No wonder backwaters-rich zones like Alappuzha or Kumarakom have emerged as the most sought after destinations patronized by the likes of former Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee or Paul McCartney, the celebrity crooner.
A few hours drive is all that a traveller needs from Kerala's tropical beaches in the western coast to reach the cool high ranges in the east. The state guarded in the east by the imposing Western Ghats, is one of the world's top biodiversity hot spots. The Ghats bear in its bosom a spew of misty hill stations, trekking trails, spectacular waterfalls and a clutch of wildlife sanctuaries in the midst of evergreen rain forests rich in elephants, tigers and rare species like the Nilgiri Tahr, Malabar Hornbills etc. Hill districts like Wayanad and Idukki are the adventure tourist's delights.
Kerala's traditional fame has since time immemorial come from its exotic spices like pepper -the black gold- cardamom, vanilla or tea, coffee etc. Today the spice plantations which retain memories of an exotic past are favoured haunts for the intelligent traveller. Locales like Munnar, Nelliampathy, Vythiri etc. nestling in the high ranges are known for its sprawling plantations of cardamom,tea and coffee which were set up by the colonial British companies. Spice tours through these plantations recreate the hoary past of two millennia ago when intrepid traders and travellers from distant shores came visiting the land.
For the culturally-inclined, Kerala is a spectular kaleidoscope. Classical and folk arts dating to an ancient past still survive in its multi-hued manifestation. The 2000 year-old Kutiyattam, the oldest surviving Sanskrit thatre chosen by the Unesco recently as one of the greatest heritages of humanity, Kathakali the state's celebrated dance drama, Theyyam, the dazzling folk ritual dance of the gods, Mohiniyattom, the sensual and lyrical temple dance and a host of other arts form the state's cultural mosaic. Even Kalaripayatt, Kerala's traditional and ancient marital arts which is the precursor to the famed Karate and Judo has its roots in its cultural and artistic soil.
Yet another uniqueness of Kerala is its pluralist ethos and secular tradition. All religions and even the irreligious Communism co-habitat here with their myriad customs and traditions. Architecturally marvellous temples, churches and mosques built many centuries ago stand shoulder to shoulder everywhere. Colourful festivals and elaborate rituals attached to these places of worship richly animate life in Kerala.
Last but not the least is Kerala's globally-respected ancient system of alternative medicine, the Ayurveda. A major factor which has contributed to the state's robust public health system, it now helps Kerala draw many from all over the world seeking holistic healing traditions including its magical age-arresting and rejuvenating wellness formulations laid down in ancient scriptures. Does still doubt. Kerala is not God's Own Country?