Fishing boats glide silently over the velvety dark water as wiry men push their oars or draw in nets. Little canoes, called kettuvellums, carry women home after a day of selling flowers at the market. Long houseboats resembling floating bamboo huts that used to transport rice but now ferry tourists also pass by. Along the riverbanks, village life is in full swing as women wash clothes or pump water near their neat brick houses, children climb trees, and young men play volleyball.
These are the famous "backwaters" of Kerala. This network of waterways branches out from Vembanad Lake near the sleepy town of Alleppey, an hour south of Cochin, the commercial hub of the Indian state of Kerala. A lush strip on the country's southwestern coast, Kerala, meaning "land of coconuts," has become one of India's most desired tourist destinations.
Touring in India can be trying, but Kerala is easier. Its coastal location gives it a year-round freshness that doesn't wilt under the 100F heat. Divided almost equally between Hindus, Muslims, and Christians, Kerala (population 31.8 million) is a religiously harmonious society. Thirty-five years of Communist rule between 1957 and 2001 stifled industry but also spared the region from pollution and produced a 97% literacy rate.
India's largest publishing group, Malayalam Manorama, is based in Kerala, and the state has a tradition of poets, performing artists, and writers, including Arundhati Roy, who won the Booker Prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things. The lack of industry has sent many Keralites to seek work overseas, largely in the Persian Gulf states as nurses, technicians, and manual laborers. The money they send home has given Kerala an annual per capita gross domestic product of $1,000 -- twice the Indian average -- and little poverty.
COSMOPOLITAN AIR. For the first-time visitor to India, Kerala is a natural gateway. It has a cosmopolitan air, thanks to the multitude of nationalities, including Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, and Chinese, that began passing through as early as 300 A.D. to trade for spices with the early Hindu rulers.
There's something for everyone in Kerala. (For an overview, visit the Web site of tour operator Sundale Vacations at sundale.com.) Beach bums can hit Kovalam, a former hippie hangout a five-hour drive south of Cochin that has many beachfront hotels, including a new Meridien. Trekkers can take to the Cardamom Hills in the west, which derive their name from one of the spices grown on the many plantations, fragrant also with pepper and cinnamon. Nature lovers will gladly endure the five-hour, uphill drive from Cochin to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary to see antelope, elephants, and bison that live around a 16-square-mile lake.
The best place to start is right in Cochin, a 1-hour, 45-minute flight from Bombay. Here, travelers can soak up the heterogenous culture. The best hotels are the Taj Malabar, the Brunton Boatyard, and the Malabar House, for $100 to $400 a night, but Cochin also provides easy access to the homes of old families for rates of $100 to $225 a night, including meals. And everywhere you go, you can partake of Kerala's exquisite cuisine -- known for seafood and other delicacies cooked with coconut and black pepper -- and experience its famous ayurvedic oil massages, based on the ancient Indian science of herbs and plants.
Cochin is built on a cluster of three islands, where many of the world's major religions are in evidence. Walk or drive around the island of Fort Cochin and encounter the daily activities of the many Hindu temples, the muezzin's call to prayer from the mosques, and the services at the 500-year-old Roman Catholic St. Francis Church, where Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama was first buried in 1524 before being disinterred and sent back to Portugal. A charming 16th century synagogue still serves Cochin's 20 remaining Jews, descendants of those who fled what is now Israel nearly 2,000 years ago. The museum adjacent to the home of Cochin's Catholic bishop displays the grandeur of the Christian faith, with its gold and silver chalices, processional crosses, and altar pieces.
In the evenings, visitors can take in performances of mohiniyattam, the dance for temple deities, and kathakali, the dramatic dance form that specializes in the expression of emotions from love to valor to derision. They can also go to one of the state-run schools, where local youth practice an ancient, rigorous martial art called kalaripayattu.
When you've had enough of the city, head to Alleppey. Some 250 "rice boats" -- some air-conditioned -- provide comfortable cruises and onboard meals. Prices range from $35 for a six-hour ride to $350 for two-night sojourns. The most luxurious is the Oberoi Hotels' M.V. Vrinda, a 106-foot-long catamaran, with eight elegant bedrooms. Two nights in Oberoi's Trident hotel and two aboard the M.V. Vrinda cost $1,250 for two, including meals. The best resorts on the banks of the backwaters are around the village of Kumarakom. Among them: Coconut Lagoon ($160 to $200 per night for a villa with meals), The Taj Garden Retreat, ($145 to $350), and Kumarakom Lake Resort ($175 to $500, with meals).
For those eager to experience the life of locals, book any of the dozen or so "homestays" that stretch from Cochin to Periyar to Calicut. In the luxurious Ayesha Manzil in Tellicherry, north of Cochin, with its polished high beds and brocade upholstery, the family of Faiza and C.P. Moosa serve moppilla cuisine, featuring such delicacies as patri, a flaky pastry, and coconut-based meat stews.
RUSTIC ISLAND. Mankotta Island, owned by former navy captain Jai Chacko and his wife Laila, exudes a more rustic charm. Rooms in this former granary -- set on the Pamba River that flows into Vembanad Lake -- are simple and clean. Laila Chacko, neatly dressed in the Indian tunic and pants and always with pearls around her neck, is the perfect hostess and cook. Her breakfast speciality is eggs on appams -- a local sourdough crepe. Her husband, a jazz clarinetist, likes to entertain his guests over evening cocktails.
Before leaving Kerala, don't forget to have an ayurvedic massage. Besides rejuvenation, beauty, and relaxation massages, you can indulge in therapeutic treatments for everything from simple muscle and joint pains to insomnia and arthritis. The Kerala specialty, however, is the ayurvedic kalari synchronized massage, administered by two masseurs simultaneously. The ayurvedic oils they use are pungent, but you'll emerge feeling positively rejuvenated.
By Manjeet Kripalani