Trivandrum, Kerala’s state capital along India’s southern Malabar coast, holds its own as an enclave for the modern mystic.
Travelers to India know well her charms. A world all her own, ‘Mother India’ carries with her a mystical pull – a land with as many local dialects as there are deities, where great religions meet and mesh across a subcontinent whose population is as prolific as it is profound. A country whose cultural and culinary repertoire have made it one of gastronomy’s most distinctive and, from the Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling, to the very tip of the subcontinent where three great waters meet along the coast of Tamil Nadu, India is nothing short of singular – a ‘floating world’ – with a multitude of experiences that engulf.
My first encounter with India was on a trip to Kerala with my sister and her fiancé-little knowing that I would soon, through the whims of serendipity, meet my own husband in this vibrant green land. Lush, tropical, and awash in colours – from the vibrancy of its foliage and towering coconut trees (‘Kerala’ means ‘Land of Coconut Trees’ ’in the local Malayalam dialect), to its rainbow-hued temples, and the attire of the locals – richly-hued sarees and shimmery bangles for the ladies and lungis for the gents.
Travel anywhere in India and what strikes you first is the heat, haze, and horns. And Kerala is no exception – at least minus the haze. Stepping out of the airport in Trivandrum (or Thiruvananthapuram) the humidity envelops you in a warm hug and, like so much of India, you just have to embrace what comes. If you’re staying in the beachside resort area of Kovalam like we were – about a 30-minute drive from the city, it’s best to arrange to have the hotel transportation pick you up.
For visitors, Trivandrum’s public transport system doesn’t have a metro like its sister city of Kochi and, instead, consists mostly of buses. And with timetables and signage mainly in Malayalam, knowing the local language to get around is essential. Kerala is the most educated state in India, with literacy at over 93 per cent, navigating the city centre on foot, or via auto-rickshaw (of which driver day-rentals are easily and cheaply negotiated), is relatively easy as English is widely spoken.
Drive through downtown Trivandrum and you’ll see temples, mosques, and churches all in close proximity. Colonial architecture abounds throughout the diplomatic area’s gabled government buildings and colleges with their lengthy columns and wide verandas.
But it’s the golden glow of the Sree Padmanabhaswamy – the ‘Golden Temple’ that draws visitors to its ancient halls. Standing sentinel in the heart of the city like a gilded beacon this 16th-century Hindu structure is a fusion of Chera- and Dravidian-style architecture, built by the kings of ancient Travancore in tribute to the ancient Hindu deity Ananta. There is a small fee of a few rupees to enter, and visitors to the temple are required to undergo ablutions and drape themselves in a saree or long lungi before entering as a sign of respect.
Before heading out of the city to the yogic retreats and idyllic backwaters within day-tripping distance of the capital, no visit to Trivandrum is complete without spending an afternoon at the Trivandrum Zoological Park and Botanical Garden and its adjacent Napier Museum and Natural History Museum.
One of the oldest zoos in the country, established in 1859, the Trivandrum Zoo boasts more than 100 species of animals and over 100 different species of exotic and indigenous flora. It’s here where you can get up close with the one-horned great Indian rhino. Royal Bengal tigers, lion-tailed macaques, and even a green anaconda.
While the Napier Museum, with its strikingly unique 135-year-old architecture is one of Kerala’s most comprehensive cultural museums, with ornaments and artifacts dating back as far as the 8th-century BCE in its 550-piece collection.
My favourite place- Just an hour’s drive outside the city, nature in all her majesty awaits along the cliffside retreats of Varkala. With some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the state’s Trivandrum district – being the only place in Kerala where cliffs abut the Arabian Sea – Varkala is also one of its most holy locales. Legend has it that the Hindu deity Lord Brahma instructed the Pandyan king to construct a temple here in his name which would redeem him of his sins. Today, it’s still believed that if a penitant wades into the crashing waters at Varkala Beach his or her sins will be absolved. With its local Hindu shrines and temples drawing tourists, today the cliffside at Varkala Beach has become a haven for bohemian wanderers seeking ayurvedic succor and yogic retreats, with 30 different resorts and hostels catering to every budget and boasting incredible views, and a plethora of cliff-front shops, restaurants, and lounges. It’s here you’ll find solace in nature amid a bohemian rhapsody.
Highlights- There’s so much beauty to be explored in Kerala – much of it within day-tripping distance from the capital of Trivandrum. Embark on a day out at Poovar Island where the river meets the sea and book a backwater boat tour of its many estuaries and canals. Keep your eye out and see if you can spot the vibrantly-hued kingfisher – Kerala’s feathered icon. of Or, pack up your jumpers and book a driver with a 4×4 who can take you to the mountainous hill-station of Ponmudi 945-metres above sea level. Follow its hairpin turns (keep your eyes out for monkeys in the trees above!) and brace yourselves for breathtaking views out over the rolling ranges of the Western Ghats.
Lowlights- Travel during June and October at your own risk as this is the monsoon season in Kerala and heavy rains and severe flooding can and does happen. Also, it’s best to wear long-sleeved clothing if possible and come packing your Odomos cream as mosquitoes can be rampant – especially in rural areas. And while malaria has mostly been eradicated in Kerala, dengue fever is still rampant.
Souvenirs- Coconut-shell handicrafts, kasavu saree fabrics, elephant figurines, fresh banana chips, dried cardamom spice, kathakali masks, and aranmula kannadi – traditional carved alloy mirrors.
Getting there- Oman Air offers direct service from Muscat to Trivandrum on a weekly basis.
Where to stay- If beachfront luxury is what you’re after then you can’t go wrong with the five-star Leela Kovalam Beach. Or if you’re heading up to Varkala find boutique accommodation at budget prices at the cliffside Thanal Guest House, or if you’re seeking a weekend escape on the backwaters then the ayurvedic ambiance of the Poovar Island Resort is where you should be booking in.
1. Observe mugger crocodiles and the elusive sloth bear in their natural habitats at the Neyyar Wildlife Sanctuary.
2. Climb the winding steps for a bird’s-eye view at Vizhinjam Lighthouse at Kovalam Beach.
3. View the 122 wooden horses at Kuthiramalika Palace – also known as the ‘Palace of Horses’.
4. Unwind with a restorative local ayurvedic massage.
5. Tempt your tastebuds with some spice with a classic Kerala fish molee.