A June Fortnight in India (Part 2): Kerala

In Part 1 of this story of my two-week trip to India last month, my wife, youngest son, and I visited my wife’s home city of Pune, celebrating her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. After a week there, we traveled south to see her parents’ home states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

After the anniversary celebrations in Pune we flew to Kochi for our week in the south of India beginning with a too-short two-night stay in the verdant hills of the state of Kerala. In learning about India, it took me a few years to grasp the reality that neighboring states in that country could have such distinct cultures, histories, languages, and personalities. But traveling to Kerala – and later Tamil Nadu – certainly helped bring that point home.

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With abundant water, warmth, and palm trees, Kerala has an unmistakable tropical feel.

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With its long coastline, Kerala is known for seafood and it was there I had this fried fish and fish curry that were part of the most delectable non-homemade meal of the trip. Superb!

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Several of my Malayali friends and family make the tastiest tea so I was not surprised when I found the slightly sweet, frothy tea in Kerala to be exquisite.

The primary language of Kerala is Malayalam and a person who speaks it is a Malayali. I’ve often heard other Indians poke fun of Malayalis – and Malayalis make fun of themselves, for that matter – for certain stereotypical qualities that may include (or so I’ve gathered) a kind of exaggerated self-awareness and a strong pride in their history, religion, homes, appearance, etc. I’m not sure if this is mockery or envy. To be honest, they are not the worst qualities in the world and they actually describe almost anyone, anywhere who takes pride in themselves and their people. Kerala did strike me as a very clean place and the people there definitely were proud enough of appearances to keep lovely homes, churches, villages, and cities – a wonderful place for tourists to visit.

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My second morning in Kerala, I took this photo from a high bridge outside Punalur, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, and I could simultaneously hear singing from prayer at a Hindu temple in one direction and chanting from a Muslim mosque in another.

In the west we hear much about religious conflict in India and, tragically, it is a part of their history. But on the ground, in daily life, Indians tend to live with a great tolerance of religious differences and historically have mixed and combined practices across traditions. In Kerala, where they trace their Christian roots back to the first century and the missionary visit of Thomas the Apostle, the Christian presence is very proudly visible, more so than elsewhere in the country. After landing in Kochi and driving north it seemed every kilometer or so that we spotted a large, spectacular, white church on a hill or among the trees. Small shrines to Mary or to other saints are positioned at busy intersections, often right next to a Hindu shrine or down the street from a mosque.

On that first day in Kerala we visited our friend, Fr. Matthew, who directs a remarkable Catholic retreat center in Muringoor, a half-hour north of Kochi. This center is massive, like a city itself, hosting weekly retreats in seven different languages, providing jobs and housing for low-income people, and caring for older adults, AIDS patients, persons with mental disabilities, and much more. They have hundreds of acres of land to support this undertaking, including a farm with 200 head of dairy cows! (As a Wisconsinite, a native of America’s Dairyland, I naturally insisted on a complete tour of the facilities.)

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In the Malayalam section of the center, there’s no question that Christ is at the heart of all that is done here.

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The grounds of the retreat center are so extensive they are divided into language groups for the participants and staff.

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I asked a shirtless gentleman who was splitting coconuts if I could take his picture. He was so pleased he put on his shirt and proudly posed with me next to the metal wedge that he uses to split 1,000 coconuts a day!

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The supervisor of the farm was very proud to show us around his operation that includes 200 dairy cows.

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An outdoor Way of the Cross is a small part of the massive retreat center at Muringoor.

On day two we headed for my mother-in-law’s ancestral town, Koothrappally. This is a picturesque village presided over by a lovely white church – St. Mary’s – on a hill at one end and the family’s historic home at the other. Everyone in this town seemed to be related to my wife’s mom. We visited relatives currently living in the family’s house, walked down “Main Street,” and stopped by St. Mary’s where my mother-in-law worshiped and went to school as a child. We even visited the church cemetery where almost every name brought back memories and strong family connections.

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We climbed the front stairs at St. Mary’s church in Koothrapally, Kerala.

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This is a newer house, but my wife’s grandmother’s home occupied this location for decades in their ancestral town of Koothrapally.

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My mother-in-law caught up on family news in the home that stands on the site of her grandmother’s former home.

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We walked down Koothrapally’s main street and, as was the case everywhere in India, the locals unabashedly stared at the foreigner from America.

Later that day we drove farther south in Kerala to Punalur, the small city that my wife’s grandmother moved to when she got married. Here we stayed with an aunt and uncle whom I already knew (their daughter – my wife’s cousin – lives in Chicago) and spent time with many other aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends. Punalur is where my wife spent school holidays as a child. Though she is very young(!), my wife recalls a much more rustic experience at her grandmother’s house back in the day. She has warm memories of living without running water or electricity and spending long full days and evenings with her mom’s eleven siblings, their spouses and children, and many other relatives. The time was spent exploring outdoors, cooking over a wood fire, eating, praying, reading, and everyone entertaining themselves and one another with stories and songs.

My mother-in-law was born the eldest of twelve children and she and her siblings remain very close to this day. Somehow they all seem to have the same loving, affectionate, positive personalities that my mother-in-law is blessed with. Seeing almost all of them together and experiencing this all at one time made for an amazing and memorable 24 hours in Punalur! Some family members drove for hours to see us. Some didn’t arrive until 10:00 at night. No one cared, of course, as the entire focus was on seeing loved ones and catching up on one anothers’ lives.

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The morning sun on the home of my wife’s aunt and uncle – with a rubber tree plantation on three sides and a tapioca field on the other.

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Close up of a rubber tree with the receptacle that collects the latex used to make rubber.

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A canal outside of Punalur, Kerala.

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As a child my wife visited her grandmother’s place every school holiday and was the apple of her aunts’ eyes. They still dote on her with gifts of plantains and homemade jewelry.

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One of the highlights of Kerala was my wife’s cousin’s young son who had energy to burn and personality to match – even at the crack of dawn!

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This elegant railroad bridge over the Kallada River in Punalur holds a sad but special place in the memory of my mother-in-law’s family. Her youngest brother died here at the age of 16, attempting to save the life of another person drowning in the flooded river.

Most people who visit Kerala go to the famous backwaters and the houseboats and other tourist destinations – things we will have to save for next time. We used this trip to visit family and see the places that are so special to my wife and her mom. We did get a taste of the beauty of this state though with its endless green hills and breathtaking vistas. I look forward to going back some day as more of a tourist.

In Part 3 we travel to Tamil Nadu, my father-in-law’s home state.


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