Saturday, 19 December 2015

Karizmatic Kerala – Paradise Down Under - December 2015

This year seems to be most travelled – first to the Northernmost part of India, Kashmir & then the Southern tip (well, almost), Kerala. If one is the “Paradise On Earth”, then the other is no less, especially Munnar. That's why it is very rightfully referred as God's Own Country.

We had planned this trip almost a year in advance. We finalized & did our ticketing 4 months ahead. Various options were on cards – rarely known North Kerala & the South Kerala combo with Kanyakumari. We finally decided for a more common Golden Quadrilateral of Central Kerala: Cochin – Munnar – Thekkady – Kumarakom / Alleppy (Alappuzha).

We boarded our train, Pune – Ernakulam Poorna Express (11097) on the night of December 19, 2015. The train passes through the Doodhsagar Falls (in Karnataka) next morning. This is the one famous Falls which features in the movie “Chennai Express”. We selected this train for the same reason.

December 21, 2015:
On the 3rd day early morning at 3, we reached Ernakulam Junction (25 minutes before time). Ernakulam is actually part of mainland portion of the city of Cochin. Both are in a way, twin cities. We had booked a Tempo Traveler for our further tour. We started for our onward journey by 4.30 am. Munnar is about 120 kms from Cochin / Ernakulam.

The initial part of the trip travels through the main Cochin city, then the more urban area & finally entering into the twisting & turning roads within lush green hills. Enroute is a 4 layered Cheeyappara Waterfalls about 70 kms in the journey. After a tiring start to the day (uncomfortable sleep in train, waking-up early morning, not enough breakfast), this breathtaking Falls was a nice change. The waterfall is just by the road side & cannot be missed. Just a kilometer ahead is another Water Fall – Valera Falls. It is, however, on the other side of hill & has to be viewed through a distance.
Cheeyappara Waterfalls
Within a couple of hours, I woke to the view of Tea Plantations, a signature that we were finally in Munnar. One can view these Plantations till the eye reaches the horizon. After a brief photo-stop on the road, we reached our hotel at 10 am – Hotel Munnar – Terrace Greens.
Munnar is one such scenic location which has a mix of natural landscapes with man-made Tea Plantations. This combination makes up the beauty. Visiting here & looking around, there was a feeling as if the view here is no less than what I saw in Kashmir 6 months ago; except the snow was missing on mountain ranges far away.

After some rest in the afternoon, we decided go out for some adventure. Our driver suggested one such place – Kolukkumalai. It is one of the best places to visit, if in Munnar. Kulukkumalai Top is the highest point in the whole of South India. It is home to the highest tea plantations in the world; with the tea grown here possessing a special flavour and freshness because of the high altitude. It is situated on the border of Kerala & Tamil Nadu (when on top, one side is Kerala while the other is TN). It is about 40 kms from Munnar main town. The road is a completely Kuttcha & has to be accessed through the 4x4 Jeeps only. It costs about Rs. 1500 for a return journey of Jeep (carries about 8-10 adults). 

The experience & adventure is awesome. Passing through the bumpy ride watching the abundance of Munnar Magical Beauty was heavenly. Few water falls on the way were icing on the cake. As we started nearing the top, we could feel the Clouds around us. It was extremely chilly on the top. After watching a peaceful Sun-Set, we started for our return journey back to our hotel. Kolukkumalai for me was definitely a place to visit atleast once in lifetime.

If travelling through Packaged (Group) Tours, this place is missed / not covered in their itinerary. Ensure you add it up & make sure you won’t miss it.

December 22, 2015:
We started for our Munnar sight-seeing in the morning. Our first destination was Mattupetty Dam. It is located just outside the main town & has beautiful reservoir & water catchment area. The dam is built mainly for Hydroelectric power generation. By the side is a market for local goods, foods & spices. Just ahead of the dam along its reservoir is the Echo Point. It is actually a spot by the water. Boating facilities are available. The whole area is often visited by wild Elephants. Vehicular traffic is not allowed after sun-set here.
Mattupetty Dam
We did some Elephant Rides on the way. It is fun, especially for kids. We normally don’t get this experience. Apart from regular rides there are some more activities (feeding elephants with fruits, rain shower).

After having stomach full Kerala Meals at Saravana Bhavan, we went for a Kathakali & Kalaripayatu Show. Kerala, being a tourist place, there many such Cultural Centers all over. They showcase their traditional forms of art. They are surely worth a visit.

Kathakali is an Indian Classical Dance form of Kerala. Its genre is Story-Play; even the name is broken down in Sanskrit as Katha (Story) and Kala (Art). The distinctiveness of this art form is the colorful dressing, elaborate make-up & characteristic face-mask. The dance constitutes hand & facial gestures (Mudras & Navarasas). It is traditionally performed by male artists (even the female roles are performed by men). However, nowadays, women too take part in Kathakali performance. It is traditionally structured around mythological stories of Ramayana, Mahabharata & Bhagavat-purana.

The Kathakali show consists of atleast 2 artists (one doing a female role), a Sutra-dhar (or story-teller) & musicians. Many hours before actual show timings, artists are busy preparing themselves their make-up. The show starts with explanation of all Mudras & Navarasas. Then the actual story starts. In the end they offer the patrons to take a photo with the artists. The show is definitely fascinating.

Further we waited for another master piece of Kerala – Kalaripayattu. It is one of the oldest forms of Martial Art using techniques & styles from Yoga, finger movements & dance. It is fought empty handed as well as with weapons (swords, spears, knifes, etc.). The show consists of individual performances as well as one-is-to-one & multiple combats. This show was entertaining.

Our next plan was for Periyar Tiger Reserve. However, reaching here we came to know there is an Online Booking that is required. Visiting directly can be problematic if bookings get full.

December 23, 2015:
We checked-out from our Hotel and started for Thekkady. We saw couple of wild elephants grazing far away on top.

On the way breaked at Spice Garden. There are many Spice Gardens in part of India. The climate & soil being conducive to spices, locals have developed their lands into Spice Gardens to attract tourists. They conduct a guided tour where they take you around the garden; they show & explain various spice plantations & their uses. The tour ends at the Spice Shop which sells all those spices & ayurvedic medicines & oils. All this has an entry fee of about Rs. 100 per person.

I felt that these Spice Gardens are good to have a break & roam around. However, there is no need to buy spices from here; they are available in towns at much cheaper rates. Ayurvedic Medicines can be purchased as per requirement.

We reached Thekkady in the afternoon. Thekkady is an important tourist place because of its proximity to Periyar Tiger Reserve. It is also an heaven for Spices (Black Pepper, Cinnamon, Cardamom, Clove, etc.). After a brief rest we ventured out for some Spices Shopping.

December 24, 2015:
In the morning, we started for the Periyar Tiger Reserve. It is just 3 kms from Thekkady. After a check-point clearance, we entered inside. Vehicles are allowed to a point after which there is a walk of about 300-400 meters in the dense forest with tall trees.

Periyar Tiger Reserve (or National Park or Wildlife Sanctuary) surrounds the Periyar Lake, which was formed when Mullaperiyar Dam was constructed in 1895. In other Wildlife Sanctuaries, normally Safaris are conducted in vehicles (open Jeeps or mini-buses). This is unique in a way, Safaris here happen in boats. The driver & the attendant show if any of the animals are visible nearby. The area is a known Tiger Reserve & Elephant Reserve; however, you need to be really lucky to see them here. And obviously so, these are the special species & one should not expect them to be so easily visible on a pleasure trip of one hour. Many species of birds are seen. We were able to see the Sambars, Monkeys.

This one hour of boat ride was a different experience. I am not sure where else you can roam around a Wildlife Sanctuary in a boat.

From here we started for Kumarakom. On the way, we hopped in for a Tea Factory visit – Harrison Malayalam Ltd. Unfortunately, the factory had a weekly off on Wednesday. Hence the tea processing was not in progress. One of the employees accompanied us & showed us the processes through the silent machines. In the end, we had some purchase of tea at their Factory Shop.

We reached our hotel in Kumarakom late evening by 8 pm. The facility so far was the best in the journey. In the darkness of the night, we were not aware about the location; but as we came out of our rooms in the morning, we were just by the side of Vembanad Lake. The view was awe-inspiring.

December 25, 2015:
Sunrise - Vembanad Lake
Vembanad Lake is the longest lake in India (with 96.5 kms in length). It is also among one of the largest lakes in India. It is situated almost at the Sea Level, with some of its part below the MSL (Mean Sea Level). It is separated from Arabian Sea by a narrow barrier island. The lake is fed with 10 rivers and there is an intricate network of canals & lagoons. There are number of villages in & around this Wetland System. These are connected through this water network forming another Venice of East in India (another being at Srinagar).

Network of Canals & Lagoons
Unique feature of this lake is the mixture of Fresh water from rivers & Salt water from seas. Based on tidal action, the salt water mixes up increasing the salinity & water level of lake during some parts of the year. At other times, majority of it is a Fresh Water Lake. This ecosystem has facilitated breeding of some special aquatic species in the lake.

Duck Farming
There are options of a stay in House Boat. The House Boat roams around the lake, its canals & back-waters for the whole day with halt at some point in the night. We however, decided to stay in a hotel & take a small ride of couple of hours in a boat.

There is one Museum based on Fossils & Archeological Discoveries in Kumarakom. But when we visited, it was closed because of Christmas.

By afternoon, we left Kumarakom & reached Cochin (Kochi) by 3 pm. We decided to visit few sight-seeing’s of Cochin. We reached the St. Francis Church at Fort Kochi. Fort Kochi, by the way, is the region in Kochi one of the old areas by the sea-shore.
St. Francis Church
St. Francis Church is the oldest Church in India – built in 1503. It was famous for one more reason. Vasco Da Gama died here in 1524; even his body was buried in this Church. The remains were then carried back to Lisbon 14 years later. His Grave is still preserved inside the Church, apart from graves of other Portuguese. The area around the Church is a local street market. There is one play garden for kids & a walk-way by the sea-shore. The renowned Chinese Fishing Nets can be seen lined-up by the shore.
Chinese Fishing Nets
From here we went to a place which we though we would hush-up in few minutes, but ended up in spending some quality time in admiration - Kerala Folklore Musuem. It has an exceptional collection of Art & Artefacts. Mostly focussed towards South India Culture. The artefacts range from Weapons, Utensils, Dresses, Idols, Props of various Dance Forms, Paintings, Photographs, masks, etc. Rs. 100 ticket is worth every penny. And more so that the Museum is not any Govt. Enterprise, but run individually by one, Mr. George.
Folklore Museum
We decided to spend the evening shopping in the market. However, being Chirstmas, the market was absolutely closed. We just, therefore, roamed on Marine Drive - the most happening place of Kochi. This promenade is an ideal place to spend some "self" time. Vast Arabian Sea on one side, modern malls & shopping complexes on other & the street vendors lined-up along. We spent about an hour here roaming.
Arabian Sea - view from Marine Drive
Further we checked-in our hotel for a final night of our trip.

December 26, 2015:
we had an evening flight. So we decided to munch another local place about 10 kms from our hotel - Hill Palace.

Hill Palace is another Archeological Museum managed by Govt. of Kerala. Originally it was built in 1865 by Maharaja of Cochin. Apart from Museum, it houses a Kids Park & Deer Park. It is built on a hillock which can be accessed by walk-way as well as simple steps. Vehicles are not allowed till top.
Deer Park
From here we bid farewell to the God's Own Country & proceeded for our return journey.

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