Snippets of Kerala, India.
Snippets of Kerala, India.
Cover photo courtesy of Augustus Binu.
Ah, Kerala, the final leg of my cross-country adventures around India in 2004. Looking back, I think Allan and I were thoroughly knackered, despite the recharge we’d had on the lazy beaches of Benaulim in Goa. Thus we agreed to kick back and stay awhile, renting an apartment in the Portuguese flavoured neighbourhood of Fort Kochi in the port city of Kochi.
Criminally, I have no photos of that house, and very few indeed of the neighbourhood. Happily though, I have fond memories of hanging out in the local cafes and restaurants. And lovely evening walks down by the port to look at the rows of Chinese fishing nets fluttering in the sea breeze.
After a few days Lisa and Phil joined us in the house and we all lived communally for some weeks. Occasionally we set off on our various solo projects, other times we made field trips together. Of these, how could I ever forget our afternoon cruising the Kerala Backwaters, a labyrinthine, 900-kilometre network of interconnected rivers, lakes and lagoons.
Our vessel that day was a magnificent, traditional thatched wooden houseboat, known locally as Kettuvallam. I couldn’t tell you which company we went with or how much we paid. What I do recall is that there were perhaps eight of us on the boat and that our captain was a loveable character with an infectious positivity.
Snippets of Kerala.
He was a wiry beanstalk of a man. Nevertheless, he showed great strength in propelling us through those countless canals under the burning sun. Using only a long wooden pole and seemingly magical reserves of elbow grease. During one memorable stop, he also wowed us with his agility by scampering up a tree to claim an armful of coconuts. We oohed, aahed, clapped and gratefully guzzled down the contents of our bounty.
We stopped at a few villages along the way to see local folk making a range of craft products from coconuts. As is common with Kerala Backwater tours, Mr. Captain also made sure to moor the boat for a spell so that we could take a swim. It still makes me chuckle to think of how some in our party downright refused to swim in the “filthy water”. Call it bravery, call it the folly of youth, but I had no such concerns. What can I say, I’m still alive.
After swimming, our captain presented us with a delicious traditional lunch of chicken curry with rice and vegetables, served on large elegant beds of banana leaves.
Another memorable day came at Kodanad Elephant Sanctuary, one of Kerala’s most respected elephant training centres. What a stunning location it had, set in and around the Malayattoor Forest Range on the southern banks of The Periyar River. This was my first time face to face with wild elephants and I was absolutely blown away by the experience.
Kodanad Elephant Sanctuary.
Dating back to the 1950s, the sanctuary used to be the region’s largest elephant centre. These days, from what I understand, it’s a comparatively small operation with an ever-diminishing number of elephants. That day we met about half a dozen of the creatures, while our arrival had been expertly timed for the sanctuary’s morning bathing ritual.
Today we live in an unparalleled age of accessible information. As travellers we‘re now much more clued up about what’s really going on in the world. More well versed, shall we say, in the dos and don’ts of responsible tourism. Back in 2004 though the internet was in its infancy and, speaking frankly, I was a little wet behind the ears.
I don’t think I was even aware of elephant cruelty. Moreover, I certainly didn’t do much research on Kodanad prior to my visit. Glancing over some of the recent reviews on TripAdvisor, I can see a few damning reports regarding elephant treatment.
All I can say is that I don’t recall seeing any abusive behaviour, nor indeed any evidence of chains. In fact, as the above photo hopefully attests, I witnessed a strong and intimate bond between trainer and beast. To me, even as a naive youngster, these elephants didn’t look unhappy in any way. I sincerely hope there was nothing unsavoury going on behind the scenes.
Snippets of Kerala.
The elephant is considered an auspicious animal in India. As a result, these majestic beasts often find themselves integrated into public festivals, celebrations and processions. Luckily, we caught such an event one afternoon when we found ourselves among the crowds at the annual Kerala Elephant Festival.
This grand celebration of elephants brings together Indian people of all faiths. Locals, meanwhile, decorate elephants with glittery headdresses and flower necklaces. I can’t help but wonder, in this day and age, how much longer it can go on for with growing pressures from domestic and international animal rights groups.
Kerala was my last Indian hurrah. One morning Allan announced his departure back to Scotland in order to deal with a business matter. A few days later I felt it was time to draw my own trip to a close. Unfortunately for me, that meant a gruelling 48 hour train journey back up to New Delhi. And then of course the long flight to The UK. For a more detailed look at the experiences documented in this article, along with the lowdown on that epic train journey, have a read of my short story Forty Eight Hours.
On the Train to New Delhi.
Thanks, dear readers, for sticking with me through my Snippets of India over these past weeks. It’s been fun cobbling together this series, which I feel is a key addition to the LT archives. It’s always fun, not to mention highly nostalgic, to look back on one’s early travel days. Thanks India, for teaching me some valuable life lessons. For showing me what kind of traveller I wanted to be. For giving me a lifelong love for curry and the inspiration to write and share.
Like this? Why not check out more reports from my long ago trip to India.
For a more detailed and personalized account of my time in India, have a look at my short story collection Incidents in India.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001. So why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.
What a beautiful boat. Sounds like your captain had customer service down to a T. Glad to see the working elephants have a place to end their years. Thanks for sharing your snippets Leighton. Allan
Thanks Allan, Kerala is a region I would consider spending more time in should I ever get back to India.
Your little elephant buddy looks to be enjoying the bath as much as you. I hope that’s true. I’m also grateful for India giving you an encouraging start to your adventures. I also hope you’ve still got that blue and white jersey. It’ll help me recognize you in the airport.
‘That’ blue and white jersey (there were many) is one of just two or three survivors, though it is in a woeful condition these days. Purely an antique piece. And yes, it’s in one of the boxes along with all my other life treasures. Hope you’ve been having a good Christmas!
a fine end to the series leighton. while i have never much fancied the prospect of india, kerala has always looked like a location that might just tempt me in. so this is where your love of all things elephantine began. they do look very happy i must say. merry christmas!
Thanks, Stan! Hope you’ve been enjoying the holidays. Cheers for following these snippets and for being the commenting powerhouse that you are. Kerala was a good end to a mostly fantastic trip, despite the many challenges India threw at me.
I can see why the afternoon cruise stuck in your mind – it sounds like such a fun thing to do! Jeepers! I’m in awe of how your captain climbed up that tree! I think the elephant experience must have been great … and yes, I agree, they looked quite happy taken that bath! It was fun reading about your India trip of so many years ago, thanks for sharing your stories and photos Leighton!
Thanks Corna, I remain open to a possible return to India. ‘If’ the circumstances are right and Sladja is up for it ha ha. Thanks for keeping up with my snippets, hope you’ve been enjoying a cosy Christmas.
Does cosy and hot have the same meaning? Because we had a hot Christmas 🌞 … but very enjoyable! And we’re about to go camping again – the weather is just amazing here on the West Coast, it ‘drags’ us out to the beach every day!
Ha ha no, definitely not the same meaning. Although a hot place could also be cosy if it had certain qualities. Enjoy it all Corna! I think I would allow myself to be dragged about too.
The journey through the canals sounds fascinating. I did a similar thing in the Mekong Delta, minus swimming and though I remember we stopped for lunch, I have no idea what we actually had. Bathing elephants is certainly a unique experience, I do hope that they were treated well.
Hey Amelie, I also did a Mekong Delta cruise! And, like you, neglected to swim. Maybe once was enough. Thanks for catching the end of my Indian snippets series, Joyeux Noël!
Your visit to Kerala sounds like a wonderful way to end your trip around India. It must have been such an amazing experience to visit the elephant sanctuary. It’s always interesting to reflect on our past travels and see how much we’ve learned and changed. Enjoy the rest of the holidays. Take care. Linda
Thanks Linda, yeah India was a good boot camp for later challenges such as China. Cheers for reading all my Indian snippets and a Merry Christmas to you guys too.
Kerala still is a fascinating part of India with cruises on the backwaters and a different way of living. Sounds like even your young, naïve self appreciated that 🙂 I don’t remember seeing any elephants or hearing about elephant sanctuaries in Kerala, so maybe it is improving.
Hey Maggie, that’s interesting to hear there was a general lack of elephant action when you visited. I believe Kodanad is still going, though quite low-key from what I gather. Thanks for reading through my Snippets of Kerala. Merry Christmas to you guys and your family! Hope it’s been a good one.
I really like the look of that wicker house boat and how nice to be served lunch on board too. Your 48 hour rail trip back to New Delhi sounds like quite an adventure in itself. I must make it over to India one of these days.
Thanks for checking out my Snippets of Kerala, Marion. The Kettuvallam are amazing boats, so atmospheric and with a pleasingly traditional feel.
I love the photo of the pier and fishing nets with that beautiful sky.
Cheers Ruth, thanks for the catch up. Hope you’re having a wonderful holiday season.
You as well! I like this time the best, after all the holiday craziness.
Great stuff in every way. We too look back on our first experiences with elephants (in Sri Lanka) with a mixture of joy and “oops”. As you say, we know a lot more these days.
Yeah, it’s one one of those things. Looking back, I’m glad there wasn’t any riding involved at least. Thanks for reading!
Oh and by the way, your joke didn’t pass me by….referring to your coconut as “bounty”…..
Ahaaa I just kinda snuck that in there accidentally, then noticed it on the re-read. Figured it would go over most people’s heads anyway.
I’ve enjoyed reading about your adventures in India; you had some amazing experiences there! Spending time with elephants seems surreal, and I hope, like you witnessed, they are treated well. You are brave for swimming in the river; I would have been afraid of snakes!
Ha, thanks Tricia. If someone on that boat had even uttered the word “snakes” I’m not sure I’d have gone in. Thanks for your support of these Indian “snippets”, I think I might follow this blueprint for similar travels where photos are thin on the ground.
Oh my, you and me both!
Another incredible series comes to an end! Thanks for transporting me virtually through your whirlwind of a time in India, a country that I’ve yet to visit. Kerala looks to be the perfect end to your visit, as it looked to be a tranquil time. Although I agree with you about the questionable practices with elephants, you still got to witness an extraordinary animal on this planet. Definitely was a time to be young and free, before adult responsibilities gradually piled up. Can’t wait to read your next travel report, and happy holidays, Leighton!
Thanks so much Rebecca. Another day, another article, another month, another series. Oh lord, soon to be “another year”. Thanks for your readership, have a great time as we edge towards 2023.
Kerala looks like a fun place to explore. It saddens me to see that the welfare of captive elephants is still a topic of intense debate and a giant problem in Southeast Asia.
The Elephant Sanctuary’s supposed to provide captive elephants with a safe haven dedicated to their well-being but many parks that advertise themselves as sanctuaries are actually exploiting these magnificent animals. It still baffles me how tourists go to a park that advertises shows, unnatural behaviour, tricks or painting and even offers to ride an elephant. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx
I think, luckily, such places are gradually dying out. Hopefully, in the coming years, they will become a thing of the past as such organisations realise people aren’t willing to accept these kind of “attractions”. Kodanad Elephant Sanctuary, on the surface at least, seemed to be dong things the right way. I have also been lucky enough to visit ethical elephant sanctuaries in Thailand and Cambodia.
What an incredible experience! Going to an elephant sanctuary (provided they actually take care and protect the animals) is a dream of mine! I loved following you around this series of snippets! Thanks for sharing them!
Thank you so much Juliette. Yes, getting to spend quality time with elephants in naturalistic settings and contexts stand among my very favourite travel memories. I was lucky enough to see a few more such sanctuaries over the years. One in Thailand (as yet unpublished), another in Siem Reap, which you can read about here: https://leightontravels.com/category/kulen-elephant-sanctuary/ Thanks for checking in!
Great to hear that you had a positive experience in Kerala. Maybe one day I should give this Indian state another try — and maybe timing it with some local festivals. Happy New Year, Leighton! I wish you an even better year ahead filled with more memorable travels.
Thanks for dropping by Bama. A Happy New Year to you too! Hoping you have a safe, healthy and prosperous 2023 full of travel!
Hello Leighton I love travelling just like you. Hope you liked visiting our India. I went to Kerala with my parent in 2017 loved the place, thought to tell you I liked Shree Padmanabhaswamy Temple and Munnar the most..
Cheers, Secret Blogger! Thanks so much for your interest in my Snippets of India series and indeed for following Leighton Travels. You have mentioned some more places I didn’t get to visit. Clearly I need to return to India someday…
I’m catching up on this series – I’ve never been to India, but everytime I read about it and see photos just as these I get more excited with the prospect of visiting at some point. I’d love one day to be able to visit an Elephant sanctuary but, thanks to the Internet, I am well aware of how careful you need to be choosing the places that really care for these amazing animals with the respect and love deserved. Hopefully when you visited it in 2004 the management was different, I have a feeling that in recent years, with tourism booming and social media a lot of places such as these are only focusing on making money without any intentions to take care of the elephants. Thanks for sharing, as always!
Thanks Nic, for working your way through these various snippets. Appreciate the catchup, Happy New Year!
Happy New Year to you too!
Ah! I’d love to go to Kerela one day!! I was brought up in India but I’ve never been to Kerela! What a beautiful place ❤️
Hey, thanks so much for reading and getting in touch. I’m sure you’d love Kerala, hope you get to go one day. Where in India did you live?
Thank you!! I was brought up in New Delhi!
Wow Kerala sounds and looks beautiful! I hope to visit one day. Love seeing the elephants!
Hey Laila, thanks for taking a look at my Snippets of Kerala. Elephants are the best, such majestic gentle creatures in my experience. Happy New Year to you!
No swimming in dirty rivers for me, Leighton, but I would love to bathe an elephant! I have really enjoyed traveling around India through your posts, and I’m looking forward to where you take us next! Happy New Year!
Kellye, I hope you had a great Christmas! Happy New Year to you, Mike and the extended family. The ‘next’ post is already out, an end-of-year review. After that, I’ll keep you guessing. Looking forward to your return to the blogsphere.
This region of India looks so beautiful, and the elephants look majestic and elegant!
Thanks for your comment Allie!
Good writing, nice images.
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment, Dinesh!
You’re welcome! Keep up the good work.
great pics! wish i coul see this for myself one time. bucket list, where art thou?
Ha, I also wish I could go back one day and photograph the place properly with my current technology. Thanks for reading and leaving a comment!
yes, i know. the moment i saw the pics, i said that to myself, wish i could use the new cams for these.
Yes, we’re far more aware of issues of animal cruelty these days, or if not downright cruelty, at least less than ideal treatment. Today I choose my elephant and other animal encounters carefully but when we went to Goa I rode an elephant at one camp without really considering the impact, something I feel a bit guilty about today. It’s good to see the bond between mahoot and animal at the camp you visited 🙂
Yes, we live and we learn, I guess. I think the human race has taken huge strides in the area of animal treatment. But then I’d be naive in believing that we don’t still have a long way to go. I “think” Kodanad was doing things the right way, but of course I’ll never know for sure. Thanks for your comment, Sarah.
You are a wonderful writer.
Thank you Sanny! 🙏
Nice article! The Periyar River is such a sacred place.
Thanks for reading and leaving a comment! 🙂