Sailors once swore that a blind man could steer a ship to the Malabar coast, guided by nothing more that offshore winds heavy with the scent of Kerala's fragrant spices. This is a coastal idyll that once lured endless flotillas for its black gold and now draws travelers to indulge in some of the subcontinent's most restful, laid-back pleasures. India's most verdant state -- rated by National Geographic Traveler as one of the world's 50 must-see destinations and also one of "ten earthly paradises" -- is a seamless landscape of palm-lined beaches rising to meet steamy jungles and plantation-covered hills, watered by no less than 44 tropical rivers. Once thronged by merchants clambering to trade for spices, today the coast is often bustling with visitors who come here primarily to unwind and indulge. This is, after all, where succumbing to a therapeutic Ayurvedic massage is as mandatory as idling away an afternoon aboard a slowly drifting kettuvallam, or sipping coconut water under a tropical sun before taking in a ritualized Kathakali dance. Eastward, the spice-scented Cardamom Hills and wild elephants of Periyar beckon, while a short flight west takes you to the little-known but sublime tropical reefs of the Lakshadweep islands. All of which make Kerala not just a must-see on your southern India itinerary, but a major destination in its own right.
A thin strip on the southwest coastline, sandwiched between the Lakshadweep Sea and the forested Western Ghats that define its border with Tamil Nadu to the east, Kerala covers a mere 1.3% of the country's total land area, yet its rich resources have long attracted visitors from across the oceans -- it is in fact here that the first seafarers set foot on Indian soil. Legend has it that King Solomon's ships traded off the Malabar coast between 972 and 932 B.C., followed by the Phoenicians, Romans, Chinese, Portuguese, and Arabs, all of whom came to stock up on Malabar's monkeys, tigers, parrots, timber, and, of course, the abundance of spices that were literally worth their weight in gold. Seafarers not only brought trade but built synagogues and churches in the emerging port cities, while an entirely Muslim population set up shop on the islands of Lakshadweep. Despite its religious cosmopolitanism (many locals will tell you they subscribe to both Hinduism and Christianity), Kerala's Hindu tradition is deeply engrained in daily life. Most Kerala temples do not permit non-Hindus to enter, but the months of February to May bring magnificent temple processions through the streets -- the most jaw-dropping being the April/May Thrissur Pooram -- involving thousands of chanting devotees and squadrons of elephants adorned in flamboyant caparisons (ornamental coverings).
Contemporary Kerala was created in 1956 from the former princely states of Travancore, Kochi, and Malabar. Largely ruled by benevolent maharajas who introduced social reforms emphasizing the provision of education and basic services, Kerala remains one of the most progressive, literate, and prosperous states in post-independence India -- and at the same time retains an untouched charm. In 1957, it became the first place in the world to democratically elect a Communist government, and the first Indian state to introduce a family planning program. Despite Kerala's high population density, Keralites have the country's highest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality rates. Kerala is also considered one of the most peaceful parts of India, a claim substantiated by its prosperity -- the state remains a major source of India's bananas, rubber, coconuts, cashews, and ginger, and now, tourism.
The downside of all this prosperity? A highly educated and comfortable population has meant that many are unwilling to do menial jobs, and service standards are low given that tourism is for many the primary source of income. Others cash in on the tourism boom with no long-term thought for the future, and for the first time pollution is becoming a problem in paradise. Still others head for the Gulf to seek their fortunes, returning with sufficient cash to tear down the traditional carved wood dwellings that so greatly characterize the region and replace them with "modern" status symbols. Of course, many of these traditional homes have been bought and reassembled at top-notch resorts like Coconut Lagoon and Surya Samudra, a practice vilified as exploitative by Kerala native Arundhati Roy in her Booker Prize-winning The God of Small Things. For visitors, however, a stay in these tharavadu cottages is one of the most charming aspects of a trip to Kerala, along with its tropical beaches and backwater cruises; and lounging in a hammock at one of the region's top resorts can make you forget you're in India.
If you're interested in a more authentic experience of the subcontinent, combine your trip with a few days in neighboring Tamil Nadu, the spiritual heartland of southern India. But if all you're looking for is rejuvenation, head straight to the backwaters, then wash up on some of the world's most beautiful beaches. "God's Own Country" is one tourist slogan that really does deliver.
Ayurveda: Kerala's Healing Balm
Drawing on some 5,000 years of Vedic culture, Ayurveda is the subcontinent's traditional science of "life, vitality, health, and longevity" or, to tap into a more contemporary catchphrase, "the science of well-being," and where better to experience it than Kerala, where the tradition originated. Renowned for its curative and rejuvenating powers (and a gift said to be from no other than Lord Brahma), Ayurveda works on your physical, mental, and emotional well-being by rectifying any imbalances in the five eternal elements: space (ether), air, earth, water, and fire. These elements manifest themselves in three subtle energies or humors known as the tridoshas -- vata, pitta, and kapha -- when perfectly balanced, you have a healthy human constitution; if not, the imbalance translates into various ailments. Ayurveda is most often enjoyed by foreigners as a way to rejuvenate cells or boost the immune system, but it has a proven track record in treating a wide range of specific ailments, from obesity to osteoarthritis. For these more therapeutic procedures you will need to stay a minimum of 3 days (even better: 2-3 weeks) and follow a dietary regimen that is prescribed and managed by an Ayurvedic doctor and attendant staff.
It takes 5 1/2 years of training to qualify as an Ayurvedic doctor, who is then able to prescribe the herbal remedies and related therapies. While much of what is practiced in Ayurvedic medicine has similarities to Western medical practice (the first 3 years of training in anatomy are basically the same), the most significant difference lies in the area of pharmacology, since Ayurvedic medicines are all natural. Some may scoff, but no one can deny the sheer pleasure of the primary form of treatment: deep, thorough massage with herbal-infused oils. Which is why Ayurveda suits those skeptics who simply seek the ultimate in pampering, whether you opt for a soothing facial treatment, in which the face is massaged and steamed with herbal oils, or for an energizing full-body massage performed with hands and feet (and often by several masseuses simultaneously); your skin will glow and your mind will feel clear. True skeptics take note: To truly experience the strange bliss and resultant high of Ayurveda, book a sirodhara treatment, wherein 5 to 6 liters of warm herbal oil (selected according to the body constitution) are poured steadily onto your "third eye" (the forehead) for the better part of an hour while (or after which) you are massaged -- said to retard the aging process (by arresting the degeneration of cells), it certainly relieves the body of stress (some compare it to taking a tranquilizer), and is likely to turn you into a complete convert.
No matter which balm you choose, you'll find that the well-practiced masseuses of Kerala will treat your body like a temple; for them, the massage or treatment is almost a spiritual exercise. Of course, it helps to know that your body is being worshiped when you're lying there in your birthday suit (note that in strict accordance with Indian piety, you will be assigned a same-sex therapist). Whatever its purported virtues and pleasures, Ayurveda lures thousands of Westerners to Kerala, which in turn sustains a thriving industry that puts food on the table for many people. The downside of this has been an unprecedented mushrooming of quick-fix Ayurvedic "centers" throughout the state. Almost every hotel in the country now offers Ayurvedic "treatments," many staffed with therapists back from a short training stint in Kerala and having insufficient knowledge of technique (reusing oils that should be discarded, for example). To ensure that you get the real deal, look for the top-of-the-range "Green Leaf" certification issued by the Department of Tourism, or the equally trustworthy (for nontherapeutic programs) "Olive Leaf" centers. These certifications are based on strict criteria covering the quality of the physicians, programs, medicines, and facilities offered. This sensational retreat is undoubtedly one of the world's foremost facilities for engaging with the more spiritual side of India's increasingly global science of life.