A boat floats in the backwaters of Kerala
Destinations

Kerala: The Lush Indian State With the World’s Richest Temple

Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan

February 20, 2024

9 min read

Kerala, the name of the lush, coastal state in southwest India, literally means “land of the coconut trees.” It bursts with life and aromatic spices, and everything revolves around water, both the sea and the backwaters—a 560-mile labyrinth of lakes, canals, lagoons, and inlets that are used for trade, travel, and tourism. Houseboats cruise these waters, children frolic in them, and people buy and sell fish, produce, and household items through boat markets.

The state also happens to be a land of superlatives, as it holds the highest literacy rate, life expectancy, and human development index in the country. With curious, friendly locals who love talking to foreigners and a balmy tropical climate, Kerala is bound to get your blood pressure down and pleasure neurons popping.

Spice of life 

Mounds of spices in Kerala

In Kerala, the saying goes: Throw anything into its red earth, and it will grow. The tropical land overflows with oils and spices that were traded with the Arabs and Romans as far back as 3000 BCE. Kerala’s spice markets sell aromatic sandalwood oil, cloves, cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, turmeric, pepper, and more, earning it the moniker of spice capital of India. The flavors suffuse traditional dishes like Malabar biriyani and vegetarian avial, but the use of spices extends well beyond cooking. 

Traditional spice markets, typically found in the old towns of most cities, are the best places to buy wholesale spices and oils. In central, coastal Kochi, visit the Mattancherry Market or Broadway Market. Farther south in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala’s capital city, go to Chalai. Popular picks include Wayanaden turmeric, which Kerala women rub all over their faces before a bath, along with virgin coconut oil—available at most grocery stores across the state—that Keralites use on their hair. If you missed the big markets, you can always pick up packaged spices and oils from the airport shops on your way home.

Healing in the month of Karkidakam

A boat in the backwaters of Kerala

Ask Keralities who’ve settled all over the world what they miss about their home state, and the sound and smell of the Kerala monsoon would be right up there along with the taste of home.  The southwest monsoon arrives in June and tapers off in the Malayalam month of Karkidakam (mid-July to mid-August). 

During this month, Keralites believe the body is most receptive to restorative ayurvedic treatments, which derive from an ancient Indian medical system that favors a natural, holistic, and seasonal approach to health. Ayurveda incorporates a special diet, herbal remedies, and different treatments, such as massages. While Karkidakam is thought to be the optimal time for healing, locals practice ayurveda year-round, as it's a way of life for the people of Kerala.

Kerala Tourism provides a list of accredited ayurvedic centers, searchable by region; CGH Earth, with resorts all over Kerala, is considered top tier, as it borders on luxury while maintaining the authenticity of ayurvedic practices. You can always start with a conservative approach to ayurvedic healing. For instance, abhyanga, or an oil massage, is offered at most clinics or resorts. You can also dabble in an ayurvedic diet, which includes kanji, a rice porridge that contains minerals, probiotics, and medicinal herbs great for gut health and digestion. Both abhyanga and kanji can be replicated after you’ve returned home as well. 

Spectacular festivals

A traditional dance performance in Kerala

Kerala is replete with performing arts and exhibitions that marry the traditional with the contemporary. Koodiyattam, UNESCO-listed and one of India’s oldest forms of theater, mixes contemporary political references with ancient Hindu epics. The Kathakali dance performances, described by scholars as an art “where gods and demons come to play,” comprise masked, painted performers in elaborate costumes who reenact Hindu myths. Most hotels can help you get tickets to a show, while luxury hotels often host performances themselves. The Kerala Kathakali Centre in Fort Kochi also hosts shows.

Theyyam—another ritualistic dance performance—involves elaborately painted performers who bring forth ancient spirits through a combination of shamanistic drumming and fire-walking. During its peak season (December–March), theyyam rituals attract photographers from all over the world (go in late January to see a great show but escape the crowds). 

Other performances in Kerala include kalaripayattu, a 3,000-year-old martial art form with jumps and sword fights; there are kalari centers in most regions where visitors can make appointments to watch classes. The Vallam Kali snake boat races also happen during the harvest festival Onam (September 5-17, 2024); the cities of Alappuzha and Alleppey are great places to catch a boat race. And India’s largest art exhibition, the annual Kochi Muziris Biennale, brings together spectacular contemporary art from all over India; the next one is slated for December 2024.  

Keeping the faith 

A temple on the water in Kerala

While Kerala’s population is predominantly Hindu, the state is home to an array of faiths. Syrian Christians, who first came from Kerala, trace their origins to St. Thomas, one of the apostles who landed on Kerala’s shores to preach the gospel. There was also a wave of Muslim conversion, with the Arabs who came to trade spices. And Kerala has a small but strong population of Jewish people, particularly in Kochi, where synagogues still attract the faithful. In addition to organized religion, Kerala is home to animistic faiths (the belief that all objects, places, and creatures are animated by a spiritual presence) and Pagan faiths, including worship of ancestors and sacred groves called kavus.

Accessing Kerala’s centers for faith can either be very simple or very complicated. Larger Hindu temples, for instance, may not allow non-Hindus to enter the premises. In Thiruvananthapuram, you’ll find the Sree Padmanabha Swamy temple, its origins lost to time. In 2011, the temple made headlines due to the discovery of underground vaults with gold, silver, and gems estimated to be worth trillions. While the vaults are not open to the public, the temple itself is. Non-Hindus will need to factor in extra time to sign a certificate saying they abide by the Hindu faith in order to enter; tourists often hire a guide that expedites the process. 

Smaller temples, of which there are thousands, are more welcoming to visitors. In Kottayam, you can visit one of the many churches and listen to the sing-song sermons in the local language, Malayalam. In Kochi, visit the 16th-century Paradesi Synagogue, the oldest active synagogue in India and only one of seven synagogues in Kochi’s Jew Town still in operation.  

When visiting holy spaces in Kerala, be sensitive to dress codes. Always go barefoot inside a temple. For men, wearing pants and a shirt may be okay, but shorts are not; most Kerala men wear a dhoti sarong, which is easy to buy, and go shirtless as a sign of respect. Women should dress more conservatively; either a saree or salwar kameez is the best option.

From coconut palms to kallu

Glasses of kallu in Kerala

No matter where you go in Kerala, you’ll see shacks with the sign “Toddy Shop.” Kerala’s toddy, known as kallu, is made from coconut palms. Most towns have toddy tappers, who climb up tall coconut trees in a matter of minutes and tap the flowers for neera, or sap. The fresh sap is non-alcoholic and refreshing, but it begins fermenting within hours and becomes the whitish liquid—kallu—that Keralites love.  

Visit a toddy shop in the evening for a fresh bottle along with spicy mutton, chicken, and fish curries; vegetarians can opt for fried tapioca. While luxury hotels sell toddy in cans and bottles, fresh toddy is best enjoyed in roadside shops that often border the coconut plantations from which the toddy is harvested.

The dance between fresh fish and coconut milk 

A traditional Kerala food spread on a banana leaf

Since Kerala is in the tropics, the land is fertile and most culinary ingredients are available throughout the year. Each city or region, however, has certain specialties. Inland Kerala, for instance, relies on produce—yams, tubers, and gourds are popular—while coastal Kerala enjoys seafood. 

Kochi is a good place to start for coastal cuisine. Try the classic karimeen pollichathu—pearl spot fish marinated in a paste of ginger, shallots, coconut, and spices, then steamed in a banana leaf. Meen moily, a spicy fish stew tempered with curry leaves and coconut milk and served with lacy appam pancakes, are also popular. 

During the Onam festival in September, most restaurants offer the Kerala sadhya (a vegetarian feast) served on a banana leaf with small portions of 26–28 dishes in a choreographed fashion.  Each dish has its place on the leaf, and healthy red rice is the main grain used to soak up the curries and gravies. 

Luxury hotel chains, such as the Taj GroupLeela Palaces, and CGH Earth hotels, are good places to start for all of these dishes.  

Gold standard

A woman dressed in traditional Kerala clothing and jewelry

India, on the whole, is a land of extremes: a maximalist, more-is-more culture where colors and chaos are embraced rather than subdued. Kerala, however, is different. Its aesthetic, at least with respect to everyday fashion and home decor, veers toward minimalism, largely because of Kerala’s hot weather. Clothes are not saturated with color; men wear a simple white mundu, similar to a sarong, while women wear kasavu sarees, also in shades of white with a simple gold border. And homes, thanks to culture and climate, are sparsely furnished. 

When it comes to jewelry, however, Kerala leans more toward excess. Kerala tops the country in gold consumption, evident in traditional Kerala brides’ trousseau (wedding ensemble), which includes layers of gold necklaces. Here, jewelry brands abound—Joyalukkas, Jos Alukkas, Malabar Gold & Diamonds, and Bhima to name a few. All have retail outlets throughout Kerala.

Even if you don’t make a purchase, gold shopping in Kerala is an experience. There are classic designs unique to Kerala, most inspired by natural elements, like leaves and flowers. The kasu-mala, a traditional coin necklace, is an exception. Bargaining for jewelry, like most things in India, is customary. If you kindly ask for a discount, chances are the salesman will “round things off” for you.

Magnificent mural paintings

A mural in Kerala

Mural paintings bring legends to life. They exist in different parts of India, mostly painted on the walls and ceilings of Hindu temples, depicting stories from myth and faith particular to the specific region. Kerala murals sport a certain look and style, characterized by beatifically smiling gods with circular faces, voluptuous bodies, and dynamic postures. Since natural pigment is used, most Indian murals have just a few colors—white, green, ochre, and red. 

While Kerala murals are not as old as the 4th-century murals of the Ajanta and Ellora caves of Maharashtra, some of the oldest Kerala murals date back to the 8th century CE. The oldest is at the Thirunandikkara cave temple, now ceded to the neighboring state of Tamil Nadu. In 1989, the Institute of Mural Painting was established in Kerala’s holy town of Guruvayur. Since then, several mural schools have opened, primarily around Kerala’s large temples, where visitors can watch artists paint murals on canvas, which are usually then put up for sale. 

Good to know

Is Kerala expensive? 

Kerala is generally a cheap place to visit. A three-star hotel will run around $80 per night, while you can snag a hostel for about $20. For a sit-down dinner in a mid-range restaurant, you can expect to pay about $7 for an entrée. For cheaper meals, like street food, you can fill up for under $5. Tour guides typically run $5–$50, depending on the tour company. The priciest activities, like a half-day private tour, will cost about $70, but if you skip that, you can generally have a great time for under $15 per day.

Best time to visit Kerala

The best time to visit Kerala is from October to March. The months of December and January have the best weather (warm but not hot); however, they also see the most tourists. October–November and February–March offer a happy medium since the weather is cool and there aren’t too many tourists.

What languages are spoken in Kerala?

The main language in Kerala is Malayalam. Since Kerala is among India’s most literate states, most people have a working knowledge of English. In the main cities, most young people speak English, but in more rural areas, many people, especially the older generations, do not.

Kerala with kids

Kerala is an extremely family-friendly destination.  Most resorts have activities for kids, there are hikes in every part of the state, and even the fanciest restaurants are generally welcoming toward babies. Water sports are a great way to keep the little ones busy; visit the Alleppey backwaters, the Banasura dam in Wayanad, and Kovalam Beach near the capital for off-shore activities.

Kerala public transportation

While public transit tends to work well for locals in Kerala, most tourists opt for private, chauffeured cars, as they are inexpensive, safer, more convenient, and have English-speaking drivers.  

Is Kerala safe?

India ranks #126 out of 163, according to Vision of Humanity’s Global Peace Index. Kerala is generally safe, especially if you travel in groups or as a couple. Women traveling solo should be cautious, especially when traveling alone at night.

India also ranks #39 with a score of 66/100 for LGBTQ+ equality, according to Equaldex's LGBT Equality Index. Kerala is at the forefront of LGBTQ+ rights in India. Same-sex relationships have been legal since 2018, though same-sex marriages are not yet legal in India. Kerala is one of few states to offer gender affirmation surgeries through free government hospitals.

Getting to Kerala

More India destinations: 

Shoba Narayan

Shoba Narayan

Freelance Writer

Shoba Narayan spent all her childhood summers in Kerala and has relatives in every part of the state. She continues to visit several times a year and enjoys Kerala’s spices and recipes back home. She is the author of six books, a columnist for several newspapers, and writes travel articles for Condé Nast Traveler, The Financial Times, and other publications.


 


Published February 20, 2024

Last updated February 20, 2024

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