When you think of Kerala you dream of beautiful landscapes, spectacular temples and strong traditions dating back to ancient times. One thing is for sure: Kerala is rich with culture. Spending a few days on a houseboat along the 'backwaters', the criss-crossing canals which link remote villages and islands to the continent, offers a unique way of discovering Keralan wildlife. The beaches, here are world renowned for their natural beauty and are sure to leave any beach lover content. Besides its stunning landscapes, this state is also renowned for its literacy rate - the highest in the country - and its exemplary growth rate. This means it is a real model for the rest of India.
Surface area : 38863.0 km2
Population : 33000000 inhabitants
India has a very rich arts and crafts sector. In Kerala, you will find saris made of thin beige cotton, bordered with gold and hand-woven cotton fabrics. There are hundreds of shops and stalls selling souvenir gifts such as: sculpted wooden items; clay figurines and masks representing kathakali characters; copper, brass and bronze items; oil lamps as well as plenty of fresh spices.
You can bargain anywhere and everywhere, except in the state emporium, as these state shops have fixed prices. In the big cities, shops open between 10:00 am and 7:00 or 8:00 pm, Monday to Saturday. They are closed on Sunday and during the holidays.
It is illegal to export furs and snake skin, and to import any ivory objects into Europe.
There is a huge amount of diversity in food from Kerala, and the different dishes will depend on the region, origin of the population there and their respective castes. The only common ingredients used are rice, tea and curry. Southern Indian cuisine is generally spicier than in the north, so you may need to some add yoghurt (tayre) to make the food a bit milder.
Take advantage of the vast amount of fresh fish on offer and try the traditional thalis, a mix of vegetarian dishes with rice, several vegetable curries, condiments, puris or chapatis (wheat pancake used as bread). Also, try the chutneys (macerated vegetables or fruits); idlis (rice balls often served with a spicy yoghurt sauce called dahin idli); dosas (peameal pancakes) or masa dosas (stuffed spiced vegetables) which all make good snacks.
If you're in search of something sweet, try a few of the coconut and mango-based dishes, they're delicious!
For desert, try the kheer, the rice pudding, and the kulfi, a kind of smooth pistachio ice cream and drink a payasam, a drink which mixes coconut milk with mango pulp, cashew nuts and spices.
One bit of advice: stay away from deserted restaurants as they will be empty for a reason! Be adventurous with street food in order to get a real taste of authentic Keralan cuisine.
Hinduism plays a huge part in Indian life so be prepared for a cultural shock. Most human relations are governed by a hierarchical system of castes, where each individual has a definite role. The cow is a sacred animal.
Before entering Hindu temples, jains and mosques you must take off your shoes (and any leather items for the jains). The same applies for Sikh temples, where you need to cover your head. Before entering mosques, make sure that visitors are allowed during prayer times and that entry to women is accepted. Make sure, also, that your arms and legs are covered and that you are dressed well. In Kerala, in particular, access to temples is generally reserved for Hindus. Temples are places of prayer entered by Malayalis (inhabitants of India Kerala) following a purifying bath in a river or sacred pool, in the surroundings of the temples and sculptures or statues of a deity should never be touched. On the subject of touching, although it may sound funny, during your day to day activities in India, avoid touching another person with your feet.
You must be aware of certain rules of etiquette to be respected: inform yourself, for example, on the symbolism of flowers in order to avoid any faux pas if you are thinking of giving a bunch of flowers to someone; be aware that a gift received is kept in a corner to be opened at a later time and that during a meal, you must take off your shoes if the people who are inviting you are not wearing them. If you are eating with your fingers, only use your right hand, the left is reserved for personal hygiene.
Lastly, the practice of 'arranged' marriage still exists in India.
Sail the 'backwaters' on a traditional boat like a kettuvallam, a sort of Chinese sampan, around Alleppey, the 'Venice of India'. Along the canals, dive into the heart of the Keralan region and discover the villages' water markets.
Lap up the sun's rays on one of the coastline's beautiful beaches or if you fancy stretching your legs, go for a hike in the Western Ghats where the climate is pleasant all year round.
Follow the Nehru Cup Snakeboat Race on the second Saturday in August on Panumada lake in Alappuzha (Allepey), where you will see the richly decorated pirogues.
Go for a walk on Bangaram Island in the Laccadives archipelago (although your journey may be restricted in places) and attend the sumptuous Puram feast in Trichur, between April and May, with its elephant parades and a number of other festivities.