Trouble in Thekkady

It’s not a coincidence that the featured picture for this post should show my hand held in the grip of a green-faced Katakala demon as shortly after this picture was taken I succumbed to the worst bout of D&V that I’ve suffered in India to date. When I was well enough to think about it I realised the irony of being caught out in Kerala, by far the cleanest of all the states that I have visited so far. I’ll tell the rest of the story when I’m more rested.


Proceeding down from the highest regions of the state we nevertheless stayed inland to visit the Periyar National Park and the spice groves around the Hill Station of Thekkady. This park claims an impressive list of rare wildlife for its massive, 300 square miles of territory but is accessible only to dedicated trekkers or by way of overcrowded tourist boats. In fact, so oversubscribed were they that we failed to even secure a reservation.

This might have had something to do with our tardy arrival from the Auyervedic spice garden where an absolutely delightful botanical and historical tour was continually interrupted by my companions who cheerfully laid claim to practically every ailment known to the pharmacopeia. Including, I might add, a nagging backache caused by the previous day’s Auyervedic massage. There was no real need to be disappointed by missing the lake boat tour though. As at our previous destination, with the exception of a few monkeys begging, pooping and trying to take the scarf from around my neck, the wildlife was keeping well out of sight.

Being introduced to the plants and seeing how they grow: pepper vines, cinnamon bark, ginger roots, cardamom pods and so many more really brought to life the historical importance of the region and cleared up a little culinary mystery. I had been wondering how, if all varieties of chilies came from the New World after 1500, Indian cuisine had acquired such a longstanding reputation for its extreme hotness. It turns out that the pepper vine produces four types of pepper as the corns go through their ripening process: green, white, black and red. The fiery red is taken from just the skin of the final, dried stage and therefore only available in very small quantities so it would have been extremely costly. No wonder the imported chili has almost replaced it.

On that note we shall get back to my tummy bug. I’m afraid it was entirely self-inflicted as I consumed a street snack while I waited for the back to back Katakali/Kalaripayattu performances that meant I would be late joining the others for dinner. I had better skip the details and just explain that the onset was delayed for just long enough for me to enjoy both of the shows.

The first was an extract from the masked, stylised theatre of the region. Since proper performances can go on all night and are probably completely incomprehensible to outsiders I consider myself exceptionally lucky to have seen these two actors give a sample of their art accompanied by explanations. The green faced demon was performed by a women while the chap taking the role of the yellow faced harridan, everyone’s nightmare of a bossy Indian Aunty, was magnificent. His pantomime of exaggerated facial expressions and flamboyant gestures brought his character’s foibles to life wonderfully: no wonder they take so many years to train.

The next performance was a display by four young men of the ancient martial art style of the region. There was lots of leaping about with burning torches and it was certainly highly skilled (I noticed that the twins had their names stencilled on the back of their vests – I should imagine that passing a blade to the wrong one might have resulted in catastrophe) but it wasn’t really my sort of thing. All the same the boys, who resembled four chocolate-skinned versions of the young Freddy Mercury, were certainly easy on the eyes.


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