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Various racial strains have passed through Kerala virtually since the dawn of time and have left the state richer in its philosophy of co-existence. Even in these modern times, with Kerala being India's only fully literate state, and having provided the nation with some of its eminent writers and satiric cartoonists, it comes to dwell in a time warp, where slow-boats still coast along backwaters, the people dress elegantly in white, and festivals are celebrated over many days with traditional gaiety.

The official language of the state is Malayalam, but English is widely spoken and understood. One of the principal Hindu castes of Kerala is that of the Nairs, among two of the country's only societies that follow a matriarchal system that has brought the women into social prominence. Kerala's Brah- mins, the namboodris, till recently had a system in which only the eldest son could marry within the same caste, since the others had to find wives outside the community, they were disowned from family rights. These are now traditions of the past. But it is not only the Hindus that make up the colourful mosaic of this land.

The Jews, for example, came to Kerala when they fled the rule of Nebuchadnezzar in 587 BC, St Thomas the Apostle came here in the first century AD, the Syrian Christians were in existence here in the second century AD, among the oldest of the Christian churches exists in Cranganore dating back to 400 AD. When the Portuguese came to Kerala, they found a thriving Christian community here, but one that had never heard of the Pope ! All these faiths have existed in complete harmony in Kerala. Today there are temples and mosques, churches and synagogues, they form the cohesive warp and weft that has gone into the making of the fabric of Kerala.


Festivals abound in Kerala, but there are some that are better known than others. Since all temples celebrate their individual festivals, chances are that on your visit you will come across atleast some form of the cele- bration. The most spectacular of these is Trichur Pooram, the annual temple festival in Tirchur. Held in April-May, it includes a spectacular proces- sion of ten temple deities. Some thirty elephants of a uniform size are dressed in glittering chain-mail to lead the celebrations.

Atop them sit Brahmin priests under silk parasols. The procession winds its way through the streets throughout the day to the accompaniment of ritual music, while devotees make offerings of rice and flowers. Following sunset, the specta- cle is again enacted, this time accompanied by flaming torches and fire- works, and heralded by the roll of drums. For those who would like to participate in concerts, this is the time for some of the finest kathakali performances and carnatic music recitals. Onam in August-September is a celebration of Kerala's harvest and new year, and lasts for a week, leading up to the full moon. Traditional feasting includes the painting of homes, new clothes, the floral decoration of swings and courtyards, and dancing to greet the idols of King Mahabali, whose legendary rules signifies prosperity.

The highlight of the festival is undoubtedly the snakeboat races that are held at Kottayam, Aranmula and Payidpad in the backwaters, competing for the coveted Nehru Cup. The tourism authorities of the state have introduced a number of tourist festivals that combine the pageantry of traditional celebrations with activity and excitement that modern-day travellers can participate in. These include the great Elephant March in January, in which as many as one hundred caparisoned elephants are used to ferry tourists to major places in the state while Kerala displays its cultural and culinary possibilities.

The winter months from October through March celebrate Nishagandhi, a dance and music pageant that is staged every Saturday. No matter what time of year they travel to Kerala, tourists should also celebrate life in the unique Kerala way. There are Kathakali performances to watch, a dance drama based on the ancient epics forming among the most colorful of the country's stage traditions. Male actors in make-up that takes as much as two to three hours to apply cavort on the stage in a spellbinding display of morality-theater.

The women come to the stage with their own, more graceful dance form, the Mohiniattam. It would also be interesting to watch a kalaripayattu performance, this display of martial arts originated in the temples of Kerala, and marks the most ancient form of defense in the world, in which the body is trained in agility and elegance. Finally, no visit to Kerala would be complete without its famous Ayurvedic massages, in which herbs and oils are used to rejuvenate body and skin in a refreshing exercise.



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