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Kathakali performer


Told that he is carrying three curses from a prior life, Biju Sukumaran visits his ancestral home on a quest to find his roots and secure the aid of Vedic priests

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Lepakshi dolls


Painted mural

the meaning in the casting of seashells

claimed he knew. He predicted that this pain

and generally channelled the divine. For

would move upwards, eventually causing

three hours, seated on the floor of his bare

shoulder problems. The cure was a 15-hour

workspace and surreptitiously stretching

ceremony to appease the angry individuals

my cramping legs, I was told of the sources

whom I had offended, albeit in a past life.

of the problems I had experienced over the

the priestly caste and we were able to hire

was left with reason for optimism but there

two priests I required to be able to complete

was a catch: I was cursed.

the ceremony, on short notice.

After a great deal of translation, the


sarong-like mundu and chest cloth, has clearly made the transition from American to Indian. Even in the pre-dawn darkness, the Hindu temple where we’re standing before two ash-marked priests is aglow, lit by a sacrificial fire fed by sticks dipped in ghee (a butter typically used in Indian cooking). I wear my own traditional garb awkwardly, but the opening ceremonies have begun and there’s a long way to go. Apparently, I’ve been cursed and alleviating the effects of karma is a drawn-out process. Clad in black, the priests – both marked with whorls of colour designating their spiritual lineage – move with practiced efficiency. Nambudiris are an old Brahmanic line particular to Kerala. They are scrupulously orthodox. Their painstaking devotion to Vedic tradition (a religion pre-dating Hinduism) has given them a unique status. Thanks to them, ancient Vedic rituals that are long extinct elsewhere live on in Kerala. In a place where everyday life is infused with ritual and tradition, priests are both consummate businessmen and repositories of mystical lore. Kerala abounds with shops specialising in the implements of ritual: clarified butter, camphor and incense. And the region’s romance is captured in the green faces of its Kathakali characters whose

t i g e r t a l e s m ay-j u n

I’m on the road by mid-afternoon,

astrologer informed me that the first curse

navigating the bumpy, rubber tree-shaded

was from a teacher and was preventing

roads in my uncle’s car. We pause to

me from using my theoretical knowledge

ceremonially throw a small log and two

for practical gain. The others were from a

coconuts – which the priests ritualistically

woman, cursing me with problems of love

imbued an hour earlier with the negative

and a blockage in my prana, the vital force

energy in my life – into a local river. Still in

that affects energy flow. I have long suffered

mundu, the traditional sarong banded in gold,

from lower-back pain, a fact the astrologer

we wade into the slowly flowing currents. Later, we are caught in traffic as a religious

utterly at home in a white,

parade makes its way across the road. Elephants and parasol-bearing devotees raise dust in the sweltering heat as the sound of trumpets combines with the honking of horns by impatient auto rickshaw drivers. The bright colours of the saffron robes and flowered deities make for a stark contrast to the uniform green and brown of the jungle, an ever-present polarity in Kerala.

Shrine to local diety

This sacred chaos is an outward sign of Kerala’s religious diversity. After the landing Indian dance-drama is best known for its

of Vasco de Gama in Kozhikode in 1498, the

colourful make-up and costumes, as well as

Portuguese were surprised to find a large Christian population here, whose ancestors

precise body movements in tune to music. Kathakali performer applies his makeup

As omnipresent as Kerala’s priests are its astrologers, seers of the future typically

are believed to have arrived in Kerala in 52 AD with the Apostle Thomas. Buddhism,

employed by the curious or the concerned. For a price, your future can be foretold Idol of Lingam

in varying degrees of detail. Three days before my ritual cleansing, I had grudgingly agreed to pay a visit to an astrologer in Kadalundi, a nearby village in the Kozhikode district of Kerala. The astrologer was famous for his skill at jyotish, Vedic astrology. He claimed Bollywood stars as clients and was known for his accuracy. I was sceptical, but went anyway. After climbing the narrow stairs to his waiting hall, I saw another family nervously awaiting divine revelation. When my turn came, the astrologer wasted no time. He consulted charts based on the positions



t’s 5am and my father, looking

My family, the Nair clan, has close ties to

past year and of the good fortune ahead. I

THE ART OF KATHAKALI India’s southern state of Kerala is synonymous with the dance drama of Kathakali or “story play”. The ancient art form which dates back to the 17th century relies on elaborate make-up which resembles a mask and colourful costumes, generally worn by men, to portray religious stories. Elaborate hand gestures and classical-style Indian music also accompany each performance.

of the constellations at my birth, read

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Practitioners of the martial art of kalaripayattu

Jainism and many forms of Hinduism have

Although swords are no longer in style and

Martial Arts in Trivandrum, teaches guests

families now eschew traditional theravadu

what students might have learned ages

Clan traditions also speak loudly in

(communal clan strongholds) in favour

ago. Overgrown forest greenery surrounds

Kerala. While the Nambudiris are famed

of apartments, some traditions remain.

the buildings while the spicy aroma of

for their devotions, my family’s clan – the

Well-kept theravadu, with a central inner

wild peppercorn plants permeates the air.

Nairs – formed the military backbone of

courtyard, a sacred grove for serpents

Behind the ashram’s temple – dedicated to

local dynasties. The Nairs were known for

and a pond for bathing, give visitors a taste

the god Hanuman – and the cottage-style

their martial prowess, best exemplified in

of classical Keralan architecture. Family

dormitories is a large courtyard. This is

the martial art, kalarippayattu, in which

names are passed on matrilineally and

the training ground where students learn

acrobatic skills and unique weapons are

eldest daughters often inherit land. Strong

the series of fighting stances that are the

used. The Nairs were also known for their

matriarchs are the norm in Kerala, flouting

building blocks of kalarippayattu.

one-of-a-kind traditions, such as the

the status quo in this male-dominated

worship of snakes, and their matrilineal


also flourished in Kerala at various times.

The founder of the school, Guru Balachandran, is one of the few surviving masters of kalarippayattu and is also of Nair

family structure. Feudal lords in medieval

Training centres of kalarippayattu,

Kerala, their power waned with the coming

offering stays ranging from a few months

descent. The school is a way of preserving

of the priests, and later the British, who

to years, can be found in many major cities.

the ancient art form by passing it on to new

outlawed many of the old practices.

One such facility, the Indian School of

generations. Beginners and experts are schooled in both armed and unarmed forms


of the martial art. The rigorous training programme demands that students master balance, movement and coordination before tackling weapon-specific techniques. Among its many delights, Kerala is also known for the practice of Ayurveda, traditional Indian medicine that deploys a number of disciplines including yoga, meditation, exercise and massage. While tourism in the state is modest, many retreats have sprung up where reputable


practitioners ply their trade in lavish, spalike facilities attached to high-end hotels. One wing of the Indian School of Martial Arts, dense with the scent of aromatic oils and crushed spices, is devoted to the healing arts. The centre offers three- to 21day healing sessions to help visitors detox, An Ayurvedic centre

meditate and restore vital energy. The nearby Rasa Ayurveda is a women’s

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WHERE TO STAY Paradise Gardens Beach Resort & Ayurveda With each of its private bungalows overlooking turquoise waters and lush gardens, this resort truly lives up to its name. Well-ventilated rooms are naturally air-conditioned and private terraces offer secluded beach views. The on-site Ayurvedic centre has a wide range of treatments and the resort hosts exclusive music, dance, and martial arts performances. Rates range from S$126 to S$250 per night. Karikathikuzhi Beach, Trivandrum, South of Kovalam, tel: +91 (0)471 226 8304,


View of Kadavu resorts

WHAT TO EAT Kalavara Family Restaurant With a wonderful rooftop dining area and an easy-to-find location on Press Road, Kalavara Family Restaurant is a great place to sample a local fish curry or biryani, a spiced rice dish. Be sure to ask for a non-spicy version of your order, as southern Indian cuisine is known for its burn. Kalavara Family Restaurant Press Road, Pulimoodu Thiruvananthapuram 695001 +91-471-2333102


Indian women together through traditional Ayurvedic medicine. A stay at Rasa Ayurveda offers the chance to experience Ayurvedic cuisine, personalised herbal treatments and relax in the sprawling gardens or library. Temples abound in Kerala and their architecture is distinct from that of temples in Northern India. The Sree


Padmanabhaswamy Temple in Trivandrum, Street scene

dedicated to Vishnu, is among the bestknown in the state. Considered to be one of the 108 holiest temples of Vishnu, it houses a statue of the god reclining on a

packed stores are easy on the pocketbook. As my long day of rituals draws to a

hooded snake. Smaller temples scattered

close, my passion for Kerala is renewed. To

throughout the state bustle with activity.

enter is to drop all preconceived notions,

Visitors should remember that these are

to occupy a place where dualities fall to the

holy places, and though all are open to the

wayside. Kerala is not just stunning views

public, only Hindus are allowed inside the

and colourful images, but is a place where

temples. Jostling is common as impatient

mythology and history live on.

pilgrims attempt to check off every last auspicious destination on their lists. Indeed, it’s worth bearing in mind that

Are the curses gone? Did they ever exist? My love life, pragmatic abilities and back pain seem, for now, in good hands.

religion infuses every aspect of daily life

And Kerala, with its mysticism, seers and

here. Trivandrum’s Chalai Bazaar is no

priests, will always be there in case other

exception. A riot of red, green, saffron

curses crop up. The point for me was the

and black spices in gigantic pots, vibrant

journey, to learn more about this narrow

displays of floral offerings and burlap

state by the sea, with its coconut trees, its

sacks stuffed with hot peppers and

gods and its unique traditions.

fresh vegetables make for a memorable

Back at the temple, the priests have

experience. The strident shouts of traders

once again lit the fire pit and smoke from

in the market fight for attention with the

the incense hangs heavily in the still air. My

pungent smell of spices, a reminder of what

father is still dressed in a mundu, and mine,

first attracted Europeans to India.

always caught halfway between slipping off

A large red gate marks the entrance to Connemara, another of Trivandrum’s

and pinching too tight is, at the end of the day, more a part of me.

bustling markets. Vendors tout everything from household goods to fabrics, livestock and locally grown bananas. Best of all, the goods found in the narrow aisles of tightly

t i g e r t a l e s m ay-j u n

Tiger Airways flies to Trivandrum from Singapore. Book your flights at

WHAT TO DO Indian School of Martial Arts This martial arts training centre offers classes in both kalarippayattu and Ayurvedic healing. Students enjoy the opportunity to stay in private cottages while learning the healing arts, practising martial arts and experiencing traditional Vedic ceremonies. The centre has played host to many international students and has English-speaking staff members. Contact the school for prices and availability. Parusuvaikal, Thiruvananthapuram, tel: +91 (0)471 223 2686,


Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple Considered one of the holiest sites for Hindus in Kerala, the Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple is dedicated to Vishnu. Known for its seven-storey stone tower, a prime example of Kerala-style architecture, the temple is always bustling. Only Hindus are allowed inside the temple proper, but visitors can tour the grounds. Mathilakom Office, East Fort, Thiruvananthapuram, tel: +91 (0)471 245 0233, www.


retreat seeking to bring western and

Charms and Cures of Kerala  

Told that he is carrying three curses from a prior life, Biju Sukumaran visits his ancestral home on a quest to find his roots and secure th...

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