This article was first published in The Guardian Travel section https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2011/oct/28/kerala-homestays-rubber-plantations-kochi
On a bend in the road, just before the hairpin drop into the Koottickal Valley, we stopped for a moment to admire the view. And, oh, what a view. Aside from the pink tip of a church tower, all we could see was lush, tropical greenery: betel nut, coconut, and banana palms and forests of rubber trees. Whisps of cloud hung in the folds of the distant Vagamon mountains. A pair of gaudy butterflies danced past. We listened to the whoop-whoop of a crow pheasant. After the steamy heat of Kerala’s crowded plains, this was heaven.
The Koottickal Valley is in the heart of Kerala’s rubber belt. In the foothills of the Western Ghats (the gigantic mountainous ridge that runs down the spine of South India), it’s a wide band of plantations (rubber, vanilla, pepper, pineapple). It’s an area often overlooked by tourists. On the well-trodden ‘KK Road’, which plods uphill from Kottayam to Kumilly, they simply pass through, sometimes by the coach-load. We’ve done it ourselves but we’ve since found a dozen good reasons to stick around.
The weather is perfect: rubber thrives in midland temperatures; cooler than the plains, but warmer, dryer, than the High Range tea plantations. The landscapes are breathtaking – green hills, steep gradients, white morning mists rising from river valleys. We like the ordinary, every-day towns (Pala, Kanjirapally, Mundakayam) and the madly ornate ‘Latin’ churches and icing-sugar bell towers (around 70 per cent of the midland communities are Christian). Thanks to a growing number of rubber-belt homestays [hyper link] we’ve also developed a taste for plantation life – a life that was pioneered by British planters a century or so ago, and hasn’t really changed much since.
In the Kootickal Valley, we stayed with fourth-generation Keralan planter, George Abraham, his wife Anju, and their two children Rose and Aby. On the 50-acre Evergreen Estate, which peeps at the Urumbi hills through slender rubber trees, their homestay is a flat-roofed neo-Modernist bungalow – all cubes, curves, louvred windows and a Miami-style car-port – built by George’s father in 1955. He runs a small travel agency (Stay Homz) specialising in ‘plantation tourism’. There’s not much he doesn’t know about his native ‘rubber country’.
On sultry evenings, sipping cold Kingfisher beers on his verandah, he told us about the colonial farmers and missionaries who helped establish Kerala’s first rubber estates; about the Syrian Christian families who now own most of them; about his grandfather who once bought a Studebaker with leopard-skin seats (‘real leopard skin – can you believe it?’).
A lot of what you can see around here is standard Keralan fare: flat-roofed concrete houses in vivid shades of citrus, creaking rust-bucket buses, crowds of uniformed school children, lines of washing, strung across front doors between roadside adverts for silks, cement and – this being the new India – hedge equities. But some of the local attractions are far from typical.
On a guided plantation tour, we hiked along red-earth paths, through industrial forests of rubber, where each tall spindly tree is skirted with a polythene tutu designed to protect the latex which drips into a little cup strapped to the trunk. Get up early – before dawn – and you can see the ‘tappers’, torches strapped to their heads, carefully cutting thin strips of bark to release the milky fluid. If you’re really keen you can visit a rubber factory (ah, the sweet smell of coagulating latex and formic acid).
At Bharananganam– a name which encapsulates the timbre of the local Malayalam language – you can also visit the tomb of St Alphonsa (India’s first and only female saint she was ordained in 2008), join the crowds of silent pilgrims, pick up a kitschy light-up Alphonsa from a convent-run kiosk of churchy souvenirs.
With George, we visited the final resting place of John Joseph – ‘JJ’ – Murphy, who founded India’s first commercial rubber plantation in 1903. He is buried near Koottickal in an overgrown, middle-of-nowhere cemetery, close to the hilltop plantation he used to own. ‘We have a lot to thank him for,’ said George, who was looking quite misty-eyed as he stood over the Irishman’s grave. He died in 1957, but JJ Murphy’s portrait still hangs above the bar of the once very British Mundakayam Club where a new generation of planters still sip pegs of whisky under whirling ceiling fans. Another of George’s must-dos, the club was founded in 1912.
Some of our finest moments were in the simple pleasures of a family-run plantation homestay (‘the testimony to glorious yesteryears,’ according to George). And the food is so good. Typical of Kerala’s Syrian Christian home-cooking, we dined on meat-ball curries, rice-flour chappatis, appams (rice flour and toddy pancakes), coconuty fish curries with tapioca; we were even treated to a traditional nazarani sadhyafeast, 30 tiny spicy dishes served on a banana leaf.
We love the region’s lush green landscapes, the tourist-free towns (nobody tries to sell you anything, not even a tuk-tuk ride), but we would travel a long way to anywhere for one of Anju Abraham’s banana flower patties.