Tranquillity and India are rarely linked in the same sentence. But Kerala is a very particular corner of the subcontinent which defies the stereotypes. Lush rather than barren, calm instead of chaotic, highly literate, this is a place where time stands still long enough to enjoy the rare sighting of a blue butterfly, a cormorant hovering on the wing, a setting sun which leaves a vivid pink backdrop to a balmy evening.
Jews who fled from Baghdad and beyond 500 years ago — and those who preceded them more than a millennium earlier at the time of Solomon — must have felt they had arrived in a tropical paradise; one of the world’s oldest and most beautiful synagogues still stands testimony to their pleasure in landing on the Malabar coast.
So Kochi — or Cochin — the international gateway to this south-western state, demands a couple of days of exploration before venturing into Kerala’s legendary backwaters, hilltop spice plantations or intimate resorts.
It’s tempting to think of the 1658 Paradesi synagogue as being named for paradise found, but less romantically it translates as an Indian word for foreigners. And while the community who built it prospered in the spice trade, many were descendants of refugees from further along the Indian coast, who built their first synagogue in the 4th century and had later to flee Portuguese persecution for Dutch protection. These black Jews, as they were known, did not get the same membership rights as the white Jews who came from Spain, Portugal and the Netherlands, although they were welcome to come and worship.
Today any Jew from anywhere is eagerly sought, especially on Shabbat and high holidays, to help form a minyan, for only five of the original community remain, and the shul, which is quite beautiful with its ceiling of hanging glass and 18th century hand-painted tile floor, has taken on a secondary role as a historic attraction.
The surviving Jews are less ready to issue Shabbat dinner invitations but visitors are welcome at the shop (and home) of Sarah Cohen, who sells challah covers and other embroidered Judaica a few steps from the synagogue on Jew Town Road. Her Indian carer recounts the community’s history and may even share the priceless footage of the community celebrating high holidays before most emigrated to Israel.
Kochi boasts relics of Dutch rule and the Raj, as well as the Jewish community, and a great place to stay and soak up the atmosphere of Britain’s last hurrah is the Brunton Boatyard on the waterfront. Authentically preserved, down to the old ceiling fans in the lobby, with only the updates required for comfort, this converted Victorian shipbuilding yard offers simple pleasures like tea-chests in every room with a pot to brew up a proper, locally-grown cuppa which you can enjoy on a balcony overlooking the boats.
Fishermen here still draw in their catch using butterfly nets introduced by the Chinese in the 14th century; traditions persist in Kerala. Another is the kathakali, a classical dance retelling Indian epics with a scary-looking green-faced man at its heart. This widely available pre-dinner entertainment usually includes the chance to watch the principal dancers applying their make-up, as much a treat as the performance itself.
From Kochi, most visitors head for Kerala’s backwaters, where the relaxed journey to your destination is half the pleasure. Houseboats from Alleppey take nearly 24 hours to reach the resorts of Lake Kumarakom, itself fed by the narrow waterways. Although shorter cruises are also available, they can’t match the joys of eating and sleeping on a well-equipped craft navigating a lazy river.
Crisply-fried pomfret and salad were produced by an expert crew of cooks soon after we set course with our own crate of Indian lager — those who want a tipple must bring their own on board — and after lunch at a proper dining table, we lounged on mattresses behind the skipper’s wheel enjoying riverbank life, with a dose of unexpected retail therapy at a busy little waterside village where handicrafts, jewellery and spices were on sale.
Dinner followed as that huge, fuchsia sky emerged behind the dark silhouettes of palm trees. Keralans are famed for their vegetarian cuisine, so the observant are well catered for, and locals will hold off on the spice if given advance notice.
As dark fell, I retired to my en-suite stateroom for what turned out to be the best night’s sleep of my entire trip.
Any understandable reluctance to disembark was dispelled on our arrival at Coconut Lagoon, described by Conde Nast Traveller as one of the 25 best getaways in the world. It certainly has a feeling of escaping the world; in place of bland hotel rooms, guests sleep in authentic Keralan village houses of dark wood which have been moved from elsewhere in the state. My duplex had a large bedroom upstairs, while the living space downstairs led to a delightful outdoor bathroom in a walled garden.
Food was excellent, and for lovers of that South Indian delight masala dosa (a stuffed crisp lentil pancake) there was a dedicated dosa pavilion, plus the romance of a tea-boat arriving daily to dispense afternoon refreshments on the lawn from a water-borne urn and biscuit box.
There is also an excellent Ayurvedic spa but my favourite place was the butterfly garden, getting up close and personal with rare species which flew in and hovered just long enough for the camera lens to capture.
CGH Earth, the eco-minded family firm behind both Coconut Lagoon and the Brunton Boatyard, operates the Marari Beach seaside resort too. Rooms with lovely outdoor bathrooms were functional rather than elegant, but it had its own charms; loungers laid out on a huge lawn leading up to the beach, a yoga pavilion offering excellent dawn and dusk sessions and a beautiful organic garden providing much of the resort’s excellent fare.
But best of all was the chance to experience local life. One morning we rose early to take a tuk-tuk to a village where the local catch was landed, enjoying the bustle of colourful boats and shoals of silver sardines being rushed into shore in buckets.
Another afternoon we walked across the road to the local hamlet and a different world where women wove rope from plant fibres or picked jackfruit from the trees in their gardens for dinner as smartly uniformed children returned from school.
While WiFi makes it possible to stay connected with the world in these peaceful sanctuaries, the charm of Kerala is its other-worldliness, the chance to escape the harsh realities of life and find calm in a more primeval space where it’s all about taking time to appreciate the birds, butterflies and sheer beauty of undisturbed nature.
Kerala specialists Globe Travel create bespoke holidays to the area. A week including a night on a houseboat, the Brunton Boatyard in Cochin and one or more resorts costs from around £1,300 including flights.