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5 Ways To Experience Kerala’s True Culture

The beauty of its dance, food, or even a holistic treatment, the writer shares the not-so-hidden treasures from God's Own Country.

Manjulika Pramod

Caressed by the Arabian Sea on the west and the Sahya Parvatam (Western Ghats) to the east, Kerala revels in its natural abundance. To add to the charm, there is an ancestry of 1,500 years and beyond. And when it comes to dramatic heritage, languid backwaters, green landscapes, magical Ayurveda, and visually alluring festivals, the state looms large in the eyes of the world. 
After my recent sojourn in Kerala, I was smitten by the power of nature everywhere. Its people, culture, literature, cuisine, heritage, and larger-than-life dance performances made me see through the sobriquet ‘God’s own country. In no time, the boundless serenity and cultural diversity of the state grew on me.

There are many destination-centric experiences in Kerala but if I had to pick my favourite, I would say, take a deep dive into its cultural extravaganza. The dances are remarkable and evoke the highest form of drama and storytelling. The most scientific martial art in the world is the pride of the state and when it comes to Ayurvedic solace, this southern beauty is the only one that comes to the rescue of all. 

So, what can you experience while in Kerala? Here are our top 5 recommendations.  

Kathakali 

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The name says it all. ‘Katha’ is the Hindi word for story and “Kali” stands for an act of play. Kathakali hails the style and techniques of both Aryan and Dravidian cultures and is the face of Kerala’s art and culture.  Painted faces, billowing costumes, enormous headgear, and ornaments in plenty make it a visual treat for the spectators. In the 17th century, it originated as a temple dance but later its popularity knew no bounds. Today, it is rightly recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage. The dance is extremely entertaining in its story-telling format. 

I was surprised to learn that the Kathakali has a legacy of more than 1500 years and has been known for 300 years alone in Kerala itself. It used to be performed all night till morning in temples. Even today, there are special dance shows and performances that go on for 3-4 hours minimum. Next time, whenever you are in Kerala, you must book a show to be enamoured by its expressive hand gestures, and rhythmic conversations. And do read more about it to learn about ‘Pacha’ and Thaadi’ characters in Kathakali.

Kalaripayattu

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Known as the “Pride of Kerala”, Kalaripayattu is the oldest martial art form in the world. It is a combination of science and Ayurveda, which also combines fighting, healing, yoga, astrology, spiritual practice, and God-like transcendence in human form. 

Kalari means training ground and payattu stands for combat. I went for a Kalaripayattu martial arts show in Thekkady and was mighty impressed with the strength and spirit of the warriors. It was not just an entertainment show but an evocative cultural expression of the state. The movements, techniques, flexibility, and agility of the practitioners left the audience awestruck. Further, it was good to know that Kalaripayattu helps to harness one’s body-mind powers, with the basic principles of psychology and physiology. I am no more surprised to know that a skilled Kalaripayattu warrior can take over their opponents simply by touching the vulnerable points in their body.

Mohiniyattam 

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Named after Mohini, the Hindu mythological beauty, this classical dance form of Kerala is enchanting as its name. It is one of the oldest and the first references to it were found in texts from the 16th and 18th centuries. It started as a temple dance but gradually evolved as a solo dance on Carnatic music. It is a very beautiful dance, known for its graceful gestures, delicate body round-up, and expressive eye movements.  Mohiniyattam is mostly done by women, unlike Kathakali. I had a chance to watch this dance in Thekkady and I thoroughly enjoyed it for its feminine, tender, and subtle body gestures.  

Banana leaf meal and the delicious sadhya 

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The character of the place is best reflected in its food. The vibrant and attractive culture of Kerala is evident on its platter. And they say, if you have not indulged in “Sadhya” with your fingers and smacked your lips, you are yet to experience bliss. A variety of vegetarian food served on a banana leaf is the humblest explanation of Sadhya. In real, it is a feast. The variety and the combinations are endless and flavours travel straight to the heart. Sadhya is not just a meal but a tradition. It is a celebration of food and age-old recipes. There is a special place for every item on the leaf. And closing the leaf into half means that you enjoyed the meal. On a normal day, one can enjoy a simple banana leaf meal in any of the local restaurants in the cities of Kerala. The Onam Sadhya is special with 24-28 dishes served in one go.

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Kerala Ayurveda

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India owns the oldest medical system and Kerala is the hub of Ayurveda and age-old therapies. Some of the massage techniques are more than a hundred thousand years old. Moreover, these massages are done depending on the body type, medical conditions, and the requirements of the body. Kerala is associated with Ayurveda as the state and its people have made tremendous literary contributions to the Ayurveda system through Kalari Chikitsa (healing modality of Kalaripayattu), hospitals, research centres, medicines, wellness resorts, and age-old practices. People from around the world trust our traditional Ayurveda system because they have benefitted from the therapies. Kerala massages are not what we know or hear of them but what they do to us. My perception of them changed after my stay at an Ayurveda wellness centre, recently. The therapies healed my mind and body in more than one way.  

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