India blew my world apart in 2015. It was the first place I ever travelled to outside of Europe, and that trip, taken at a time when for various reasons I was feeling depressed, anxious, and insecure, was the best decision I ever made. It was the happiest I had ever been; seeing new crazy things every day, being constantly challenged, and surprised, and amused, and awed in turn- by the people, the culture, the landscape, the food. It made my world bigger, as well as my understanding of what is possible from life. It is thanks to that trip that I decided I had to change the rest of my life in a way which would incorporate seeing as much of the world as I possible. I had found a reason to live fully and finally understand what that means; and that it doesn’t come from textbooks, grades, job security, or sometimes even relationships.
For this reason it is a country that holds a very special place in my heart; I love the generous natured people, I love their literature (which was the basis of my Masters dissertation), and of course I love their food. I always hoped to go back for a longer term trip next time, but when I was lucky enough to be invited for my friend Deepak’s wedding in Kerala shortly before my trip to Latin America I was desperate to go. Last time I had spent three weeks travelling in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, and here was the chance to see the other end of the country. And my god, I knew India is diverse, but it’s a different planet.
Driving through Kerala is a lush panorama of green on all sides; palm trees, coconut trees, banana trees, jackfruit trees…. And endless expanses of water- the sea, lagoons, and rivers. It couldn’t be more different to the harsh desert landscape in Rajasthan, where water scarcity is a serious issue for the people and is often rationed.
After being welcomed by Deepak’s family, we spent the first three days having some much needed rest and relaxation on Cherai beach, which, even when overcast, was a hot and beautiful expanse of sand and palm trees. We stayed in a beach hut on stilts a few steps from the sand. It seemed there were no foreigners around. (This proved to not be true- if you follow the only sign for ‘cold beer’ in the town- there you will find them- all huddled in one bar with an amazing sea view). We had fresh, hot, deep fried chillies, served everywhere on the beach- especially delicious if you get them straight out of the fryer. It was hard to tear ourselves away to go back to the hot city of Cochi, but the promise of an epic Indian wedding was a pretty good incentive.
We had a pre-wedding dinner with Deepak’s lovely family, then the next day had an 8 hour bus ride to the bride (Nida)’s home town. Hari, Deepak’s Dad, told us the pre-wedding dinner was just a ‘small family gathering’ and ‘no need to dress up’. Thank god we decided to anyway.
As the bus drove on to the island (!) on which Nida’s family live, we heard drumming and saw out of the window a huge marquee, and a procession to announce that the groom had arrived. We walked down a path behind it and the drummers moved into the marquee (really not adequate to describe the size of it) lit up in purple like a disco. There were speeches, a cake cutting… Nida looked stunning. An incredible array of food; veggie down one side, meat and fish another, a separate dosa counter… and dance and song tributes to the couple all night. I guess there were a couple of thousand people at this ‘small family gathering’…
The next morning the women of our group got roped (quite literally) into our sarees until we could barely breathe or walk- seriously! Thank god they looked good because they are not comfortable or practical to wear.
The stage had been reset overnight in gold for the wedding, with a pillared gold canopy in the centre framed by two smaller ones, and real roses woven into the framework. Somehow, us bunch of ten foreigners that made up Deepak’s friends, were allowed seats in the front row to witness the ceremony.
The bridesmaids (I assume?) began the procession, in a colourful array of sarees, carrying fans with incense billowing from the centre. There was a parade down to collect the groom. Deepak sat on the stage, looking nervous but excited. Then they collected Nida, who , if possible, seemed to be wearing more gold than the stage, her hair and makeup immaculate.
The ceremony was very much about the coming together of two families, and both appeared with the bride and groom on the stage. I didn’t quite understand all the ins and outs but will try to describe them. The Hindu priest, a tiny, hairy man wearing a dhoti blessed the families, Nida and her father binding hands. Deepak led Nida around a circle in the centre of the stage three times, and then they exchanged garlands (the equivalent of rings). The groom’s sister, the lovely Divya, was to fasten the necklace around Nida’s neck that made her officially a part of their family. They were married. Then just a casual three hours of photos, while the rest of us went for lunch.
Lunch was a huge array of vegetarian curry, pickles, rice, popodoms, and three puddings, on a banana leaf. How do you cook for 5000 people? See below!
After the craziness of the wedding we had a day out to explore the famously beautiful Keralan backwaters. We spent a blissful morning on a larger ‘houseboat’, watching life on the river drift by. After stopping for lunch, the afternoon was then spent in smaller ‘dugout’ canoes, which took us through narrower rivulets, past children playing in the cool water, people washing clothes, beautiful birds, and even a river snake.
The following day was the after party- in which Deepak and Nida were fashionably late, their presence announced by a stream of fireworks down the central aisle as they were lead by a troupe of dancers to the stage. Again, the whole of both families were welcomed to the stage, with what I can only assume was some banterous rhetoric about each person- though a friend tried to translate from the Malayalam, we got odd words displayed on a screen for us foreigners- like ‘cauliflower’ and ‘selfie’. I tried to keep up.
After we had said goodbye to the bride and groom, a small group of us went on to Munnar, the most beautiful place on earth. All you can see for miles around are glimmering emerald mountains, covered in tea plants. Shrouded in clouds (literally, try taking a tuk-tuk back at night and you’ll be swamped in them), it’s like walking into a mystical fairy tale.
We took a jeep at the crack of dawn to try to see the sunrise over Kolukkumalai, the world’s highest tea plantation. Unfortunately due to Indian sense of timing, and our friend Will holding us up for 15 minutes having a dump, we actually missed it. The jeep ride was insane- ‘off road’ doesn’t really cover it, and we all came out quite bruised. However, the photos prove it was worth the views.
If you come to Kerala you must not miss the Kathakali shows. This is a form of traditional dance enacting parts of the Ramayana- an ancient Hindu epic poem. The pictures show the incredible costumes- I wouldn’t want to spoil the plot but it seemed to involve jealousy, violence, divine intervention, and eating intestines and rubbing them in people’s hair… yup.
This was followed by a traditional martial arts demonstration which was out of this world! Seeming superheroes performed battles so fast and insane our eyes couldn’t keep up… leaped through fire, and jumped over about eight audience members.
I will never forget the incredible two weeks I spent in Kerala and all the things we saw, but most of all I am grateful to have come to know Deepak’s family, who made the whole experience so much richer. I have never met more genuine and giving people- so thank you to Bindu and Hari, Divya and Ajith, Joby and Neeraj, and the many more who made us feel a part of your family. We friends from England will always make sure that Deepak has a family in our home, too, and that your new daughter and sister Nida will be welcomed in the same way.
Love and Peace,