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Kerala tourism recognised by UN experts MORE
The Versatile Cocunut 2013 MORE
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CNBC TRAVEL AWARDS WINNERS 2012 MORE
Elephant - Symbol of Kerala MORE
Indian Wine MORE
Birds at the Hermitage MORE
As an article in today’s Hindu (23.03.12) comments, at the recent meeting of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Kerala’s brand of sustainable tourism, with eco-friendliness and inclusiveness as its mainstay, has been hailed as 'a model for India' with equally great potential for replication across the globe.
The accolades for the Responsible Tourism (RT) model came at a recent meeting of UNCTAD in Geneva, which brought together experts, policymakers and diplomats as well as representatives of international organisations and civil society.
"Kerala has become a model for tourism development for the entire India," said Supachai Panitchpakdi, Secretary General of UNCTAD.
Addressing the meeting, Suman Billa, tourism secretary for Kerala, said the state had turned tourism into a driver of economic growth without compromising on ecology and by integrating the interests of local people.
While four pilot destinations - Kumarakom, Kovalam, Wayanad and Thekkady - were chosen for implementing RT practices in 2007, the next year saw the philosophy spread to Malabar with the opening of Neeleshwar Hermitage.
As the pioneers of eco-friendly tourism in this part of the state, we at The Hermitage are all very happy to see the policy get the international recognition it deserves.
"A tranquil and peaceful property integrating the local community into tourism, maintained quite naturally giving a feel of Kerala. Also, pioneering the development of tourism in the northern part of Kerala. A good venture on the part of the owners of the property" says Rani George, Director Kerala Tourism.
A recent article in the Indian Express tells us of a super-smart Australian octopus that was discovered on the sea bed carrying around a coconut shell as a shield to protect itself. According to experts at Melbourne’s Victoria Museum, this is the first recorded case of an invertebrate’s using tools – a major indication of evolutionary intelligence originally thought to be the monopoly of humans, but now known to be found in other primates, mammals and birds.
Evolution has certainly favoured the survival of the coconut palm, as the nut can float on water for months and travel vast distances before washing up on some distant shore and happily germinating. Such mobility makes it impossible to trace its geographical origin, but cocus nucifera has certainly been cultivated here in India for over 4,000 years. South Indians in particular have always appreciated the nut’s value: ancient texts laud it as the fruit of the Kalpavriksha ‘the wish-fulfilling tree’ and there is a hymn in Tamil listing no less than 108 beneficial uses.
A healthy palm can live as long as a human, and every part is used in some way or another in the daily life of coconut growing areas, of which Kerala is the foremost. The ‘water’ inside the tender green nut provides a refreshing and nutritious drink, high in vitamins and minerals, especially potassium. (This why the nuts were used as drips in wartime hospitals throughout south east Asia, providing hermetically sealed sources of instant rehydration and nourishment). The firm white flesh is also rich in nutrition and calories; grated and pulped it is a staple ingredient of local cuisine. Cut plant stems yield the sweet juice used in palm sugar, while the fermented sap produces toddy, the traditional local hooch. Once made, toddy should be quaffed within hours, as it soon goes off and the taste rapidly deteriorates to become vinegary.
Oil extracted from mature coconut plants has always been used for cooking; modern research shows it is high in good cholesterol and the constituent lauric acid gives the body instant energy by going straight to the liver, like a carbohydrate. Coconut oil is used everywhere: in chocolate, ice cream, pastries, ointments, toothpaste, soap, Ayurveda products, candles, dyes, paints, lubricants, plastics and even insecticides. Pulped residue from the oil extracting process is used as cattle fodder, stimulating healthy milk production in cows, and also as manure for trees and plants.
The palm leaves make roof-thatch and mats, and their midribs become good brooms, while the trunk of the tree is used in building and furniture making. Nut husks are a slow burning and virtually smokeless fuel. The shell is fashioned into cups, spoons and ladles; when burnt it produces a charcoal that is used in many filtering systems, from gas-masks to cigarettes! And their water-resistant qualities make two coconuts tied together an effective pair of water-wings for Malayali kids learning to swim. And then there is the coir. This outer, fibrous husk is soaked and beaten off the nut, cleaned and spun into yarn which is then used for rope, brushes, doormats, rugs, mattresses and pillows. Kerala accounts for 75% of India’s coir production, the area around Alapuzha, formerly known as Allepey, being the centre of the industry.
The mythology surrounding the coconut is as ancient and dense as the groves in which it grows. A prime symbol of fertility, it is often kept in a shrine and presented to women desiring to conceive. One of its Sanskrit names is narikela ‘man-fruit’ and it has long been seen as a symbolic substitute for the human head. Traditionally carried into the temple on the worshipper’s head (the highest and most spiritual part of the body) and then offered to the deity, the nut has the symbolic potency of a blood sacrifice but without the ritually polluting and low-caste associations of such a primal offering. If presented to an image, it must have its tuft intact, for this symbolizes the tuft of human hair. It is believed that the coconut, naturally sealed from impure influences, is the purest of offerings, and south Indian temples in particular are full of sudden cracking sounds as they are smashed on the stone floor, particularly in front of an image of Lord Ganesha to invoke his blessings of good luck. Such smashing should not take place in front of a pregnant woman however, as it is believed that a similar fate might transfer to the head of her unborn child.
The coconut is also closely associated with Shiva, Lord of Transformation, as its three ‘eyes’ resemble the three-eyed deity.
There is a special day that perhaps dimly records the coconut’s maritime travels. Each year the festival of Narili purnima, held on the full moon of the lunar month of Shravana (July–August), honours the coconut and the waters jointly. Sea and rivers are worshipped with mantras and coconuts thrown into them as offerings to the gods, particularly Varuna, Lord of the Deep. Traditionally, this festival was taken to mark the waning of the south-west monsoon storms and the resumption of trade and fishing along the west coast. And whereas the West launches a ship by smashing a bottle of champagne, abstemious Indians continue to prefer to use a coconut.
At its most symbolic, the highly versatile fruit without a seed is taken to represent the entire range of existence: its rough outer husk is life’s gross surface; the soft inner flesh the subtle, angelic realms; the pure milk the causal level and the inner space, the realm of pure unalloyed spirit. So, who knows, perhaps that defended Aussie octopus was also a bit of a metaphysician in his spare time?
Here at The Hermitage, our coconut harvest is well underway, as the accompanying photos show.
The award ceremony took place in Srinagar, the capital of the beautiful state of Kashmir, and all the important members of the Indian travel fraternity were there. The guests of honour included Umar Abdullah, (Chief Minister of J & K), Gulam Nabi Azaad (Union Minister for Health), and Shri Charanjeeve (Indian Government Minister of Tourism).
The setting of Srinagar was particularly pleasing from our point of view as out Managing Director, Altaf Chapri, who collected the award on behalf of the hotel, is a native of the city himself. In his speech Altaf thanked all the friends and well-wishers who have supported our ground-breaking effort to bring first class, responsible tourism to Northern Kerala, and he made particular mention of our dedicated and hard-working staff in the hotel and the support of the local community who appreciate our success in bringing jobs to the area.
As this is only our third full year of trading, all of us at The Hermitage feel justifiably proud to have received this award. It will act as an incentive for us to continue to provide the very best in health and rejuvenation for all our guests, and we look forward to offering you our traditional heartfelt welcome down here in Malabar. In the meantime, we wish you all the very best of health and long life in the direction of immortality!
The climax is a coming together of splendidly caparisoned beasts, each bearing a brilliantly coloured ceremonial parasol, peacock fans and yak-tail fly-whisks. They amble regally from shrine to shrine in a musical procession, somehow smiling benignly through the din of the ear-splitting firework display that, as so often in India, is the culmination of the celebrations.
Between Thrissur and Neeleshwar rises the magnificent Krishna temple of Guruvayur which boasts a permanent stable of over fifty elephants from all over the country, all donated by devotees as a sign of piety. Here one can clearly spot the different characteristics of each regional breed - those from areas like Assam, for example, have shorter legs to enable them to keep their balance in the steep mountain terrain. Guruvayur’s elephants are used in the Krishna temple’s festivals and also rented out to other shrines all over the state for their own festivities. But once the busy festival months are over, the monsoon comes and its holiday time with some well-earned rest and serious pachyderm pampering.
As the tourists flee the rains and desert the Ayurvedic clinics, local elephants gleefully take their place. After months of walking on tarred roads, living on palm leaves and bananas and dignifying numerous temple festivals, their routine changes each July into a month-long rejuvenation treatment: individual examination, relaxing massages with medicinal oil, therapeutic baths, and sumptuous Ayurvedic meals that include rice mixed with ghee, wheat flour, powdered black pulses, palm sugar and various herbal powders mixed with vitamin and liver supplements. Presumably it is their unfailing memory of such lavish care that keeps the great beasts gently compliant throughout the following season. Fortunately, we humans can have good memories too.
In December 2011 the 35th death anniversary of a particularly loved temple elephant, Guruvayur Keshavan, was celebrated at the temple. A solemn procession of 24 tuskers, led by the senior member of the stable, Gajaratnam (‘Jewel among Elephants’) who carried a picture of the deceased, assembled in front of a statue of him. They stood with raised trunks for some time while floral tributes were laid. Keshavan was renowned for his majestic looks, intelligence and devotion to the image of the temple’s presiding deity.
Donated to Guruvayur by a local king in 1922, he served the temple for 54 years before dying on Ekadasi, a particularly auspicious day, in 1976. Three years previously he had formally been awarded the title of Gajarajan ‘King of Elephants’.
Indian wine, why not?Something strange is happening to the beautiful area around the pilgrimage town the town of Nasik that lies in the heart of Maharashtra about 120 miles north-east of Mumbai. One of the holiest spots in India, Nasik is famous as the site of the Ardh Kumbh Mela, a religious gathering of several million that it hosts every 12 years. The ancient Shiva temple of Tryambakeshwara is here, set on the banks of the holy Godavari river against the dramatic backdrop of the Western Ghats, hills eroded over the centuries into fantastic shapes. But what is exciting many people at the moment about this hallowed area is that it is fast becoming the Napa Valley of India.
Not that long ago, the phrase ‘Indian wine’ was almost a contradiction in terms; decent home-grown wine was just not on the menu. Today, in tandem with the country's huge changes in lifestyle, the wine culture is expanding rapidly in India, and no one is happier than her foreign visitors. The new frontier of wine production is to be found in the boutique vineyards around Nasik. A major centre for growing grapes to eat for a century, the area only saw its first vineyards in the late 1990s. Today, a mere 15 years later, there are more than 45 vineyards in the region.
Perhaps the most successful Nasik wines are those from the Sula vineyards. The main winery is an extremely well run outfit, with two stylish yet informal restaurants, an information centre with a shop, hourly guided tours, an amphitheatre, a laid-back café that includes tasting tables and a gallery showing the story of wine in the area. The model is clearly Napa Valley, and this is hardly surprising as the place is the creation of Rajeev Samant, an Indian economist who worked in California’s Silicon Valley before returning to India in the mid-nineties and setting to work to transform his ancestral 30-acre estate into a Californian-inspired destination winery. Over a dozen years the business has grown hugely and today Sula manages 1,500 acres and produces a range of very pleasing wines, from Chardonnay to Rosé and Shiraz. No wonder the moustachioed sun that is Sula’s distinctive logo is smiling so broadly.
Wine drinking is still, of course, very new here. India was never an alcohol culture, traditionally preferring stimulants ranged from the mildly intoxicating sherbets imported from Persia by the Mughals as an alcohol- substitute, to opium or the decoctions of hashish known as bhang often used in a religious context. Then there were drinks reserved for royalty, such as the aphrodisiac liquors called ashas, which could contain fifty or more strange ingredients including crushed jewels.
It was the Europeans who introduced India to alcohol, but as far as wine went, the climate imposed real challenges. Indians wine producers have had to learn the importance of controlling over-fruiting, producing just one harvest a year and the judicious pruning of vines in the monsoon.
Another factor has been the simple the fact that wine doesn’t go with all Indian food, especially the hotter curries such as those found in Andhra Pradesh. Happily, this reservation does not apply to the finely nuanced dishes of Kerala, whose flavours are delicately aromatic without being overpowering, evincing a subtlety due to the freshly picked local spices and the gustatory balm of coconut in various forms.
Here at The Hermitage we take full advantage of these exciting possibilities and our guests soon find that Indian dishes are perfectly complemented by the subtle tastes that Indian vineyards are beginning to produce so successfully. Diners at our Annapurna restaurant can combine a pleasantly spicy red with our speciality Hosdurg chicken curry, or if they feel like dining al fresco to the sound of the waves at Meenakshi, our beachside seafood restaurant, they could choose a chilled Sula Sauvignon Blanc as an excellent accompaniment to fish caught that very morning and beautifully prepared by Chef Tony.
Back in the late 1970s the world dismissed New Zealand's wines; today they are amongst the finest in the world. A similar transformation is now being fashioned in India - make no mistake, Indian wine is here to stay. Come and sample some with us; we look forward to seeing you here!
Birds & Wildlife at the Hermitage
Early morning by the beach is the best place to see them. Kites ride the thermals in wide, lazy circles or gather in numbers on the sand; smaller than them is the elegant Brahminy Kite with its white head and chest and russet wings. Grey-headed Eagles and Fishing Eagles are common, and there is a pair of snake-eating White-bellied Sea Eagles nesting just north of our lagoon, one of only 38 pairs known in Kerala. Black, long-necked Little Cormorants perch on trees, hanging out their wings to dry in the sun.
Various Waders pick their way fastidiously through the water, while white Little Eagrets and the larger Great Eagrets can often be spotted, usually on the far side of the lagoon, their favourite fishing place. Pretty green and golden Bee Eaters with their long spike of a tail, and their cousins the Blue Tailed Bee Eater, play in the trees around the lagoon, while Sandpipers, Green and Red Shanks (named after the colour of their legs), White-breasted Kingfishers with long beak, blue back and orange wings, and the larger black-and–white Pied Kingfishers are all often seen.
In the gardens, keep a look out for the small, purple-rumped Sunbirds, rather like humming birds with long nectar-drinking bills that can be sighted feeding at the top of coconut palms. An elegant Pond Heron, with white and brown streaked throat, grey-mushroom back and white under wings, is very often seen stepping fastidiously around the lawns in search of insect prey, while the brilliant Flameback Woodpeckers can be seen climbing the trees in the early evening, usually in pairs.
About the size of a large starling they have a small bright red crest, speckled black and white head and breast and reddish-saffron wings. Their call is loud and startling. Keep your eyes open too for the dignified Coucal (often called the Pheasant Crow) blue-black with russet wings and a long tail, that usually steps elegantly along the ground or hops among the lower branches of bushes or small trees. Sometimes seen in twos or threes (locals believe a sighting brings good luck) their call is a very distinctive series of hoop-hoop-hoop-hoop-hoop-hoop-hoop cries, descending and then rising towards the end.
Malabar is very rich in bird life, having over 340 species. One bird not yet reported here is the Prescient Parakeet. ‘Parrot Astrologers’ are roadside fortune-tellers who read your future with the help of a tame green parakeet. The bird picks up a card from a special deck of tarot-like cards, and gives it to the astrologer who interprets it according to the questions that you ask. This fairground skill, now confined to Tamil Nadu and Kerala, dates back to ancient India, and a version of it was practised until fairly recently by the Romanies in Europe. These people were originally low caste nomadic tribes from Rajasthan who, on their way to Europe, stayed a long time in Egypt, hence their common English name ‘gypsies’.
However, perhaps mindful of their origins, they prefer to call themselves didicoits, a name derived from a Rajasthani dialect word meaning ‘traveller’. Binoculars and bird books are available to use at Meenakshi, and our life-guard Prasanth will also help you to spot some of these birds. A trip up the lagoon in our canoe will reveal many more species too shy to come out into the open.