Part of a trip that brought me to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Taiwan, Palau, the Philippines and the Solomon Islands before being cut short by the Covid-19 pandemic in Fiji.

India: The “End” of the Subcontinent

– visited February 2020 –

The moment I realize it’s cheaper I am sold. I can book two separate flights, pay the e-visa for India, have a few days there and then move on to the Maldives for less money than buying a flight with just a change of planes in India. And anyway, two short flights are better than a whole day on planes and in airports.

It is my fourth visit to India and I have got a fairly good grasp of this complicated country. There are aspects I love and aspects I greatly dislike. I have never been that far south. The state of Kerala is well-known for two reasons, first its natural beauty, especially the backwaters, a series of canals and lakes where tourists visit on houseboats, enjoying and (most of them unfortunately) destroying the environment. Kerala’s other claim to fame is a long history of communist governments. In 1957, the first election in the newly created state of Kerala was won by the Communist Party of India. Contrary to many other communist-ruled places they did not move into the direction of a one-party state but embraced competitive electoral politics. Since then, government has alternated most elections between “communist” politicians (currently in the form of the Left Democratic Front) and “non-communist” parties (currently the United Democratic Front). Kerala is one of the few places in the world where politicians proudly describe themselves as communists, get elected under the banner of communism, where communist symbols appear in everyday life and where tourists tell me that they came because the “communism” interests them. 

In fact, the whole thing about “communism” in Kerala is overdone, there is no command economy, no widespread state ownership, there is freedom of the press and free and competitive elections. Debating the agrarian reform of 1961, the communist party leader declared state ownership or collective farms not desirable because they would not help the peasantry in practice even though such ideas might appeal to intellectuals. A wise man. In reality, Kerala much more resembles a social-democratic welfare state. The results speak for themselves, Kerala has the lowest population growth rate in India at 3.44%; the highest Human Development Index (0.784 in 2018, the state would be ranked nearly 60 places higher than India as a whole); the highest literacy rate at 93.91% and the highest life expectancy with 77 years. In the Indian context also relevant, Kerala has the highest sex ratio at 1,084 women per 1,000 men (2011 figures), meaning that girls/women are not/less often killed, selectively aborted or neglected because of their gender than elsewhere in India/Asia.  

Thiruvananthapuram & Kovalam

Kerala’s capital is commonly known by its former (and easier) name of Trivandrum. A place that feels in some parts very Indian but lacks the intensity of other Indian towns. No constant riksha/taxi offers, fixed prices (with a list) from the airport, the streets are full but not packed as in other metropolises, no people seem to be living on the street. The city has a surprising number of churches, including a Syrian Orthodox Cathedral.  A filling vegetarian meal can be had for less than 1€ and at the zoo you can only enter with a plastic bottle if you put a sticker and a deposit on it. If you bring the bottle out you get the deposit back, if you throw it away, you loose the money.

I move on to nearby Kovalam with its beach. Too developed by now, but the best beach that can be found close and south of Thiruvananthapuram. The foreign clientele is slightly older, many Russians and many women. David, the guy who runs the hotel, complains, they all come here and want to do Yoga, no one in India does Yoga! I disagree. “Well, not the normal people”, he insists.

The “End” of the Subcontinent

I want to rent a scooter. They want to see my license. They tell me my license is not valid for a scooter. That is correct, but that has never been a problem anywhere else so far (except Taiwan). Kerala is a bit more organized than elsewhere it seems. David organizes one for me and saves my trip to the “end” of the subcontinent. I have been to the east of India, I have been to the west of India, I have been to the centre of India and I have been to the north of India. Now, I am in the south of India. The subcontinent, as a giant peninsula jutting out into the Indian Ocean, has a southernmost tip, literally the “end” of the subcontinent as after thousands of kilometres you cannot go further south. I have to go. Three hours of riding small backcountry roads. I have left Kerala and reached the state of Tamil Nadu.

As Swami Vivekananda, a Hindu Monk, reached Kanyakumari on Christmas Eve 1892 he found a few rocky islets and began to meditate. He had a vision: “At Cape Camorin sitting in Mother Kumari’s temple, sitting on the last bit of Indian rock—I hit upon a plan: We are so many sanyasis wandering about, and teaching the people metaphysics—it is all madness. Did not our Gurudeva use to say, ‘An empty stomach is no good for religion?’ We as a nation have lost our individuality and that is the cause of all mischief in India. We have to raise the masses.”

He travelled on to the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago in 1893 and brought the western world into contact with Yoga (amongst other Indian ideas and philosophies) and helped to raise interfaith awareness and to bring Hinduism to the status of a major world religion. On his return to India he founded the Ramakrishna Mission that carries out a wide array of educational and philanthropic work. The Swami was undoubtedly a highly educated man who had a lot of understanding not only of Hinduism but of other religions and philosophy in general. Contrary to the current ruling party of India (not Kerala state but the whole of India) he understood well that there is no need for religions to fight and to try to promote one religion at the expense of another.

The rock where he meditated has become a place of pilgrimage. On one of the islets a temple has been built and on another a 40.6 m tall statue of the Tamil poet and philosopher Thiruvalluvar has been erected to celebrate the millennium. A visit is a good introduction to India and to Indian masses. The ships run a circle and leave every few minutes. A hundred people quickly stream out of the boat and throw their lifesaving vests into two containers. It is a chaotic hustle where being quick on your feet is an advantage. Still, for India the process works fairly organized. A whistle blows and a hundred people are streaming the other direction, grabbing a live-vest (the boatmen will stop you if you do not have one) and entering the boat. As soon as people are tightly packed onboard, the boat will depart. Even in that efficient setting I have to wait about half an hour at the temple as well as at the statue. I would prefer the lonely rocks Swami Vivekananda found in 1892.

On the way back to Kovalam, I stop at the nearly all-wooden Padmanabhapuram Palace, the centre of the former Hindu kingdom of Travancore.