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Cultural Lessons in Kerala

Study Traditional Arts and Crafts in a Rural Village

“Tai dit-dit tai, tai tai dit-dit tai,” sings my teacher as she whacks a wooden stick on the table to set the rhythm. I whirl through the intricate movements, vainly trying to coordinate my stamping feet and swinging arms with precise hand gestures and the wide-eyed smile of a Bharata Natyam dancer.

My classroom in Aranmula, a tiny village in Kerala, India, is an outdoor platform with a thatched roof. Beyond the platform the jungle offers countless fascinating distractions. Red lizards dart and gorgeous turquoise kingfishers fly past. Local men climb trees with machetes to hack down the swelling jackfruit, and girls with ringing ankle bells wander around collecting firewood. Sometimes Parthan, the village elephant, lumbers by. Once I looked up from my dance practice to see the elephant lying on his side while his mahout stood on his back calmly sweeping him down with a broom.

It has been almost a decade since my first visit to India on a youth exchange, where I was introduced to the most famous of classical Indian dance styles, Bharata Natyam. After a few lessons I was hooked, and I vowed to return to India to learn more.

The Vijnana Kala Vedi Cultural Centre (www.vijnanakalavedi.org) caters to travelers who want to experience rural India and its culture. It offers courses in music, dance, painting, woodcarving, languages, yoga, and Ayurveda (the traditional medicine of India). Set in a small village surrounded by emerald rice paddies along the Pamba River, the center attracts international guests who come to study their chosen art or who simply want to soak up the color of village life.

The center has several comfortable guesthouses scattered throughout the village and guests are encouraged to get to know their neighbors. The locals are indulgent toward the strange foreigners who poke nosily through shops and back lanes, and the village children never tire of calling out a greeting. Uniformed schoolchildren circle guests offering conversation and shy smiles.

At the Vijnana Kala Vedi guests enjoy genuine Keralese home cooking. Meals are always a social event, when everyone gathers on the patio to enjoy a variety of vegetarian dishes served on banana leaves. Some guests have enjoyed the meals so much that they requested lessons, and today the center includes cooking courses.

On weekends guests can stroll along the Pamba River, and bicycles are available to explore dozens of pleasant back roads. I spent many happy hours just watching the rhythms of village life: women working in fields, their colorful saris bright against a green background, or the local ferryman, who ferries parties of children across the river to attend school. The small market at the junction is always bustling; rattling buses spit out passengers and shopkeepers noisily compete for their business. Every guest makes a visit to Aranmula’s Parthasarathy temple, a large, elegant structure with a red-tiled roof surrounded by vendors hawking devotional wares.

During my visit several local temples threw open their gates at night for their spring dance festivals. Although the dancing rarely gets started before ten o’clock, whole Indian families attend. My friends and I would hunker down beside the whining tots, sleeping parents, and dozing grannies who gathered on blankets in the temple courtyard. We enjoyed watching a variety of classical dances and a local favorite, Kathakali. This art combines dance and well-loved stories from the Indian epics. The dancers, in elaborate costumes and makeup, use the language of mudras, symbolic gestures, to tell the stories. My companions and I also took in a Padayani ceremony in which men danced themselves into a trance for the goddess Kali.

Beyond the sleepy charm of Arunmula, Kerala offers visitors a variety of fascinating venues to explore. The state itself is a narrow strip of green that stretches along India’s southeast coast, with steamy jungles rising up to lofty hillstations in the east.

The southern region is justly famous for its backwater tours. The “backwaters” are a lacework of canals that weave their way throughout the state’s coastal lowlands. Tourists float past palm-lined villages in elegant Keralese houseboats that resemble traditional rice barges. Allepey, the take-off point for most of these backwater cruises, is just a few hours away from Aranmula by bus or taxi.

The delightful port city of Cochi, with its Portuguese and Dutch architecture and rabbit warren of antique shops, is a short train ride away. Visitors can spend hours exploring the churches and cemeteries of the old colonial town, wandering scented market lanes lined with spice shops, and admiring the large Chinese fishing nets that line the water. In the evening, dozens of vacationing Indian families gather on the beach to eat ice cream and watch the sunset.

South of Aranmula lies the Varkala, a seaside resort town that caters to the backpacking set, where you can lie on the beach and watch local fisherman brave the surf on their long wooden boats.

The hillstation of Munnar is a good day’s drive from Arunmula, but after a few weeks in the humid lowlands guests often need to escape to the misty hills for the cool climate. This is tea plantation country, where the closely-spaced rows of tea bushes give the hilltops the appearance of being covered in green corduroy. Women, young and old, work the plantations, cutting the leaves carefully before dropping them into baskets strapped to their backs.

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