After two days of doing absolutely nothing in the backwaters, I went up to the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary to see if I can find a tiger or two. Of course in reality I had no real chance of seeing a tiger but the idea of walking around in a forest that tigers and elephants roam regularly appealed to me. On the banks of the river where I crossed over from Emerald Isle, I met Glancy David (He goes by Glancy), my driver for the next week. He’s from Fort Cochin and is Catholic, hence his Christian name Glancy David. He has an easy smile about him and with 16 years of working in the tourism industry, he’s English is excellent and is full of interesting facts and stories about Kerala and its neighboring southern states. I really enjoyed our 4 hour drive from Allepey to Periyar, not only because of the beautiful green scenery but also because I saw hundreds of Ayappa people and just as many cows! And having Glancy to talk to certainly made the trip more fun.
Periyar is referred also as Thekkady or as the town Kumily. All three names are interchangeable when you talk about the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary, which is very close to Tamil Nadu. I learned from Glancy that the cows I saw packed into trucks were coming from Tamil Nadu and they were headed to a market in Kerala. As for the Ayappa people, well, that’s an interesting story. While
I was at the Sivananda ashram a few weeks back, the director of the ashram told us about the legend of Ayappa and his cult like worshippers. Ayappa is the offspring of Shiva and Mohini (Vishnu’s female form) and his image is most often portrayed with him riding a tiger. Every year around December and January, devotees from all over India make their pilgrimage to the Sri Ayappan forest temple at Sabarimala in Kerala. Most of them prepare for this journey by being austere (no sex, no shaving or hair cutting, keeping vegetarian, etc) for 41 days and many of them walk to the temple. I have read that the number of Ayappa worshipers has grown exponentially in the past few years and now as many as 1.5 million men make this pilgrimage each year. I think I have seen at least several hundred of them in the last few days; I even saw a few at the Kumari temple in Kanyakumari, at the southernmost tip of India last Sunday. They mostly wear black or blue or saffron colored dhotis without a shirt, some wear mala bead necklaces, and appear to be in groups. They all seem to travel extremely light, carrying one small cloth or plastic bag or a cloth pouch they balance on their heads and strapped to their chins. The day I arrived in Kumily and walked around town, there were so many of them that I was actually a bit frightened. It didn’t help that they all stared at me and since there wasn’t much to do in Kumily, I returned back towards my hotel rather quickly.
The first day in Periyar I just took in the town and its neighborhood, and had a good South Indian meal at a place called Ambadi. When I asked my local guide where I should have lunch he first told me to go to Spice Garden. I asked whether it was for foreign tourists and he answered honestly, “yes.” Hmmm. When I told him I wanted to eat where everyone else ate, he said then try Ambadi. Well, it wasn’t exactly where the locals ate since the restaurant was inside a hotel (of the same name) but at least that’s where a lot of the Indian tourists seemed to eat. On the way to the restaurant I stopped by the Eco Tourism office for some information and got a second opinion from the woman working there. She said she’d eaten at Ambadi and when I pressed her for specific recommendations, she told me she’s only had the Keralan meal there. So that’s what I ordered. A vegetarian Keralan meal and a cup of tea.
The menu at Ambadi was actually quite extensive but I flipped to the back and found what I was looking for. For my vegetarian Keralan meal, I was given a large amount of puffy rice called puzhukkalari. This rice is local to the region and has a reddish streak on each grain. They are plump and the grains separate, unlike the sticky Korean or Japanese rice. I’ve had them cooked and served “dry,” and also boiled and served runny with the water it’s been cooked in. It’s not very easy to eat with your hands if the rice is swimming in water and you’re given a vegetable stew on top of it. The rice at Ambadi was dry but since I was obviously a foreigner, the waiter gave me a fork to eat my food. I noticed that the other locals (and there actually were some locals) who ordered the same meal were given their rice differently. For them, the waiter brought over a giant platter of rice and he spooned heaps of it on their plates directly. My meal was pre-portion controlled and brought over to me on separate plates. I had a platter of rice, a plate containing lemon pickles, a chutney, and two different vegetable dishes in thick sauces, and a bowl of vegetable stew (sambal). I also had two little pitchers of different curds/ runny yogurt, and a crispy papadam. Everything was spicy but light, like a typical Keralan meal cooked with just a little bit of oil. My waiter brought over more vegetables for me a while later and told me that the stew is the same everyday, but the two vegetable dishes change daily. My meal came to 65 rupees ~ $1.50. Even with a whopping 25% tip for my friendly waiter, the total bill was less than $2.00.
I spent the rest of the afternoon on a rooftop café drinking masala tea and chatting with a couple from England. The masala tea there was made with a bag of black tea and with several different spices actually thrown into the cup. I identified a few of the spices- anise seeds, cloves, black peppercorns, but there was something woody I couldn’t figure out. The next day I asked my local guide about masala tea and he said that some people put use cinnamon and ginger. There is more than half of my spice rack in a cup of Indian tea! I’ve been drinking tea here everyday but I’m making a mental note to try the coffee in Kerala as well. Kerala grows a ton of coffee and is well known to have delicious filtered coffee. Glancy told me that he drinks coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon. Maybe that’s my strategy here, too… But I decided to do an early morning jungle/nature walk at 7AM the next day so I passed on having a cup of coffee and I went to bed early. Will there be a tiger sighting in my future?