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An ideal getaway

Tourism in Kerala has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade helped by changing attitudes of tourists and the lure of Ayurveda. In the second and concluding part of an article, KAUSALYA SANTHANAM looks at the factors that have contributed to this phenomenon.


Backwaters tourism ... a growing attraction.

TAKING A speed boat though the backwaters of Kerala is as enjoyable as a ride though the canals of Venice. The tourist literature becomes valid as the startling blue of the sky dips into the blue of the waters punctuated by the green of the coconut palms overhead. As the boat races across the 11 km stretch from Kumarakom to Manaltheeram, slowing down from time to time to chug though the moving clumps of water hyacinth, it is clear why backwaters tourism has become so popular and Kumarakom, 60 km from Kochi is today on the world tourism map.

Arundhati Roy has also brought it fame as the place finds mention in The God of Small Things.

Posh resorts have sprung up here. Aesthetically designed and maintained in style, they drawn tourists from within the country and abroad. The impeccably maintained Ayurvedic clinic is mandatory at every resort. Luxurious houseboats with beautifully decorated cabins and thatched roofs move in stately grace through the canals or are moored on the banks. The Vembanad bird sanctuary is an added attraction at Kumarakom.

At Waterscapes, the recently built hotel of the Kerala Tourism Development Corporation, small raised cottages stand in little islets, connected by wooden bridges. The rooms are priced lower than those in the surrounding luxury resorts. "This is why we chose to come here," says a member of the Patel family from Gujarat. "We never thought Kerala would be so beautiful. We take holidays every year and we decided on this resort as my son had come here for his honeymoon last year. And we will try out Ayurveda if we have the time."

A canal ride or two away is the resort of the Taj Group of Hotels (with an Ayurvedic clinic) located in a 120-year-old colonial mansion and which has shot into national fame after the Prime Minister came here for treatment. Tastefully done up with reconstructed Kerala tharawads is the Coconut Lagoon of the Casino Group of Hotels. The upmarket resort is visited by Indian artists, business executives and cricketers while foreigners, of course, make up the bulk of the clientele. The Ayurveda centre, much in demand, is being refurbished, the rates for treatment varying from Rs. 25,000 for 14 days of Pizhichal to Rs. 8,925 for medicated steam bath and massage for the same duration.

The backwaters of Kerala are formed by 40 rivers that flow into the Arabian Sea from the Western Ghats. Comprising lakes, canals, estuaries, the waterways have seen the export of spices to Europe in the past and continue to be a means of transporting goods and people between the interior areas and the ports. Today they play a new role and the lovely scenery is being exploited to the full. But is it being done wisely? Is there too much area being built up and is Manaltheeram in danger of losing its delicately balanced ecology?

There has been a 100 per cent cumulative growth in tourism in the last five years in Kerala say those in the tourist trade. Tour operators, airlines and anyone connected by the most tenuous thread to tourism is advertising Kerala and her wares. Indian Airlines Fitness Flyaway is the latest addition to their series of Holiday packages advertising the benefits of Ayurvedic in natural surroundings-senior citizens get a special discount. According to the Government of Kerala, Department of Tourism, the number of foreign tourists visiting the State has risen substantially. In 1988 it was 1,89,941 and the number of Indians 44,81,714. This rose to 2,02,173 and 48,88,287 in 1999, 2,09,933 and 50,13,221 in 2000 and has gone up considerably this year. The preferred destinations are Thiruvananthapuram, Ernakulam, Idukki, Kottayam and Alappuzha for foreign tourists and Thrissur, Ernakulam, Thiruvananthapuram and Kozhikode for domestic tourists. The greatest influx of foreign tourists is from Germany, France, the U.K., the U.S., Swizterland, Japan, the UAE, the Maldives and Sri Lanka.


Idyllic and picturesque ... a setting in Kumarakom.

"Tourism in Kerala has been on the upswing since the mid-1980s," says T. Balakrishnan, Secretary, Department of Tourism, Government of Kerala. "In 1986, we declared it as an industry, the first and only State to do so." Ayurveda is part of the package and 30 per cent of the tourist inflow may be due to it, he says (The Tourism Department does not have the statistics exclusively for Ayurveda.) Introducing Ayurveda was not part of a grand strategy, admits Mr. Balakrishnan, "People were interested in it and so we pursued it. We did not anticipate this unprecedented growth in the number of Ayurvedic centres." In Kerala the monsoon is the best time for Ayurvedic treatment. "So we offered the monsoon package as the hotels are empty during these months." This has proved to be an inspired stroke and tourists now come here even when the skies open up in the unpredictable way which Keralites are familiar with. The large number of Ayurvedic centres leads to employment generation as each unit has a doctor, four masseurs and seven to nine minimum staff members. He admits that mushrooming of centres can lead to indifferent quality of treatment and boomerang on the revival of this ancient tradition. "So, to avoid this, though till now we had an approval system in place, we have gone in for a classification system," he says. "There is a resurgence of Ayurveda even within Kerala." He feels satisfied they are going about promoting Ayurveda and tourism the right way, "Our approach is right. We have been effective in our marketing and are thinking of regulating and sustaining the growth. We do not want to overbuild and get a bad name. Popularising Kerala cuisine is our next step. It is so completely in consonance with Ayurveda. Idli and dosa have become very popular but people do not know much about the wealth of Kerala cuisine and it deserves to be known and appreciated."

Tourism in Kerala was created by small tour operators, says Jose Dominic of the Casino Group of Hotels who is President of the Kerala Travel Mart and Member of the Federation of the Hotels and Restaurants Associations of India. He points out that the State now accounts for eight per cent of the Indian tourism trade. Kerala's tourism growth in the mid-1990s is linked to the phenomenon of change in the psyche of travel. He quotes Peter Aderholt's study. The old Western traveller played it safe preferring the familiar to the unknown and going everywhere in secure groups. The new tourist seeks adventure and the unknown — a different culture, cuisine and lifestyle. With little industrialisation and agriculture on the wane, small entrepreneurs took up what they knew and endemic niche products sprung up everywhere. They gave the tourist what they had — native cuisine, Ayurveda, houseboats (converted from the barges for transporting rice), Kalari, Kathakali and Mohiniyattom. This coincided with what the new traveller sought — nature, space and quality of experience. An egalitarian society where no poverty is seen and there is almost no human rights abuse, the clean roads and safe drinking water have made the climate congenial for tourism. Marxism and militant trade unions resulted in Kerala skipping industrialisation which left the State culturally pristine. Travel writers and photographers and a responsible media have contributed to Kerala becoming a tourist destination. Overseas tour operators and the Government of India's overseas officers have also played a prominent role in promoting tourism. The future depends on how well it is managed, says Dominic. The Government should play a regulatory role and take preventive measures against pollution and the exploitation of nature. Too much interference will prove counterproductive.

Century of healing

"WE believe in Ayurveda but we are not for tourism," says A. R. Sankaranarayanan, General Manager of the Arya Vaidya Sala, Kottakkal. "We have no quarrel with utilising Ayurveda for tourism provided the treatment is done properly. Ayurvedic centres have mushroomed in Kovalam, but most of them are not genuine. The number of days needed for effective treatment is 28, it should be done for a minimum of at least 14 days. Just giving a massage for two or three days will not help except to provide a feeling of well being perhaps."

Ayurveda has become very popular in the last 10 years and the Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala, a charitable trust, has been largely responsible for this, he says, as the treatment is done in accordance with the strictest guidelines of Ayurveda. The Vaidya Sala has 16 branches in all. The Vaidya Sala, which is preparing to celebrate its hundredth anniversary this year, was started by late Vaidyaratnam P.S. Varrier, a legend in the field of Ayurveda. The centre which has 103 doctors and 300 paramedical staff has grown tremendously - from just two blocks to six providing treatment to those belonging to all classes and nationalities. A charitable hospital provides free treatment to 800 outpatients at any given point of time. The Ayurveda hospital and research centres both at Kottakkal and at Delhi can accommodate 200 patients. In Delhi too, a number of beds are reserved for the poor. Rooms have to be booked much in advance. The centre also has a college of Ayurveda which numbers among the five in Kerala. The others are at Thiruvananthapuram, Olur, Kannur and Tripunithura. Research and the preparation of drugs with state of the art facilities is a major activity. Apart from cultivating medicinal plants at Kanhirapuzha and Palghat, the institution has a herbal garden on the outskirts of Kottakkal covering eight acres which contains an immense variety of herbs and plants as 80 per cent of the medicinal preparations is obtained from the vegetable kingdom.

The Vaidya Sala is so well known that it has a long wait list with Arabs forming a sizeable majority of the patients.

"Srimavo Bandaranaike came to us for treatment. She was brought here in a wheel chair but after the treatment was able to walk out on her own. We are happy we bring the country foreign exchange worth Rs. two crores every year. It is the Arya Vaidya Sala that has made Kottakkal a household word in Ayurveda," say the authorities.

Fighting fit

UNDER the mellow light of brass lamps, the well-oiled bodies glisten as the youth leap and stretch with amazing agility. Steel glints as long metallic tongues flash with precision. Wooden clubs meet and bamboo poles clatter as with split second accuracy, the exponents display their skill in the centuries old martial art form, Kalarippayatt.

V. N. Anil Kumar of C.V.N. Kalari at Kozhikode is a descendant of a long tradition of practitioners of this art form which means "combat in the arena". After the exercises, he effortlessly changes from warrior to healer attending to a steady stream of patients at his clinic. Healing is as essential part of Kalari. Marma Chikista (application of pressure on specific nerve points) which is undertaken like the martial expertise with knowledge of the 107 vital points (Marmas) in the body helped treat the wounds, sprains and fractures sustained in war in the past. A slight variant of Ayurveda, the medical expertise which includes massage and has both therapeutic and rejuvenative aspects, is imparted in the fifth year of training in the rigorous regimen of Kalari. Now Kalari draws students from all over the world, while both foreigners and Indians benefit from its healing aspect.

"We get a number of Westerners every year," says Anil Kumar. "Our centre is one of the approved Ayurvedic centres recognised by the Kerala Tourism Department."

Legend attributes the birth of Kalari to Lord Parasurama who is believed to have reclaimed Kerala from the sea. Kalari is considered to be the source of all other Eastern martial art forms such as karate and kung fu. It helped tribal chieftains equip themselves with fighting fit soldiers who could valiantly defend their territory.

Extremely popular from the 12th to the 16th Centuries, Kalari experienced a severe setback during the colonial period to see a revival under great masters after Independence. The Gurukal system results in the imparting of martial as well as medical skills to the students who after years of apprenticeship become gurus in their own right.

There are two system of Kalari, the North Malabar one (where almost every village has a centre) and the Southern one where the medical aspect is like Siddha, says Sathynarayanan of the C.V.N. Kalari at Thiruvananthapuram, a sister institution of the one at Kozhikode. The medicines are based on the Ayurvedic system but the method of preparation varies as also their use. The medicines are made by the Kalari experts.

Kalari centres supplement their income by giving medical treatment. On an average both Anil Kumar and Sathyanarayana treat 50 patients a day. "Foreigners and films have made Kalari popular," says Anil Kumar who along with his brothers taught the artistes and also performed the stunt scenes in Santosh Sivan's film "Asoka". A few resorts offer Marma Chikitsa instead of Ayurveda for the benefit of tourists. (Concluded)

The first part of the article appeared in the Sunday Magazine, issue dated January 20.

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