At sunrise I was standing on one leg at the edge of Lake Vembanad in south India, wobbly with jetlag, arms raised to the sky in a “tree” yoga pose while worrying about the potential for Wi-Fi reception in this remote area on the banks of Kerala’s backwaters.
“Relax shoulders?” came the despondent voice of Naveen, a yoga master from the nearby village. Unlikely. I was still on London time, muscles tensed against cold skies, public transport and deadlines. I took a deep breath as a kingfisher’s azure tummy darted from a mango tree and unearthly chanting kicked up from a Hindu festival across the water.
We’d arrived at Philipkutty’s Farm the previous evening by boat, mooring on the edge of an island that was reclaimed from Kerala’s labyrinthine backwaters in the 1950s. An hour’s drive from the city of Kochi and then a two-minute boat ride from Kudavechoor village, five waterfront guesthouses with teak-carved doors and red-tile roofs greeted us, surrounded by 35km of coconut, cacao and mango trees as well as turmeric and ginger, tangled vines of pepper, chickens and chilies and bushes of curry leaves.
Philipkutty’s Farm is a “homestay” run by Anu Mathew, whose late husband started it and whose father-in-law planted the coconut farm. She cooks all the meals with her mother-in-law, Aniamma: yogurt made fresh using milk from the farm’s cow, fried bananas, jam made from their figs, mounds of dosas (southern Indian rice pancakes), spicy curries, thick dhals and coconut cakes with bright orange chutney that tastes of sunshine.
We bided our time practicing cat and cobra poses with Naveen and just walking around the farm with Anu, sucking the white pulp off purple cocoa beans and digging up turmeric roots. You can have cooking lessons, borrow binoculars to watch egrets and woodpeckers, or take a wooden boat over to Kudavechoor to visit the Syrian Christian Church of St Mary’s and the Sri Kandeshwaram Mahadevak Shetra temple dedicated to Shiva. “There’s always a festival,” Naveen told me. “Each temple and church is trying to flatter God the loudest. It’s like advertising.”
Invigorated, it was time to explore a little more of Kerala. I’d been told about a tantric form of yoga unique to Kerala, which combines hatha yoga with an ancient martial art called kalaripayattu, so we headed up into the hills towards Periyar Tiger Reserve, where kalaripayattu is popular. We drove past hectic towns, then up through forests of rubber trees. On the back of a colorful truck, an elephant swung his tail. “On his way to the next temple function,” shrugged our driver, Santos, as we wound inland through tea plantations and silver oak trees.
In the Western Ghats along the border with Tamil Nadu state, we were met by families of monkeys in the car park and gardens at Spice Village, an eco-resort surrounded by spice plantations. Continuing our theme of fresh, local food, we had vegetarian masala for dinner at the 50 Mile Diet restaurant, which sources ingredients from the hotel’s organic garden, local farms and nearby spice plantations.
“Kalari is warrior yoga,” said my new instructor the next morning. “You must keep your eyes open.” Forget butterfly and tree poses or happily falling asleep on your yoga mat, kalari was created to enhance the physical and spiritual power of ancient warriors. With 14 “animal postures” that look like something between pantomime, hatha yoga and karate, it’s also fun for poorly co-ordinated British tourists. “Be the animal!” Omesh said. “Feel the relationship between animal and body.”
In kalari, cat postures are not just a matter of arching your spine and breathing, but an entire theatrical performance. Omesh leaped, all feline shoulders and glittering eyes. As a cobra he was as serpentine as a human can be. Then he was an elephant, peering out over an outstretched elbow. Then an angry lion full of pent-up energy. Meanwhile, I was a less-accurate safari. “Anna means elephant in Malayalam,” he told me, frowning at my unbalanced arms. “You must really work harder on your elephant.”
Before he would teach me how to kill a man by swiping at a pressure point in his neck, I obediently went in search of elephants on the Periyar Lake, a body of water created by the British while building Mullaperiyar Dam in 1895. It’s full of sunburnt tree stumps stretching from the water in the shapes of totem poles, fork-tongued sea monsters and alphabet letters. We were told by fellow travelers that the most widely offered excursion — the boat trips — were crowded, so we chose a day trip hiking and bamboo rafting on the lake, guided by former poachers who have been persuaded to guide rather than hunt.
We coasted over the lake on roped bamboo branches, watching red kites rolling over the apocalyptic drowned forest. Tourists rarely see any of the 35 tigers thought to be living in the 925 square kilometer reserve, but the guides pointed out giant squirrels in the cotton trees surrounded by huge pink flowers, bison in the distance — and I concentrated hard on the movements of a cobra slicing through the lake in front of us, raising its neck out on to the bank like a yoga master. Although the landscape was stunning we only saw one elephant from our raft, from too far away to study properly.
The next day we toured a spice plantation with a farmer named Taj, who had a vast gash on his upper arm from a kalaripayattu fight gone wrong. He told us that even though the tourist boats are noisy, they’re the best way to see elephants. Indeed, over the crowds of orange life vests that afternoon we saw a mother elephant and her baby, cormorants nesting in the burnt trees and then a whole herd of elephants, including big-tusked daddies swinging their trunks in the water. I watched how they lollopped, memorising their plodding shoulders and elegant trunks to show Omesh.
He never did teach me to kill a man with a single blow to his neck, but on my last day in Periyar he was impressed enough by my studied elephant posture to let me try and fight him. For a morning, my shoulders were loose as a cobra, my body powerful as an elephant. I had animal powers and did not care about my email inbox. Searching for inner peace on a backwater farm is all very well, but there is something to be said for the stress relief of drop-kicking and punching a martial arts expert for an hour, roaring like an elephant.