Kerala relaxes you. Maybe it’s all the lush, foliage-strewn tourism ads or maybe it”s the anticipation of a long knead at the expert hands of a Kerala masseuse.
Whatever be the reason, as my plane hovers over Thiruvananthapuram and I look out of the window to gaze upon an impenetrable canopy of palm leaves and a thin ring of white surf lapping at the contours of the land, my brows un-furrow, my neck muscles soften and my jaw de-clenches. I didn’t even know I was that tightly strung.
I’m staying at the Raviz. It’s a spanking new resort on the banks of the Ashtamudi Lake in Kollam. Before I took this trip, I hadn”t even heard of tourist places in Kollam. It”s a quiet little port town, a two-hour drive from Thiruvananthapuram, full of fisher-folk and coir artisans.
Once it had been a great hub of commercial activity. There are records of ancient Romans and Phoenicians docking their boats in its harbours, but today it’s like any other small town on the Kerala coast, full of coconut palms and banana plants and brightly painted bungalows.
Flanked by the Ashtamudi Lake on one side and the Arabian Sea on the other, Kollam is paradise for a water person like me. However, once we’ve had our fill of luxury Kerala houseboat package on the Ashtamudi, and eating the juicy delicious Karimeen that breeds in it, we find there is nothing else to do here.
There is such a thing, I realise, as being too relaxed. The trappings of the resort, the commodes with ceramic seats (bad idea by the way in an AC room) and gleaming tureens of five-star fare, were starting to grate on my nerves. Three of us persuade the architect of the Raviz, Eugene Pandala, to take us on a tour of the town.
Thevally Palace is our first stop. A Travancore king had once, on the orders of the British Resident, decided to make Kollam his seat. It hardly looks like a palace though. The building is big with a sloping roof and a tall watchtower. The army in its infinite wisdom has painted it a gaudy pink.
Just opposite the palace, wide stone steps lead down to the lake. Pandala, who has been chatting with some of the army personnel, walks down to join us. “There’s an interesting story connected with this place,” he says. Apparently the British imperial resident had an affair with the Travancore queen. He had his residency built on the opposite bank and had a dog swim across the lake with his amorous correspondence.
“When the dog died, he had a memorial built for it right in the palace compound,” adds Pandala. He points to a shed, which the Army now uses as a canteen. “It was just behind that, but it’s been demolished.”
Of course now we have to go and see the Residency. It’s a grand structure with long green windows and a curved sloping roof. It looks freshly painted and functional.
“But look at the tiles,” objects Pandala. “All of this used to be made of laterite stones,” he says, pointing at some flat orange tiles.“They should restore it and turn it into a museum. Instead they’re slowly destroying the soul of the building.”
This is a pet peeve of Pandala’s. Most of the historic buildings of Kollam are giving way to modern structures. As we pass down a tree-lined road, he points out a sprawling church with some disconcerting shiny sheeting. “There was a beautiful little Portuguese church here, hundreds of years old. I filed a stay order with the court to stop them from demolishing it, but they did it anyway.”
We walk by an old Dutch cemetery where we catch women thrashing their laundry on the ornately carved tombstones. As the sun starts to set, Pandala says softly, “You know, they want to launch Kollam as a tourist destination. But all they’re doing is building hotels and guest houses. People don’t travel for hotels, they travel for what’s outside the hotel. The Kollam I used to know when I was a kid is slowly disappearing.”