As we descend into the Indian city of Kochi, rain lashes the window of our aircraft and to the west ragged bolts of lightning mark the path of a departing thunderstorm.
Once safely landed and processed, we dash through the downpour to our bus, avoiding puddles as deep as ditches.
After spending the past two weeks in the landlocked desert state of Rajasthan, the rain is a welcome stranger. Rajasthani farmers would consider this downpour a gift from the pantheon of Indian gods, but in tropical Kerala water abounds, whether it’s the sea, lakes, rivers, or the network of waterways known as the backwaters.
The tiny state on India’s southwest coast has a clean, green image among Indians, but it isn’t just Kerala’s physical beauty that is celebrated. It’s one of India’s wealthiest states and tops the statistics in literacy and life expectancy. Other positive social indicators are improved equity for women, a decreasing poverty rate, a good healthcare system and a low child mortality rate.
Kerala also has a distinct cultural identity. Most inhabitants are Malayali and speak Malayalam. As in the rest of India, Hinduism is the main religion, but Kerala also has a sizeable percentage of Christians and Muslims, and there is also a small Jewish community in Kochi.
Overseas traders have sought spices and other commodities here for more than 3000 years and from the 15th century, the state was under Portuguese, Dutch and British rule. Such diverse historical connections mean an eclectic architectural heritage, much of which is in Fort Cochin at the tip of Kochi’s southern peninsula.
First on our agenda is St Francis Church, where the voices of a Sunday congregation are lifted in song. The church was built by the Portuguese in 1503 and is the oldest European-built church in India. Explorer Vasco da Gama was interred here after his death in Kochi in 1524. His remains were later returned to Portugal, but his tombstone still lies in the huge church.
Fort Cochin remains the centre of the spice trade and we wander the maze of narrow streets past dilapidated Portuguese-style shops bursting with the aromatic bounty produced in Kochi’s hinterland.
Many early spice traders were Jewish and locals still call the area Jewtown. There’s a small synagogue that ministers to the city’s Jewish population and nearby, high walls keep us out of an unkempt Jewish cemetery.
Still in Fort Cochin, we visit Mattancherry, also known as the Dutch Palace, which was actually built by the Portuguese in 1555 and updated by the Dutch around 1660. Built as a gift for the Indian rulers, the palace contains intricate murals depicting religious scenes, as well as a collection of clothing, furniture and palanquins.
From Kochi, we climb high up into green, misty mountains where waterfalls thunder down sheer cliff faces and tea and cardamom plantations cling to steep hillsides.
The mountains are the Western Ghats, which are recognised as one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots – areas with an exceptionally high number of endemic species which are under severe threat.
In the highlands, we cruise on the serene lake that sits at the heart of Periyar National Park, a haven for many species of birds, reptiles and amphibians as well as mammals such as elephants, leopards and tigers. After searching in vain for these elusive animals, we wind down from the mountains and take an overnight houseboat on the backwaters, sitting back in luxury as the panorama of Indian life unfolds along the banks.
These waterways are a transport lifeline for remote settlements and rice, fruit and other crops flourish on their fertile shores.
Our southern journey ends at the seaside, where fishermen haul in the catch using t huge cantilevered nets.
As we watch the sun sink into the sea, we wonder what a Rajasthani farmer would think of such vast expanses of water. Like us, he’d probably feel he’d arrived in an entirely different land.